The red brick barracks that housed starving inmates are sinking into ruin. Time has warped victims' leather shoes into strange shapes. Hair sheared to make cloth is slowly turning to dust.

Auschwitz is crumbling - the world's most powerful and important testament to Nazi Germany's crimes falling victim to age and mass tourism. Now guardians of the memorial site are waging an urgent effort to save what they can before it is too late.

Officials last week launched a campaign to raise $165 million to create a "perpetual fund" whose interest can be drawn on indefinitely to repair barracks, watchtowers, crematoria and other structures at the Auschwitz-Birkenau state museum and memorial in southern Poland.


The Nazis opened Auschwitz after invading Poland in 1939, the act that triggered World War II, using it first as a concentration camp for Poles and political prisoners.

"There are no more remains of Treblinka, Kulmhof, Sobibor and Belzec," said museum director Piotr Cywinski, referring to extermination camps the Nazis destroyed in an effort to hide their crimes. "Let us not allow the biggest of these death camps ... to fall into decay due to the ravages of time and our indifference."

The efforts already got a big boost with a donation of $82 million from a still repentant Germany. Together with pledges from the United States ($12 million), Austria ($6 million) and smaller amounts from other countries, the fund has now raised nearly two-thirds of what is needed.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

FIRST STEPS The museum plans to start with a massive effort in 2012 to save 45 brick barracks at Birkenau. Just a few years ago, visitors could enter all the barracks. Today only four can be viewed.

"We really can't wait any longer," says Cywinski. "In 10 years, these will be ruins."