Sunday, February 20, 2011

A Popular Eastern European Tourist Site is in Trouble, and With It, Our Ability To Preserve History

When people travel for vacation, they usually bring home with them one or two memories that stick in their brain and are resurrected every time they recall the trip. Maybe it’s a sunrise or sunset, a particular meal they ate, a special place they visited, a conversation they had with a local.

In September, 2008 my husband and I spent a week in Poland. This eastern European country is the home of his ancestors and he was determined to see it. We spent a few days in the capital, Warsaw, then took a train south to Krakow, where we spend a couple more days. It was during a day trip from Krakow that I forged a memory that won’t soon go away—the type of memory I mentioned earlier that you bring home with you and sticks in your brain forever.

For me, that memory was of the death camp. 

The inside entrance of the Birkenau death camp, where prisoners were transported in cattle cars

Mostly, I remember my discomfort: the rain as it pelted my face, the wind as it pushed me around like a rag doll, the shuttle bus ride that left my heart pounding because of the uncertainty of what I would feel at this godforsaken place.

Once I got there, it was a whole different level of discomfort: a sickness in my stomach as I learned about the deplorable conditions the prisoners lived in. The anger that arose when I walked through the gas chambers and crematoria.  A tug at my heart upon realizing that many victims watched their loved ones die from disease and starvation.

Communal bathroom at the Birkenau death camp, where prisoners were sometimes only allowed two five-minute breaks daily

Auschwitz -- The chimney gives this building away as a crematorium

For 66 years, the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in southern Poland has stood as a silent testament to the atrocities committed by Nazi Germany during WWII. Nearly 1.1 million people—mostly Jews, but also Poles and other eastern Europeans, gypsies and political prisoners—were murdered here. They were worked, starved, gassed and shot to death.

And right now, Poland is struggling to keep this historic place from crumbling into ruins.

The two camps—Auschwitz the concentration camp and Birkenau the death camp—are falling victim to age, mother nature and mass tourism, and an estimated $165 million is needed to repair them.

Mostly, it is buildings that need saving. A massive effort is being made to restore 45 brick barracks, which each housed hundreds of freezing, starving victims. The barracks’ floors are buckling, walls are cracked, and roofs are caving in. If not cared for now, it is estimated that in as little as ten years, the barracks will be ruins. 

But it’s not just buildings that are falling apart. There’s a campaign afoot to save personal effects of the victims—toothbrushes, shoes, even human hair. A state of the art machine is being used to scan and preserve a trove of SS papers, and the notorious “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign that spans the entrance gate at Auschwitz is having its picture taken for preservation purposes.

The overall goal is to preserve the two camps for future generations of tourists, but also to protect the authenticity of the place. That means restoring it to how it looked at war’s end. So far, nearly two-thirds of the money that’s needed has been raised. The director of the site is now seeking private donations to reach their target.

Some of the barracks that 'housed' victims at Birkenau

A view of the landscape of Birkenau

Auschwitz-Birkenau is one of the only concentration camps still standing. It deserves to be protected. No, wait. It’s absolutely essential that Auschwitz-Birkenau be restored. Because there are only a few sites left in the world like this, places that force us to face the horrible barbarity that people can—and still do--inflict on their fellow humans. Auschwitz-Birkenau. Hiroshima. The Killing Fields. The World Trade Towers. We need to take a hard look at these places, visit them, donate our time and money to their preservation—and then fight like hell to make sure that the kind of violence and slaughter that happened on a mass scale at these places doesn’t ever happen again.

But preserving them is hard. There's always the pressure to knock down and bulldoze and pave over to make way for the new and the modern. Or the funds just aren't there. Or there's lack of interest in saving them.

I get this question sometimes: Why on earth did you want to see such a gruesome place while on vacation? My answer is always the same: Because it’s a part of our world history that needs to be seen in order to understand the horror that a generation of people went through, and because I’ve never shied away from challenging myself physically and emotionally if it meant a great reward was waiting for me. Yes, visiting Auschwitz was definitely difficult. But the experience opened my eyes, changed my world view, made me appreciate the freedoms I have as an American.

Can there be a better reward?


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  2. it is predictable that in as little as ten years, the barracks will be ruins,