Home Perspectives Opinions New ROM exhibit showcases architects’ role in Holocaust

New ROM exhibit showcases architects’ role in Holocaust

Auschwitz main gate. WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

In a time when lying seems to matter less than it used to, when truth is questioned, when history is turned on its ear, it’s no wonder that Holocaust denial is emerging from the dung heap, brushing itself off and continuing to go about its evil business.

Holocaust denial – the odious suggestion that the Holocaust was made up, that world Jewry created this fiction to secure monetary reparations from Germany to help establish the State of Israel – is a malevolent lie that’s been perpetrated by neo-Nazis and other assorted anti-Semites.

Yet, like a blood stain on a white garment, it’s hard to erase. In every generation, the lie resurfaces. New and better methods must be found to rid us of this malicious virus.

Last year, Holocaust historian Prof. Deborah Lipstadt’s seminal work on Holocaust denial was transformed from a book onto the big screen. Denial documents the trial of David Irving, a British Holocaust denier who brought a libel suit against Lipstadt.

The movie captured the essence of Lipstadt’s book with both urgency and grace. One would have hoped the effort to prove the authenticity of truth would now lay to rest the evil of denial. And yet, we know that just around the corner lurks the anti-Semitic serpent ready to spew its poison.


Thus, the recently opened exhibition The Evidence Room in Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum (June 25, 2017 – Jan. 28, 2018) is so vitally important. And once again, as in the movie Denial, Canadian academic and forensic architect Robert Jan van Pelt’s work on the historicity of the largest and most efficient death camp ever, Auschwitz, turns evil and truth into reality. (Full disclosure: I sit on the advisory council of this exhibit).

Van Pelt takes his original written work documented as an expert witness in the Irving trial on the design, construction and workings of the notorious Auschwitz death camp to the next level. Along with Donald McKay and Anne Bordeleau, academic colleagues from the University of Waterloo, a concept was developed wherein the team built, as Van Pelt explains, “a replica of a Zyklon-B gas column, a gas-tight door with a peephole and other replicas of evidence of the genocidal purpose of the Auschwitz gas chambers and ovens.” Thus were the seeds of The Evidence Room planted.

‘The exhibit is an indictment of the architects whose designs enabled the machinery of mass murder’

This exhibit is like none before. It speaks in an unprecedented way of the role played by architects of the Nazi Third Reich in the murder factory that was Auschwitz. Actual size reconstructions, reproductions in plaster cast relief of architectural drawings, architects’ correspondence, death camp construction photographs, along with drawings from inmates of Auschwitz-Birkenau, were all meticulously created and presented as part of this stark and captivating exhibit. The entire display is in white.  When finally built, it opened at the prestigious Venice Biennale in May 2016.

By the time it was all done, there were dozens of architects, historians, museum professionals, Holocaust survivors and others who played a role in its creation. Different from a movie or theatre, this exhibit allows visitors to not only see Hitler’s madness up close and personal, but it also allows visitors to feel the construction of death. Visiting The Evidence Room, you can actually touch the gas columns, the gas-tight door and the other instruments of genocide.

Elly Gotz, himself a Holocaust survivor and a professional engineer saw an early version of the project. He was stunned.

“By removing colour, sound and interpretation from The Evidence Room, we are forced to rely on touch to elicit meaning. Most people are by now aware of the Holocaust. It is possible to know things, to be aware of them, but not to feel them. This exhibition lets people touch the metal of the gas column, run their fingers over the drawings and connect in that mysterious way that sometimes happens when reality overwhelms us by becoming part of us.”

Many played their role in the genocide of our people. The Evidence Room is an indictment of the architects whose designs enabled the machinery of mass murder.