Sunday, February 4, 2007
Auschwitz Director Trying to Preserve Camp
Oswiecim, Poland--As they did on every
anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz
by Soviet troops, witnesses to the Holocaust gathered
January 27, growing older, frailer and fewer each
After 62 years, the camp itself is also showing signs
of aging under the pressures of tourism and time.
Its new director is searching for ways to preserve
vital evidence of Nazi crimes and update the exhibits
without chipping away at Auschwitz's authenticity or
giving fodder for Holocaust
"The biggest dilemma of this place is preserving what
is authentic while also keeping it possible for people to
see and to touch," said Piotr Cywinski, a
34-year-old historian who took over in September.
"This wasn't built as a medieval castle with strong
materials to last for all time," Cywinski told the
Associated Press in an interview in his office in one of
the Auschwitz barracks.
"It was a Nazi camp built to last a short time."
Most sensitive, prehaps, is what to do about the
remains of gas chambers, which are slowly sinking into
the ground, the result of weather, erosion and
The Nazis themselves blew up the gas chambers and
crematoria at the end of World War II as the Soviet army
Today, they are mostly in ruins as the Nazis left
them, evidence of both the original crimes and the German
attempt to cover them up.
Any decay at all poses a problem given the camp's role
today as evidence of the attrocities inflicted on Jews,
Gypsies, Polish political prisoners, homosexuals and
Still visible are the railroad tracks along which
inmates were brought in, the barracks where they lived in
inhumane conditions, the gas chambers where they were
murdered, and the crematoria where their bodies were
For all that to crumble would deprive future
generations of priceless historical evidence of Nazi
atrocities, a further concern in light of Holocaust
The site provides a clear picture of how the camp
operated, while many other former Nazi death camps,
were dismantled and are marked today only by
Auschwitz's eventual decay is hastened because the
materials used, such as wood in the watchtowers and the
barracks, will eventually rot or collapse.
Cywinski also said some structures at the camp were
constructed by weak and starving inmates exerting the
minimum effort in order to preserve their strength.
Auschwitz is actually not one camp, but two, each with
its own problems.
Auschwitz I was built in an abandoned Polish military
base, and Auschwitz II, or Birkenau, is a much larger
complex built two miles away during the war to speed up
the Nazis' "Final Solution."
Together, Auschwitz-Birkenau stands as a metaphor of
evil and a symbol of all Nazi crimes, so making any
change at all is fraught with great responsibility and
Cywinski is calling for retainer walls to be built
around gas chambers to prevent them from sinking
But any tampering with the gas chambers is problematic
because Holocaust deniers could seize on that, and
photographs of repair work, to try to argue that the
whole thing was fabricated, according to Jonathan
Webber, a professor of Jewish studies at the
University of Birmingham and a member of the
International Auschwitz Council, a board that advises
Webber noted that the barbed wire at Auschwitz has
already been replaced more than once since the war,
because the original was so rusted.
But "fiddling with the gas chambers" is different.
"Anyone tampering with gas chambers is tempering with
the heart and soul of what Auschwitz represents," said
Webber, who has urged the council to seek the advice of
engineering experts before starting any work.