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BERLIN (Reuters) - A record number of schoolchildren visiting the former prison of Communist East Germany's Stasi secret police is threatening to bankrupt the memorial.
As Germany marks the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, more than 80,000 schoolchildren have so far toured the prison complex for free this year, diverting staff and resources away from other paying visitors.
"We're being punished by our own success," the memorial's director, Hubertus Knabe, said in a statement on Monday. "We're pleased so many students are coming, but the increased costs of their visits are exceeding our financial capabilities."
The memorial in eastern Berlin registered 160,000 visitors in the first half of 2009 -- 22 percent more than the previous record year -- over half of which were schoolchildren. Adults must pay 3 euros ($4.26), while concessions can enter for 1.50 euros.
The free tours have left the former prison struggling to cope with a budgetary shortfall of about 70,000 euros, and the memorial said the deficit could double by the end of the year.
In the first six months, the site in the Hohenschoenhausen area hosted 3,800 school tours at a cost of 150,000 euros.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who visited the center in May, has said memorials are crucial in teaching young people how human rights were violated in Stasi prisons.
Inside the drab concrete blocks, visitors can still see the barbed wire, watchtowers, cramped cells and interrogation rooms where political prisoners were detained. They were sometimes held for years without ever appearing before a court.
The memorial has now launched a media campaign to raise funds and has written to businesses, associations and celebrities in a bid for cash. School groups will be asked to make a donation of one euro per child.
"If the campaign is of no avail, we'll have to start turning school groups away," said museum spokesman Andre Kockisch. "This is the last thing we want."
Editing by Robin Pomeroy