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05/07/2013

Auschwitz, Birkenau death camps to remain open after Polish fundraising drive

Auschwitz Birkenau
The Auschwitz and Birkenau death camps are seen in this 2005 file photo. (JANEK SKARZYNSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

The Holocaust’s most infamous death camps will remain open to visitors.

Four years ago, the Polish government asked for financial help to pay for the maintenance and upkeep of the Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps that were run during World War II in Nazi-occupied Poland.

As many as 960,000 Jews died at Auschwitz, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Many died in gas chambers there, while others died of starvation. Other estimates suggest as many as 3 million people died at the Auschwitz and Birkenau camps.

In 2009, Smithsonian Magazine documented the deterioration of Auschwitz’s 155 buildings and hundreds of thousands of artifacts.

The Auschwitz camp includes 46 buildings on 50 acres, including two-storey red brick barracks, a crematorium and concrete administration buildings. In addition, Birkenau, a satellite camp about three kilometres away, according to Smithsonian Magazine, “sprawls over more than 400 acres and has 30 low-slung brick barracks and 20 wooden structures, railroad tracks and the remains of four gas chambers and crematoria.”

Now, the Polish government says enough money has been raised to guarantee that the camps will continue to operate as historical sites. While Poland originally set about trying to raise $158 million, organizers have secured commitments worth $127 million.

Germany, which has confronted the shame of Hitler’s rule, has contributed $78 million. The U.S. added another $15 million. Canada’s contribution is $400,000.

“It is a dark part of our history, of the world’s history,” Andrzej Fafara, a Polish diplomat based in Ottawa, said in an interview. “When you are there on the site, you can understand how important this is to keep as a reminder of how tragic those days were.”

In Canada, Shimon Fogel, chief executive with the Ottawa-based Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, said the preservation of Auschwitz is important because thousands of Jewish students visit the former concentration camp each year.

“For us in Canada it’s almost a rite of passage,” Fogel said. “It exposes young people for the first time other than an abstract, academic way to the horrors of the Holocaust. That’s so important because the number of people who are survivors with direct exposure to the Holocaust is decreasing.”

I asked Fogel whether Auschwitz and Birkenau were ever in real danger of closing, considering Israel may have a vested interest in rightfully ensuring the Holocaust is never forgotten.

"I think there was a real danger of those camps falling into a bad state of disrepair, but perhaps not a real danger of closing," Fogel said. " I think Israel isn't so worried about the camps. Israel is much more focused on its own intiatives and programs to preserve memories. For Israel, the Holocaust still is not over. You still have issues to resolve like stolen art and Swiss bank issues and insurance. I think there's a degree of ambivalence between Israel and the European governments in general."

Rick Westhead is a foreign affairs writer at the Star. He was based in India as the Star’s South Asia bureau chief from 2008 until 2011 and reports on international aid and development. Follow him on Twitter @rwesthead

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