Auschwitz & Birkenau

We left Kraków at 7am and had a very quiet bus trip to Oświęcim, the town (and Polish name for Auschwitz) where the Germans decided they’d center their “final solution to the Jewish question” efforts.

Jackie, the guide who I am sure you realise the group and I show great disdain for, did an impeccable job of sobering us all up with a depressing description and introduction to Auschwitz, while we were on the bus.

Google maps overhead of Oświęcim. Red is Auschwitz I, and Yellow is Auschwitz II-Birkenau. They are about 3km away from each other.

We pulled up at Auschwitz I, the original concentration camp set up “officially” to deal with the overcrowding of the existing prisons in Silesia, and on the necessity of conducting further mass arrests in the rest of German-occupied Poland. The place used to be a Polish barracks, and was selected because it was isolated enough to be a safe prison, but also because Oświęcim was a large railway junction. Rudolf Höss was appointed its first commandant, and on June 14, 1940, the Gestapo sent the first political prisoners to Auschwitz – 728 Poles from Tarnów.

We had some time to peruse the museum and read some more information before making our way to the entrance.

Entrance to Auschwitz I Museum.

We sat down for a 20 minute video documenting the horrific conditions those in the camps had to face. This really got most of us into a sombre mood, and really set the tone for the remainder of the 4 hours we would spend there. As I came out of the cinema-room, I observed our tour guide splitting our group in two so that we could be guided by the Auschwitz guides more easily. I couldn’t help but shiver at the thought that my circumstances were so completely different to those brought to this camp; they weren’t deciding whether I was fit for work and thus my extermination delayed.

Outside the entrance gate.

The entrance gate, "Arbeit Macht Frei" - Work sets you free. Not sure if this is the original or the repaired stolen one.

Auschwitz I initially had 14 buildings – 6 of which had a second floor. The following 2 years would see a second storey added to the other 8, and a further 8 double-storey buildings were constructed by the prisoners. The average number of prisoners fluctuated between 13 and 16 thousand, reaching a high of 20,000 in 1942.

The prison buildings in Auschwitz I.

One of the prison buildings.

The Block 11 execution wall, where misbehaving prisoners would be taken and shot.

A guard tower.

The prison blocks were filled with a series of exhibitions, most of which a testimony to the sheer amount of people who died at the Nazi concentration camps around Europe. In block 4, we saw crystals of Zyklon B and a pile of empty cans found by the Soviet liberators. We also saw 7,000 kg of human hair, which was packed tightly into hessian bags. This display filled half a room, and was only the left-overs from what the Nazis had not yet managed to sell. There was also a room filled with suitcases with the names of deportees printed on them, their owners all since perished. If that wasn’t overwhelming enough, there were also rooms filled with glasses, shoes, clothes, tooth-brushes, prosthetic limbs… and then another room full of crockery, a hint that those deported to the camps really had no idea where they were going. In fact, it wasn’t until they arrived that the supervisor would announce that they had “come to a concentration camp, from which the only way to escape is through the crematorium chimney.” Prisoners were marked with different coloured triangles; red for political prisoners, black for Gypsies, violet for Jehovas’ Witnesses, pink for homosexuals, green for criminals and yellow stars for Jews.

It wasn’t until late 1941 when the Nazis started experimenting in the art of mass extermination. They trialled Zyklon B on 600 Russian POWs and 250 Polish inmates in the Block 11 basement, which proved to be a success.

We walked to the only crematorium in Auschwitz I, Crematorium I. This features a gas chamber, and a furnaces, which could burn 350 bodies a day. The ovens were rebuilt by the Museum using the original metal parts, after the Nazis tried to destroy all evidence of their crimes.

Crematorium I

The electrified barbed-wire fence.

Another shot of the electrified barbed-wire fence.

I wonder if the people walking through the break in the fence in the distance feel what I felt as I walked through it. Easy for us, but impossible for all the innocents incarcerated back in the forties.

We got back into the bus and drove the 3km to Birkenau. Birkenau was selected by Heinrich Himmler because “the existing extermination centers in the East are not sufficient to cope with an operation on such a scale. Therefore I have designated Auschwitz for this purpose, both because of its convenient location as regards communication and because the area can be easily isolated.” It finally hit me. I was totally overwhelmed with emotion. Namely hatred. People can talk to you about Birkenau in figures (425 acres) and show you photos (as I am about to do) but until you’ve stood inside the iconic gates and looked all around you, you have absolutely no idea how expansive the place is. It really is incredible; and all of it build to kill people. All of it. Unlike Auschwitz I and most other concentration camps in Europe, Birkenau was specifically built to kill people on a scale the Nazis had never achieved before, and never would again. Almost all of the work securing the camp was completed by prisoners of Auschwitz I. There was little of particular interest remaining in the camp, but I sincerely hope my photos can give a sense of the pure expansiveness of the place. The word that comes to mind is ridiculous. Because it really is just that.

Enter Auschwitz II-Birkenau. The train tracks lead to the final stop for something like 2,000,000 people who didn't fit the Nazi image.

More electrified fences.

Never ending fences. This is taken facing North, from a spot just North of the entrance. In other words, this is taken from past the halfway point of this fence. The place is HUGE.

More fences

Even more fences. Note how far back the chimneys go!

This gate led women and children to their deaths in the gas chambers.

The view of the "gate of death" from the platform inside the camp.

A barracks that would house up to 200 prisoners. This was a good barracks to be in. The next photo shows why.

The majority of the prison blocks are wooden horse stables, converted to house prisoners. They had no floor other than the soil, and the rain and snow would fall inside through the huge ventilation windows above.

The remains of many prison blocks. When the Soviet troops started making headway in Poland, the Nazis fled Auschwitz, setting fire to as much evidence as possible and locking the gates behind them.

We walked all the way to the back of the camp, where the 4 crematoria once stood, chimneys visible from all over the camp. Along with the other crematoria, Crematorium II was destroyed by the SS in a feeble and obvious attempt to cover their crimes as the Soviets approached. Each crematorium was capable of burning around 1,500 bodies a day. The view in the photo below is roughly the last view of the world (and final breaths of open air) of those sentenced to death by gassing in Auschwitz II. They were told they were going to have a disinfecting shower, and they should undress and hang their clothes on the numbered hooks so that they could find them later. They were then told to enter the shower room, and were locked inside. The Nazis would then pour the Zyklon B pellets in through little holes, and 15 minutes later the Sonderkommando (Jews who had their lives spared if they would work with the Nazis) would remove any hair, gold teeth, and other valuables before placing the bodies in the furnaces.

Crematorium II

The International Monument at Birkenau. The stones are meant to represent the victims.

The inscription (written in Yiddish, English, and just about every language spoken in Europe) reads:

FOR EVER LET THIS PLACE BE
A CRY OF DESPAIR
AND A WARNING TO HUMANITY
WHERE THE NAZIS MURDERED
ABOUT ONE AND A HALF
MILLION
MEN, WOMEN AND CHILDREN
MAINLY JEWS
FROM VARIOUS COUNTRIES
OF EUROPE.
AUSCHWITZ-BIRKENAU
1940-1945

Crematorium II, destroyed as the Nazis left Auschwitz.

Not a particularly interesting photo, but a memory for me. I remember thinking, "wow, if only it were as easy for the victims of the holocaust to walk through this fence as it was for me..."

The tour ended and we said goodbye to our visibly depressed guide. What a job – she looked as though she could’ve been a Polish Jew to me; what a completely horrible job! We all got back into the bus after walking back through the camp, reflecting on what we’d all just seen and heard. The bus ride to Częstochowa was notably quieter than any other drive.