Architect Daniel Libeskind: How to transform horror into art, from Auschwitz and the Holocaust to 9/11

The Daily Beast

May 23, 2019

In a candid interview with Tim Teeman, architect Daniel Libeskind talks about family and the Holocaust, his Auschwitz artwork, and facing trauma head-on at sites like Ground Zero.

Daniel Libeskind never asked his aunt Rózia about how her family—her first husband and two young children—had been murdered in front of her at Auschwitz. But the world-renowned architect recalled to The Daily Beast one chilling sentence Rózia had said: “A child thrown out of the window.”

Libeskind said that 85 members of his parents’ Polish Jewish families had been murdered during the Holocaust, most of them at Auschwitz. Libeskind’s parents themselves survived incarceration in Soviet gulags and work camps, and told him grimly vivid stories of what they had endured.

Libeskind, 73, is best known as the master planner behind the reconstruction of Ground Zero after 9/11 (which he will stoutly defend later in this interview), and of designing projects like Berlin’s Jewish Museum, which opened in 2001. His stark buildings are often charged vessels of memorial, memory, and history.

Libeskind’s latest project, Through the Lens of Faith: Auschwitz, is at the former concentration camp itself, which today has been made into the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. (New York City’s Museum of Jewish Heritage is currently hosting Not long ago. Not far away, a powerful exhibit devoted to Auschwitz, featuring many objects like shoes, clothing, eyeglasses and suitcases lent by the museum.)

In a specially designed path leading off the route to Auschwitz’s main gates, Libeskind has designed a corridor-like structure of photographic portraits of 21 Auschwitz survivors taken by Caryl Englander, chairperson of the International Center for Photography in New York (at the behest of the Amud Aish Memorial Museum). The subjects describe how faith sustained them during and after their horrific experiences. The visitor must open the panel containing each person’s portrait.

Libeskind revealed to The Daily Beast that he is also designing a Jewish museum in Lisbon, which will tell the turbulent history of Portuguese Jews. In addition, he reveals that he is designing an institute which will bear his own name in Łódź, Poland, where he grew up, that is intended as a record and celebration of the culture and history of that city. (He himself has designed opera sets, furniture, and sculpture as well as buildings.)

The decimation of Libeskind’s family during the Holocaust was mirrored on a grotesque larger scale. An estimated three million Polish Jews were murdered by the Nazis during the Holocaust; 91 percent of Poland’s Jewish population. The Auschwitz Museum estimates that 450,000 Polish citizens were deported to Auschwitz—about 300,000 Polish Jews and 150,000 Poles.

Of five siblings, only Libeskind’s father, Nachman, and Rózia survived the Holocaust. After the war, she met and married a man who had also been forced to witness the murder of his entire family (an awful, profound thing to have in common).

They had been religious before their imprisonment and later, after liberation and moving the United States, they remained steadfastly religious for the rest of their lives. “We would go to Seder, and just to see how their faith nourished them was astonishing,” said Libeskind.

Libeskind’s mother, Dora, also saw her side of the family decimated. Only one of her 10 siblings, her brother Nechemia, survived the Holocaust. He said he had buried sacred books at Auschwitz (like the Torah and Talmud). He said he had done so to have something to live for after the war. Post-war, he said, he had gone back and dug them up.

Libeskind today isn’t sure if that element of Nechemia’s story was physical or metaphorical, but his and Rózia’s stories of faith and survival bloomed in his mind as he worked on the Auschwitz project, which is scheduled to open on July 1 and run for 18 months. Organizers say that, as it will coincide with the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the camp, the exhibit is expected to be seen by 4 million people from around the world.

Of the 21 survivors whose stories are told in the exhibit—two of whom have since died—18 are Jewish, 2 are Polish Catholics, and one a Romani survivor. “The No. 18 is particularly meaningful in the Jewish faith as it symbolizes life,” a spokesperson noted. The 21 survivor interviews appear in English and Polish next to their portraits.

“This is a topic people don’t often think about: what is the link between faith and survival?” Libeskind said. “Indeed, is there a relationship, and how do you exhibit something like that in the place that is the most horrifying place that has ever been created in this world? Auschwitz industrialized death. It was a machine of death. You came in and just got murdered.”

Of Rózia, Libeskind said, “You’d think, losing your family, your children particularly, you would never survive. But they somehow went on to have a family of their own, my cousins, and they rebuilt their lives on the basis of this faith.”

Rózia spoke very little about her experience at Auschwitz. “To me she was more like a ghost,” said Libeskind. “She had no smile. You could see was somebody who was living a different life. She wasn’t just another human being you could easily interact with. She did everything family-like, like hugs and kisses, but, to me, there was never a sense she was in this world. That is what her experience of Auschwitz had done to her.”

Libeskind’s father said Rózia was more religious after the war than she had been before. As the only surviving member of his father’s family, she was also a key reason why, eventually, Libeskind’s father brought his family to America.

Rózia died around 30 years ago, Libeskind said. She had come to his wedding, in 1969, to his wife Nina, with whom he co-founded his architectural firm, Studio Libeskind, in 1989. (He is the firm’s principal design architect, and the couple have three children, Rachel, Noam, and Lev.)

Rózia wrote a letter to Libeskind’s father, which Libeskind’s sister now has. “It is in Yiddish. It is a three-page letter she wrote after the liberation of Auschwitz in 1945, in which she recounts in great detail the horrors of what she went through. The last sentence is something to the effect of: ‘When somebody will read this letter they won’t believe that this could have really happened.’

“She already had the inkling that what had happened was so unbelievable, who would ever identify themselves with this level of humanity. It was, it should be, hard to fathom.”

Nechemia and Libeskind’s mother came from “a very famous Hasidic line of scholars and Rabbis,” the architect said. “He [Nechemia] continued with his very religious life, got a civic job. When he died, the Chief Rabbi of Israel came to his funeral.”

Before they had met, Libeskind’s parents had separately escaped Poland to seek sanctuary in Russia where they were immediately arrested by the Red Army. “My father ended up in work camps on the Volga,” Libeskind recalled. “He told me his job was to break up large rocks with a hammer. He said it would have taken a second with a piece of dynamite to do all the work they did for years. The Soviets were enslaving them in very poor conditions.

“My mother was imprisoned in gulags in Siberia. Survival was a challenge. There were no shoes, they had to wear newspapers on their feet. My mother never really recovered from that experience. They met, after each of their releases, in 1943 in Kyrgyzstan, in the farthest corner of the world, where my sister (Annette Libeskind Berkovits, or Ania as Libeskind calls her) was born.”

As a child, growing up in Łódź, the effects of the war were very close and immediate for Libeskind. “All of Rózia and my father’s brothers were murdered. When we grew up in Poland, we didn’t have any family in Poland at all. There was nobody really left.”

As a boy, Libeskind recalled “surviving in a completely alien environment” in Łódź. “The state of anti-Semitism was very strong, that is all my sister and I remember. We were hounded, even though this is only 3rd grade. It was constant name-calling and physical assaults. I was punched and kicked, beaten up. That is the strongest memory before we emigrated to Israel in the mid-1950s. There was a pogrom (massacre) of Jews in Kielce in 1946. The Holocaust didn’t end. There was an abyss, then that abyss was filled with more hatred, bigotry, and resentment that these Jews were still alive.”

His parents were unassimilated, said Libeskind. “They were proud Jews, but there were no ‘fellow travelers’ around us. My father had a signal, the Hebrew word for ‘one of the people,’ and if the other person responded to that, they would break into Yiddish.”

There were long family discussions, comparing the Nazi camps and the gulags. “My parents told us that survival had been possible in the Soviet camps because the Russians did not have the technology [like gas chambers] to kill quickly. They killed in primitive ways. They tortured people through work and suffering of cold, and hunger.”

His father and mother told Libeskind and his sister of friends who had died of starvation. “There was nothing to do or eat; they boiled the leaves from the trees to eat.”

Nachman and Dora told their children their stories of survival after supper had been eaten, with the dishes washed, and cups of tea made.

“I remember my father telling me, that he had over and over tried to convince Rózia to let her son, my father’s nephew, escape with him. She had said, ‘No, no, nothing will happen to us. We will stay here. Whatever will happen will happen to all of us.’ My mother and father separately had a sense of something awful about to happen. That is why they went to Russia.

“But the route from Poland to the Soviet Union was also deadly. Many people were shot or drowned. My father told me about his hazardous trip by boat, and then the next morning the Russians coming to arrest them as ‘foreign agents.’ There was such anti-Jewish, anti-Semitic, anti-Polish feeling there. My parents were Polish Jews who wanted to remain Polish. That they received no compensation for what they went through was a great injustice in my parents’ eyes. Until recently their stories were unrecorded.”

Did his parents think they would die in their camps?

“My mother told me a story, which was later verified by others,” Libeskind said. “She was called in by the commandant of her gulag, because she had demanded that the women—it was mostly women in this camp, sewing white silk shirts for Russian generals—be given shoes. The commandant responded something like, ‘You Jew, you are a Polish prostitute.’ My mother picked up an ink well on the chief’s table and threw at him. It hit a large portrait of Stalin on the wall behind him.

“He made a move to retrieve his revolver from his holster, then said ‘Get out.’ The next day they got their shoes. It was a world we can hardly understand—the courage people had to survive in that and any extreme circumstances. Like every human being my mother and father did everything they could to survive. Even in the worst circumstances you want to breathe.”

Libeskind’s mother told him of her and his father’s nine-month struggle, “using all sorts of vehicles like horses and trains,” to return to Poland in 1946. She told me, ‘I had very little idea of what had happened. I stood on the platform of Oświęcim (the Polish town nearest Auschwitz). I had no idea I was standing where almost my entire family had been murdered.”

His mother suffered the after-effects of what she experienced, Libeskind said; she rarely hugged or kissed Libeskind and Ania.

As for his father, “I think he was a man of great integrity. He survived his experiences through that integrity. My sister wrote a book about his survival (In The Unlikeliest of Places: How Nachman Libeskind Survived The Nazis, Gulags and Soviet Communism). I think he gained some kind of strength from his survival. Nothing could interfere with his idea that people were human beings.

“When he first came to Germany, when I was working on the Jewish Museum, he was the only member of my family who was not prejudiced towards Germans. He said, ‘Their parents might be guilty—not the people I am talking to. Don’t put guilt on to young people.’ He had no trouble speaking to Germans and having a very positive view of the future, whereas my mother was a deep pessimist, I’d say.”

His parents—who eventually settled in New York’s Bronx in 1959 when Libeskind was 13—were “kind of yin and yang,” he said. “People like my mother and father—without the Holocaust and suffering in Siberia—would have never met.”

His father came from a “Yiddish social democratic background,” his mother had a “Hasidic, revolutionary, anarchic view of the world. They had nothing in common, except their survival.”

Libeskind paused. “I guess looking back to these events—we know they’re irrevocable for eternity. You can’t absorb these events if you don’t have any hope.”

Libeskind noted the high suicide rate of Holocaust survivors, one of whom was his mother’s cousin David, who died by suicide after three previous attempts, aged in his 60s. “That mark on their lives was horrendous. They had endured an experience we cannot really know. It’s almost abstract as a story and narrative. A human being cannot absorb the level of inhumanity, can’t understand it.”

Libeskind first visited Auschwitz as a child, aged 7 or 8. “It wasn’t like it is now, but it was a memorial site. Thinking back now, it feels like greyness in my mind and rain and terror. I remember holding my father’s hand. I don’t think I fathomed what it was. To go back to Auschwitz now is more horrifying, as I know more than I did when I was a child. As a child I had an opaque feeling of indefinite death. As I learned more from survivors—not really from books, I met so many— I realized they had all been marked by this event in different ways.”

He hopes the display he has designed, which you have to touch and look at closely, is as far from “passive looking” as looking at a poster or photograph can be. The faces are behind dark glass, a panel has to be opened to see and learn about them, so “you are aware of the fact you are looking at something both wondrous because of these people’s survival but also exceptional.

“This is not something normal. It’s about faith: this is a lens of hope and belief. This is an intimate act; it transports you from this public environment where you are surrounded by people, from the Holocaust that killed 6 million people, to this one person to look at.

“As we know, and I really experienced it when I built the Jewish Museum, nobody can understand what 6 million is. Nobody. At Ground Zero, you can’t imagine about 3,000 people died here. As you read the names by the pools, it feels beyond comprehension. The first 5, 10, 20, you can think about. Beyond it, it becomes the sound of the waterfalls. With the Auschwitz project, I wanted to bring the visitor into a one-to-one experience.”

Libeskind’s initial idea was rejected by Auschwitz’s museum authorities, he said. “They thought it was too artistic,” said Libeskind. “I understand that. This is sacred land. You are in the presence of death.” He had originally designed the panels as facing the visitor in a circle. “I didn’t think it was artistic. I thought it was informative. It was a challenge to get this approved, a transformation of the original idea. But I’m very glad now that they see it as a tribute to the strength of faith.”

Nevertheless, it was “very hard” for Libeskind to be there personally. “I’m not a sentimental person. I’m not a nostalgic person that looks at old photographs of my family. But being in that space is beyond anything that the word ‘Auschwitz’ itself symbolizes. It may be a global word now, but when you are there, and have some relationship with what happened and survival and death, it’s another thing entirely. And let’s not forget most did not survive Auschwitz whether they had faith or no faith.

“It’s a devastating experience to be there. It is called a museum, but it’s not a museum. It’s also unlike any place where death has taken place because of the nature of what that ‘death’ was.

“I have been to genocide sites in places like Cambodia, but there is something about this particularly planned space, this ideally organized place, that was created to eliminate the Jewish people. And if you know a Jew who survived it, there is nothing verbally I can say to connect to a pain that can never be extinguished or distanced.”

If for some Auschwitz has become a place of ritual or myth, said Libeskind, “for me it is not that kind of place. I guess I lived in the aftermath, through the radiation of the Holocaust. Without ever knowing anything, you knew exactly what had happened. I didn’t read about it, aged 7 or 8. My parents didn’t talk to me much about it. They didn’t have to. It was so understood what had transpired, and what its meaning was.”

His artwork at Auschwitz has been given an added urgency by the rise in freely expressed anti-Semitic and racist views, said Libeskind.

“Memory is very shallow. It is not a coincidence that the increase in neo-Nazis, Holocaust deniers, right-wing fascists and those who would destroy democracy coincides with Holocaust survivors dying. They are witnesses to the greatest crime in history, and they are disappearing. ‘Who will ever believe us?’ as my aunt said.

“Forgetting is a nihilistic idea. Nietzsche put it philosophically—he said to be happy was linked to the ability to forget. I think we are seeing that, the vacuum of forgetting filled with conspiracy theories and anti-Semitic tropes. The experiences of parents and grandparents are being forgotten. Young people don’t know about what happened, the fear that society can instill in people.”

As for President Trump, “What can I say?” said Libeskind after a pause. “That someone can say there were ‘very fine people on both sides’ in Charlottesville? What can you think of a person who says that? I just think, ‘Oh my God, what is happening to this society?’ There are anti-democratic streaks running throughout the government, where we see democracy undermined in all ways. I recall what Benjamin Franklin supposedly said about creating ‘a republic, if you can keep it.’ Nobody said our democracy was forever. We are all participants in maintaining it.”

The lesson enshrined by Auschwitz, said Libeskind, is that, “If you forget, you will become a victim to it. If you forget you may repeat or echo what happened in the past. Everybody is born to start all over. Nothing is given permanently by God. Every generation has to find a meaning in its existence, and not fall into the well-known abysses of history.”

For Libeskind, the answer is not simply education and information for the young; after all, highly educated Nazis oversaw the Holocaust, he said. “This is really about the human soul, which is hard to discuss as it doesn’t have an objective existence. This is about what it means to be a human being, and that can’t be taught in school, but is down to culture and society. What seems like intractable problems can be advanced through other means of enlightenment.”

Libeskind is presently designing Ngaren: The Museum of Humankind in Kenya’s Rift Valley, reputed to be the cradle of humanity. A true understanding of human history, he said, should include that—as well as progress and learning—our evolution has also involved violence and vying societies’ struggles for domination.

“Perhaps this looks like a gloomy analysis,” Libeskind said with a light laugh. “Somewhere in the human soul is a spark for goodness. As I travel around the world, I see all people are really the same; they have the same longings and desires, from a big city to a small village in China.”

Libeskind is pleased at the development of Ground Zero, even if, as the New York Times suggested many years ago, little of his vision remained completed at the site.

Libeskind told The Daily Beast, “The outcome has stayed close to my original sketches, using the memory of the site as a foundation in all we do there, including such features as the ‘wedge of light’ and the footprints of the two pools.

“It works well. People stop a second and take, I hope, a breath of affirmation, an affirmation of life. That is also the lesson of Auschwitz. Somehow with each one of those people who were murdered there is an affirmation of life in their story and destiny. Our thinking about them gives them their life.”

There has been criticism of how the space was used; particularly around the level of commerce and activity there. “First of all, this is a public space in a very busy part of the city, and public space in itself is an affirmation,” said Libeskind, adding people are affected—even unconsciously—by being beside the pools, variously by the sound of water or the listing of names. “This, the Jewish Museum, what I am doing at Auschwitz: I want them all to stand for the affirmation of hope,” Libeskind said.

People can be disturbed by these emotionally freighted spaces, Libeskind said, as much as he would want them to enjoy them. “You can react however you want,” he said, with soft chuckle. “This is a democracy.”

“Ground Zero is not a utopian space,” said Libeskind. “How do you take this pragmatic, tough city, where everyone has really different opinions about what to do, and forge a consensus between investors, families of victims, the Port Authority, and others, and make it a constructive experience?”

He works in traumatized, and presumably traumatizing, spaces quite a bit, I said. “They have to be traumatizing,” Libeskind said sharply. “If you hide a trauma it will always haunt you. The only way to deal with trauma, we know from science, is to face the trauma.” He quotes some lines from Emily Dickinson’s poem, ‘To fill a Gap’: “To fill a Gap/Insert the Thing that caused it” and “You cannot solder an Abyss/With Air.”

Libeskind’s vision at Ground Zero, the Jewish Museum in Berlin, and at Auschwitz is “to face what happened, not hide it or make it a saccharine experience. It is not easy emotionally for me. If it was easy, I wouldn’t do such a project. And I don’t think of it as ‘Here I am, the architect doing a project.’ I think of what I do as being part of the world, something deeply connected between heaven and earth in this time.”

Next, he is designing Lisbon’s Jewish museum which will chart the dramatic history of Portugal’s Jews, who endured persecution during the Inquisition, and were once ordered to declare themselves Christians. Mass Jewish emigration followed, or the practicing of religion was conducted in secret.

“Jews were virtually eliminated in Portugal,” said Libeskind. “In 1904 the first synagogue in Portugal to be built since the 15th century was constructed behind a blank wall. It’s an incredible history, of a people condemned to practice another religion. This museum has been 30 years in the making, and I love being commissioned to design it. It’s so meaningful.”

He is also working on a building in his home town of Łódź, with the working title the Libeskind Institute. “This will be a cultural center speaking about the city’s rich history and future. There will be many things there: exhibitions, public events.”

What was it like to go back there, after being so miserable there as a boy?

“Amazing. Because the streets haven’t changed, nor the buildings. I know the walls. But there is also a sense I get, to borrow from the Catholic Eucharist, of transubstantiation: the same stone I see is not the same stone, but different; the air is not the same air but different.”

I asked Libeskind how he felt about the notion of retirement. He laughed loudly. “No, not me. I don’t really see it. I don’t understand the concept.”

His projects are so centered around death, how did he see his own mortality? “Everybody is mortal, everybody is going to die. That is the meaning of life,” said Libeskind, also alluding to what Socrates said (via Plato) that “those who practice philosophy in the right way are in training for dying, and they fear death least of all men.”

For Libeskind, “To know that every day is a meaningful day, every day is a day of wonder, a day of astonishment, is to know that you are alive.”

Working at Ground Zero and Auschwitz has not led him to fear death, or feel its oppressive encroachment.

“Shakespeare wrote that we don’t know anything about death, or what it is,” Libeskind said softly. “I’m not one of those who thinks the world is just a bunch of chaotic particles and we are just dust. That’s not my belief in life.”

With that, Libeskind let out another hearty gale of laughter, and returned to the plans and blueprints that make up his life’s work of making us remember.