On Nov. 4, art historian Paul Jaskot delivered the Joseph and Rebecca Meyerhoff Annual Lecture at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. In “Architecture of the Holocaust,” he described the planning of the concentration camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau and the building activity that took place there, especially during the years of 1943 and 1944, and engaged in by thousands of women prisoners as well as men.
ARCHITECT talked with Jaskot—a professor at DePaul University who is currently the Andrew W. Mellon professor at the National Gallery of Art's Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts—about his research, and why questions of labor and construction matter in architectural history.
ARCHITECT: My first question was about the discovery that construction was a primary activity at Auschwitz. It seems like that hasn’t been widely known before, so why do you think it’s been overlooked?
Jaskot: Well, I think there are two reasons behind that. The first is that when we think about architecture, even architecture of the SS, we think about design and the finished building. This is just standard, even though architectural practice, we know, is much deeper. Secondly, Holocaust studies tends to think of cultural aspects like architecture as very much secondary to a bigger picture of genocide or of the military, or of what we might call hard-nosed politics of the Nazi state. The result is that as with architectural historians, they’re thinking of the end of the building, not the building itself.
One thing you mentioned—along with the startling fact that thousands of people were involved in construction at the camp—was that there were more than 100 people employed as draftsmen.
At least 160 in 1942.
I wondered about those people in particular. Did they have architectural training?
Unfortunately, we don’t know a lot about them right now. A lot of those individuals exist merely as prisoner numbers. Connecting them to actual people—that work hasn’t been done yet, and is something that I am definitely following up on.
Read full interview here