Closed during the coronavirus pandemic, the Memorial and Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau reopens July 1. The downtime was used for maintenance and restoration.
Like many museums in Europe, the Memorial and Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau in southern Poland's Oświęcim has been severely affected by the coronavirus pandemic. On March 12, 2020, the international memorial on the site of the former German Nazi concentration and extermination camp closed to visitors. Guided tours could no longer take place. "The budget has collapsed," the museum's website announced, with a call for donations. "We are appealing to all those who are concerned with preserving memory."
The extensive memorial work is financed largely by paid group tours, pre-booked on the internet in 19 languages. The 328 guides who give daily tours on the extensive grounds and in the museum have been unemployed since the museum was closed.
"For many of the memorial's employees, it has become a question of survival," said Christoph Heubner, executive vice president of the International Auschwitz Committee, in a DW interview. "People from all over the world come to this place, and the guides are the communicators who explain to them what they are seeing — in what is today almost an idyllic landscape."
Visitor quotas for admission to the former Nazi concentration camp
The reopening on July 1, 2020 marks a new era for the Memorial and Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau, established in 1947 as a memorial site by the Polish Parliament at the initiative of former concentration camp prisoners. Public access and the museum staff's work are now heavily regulated in accordance with coronavirus hygiene measures.
Physical distancing regulations, protective masks and a mandatory "one-way" movement system on the premises are now standard. No more than 15 persons are allowed in a guided group. For the memorial and museum, the income normally generated by booked guided tours is reduced by half.
"Up to now, personal online registration was required if one was to be admitted to a guided tour of the memorial site among the masses of visitors," Heubner said. "Now, online booking puts a quota on the number of daily visitors, so that not too many people are on-site at the same time. The memorial has developed a clear concept for meeting the coronavirus pandemic restrictions."
Free admission to Auschwitz-Birkenau
Admission to the memorial site remains free of charge. Not only the museum's directors feel that anything else would be an affront to the elderly Holocaust survivors who still come to the museum to talk and interact with young people.
"Up to now, the memorial has always been very careful with this issue," said Heubner. "To charge survivors for admission to this terrible place, where they were maltreated and tortured, would be unimaginable."
Even in the currently strapped financial situation, temporarily charging admission to the museum and memorial has never been an option, Piotr Cywiński, director of the Auschwitz Memorial Site and Museum, told the German Catholic news agency KNA. "However, many programs and investments have had to be withdrawn or postponed to the future."
The museum is placing its hopes on a voluntary donation system. Visitors can donate a sum they deem appropriate after attending the museum and walking the grounds of the former Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. Sales of the museum's publications also go towards funding operations.
The leftovers of concentration camp prisoners: each of these suitcases has been carefully restored and archived
Preservation equals future remembrance work
During the past months of closure, costs also mounted through restoration and urgently needed maintenance work. 155 buildings and 300 ruins are located on the memorial site. "Landscaping and gardening have to be maintained on the grounds," said Heubner. "You can't close it down and let nature take its course. The 170 hectares (420 acres) of Auschwitz-Birkenau are a very damp area, which means that the foundations of the remaining barracks must be continually repaired so that they do not collapse. "
There is another reason to keep everything carefully preserved for the future. "It is the scene of the crime where their loved ones, their families and many people were killed. This is their cemetery," stressed Heubner, who has worked closely with former Auschwitz prisoners for decades. "For Holocaust survivors worldwide, it is a place that must not disappear from the face of the earth so that humankind can remember what happened there."
Online visits cannot replace on-site experience
Across the globe, museums have meanwhile gone online. Virtual tours, digital concerts, public discussions and various innovative formats make virtual, no-travel visiting possible. But for a historically charged place like Auschwitz, a UNESCO World Heritage Sitesince 1979, this is no alternative.
"Despite all the emotional professionalization via internet messages and in the social media we've experienced during these many weeks of the coronavirus pandemic," said Heubner, "we still realize that digital messages ultimately cannot replace the interpersonal connection, the intimacy between people, and the look of horror people share when standing on the grounds of Auschwitz."
Heubner also points to the personal interaction and encounters between the generations going on for decades at the International Youth Meeting Center in Oświęcim, which underscores the work of the memorial. For instance, trainees and young managers from the automobile manufacturer Volkswagen and other German companies travel there each year for educational programs.
A visit to Auschwitz leaves its mark
Upon Heubner's invitation, rappers Kollegah and Farid Bang, who had caused a scandal with a flippant song line referencing Auschwitz, visited the memorial site in 2018 and were visibly shaken. "And that is why this memorial, like all museums at actual historical sites, will continue to play a very important role in the future," he concluded.
In 2019, the German government paid another 60 million euros ($67 million) into the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation's capital stock. "Germany fully stands by its historical responsibility," German authorities declared before Chancellor Angela Merkel's visit to Auschwitz in December.
Heubner nonetheless fears further serious financial losses for the museum due to a lack of visits by school classes and youth groups from all over the world. "At this point, it is still difficult to estimate for 2020, but for 2021, the number of visitors is expected to drop by a quarter."