Friday, April 2, 2010

360 In-Depth: Time, Less Money Threaten Auschwitz

The former Nazi death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau, where more than a million people were killed in World War II, faces an uncertain future.

It is an overcast spring day at one of the most notorious and harrowing places on Earth. Patches of still frozen ground crunch underfoot with every step, punctuating the silence which has long pervaded this former killing field.

This is Birkenau, the largest camp in the Auschwitz complex, where most of its 1.1 million victims - 90% of them Jews - were murdered.

But after nearly seven decades exposed to the elements, few of what were originally hundreds of structures remain standing, and those which have survived are gradually rotting away.

"If we can't secure the buildings and conserve
the site properly, we will be forced to close
it to the public in a few years
- Auschwitz spokesman, Pawel Sawicki

Unlike the smaller Auschwitz I - sturdy brick-built former Polish cavalry barracks expropriated by the Nazis - Birkenau (or Auschwitz II) was erected in 1941 solely as a death camp, and was not built to last.

With every passing year the urgency to preserve what is left of the site grows, and while steps are being taken to do so, crucial conservation work is hampered by a shortage of funds.

"Auschwitz Museum is in a financial crisis, that's for sure," says site spokesman Pawel Sawicki.

"We do not have sufficient money to develop a long-term conservation plan. We can only be reactive, say if there's damage to a building we repair it - we can't be proactive," he says.

"And if we can't secure the buildings and conserve the site properly, we will be forced to close it to the public in a few years."

Preservation Task

In some ways the process has already begun.

Two-thirds of the original brick barracks where prisoners lived in Birkenau have already been deemed unsafe and closed to the public. Since 2006 the fragile ruins of the gas chambers - blown up by the Nazis before the camp was abandoned in 1945 - have been cordoned off from visitors, their remaining walls in danger of collapse.

Some conservation is under way. In Auschwitz I, in a building once earmarked by the Nazis as a registration block for prisoners, teams of technicians in white coats are at work, preserving thousands of artifacts and developing methods to try to save the camp's disintegrating infrastructure.

The conservation laboratory - one of the best of its kind in the world - was established in 2002 at a cost of $3m, a project of US philanthropist Ronald S Lauder.

In one room, a large scanner hums away, copying records, yellowing with age, from the camp's SS Hygiene Institute, whilst across the corridor, scientists delicately clean some of the thousands of the institute's documents by hand.

Funded by the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, it is one of a number of conservation programs at the museum which depend on the benevolence of foreign countries or organizations.

"The biggest problem is the scale of the task," says chief conservationist Rafal Pioro.

As well as the documents and artifacts held at the camp - a museum since 1947 - there are more than 300 ruins, 155 buildings and 472 acres of land.

"We don't have sufficient money to carry out all the work that we would like to," says chief conservationist Rafal Pioro.

"And people should understand that we are not able to stop the process of deterioration - all we are able to do is to slow it down."

There are some remains which no amount of funding can save.

On the second floor of exhibition block number four is one of the more shocking displays - two tons of victims' hair, used by the Nazis for the textile industry, piled high and stretching from one end of the room to the other.

It is one of the most tangible pieces of evidence of what went on here, but now brittle and fading after so many years, the conservation experts acknowledge it will soon all turn to dust.

Financial Shortfall

While the camp gradually erodes, more people than ever are visiting the site and placing it under increasing physical strain.

In 2008, 1.13 million people came here from around the world, vastly more than the museum - whose main exhibition remains largely unaltered from the mid-1950s - was built to cope with.

The visitors, however, generate little revenue. The museum is not allowed to charge an entrance fee, and its income from guided tours, book sales and parking does not go far. Since 1947, when the museum opened, the Polish government has provided most of the museum's funding.

In spite of Auschwitz's inclusion on Unesco's World Heritage list in 1979, it was not until the 1990s that financial assistance first trickled in from the outside world.

Even so, foreign help still constitutes only 1-3% of the museum's annual $10m budget - barely enough to cover day-to-day operations, including paying the museum's 250 staff, let alone conservation work.

This falls far short of the $100m the museum says it needs to carry out vital tasks, such as preserving crumbling barracks, creating a new exhibition and building specialised storage facilities.

"The international community has not done enough," said 92-year-old Holocaust survivor and treasurer of the Auschwitz Museum budget committee, Kalman Sultanik.

"Germany in particular has not done enough. Whatever Germany does is not enough - not for the survivors, definitely not for Auschwitz."

Rescue Plan

In the hope of saving the museum for future generations, officials want to set up a 120m-euro ($170m) endowment fund with the help of the international community, the profits from which would be used entirely for long-term conservation work.

"Every nation has an inalienable duty

to protect these places."

- Polish Ministry of Culture and Heritage

"The Polish government has been funding the site of Auschwitz and Birkenau for more than 60 years, so if we wouldn't receive any help from Polish government this place would have collapsed years ago," said Mr Sawicki.

"Unfortunately Poland is not a very rich country, and Auschwitz is not the only site the Polish government must take care of. That's why we expect countries like Germany - which of course is responsible for what happened here - despite the help that they've already given - we still think that the scale of the help should be bigger."

Earlier this month, Germany said it considered it a "core duty… to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive", adding it was in discussions with Poland about making future contributions to the upkeep of the museum.

European Heritage

In 1947, the Polish parliament passed a law pledging to preserve Auschwitz and its buildings forever.

Despite this, Poland says it does not regard Auschwitz as its exclusive responsibility.

"The Holocaust became an integral part of what we now call the cultural heritage of European civilization," the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage us. "Every nation has an inalienable duty to protect these places".

But time is running short, and unless substantially more money comes soon, Poland's pledge to preserve the camp may prove hard to keep.


On the Web:

Auschwitz concentration camp on Wikipedia

Auschwitz/Birkenau - Photographs by Alan Jacobs

Virtual Tour of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp

Auschwitz-Birkenau - Main Page

Auschwitz-Birkenau Extermination Camp (Poland)

History of Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp


Auschwitz Birkenau - pictures by Bill Hunt


AuschwitzBirkenau Table of Contents

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