Germany's memorial sites at Nazi concentration camps are in dire economic straits. They are calling for more political responsibility to ensure that they can continue to fulfill their educational task.
The Dachau concentration camp memorial site near Munich receives over 800,000 visitors per year. Internationally, it is among the best-known sites commemorating the memory of the millions who perished in the Holocaust in Europe.
But faced with an acute cash crunch, memorial centers strewn across Germany, Dachau included, are increasingly struggling to carry out their primary task: educating future generations about the horrors of the Holocaust and the valuable lessons they hold for humanity.
Barbara Distel, director of the Dachau memorial site said its education department cannot meet all requests for tours or other educational offers.
"The situation in Dachau is unsatisfactory," Distel said. The center only has one full-time educator.
Other major sites report of similar problems. The foundation managing the memorials at Sachsenhausen, Ravensbrück and Brandenburg in eastern Germany said funding was only enough to cover operating costs. Buchenwald, also in eastern Germany, has had to work with a capped budget since 1998, despite the increase in costs.
"Our back is to the wall," said Rikola-Gunnar Lüttgenau, deputy director of the Buchenwald Memorial Foundation. He said the center did not have the means to revise existing permanent exhibitions or conduct youth projects, for example. The latter could only be financed through external sources, such as other foundations.
Charging entrance fees for concentration camps?
The president of the International Dachau Committee, Pieter Dietz de Loos last month sparked a debate on whether memorial sites should introduce entrance fees to alleviate these financial problems. The committee was founded by former prisoners following World War Two and played a decisive role in setting up the memorial site at Dachau. It does not, however, contribute to the site's funding.
"The committee will be broke in five years," said Dietz de Loos, a Dutch attorney and son of a Dachau prisoner, at the camp's liberation ceremony in May.
But the proposal to charge entry fees for concentration camps has sparked unease among many.
"I cannot imagine that visitors to Dachau will have to pay an entrance fee," said Distel.
According to the Central Council of Jews in Germany, those sites where history occurred had to be accessible to everyone.
"It is only through these concrete places that visitors can thoroughly experience for themselves the presence of historical events," the council's vice-president Salomon Korn told Jewish weekly Jüdische Allgemeine. "Such a visual link of history and an authentic place serves to reinforce and deepen remembrance."
Entrance fees would only undermine this, Korn said.
Private investors holding back
American philanthropist Ronald Lauder set up and finances a project to preserve Europe's most notorious concentration camp, Auschwitz, in present day Poland.
But some point out that in Germany, private investors remain reluctant to do the same.
Korn said German companies were "elegantly refraining" from contributing to financing, despite "a moral obligation and responsibility" to maintain these memorial sites.
Buchenwald's Lüttgenau said this was due to industry concerns that any backing could be misunderstood.
"Private companies fear that support for our educational work would be equal to an admission of guilt," Lüttgenau said.
Sites are Germany's responsibility
Distel said the government carried the responsibility for the memorial sites in Germany. The Bavarian state government's ministry of culture finances Dachau, for example. According to a spokesman, it provides the memorial site with some 1.5 million euros ($2 million) annually for personnel and material costs.
"I consider it to be Germany's political and cultural task to ensure that these sites are equipped in a way that they can adequately work," Distel said.
This view was shared by Korn. He said it was not the memorial sites' obligation, but rather that of those politically responsible to ensure that the memory of these camps stayed alive.
"The federal and state governments are obliged to ensure that everyone has access to these sites, which represent the darkest part of German history," Korn said.
Thomas Lutz of the Topography of Terror Foundation said, though, that it was not clear whether the political support necessary was present.
"The only chance now is to make it publicly clear that there is a significant gap between the demands on the memorial sites and their ability to fulfill these," said Lutz, who heads the foundation's department for memorial sites.
German government has yet to provide a solution
For now, Dachau and the other sites are trying to work as effectively as possible. Lüttgenau said the Buchenwald site had exhausted all savings measures. But it wasn't enough to address the needs of its half a million visitors per year.
"We cannot attend to the growing demand for educational services, such as accompanying groups through the site," Lüttgenau said. It has had to turn down 30 to 40 percent of such inquiries.
"Considering the need for more educational youth work in eastern Germany, this is a dramatic situation," Lüttgenau said. "The interest is there and we can't fulfill it."
The German government has said it is working on a new concept for financing the concentration camp memorial sites in Germany. But it has yet to present a model.
"We are caught between a rock and a hard place right now," Lüttgenau said.
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