Preservationists worry about forgotten Nazi camps

Auschwitz, the most notorious camp in the Nazi killing machine, might soon claim success in its campaign to preserve the legacy of the Holocaust.

The foundation supporting the site in southern Poland has attracted tens of millions of dollars from donor countries, and the camp’s barracks and other buildings seem set to be preserved for decades to come. The museum memorial at the former Nazi death camp attracts more than

1 million visitors per year.

Some fear, however, that the concentration of resources and attention on Auschwitz could overshadow other preservation efforts and threaten the integrity or even the existence of the memorials and museums at lesser-known camps and Holocaust sites in Poland.

A monument at the site of the Belzec death camp in Poland includes inscription at the entrance. photo/jta/ruth ellen gruber

“Because Auschwitz is treated as the symbol of the Holocaust and the whole world is supporting only this museum, everybody in Poland, including the government, seems to think that this is enough,” said historian Robert Kuwalek, a curator at the state-run Museum at Majdanek, the Nazi concentration camp and killing center near Lublin in eastern Poland. “The problem is deeper because it is the lack of basic knowledge that the Holocaust happened in forgotten sites like Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, Majdanek and Chelmno.”

Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka were the three killing centers of the so-called Operation Reinhard plan to murder 2 million Polish Jews in 1942 and 1943. During that operation, Kuwalek said, “more people were killed in a shorter time than in Auschwitz-Birkenau during the whole period that that camp functioned.”

Despite their importance in the history of the Holocaust, these and other sites — such as forced labor camps — are overlooked by the vast majority of visitors. All are marked by memorials or museums, but some are located in remote parts of the country, and most are in serious need of upkeep and preservation.

For example, the museum at Sobibor, the site of John Demjanjuk’s crimes, was forced to close in June when funding from local authorities ran out. An estimated 167,000 to 250,000 people, mostly Jews, were murdered at Sobibor, in eastern Poland. In May, a German court convicted Demjanjuk, now 91, of complicity in the murder of 28,000 Jews there.

The museum reopened July 1 after the Polish Culture Ministry announced that it would be reorganized as a state-run institution funded by the ministry.

“Auschwitz is the great exception to the rule,” said Rabbi Andrew Baker, the director of international Jewish affairs for the American Jewish Committee. Baker was the point man for the AJC in its cooperation with the Polish government to build a large and impressive monument and museum at Belzec, where 500,000 Jews were killed. The center opened in 2004.

The Auschwitz Foundation was set up in 2009 with the goal of raising $163 million and thus guaranteeing an annual interest income of about $6 million for the conservation of barracks, gas chambers, and other artifacts and material.

To date, nearly 20 countries have announced support for the effort, bringing the total pledges to more than $122 million. Germany alone pledged about $82 million. Israel was the latest country to pledge funds, with a $1 million contribution.

“It seems that the future of Auschwitz with regard to preservation is mostly secured,” said Tomasz Kunciewicz, director of the Auschwitz Jewish Center, an educational institution in the town of Oswiecim, where Auschwitz is located.

“However, regarding the more ‘forgotten’ death camps, such as Sobibor, the situation seems to be acute and there should be similar international efforts made regarding fundraising as in the case of Auschwitz.”

Ruth Ellen Gruber

Ruth Ellen Gruber is a writer for JTA.