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Cash crisis threat to Auschwitz

Ruins at Birkenau

By Raffi Berg
BBC News, Auschwitz-Birkenau

It is a bitterly cold winter's day at one of the most notorious and harrowing places on Earth. Patches of ice 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.

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

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.

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.

May 1940: First prisoners arrive at Auschwitz I
Oct 1941: Construction begins on Birkenau
Oct 1944: Prisoner uprising at Birkenau
Jan 1945: SS dynamite Birkenau gas chambers and crematoria
17 Jan 1945: Nazis begin evacuating camp
27 Jan 1945: Auschwitz liberated by Red Army
April 1947: Former camp commandant Rudolf Hoess hanged at Auschwitz
July 1947: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum established

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 artefacts 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 programmes at the museum which depend on the benevolence of foreign countries or organisations.

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

Technicians at work in Auschwitz conservation laboratory
The museum can only afford to deal with the most urgent needs
As well as the documents and artefacts held at the camp - a museum since 1947 - there are more than 300 ruins, 155 buildings and 191 hectares 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 civilisation," the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage told the BBC. "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.

Who should pay to preserve the Auschwitz site, and keep the museum running - Poland, Germany, or the international community? Please send your comments using the form below.

If it considered that the 2nd World War was a result of the 1st World War and the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, then all nations have a responsibility for what happened between 1939 and 1945. Add to this the fact that anti-semitism was not a German phenomenon but an international curse then, surely, it is the responsibility of all governments to preserve the site at Birkenau for all future generations. If this site is allowed to fall into complete disrepair then world governments should bow their heads in shame.
Ian Smith, Oxford

This is designated a World Heritage site. However this does not mean that any finacial help is forthcoming anymore thanit is for Avebury and Stonehenge. Auschwitz 1 is mainly a site of Polish and Slavic oppression where as Auschwitz-Birkenau is concerned with Jewish and Gypsy extermination. Now that Yad Vasheem in Israel and the Holocaust Memeorial in Washington are established it is unlikly that the original sites will be maintained. It seems that we would rather realy on interpretation in museum rather than the physical and topographical evidence. You may as well ask what happens with Treblinka, Madjenec or Chelmno all sites and all left to decay.
Mark, Swindon

I feel that the camp should be preserved by the international community. The Holocaust was a global event, and should therfore the camps should be preserved for future generations by the international community. Perhapse it should be considered as a world heritage site?
Matthew Evans, Sutton

My visit to Auschwitz was an experience I will never forget. The international community needs to contribute to the site's preservation, as we all need reminded this should never happen again. In fifty years time there will be no primary evidence and its memory will be lost, or its existence denied.
Martin, Lanakshire, Scotland

I visited the site last year and nothing in my 52 years on this earth prepared me for what I saw. I am still at a loss for how this was allowed to happen in the first place. The EU should take up task of ensuring this site is preserved and funded. Every school going child in Europe should be brought to see what can happen when despots are allowed to take control. Nothing we can do will every make up for this shrine to evil.
Gregg Behan, Dublin, Ireland

I strongly believe that the preservation of Auschwitz ahould be down to the international community. With the amount of visitors travelling to see the living museum, it should be shared equally to fund the restoration and preservation of such a site. Most foreign dignities always comment about how its important not to forget the atrocities that occured under the reign of the third reich. It is never more important that today as we commemorate the liberation on national holocaust memorial day to highlight the fact the international community should be funding such work and inevitable help save this site that stands to mark the many millions that suffered. Don't close this momentous museum further generations need to see and understand what happened.
Lee Wright, Staffordshire - United Kingdom

It has to be the international community that contributes to the upkeep of this most important of places. I believe that everyone who visits Auschwitz-Birkenau, let alone looks at the photographs, is duty bound to play their part in ensuring it should not be allowed to happen again. The fact that it has happened over and over again means that the camps still have a large role to play in making our world a safer place. Surely Governments can find the funding to preserve this memorial, historical record and testimony to the depths humanity can sink to.
Nick McLeod, Liverpool

I think that Germany should bear the brunt of the costs involved in preserving Auschwitz as a mark of respect and compassion for those who suffered and died such hideous deaths. Whilst no one could or should be held accountable for the sins of their fathers, there are probably still many Germans who see things differently and try to deny what happened so it is for this reason it needs to be preserved to silence all who doubt this could ever happen. Also Israel should make a contribution in memory of their forefathers and reflect on their own war and what it means in terms of human suffering.
Vicki Henderson, Nottingham, England

Although I've never visited Auschwitz I've visited Dachau and Buchenwald. I think that all camps should be preserved so that nobody forgets what people are capable off. It was a haunting experience. Every country that was affected by WWII should pay.
Lazaros, London

Restoration risks creating an illusion of history. In the case of the holocaust, this could give succour to those who deny it ever happened. What is important about Auschwitz is what happened there. It is far more important is to maintain the records of the event, tell the story and learn the lesson. What happened must never be forgotten, long after buildings have crumbled. This is a global responsibility.
Mike, Berlin, Germany

It's disgusting that Poland has had to bear the cost of maintaining Auschwitz. This site needs to be protected to remind present and future generations of what can happen if evil is allowed to develop unchecked. The bill for this should be laid at the door of the EU, they could easily afford to renovate and preserve Auschwitz.
Justyn Keeble, Ipswich

I visited Auschwitz three years ago. It must be preserved, and its upkeep should be the responsibility of every combatant power in WWII. The place changes your view of humanity. It converts the past from a film or a book or an article into a cold reality. Everyone should be able to visit Auschwitz, especially children. And everyone should. No-one should ever be allowed to forget.
Andy Ryans, Manchester

I believe that Germany should be invited (ordered?) by the United Nations to provide adequate and ongoing funding to maintain the camp remains and the is the very least that they can do to atone for Germany's creation of this terrible place.
Richard Glanville, France

Every country should contribute. Even the former allied forces. The powers of the day knew all about the sites and what they were for, and decided not bomb the hell out of it.
Flippo, London, UK

The international community should pay to keep this monument as a reminder of man's inhumanity to man, no one should have to go through anything like this every again
Jill, Glasgow

The Polish people should be commended for their decision to preserve the camp forever but we should all as so called Europeans contribute to this endevour. Brussels make a good decision and make it now, just for a change. We must never be allowed to forget those people who were there.
Ron Frampton, Portsmouth England

EU funds should be provided to maintain the site, and they should also be provided to every school in Europe and every single child in Europe should be provided with a free visit to the site and appropriate educational talk.
David Wilkinson, London

The international community has a moral duty to help preserve the site. Many museums around the world charge an entrance fee, so why not Auschwitz. Who funds other sites in Ypres and Somme?
Elaine Philpot, Swindon, Wiltshire, England

I think everybody from all communities across the globe should donate something to preserve Aushwitz so future generations can see the atroticities and learn to get along with one another.
Barry Rappaport, England

In my mind preserving/ renovating the camp it's like building it again. I cannot imagine any of Poles or any other nationalities persecuted by Germans at that time going there and carry works... What is more: spending any amount of money on it. Auschwitz it's German creation and it's their responsibility to make sure that evil is never forgotten.
Marta, London, UK

Auschwitz is a tangible memorial to the depravity and suffering of humanity. It is the prime responsibility of the international community to maintain it for posterity.
rachel constance, Hereford

Companies that supported the nazis during the war should be made to pay. Investigations should be made into where the many millions of pounds of stolen money, treasures, artwork and property went after the war - a lot of it would have been invested into business. The people who have benefited from this stolen loot should be named/shamed and forced to pay up.
ken, Sunderland

Poland has already done its bit bit but Germany as well as the International Community should play a more crucial role in preserving the Auschwitz site and the museum. Thank You
Ms. Shefali Desai, London, UK

I believe that the international community should do more to aid the conservation of Auschwitz (though it does feel odd- conserving a place whose purpose once was to destroy others). Though the Nazis built a series of other camps, Auschwitz continues to be the most iconic. Since the detirioration process cannot be stopped, other countries should aid in slowing down the process.

Also, could visitors pay an entrance fee of some sort- a fee which would act as a donation to the museum? It does sound like a bad idea to pay to enter such a place, but the museum is in trouble-isn't it? If the problems were brought to the attention of tourists upon visitng, they might be willing to pay more that what the entrance fee would be.
Miriam, Miami, Fl, USA

Perhaps the German government should pay for the upkeep of Auschwitz as it was a German government that developed it from a Polish army barracks.Or maybe a join venture between Israel and Germany as a sign of reconciliation and as a lasting memorial to all the souls of many nations who perished there.
stephen connolly, uk

I visited Auschwitz last year with my wife (I am a Jew and my wife is not). To me this place should be maintained through worldwide contributions as a lasting memorial of what evil can exist if not caught soon enough. Too often we see similar destruction of life even now in the new century and if by keeping Auschwitz well maintained we can prevent another similar episode then it is worth every penny spent. In a time of corporate greed when major countries are spending billions there should be monies made available to support the Polish people with this.
Marc Schwartz, Chelmsford, UK

It should be an international funding issue. Many people from many countries went to Auschwitz. It should be a heritage site - almost a contradiction in terms - but that is what it is, and funded appropriately.
Judy Ludlow

Having been to Auschwitz, I found it one of the most moving and reflective experiences of my life. I feel very strongly therefore about maintaining the site in order to teach future generations about the abhorrent behaviour human beings are capable of. This was a crime committed by Europeans, I therefore feel it is appropriate that Europeans foot the bill for its maintainance. As representatives of Europe the EC should make funds available to ensure Auschwitz remains open to the public and continues to tell the tale of the holocaust's horrificly systematic murders.
Adrien Grady, London

As someone who has visted Auschwitz I think all of the members of the un should keep Auschwitz running. If it decays and crumbles then those who belive the holocaust did not happen will have futher evidence that it was all lies. the UN was set up to prevent another holocaust and losing the biggest proof that there was one which is Auschwitz goes to question the purpose of the UN
Rachel Fleming, Frimley Surrey

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