Category Archive: POLAND

Poles drive message on German death camp culpability

Billboard featuring Auschwitz merged with Hitler hair and mustache taken on road trip across Europe

Aushwitz-copy-e1459578104555A Polish non-government organization has launched an eye-catching campaign aimed at dispelling the common assumption that Nazi-era death camps in Poland were run by Poles.

The use by foreign media of the phrase “Polish concentration camps” has became particularly galling to Polish citizens and the country’s government.

In effort to stamp out the association, the Town and Country Tradition Foundation has mobilized a rolling billboard depicting the Auschwitz death camp merged with Hitler’s signature haircut and mustache together with the slogan, in English, saying “Death Camps Were Nazi German,” Radio Poland reported Thursday.

“The idea of our campaign is simple. We demand the historical truth, we oppose the use of the term ‘Polish concentration camps,’ which is commonly used by Western media,” said Dawid Hallmann of TCTF.

The billboard is to be driven through Germany and Belgium before making its way on to Britain.

Poland was attacked and occupied by Nazi Germany in World War II, losing six million of its citizens, including three million Jews in the Holocaust.

Polish officials routinely request corrections when global media or politicians describe as “Polish” former death camps like Auschwitz set up by Nazi Germany in occupied Poland.

Even if used as a geographical indicator, Warsaw says the term can give the impression that Poland bore responsibility for the Holocaust, whereas it was one of the greatest victims of the slaughter.

Last month Poland published the first online database with the names and other personal details of nearly 10,000 staff who ran the Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi German death camp.

The database, which the IPN says contains 9,686 names, “is just the beginning of a wide-ranging project” that will cover the staff of other death and concentration camps that Nazi Germany set up in occupied Poland, Institute of National Remembrance chairman (IPN) Jaroslaw Szarek told reporters in Krakow at the time.

In August 2016 Poland’s rightwing government said it would seek fines or jail terms of up to three years against anyone who refers to Nazi German death camps as Polish.

Under the new initiative, a “public attribution to Poland, in violation of the facts, of bearing joint responsibility” for Nazi Germany’s crimes could result in jail time, as well as fines.

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Elderly survivors return to Auschwitz, 72 years after liberation

German FM says death camp’s name stands for entire Nazi ‘murder machinery’ that remains part of his country’s history

Poland-Auschwitz-Anni_HoroWARSAW, Poland (AP) — Dozens of Auschwitz survivors placed wreaths and flowers Friday at the infamous execution wall of the former German death camp, paying homage to the victims of Adolf Hitler’s regime exactly 72 years after the camp’s liberation.

Jan. 27, the anniversary of the day that the Soviet army liberated the camp in German-occupied Poland in 1945, is recognized as International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and commemorative events were also being held across Europe and Israel.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said the term “Auschwitz” stands for all the death camps and the entire Nazi “persecution and murder machinery” that remained part of Germany’s history.

He said that while Germany cannot change or undo what happened, the country has a continued obligation to commemorate the genocide, honor the memory of the victims and take responsibility for the crimes.

Noting the political instability in the world today, Steinmeier, said that “history should be a lesson, warning and incentive all at the same time. There can and should be no end to remembrance,” he said.

Steinmeier’s statement came hours before he was due to hand over the post of foreign minister to the current economy minister, Sigmar Gabriel.

Elderly survivors at Auschwitz, which today is a memorial site and museum, paid homage to those killed by wearing striped scarves reminiscent of the garb prisoners once wore there.

They walked slowly beneath the notorious gate with the words “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work Will Set You Free) and made their way as a group to the execution wall, where they lit candles and prayed.

Janina Malec, a Polish survivor whose parents were killed at the execution wall, told the PAP news agency that “as long as I live I will come here,” describing her yearly visit as a “pilgrimage.”

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Nazi death camp heroine known as the ‘mother of Belsen’ gave orphans hope after her own family were murdered

After her own relatives died in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, Hadassah Bimko could have easily given up hope, yet she found the strength to love and care again

PROD-Hadassah-Bimko-Captain-Winterbottom-and-Dr-Ruth-GutmanShe had been a daughter, a wife and an adoring mum – but by the time Hadassah Bimko arrived at the death camp of Bergen Belsen, every one of those roles had been ripped away.

The 33-year-old lost her parents, husband and five-year-old son, Benjamin, in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Most people would have lost all hope too.

But Hadassah clung on to the love she could no longer give her own son and decided to become a mother again – to all the children who had lost their parents.

She risked her life to create a children’s home for Belsen’s orphans. One of them was the then 14-year-old Mala Tribich and speaking ahead of Holocaust Memorial Day today, she says Hadassah saved her.

“She was the mother of Belsen,” says Mala. “But I never knew she lost a child of her own. I owe my life to her, we’d not have survived without her care. Me and my cousin Ann, who was seven, arrived at Belsen alone. We had lost our parents and I had been caring for Ann for two years.

“I knew at Belsen there was no way we would survive, then I heard about this lady.

“It was terribly overcrowded but I remember her saying, ‘I am sure we can manage these two little Jewish girls’.”

Hadassah passed away in 1997 but with tears in her eyes Mala, now 85, is telling her story as she meets Menachem Rosensaft – a man she views as a brother in many ways, because he is Hadassah’s son.

Although she was grieving for the child she had lost, she found the strength to love again in Belsen. In the Displaced Persons Camp created after its liberation by the British Army, she met Josef Rosensaft, a survivor who had lost his wife.

They married and she had Menachem in the camp, where she kept on working, in 1948. “For my parents, me being born was a new beginning,” he says, sitting close to Mala. “It was a spark of life.”

Reaching out to her, he adds: “Meeting Mala means so much. These children my mother helped are my brothers and sisters. She never spoke very much of that time.

“But I’m certain, because she’d been unable to protect her own child, she felt the needed to do that for others and always considered them as her own children.”

Hadassah, also known as Ada, and her family were from Sosnowiec, Poland, where she was a dentist. The Nazis deported them to Auschwitz-Birkenau in August 1943.

Menachem says: “Upon her arrival, she was separated from her parents, her husband and her son, who were all sent directly into one of the gas chambers.”

Hadassah spoke of that terrible final moment with her son in her memoirs – Yesterday, My Story. She wrote: “One SS man started the selection. With a movement of his finger, he was sending some to the right and some to the left. Our son went with his father. He asked, ‘Mummy, are we going to live or die?’. I didn’t answer.”

Menachem recalls his mother’s devastation, saying: “As the Germans intended, she felt disoriented, humiliated and deprived of her sense of self.”

She could have given up then – but she was given a purpose. Due to her medical training the notorious Josef Mengele, Birkenau’s chief medical officer, chose her to work as a doctor. The camp’s infirmary simply patched up weak and injured inmates for more labour. But Hadassah used the opportunity for good.

“She would camouflage inmates’ wounds and send them out when she knew gas chamber selections were expected, so they’d avoid them,” says Menachem.

In November 1944, Mengele sent Hadassah to work at Belsen. There, she found the Nazis cared much less – but she realised she could use the desperate conditions to her advantage.

“In December, she and some other women found 49 Dutch children outside their barracks,” Menachem explains. “The parents had been taken away. So she took them in. One SS doctor said, ‘What is this?’ but my mum said, ‘We are taking care of them’. He just walked away.

“By February, they had 150 – and 149 survived until the liberation. This children’s house became a project.”

Among the children were Mala and her young cousin, Ann Helfgott. Mala and her family, who were Jews from Piotrkow Trybunalski, Poland, had been herded into a Nazi ghetto.

Her mother and sister were murdered in an SS round-up while her father was at work. Mala survived because her mother pleaded with the guard that she was ill. But her reprieve did not last long.

The guards returned and rounded up Mala, her father and brother, and Ann. They were deported to a labour camp and then to Ravensbruck concentration camp.

She never saw her father again – he was shot on a death march. Thankfully, her brother survived but she did not find out until after the war. For now, the young, scared girls were alone.

When they were sent to Bergen-Belsen in February 1945, they were close to death. On hearing of “Dr Bimko’s” children’s home, Mala took Ann there in desperation.

“At 14, I knew I was probably too old,” she admits. “The barracks were overcrowded but she made it happen. I’ll never forget her. She gave us a feeling of security, as much as you could have in that place.”

When the British liberated the camp, Hadassah stayed on and testified in the first Nazi war crimes trial. Mala married and had two children, settling in Sweden then the UK. Ann emigrated to Australia.

Hadassah and her new family eventually moved to New York, where she rarely spoke of those times or the family she had lost.

But Menachem says she did talk about her “other children” in Belsen. “She spoke about singing to them and getting food and medicine for them,” he recalls.

In 1981, at a Holocaust memorial, Mala was finally able to see her again briefly. But she says only now, through Menachem, can she express the real weight of her thanks.

After all, they share an unbreakable bond. “Because in that camp she was my mother, too,” she smiles.

For more information about the Holocaust Educational Trust visit www.het.org.uk

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Anti-Semitism seen on the rise in Poland

University of Warsaw researchers discover sharp spike in negative attitudes, acceptance of hate speech toward Jews

Poland-Anti-Semitism_Horo-e1372833437144WARSAW — Poland has seen a rise in anti-Semitism over the last two years, partly fueled by Europe’s migrant crisis, according to a study released on Tuesday.

The University of Warsaw’s Center for Research on Prejudice found acceptance for anti-Semitic hate speech — especially among young Poles on the internet — rose from 2014 to 2016 compared to previous years.

Their study was based on a sample of 1,000 adults and 700 youths. The number of surveyed Poles who declared positive attitudes towards Jews dropped from 28 percent in 2015 to 23% in 2016.

Researchers attribute the increase to a spike in Islamophobia and anti-migrant sentiment triggered by Europe’s worst migrant crisis since World War II. Many of the migrants were from conflict-ridden countries like Syria and Libya.

Politicians in eastern EU states, notably Poland’s populist leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski, were quick to raise the specter of Islamic State militants carrying out terror attacks once inside the bloc.

Very few refugees or migrants arrived in Poland after Kaczynski’s governing Law and Justice (PiS) party refused them entry.

Yet, the Warsaw University researchers concluded that “fear of Muslims that arose between 2014 and 2016 has increased negative feelings towards Jews among people regardless of their age or political affiliation.”

The study found that 37% of those surveyed voiced negative attitudes towards Jews in 2016 compared to 32% the previous year.

Fifty-six percent said they would not accept a Jewish person in their family, an increase of nearly 10 points compared to 2014.

Nearly a third (32%) said they did not want Jewish neighbors, compared to 27% in 2014.

The Jewish community in Poland, with a population of 38 million, has fewer than 10,000 people.

Prior to the Holocaust, it boasted 3.3 million members, or around 10% of the Polish population. Up to 300,000 Polish Jews survived the war, but most then fled the country, many to Israel.

Around 11% of adults and 24% of younger Poles admitted to making occasional anti-Semitic remarks.

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How Auschwitz Can Be Both a Memorial and a Center for Education

20-1485285708How should we define the authentic remains of the German Nazi concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz-Birkenau, which today are protected and preserved by the Auschwitz Memorial?

Should we define it as:

  • 150 buildings, about 300 ruins, including those of five gas chambers and four crematoria in Birkenau that are especially important to the history of the camp.
  • Over 13 kilometres of fences, and more than three thousand concrete fence posts.
  • About 110,000 shoes and 3,800 suitcases of victims, 2,100 of which bear the names of their owners.
  • About 39,000 negatives of registration photographs of prisoners, 48 volumes with about 70,000 of their death certificates, 248 volumes of Zentralbauleitung documents, and 13,000 letters and cards mailed from the camp by prisoners.

This is just the beginning of the list which summarizes the extent and the challenge of our Museum.

There is also another priceless part of our authentic collection: the archives, with over 30,000 pages of testimonies of survivors and eyewitnesses as well as over 45,000 pages of their memoirs. These are individual stories of people who survived, stories which can help us today to comprehend the existing architecture of the former camp through personal experiences, emotions and dilemmas.

I agree with the words of Menachem Rosensaft quoted by Tom Tillett that “as much as any other event, if not more so, the Holocaust requires the chronicler to be scrupulously accurate.” Yet Tillet is not accurate in saying that “the large building where most prisoners first entered Auschwitz I and went through processing is lost due to its contemporary usage,” since, in fact, this building was never actually completed during the war.

Historical Decisions

This year the Auschwitz Memorial will be 70 years old. It was created thanks to the efforts of survivors in July 1947 and in many ways, the way we operate today is based on their decisions. One such decision was to organize and house exhibitions, archives, collections and the whole management of the institution of memory in the much better constructed buildings of Auschwitz I, and to leave Birkenau in as authentic a condition as possible.

Another key decision made by survivors was to create replicas of a few structures in Auschwitz I that Germans had destroyed: They reconstructed the execution wall and one of the gallows, and used original parts to reconstruct two crematoria ovens inside the building that had housed both the original crematorium and the original gas chamber. They wanted to allow people to enter the only standing building of a former gas chamber, as all the other gas chambers and crematories in Birkenau were ruins, and those ruins were kept as such.

Almost all visitors see both parts of the Memorial. They see exhibitions and learn many historical facts about the creation and functioning of the Auschwitz complex — including Birkenau. After this educational introduction, they have the unique opportunity to better understand what they learned by looking at the remains of Birkenau itself.

We are aware that the main exhibition was created by survivors in 1955. This is why one of the most important current projects of the Memorial is creating a new exhibition, which will not only tell the story of extermination and concentration camps from the perspective of victims but will also show the world of perpetrators and the place of Auschwitz among Nazi German state institutions. The three parts of the new exhibition should be open in 2021, 2023 and 2025, respectively.

Current Challenges

We also are aware that the Memorial’s infrastructure, which was originally set up decades ago to serve up to 500,000 people annually, is not equipped for the volume of visitors we receive today (in 2016, for instance, we received over two million visitors.) We understand that people who visit and spend long hours at the Memorial need some basic accommodations, such as a bookstore, restrooms, and even a small vending area. This is why we have already started the project of creating a completely new visitors center — importantly, outside the core historical area.

We are aware that tourists visit the Memorial, but from our perspective the Auschwitz Memorial is not a tourist attraction. First and foremost, it is a place where we commemorate the fate and life stories of the 1.3 million people deported there: 1.1 million Jews, 150,000 Poles, 23,000 Sinti and Roma, 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war, and others. The visitors are told at the beginning of every guided tour that they are about to enter a cemetery-like site, and they should behave appropriately. Most people respect that.

The Memorial is also an important center of preservation. Our modern laboratories and conservation experts fight against time to save every single authentic remaining object— a toothbrush, a house key, a fragment of eyeglasses, a family photograph, an SS document, or the ruins of a gas chamber or a wooden barracks for prisoners (Tillett is again mistaken about the wooden barracks in Birkenau — they were not rebuilt, they are original.)

It’s also important to note that no other former German Nazi concentration camp or extermination center sites in Europe is in such authentic condition today, nor have any been so successfully preserved. The management at the Memorial can be so effective in our preservation efforts because of international consensus granted to us by the International Auschwitz Council, a consultative-advisory organ of the Polish Prime Minister’s office dedicated to preserving, maintaining and developing the site of Auschwitz and other Memorials located in today’s Poland. Its members include world-renowned authorities on the history of concentration camps and the Holocaust.

Education

The Auschwitz Memorial is also a place of education, with learning activities developed at the International Center for Education about Auschwitz and the Holocaust, which was created in 2005. Last year, we finally secured funding that will allow us to create a modern headquarters for the center, with lecture rooms and all necessary infrastructure to conduct more extensive education programs for people from around the world.

362 days a year, our 286 educators explain the difficult and sensitive history of Auschwitz and its victims in 17 languages. They help visitors coming from all around the world to understand this complicated topic using all the authentic objects and locations at hand. They walk through the historical sites, they use exhibitions, and, as a result, they keep the authentic stories of survivors alive by telling them to people.

Many visitors come to the Memorial prepared. Teachers and educational leaders understand the role of bringing their students to the historic site not only as a lesson of history but also one of civic education — as Auschwitz has been and will continue be a warning to humanity. But we also truly believe that many people who begin their visit as tourists later became messengers of remembrance, and that this happens thanks to experiencing the authenticity of the site as guided by educators. Visiting the former camp itself is a valuable personal experience which can teach and change people. The fact that visitors might initially attend the site as tourists does not change that.

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Can Auschwitz Be a Graveyard and a Tourist Destination?

krematorium-1-has-been-rebuilt-1484847651Menachem Rosensaft once wrote that “as much as any other event, if not more so, the Holocaust requires the chronicler to be scrupulously accurate.” He further notes that “the greater the popularity of this subject, the greater the need for vigilance regarding the treatment it is accorded.” As we approach International Holocaust Remembrance Day, we need to be vigilant.

Since my most recent visit to Auschwitz, in 2015, I have been particularly concerned that while its museum often uses the term “authentic experience,” visitors are exposed to a variety of nonauthentic experiences. To provide just a few examples, the infamous “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign at the main gate is a reproduction; the Auschwitz I footprint actually extended into the current main parking lot and beyond; the gas chamber/crematorium (Krema I) usually shown at the end of the tour is a reproduction, and in Auschwitz II–Birkenau, the line of barracks (Section BIIA) upon entering to your right have been entirely rebuilt. To be fair, the guides will acknowledge this if asked, but the pressure of mass tourism means that they are rarely asked.

I have the utmost respect for the staff at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum. They have an extraordinarily difficult job where literally every decision or official comment can quickly become controversial, yet they accept the challenge with grace, commitment and passion. The staff must navigate Polish politics, a huge increase in visitors severely straining the infrastructure and financial issues, and they must reconcile various stake-holder groups, each of whom have legitimate, though often conflicting, agendas.

But these convenient educational props can undermine their central aim if Holocaust deniers can accurately point to inconsistencies. And while the unprecedented growth in visitors to Auschwitz is in many ways a welcome development, that very surge is hastening the day when the museum’s senior staff, as well as foundation and council members, must decide if Auschwitz is simply an attraction to be checked off a tourist’s list or a sacred site as the location of the largest graveyard in the world created by the greatest crime in human history.

In his book “Dark Tourism and Crime,” Derek Dalton describes his fascination in Auschwitz from his teenage years, and the “lure” he felt to it. I am not Jewish, and have no family connections to the Shoah, but since I read a book on the prisoner uprising at Treblinka when I was 13, I’ve felt that same “lure.” My passionate interest in the Holocaust — and, in particular, Auschwitz — has led me to visit the camps on a number of occasions and study the history with more than touristic interest.

Auschwitz has come to represent the Holocaust for countless people like me worldwide, and that places a singular burden, responsibility and moral obligation on the museum. The victims and survivors unconditionally deserve historical accuracy in documenting the crimes, proper contextualization, absolute authenticity, respectful memorialization and the most up-to-date interpretations. But despite its best efforts, the museum is not succeeding in providing all this.

Historical accuracy is at times compromised by how various items are shown. The disturbing and powerful exhibition in Block Four with the hair of about 90,000 victims shown behind a long glass wall — along with similar displays of luggage and artificial limbs — do not make clear that the hair, limbs, and luggage were taken not there but at Birkenau. Also, the Gypsy-Roma experience predominantly unfolded in Birkenau Section BII, yet the excellent exhibit telling their story is in Auschwitz I. The critical historic importance of the large building where most prisoners first entered Auschwitz I and went through processing is lost due to its contemporary usage as a security checkpoint, bookstore, theater, cafeteria and group tour staging area.

If the Auschwitz complex of camps is indeed a sacred place deserving solemnity, reverence and reflection, then the immediate area just outside the actual camp (Auschwitz I) falls far short in signaling to visitors they are about to step on consecrated ground. The dilapidated parking lot with a small white trailer as the main (and only) ticket office also houses an ice cream vendor and a souvenir shop before visitors reach a main entrance in a sad state of disrepair. Neither solemn memorial nor authentic representation, arrival at Auschwitz is now just a shabby trap for the masses of dark tourists. Frankly, the victims and survivors deserve better.

The last example is the least comprehensible, most disheartening and, frankly, shocking. The Auschwitz II – Birkenau gatehouse — the Gate of Death — is arguably the most widely recognized building in the world, an iconic manifestation of pure evil. But today, the gatehouse contains a bookstore, restrooms, a small vending area, a rundown guard tower and storage rooms. Does using the gatehouse this way properly memorialize the thousands upon thousands of starving, freezing, emaciated and terrorized prisoners in their paper-thin uniforms and ill-fitting wooden clogs who went through this gate in the morning knowing that there was a good chance they would not return? How can this be the best use of a horrifying historical building that welcomed some 1.1 million victims to this camp of death?

Can Auschwitz be both a tourist attraction and a mass graveyard without making compromises that betray the memory of the victims? The decision needs to be made soon.

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Archaeologists unearth jewelry likely removed from Nazi gas chamber victims

Among items is unique pendant, resembling one which belonged to Anne Frank.

ShowImage (1)Archeologists working at the former Nazi extermination camp Sobibór in Poland uncovered personal items that they believe were removed by Holocaust victims before they were sent to the gas chambers, the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum announced Sunday.

The items were found in the location believed to be where victims were forced to undress and have their heads shaved before being sent to their death.

The archeological findings were discovered by Polish archeologist Wojciech Mazurek, Israel Antiquities Authority archeologist Yoram Haimi and their Dutch colleague, Ivar Schute.

The remains of the building dug up by the archeologists are located on the so-called “Road to Heaven,” the path along which Jewish victims were forced to walk to the gas chambers. The personal items found in the foundations of the building probably fell through the floorboards and remained buried in the ground until they were discovered this past fall.

The items found include a Star of David necklace, a woman’s watch and a metal charm covered in glass with an etching of the image of Moses holding the Ten Commandments; on the reverse side of the charm is the inscription of the Jewish Shema prayer.

A unique pendant has drawn particular attention, as it bears a close resemblance to one owned by author and Holocaust victim Anne Frank. On the pendant are engravings of the words “Mazal Tov” written in Hebrew on one side and on the other side the Hebrew letter “Hei” for Hashem as well three Stars of David. It is believed to have belonged to a child from Frankfurt.

Through the use of Yad Vashem’s online pan-European Deportation Database “Transports to Extinction,” researchers found that the pendant might have belonged to a girl by the name of Karoline Cohn, born on July 3, 1929, who was deported from Frankfurt to Minsk on November 11, 1941.

Yad Vashem said that while it is unknown whether Cohn survived the harsh conditions of the Minsk ghetto, her pendant reached Sobibór sometime between November 1941 and September 1943, when the ghetto was liquidated and the 2,000 Jewish prisoners interned there were deported to the death camp.

Additional research revealed that both Frank and Cohn were born in Frankfurt; researchers are currently trying to locate relatives of both families and are exploring a possible familial connection between the two.

“These recent findings from the excavations at Sobibór constitute an important contribution to the documentation and commemoration of the Holocaust, and help us to better understand what happened at Sobibór, both in terms of the camp’s function and also from the point of view of the victims,” said Prof.Havi Dreifuss, head of the Center for Research on the Holocaust in Poland at Yad Vashem’s International Institute for Holocaust Research.

The archeological excavations at the site began in 2007, with the end goal of establishing a museum and memorial site in the former Nazi extermination camp, in coordination with Yad Vashem’s International Institute for Holocaust Research.

During that time, the excavations have led to several important discoveries, including the foundations of the gas chambers, the original train platform and a large number of personal artifacts belonging to victims. Among these were metal discs attached to charm bracelets typically worn by children, upon which were engraved contact information in case the children went missing.

Yad Vashem said the most recent excavations had uncovered signs of the use of mechanical equipment to dismantle the camp, as well as imprints left in the ground where trees were planted in order to conceal evidence of the camp.

“The significance of the research and findings at Sobibór grows with every passing season of excavation,” said Haimi. “Every time we dig, we reveal another part of the camp, find more personal items and expand our knowledge about the camp.

“In spite of attempts by the Nazis and their collaborators to erase traces of their crimes, as well as the effects of forestation and time, we enhance our understanding of the history previously known to us only through survivor testimonies,” he added. “In this way, we ensure that the memory of the people killed there will never be forgotten. This pendant demonstrates once again the importance of archeological research of former Nazi death camp sites. The moving story of Karoline Cohn is symbolic of the shared fate of the Jews murdered in the camp. It is important to tell the story, so that we never forget.”

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Unprecedented work underway to preserve Auschwitz

Conservators face challenge of preserving horrible reality of Nazi concentration camp over 70 years after it was built

POLAND-GERMANY-HISTORY-WWII-MUSEUMOSWIECIM, Poland (AFP) — Brick by brick, plank by plank, workers at the former Nazi German death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau carefully clean its barracks to preserve the Holocaust symbol for future generations.

“This is the largest preservation project in the history of the museum at Auschwitz-Birkenau. It’s unprecedented,” museum spokesman Pawel Sawicki told AFP.

Along with the ruins of the gas chambers and crematoria, the barracks bear witness to Nazi Germany’s killing of around 1.1 million people, mostly Jews, at this camp, which it built in 1940 in the southern city of Oswiecim after occupying Poland.

“Preserving a barrack requires a completely different approach than one used to preserve a church for example. There, the goal is to return the building to its original state, so its most beautiful state,” says site manager Ewa Cyrulik.

“Here, the goal is to leave everything unchanged. The biggest compliment for us is when someone says they can’t really see a difference afterwards,” she tells AFP.

The task is all the harder because these types of poorly constructed barracks have never been preserved before, according to the Auschwitz team.

“My colleagues in the building industry laughed when I told them what I was doing. They said it’d be easier to just tear down the wall and rebuild it brick by brick than to restore it the way we’re doing,” says Szymon Jancia, a construction expert at the site.

“We’re aware that people come here specifically to see authentic objects and buildings,” Cyrulik adds for her part.

Protected from the weather by tents 12 meters (39 feet) high, the two barracks under restoration number among the camp’s oldest.

Work on the barracks began in September 2015 and will continue for another couple of years, while the entire project will take more than a decade and cost millions of dollars.

Auschwitz-Birkenau is really two camps, located three kilometers (two miles) apart.

While Auschwitz has been subject to preservation work in the past, none of the brick barracks at Birkenau have been seriously restored before.

Only simple maintenance work was carried out to respond to critical repairs.

Birkenau’s buildings are much more fragile than those at Auschwitz, which were built long before Nazi Germany took them over and originally served as military barracks.

Birkenau’s buildings on the other hand were meant specifically for the camp and were built in a slapdash manner, using less robust materials.

Their walls are thin, barely the thickness of a brick, and have buckled in places because the roof is too heavy. The wooden frame is rotting. The foundations have been eroded by groundwater.

“It’s a miracle they’re still standing,” says Jancia.

In total, 45 brick buildings at Birkenau will undergo restoration work.

The team will preserve whatever parts are in good condition, and replace those that are in a poor state or threaten the integrity of the entire building.

“Whatever we replace has to be visible to the eye, so as not to be confused with the original,” Cyrulik says while pointing to layers of paint in a slightly different color.

Kneeling in a cramped hole, workers carefully remove earth to get at the foundations that have been weakened by groundwater.

They work by hand, without recourse to machines, as is the case elsewhere on-site.

Inside a nearby tent, they have built a six-meter-long model wall that is propped up by metal bars.

“It’s a wall we built using the same materials and featuring the same flaws as those in the actual barracks,” Jancia says.

“It lets us test preservation methods. The walls are held up by the very same car jacks used for changing a tyre.”

The entire project has so far cost 12 million zlotys (2.7 million euros, $2.9 million) in funding secured by the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation.

Created in 2009, it manages the funds meant to preserve the site of the former Nazi German camp.

To date, donors have contributed 101 million euros, including 60 million from Germany, as well as big donations from the United States, Poland, France and Austria.

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