Sixty-six years ago today, the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp was liberated. While it might have provided some catharsis to bulldoze the site, scholars and survivors alike are glad that it has been left mostly alone. Now called the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, it looks much as it did during the war years, where more than one million Jews were cycled through and murdered.
On this anniversary, World Holocaust Remembrance Day, the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation is kicking off “Intervene Now!,” a campaign to unite the world in protecting and preserving Auschwitz to honor the memory of those who died there. As long as it stands, no Holocaust denier can convincingly claim it didn’t exist. As long as it stands, the world will remember where the limits of hatred will take us and, hopefully, take measures to prevent future atrocities.
To saefguard the site, which is in Poland, the foundation is hoping to raise money and awareness. Already, thousands of artifacts are deteriorating. “Intervene Now!” aims to save the barracks, the barbed wire, what is left of the gas chambers, 6,000 works of art created by captives and more.
“Auschwitz became the worldwide symbol [of the Holocaust],” says Jacek Kastelaniec, the Director General of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation. The remains of the camp, which is “more memorial than museum,” Kastelaniec says, “show the complexity of history of Nazis during the Second World War.”
Auschwitz faces the risk of deteriorating just as interest skyrockets. Ten years ago, about 400,000 people, mostly from Poland, the US and Israel, visited the site. Last year, a record 1.4 million people came from around the world.
To the delight of officials, most of them were young people and students. Kastelaniec explained that he often sees groups of young people as they begin their tours. Sometimes they’re making jokes. “But after three hours of visiting, many of them are very, very reflective,” he says. “It’s a very strong experience.”
As the numbers of Auschwitz survivors dwindle, there’s more need than ever to preserve the space that haunted them. “This generation is passing away,” Kastelaniec says. “How to deal with this reality? How to explain to the future generations without the witnesses?”
Noah Flug is one such witness. Now 86, he was in the concentration camp at the age of 19. From his home in Israel, he told Tonic proudly, “I was a prisoner in Auschwitz and I am now president of the International Auschwitz Committee.”
After spending months in Auschwitz-Birkenau, Flug was sent to help build bunkers for Hitler and other German leaders.
He strongly supports the preservation efforts, painful as they are.
“It is very important,” he says, “because people who have been in Auschwitz are today old and in some years nobody shall be that can say, I have been in Auschwitz.
It is the most authentic place where the Germans murdered more than a million people. It is very important to preserve what exists in Auschwitz: the barracks, the houses, the sauna. For us as survivors it is very important the existence of such an authentic place.”
The “Intervene Now!” Facebook page asks supporters to take a pledge about “what happened, what happens and what could happen again” before sharing art and literature created by Auschwitz victims and survivors.
With awareness, officials hope, comes donations. The Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation is working to establish a perpetual fund with which to care for the site.
Barracks and guard towers need reinforcing, and drawings and wall paintings need preserving. Besides the hundreds of buildings and ruins, Kastelaniec explained, there are hundreds of thousands of items such as shoes and suitcases that also show the human toll of the Nazi atrocity at Auschwitz-Birkenau. “This is the best preserved place of all the extermination camps. The challenge is to keep it like it is right now.”