I decided to write two separate blog posts for my second day in Kraków because even though we had seen so many sights during the first half of the day (in the previous blog post), nothing could have prepared us for the second half of the day which was spent at Auschwitz and Auschwitz II-Birkenau. To make it easier to follow along, the way this post is written goes hand in hand with the pictures and signs below, as I detail my experience throughout.
We arrived at Auschwitz, and the line of people waiting to get in seemed endless. The one positive note about this experience was that so many people wanted to learn about the tragedy that was the Holocaust, so at least we as a society are not forgetting our past. As we walked through the gates into the camp, a sign above us read, “Arbeit Macht Frei,” or “Work Makes You Free,” and one could feel a chilling sensation passing by these words, all while knowing what had once happened here.
“Throughout the world, Auschwitz has become a symbol of terror, genocide, and the Holocaust. The German forces occupying Poland during the Second World War established a concentration camp, on the outskirts of the town Oświęcim, in 1940; the Germans called the town Auschwitz and that is the name by which the camp was known. Over the next years it was expanded into three main camps: Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II-Birkenau, and Auschwitz III-Monowitz and more than forty sub camps. The first people to be brought to Auschwitz as prisoners and murdered here were poles. They were followed by Soviet prisoners of war, Gypsies and deportees of many other nationalities. Beginning in 1942, however, Auschwitz became the setting for the most massive murder campaign in history, when the Nazis put into operation their plan to destroy the entire Jewish population of Europe. The great majority of Jews who were deported to Auschwitz (men, women, and children) were sent immediately upon arrival to death in the gas chambers of Birkenau. When the SS realized that the end of the war was near, they attempted to remove the evidence of the atrocities committed here. They dismantled the gas chambers, crematoria, and other buildings, burned documents, and evacuated all those prisoners who could walk to the interior of Germany. Those who were not evacuated were liberated by the Red Army on January 27, 1945. On July 2, 1947, the Polish Parliament established the State Museum of Oświęcim – Brzezinka on the sits of the former camps at Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau. In 1979 these camps were formally recognized by UNESCO by their inclusion on its World Heritage List.”
There must have been thousands of people on separate tours walking through the camp, but even so, it just seemed so gloomy and desolate. You read about the tragedies that occurred here, you hear stories, and you see movies, but there is nothing that can truly prepare you for walking on the actual grounds. The fencing and barbed wire, the watchtowers, and old, dark brick blocks, and the gloomy gray sky above us really makes you think how people were able to survive such conditions and brutality. The strength and courage that everyone must have had during the Holocaust is unbelievable, and there really aren’t any words that can describe how it makes you feel.
“On 7 October 1941 a camp was established in Auschwitz for Soviet POWs. About 10,000 men were registered as prisoners and held in a special fenced-off compound comprising blocks 1-3, 12-14, 22-24. Most of them died of hunger, hard work, and SS brutality. Many others were gassed or shot by order of a special Gestapo commission. Those who refused to work were forced naked out of their blocks in the freezing winter weather and doused with water, as a result of which many froze to death. Within five months, by March 1942, some 9,000 had died. The remainder were transferred to the newly constructed Auschwitz II-Birkenau.”
The first bunk we entered was Bunk 4, which is currently a room dedicated to selection of Jews deported to Auschwitz. Upon entering into the bunk, you immediate see a quote by philosopher, poet, and both literary and cultural critic, George Santayana. It reads, “The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again.” That’s why constant learning and trips like these are so important because just like any genocide survivor, Holocaust survivors will only live for so long. Sooner or later, it will be up to us to share their stories and make sure that no people of any race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or religious belief are targeted ever again.
“Auschwitz was the largest Nazi German concentration camp and death camp. In the years 1940-1945, the Nazis deported at least 1,300,000 people to Auschwitz.
1,100,000 Jews; 140,000-150,000 Poles; 23,000 Roma (Gypsies); 15,000 Soviet Prisoners of War; 25,000 Prisoners From Other Ethnic Groups
1,100,000 of these people died in Auschwitz. Approximately 90% of the victims were Jews. The SS murdered the majority of them in the gas chambers.
“We must free the German nation of Poles, Russians, Jews and Gypsies”
-Otto Thierack; Minister of Justice of the Third Reich
“Jews are a race that must be totally exterminated.”
-Hans Frank 1944; Governor General in Nazi occupied Poland
June 1940: Beginning of deportations of Poles. The Nazis sent to the camp 140-150 thousand Polish prisoners; half of them perished
June 1941: Beginning of deportations of 25 thousand prisoners of various nationalities; about half of them perished
Summer 1941: Beginning of deportations of 15 thousand Soviet POWS. Most of them perished.
March 1942: Beginning of mass deportations of 1.1 million European Jews. Auschwitz started fulfilling two functions: while remaining a concentration camp, it became a sit of the Holocaust, the biggest mass murder in the history of mankind. Perpetrated by the Nazis, about 1 million deported Jews were murdered by the SS mainly in gas chambers.
February 1943: Beginning of deportations of 23 thousand Roma (Gypsies); 21 thousand of them perished.
Estimated Numer of Jews Deported to Auschwitz:
430,000 from Hungary; 300,000 from Poland; 69,000 from France; 60,000 from the Netherlands; 55,000 from Greece;
46,000 from the protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia; 27,000 from Slovakia; 25,000 from Belgium; 23,000 from Austria and Germany; 10,000 from Yugoslavia; 7,500 from Italy; 690 from Norway; Plus approximately 34,000 Jewish individuals transferred from other concentration camps.
In the following pictures, you can see Jews arriving to Auschwitz from Hungary, and exiting the cattle cars. You can then see them off the cars and standing outside, awaiting selection, during selection, on their way to the gas chambers, and then the grounds emptied out after selection, with only SS soldiers and personal belongings left behind. The next picture is of the only known footage of women on their way to the gas chambers. The source of these pictures is unknown.
“The people were selected on the railway platform. Those to be gassed were assured that they were going to take a bath. Dummy showers were fixed to the ceiling. Cudgelled and hallooed with dogs, 2,000 victims were crammed in the chamber- 210 square meters/approximately 235 square yards in area. The chamber door was locked, and Zyklon B was poured. After 15-20 minutes, the chamber was opened, corpses were stripped of gold teeth, hair, earrings, rings, and then transported to a crematory. Victims’ personal documents were destroyed.” The next few pictures show a model of the gas chamber and crematoria, as well as some of the many empty cans of Zyklon B that were used to kill those who entered. A map of the camp also helps with understanding the layout of Auschwitz.
“From 26 March 1942 until mid-August of that year, Blocks 1-10 were used as a camp for women prisoners. It was separated from the men’s camp by a high wall. About 17,000 women, Jewish and non-Jewish, who had been deported from Germany and throughout German-occupied Europe were housed here. During these four months, a few thousand women were sent to the gas chambers or died as a result of the conditions in the camp—starvation, rampant epidemics, lack of sanitary facilities, and slave labour. Those who were still alive in August 1942 were transferred to the new main women’s camp in Sector BI of Auschwitz II-Birkenau.”
The next picture shows a collection of glasses that were taken from the Jewish victims who entered into the camp with them. The following picture shows aids (such as prosthetics, crutches, etc.) used by the Jewish victims who were handicapped. You can then see pots, pans, and dishes that were collected upon arrival. When the Jewish people were evicted from their homes and forced to leave, they brought some of their belongings with them, pictured below. They each had a suitcase, piece of luggage, or basket, and in the pictures, you can see the names of who the luggage belonged to, and the addresses of where they lived. You can also see piles and piles of shoes belonging to those who entered the gas chambers, seeing as they undressed first. The final picture of belongings is that of personal items of hygiene included shaving brushes, hair brushes, etc. As we left the block we were in and went back outside, we passed by the experimentation block.
“Several hundred women prisoners, mainly Jewish were held in two upstairs rooms of this block and used as human guinea-pigs for sterilization experiments conducted by Prof. Dr. Carl Clauberg, a German gynecologist from April 1943 to May 1944. Some of them died from the treatment they received, others were murdered so that autopsies could be performed on them. Those who survived were left with permanent injuries. Other SS doctors also conducted experiments on women in this block.”
As we walked past the extermination block, we came across a wall with flowers in front of it, unaware of the additional atrocities that took place before us.
“From 1941 to 1943, the SS shot several thousand people at the wall in this courtyard between Blocks 10 and 11. Most of those executed here were Polish political prisoners, about all, the leaders and members of clandestine organizations and people who helped escapees or facilitated contacts with the outside world. Poles who had been sentenced to death in nearby towns were also brought here to be shot, including men, women, and even children who had been taken hostage in revenge for operations of the polish resistance against the German occupation. Prisoners of other nationalities and ethnic origins, including Jews and Soviet POWs, were also sometimes shot at this wall. The SS administered brutal punishments here: floggings, and also the torture known as “the post,” in which prisoners were hung from a post by their wrists with their arms twisted behind their backs. The execution wall was dismantled in 1944 on the orders of camp authorities. Executions were subsequently carried out elsewhere, most often in the gas chambers and crematoria at Auschwitz II-Birkenau. After the way, the execution wall was partially reconstructed by the museum.”
Our final stop in Auschwitz was to the gas chamber and crematorium, which we were not allowed to take pictures inside of. As you step down into the chamber, you can see where the dummy shower heads were up above, leading people to believe that they were going to take a shower and get cleaned off. I think the most powerful image I recall from walking through what was once a munitions bunker and then a gas chamber was the scratch marks all along the inside of the walls, where the victims desperately tried to escape once the chamber door was closed and locked. On the other side of the chamber was the crematorium, where some of the Jews were assigned to place the corpses inside the lit fire. And often times these crematorium workers came across the bodies of neighbors, friends, and even family members.
“Before the war this building was a munition bunker. From 15 August 1940 to July 1943 the SS used it as crematorium. In the autumn of 1941, the largest room, which had been designed by the camp as a morgue, was adapted for use as an improvised gas champed, the first of its kind in Auschwitz. Several groups of Soviet POWs were also murdered here in this way, as were sick prisoners whose return to work was considered unlikely. Poles form outside the camp who had been sentenced to death by the German summary court were shot here. After the establishment in Auschwitz II-Birkenau of two more improvised gas chambers in spring and summer of 1942 for the mass murder of the Jews, the gassings here were gradually stopped. Later, with the completion in Auschwitz II-Birkenau of four purpose-built gas chambers with crematoria, the burning of corpses here was also stopped (July 1943). The building was subsequently utilized for storage, and then as an air-raid shelter for the SS. The incinerators, chimney, and some of the walls were dismantled, and the holes in the roof through the SS had poured Zyclon B were sealed. After the war, the museum partially reconstructed the gas chamber and crematorium. The chimney and two incinerators were rebuilt using original components, as were several of the openings in the gas chamber roof.”
The next two pictures are of another camp map, and the evacuation route that was used while the Red Army was advancing towards the end of the war. At this point, our group boarded the bus and drove over to Auschwitz II-Birkenau, which is just about a two-mile distance. As we walked into Birkenau, the first thing you immediately notice the long stretches of land completely surrounded by fences, barbed wire, and watch towers. The railroad tracks also lead right up to the center of the camp.
“Immediately after getting off the train, the Jews were ordered to line up into two columns, one of women and children and the other of men. Each column was subjected to ‘selections’ by SS doctors and medical orderlies, there and then on the ramp: the strong and the healthy were separated from the old, the sick, and children. People selected as fit for work were sent to the camp. The others, usually 70 to 75 percent of a transport, were sent to be murdered in the gas chambers (photos taken by the SS, 1944).”
We saw a bunk that was designated as a latrine, and it was merely holes where the victims would have to do their business in public, cramped alongside one another. Needless to say, it was beyond unsanitary and often times they were beaten by the guards while using the latrines. And some people were even assigned to clean the latrines by hand as another way of dehumanizing them.
“I suddenly see Steinlauf, my friend aged almost fifty, with nude chest, scrub his neck and shoulders with little success (he has no soap) [He] sees me and asks me severely why I do not wash. Why should I wash? Would I be better off than I am? Would I please someone more? Would I live a day longer?…. Does Steinlauf not know that after half an hour with the coal sacks every difference between him and me will have disappeared?….
[Steinlauf says]“…even in this place one can survive, and therefore one must want to survive, to tell the story, to bear witness; and that to survive we must force ourselves to save at least the skeleton, the scaffolding, the form of civilisation.
“We are slaves, deprived of every right, exposed to every insult, condemned to certain death, but… … we must certainly wash our faces without soap in dirty water and dry ourselves on our jackets…. …for dignity… We must walk erect, without dragging our feet… …to remain alive, not to begin to die.”
– Primo Levi, “Survival in Auschwitz”
The next bunk we went into was the barracks containing three-tier wooden bunks intended for 15-20 prisoners to sleep, for a total capacity of more than 400 prisoners per barracks. The barracks also happened to be unheated in the winter. Two iron stoves were eventually installed, but they weren’t sufficient enough to heat the entire space. With a few minutes to spare before having to return to the bus, we came across yet another guard tower as well as a train car used to transport the victims to the site. And with that, our tour of Auschwitz and Auschwitz II-Birkenau had concluded.