Polish effort to preserve Auschwitz coming to fruition

Whereas up to 10 years ago, the average number of visitors per year was 500,000, it is now around 1.4 million.

Auschwitz-Birkenau 311 (photo credit: Reuters)
Auschwitz-Birkenau 311
(photo credit: Reuters)
As the Holocaust generation gradually fades away, survivors of the camps, particularly of Auschwitz, are concerned about keeping the memory of the Shoah alive.
Many of the camps no longer exist; they have been destroyed and in their stead stand shopping malls, office blocks, residential complexes and service stations, with nothing to remind future generations of the atrocities that took place on the sites.
But the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp, one of the most horrendous and thus important in terms of testimony, remains. There have been attempts to tear it down, but these have so far been resisted.
Former Polish foreign affairs minister Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, a prisoner of Auschwitz whose number was 4427 and who has been recognized by Yad Vashem as one of the Righteous among the Nations, is among those concerned that the suffering and deaths of hundreds of thousands of Jews, Poles, Gypsies, political prisoners and the mentally and physically challenged from all over Europe will be forgotten if Auschwitz is destroyed.
To ensure its preservation, he founded the Auschwitz- Birkenau Foundation in 2009.
Until recently, the whole burden of financing the preservation of Auschwitz- Birkenau as a memorial site has fallen on the Polish government.
Following Bartoszewski’s initiative, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk appealed to leaders of 17 countries to join Poland in creating a 120 million- euro endowment fund, which will yield an approximate interest of 5m. euros per year that can be used to pay for conservation.
This will be the first huge conservation program in 20 years, said Jacek Kastelaniec, the foundation’s directorgeneral, who is currently in Israel with Anna Miszewska, the foundation’s head of international relations.
Miszewska is the daughter of Polish Ambassador to Israel Agnieszka Magdziak- Miszewska, who is a member of the foundation’s council.
While the family has no direct personal contact with the Holocaust, the ambassador, as a former Polish consul- general in New York and in her present capacity in Israel, has had considerable contact with Holocaust survivors.
Kastelaniec has a Holocaust connection on both sides of his family. Relatives on his Jewish father’s side were deported from Belgium to camps in Poland, and on his non-Jewish mother’s side, his great-grandfather was recognized as Righteous among the Nations and has a tree planted in his memory at Yad Vashem for having rescued Hungarian Jews.
Though Kastelaniec could not say whether it was his roots that prompted him to become involved with the project, both he and Miszewska believe the project is of universal interest.
While the generation of the Holocaust may be dying out, he noted Thursday, interest in Auschwitz is growing.
Whereas up to 10 years ago, the average number of visitors per year was 500,000, it is now around 1.4 million.
Asians are now visiting in large numbers; last year there were 47,000 visitors from South Korea.
“Auschwitz is becoming more and more important, because it’s so symbolic,” he said, adding that many people visit the camp after having been to a Holocaust museum, because the museums awaken a desire to know more.
“In Auschwitz, you can still see all the mechanisms, which you can’t see in a museum,” he pointed out.
Unlike in museums, where guided tours are available in perhaps half a dozen languages, in Auschwitz, tours in 18 languages are given by 220 guides.
More than half of the endowment fund has already been pledged, and 16m.
euros are in hand to enable conservation work to begin next year. Germany has pledged 60m. euros, with 30m. euros coming from the Federal Republic and the remainder from the German states. Poland is contributing 10m. euros, the US $15m., Austria 6m. euros, the United Kingdom £2.1m. and Israel $1m. Turkey has also committed to the project.
Kastelaniec is hoping that the rest will be donated not only by the governments of other countries, but also by individuals and institutions.
One individual to whom the foundation is greatly indebted is World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder. In 2002, he financed a conservation laboratory at Auschwitz, which Kastelaniec enthused was the most modern in Europe, if not in the world.
“Thanks to him, we have an excellent team of professional conservationists,” he said.
He and Miszewska both expressed the hope that Lauder would come to Poland in 2012 to participate in the start of the new conservation project.