Save Auschwitz, or Leave it to Rot?

ByABC News
November 20, 2002, 5:03 PM

OSWIECIM, Poland, Nov. 24, 2002 — -- Ernst Michel, prisoner number 104955 to the Nazis, spent almost two years at the notorious Auschwitz concentration camp, where more than a million people died. His crime? Being a Jew in Adolph Hitler's Germany.

An American now, Michel has helped raise millions to preserve a collapsing, decaying place in a remote corner of southern Poland that still haunts him.

"I am not in favor of beautifying the camp," he said. "I'm not in favor of putting flowers there. Leave it the way it is, but preserve it."

However, at a time when most of the direct witnesses to the Holocaust are dying off, and as decay sets in at the Auschwitz and Birkenau camps, some wonder if anything should be preserved at all.

"It is best probably to allow the site to fall apart and to say, 'There's no way we really can imagine what happened there. There's no way we can make it, possible to imagine what happened there,'" said Robert Jan van Pelt, a prominent architectural historian who likens Auschwitz to a nuclear bomb site.

Over the years, the wooden beams propping up the barracks at Auschwitz have grown tired and worn. The gas chambers and crematoria that the Nazis dynamited upon fleeing have collapsed further. Shoes and hair of the camp's victims are rotting.

"Ultimately, if you want to in some way enter that world, do it through a book," van Pelt said. "Also, accept that in some way this event and this place somewhat transcends our possibilities to imagine what happened there. And say, 'OK, let's seal it off, as the Jewish tradition calls it, [as] a cursed place,' and say, 'We can approach it but we cannot enter it any more.'"

That doesn't sit well with Bogoslav Sicinska, a former inmate. He understands that time and half a million tourists a year take their toll. But at the very least he wants some of the evidence saved, like the crematoria.

"I believe this place should be handed down from generation to generation, so that in the future, no nation I would stress, no nation should repeat this," Sicinska said through a translator.