ROM’s Auschwitz exhibit shows ‘greatest crime committed by architects’

The three key elements in The Evidence Room, from left, the gas column, the hatch and the door. RON CSILLAG PHOTO

The room is all white but may as well be a bureaucratic grey. It’s airy, yet claustrophobic. It looks almost innocuous, but represents pure evil. You could swear it reeks of death.

With almost a cool detachment, The Evidence Room assaults the senses, then leaves them haunted.

This is obviously no ordinary exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum.

Based on three decades of research, this is a full-scale reconstruction of three key components of the gas chambers at Auschwitz: a gas column, both sides of a gas-tight door, and a gas-tight hatch, with ladder.

These are augmented by more than 60 plaster casts of architectural evidence, including blueprints, architects’ correspondence, contractors’ bills, photographs, survivors’ testimony, drawings, and scale models of the camp and crematoria.

As the museum asserts, this represents the greatest crime committed by architects. After all, someone had to design the crematoria; architects toiled alongside other professionals during the Third Reich – doctors, engineers, lawyers, professors. They all greased the wheels of death.

The whiteness of it all works. It jars and chills.

“The installation compels visitors to recognize the enormity of the calculated architectural decisions which culminated in the creation of a death chamber, and the reconstructed elements serve as silent material witnesses to the horrors of Auschwitz,” the ROM says.


Some might quibble with the exhibit’s title. After all, do we still need evidence for the gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau, where some 1.1 million people were murdered, 90 per cent of whom were Jews? But the name lies in the installation’s genesis.

It’s designed by Waterloo architecture professors Donald McKay and Anne Bordeleau (the casts were made using lasers by the university’s architecture students), but one of the exhibition’s three principals is Robert Jan van Pelt, among the world’s leading authorities on how Auschwitz-Birkenau was constructed.

Van Pelt is also an architecture professor at the University of Waterloo, but he may better known as a key defence witness in the landmark libel lawsuit brought by British Holocaust denier David Irving against U.S. historian Deborah Lipstadt and her publisher some years ago.

Not only did Van Pelt not fold under Irving’s five days of grilling, but he was credited with helping Lipstadt score an important victory by affirming the existence of the gas chambers and crematoria, which fleeing SS troops razed in an attempt to erase their crimes (and whose role at the death camp Irving had denied).

Van Pelt expanded his report into his 2002 book The Case for Auschwitz. A dozen years later, he was invited to create an exhibit based on the book and to show it at the Venice Architecture Biennale, considered a prestigious venue. Van Pelt approached McKay and Bordeleau, and the installation opened to acclaim in Venice last year.

The three key elements – the door, the hatch and the gas column, through which the Zyklon B pellets were lowered into the chamber – were all contested in the Irving-Lipstadt case.

As van Pelt stressed before a select audience at the exhibit’s preview on June 22, the items are not facsimiles but models.

“We did not want a facsimile of the gas chambers,” he told the audience, which included consular officials from Poland, Germany and Israel. “You are not in a chamber of horrors. These are models of evidence. It’s an interpretation of evidence.”

The idea was to create a “special room, not just stuff in a room.”

The installation is highly tactile –  one is invited to run fingers over the words and pictures incised into the plaster –  but there is also a natural reluctance to do so.

As Josh Basseches, director and CEO of the ROM put it, the exhibit is “horrifying, stunning and, crucially, bold.”

It continues to Jan. 28, 2018. Visit ROM for more information.