'Preserve Auschwitz-Birkenau for future'

CEO Jacek Kastelaniec tells 'Post' 120 million euros needed so future generations can remember horrors of Holocaust.

Train to Auschwitz 390 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Train to Auschwitz 390
(photo credit: REUTERS)
KRAKOW – The Auschwitz-Birkenau foundation has raised close to 100 of the 120 million euros necessary for the preservation of the camp, the organization’s CEO Jacek Kastelaniec told The Jerusalem Post during an interview ahead of International Holocaust Day earlier this week.
“We have already raised 99m. euros and are very close to achieving our goal of raising 120m. euros for the preservation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. We have to maintain the camp so that future generations will learn of the horror that occurred there,” said Kastelaniec.
Heavy rains and floods in Poland in recent years have led to the severe deterioration of many of the barracks at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.
At the end of 2009, fearing the loss of these historic buildings, the management of the camp’s museum created a foundation to raise funds globally for the preservation of the camp. Kastelaniec, 30, the director-general of the foundation, consulted with experts on methods to preserve the concentration camp.
Tell us about the background to the decision to raise this amount for preservation?
“Three years ago, the new director of the Auschwitz museum, Piotr Cywinski, asked conservators what should be done in order to keep the place authentic for future generations. They told him that the deterioration of the buildings was accelerating and that we need to preserve building after building and start a long-term conservation process that may take up to 20 years.
“At the beginning of the decade, 30m. dollars were invested in renovation, but we found ourselves in the same situation again.
“We also faced pressure from Holocaust survivors who wanted to make sure that this place will remain forever. At the same time the number of the visitors started to increase, which proved to us that the importance of Auschwitz- Birkenau was growing constantly.”
A friend of Kastelaniec’s offered him the opportunity to establish an endowment fund and to ask those countries that recognize the significance of the camp to donate money for its preservation.
The Auschwitz-Birkenau foundation was created for one purpose only – to collect the 120m. euros needed to ensure that every year’s conservation costs will be met from interest earnings alone.
What exactly needs to be preserved in the camp?
“The greatest problem is Birkenau, which is located between two rivers. When there is abundant rainfall, the rivers overflow and the ground is flooded. This then freezes and thaws. This process has meant that the barracks are on the verge of collapse. Last June, we started renovation works that are intended to continue for 15 years. We are using new technology to protect the ruins of the gas chambers, crematoria and personal objects such as hair, shoes and suitcases. It is important to make it clear that we are not reconstructing anything, only maintaining its authenticity.
“Each year we will renovate three barracks, gas chambers and other structures currently in danger. Our experts have told us that Poland’s winter weather means that, once we finish the current refurbishment program in 15 years, we will have to start all over again.
This is why we will only use the interest earned on the sum of money we collect, so that in 15 years we will still have the 120m. euros capital.”
Which countries have you turned to with your request to donate for the preservation of Auschwitz, and what have the answers been?
“First, we turned to Germany. They agreed to give us just 1m. euros and promised to consider a larger donation in the future. Then Sweden, Norway and the Czech Republic also decided to join the project with symbolic sums ranging from 80,000 to 250,000 euros.
Then we started contacting Jewish organizations around the world – embassies, officials, media and more. As of now, 23 countries have contributed to the preservation of Auschwitz and we are still trying to convince more.”
How much money have you collected so far, and which countries have donated the largest amounts?
“First, it is important to note that we will receive the money in installments, so we do not have the full amount in our account right now. Participating countries have so far pledged 99m. euros. Out of this amount, Germany contributed 60m. euros, and the United States donated $15m., Poland 10m. euros, France and Austria 5m. euros each, the UK 2.5m. euros and Israel $1m.
Other countries have given more symbolic amounts.
Today, we have 30m. euros in our account and we are investing it in the preservation work.
This year we are due to receive another 20 to 23m. euros, and by the end of 2017 we should have everything that has been pledged to date.”
Did you have any surprising or unexpected donations?
"Yes. Countries such as New Zealand and Australia, which are far away and not really related to the Holocaust, contributed to the project. There was also a personal donation from one of Poland’s richest men, Leszek Czarnecki, who donated one hundred thousand dollars. Even Turkey contributed a symbolic amount of 50,000 euros. I think it was important for them to show that, despite political differences with Israel, they are willing to contribute to this important cause.”
Do you know if the situation at other camps in Poland and Europe is similar or better?
“The situation in Birkenau is unique because of its location between two rivers, but the need to preserve these places is universal. Some of the camps are under the protection of other countries, but the situation at Birkenau is more urgent than at other camps.”
In recent years there have been several incidents of theft from Auschwitz, the most infamous of which was the theft of the “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign. Have you considered investing some of the money in better security measures?
“After the theft of the sign, which was a big shock for everyone, new security measures were taken. You have to remember that this is a very big place, extending over 200 hectares, and it is difficult to fully monitor such an area.”
In order to raise the last 21m. euros still needed for the project, Kastelaniec is trying to convince several other countries that have so far failed to confirm their participation in the project, to donate money for the preservation of the camp.
Among them is Japan.