Auschwitz and Birkenau

I have known for months that today’s visit was going to happen, but there is no way adequately to prepare for it. Today we visited the most awful place that I have ever been, or hopefully ever will be.

This post is no fun at all, and is not for the faint.

Auschwitz is the German name for the Polish city of Oświęcim, which lies about 50 kilometers west of Kraków. Today we took a day trip there. Auschwitz is the site of the largest of the Nazi extermination camps that were used during World War II. Between 1.1 and 1.5 million children, women, and men were murdered at Auschwitz and Birkenau (a separate site that is part of the Auschwitz complex). Approximately 90% of these victims were Jewish. These numbers are estimates, as the German records kept about these killings was lax. A great many victims arrived by train, were immediately gassed, and their remains were burned. Their names were not even recorded.

Although the Auschwitz site was originally established to house Polish political prisoners, its ultimate mission was realized following Hitler’s decision in late 1941 to exterminate all European Jews (the so-called Final Solution). From 1941 until late 1944, transport trains delivered Jews to the camp’s gas chambers from all over German-occupied Europe. Poland was selected as the site for most of the Nazi’s extermination operations due to the heavy concentration of Jews that resided in Poland (approximately 3 million before the Nazis got started). Prisoners that were gassed were killed with the pesticide Zyklon B. Approximately 1 in 6 Jews killed in the Holocaust died at one of the two Auschwitz sites. In addition to Jews, people deported to Auschwitz included 150,000 Poles, 23,000 Romani and Sinti, 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war, 400 Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, and tens of thousands of people of diverse nationalities. Living conditions were brutal, and many of those not killed in the gas chambers died of starvation, forced labor, infectious diseases, individual executions, and medical experiments.

We were guided through the two sites with a small group of English-speakers by a wonderful Polish guide named Aga. That is not her whole name, but that’s as much of it as we were allowed to handle. She spent a few hours with us, walking us through the site and carefully, calmly explaining the horrors that awaited Auschwitz’ inhabitants. The way that these people were treated, and the way that they died, is truly horrific.

It is of course not easy to summarize my feelings about this visit. There is no happy ending to this story. In the history of the camp from 1941 until it was liberated by the Soviets in early 1945, only about 140 prisoners successfully escaped. Fewer than 7,000 prisoners were alive at Auschwitz at the time of the liberation. Well over a million people were murdered there. Of the estimated 7,000 SS personnel who were employed at this facility, less than 800 were located and made to answer for their crimes.

Camp commandant Rudolf Höss was found and tried in 1946. He was brought back to the Auschwitz camp and executed there by hanging in the spring of 1947.

Seeing this place, and hearing these stories has left me stunned and disappointed about people’s capacity to do such horrible things to one other. I have thought for a long time about this, and I cannot fathom how a group of hundreds or thousands of rational people can be convinced and made willingly to murder millions of civilians.

I’ve also tried to give a lot of thought to what the positives are of this visit, this place. There are a few:

The museum documenting and preserving the Auschwitz site was opened to visitors in 1947, and is still going strong today. When it was first established, camp survivors guided the tours. Despite the horrors that are depicted at Auschwitz, there is a positive element to the fact that this place exists. These atrocities have not been lost or whitewashed; they have not been swept under the rug. These murders are remembered and discussed. (I hope that) having a constant, visceral reminder of the Holocaust makes such a thing less likely to happen again.

Some Auschwitz survivors still live. Aga said that each year on the anniversary of the Soviet liberation of Auschwitz, some of the survivors visit the site together. This January, there were about 100 Auschwitz survivors present. That’s a powerful, inspiring thought.

Aga also told us a beautiful story today about a man who sacrificed himself for another. The Nazi’s that ran Auschwitz had a practice of punishing the prisoners every time someone attempted escape. Each time an escape was attempted, ten prisoners from the attempted escapee’s prison block were randomly selected and starved to death together in a cramped cell. During one such random selection, a soldier with a family was selected, and a priest named Maximilian Kolb volunteered to take his place. The priest was killed, but the man whose place he took, Franciszek Gajowniczek, survived his time at the camp and lived until 1995. After the war he returned to his family. Before his death from natural causes, he regularly visited Auschwitz to remember Kolb and recognize the sacrifice that he made. Kolb was beatified for his selfless act.

Here are some pictures that Becci took today.

20140603-230424.jpgThis is the kitchen building. Jobs in the kitchen were among the most coveted by prisoners, due to access to food and heat. Most people that arrived at the camp were killed immediately upon arrival. Those that were of the right age and who appeared fit were given jobs. The vast majority of those jobs were outdoor construction jobs, and construction workers in the Polish winter had an average camp lifespan of a few weeks due to inadequate clothing and food. Kitchen workers fared much better.

20140603-230532.jpgHere are a couple of brick barracks which housed camp workers at Auschwitz. Each building housed around 800 prisoners, in crowded, unsanitary conditions. Prisoners wore thin shirts and pants at all times. There were no coats or winter clothes. Clothes were washed or replaced every three months, for prisoners who lived that long. Prisoners were allowed to use the bathroom for a few moments at specific times twice a day.

20140603-230611.jpgPolitical dissidents and prisoners who had been sentenced to death were lined up against this wall and shot in the back of the head. Workers could be sentenced to death for refusing to work or for other rules infractions. It is believed that about 7,000 people were executed against this wall. Based on what I learned today, I believe that this way to die was the most merciful and desirable of all of the ways that one might have been murdered at Auschwitz.

20140603-230707.jpgThis barbed-wire fence separated men’s barracks from women’s barracks. It features two walls of electrified barbed wire.

20140603-230748.jpgThis is an actual gas chamber that we were allowed to walk into. This is the smallest of Auschwitz’ five gas chambers, holding a maximum capacity of about 800 people. The larger chambers could accommodate up to 2,000 victims.

This is the only gas chamber at Auschwitz that is intact. One was destroyed by prisoners during an uprising that occurred in late 1944. The other three were destroyed by retreating SS soldiers during the last few days prior to the Soviet liberation of Auschwitz.

Newly-arrived victims were led to the gas chamber under the deception that they were to be de-loused or to shower following a long train journey to the site. Many Jews came to Auschwitz semi-willingly, having been told that they were being taken someplace to start a new life. Most were killed in one of these gas chambers within a few minutes of arrival at the camp.

There were a set of prisoners whose job was to process and burn the remains of the murdered. Processing the bodies entailed removing gold jewelry and teeth, as well as shaving all of the hair from the victims’ heads. This hair was sold to stuff pillows and mattresses.

These prisoners were always eventually gassed themselves in order to eliminate witnesses to these horrors. However, they bought themselves a few weeks of additional life by performing this function.

20140603-230833.jpgThese train tracks transported Jewish and other victims to Auschwitz in cramped and unsanitary cattle cars. Journeys lasted from 2 to 10 days. Many victims died during the journey, before ever reaching the extermination camp.

20140603-230911.jpgFollowing the long train journey, men were sent in one direction for their shower, and women and children in the opposite direction. This gate led to the men’s shower (gas chamber). The spot from which this photo was taken is the spot from which many husbands and wives saw each other for the last time.

20140603-231001.jpgA field near the railroad track.

20140603-231044.jpgThe remains of one of the large gas chambers at Birkenau; it was destroyed by the SS in early 1945, before they abandoned the site. When they left, they forced able-bodied prisoners to march to Germany, while abandoning or murdering the infirm prisoners who remained at Auschwitz.

20140603-231127.jpgThese are the smokestacks that remain from some of the estimated 300 barracks buildings at Birkenau. Most of the buildings were destroyed by the SS during the 1945 retreat. Unfortunately for the prisoners, the fireplaces in these barracks were rarely used, as no coal or wood was ever made available to keep the prisoners warm during the harsh Polish winters. The prisoners in their flimsy clothes were kept warm primarily by being packed so tightly onto their wooden sleeping pallets that they had to sleep immobile on their sides.

20140603-231213.jpgAnother view of some of the barracks buildings. There had been a Polish village at this site prior to the arrival of the Nazis. The local folks got evicted from their homes during the occupation. The smart ones left quietly; those that did not were sent to remote Nazi camps and imprisoned or murdered. The villagers’ houses were destroyed, and the bricks from those houses were used later by Birkenau prisoners to construct these barracks.

20140603-231327.jpgThis is the interior of one of the barracks buildings. Each of the wooden shelves shown was the home to up to seven prisoners. The “lucky” ones wedged into the top bunk. Folks on the middle bunk experienced diarrhea from the top bunk’s inhabitants. Prisoners on the bottom level were sleeping on a concrete floor, enjoying the involuntary waste of the 14 people above them, and experiencing the unwelcome company of rats and insects.

20140603-231434.jpgHere’s a wider shot of the gate leading to the men’s gas chambers. One event that happened at this spot was the selection of workers from the masses. Those that appeared fit were not sent to the gas chambers for immediate extermination, but were pulled aside for a slower death via long hours of work with unsatisfactory working and living conditions. Neither the slowly nor the quickly killed knew what was in store for them or their families. As a matter of fact, the Nazis went to fairly elaborate lengths to explain to the unwitting victims a logical process, in order to preserve calm and order during the slaughter and imprisonment. For example, at this spot, as people came out of the stinking cattle cars, the Nazis had each person carefully mark their luggage for easy identification and recovery following their “shower”. No one ever got their luggage back.

20140603-231516.jpgThese wooden barracks were originally erected as stables, but were converted into barracks and bathrooms. They were even less conducive to life than the crude brick barracks.

20140603-231554.jpgThis washroom was the last stop for prisoners who were to be executed against the wall. Executed prisoners were stripped and were executed naked as a final form of humiliation.

20140603-231634.jpgSome of the suitcases of Auschwitz murder victims. The clothes and other belongings of the murdered and the imprisoned were confiscated and used by the state. The Auschwitz complex featured two very large warehouses for the sorting, storage, and shipment of these belongings. Prisoners performed this sorting work, which like the kitchen, was considered to be a very good job amongst the Auschwitz prisoner community, due to access to food, shelter, and black market items.

20140603-231718.jpgA display of victims’ shoes. There were about 40,000 shoes in this display, which is of course a tiny fraction of the shoes taken from the victims of Auschwitz. There were many baby and children’s shoes here; babies and children who were too young to work were always exterminated immediately, along with their mothers.


2 replies »

  1. John and Becci – I’ve been following your adventures and am very thankful that you all are sharing them with all of us. Thank you!! It sounds like you are having such a wonderful time and is most likely an adventure you will never forget. Your writing and photos are so vivid that I can absolutely imagine what you are experiencing. And I love that Lincoln and Penny are able to tag along for the ride. 🙂

    I think your visit to Auschwitz and the photos shared is the most compelling and gut-wrenching. Jerry and I recently toured the Holocaust Museum in DC and spent about six hours studying the exhibits, writings, photos, etc. I know how profoundly moved I was just seeing that — I can only imagine what you and Becci experienced. Whew!! I’ll bet you sure had to have a drink (or two) after that one.

    Again, thanks for sharing your adventures. See you next year when you return!! Keep on truckin’ friends!

  2. A great heart-felt post regarding a tough visit on the trip. I am glad you both got to see it first hand and thankful that you wrote about it. Look forward to visiting you both soon in person.

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