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Arizona Republic

Sunday, February 4, 2007

New 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 year.

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 deniers.

"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 gravity.

The Nazis themselves blew up the gas chambers and crematoria at the end of World War II as the Soviet army approached.

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 others.

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 burned.

For all that to crumble would deprive future generations of priceless historical evidence of Nazi atrocities, a further concern in light of Holocaust denial.

The site provides a clear picture of how the camp operated, while many other former Nazi death camps, including Treblinka and Belzec, were dismantled and are marked today only by monuments.

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 potential controversy.

Cywinski is calling for retainer walls to be built around gas chambers to prevent them from sinking farther.

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 Auschwitz administrators.

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.


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