After almost half a century of communist repression that followed the Second World War, Poland seems to have finally entered a better future. The country’s accession to the European Union in 2004 has triggered an impressive national metamorphosis. Historical towns are being restored to their former glory while construction companies work around the clock to deliver new infrastructure in the run up to the European football championships in 2012. Even the ubiquitous suburban concrete apartment blocks - once dull symbols of communist equality - look somewhat happy today, freshly painted in all the colours of the rainbow.
Yet, beyond the wrought-iron gate of the former concentration camp in Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland’s southeast, the past is still painfully present. Although the prisoners and their tyrants have long gone, largely everything - from the cobblestone pavement to the red-bricked barracks - remains exactly as it was at the end of the Second World War. Auschwitz is where history comes to life. But there are grave concerns about the future of the former concentration camp. Nearly seven decades after the war the ravages of time are becoming a serious problem. The need for a long-term conservation plan is pressing, says Dr Piotr Cywiński, director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum.
It’s midday and the sun is blazing when a few hundred people - equipped with state-of-the-art radio receivers to ensure the tour guides don’t have to raise their voices - assemble in front of the main entrance of Auschwitz in anticipation of the three-hour participatory history lesson. Just minutes ago they received a warm-up by means of an old newsreel featuring walking skeletons and mountains of dead bodies. Some couldn’t stand it and had to pull out. Those who made it through are now being divided into groups of approximately 25 people. “Don’t panic,” a female tour guide says. “It’s obviously not our intention to separate families.” No one seems to notice the unwitting irony of her words. The first group starts moving, knowing they will soon be confronted with the tangible evidence of an industrialised mass murder. A man in his forties quickly takes a picture of the infamous phrase “Arbeit macht frei” (Work sets you free) incorporated in the gate in front of him.
Despite being open to the public since 1947, it was not until ten years ago that the number of visitors to Auschwitz started to increase significantly. As cheap airline tickets and affordable accommodation lured foreigners into Poland, the visitor numbers skyrocketed from just below 500,000 in 2001 to a record 1.3 million last year. The Nazis established concentration camps all over occupied Europe but Auschwitz has - probably due to the fact it was the largest of all - become the most infamous symbol of their crimes. It comprised Auschwitz I (the Stammlager main camp), Auschwitz II-Birkenau (the Vernichtungslager or extermination camp), Auschwitz III-Monowitz, also known as Buna-Monowitz (a labour camp), as well as 45 satellite camps. While the total death toll of the Holocaust is estimated between 11 million and 17 million people, at least one million lost their lives in Auschwitz. Among them were Jews, ethnic Poles, Russians, as well as many others regarded as subversive or inferior by the Nazis. Today, only Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau remain - the latter within a stone’s throw from the first. Excursions always start at Auschwitz I. After visitors have been shown most of the barracks as well as the cell blocks and the crematorium, a shuttle bus drops them off at the gate of Auschwitz II-Birkenau where the tour draws to a close.
Visitors are often baffled by the authenticity of the former concentration camp. But that comes at a price. The fact that Auschwitz remained largely untouched for decades has led to widespread decay. Museum director Cywiński explains that to secure the future of the former concentration camp he needs millions. In a final attempt to turn the tide last year he co-founded a perpetual fund known as the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation. Cywiński aims to collect at least 120 million euro which should be sufficient to generate an annual income of 4 to 5 million euro in return. Several countries have signed declarations of intent worth more than two-thirds of what is required. Germany and Austria have turned out to be major contributors pledging respectively 60 and 6 million euro. Cywiński says he can see the logic behind their generosity as both countries formed the cradle of the Third Reich, but he refuses to regard their payments as a form of indemnity. “Preserving this place is a responsibility shared between all modern democracies,” he says.
Cywiński has his office in a modest room in what once was an SS hospital in the corner of Auschwitz I. He acknowledges a former concentration camp isn’t the most congenial environment to spend your workdays. “It’s very difficult to have management obligations towards a place you cannot fully understand,” Cywiński says. Yet for the 38-year-old, being the head of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum seems to be a calling rather than a career. Cywiński was elected to his position in 2006 after being nominated by Władysław Bartoszewski, a former politician and still a prominent figure in Poland. Bartoszewski - born in 1922 - experienced the horror of Auschwitz-Birkenau himself as a prisoner from September 1940 until April 1941 when he was released thanks to actions undertaken by the Polish Red Cross. Cywiński regards him as one of the most influential people in his life. “He asked me to take up this role and he prepared me for it,” Cywiński says. “It was difficult to say yes, but it was more difficult to imagine what my life would have looked like if I had refused.”
Factory of Death
Auschwitz was liberated by the Red Army on April 27, 1945. The gas chambers of the Auschwitz II-Birkenau camp were blown up by the SS in January of that year in an attempt to hide the Nazi crimes from the advancing Russian troops. In the same month the SS command gave orders to execute all remaining prisoners, but in the chaos of the Nazi retreat the operation was never carried out. Instead, nearly 60,000 prisoners were forced on a death march towards a camp elsewhere in occupied Poland while those too weak or sick to walk were left behind. When the Soviets arrived in Auschwitz they encountered 7,500 survivors and several warehouses bulging with tons of hair as well as thousands of shoes, suitcases and numerous other objects belonging to the people, most of whom had died. Many of these artifacts are today on display in Auschwitz I as cruel symbols of what has also become known as the Factory of Death.
Cywiński says the necessity for a long-term conservation plan became apparent during the 1990s. At the time, maintenance work was still in the hands of a variety of companies. “This fragmentation showed that we lacked a serious idea of what was really needed,” Cywiński says. The year 2003 saw a breakthrough with the establishment of an in-house conservation workshop. Nowadays, the workshop employs more than a dozen staff. “Our team has made a master plan extending to all the objects at the site of the Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau camps including the ruins of the gas chambers and crematoria, as well as the wooden barracks, guard towers and other original objects,” Cywiński says. “They came to the conclusion that we need a comprehensive approach stretching out over a period of 25 years. That means that by the time we are ready we have to start all over again.
Despite the fact the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum has been listed by the UNESCO World Heritage site since 1979, so far they have been largely dependent on funding from the Polish government and on incidental subsidies and donations by individuals. Last year the European Union granted 5 million euro to finance the conservation of several wooden and brick prisoner barracks. Although Cywiński is grateful for every penny he receives, he says it’s a far from ideal situation. “Auschwitz must become self-supporting. I don’t want to be dependent on anyone and not on governments in particular. We should be able to plan further in advance than democracy allows us. The only way to do so is by means of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation.”
Recently, the United States announced that they will contribute 12.2 million euro to the perpetual fund. During a visit to Cracow in July, US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton strongly encouraged other nations to follow suit. Cywiński says he believes Clinton’s appeal has the potential to make a difference. “Apart from the fact that the voice of the United States is listened to in the world, their response enables us to reach out from the geographical sphere of those countries directly responsible for the Holocaust,” he says. Nevertheless Cywiński says it doesn’t make sense to put too much emphasis on things that happened in the past. “Each country knows exactly what they have done wrong and those stories are often very dramatic and difficult. The memory exists and may play a part in the decisions made by these countries. But what I think should be stressed is the role of Auschwitz for the time ahead.” Cywiński warns that the Holocaust is not necessarily history. “You just have to zoom in via Google Earth to see villages in Africa being burnt to the ground. You can see the mass graves from your computer screen as they are being dug. I think it’s worrying that so few people take action. Maybe they have become immune. I don’t know exactly. But what I do know is that we need to preserve Auschwitz as a tangible reminder of what can happen if we fail to respond in a timely way. Many people seem to take their freedom for granted, but they should know we are not safe - not in the Western world either.”
While new visitor groups assemble in front of the gate, in his office Cywiński continues to contemplate the future. “A few years ago it was still common that visitors were taken round by former prisoners. But that has become an exception,” Cywiński says. “The last Holocaust survivors will soon be gone. That’s a reality we have to cope with. What’s left is their testimonies, their memoirs, their books - things that can really influence people’s imagination.” The money generated through the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation will be used for conservation works only, Cywiński emphasises. He says that education about the Holocaust is a responsibility for individual governments themselves. “There is a serious risk that at some point in time some will rewrite history for their own benefit,” Cywiński acknowledges. “But I’m not worried about that, because here in Auschwitz the truth will always come to the surface.”