In the drive to stop the site falling into ruin and preserve the memory of the 1.1 million overwhelmingly Jewish victims who died here during World War II, they face tall odds.
“This is our last chance,” warned Piotr Cywinski, director of the state-run museum.
The museum keeps going thanks to the Polish government, which covers around half of its costs, plus visitors’ ticket fees. Up to five percent of its budget comes from the US-based Lauder Foundation and Germany’s regional governments.
Last month it announced plans for a €120-million ($162-million) appeal to enable it to become self-financing.
Crucially, said Cywinski, it could then set aside some €5 million a year for conservation work.
The rudimentary buildings of the camp’s Birkenau site, built by the prisoners on marshy land, are being battered by soil erosion and water damage.
“We have to finish conservation work on all these buildings within 10 to 12 years, so we need to start within three years at the latest,” said Cywinski. “The primary goal is to preserve the site’s authentic nature and not to rebuild it, in order not to change the perception of this place,” he added.
“But the big question today is: do we want to save this place?” he said.
Preserving a single barrack-block costs around €880,000, said conservation chief Rafal Pioro.
Warsaw has called on the international community to support the new drive to maintain the camp.
The museum site covers 191 hectares (472 acres), with 155 buildings and 300 ruins, and has a collection of thousands of personal items, as well as documents exposing the minutiae of the Nazis’ killing machine.
The Nazis initially set up the camp for Polish resistance fighters, nine months after invading Poland in September 1939.
The original camp was at a former Polish army barracks on the edge of the southern town of Oswiecim – known in German as Auschwitz.
Two years later the Nazis greatly expanded the site at nearby Brzezinka, or Birkenau.
Around 1.1 million people died at Auschwitz-Birkenau between 1940 and 1945 – one million of them Jews from Poland and elsewhere in Nazi-occupied Europe – some from overwork, starvation and disease, but most in the notorious gas chambers.
It was one of six death camps set up in Poland – home to pre-war Europe’s largest Jewish community – by the occupying Germans, who murdered six million Jews during the war.
Non-Jewish Poles, Roma and Soviet POWs were also among the victims of Auschwitz-Birkenau and the other death camps of Chelmno, Treblinka, Sobibor, Majdanek and Belzec.
The museum devotes much of its time protecting the intimate traces of the prisoners’ presence.
Each of the 80,000 shoes stockpiled by the Nazis, for example, are being painstakingly preserved.
“There’s no technical problem to bring back the original beauty of an old shoe, but that would wipe away its entire story,” said Cywinski.
The task of the museum’s laboratories, financed by the Lauder Foundation, is unique.
“There are ways to restore Medieval objects, but not to conserve six-decade-old, poor quality plastic toothbrushes… We don’t have any reference point,” said Cywinski.
Researchers have identified 90 different kinds of ink or pencil on the 40,000 documents left by the Nazi medical service. Each requires a different conservation method, said expert Nel Jastrzebiowska.
The museum, set up by the Polish government in 1947, last year drew 1.13 million visitors compared to half that in 2001 – crucial for remembrance, but putting extra physical pressure on the site.