Auschwitz and Birkenau

Death camp.

The words flowed easily, as if the guide had said them many times before. And indeed he had, and would continue to do so throughout the day. Despite the manner in which they were said, and how many times they were said, the emotion behind them never left. For it was here that hundreds of thousands came to die. At first it was Polish political prisoners, those who disagreed with and resisted Nazi ideals, or simply were found to be listening to foreign radio, reading illegal pamphlets. Then, came those unlucky enough to have been born into the wrong racial or ethnic groups - the Jewish, the Slavic, the Romani and others.

Auschwitz is considered to have opened on June 14, 1940 when the first shipment of Polish prisoners were sent to the camp. At that time, it wasn't a death camp. It's sole purpose was not yet to carry out the so-called ''Final Solution'' to the ''Jewish Problem.''  These prisoners, most of whom only survived a few months, were there because they opposed the German occupation of Poland. The Jewish, along with the Romani, Slavic, and other ethnic groups, arrived later.

''Freedom through work'' Entrance to Auschwitz

Example of the terrible things members of the nazi party thought


Pictures from the first shipment of prisoners to Auschwitz in 1940

Information on a polish prisoner sent to Auschwitz. He was an electrician and survived nearly 8 months, much longer than many others.

There are two camps that can be visited here - Auschwitz and Auschwitz II Birkenau (most commonly called Birkenau). Within the first year of being open, Auschwitz was expanded, more barracks were built, to house even more prisoners who were often sent to nearby factories as slave labor during the day and returned to the camp at night. Their daily lives at the camp were miserable. Food rations were poor and consisted 1500 calories or more likely less, per person per day, the labor was hard and demanding, and the living conditions were terrible. Clothing was often inadequate in the colder months.

Prisoners were to wear symbols on their clothing to indicate their ethnicity or reason for imprisonment

The clothing of a jewish prisoner

one of the cell blocks

Many people arrived at the camp in over crowded train cars. They were told that they were being resettled and many times brought the things they would need to start life anew - combs, clothing, shoes, food, sometimes even small household appliances. When they arrived, they were told to leave their belongs, that they would be returned later, and to form two lines - men in one, women and children in another. As they marched past an SS officer, they were further segregated. Those who looked young, healthy, and able to work were sent in one direction to be registered, the rest - the elderly, the feeble, the weak, children, pregnant women - were sent in another direction. They were told they were being sent for decontamination, after all, communicable diseases such as typhus run rampant in such close quarters. Other prisoners, chosen to help with the newest influx of prisoners and knowing what their fate would be, would sometimes tell young, healthy mothers to leave their small children with their grandparents. For many, this was the last time they saw each other. Families were split up, husbands from wives, mothers from their children, siblings from each other.


A broken lock on one of the doors

barbed wire fences surrounded the camp


An unlucky few were chosen neither for labor, nor for immediate gassing, but rather, for terrible medical experiments. Genetic tests were run to support the Nazi ideal that the Aryan race was superior. Some camp doctors performed experiments on behalf of drug companies, or to test the limits of survival of the human body. Twins were often used in a number of experiments. Various sterilization procedures were often tested in an effort to find the easiest, most efficient way in which to render an entire population infertile. Many times, the prisoners did not survive these gruesome experiments. Those that did were often left maimed, unable to care for themselves, and unable to work. And in the camps, an inability to work meant only one thing - the gas chambers.

The hospital block

Throughout the camp, one can see the reminders of the horrors that happened here - the stacks of suitcases, often times with names, addresses and professions painted on for easy identification, the mounds of combs that were brought, the piles of eye glasses, over 2 tons of human hair that had been cut from prisoners before they were killed to later be made into textiles, the piles of shoes they wore on their final journey, some of which so incredibly small they could only have belonged to a child. And the stacks of empty Zyklon B canisters - the fastest, most efficient, method the Nazi's found for killing the prisoners.


Piles of shoes from the prisoners and victims


stacks of empty Zyklon B canisters - the poison used to gas the victims

Our guide then took us to the most infamous part of the camp - the gas chambers and crematorium. It was here that hundreds of thousands lost their lives, their bodies burned afterwards, for ashes were better disposed of than bodies. 

From there, were traveled to Birkenau, 3 kilometers away. While Auschwitz was built as a labor camp, and only later became a death camp, Birkenau was built for extermination. With multiple gas chambers and crematoriums, one's life expectancy here was short. Today, nothing but rumble remains of the the gas chambers. The Nazis destroyed them before they retreated from the camp.

Entrance to Birkenau. Hundreds of thousands passed through here

Watch tower in Birkenau

Sometimes, in an effort to escape the cruel life they lived within the camps, the prisoners would commit suicide by walking directly towards the barbed wire fences. It wasn't the fences that killed them, it was the guards stationed in the watch towers, armed with weapons. And those guards were rewarded for their duty. 

Entrance to the barracks of Birkenau

Birkenau was bigger than I expected. The large, flat expanse of fields, dotted by brick chimneys, the only evidence that remains of the hundreds of barracks that once stood, bisected by railroad tracks, and surrounded by trees whose leaves were exploding the autumn color, was almost peaceful. It did not look like a death camp. It's calmness gave no hint of the horrors, the killing, that happened here. The rain and clouds that, fittingly, had been present all morning, were clearing out and the sun was shining. Had we been anywhere else, it would have turned into a beautiful fall day. As it was, the warmth from the sun and the colors on the trees, were a stark juxtaposition to the history of this place.

Many ask why anyone would want to visit a place with such a terrible history. Perhaps there is a bit of morbid curiosity behind their motives. Perhaps some lost their family members here and are coming to remember them. Still others, and an ever dwindling number, actually remember being prisoners here, and have the tattooed number on their arm to prove it. Indeed, our visit was one of the most sobering experiences we have ever had. Despite that fact that the Holocaust seems to have happened in a different era, we must remember was only 70 years ago that the camp was liberated, less than a lifetime ago. We must never forget what happened here, the 1.1 million people who lost their lives, the families that were destroyed. It is in their memory that we visited, so that this may never happen again.