Auschwitz Museum Works to Preserve Artifacts | Europe | News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 08.07.2007

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Auschwitz Museum Works to Preserve Artifacts

The Auschwitz museum turned 60 this week. Museum staff use modern technology and enlist the help of schoolchildren in an effort to preserve artifacts from the death camp.

The Auschwitz museum was established 60 years ago

The Auschwitz museum was established 60 years ago

During the Holocaust more than 1.1 million people died at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. One million of them were Jews from Nazi-occupied Europe. Some died from overwork, starvation and disease. Most were murdered in the camp's notorious gas chambers.

The Nazis collected the belongings of their victims. There are 4,000 suitcases, tens of thousands of shoes, a heap of hair brushes and human hair, which the Nazis used to fill mattresses.

All of these items became part of the museum, which was set up by the Polish government in 1947. Auschwitz is located on the outskirts of the Polish town of Oswiecim -- named Auschwitz in German.

Nine months after invading Poland in 1939, the Nazis set up Auschwitz for captured members of the Polish resistance. Auschwitz was house in a former Polish army barracks. Two years later it was expanded at nearby Brzezinka or Birkenau.

Personal artifacts tell story

Marsch der Lebenden in Auschwitz

Auschwitz survivors return to the site of their imprisonment

Prisoners left behind not only personal artifacts but also created 2,000 works of art, most of which are in storage because there's no place to display them in the museum.

The museum draws approximately 1 million visitors yearly. Recently, the museum has focused on telling the stories of individual victims through the objects they owned. This has made conservation essential.

A team of eight conservation specialists works in the museum's hi-tech laboratory, which was built three years ago.

"There are well-developed techniques for conserving centuries-old Rembrandts of Goyas, or Egyptian mummies which are thousands of years old," Piotr Cywinski, the director of the Auschwitz museum, said in an interview with AFP. "But not for 60-year-old toothbrushes or suitcases.

New conservation techniques

Kinder im Konzentrationslager in Auschwitz, 60 Jahre Gedenktag

Children in Auschwitz

"We're in unchartered territory where we have to develop new techniques," he said. "On top of that, the very numbers of items takes us beyond the usual methods of conservation."

That's why he's turned to the help of school children. The laboratory has trained hundreds of local school children to help deal with the massive number of shoes.

Ewelina Bisaga, a conservationist who specializes in paper, worked at an enormous white table recently. She had a special eraser she used to clean a copy of a musical score by Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg.

"These are the scores used by the camp prisoners' orchestra," Bisaga said.

Preserving the site

Holocaust Gedenktag in Auschwitz

The museum is responsible for conserving the site

Besides conserving objects, the team is responsible for the upkeep of the Auschwitz-Birkenau site.

"We have big problems with water leaks, particularly in the buildings constructed by the prisoners at Birkenau," Cywinski said.

The Auschwitz site looks much as it does during the war. Birkenau was heavily damaged when the Nazis destroyed the gas chambers and crematoria in an effort to cover up their crimes from the advancing Soviet army in January 1945.

Today, the ruins are open to the elements.

"We have to preserve them in their current state, while also ensuring we don't change anything," said laboratory director Dorota Kuczynska.

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