Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Auschwitz survivors mark 64th anniversary of camp's liberation

WARSAW, Poland – In the depths of the Polish winter, Auschwitz survivors and government officials gathered Tuesday to mark the 64th anniversary of the Nazi death camp's liberation as part of worldwide Holocaust remembrance ceremonies.

The yearly commemoration marks the day the advancing Soviet army liberated the camp in 1945. The anniversary has been established as an annual Holocaust remembrance day by the United Nations.

More than 1 million people, mostly Jews, died in the camp's gas chambers or through forced labor, disease or starvation.

Tuesday's commemorations at Auschwitz include a wreath-laying ceremony and prayers at the foot of the former camp's main memorial, which stands between the twisted ruins of two crematoria.

Events elsewhere include a speech to the German parliament by President Horst Koehler and a ceremony at the former Sachsenhausen concentration camp outside Berlin.

As aging Holocaust survivors grow frailer and fewer in number, Auschwitz-Birkenau — established by the Nazis in occupied Poland — is in such a state of disrepair that its preservation is under threat.

The Polish state officials who oversee the camp say at least euro100 million ($130 million) is needed in the next 15 to 20 years to maintain the site — money that it has so far failed to raise from the international community.

Already, the museum has had to seal off crumbling barracks for fear that visitors could get injured. The remains of the former gas chambers and crematoria are also deteriorating due to the yearly cycle of freezing and thawing of the earth.

"These buildings weren't built to last," said Pawel Sawicki, a spokesman for the museum. "If we don't get the money, we'll have to close more and more buildings."

Germany on Monday praised Polish efforts to preserve the site and promised to help fund them. It did not cite a figure.

The museum, set up in 1947, received 12.7 million zlotys ($3.7 million) from the Polish government last year and earned about 13 million zlotys more by publishing survivor accounts, screening documentaries to visitors and from guide fees.

Private donations from abroad amount to only a small fraction of its income.

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