NEW YORK (Jun. 17)
A recent decision to replace commemorative plaques at the Auschwitz and Birkenau death camps highlighted ongoing efforts to preserve the camps and memorialize their victims.
After two years of debate over wording, the plaques, which previously had not made any mention of the Jewish nature of the crimes committed at the Polish death camps, are being replaced with new signs created by the International Council of the State Museum in Auschwitz.
Meanwhile, the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, which has been working to preserve the camps and their collections of artifacts, is seeking $42 million from Western European governments, with half that sum requested from Germany.
The 24 members of the Auschwitz museum council, most of whom are survivors of the Holocaust, have agreed finally on the way the new plaques at the death camps will be worded.
“It took a long time to reach a decision, because everyone believed that their tragedy should be emphasized,” said Kalman Sultanik, a vice chairman of the Auschwitz museum council and co-chair of the Lauder Foundation’s preservation project.
The old plaques, put in place by the Com- munist government of Poland shortly after the end of World War II, read: “This is the place of martyrdom and death of 4 million victims murdered in the Nazi genocide, 1940-45.”
The estimate of 4 million people initially believed to have died at the camps has been revised by scholars of the Holocaust, who say that the number is actually about 1.5 million.
The old plaques were removed after Poland’s Communist regime was voted out of power.
The new plaques will be installed in the coming weeks, in Polish, English and Hebrew at the entrances of Auschwitz and Birkenau, according to Sultanik, and read:
“In 1940 the Nazis established the Auschwitz camp which became a symbol of inhuman terror and genocide. After its enlargement, the camp consisted of three parts: Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II-Birkenau, Auschwitz III-Monowitz and more than forty sub-camps.
“The first to be imprisoned and die here were Poles. In 1941, Soviet prisoners of war were placed in the camp.
“From 1942 the Nazi plan for the total annihilation of European Jewry was carried out in the gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
“From 1943 Gypsies were also killed here.
“Men, women, children and infants were murdered here on a mass scale.”
Another plaque in Birkenau is to read; “Let this site remain for eternity as a cry of despair and a warning to humanity. About a million and a half men, women, children and infants, mainly Jews from different countries of Europe were murdered here. The world was silent. — Auschwitz-Birkenau 1940-45.”
A quote from the Book of Job will be included: “Oh earth, cover not my blood. And let my cry never cease.”
CONVENT MOVING BY NOVEMBER
And in a related development, the building at Auschwitz which is currently occupied by Carmelite nuns will be vacated by November, when they move to their new convent a short distance away from the death camp.
The building in which they have been living will be turned over to the Auschwitz museum council, according to Sultanik.
That building will fall under the aegis of the Lauder Foundation’s preservation project.
In 1989, the foundation assembled a group of conservators from top American museums and hired an architecture firm to determine what would be needed to arrest the ongoing decay of the only death camps that remain largely intact.
The others were destroyed by the Nazis as the Allies advanced at the end of World War II.
The goal of the final project is to preserve both Auschwitz and nearby Birkenau, rather than embellish them, as a memorial and vivid lesson for future generations who will not have the opportunity to know Holocaust survivors personally.
“They are the only place where the crime is visible, the only physical evidence left,” said Sultanik, a survivor of three concentration camps.
The committee of conservators, led by James Frantz of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, has visited the camps several times since 1989 and recommended that “a major part” of the $42 million budget be devoted to the installation of a climate-control system for the barracks used to exhibit the remnants of the lives of the 1.5 million Jews who perished there.
Currently in a brick building that the Nazis used for storage, suitcases, clothing and hair are piled up behind glass.
The artifacts are rapidly deteriorating because of the “extreme variations in climate to which the collections are presently subjected,” Frantz told the museum council in a presentation June 1 in Poland.
While the German government has indicated its willingness to support the preservation effort, it has not yet formally committed to provide the $21 million, to be paid out to the Polish government over four years, that the Lauder project has recommended, Federbush said.
The Lauder foundation has been negotiating the matter with the German government for more than a year.
Ronald Lauder has proposed that a meeting with Germany’s finance minister take place in the next couple of weeks, but has not yet gotten a response from Bonn.
Three other Western European governments, which Federbush declined to name, have said they will contribute to the financing of the preservation project, but only if the German government “meets its commitment,” she said.