Auschwitz panel debates modernizing site

The Auschwitz complex houses "the oldest exhibition about the Shoah in the world... "We really must change."

The International Auschwitz Council began debating on Tuesday whether to modernize a 51-year-old exhibition at the former German death camp - a proposal opposed by some Holocaust survivors who fear changes will destroy the authenticity of the site. The council - an advisory committee that includes Holocaust survivors, scholars and religious leaders - is considering a proposal by the new director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum to renovate an aging exhibition that dates back to the early years of Communist rule in Poland. The director, Piotr Cywinski, argues that the exhibition - housed in austere barracks at the sprawling complex - is oldfashioned compared to museums like Yad Vashem and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. The Auschwitz complex houses "the oldest exhibition about the Shoah in the world," Cywinski said at a daylong council meeting in Warsaw. "We really must change." The proposal has drawn criticism from Holocaust survivors in Israel who fear modernization could make the camp seem more like a museum and damage the somberness of the site where nearly 1.5 million people, most of them Jews, were slaughtered by the Nazis. Cywinski says there is no need for such concern, insisting that the site will be preserved as it is. No changes, he said, will be made to the remaining crematoria, barracks and watchtowers. He pledged to keep the exhibits of hair, glasses and other personal belongings that were stripped from victims. Possible changes under discussion include building an educational center and introducing audioguide tours - though Cywinski promised the place would not become "technological or multimedia." "Preserving the authenticity of this place is the most important thing," he said. "In this place, near the human ashes of the victims, we don't need artificial methods." He stressed that the debate was only starting now, and that much more discussion was needed before deciding on specific changes. Several Nazi camp sites, including Bergen-Belsen, have received makeovers in the past, which experts say is part of a trend to make them more attractive for tourists. One council member, Rabbi Andrew Baker, said the concern of some survivors was based on a misunderstanding that the museum directors plan to "beautify" the camp. He said a massive increase in the number of visitors to the site over the years has led to wear and tear on buildings built by the Nazis as temporary structures, and that more facilities are needed to handle the crowds - issues that would be addressed by the planned renovations.