The Nazi concentration and death camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau require little explanation, as thankfully the truth of the horrors that occurred behind the electrified barb-wire fences escaped to be told to future generations.
It was a difficult decision to visit a place that is so deeply ingrained with the suffering and deaths of so many people, but it has always been somewhere that I have felt a need to visit and experience. I’d previously watched movies like Schindler’s List and read the utterly fantastic graphic novel, Maus, so I had a little idea of what took place there.
We booked a tour with Auschwitz-Krakow.com, and were met with a young driver who picked us up from our hostel in Krakow just before 9AM. I wouldn’t normally pay for private transfers, however it worked out quite cheap, and allowed us to cram more into a day.
It was an exceptionally warm day for January, with temperatures hovering close to double digits and not a spec of snow to be seen, however stepping out of the van the wind bit straight through our clothes and really sent a chill to my core. I was glad to be visiting on a cold, grey and miserable day, as I think this suited the place best. The juxtaposition would be strange on a beautiful summer’s day, with green grass and flowers in bloom.
We joined an English guided tour, put on our radio headsets, and assembled a little before the iconic gates, with the sadistic “Arbeit macht frei” (work sets you free) slogan. We’d already walked past barbed-wire fences, but setting our eyes on those famous words sent further chills down my spine.
Once inside the gates, it was hard to imagine that such events took place here, as it looked like a regular housing estate, with regular looking red-brick dormitory blocks. Fortunately, our guide did a great job of bringing the place alive, explaining about the restrictions and the conditions that the prisoners were faced with.
Many of the buildings had been converted into museums, exhibiting discovered photographs that documented the camp while in operation, explaining the transportation and processing of prisoners.
Other blocks contained the possessions of prisoners, which they were forced to leave on the train platform after arriving, and before going to the gas chambers (or being assigned to work duties). Most of these possessions had been sorted and shipped to Germany for their civilians, however what remained was from the final days before Soviet troops arrived and the Germans were forced to flee. There were rooms filled with suitcases with their owners names printed on (lies told to the prisoners, that they would return for them after showering and disinfecting), as well as other rooms filled with prostheses, glasses, toothbrushes, bowls, mountains of shoes, and used canisters of the pesticide Zyklon B.
Most disturbing of all these rooms was one filled with human hair, shaved from the prisoners and sent to Germany for use for fabric and other materials. This particular room was an estimated 2,000kg of bundles of hair, each weighing approximately 40g. For understandable reasons, this was one of the few areas in the camp where photography of any kind was forbidden. I still find this one of the most shocking exhibits in the museum, as it’s impossible to not be astounded by both the scale, but also by the way these people were treated as animals. Truly chilling.
We also visited the infamous Block 11, where people were left in enclosed rooms to slowly die, either of starvation, or lack of oxygen (sometimes to speed this up, soldiers were said to leave a candle burning), or in other tiny rooms where they were forced to stand with three other prisoners. The conditions were truly horrid, and it really showed the darker side of humanity, and I couldn’t help but be reminded of one of the most horrifying movies I’d seen, The Road. The walls inside were lined with the faces, information and fate of some of the people processed at this camp.
We continued walking through the camp, with a quick visit to a small bunker where the pesticide Zyklon B was dropped from the ceiling to kill all inside, before their corpses were dragged to be incinerated. This was one of the original gas chambers, which was later enlarged and improved in the second camp at Birkenau. I had read stories of the struggles people in these chambers went through to escape, with tales of fingernails left in the walls from trying to scratch their way out. I didn’t have the stomach to look for the scratch marks in the walls, however I’m told they are visible.
We stopped for a quick break before heading to Auschwitz II Birkenau, where we rejoined our tour guide. This camp was much larger, and was also responsible for the majority of the deaths, with an estimated 80% of new arrivals destined directly for one of the multiple gas-chambers a short walk from the train platforms.
Our first stop was to the wooden barns that were used to house the prisoners. The original were built from brick, but the newer ones were built from timber, and resembled the barns that livestock are kept in over winter. She explained the conditions the lived in, with the overcrowding, the disease, the freezing temperatures and the schedules – they were only allowed to visit the bathroom twice a day.
We walked along the train tracks, to the infamous platform where passengers were let out of their cattle carts, after sometimes several days being locked inside (without food or water). They told to mark their belongings and leave them on the platform. They were then marched for a rudimentary inspection from a doctor, and those desired for work were separated from the rest – who were directed towards the gas chambers (under the pretence of it being a shower).
This was the second sickening aspect of the camp. Everything had been designed for efficiency, by trying not rousing suspicion in the prisoners and keeping them controllable, and other little things like forcing them to tie their shoes together (for easier shipping of pairs to Germany), and for forcing other prisoners to carry the dead bodies to the crematory (saving the trauma from their own soldiers). These prisoners working in these buildings were eventually killed the same way, with the first job of the new prisoners to dispose the bodies of the previous prisoners, stopping the tales of what happened within from escaping.
The Nazis sensing the imminent retreat did their best to cover the tracks of their crimes, by destroying records of the prisoners, and attempting to destroy the large gas-chambers/crematoriums. All that is left now is the rubble and monuments to the million-plus men, women and children who died here.
Much like the Atomic Peace Monument in Hiroshima, it’s a dark and somber place, however I feel it’s an important place to visit to understand the destruction that people are capable of carrying out.