German grants will help Poland preserve the evidence of the Nazis' wartime atrocities
OSWIECIM, POLAND — DANDELIONS pop up through the crematorium ruins at the former concentration camp of Birkenau, which is part of the Auschwitz complex.
A vast carpet of lush, green grass covers the ground; once it was trampled mud in which not a blade of grass could survive.
A sapling grows in a row of primitive toilets where prisoners were allowed only 10 seconds each to relieve themselves.
Nature, it seems, is succeeding in covering up the horror of Auschwitz-Birkenau, where an estimated 1 million to 1.5 million people, mostly Jews, were murdered during Nazi Germany's Third Reich.
Jerzy Wroblewski, director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, wants to undo what nature has done. Now, because of a long-awaited gift of $11.8 million from the German federal and state governments, he can at least begin.
"This is the first wave of significant money" coming into the museum, which includes 155 original buildings and 300 ruins, Mr. Wroblewski says. So far it has been supported by Polish state funds and private donations.
The museum director emphasizes that Auschwitz-Birkenau will not be rebuilt. The camp "is to be kept in the state that we found it in just after the war," he says.
Auschwitz, which in pre-World War II days was a Polish Army garrison of brick buildings, was left relatively intact at the war's end. This was not the case at Birkenau, which is a couple of miles from Auschwitz and 32 times as big.
Shortly before the end of the war, the Nazis blew up the Birkenau crematoriums and gas chambers. In addition, one crematorium was blown up by rebelling Jews. Later, many of the wooden barracks were dismantled by Poles desperate for firewood. Only 20 of them are left, the rest represented by row upon row of chimneys standing like sentries to history.
With the German financing, Wroblewski hopes to install air-conditioning and heating in the main exhibition buildings at Auschwitz; create on-site workshops to preserve the vast number of documents and prisoners' personal belongings that the museum possesses; and protect the buildings and ruins themselves.
The great "enemy," says museum conservationist Witold Smrek, is moisture. It seeps into porous concrete and brick, freezes in the winter, expands, and then breaks up the chimneys, garrison walls, electric-wire fence posts, and crematorium ruins.
At Birkenau, which one American visitor observed looks more like a soccer field or park than a death camp, the museum plans to uncover the network of roads and walkways buried under the grassy fields and restore the system of ditches. These channels were dug by prisoners to drain the camp, which was built on a marsh.
But this work "is just the tip of the iceberg," Mr. Smrek explains. "Birkenau is 171 square hectares [423 acres].... You have pyres where bodies were cremated, graves of Russian prisoners, and a sewage-treatment plant."
"We are talking about a huge complex," he says. "I've been working here for eight years, and I still don't know all the details."