JERUSALEM – A proposal to renovate the Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi death camp is drawing criticism from Holocaust survivors in Israel, who fear modernization will disturb the camp's original state and the somber memorial to those who suffered and died there.
The renovations, proposed last month by Piotr Cywinski, 34, the new director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, call for updating five exhibits housed in former prisoner barracks, and establishing a new education center to modernize the message of the memorial for younger generations.
Cywinski added that preserving original artifacts, including hair samples and personal belongings that were stripped from prisoners, is also a high priority.
Holocaust survivors in Israel, however, are worried that the renovations could make the camp seem more like a museum and less like the site where nearly 1.5 million people, most of them Jews, were slaughtered by the Nazis during World War II.
"We have a lot of museums. We have a lot of places where we talk about the Holocaust, but Auschwitz is the original place where it happened," said Noach Flug, president of the Center of Organizations of Holocaust Survivors in Israel. "You must have the feeling as it was then -- the smell and the look. It is important not to change."
Flug was speaking from a conference of Auschwitz survivors in Berlin, where he said the camp's survivors worried that renovations may make the conditions in which they suffered less obvious to visitors.
Several Nazi camp sites, including Bergen-Belsen, have received makeovers in the past, which experts say is part of trend to make them more attractive for tourists. Some feel the renovations at Auschwitz are part of a similar plan to make the Nazi's largest camp seem less foreboding.
"Changing the memorial and making it less horrifying and more friendly, having more flowers, trees, parks and grass, is good maybe for an amusement park, but not for a place that is important in order to teach us what happened," said a spokesman for Zeev Factor, chairman of the Foundation for the Benefits of Holocaust Survivors in Israel.
Cywinski said his plan does not involve landscaping or any other beautification of the camp. He said his only goal is modernize exhibits, which date back to 1955, and make it easier for younger generations to grasp the importance of one of history's darkest chapters.
"I don't have to think about the beauty. For me the question is responsibility," he said. "Now we have to think about the future, the next generation and different ways of speaking to them."
An education center, which will be part of his initiative, is one way to make young people more "responsive" to the site, he said.
Cywinski added that preserving some of the original artifacts from the Holocaust is high on his agenda. Over the past few months work has been underway to preserve five gas chambers and two crematoria that the Nazis attempted to destroy at the end of the war.
Cywinski said he has also been working with specialists from several countries on the best way to guard personal effects of camp prisoners, including locks of human hair, which can be particularly hard to preserve.
His initiative will be officially proposed at a December 5 meeting of International Auschwitz Council, the committee responsible for managing the site. Cywinski said he expected several more conferences on the proposed changes before any take shape.
Auschwitz-Birkenau is one of Poland's most popular tourists sites, with over 1 million visitors this year, including Pope Benedict XVI. Holocaust survivors say those visitors should experience the camp the way it was 60 years ago.
"It is a symbolic place and therefore it is important that the gas chambers and the crematoriums and the blocs and all the hairs and the shoes -- all these thing should be in the original form," said Flug. "It should be as it was."