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The Long Shadow of Auschwitz

On 27 January 1945 the most notorious of Nazi Germany's concentration camps in the small Polish town of Oświęcm, hereafter seared into the collective memory as Auschwitz, was liberated by advancing Soviet forces. It is estimated that between 1.1 and 1.5 million Jews, Poles, Roma and various other 'undesirables' were either gassed on an industrial scale or died of disease and starvation in the less than three years of the camp's operation as a dedicated extermination facility. 70 years after the liberation, the number of eyewitnesses who are still alive today is diminishing fast. The Polish government, with financial help from countries and organisation from around the world, is now in charge of maintaining the buildings and grounds and preserving the memory for future generations. According to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, there were 161,000 Jewish Holocaust survivors living in the USA in 2000. This year, that number had shrunk to 68,000. Within a few years, the last survivors will have died as well and some of the most hideous crimes in the history of Europe will only live on in books, photographs and the sites where they were carried out. 'Auschwitz lies at the very centre of contemporary experience. There is no way to avoid it in the most important questions about mankind, culture and civilisation today' says Dr Piotr M.A. Cywinski, the director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum.

The former camp draws huge numbers of visitors with 1.5 million arriving in 2014 alone. The largest numbers came from Poland (398,000), the United Kingdom (199,000) and the USA (92,000), closely followed by Italians (84,000), Germans (75,000) and Israelis (62,000).

The Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, the body which oversees the former camp, also operates a preservation department which is split into two units: a conservation section and a construction and renovation section. The conservation section employs some 41 restorers, some of them specialised in archival document preservation and the conservation of paper, leather, painting and building materials. The other section focuses on the vegetation, the buildings, electrical infrastructure and other specialised technical aspects of the site.

The museum's collection contains hundreds of thousands of items that were confiscated from the inmates of the camp and were not destroyed by the retreating German Army as it abandoned the camp. These items include 110,000 shoes, around 3,800 suitcases, 12,000 pots and pans, 470 prostheses and orthopaedic braces, and around 4,500 works of visual art (around 2,000 of which were made by prisoners). 'The art was an escape from the brutal reality of the camp into a better world' says Agnieszka Sieradzka, an art historian responsible for the art collections at the museum.'

There are other tangible reminders of what happened in Auschwitz during its darkest days. The 'Sterbebuch' (or death book) kept an exact record of the identification numbers, native cities, names of parents and alleged causes of death of some 68,000 prisoner killed in the camp. In total, 48 of these books have so far been preserved and 3 to 4 preservers work on each book for around 3 months to ensure that it will be available to posterity.

Another unrivaled source of documentation at Auschwitz is the work of Wilhelm Brasse, a Polish photographer who was ordered to take images of prisoners' work, medical experiments and prisoners' portraits for the SS records. In an interview before he died in 2012 he estimates that he took some 40,000 to 50,000 pictures of inmates, some of which are still on display at the Auschwitz Museum.

Panos photographer Björn Steinz travelled to Auschwitz on four occasions, for the 50th and 60th anniversary, and concluded his study of the site in the winter of 2014/15.
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