BERLIN (JTA) — In the places where Jews were slave laborers and died by the millions, should tour guide certification be required?
The recent decision by the Sachsenhausen concentration camp memorial to levy a fee on commercial tour guides prompted passionate arguments on both sides.
Elan Steinberg, vice president of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants, said Holocaust survivors were "deeply disturbed and disappointed" by the decision. He wrote: "Charging any fees on visitors to the site undermines the present-day German consensus that no barriers should exist for the public to learn and reflect on the meaning and history of these places of persecution."
But a wide variety of other Jewish leaders and survivor representatives expressed support for the new fees, saying they would help ensure that guided tours of the concentration camp are historically accurate.
"Survivors found that some of these guides from the tourism firms were not educated and did not really know their history — the history of survivors," Sonja Reichert, general secretary of the International Sachsenhausen Committee, told JTA in a telephone interview from her home in Luxembourg. The Paris-based organization played an advisory role in Sachsenhausen’s decision to start charging for tours, she said.
Starting June 1, private guides who visit the site of the camp in eastern Germany, near Berlin, have been required to undergo training and obtain certification that costs about $108 annually. In addition, the guides are now charged a fee of about $1.45 for each tourist they bring to the site, according to Horst Seferens, spokesman for the Brandenburg Memorial Foundation, which administers the Sachsenhausen concentration camp memorial.
The decision, made in January, was based in part on feedback from survivor groups and Jewish leaders, Seferens told JTA.
Stephan Kramer, general secretary of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, said his council also supported the memorial’s decision to require that private tour guides be trained. The council, too, was represented on the advisory board behind the decision.
"Some outsiders commercialize the tours without really delivering quality education," Kramer said in a text message to JTA. "We need to charge them."
The goal of the fees, Seferens said, is to raise the quality of private tours at the site and to raise funds to support the pedagogical work of the memorial.
Seferens said that numerous private tour guides working for a handful of commercial firms in Berlin have been charging significant fees to individual visitors.
"There had been complaints about the quality of the tours," he said. "Guides talked about Sachsenhausen as if it were Auschwitz. There is a tour on YouTube that would raise your hair on end" for all its historical errors, he said. "We decided to raise these tours to the standard of our own tours," he added.
No fees are charged to school groups and volunteer guides, and no individuals are charged an entry fee, Seferens noted.
The memorial at Sachsenhausen offers its own, non-commercial guided tours at a cost of about $20 for up to 15 people. An extra fee is charged for tours in languages other than German.
The debate about whether to charge fees at such sites is not a new one. In 2007, Dutch survivor Pieter Dietz de Loos, head of the Paris-based International Dachau Committee, angered survivors and memorial directors in Germany by calling for an entrance fee to the Dachau memorial to help pay for educational programs. The suggestion was rejected.
The Nazis established the Sachsenhausen camp in 1936, at first primarily for political prisoners and accused criminals, but it came to hold many other types of prisoners. During the 1938 Kristallnacht pogroms some 6,000 Jews who were arrested were sent to Sachsenhausen. Ultimately, some 200,000 people would be interned there at various times through 1945, and about half of them died or were killed there. The site was later used by the Soviets as an internment camp.
Some 400,000 people visit the Sachsenhausen memorial per year. The annual budget for Sachsenhausen and four other sites in the state of Brandenburg, including the memorial at Ravensbruck, was about $8 million, Seferens said. The funds come from the state and federal governments.