Thursday, December 07, 2006

Death camp to be rescued from decay

The gas chambers of Auschwitz are to be rescued from decay under a modernisation plan that has sparked controversy over how to preserve the infamous death camp. “We have to preserve rather than reconstruct,” Piotr Cywinski, the new head of the Auschwitz museum, said. “We must take this step if we want to be able to see these gas chambers in 20 years’ time.”

It is a macabre dilemma. Should one give new life to a Nazi camp that has become synonymous with evil? Or should one let the camp crumble gently? Should Auschwitz become an overgrown site for mourners or a tourist destination? The International Auschwitz Council meeting this week decided that it was possible to strike a balance. Auschwitz remains a museum as well as a crime scene and, as such, should be more accessible to those wanting to learn about the Holocaust.

“It is the oldest exhibition about the shoah [Holocaust] in the world,” Mr Cywinski said. “We really must change.”

This means building walls to prevent the ruins of gas chambers from sinking into the ground. The exhibition and the first gas chamber are housed in a cramped, red-brick complex originally built as a cavalry barrack. It is here that restoration work will be concentrated.

In the other part of the camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau, the crematoriums and gas chambers were blown up in the final days of the Second World War. There, the original prisoners’ huts still stand and are already being tactfully preserved.

Another priority is to ensure that locks of hair shaved from the scalps of inmates do not deteriorate. A new education centre is also to be constructed.

Much of the museum design dates back to 1955. At least one member of the International Auschwitz Council — which groups scholars, religious representatives and Holocaust survivors — emphasised that engineering companies of the highest calibre should be consulted before building the support walls for the gas chamber. Jonathan Webber, Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Birmingham, said that there was a risk that the Auschwitz management could be accused of tampering with the gas chambers by Holocaust-deniers.

Holocaust-deniers have long claimed that the gas chambers in Auschwitz were either fake or were too small to have been able to kill huge numbers of victims. About 1.5 million people, most of them Jews, were slaughtered there. Far-right Holocaust-deniers base their claim on a discredited report by Fred Leuchter, an American.

So the Auschwitz restoration team has to be careful to avoid the impression that it is building replicas. “The camp has to be propped up without sacrificing any of its authenticity,” a source close to the council said.

The other fear, voiced by Jewish scholars, is that Auschwitz will lose the smell of death and become more of a museum than a graveyard. Noach Flug, the president of the Centre of Organisations of Holocaust Survivors in Israel, said: “Auschwitz is the original place where it happened. You must have the feeling as it was then — the smell and the look. It is important not to change.”

The most damning comment has come from the Foundation for the Benefit of Holocaust Victims: “Changing the memorial and making it less horrifying and more friendly, having more flowers, trees, parks and grass, is good maybe for an amusement park but not for a place that is important to teach us what happened.”

“This is not about beauty,” Mr Cywinksi said. “We have to think about the next generation and different ways of speaking to them.”

Never forget

25 million people have visited the Auschwitz centre to date

500,000 people visit each year, half of them Polish

in 2004 63,000 came from America, 37,000 from Germany and 26,000 from Britain

1.5 million people died at Auschwitz-Birkenau during the Second World War. Other estimates give a figure of 1.1 million


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