The international interest in the world's most important symbol of the Holocaust, Auschwitz-Birkenau, is bigger than ever. According to the memorial’s press office, 1.3 million people from all over the world visited the former German concentration and extermination camp last year – a record in the memorial’s 62-year history. The number of visitors was about 100,000 above the previous record of 1.22 million set in 2007.
The vast majority of visitors – 821,000 - are young people, of which 600,000 are from Poland where visiting the camp has been made mandatory for students. Compared to 2008, the number of young visitors from all over the world increased by 120,000 – which the director of the museum, Piotr MA Cywinski, considers a very pleasant development.
"The importance of this place in the history of the world can not be overestimated”, he said. “The Europe of today cannot be understood without an in-depth knowledge of Auschwitz.”
It is, he added, impossible to grasp one’s own responsibility without listening to the stories of the victims of the Holocaust. “Therefore, I am very happy about the increase in young visitors. The future of the world lies in their hands.”
The top five countries represented among visitors to the memorial are Poland, Britain, Italy, Israel, and Germany. The head of the public service section, Kaczorzyk Andrew, recorded an 18,000 some-odd increase of Israeli tourists alone of compared to last year’s numbers.
Germany news agency DPA added that fewer visitors came from North America, probably related to the economic crisis and the depreciation of the dollar, whereas the number of visitors from Asia has been constantly growing.
However, a German-Polish news website “polskaweb.eu” speculates that the memorial does not shy away from more-than-questionable methods to reach these numbers. Accordingly, even the theft of the “Arbeit macht frei” sign that made headlines two weeks ago, may ultimately have been a PR gag to draw attention to Auschwitz, and thus increase the numbers of visitors, the site claimed.
In December, the sign was stolen from the front gate. Shortly after, five men had been arrested. On Sunday, the British Sunday Mirror reported that the sign, which was located two days after the theft cut into three pieces, was destined for a UK collector of Nazi memorabilia who commissioned a Swedish neo-Nazi group to steal it.
However, polskaweb.eu pointed out several discrepancies and contradictions in the statements of the Polish authorities that cast doubt on the investigations.
Thus polskaweb concluded that the entire theft was in fact "free publicity”, a campaign to draw attention to the memorial, prove the world of the dangers Auschwitz is being exposed to, and thus supporting its current fund-raising campaign launched on December 18, when the German government decided to allocate 60 million euro to preserve the barracks, gas chambers and other evidence of Nazi crimes at the former death camp.