Friday, January 15, 2010

Auschwitz and the ravages of Time

Auschwitz asks Britain for help to preserve decaying death camp

Roger Boyes

Times 13 January 2010

The guard towers of Auschwitz are splintering, the barracks are waterlogged: the concentration camp where one million Jews were slaughtered is decaying so fast that conservationists have called on Britain to help to save it.
The theft last month of its distinctive, sinister sign, Arbeit macht frei (work sets you free) has underlined the vulnerability of the Nazi death camp, stretching over 20 hectares (50 acres) of southern Poland.

“Nobody could have imagined such a horrific act of vandalism,” Jacek Kastelaniec, director-general of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation, said. “Now try to imagine the public outcry if one of the barracks started to fall down, impossible to restore.”

Auschwitz was built on boggy ground between two rivers; as a result the high groundwater and bad drainage has rotted the foundations. Walls are blistering and starting to lean, roof frames are buckling, plasterwork and wall-paintings are flaking.

Mr Kastelaniec will go to the Cabinet Office tomorrow to press the Government on Gordon Brown’s promise to contribute to a €120million (£110million) endowment fund that will guarantee the preservation of one of the main sites of the Holocaust. Mr Brown visited the camp last April, and, plainly upset by what he had seen, declared: “We will join with other countries in supporting the maintenance and retention of the memorial at Auschwitz.” No figure has been suggested publicly for Britain’s possible contribution, but Polish sources say that the conservationists are hoping for about €10million.

Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, has said that her country would put up half of the costs, but the managers of the Auschwitz museum need other commitments. Mr Kastelaniec will also visit France, Belgium and the United States. The Polish Prime Minister, Donald Tusk, has sent an appeal to 40 heads of government.

“The conservationists say we need to start work in the next two years if we are to avert irreparable decay,” Mr Kastelaniec told The Times, “and that will only be possible if the money is paid into the fund now.”
The decay of the camp is politically sensitive. The current trial in Munich of the alleged Sobibor camp guard John Demjanjuk is being seen by the public as the last for Nazi war crimes — the 89-year-old defendant is wheeled into court on a hospital bed. Holocaust survivors are dwindling. “In ten years there will be no witnesses,” Mr Kastelaniec said, “and it will be easier for the crazy people who say nothing happened in the camps.” Only the buildings will remain.

Auschwitz cannot simply have a makeover because that would undermine its claims to authenticity, and open the way for those on the far Right who try to deny or trivialise the Holocaust. The strategic point of the restoration is to use its almost over-powering sense of menace as a clinching counter-argument against anti-Semitism and racism.

The portfolio to be presented to the British Government underlines the vast scale of the camp. The priority is being set on 45 brick barracks. The managers estimate that it will cost up to €890,000 to restore a single barracks building. On top of that come 22 wooden barrack rooms — where inmates were crowded into bunks up to the ceiling. Each will cost €310,000.

Then there are the remains of 210 barrack buildings. Some sheds have collapsed, but there are concrete outlines where floors and chimneys stood. Without some strengthening, these foundation markings will disappear. Cost: €78,000 per barrack room. The 27 wooden guard towers need to be reinforced at an annual cost, for the next 14 years, of €62,000.

Work is under way on conserving the ruins of the gas chambers and crematoriums, but the managers want to extend this to include a provisional gas chamber-bunker, two other crematoriums and the unloading ramp.

Property taken from prisoners before they were gassed, now exhibited in small piles in the museum, is also showing signs of age: 460 artifical limbs, 40kg (90lb) of discarded spectacles, 260 prayer garments and 3,800 suitcases that belonged to people who ended their journey in Auschwitz.

The sluggish response worldwide to the restoration had been down, in part, to the feeling that the main burden should be on Germany. Mr Kastelaniec said: “The breakthrough came when we convinced not only Germany but also other contributors that this was not a project about guilt, but about the future.”

'One in six British 9 to 11-year olds thought Auschwitz was a theme park'

Roger Boyes

Times 13 January 2010

Auschwitz is still largely intact, but it is crumbling. Knowledge of the Holocaust among the young is patchy and getting thinner by the year.So the question arises: is it better to use resources to prop up the buildings of an evil place in southern Poland — or into education to improve the understanding of the Nazis’ systematic massacre of Jews and other minorities?

A survey found that one in six British 9 to 11-year-olds thought that Auschwitz was a theme park. We have to do better. To his credit Gordon Brown saw the gap in the knowledge of the over-16s and, as Chancellor, allocated funds to allow two teenage pupils from every secondary school in the country to make an annual visit to the camp.

But children need also to be guided through the mentality of racist ideology. Grandparents of today’s teenagers are usually too young to have fought in the war. Many children with Muslim parents receive a less than complete explanation of the Holocaust. Some teachers try to dodge questions about anti-Semitism. So is the answer to use the British funds that Auschwitz needs on bombarding schools with books and DVDs and sending teachers on Holocaust awareness courses? No. That money has to be found elsewhere.

Auschwitz has to stay an authentic Holocaust site. The last Nazis are dying out; the surviving victims do not have long to live. Auschwitz has to convey to new generations an absoluteness, a moral clarity. The buildings have to be preserved. To let them collapse is the first step to amnesia. They must be an active testimonial to speak for the witnesses who have passed on.
The buildings are part of the unwritten biographies of the dead and there is an international duty to keep them standing. Britain should help to shoulder that responsibility.


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