Auschwitz museum struggles to preserve Holocaust site

24th March 2009, Comments 1 comment

In the drive to stop the site falling into ruin and preserve the memory of the 1.1 million overwhelmingly Jewish victims who died here during World War II, officials face tall odds.

Auschwitz-Birkenau -- Museum authorities at the former Nazi German Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in Poland are struggling to save the enduring symbol of the Holocaust from the impact of time and the elements.

In the drive to stop the site falling into ruin and preserve the memory of the 1.1 million overwhelmingly Jewish victims who died here during World War II, they face tall odds.

"This is our last chance," warned Piotr Cywinski, director of the state-run museum.

The museum keeps going thanks to the Polish government, which covers around half of its costs, plus visitors' ticket fees. Up to five percent of its budget comes from the US-based Lauder Foundation and Germany's regional governments.

Last month, it announced plans for a 120-million-euro (162-million-dollar) appeal to enable it to become self-financing.

Crucially, said Cywinski, it could then set aside some 5.0 million euros a year for conservation work.

The rudimentary buildings of the camp's Birkenau site, built by the prisoners on marshy land, are being battered by soil erosion and water damage.

"We have to finish conservation work on all these buildings within 10 to 12 years, so we need to start within three years at the latest," said Cywinski. "The primary goal is to preserve the site's authentic nature and not to rebuild it, in order not to change the perception of this place."

"But the big question today is: do we want to save this place?" he said.

Preserving a single barrack-block costs around 880,000 euros, said conservation chief Rafal Pioro.

Warsaw has called on the international community to support the new drive to maintain the camp.

The museum site covers 191 hectares (472 acres), with 155 buildings and 300 ruins, and has a collection of thousands of personal items, as well as documents exposing the minutiae of the Nazis' killing machine.

The Nazis initially set up the camp for Polish resistance fighters, nine months after invading Poland in September 1939.

The original camp was at a former Polish army barracks on the edge of the southern town of Oswiecim -- known in German as Auschwitz.

Two years later, the Nazis greatly expanded the site at nearby Brzezinka, or Birkenau.

Around 1.1 million people died at Auschwitz-Birkenau between 1940 and 1945 -- one million of them Jews from Poland and elsewhere in Nazi-occupied Europe -- some from overwork, starvation and disease but most in the notorious gas chambers.

It was one of six death camps set up in Poland -- home to pre-war Europe's largest Jewish community -- by the occupying Germans, who murdered six million Jews during the war.

Non-Jewish Poles, Roma and Soviet POWs were also among the victims of Auschwitz-Birkenau and the other death camps of Chelmno, Treblinka, Sobibor, Majdanek and Belzec.

The museum devotes much of its time protecting the intimate traces of the prisoners' presence.

Each of the 80,000 shoes stockpiled by the Nazis, for example, are being painstakingly preserved.

"There's no technical problem to bring back the original beauty of an old shoe but that would wipe away its entire story," said Cywinski.

The task of the museum's laboratories, financed by the Lauder Foundation, is unique.

"There are ways to restore Medieval objects, but not to conserve six-decade-old, poor quality plastic toothbrushes... We don't have any reference point," said Cywinski.

Researchers have identified 90 different kinds of ink or pencil on the 40,000 documents left by the Nazi medical service. Each requires a different conservation method, said expert Nel Jastrzebiowska.

The museum, set up by the Polish government in 1947, last year drew 1.13 million visitors compared to half that in 2001 -- crucial for remembrance but putting extra physical pressure on the site.

Stanislaw Waszak/AFP/Expatica

1 Comment To This Article

  • Tim Thibeault posted:

    on 24th March 2009, 03:18:20 - Reply

    The Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp is not actually a museum. It is a still functioning denier of human rights, just as it was 60 years ago.

    Prisoner #61016, Dina Babbitt, was forced by Dr. Josef Mengele to make paintings for his research. He denied her human rights in extracting the work from her and the current Auschwitz Director, Dr Piotr M.A. Cywinski continues Dr Mengele's practice of Human Rights denial by refusing to return her work to her. He does this even though he is fully aware of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (article 17), and of her rightful ownership of her work. Of course, Dr Cywinski is only keeping her work to benefit society, unlike Dr Mengele who extorted the work from her to benefit society. How do these two men differ when it comes to the rationale behind their actions? Can anyone justify extending the effects of the Holocaust in order to prolong its memory? This museum is not a museum then, it is an unfortunate and ironic joke on everyone who has ever suffered there.
    Do a web search for Dina Babbitt and inform yourself, or visit and learn the truth behind the current "museum's" lies.