Before I begin:
- I am posting about my trip to Auschwitz. There are stories and pictures that may be disturbing. Proceed at your own discretion.
- I took this trip in 2001 and didn’t have a digital camera at the time (instead I went through 13 roles of film!). I am lazy; I didn’t want to scan all of my photos. So I have found pictures online that represent what I saw and remember. None of the photos are mine; all of the sources can be identified by clicking on the posted photos.
In 2001 a friend and I decided to take a trip over March Break to celebrate our last year of high school together. Our plans of lying on a beach and exploring a tropical island were quashed when we went to book our tickets and the travel agent informed us that, since neither of use was 18 years old yet, and we were not meeting an adult at our destination, she was unable to book the trip for us!
Cue Plan B – my friend’s family is from Poland and her grandmother still lives in Warsaw. It wasn’t a tropical paradise, but we could fly to Warsaw and stay with her grandma instead – problem solved!
I won’t go into all of the details, but during the week we were there, we split our time between Warsaw and Kraków. It was an amazing experience, and given my love of history I probably enjoyed the trip more than I would have enjoyed time down south. The weather wasn’t hot, but it was mild considering it was March.
While in Kraków (home of Oskar Schindler’s historic factory, btw) we took a day trip to the nearby town of Oświęcim. The town is better known by the name the Germans gave it during their WWII occupation of the country – Auschwitz. Oświęcim and nearby villages went on to become the home of the largest concentration camp under the Third Reich during the war.
The Auschwitz camp was actually made up of a number of sites, consisting of Auschwitz I (the Stammlager or base camp); Auschwitz II–Birkenau (the Vernichtungslager or extermination camp); Auschwitz III–Monowitz (also known as Buna–Monowitz; a labor camp); and 45 satellite camps. Birkenau, the German translation of Brzezinka (Polish for “birch tree”), refers to the neighbouring village that was destroyed to make way for the Auschwitz II camp.
The Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum is a memorial and museum founded on July 2, 1947, by resolution of the Polish parliament. The areas included are Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II-Birkenau, and the train ramp between Auschwitz and Birkenau. The three kilometres between Auschwitz and Birkenau are within walking distance. The museum is situated in several original buildings. It is devoted to the memory of the murders in both camps during World War II. The museum performs several tasks, among them research into the Holocaust.
First stop: Auschwitz I
The world famous entrance gate to Auschwitz I.
* I remember that we started our day at the museum by looking at displays and videos in the Visitor’s Center while we waited for the English guided tour to start. I honestly don’t remember a lot of this…it was an overview of the camp’s history. Only a statue in honor of the victims has stuck with me to this day:
* Tour starts. My first thought – the guide is cute! He has the weirdest accent I have ever heard, which I later learned is the result of a Pole learning UK English, creating a blend of the 2 accents.
* I’m no longer paying attention to the guide’s looks, I’m finally focused on what he’s saying…we are standing in front of the “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign. I have always had an interest in the Holocaust. This sign has appeared time and time again in the books I have read. I know what’s coming is going to be bad, and yet I am so unprepared…
* 11 years later, I no longer remember the order we visited the buildings in. But the displays and purposes of those buildings have stuck with me.
* Block 10 was where women and men were used as experimental subjects for German doctors. The experiments in Block 10 ranged from skin testing for reaction to relatively gentle substances, to giving phenol injections to the heart for immediate dissection. The experiments conducted were mostly on women. The main doctors who worked in Block 10 were Josef Mengele, Dr. Clauberg, Horst Schumann, and August Hirt. The windows were boarded up to prevent prisoners from seeing in and so patients could not witness activities at the adjacent Black Wall. To this day no visitors or staff are allowed into Block Ten, because it is where Dr. Mengele and Dr. Clauberg performed some of the most vile experiments ever carried out on humans.
The boarded up windows of Block 10. The covers were angled to allow a little light to enter the top. The two poles in front of Block 10 were used for the hanging punishment in which prisoners were hung by their arms, which were tied behind their back, usually resulting in dislocated shoulders..
* Block 11 of Auschwitz was the “prison within the prison”, where prisoners who broke the camp’s rules were sent. Some prisoners were made to spend the nights in “standing cells”. These cells were about 1.5 m2, and four men would be placed in them. Prisoners would spend the night in these cells, unable to do anything but stand, and were still forced to work during the day with the other prisoners.
Entrance to a "standing cell". Prisoners had to crawl in through the small opening. To the left, another cell door is seen. The opening to the right is a 3rd cell, which has not been fully reconstructed.
In the basement of Block 11 were located the “starvation cells”; prisoners incarcerated here were given neither food nor water until they were dead. One of the most famous victims of the starvation cells is Father Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish priest who died as prisoner 16670 on August 14, 1941. When a prisoner escaped from the camp, the Nazis selected 10 others to be killed by starvation in reprisal for the escape. One of the 10 selected to die, Franciszek Gajowniczek, began to cry: “My wife! My children! I will never see them again!” At this Father Kolbe stepped forward and asked to die in his place – his request was granted.
He led the other condemned men in song and prayer and encouraged them by telling them they would soon be with Mary in Heaven. After two weeks of dehydration and starvation, only Kolbe remained alive. The guards wanted the bunker emptied and so gave Kolbe a lethal injection of carbolic acid. Some who were present at the injection say that he raised his left arm and calmly waited for the injection. He canonized as a martyr by Pope John Paul II on 10 October 1982, with Franciszek Gajowniczek in attendance.
A sample "starvation cell". This cell has two religious pictures scratched into the wall by a Polish political prisoner, using only his fingernails.
In the basement were the “dark cells”; these cells had only a very tiny window, and a solid door. Prisoners placed in these cells would gradually suffocate as they used up all of the oxygen in the cell; sometimes the SS would light a candle in the cell to use up the oxygen more quickly.
On September 3, 1941, deputy camp commandant SS-Hauptsturmführer Fritzsch experimented on 600 Russian POWs and 250 Polish inmates by gathering them in cell 27 in the basement of Block 11 and gassing them with Zyklon B, a highly lethal cyanide-based pesticide. This began the use of Zyklon B as an instrument for extermination at Auschwitz, and a gas chamber and crematorium were constructed by converting a bunker.
Cell 27; the window in the door is covered. Tourists are not permitted to see inside the cell.
* Block 11 also housed the camp “court”. Prisoners were brought to trial; the prisoner was generally not allowed to speak in their own defense and were almost always arbitrarily found guilty. Those condemned to be shot were led to the washroom on the ground floor where they stripped naked and awaited execution. When the time came they were led outside; the place of execution was a specially built wall in the yard between Blocks 10 and 11.
They were shot singly, or in pairs, in the back of the head. Regardless of the time of year, the latter were shot naked and barefoot, first the women, then the men. The still bleeding bodies were then taken by van to the camp’s crematorium. As the vans drove through the camp they would leave trickles of blood behind them.
The wall was painted black and built of wood and cork board. Sand was used at the foot of the wall soak up the blood of the victims. The wall is now known as the “Wall of Death” or “Black Wall”.
The Black Wall s now a memorial. I remember this was the first example of the Jewish tradition of leaving a stone on a grave - the cracks of the wall were full!
* Every day the prisoners had to report for roll-call in the square next to the camp kitchen. It is located to the right just after you enter the ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ gate. They were forced to stand in their thin uniforms, regardless of the weather, until everyone on the roll was accounted for. The SS had a booth to stand in to shield them from bad weather. If someone had escaped, this could take hours. The longest recorded roll-call lasted 19 hours, during which time prisoners were expected to stand at attention. If anyone broke formation or sat down (or collapsed from hunger or exhaustion) they were shot immediately. It is said that it was quite easy to escape from Auschwitz; but the consequences for the prisoners left behind were so severe that most people couldn’t morally make the decision to try to escape.
The roll-call square. In the distance, by the SS officers' booth, you can just make out a set of gallows. Troublemakers were hanged here publicly in front of the prisoners (e.g. 12 Polish political prisoners were hanged here in July 1943 for making contact with local civilians).
* I remember that it seemed like no matter where you looked, there was barbed wire. The camp was surrounded and sub-divided by a double row of electrified barbed wire. The warning signs written in both Polish and German have become an icon of the camp as well.
* Block 4 houses a display called “Extermination”. There was a room full of hair that had been shaved from workers and victims. The hair is decaying, which is thought to be due to the fact that the victims had been gassed. The hair was used for several things, including being made into blankets for German submariners.
* Block 5 is devoted to displays called “Material Evidence of Crime.” One of the saddest and most horrific sights I saw at Auschwitz is the displays in Block 5. A mountain of shoes in a huge glass case that takes up half of a barracks room.
There was a display taking up half of another barracks room in Block 5, which contained the suitcases brought by Jewish people arriving at the camp. The Jews were instructed to mark their suitcases for later identification; you can still see the names. Some of the suitcases bear the word Waisenkind, which means orphan. It was a sharp reminder that not only were some of the victims of Auschwitz children, but some of those children were already orphans.
But the final and most grewsome display in Block 5 was one containing confiscated artifical limbs. Many came from Polish veterans of WWI.
* Block 6 contained a similar display to those of Block 5, this time of eyeglasses.
* In one of the memorial buildings there was a hallway of Nazi-taken mug shots of prisoners, complete with their dates of entry and death. This system was used to track prisoners until the number of prisoners arriving at the camp began to sky-rocket, resulting in the introduction of the infamous left-arm number tattoo.
* Block 24 was used as a brothel…
* Auschwitz I had a gas chamber & crematorium. We entered the gas chamber first. It was unsettling to say the least. Then our guide swung the door shut, the only source of light in the room is now a small opening in the roof. He explains that this is where the Zyklon B would be dumped in before a metal hatch was closed, sealing the chamber from both fresh air and light.
Once the door to the gas chamber was opened, we proceeded next door to the crematorium. Our group was silent as we filed by the three ovens.
The ovens had a capacity of 340 bodies in a 24 hour period, less than half the capacity of the gas chamber, which was 600 to 800 people. The gas chamber originally had no ventilation system, so it took some time to air out the room between gassings.
When the number of corpses exceeded the capacity of the oven, corpses were burned on open pits.
* In 1947 Rudolf Höss, first commandant of Auschwitz, was returned to Poland and tried for his crimes. He was sentenced to death. During his time in prison he wrote his memoirs; the only regret he expressed was that he did not spend more time with his family. On April 16, 1947, he was hanged on a specially constructed gallows in Auschwitz, the site of his crimes. I admit, I spit on the gallows.
Second stop: Birkenau
After finishing our guided tour of Auschwitz I, we were given the option to board a bus and continue our tour at the Auschwitz II – Birkenau site. Of course we decided to continue on.
The entrance gate to Auschwitz II (Birkenau) as viewed from the unloading ramp.
* The first thing I was struck by upon passing through the gates of Birkenau was the size of the place! The Birkenau section of the Auschwitz complex of camps was a little over one square mile in area. From Wiki:
Construction on Auschwitz II-Birkenau, the extermination camp, began in October 1941 to ease congestion at the main camp. It was larger than Auschwitz I, and more people passed through its gates than through Auschwitz I. It was designed to hold several categories of prisoners, and to function as an extermination camp in the context of Heinrich Himmler’s preparations for the Final Solution of the Jewish Question, the extermination of the Jews.
* That split railroad track will be an image I will never forget…
* My second thought – the place was pretty barren. During its operation, most of the camp was made up of wooden buildings, mostly to house prisoners. Over the years the wooden buildings have decayed, leaving only foundations and a ghostly forest of chimneys, a landscape made all the more bleak by the ever present barbed wire fences and guard towers.
* 19 of the originally 300 wooden buildings had been reconstructed as part of the museum. The barracks were awful enough inside just being on the tour. Listening to our guide describing life for its inhabitants was sobering, the conditions absolutely unimaginable.
* And if we thought the housing was bad, we were floored when we saw the communal latrines…
* The belongings of the arrivals were seized by the SS and sorted in an area of the camp called “Canada,” so-called because Canada was seen as a land of plenty. I remember my friend and I both being slightly appalled that our country was associated with such a grizzly part of this horrible place.
* Birkenau was created to be a death factory. The industrial-scale murders committed there have made the name Auschwitz infamous. The brutality began upon arrival. Survivor Leo Schneiderman recalls his arrival:
It was late at night that we arrived at Auschwitz. When we came in, the minute the gates opened up, we heard screams, barking of dogs, blows from…from those Kapos, those officials working for them, over the head. And then we got out of the train. And everything went so fast: left, right, right, left. Men separated from women. Children torn from the arms of mothers. The elderly chased like cattle. The sick, the disabled were handled like packs of garbage. They were thrown in a side together with broken suitcases, with boxes. My mother ran over to me and grabbed me by the shoulders, and she told me “Leibele, I’m not going to see you no more. Take care of your brother.”
The first gas chamber at Birkenau was “The Little Red House,” a brick cottage converted into a gas chamber by tearing out the inside and bricking up the walls. It was operational by March 1942. A second brick cottage, “The Little White House,” was similarly converted some weeks later. But as The Final Solution shifted into high gear, the killing capacity of Auschwitz had to be increased; there was no way to house the volume of people arriving by train. The twin pairs of gas chambers were numbered II and III, and IV and V. The first opened on March 31, 1943, the last on April 4, 1943. The total area of the gas chambers was 2,255 square meters; the capacity of these crematoria was 4,420 people. Those selected to die were undressed in the undressing room and then pushed into the gas chambers. It took about 20 minutes for all the people to die. In II and III, the killings took place in underground rooms, and the corpses were carried to the five ovens by an electrically operated lift. Before cremation gold teeth and any other valuables, such as rings, were removed from the corpses. In IV and V the gas chambers and ovens were on the same level, but the ovens were so poorly built and the usage was so great that they repeatedly malfunctioned and had to be abandoned.
The gas chambers and crematoriums were built at the back of the camp so that the distance, barracks and birch forest would provide some cammoflague to the outside as to what was really happening in the camp.
Towards the end of WWII in Europe, as the Soviet Army approached, the retreating Nazis blew up the gas chambers and crematoriums in an attempt to hide what had been going on.
* As we walked around the remains, untouched since they were destroyed by their makers, I noticed the smell of something burning, like a wood fire. After 5 minutes of convincing myself that I was imagining things, my friend mentioned the same smell. We couldn’t see a source, but I’m sure it was something simple like a house in the village with a fire going or something. But given the setting, it certainly was an unsettling addition to the experience.
* Speech (paraphrased) given by Obersturmführer Franz Hössler to a group of Greek Jews in the undressing room shortly before the group was led into the gas chamber to be killed:
“On behalf of the camp administration I bid you welcome. This is not a holiday resort but a labor camp. Just as our soldiers risk their lives at the front to gain victory for the Third Reich, you will have to work here for the welfare of a new Europe. How you tackle this task is entirely up to you. The chance is there for every one of you. We shall look after your health, and we shall also offer you well-paid work. After the war we shall assess everyone according to his merits and treat him accordingly.”
“Now, would you please all get undressed. Hang your clothes on the hooks we have provided and please remember your number [of the hook]. When you’ve had your bath there will be a bowl of soup and coffee or tea for all. Oh yes, before I forget, after your bath, please have ready your certificates, diplomas, school reports and any other documents so that we can employ everybody according to his or her training and ability.”
“Would diabetics who are not allowed sugar report to staff on duty after their baths”.
* The Germans learned that human ashes made good fertilizer for crops. When the crematoriums in Aushwitz-Birkenau were cleaned, the ashes were poured into ponds. The water from these ponds was used on nearby agriculture.
The ash pond for Crematorium II. The markers are monuments for the victims whose remains were dumped in the pond for Crematorium III, which has since dried up.
* The tour ended at the International Monument. The unveiling of the International Monument to the Victims of Fascism in Birkenau, as the memorial was originally called,occurred in 1967 with approximately 200,000 people in attendance. Polish state officials, prisoners’ organizations from many countries,the Israeli welfare minister, the East German and Italian foreign ministers, and numerous ambassadors and journalists were present. The memorial features plaques with te same insciption in 19 different languages. The original plaques, indicating that “4 million people” were killed at Auschwitz, were removed in 1990 and replaced with plaques stating the more accurate figure of “one and a half million.”
The International Monument. One of the multi-lingual plaques can be seen on the bottom left.
* As we walked around a bit more after our tour, we came upon the ash pond for Crematorium IV. This pond was different than the others; it was almost picturesque. Calm waters littered with flowers tossed in to honor the victims dumped there.
I didn’t get it while I was there. I still don’t think I really get it now, because I simply cannot imagine living through an experience like Auschwitz. I didn’t break down at the time. It wasn’t until a couple of weeks later, as I was going through the pictures from my freshly developed 13 roles of film that I began to process what I had seen. There truly is no way to convey the impact of this museum…it simply must be experienced.