Warsaw – International interest in the most prominent symbol of the Nazi death machine, the Auschwitz concentration camp, remains high, with a record number of visitors in 2009, officials said Sunday. The erstwhile Auschwitz-Birkenau complex drew 1.3 million visitors last year, a record for the 62-year history of the memorial, the facility’s press office reported.

Well more than half the visitors – 821,000 – were young people, a matter of satisfaction since they are the world’s future, said museum director Piotr M A Cywinski.

“Without a deepened knowledge about Auschwitz, Europe of today cannot be understood,” the historian said.

Among the visitors were 58,000 Germans – for fifth place among the nationalities visiting the site, after Poland, Britain, Italy and Israel.

In addition, there was a steadily rising number of visitors from Asia, in particular South Korea, the memorial office said.

The memorial site was again in the international headlines in December when thieves stole the infamous wrought-iron “Arbeit macht Frei” (work makes free) sign above the entrance gate.

Five suspects were later arrested and the damaged sign was recovered in a forest.

In the industrial-scale mass annihilation carried out at the Auschwitz and nearby Birkenau camps, some 1.1 million people, chiefly European Jews, were sent to their deaths between 1940 and 1945.