Everyone who visits Auschwitz remembers the hair: almost two tons of it, piled behind glass in mounds taller than a person. When I first visited the camp, in 1991, the hair was still black and brown, red and blond, gray and white—emotionally overwhelming evidence of the lives extinguished there.
When I returned this past autumn, the hair was a barely differentiated mass of gray, more like wool than human locks. Only the occasional braid signaled the remnants of something unprecedented and awful—the site where the Third Reich perpetrated the largest mass murder in human history. At least 1.1 million people were killed here, most within hours of their arrival.
This January 27 marks the 65th anniversary of Auschwitz’s liberation by Soviet soldiers. The Nazis operated the camp between May 1940 and January 1945—and since 1947, the Polish government has maintained Auschwitz, which lies about 40 miles west of Krakow, as a museum and memorial. It is a Unesco World Heritage site, a distinction usually reserved for places of culture and beauty.
But Auschwitz—with its 155 buildings and hundreds of thousands of artifacts—is deteriorating. It is a conservation challenge like no other. “Our main problem is sheer numbers,” Jolanta Banas, the head of preservation, tells me as we walk through the white-tiled facility where she and her 48-member staff work. “We measure shoes in the ten thousands.”
Banas introduces me to conservators working to preserve evidence of camp life: fragments of a mural depicting an idealized German family that once decorated the SS canteen, floor tiles from a prisoners barrack. In one room, a team wielding erasers, brushes and purified water clean and scan 39,000 yellowing medical records written on everything from card stock to toilet paper.
The Auschwitz camp itself covers 50 acres and comprises 46 historical buildings, including two-story red brick barracks, a kitchen, a crematorium and several brick and concrete administration buildings. In addition, Birkenau, a satellite camp about two miles away, sprawls over more than 400 acres and has 30 low-slung brick barracks and 20 wooden structures, railroad tracks and the remains of four gas chambers and crematoria. In total, Banas and her staff monitor 150 buildings and more than 300 ruins at the two sites.
Banas says dozens of barracks have cracked walls and sinking foundations, many in such sad shape they’re closed for safety reasons. Water from leaking roofs has damaged wood bunks where prisoners once slept.
At the same time, public interest in the camp has never been higher. Visits have doubled this decade, from 492,500 in 2001 to more than 1 million in 2009. Since Poland joined the European Union in 2004, Krakow has become a popular destination for foreign tourists, and Auschwitz is a must stop on many itineraries. A visit is also part of education programs in Israel, Britain and other countries. On peak days, as many as 30,000 visitors file through the camp’s buildings.
The Polish government in 2009 asked European nations, the United States and Israel to contribute to a fund from which the Auschwitz museum could draw $6 million to $7 million a year for restoration projects, on top of its more than $10 million annual operating budget. Last December, the German government pledged $87 million—about half of the $170 million target endowment. (Auschwitz officials had not received a U.S. pledge by the time this magazine went to press.)
“Auschwitz is a place of memory, but it’s not just about history—it’s also about the future,” says the museum’s director, Piotr Cywinski, a hulking man with a thick red beard and a doctorate in medieval history. “This is the most important conservation project since the end of the war.”