The architects’ role in Auschwitz – Holocaust center offers event with storied expert | Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle

The architects’ role in Auschwitz – Holocaust center offers event with storied expert

The small moments stay with Robert Jan van Pelt. 

An expert on the history of Auschwitz, van Pelt recalls a blueprint he reviewed for barracks at the concentration camp in Poland. It showed the capacity for prisoners in the bunks based on an assumption that each inmate would have two feet by six feet of living space.  

An architect began penciling in some calculations. The arithmetic, van Pelt said, showed how the architect was increasing the barracks’ capacity by reducing the space allotted to each prisoner.  

The blueprint sticks in van Pelt’s mind, because architectural drawings tend to be formal and do not demonstrate the creator’s thought process. 

Robert Jan van Pelt

“In this case, quite literally you see it took him around a minute to do the whole thing, and, of course, transforming what was already an unlivable situation in an (absolute) hell,” van Pelt said. “These are the moments that really touch me.” 

Van Pelt is an architecture professor at the University of Waterloo. He’s written several books on a range of topics, including the history of the Holocaust and specifically Auschwitz.  

He served as an expert defense witness for professor Deborah Lipstadt, whom author David Irving accused of libel for her remarks in the book “Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory.” The court sided with Lipstadt and her defense team.  

Actor Mark Gatiss portrayed van Pelt in the 2016 movie “Denial,” which told the story of the legal dispute. 

On Jan. 19, he is scheduled to address the Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center during a virtual event commemorating Holocaust Remembrance Day. The free event will take place on the video platform Zoom. Van Pelt’s talk is scheduled for 7-8:30 p.m. Guests can register at 

Van Pelt said his talk would focus on architects’ role in Auschwitz. The camp was not constructed “in the middle of nowhere,” van Pelt said. It was next to an industrial city. He plans to highlight how the city and camp were designed. 

“Quite often, we want to believe that things that we don’t like, that actually are horrible crimes, are committed far away from us,” he said. “But in this case, you can actually see that civil society was closely involved in this.” 

Michael Morris, HERC’s community engagement manager, said he hopes guests of van Pelt’s talk appreciate how he makes his scholarly research accessible to the general public. He expects attendees will be intrigued by van Pelt’s expertise in the architects who designed the concentration camp. 

“When people think of Auschwitz, I’m sure many things come to mind,” Morris said. “I’m not sure if they think of blueprints and architects and all of that.” 

Van Pelt said education on ethics in architecture tends to be limited. He hopes his work addressing the role architects played in facilitating a genocide brings mindfulness to practitioners of the profession.  

“To in some way give back to architects as a discipline a certain ethical and moral consciousness, I think, is not a useless task,” van Pelt said.