Auschwitz decay prompts efforts to preserve site

THE red brick barracks that housed starving inmates are sinking into ruin. Time has warped victims’ leather shoes into strange shapes. Hair sheared to make cloth is slowly turning to dust.

Auschwitz is crumbling — the world’s most powerful and important testament to Nazi Germany’s crimes falling victim to age and mass tourism. Now guardians of the memorial site are waging an urgent effort to save what they can before it is too late.

Officials launched a global campaign to raise €120 million to create a “perpetual fund” whose interest can be drawn on indefinitely to repair barracks, watchtowers, crematoria and other structures at the Auschwitz-Birkenau state museum and memorial in southern Poland.

The Nazis opened Auschwitz soon after invading Poland in 1939, the act that triggered World War II, using it first as a concentration camp for Poles and political prisoners. As they implemented a plan to exterminate Europe’s Jews, Gypsies and others, they built the neighbouring death camp of Birkenau.

The Germans ended up transporting people in cattle cars from across the continent to the death camp in the heart of Europe, and murdered at least 1.1 million in gas chambers or through other acts of barbarity.

Museum director Piotr Cywinski made an emotional appeal for help during ceremonies last week marking the 66th anniversary of the camp’s liberation by Soviet troops, as he launched the fundraising campaign.

Called Intervene Now, the campaign’s message has been spread.

“There are no more remains of Treblinka, Kulmhof, Sobibor and Belzec,” Cywinski said, referring to extermination camps that the Nazis destroyed in an effort to hide their crimes.

“Let us not allow the biggest of these death camps — and the only one that is still recognisable — to fall into decay due to the ravages of time and our indifference.”

The efforts got a big boost with a donation of €60m from a still repentant Germany. Together with pledges from the US (€12m), Austria (€6m) and smaller amounts from other countries, the fund has now raised €80m — two-thirds of what is needed.

Part of the challenge comes from the fact that the barracks and other structures at Auschwitz were built in a rush and were never made to last.

Add to that the pressure of modern tourism: the site drew nearly 1.4 million visitors last year — triple the number in 2001.

“We really can’t wait any longer,” Cywinski said. “In 10 years, these will be ruins.”

More in this section


Select your favourite newsletters and get the best of Irish Examiner delivered to your inbox