Ruth Ellen Gruber – JTA October 12, 2011
Auschwitz, the most notorious camp in the Nazi killing machine, may soon claim success in its campaign to preserve the legacy of the Holocaust.
The foundation supporting the site in southern Poland has attracted tens of millions of dollars from donor countries, and the camp’s barracks and other buildings seem set to be preserved for decades to come. The museum memorial at the former Nazi death camp attracts more than 1 million visitors per year.
Some fear, however, that the concentration of resources and attention on Auschwitz could overshadow other preservation efforts and threaten the integrity or even the existence of the memorials and museums at lesser-known camps and Holocaust sites in Poland.
“Because Auschwitz is treated as the symbol of the Holocaust and the whole world is supporting only this museum, everybody in Poland, including the government, seems to think that this is enough,” said historian Robert Kuwalek, a curator at the state-run Museum at Majdanek, the Nazi concentration camp and killing center near Lublin in eastern Poland. “The problem is deeper because it is the lack of basic knowledge that the Holocaust happened in forgotten sites like Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, Majdanek and Chelmno.”
Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka were the three killing centers of the so-called Operation Reinhard plan to murder 2 million Polish Jews in 1942 and 1943. During that operation, Kuwalek said, “more people were killed in a shorter time than in Auschwitz-Birkenau during the whole period that that camp functioned.”
Despite their importance in the history of the Holocaust, these and other sites – such as the forced labor camps at Stuffhof and Gross-Rosen – are overlooked by the vast majority of visitors who want to learn about the Holocaust or pay homage to its victims firsthand. All are marked by memorials or even museums. But some are located in remote parts of the country, and most are in serious need of upkeep and preservation.
The museum at Sobibor, for example – the site of John Demjanjuk’s crimes – was forced to close in June when funding from local authorities ran out. An estimated 167,000 to 250,000 people, mostly Jews, were murdered at Sobibor, which is located in a remote part of eastern Poland. In May, a German court convicted Demjanjuk, now 91, of complicity in the murder of 28,000 Jews there.
“We simply realized that we could not afford to pay our bills this year, maintenance costs included,” Marek Bem, a Sobibor museum spokesman, told the Krakow Post. “Without a stable budget we can’t make any plans for the future.”
The museum reopened July 1 after the Polish Culture Ministry announced that it would be reorganized as a state-run institution funded by the ministry.
“Auschwitz is the great exception to the rule,” said Rabbi Andrew Baker, the director of international Jewish affairs for the American Jewish Committee. Baker was the point man for the AJC in its cooperation with the Polish government to build a large and impressive monument and museum at Belzec, where 500,000 Jews were killed. The center opened in 2004.
“With all the focus on Auschwitz, there’s a kind of irony,” he added. “It is coming that Auschwitz is becoming a universal symbol. It is raising money from scores of countries. When the survivors pass on, one question will be how to retain the identity of Auschwitz as a place where Jews were killed. It can become a universal place of lessons about genocide.”
The Auschwitz Foundation was set up in 2009 with the goal of raising $163 million and thus guaranteeing an annual interest income of about $6 million for the much-needed conservation of barracks, the ruins of gas chambers, and other artifacts and material.
To date, nearly 20 countries have announced support for the effort, bringing the total pledges to more than $122 million. Germany alone pledged about $82 million. Israel was the latest country to pledge funds, with a $1 million contribution pledged to the foundation a few days before Rosh Hashanah.
In a statement quoted by the Auschwitz museum website, Yad Vashem director Avner Shalev explained why the investment was seen as so important.
“The site of Auschwitz-Birkenau, where over 1 million Jews were murdered during the Shoah, has become a key symbol of the Holocaust and of absolute evil,” he said. “It is therefore a moral imperative to preserve the site’s authenticity and legacy, and it is meaningful that Israel is participating in meeting that imperative.”
The success to date of the Auschwitz fundraising campaign has been greeted with a cautious sigh of relief by scholars and preservationists who for years had raised the alarm about the threats to the site.
“It seems that the future of Auschwitz with regard to preservation is mostly secured,” said Tomasz Kunciewicz, director of the Auschwitz Jewish Center, an educational institution in the town of Oswiecim, where Auschwitz is located. “Several governments have already made significant contributions, and others are expected to follow suit.
“However, regarding the more ‘forgotten’ death camps, such as Sobibor, the situation seems to be acute and there should be similar international efforts made regarding fundraising as in the case of Auschwitz.”
In contrast to the 1.3 million visitors to Auschwitz last year, only about 30,000 go annually to Belzec, in southeastern Poland, and 20,000 visit Sobibor. Even Majdanek, which has a large museum and many more original buildings and other infrastructure than Auschwitz, attracts only about 100,000 annual visitors. The Majdanek museum is still coming to grips with a 2010 fire that destroyed one of the original barracks, where some of its key collections were stored.
“Everybody talks about the problems at Auschwitz,” Kuwalek said. “Nobody pays attention to the other places. I’m really afraid that they were forgotten and will be forgotten.”
Determining how to deal with these sites, he added, “will be a discussion that is more and more important. There is a recognition that something has to be done, but no one knows how and what.”