The Auschwitz Debate.
Yesterday (27 January) was Holocaust Memorial Day here in the UK. Sixty four years on from the day when Red Army arrived at the gates of the Auschwitz death camp to liberate the remaining inhabitants, a number of commemorative services were held across the country. There are fears however, that one of the best known and most widely visited Holocaust monuments may not survive as a testament for future generations. Auschwitz Birkenau, the Polish death camp built by the Nazis in 1941 as a leading part of their ‘final solution’ is facing a cash crisis, with site spokesman Pawel Sawicki estimating that around $100 million is needed to carry out essential conservation work if the site is to survive as a monument to the past:
Birkenau, the largest camp in the Auschwitz complex, where most of its estimated 1.1 million victims were murdered, was never designed to last long term and a little under seventy years of exposure to the elements (including a succession of harsh Polish winters) has left the surviving infastructure of the camp in a badly dilapidated condition. Sawicki warns that inability to secure the necessary funds to shore up the remaining buildings and establish a long term conservation strategy for the camp means it will be forced to close to the public in a few years time. This would be a big deal – listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979, in 2008 alone 1.13million people from all around the world visited the Auschwitz complex.
These visitors generate little income however and between 1992-2008 the Polish government have funded 94% of the basic running costs of keeping Auschwitz and Auschwitz-Birkenau open to public visitors. Calls have now been raised for the international community to shoulder the bulk of the costs required to implement a long term conservation plan for the future of the site, with a spokesmen from the Polish Ministry of Culture and Heritage stating that every nation had ‘an inaliable duty’ to protect and conserve Auschwitz.
These recent disclosures have reignited the debate over the future of Auschwitz. While some agree that Auschwitz must be conserved for future generations, others feel that the site should be left to decay. The BBC published an interesting article which explored both sides of this argument (link provided below). In the piece, historian Robert Jan Van Pelt believes that once the last camp survivor dies Auschwitz should be left to crumble and be reclaimed by nature, while former Polish Foreign Minister (and former Auschwitz inmate) Wladyslaw Bartoszewski argues that the camp should be preserved to bear witness to the fate of its victims for future generations.
You can read both opinions in full here:
This is an interesting debate, and one where I can see merit on both sides. I can certainly see the point Van Pelt is making when he states that ‘a visit to Auschwitz can teach little to those who were not actually there’, and that when the last survivor has gone the camp will simply be an echo of the past, filled with ‘memories of memories’. I completely agree that a present-day visitor to the Auschwitz complex can’t possibly come close to imagining what it was like to actually be there, but speaking as a historian who has previously visited the camp, it did make the holocaust feel more ‘real’ to me than any of the books I’ve read or the images I’ve seen. A visit to Auschwitz is a memorable, sobering experience, even for someone like me who has no personal connection to the camps, so I would have to agree with Bartoszewski when he says that ‘even after the people are gone, the stones will still cry out’.
So, assuming Auschwitz is to be saved, where should the money come from? Do the international community have a financial responsibility to ensure the site is preserved in the longer term? I would argue yes. Thanotourism will always be something of a grey area, and while the Polish tourist industry does undoubtably benefit from those travelling to visit Auschwitz, certainly it would be wrong to view the site as a tourist trap to profit from, a way of making money. There is a danger that this could happen if conservation funding is not forthcoming from outside Poland. But, for me at least, visiting Auschwitz did not have the same kind of ‘touristy feel’ as visiting the castle in Krakow, or the nearby salt mine in Wieliczka. It was an entirely different experience and one that I would hope is shared by most of the other visitors to the site each year.
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