Today I visited Auschwitz I, and Auschwitz II – Birkenau.
No words or photos can do justice to the things I felt while touring around these two enormous concentration and extermination camps.
I would like to use my photos as a bit of a talking point for this post, as I need them to anchor my thoughts; or else I would be here writing for days.
Firstly, on arrival, the sheer size of Auschwitz I was overwhelming. Decades later, you can still feel the history in the atmosphere, and the mood is somber and reflective. The first thing that surprised me was the number and scope of massive buildings built with brick. I had assumed that the whole camp would have been made of the wooden buildings I saw the likes of at Sachsenhausen, and in films and documentaries. I would soon see that a huge portion of the camp was in fact made of wood, but the wooden shacks were reserved for the men. These brick bunks were initially military training and boarding facilities, but during the War, they were used to house prisoners; in fact, prisoners were also forced into making more of these brick buildings to house more and more prisoners over the years. Although the brick may have been arguably warmer than the wooden buildings, the conditions were no better, and hundreds of women slept on the floor on straw mattresses.
To walk into this section of the camp, you had to enter under the same ironic slogan splashed about freely during the war; work will set you free. We were told that the prisoners had to walk through this original gate at least twice a day, often to the sounds of a band comprised of prisoners who were forced to play upbeat music which was thought not only to make counting the prisoners easier for the guards, but to also encourage the prisoners to walk at a quicker pace.
Work will set you free – this gate is said to be original.
A lot of these brick buildings are now turned into museums and exhibits about the prisoners that were held in the camp; mostly Jews – especially towards the end of the War. I was already moved by being at this very camp; a piece of history that has been high on my wish list since high school, unlike Sachsenhausen which I happened to stumble upon whilst visiting the area. There was snow built up in certain parts of the camp, adding to the atmosphere, and it was a bitterly cold day.
Snow made the original roads slippery and the cold got right up side your shoes.
We went through a few of the exhibits, mainly talking about statistics and the logistics of the camp. Basically Auschwitz was so large and buzzing because it was so central to Europe and was hidden away from the allies, making it the perfect place for a termination camp. From the approximate 1.1 million prisoners who were murdered at Auschwitz, 90% of them were Jews.
One of the buildings we went into was dedicated to the belongings collected from the Jews before they were sent to be executed. I had seen similar photos, but to see these artefacts with my own eyes was truly overwhelming – more than a few times I simply welled up with emotion.
A collection of glasses and glass eyes collected from prisoners with the intent of being recycled
I think the thing that set me off was physically seeing all these personal items piled together in one nameless, un-identifyable pile. I have learned many statistics and facts about the countless victims, but seeing personal items like this makes it so much more real. These each belonged to a human being. The prosthetic limbs below were also taken from the prisoners. How rare is it for somebody to need a brace or prosthetic limb? Certainly not as common as a pair of glasses; yet the Nazi’s managed to collate a whole room full of these items.
Prosthetic limbs, braces, crutches and other medical aides
This cabinet was filled with baby clothes and shoes; no child was spared regardless of how innocent they were.
Baby clothes and shoes – they were tiny and beautiful and gut wrenching
This one particular room was filled, wall to wall, with men’s and women’s shoes. There was also a room with children’s shoes which was equally heart breaking. The shoes I saw were not just old boots, but people’s nicest shoes and sandals; many (less so towards the end as rumours were spreading about the fate of those directed to Auschwitz) truly believed they were being relocated as promised, or at least would have opportunity to wear their favourite clothing items again.
Shoes line both walls of this room, nearly ceiling high
I’m not so sure why I took a photo of this pair of shoes. I think it blew my mind to think that in all this mayhem and chaos, these two shoes had managed to be reunited; a fate many families from this camp were not able to share in.
There was also an equally daunting room filled with human hair. This was sickening. Women had their bodies shaved completely (as did the men) and their hair was used to make mattresses and other ‘useful’ items during the war. Of the immense pile I saw, much of it was still in braids, all had faded to a sad, dull, brown color, and each strand in every lock belonged to an innocent human soul – out of respect, no photos were taken.
Men’s shaving equipment was confiscated and the telling collection of shoe polish was indicative of the pride of these people, and their desperation to continue on with as normal a life as possible; doctors, lawyers, teachers and professionals being amongst the first prisoners as any highly educated person (especially a Jew) could pose a threat to the Nazis… these were modern, fashionable, every day people.
Shoe polishing brushes and below, shoe polish
Perhaps one of the saddest of the personal belonging collections was that of the suitcases. Prisoners had been instructed to write their personal details on the front of the suitcases so that once they had taken a ‘shower’, they could be reunited with their luggage. Many wrote their name, date of birth and town. One of the suitcases had the date of birth as 1938 – the toddler would have been only a few years old. It was heart breaking stuff. So, so real.
A separate brick building we visited was dedicated to prisoners of Auschwitz who were kept in the concentration camp section of Auschwitz I; the 10% who were deemed fit for work and spared the immediate fate of the gas chamber. Many of these prisoners only lived for 2 to 3 months anyway due to disease, malnutrition and overworking. There was a collection of photographs of prisoners who had managed to be recorded; accompanying their photo was their name, occupation, date of birth, arrival date, and date when they died. Out of all the prisoners whose photos were on display, I did not see anyone who survived for more than 4 months.
Another tear jerking exhibit – these women had been shaved and their eyes had no trace of hope at all; most rarely even showed fear – it’s like they had given up
This exhibit seemed to go on for ever. I couldn’t tear myself away. I felt like I owed each of them the time to read the short few sentences that in the end proved to be all that they left behind; so many were students, most of them in their 20’s and 30’s, and not one showed any aura of hope. This particular man’s photo caught my attention straight away.
He seems to have such a look of strength about him that many others did not show. To me, it looks like moments after this photo was taken, he could have very well attacked the photographer. He looks angry and defiant; gritting his teeth in a huge effort of self restraint. I was further surprised then to read he was a teacher. Despite his look of fortitude he lasted one month before he died. The photos did not say how these prisoners were killed, but some how or another, he was certainly murdered.
This exhibit was so immense – it made some attempt to show the sheer number of people murdered and highlight the various walks of life they came from and varies corners of Europe
I chose not to enter into Block 11. This was the ‘treatment’ block where the Angel of Death, Josef Mengele, worked and preyed on the Jews. Many disgusting experiments took place here. Mengele was particularly interested in twins; in particular, figuring out a way he could further the chances of German’s conceiving twins to intensify the repopulation of the German people post War. He conducted pre and post mortem experiments on the brains of Jewish twins, and also experimented with injecting various prisoners with poison straight into the heart as a method of killing. A few days before liberation he collected all his documentations and fled Germany. He was never found and tried for his countless crimes but died in Cuba in his 70’s, a relatively old and free (!) man. I’m not sure how they know that he died in Cuba, but would not find him to try him for his crimes… but I’d like to think there is an honest, believable explanation.
Block 11, the ‘Treatment’ Block
In the photo below, I was trying to capture the extremity and layering of all the electric fencing. Apparently the electric barbed wire has been replaced, but the concrete pillars are original. The snow on the ground and the wooden barrack to the right are chilling aspects that would have been part of this hellish reality.
Double fencing around the perimeter of Auschwitz I
The roll call area. The first time someone went missing, the rest of the prisoners had to stand in the freezing cold for 23 hours until they were found.
As like in Sachsenhausen, one of these building was allocated as a jail. More experiments went on with these prisoners (mostly political prisoners and well educated people who posed the threat of organising an uprising) including the first test of gas later used in the mass genocide of prisoners; they needed to be sure how much to use without wasting any or the risk of not using enough. One of the most appalling things I saw in terms of prisoner torture (apart from the usual gallows, room of darkness etc) was these small rooms no more than 1m by 1m, where 4 prisoners were forced to stand side by side overnight… and then head off to work during the day… I didn’t take a photo – the concept of it was mortifying and I am unsure who would think up such devastating punishment systems. There was also a firing wall where prisoners were forced to strip naked before being shot from behind in front of this wall. Apparently one man set to be shot was a soldier. He stopped and turned to the SS guard and explained that he was a soldier, and wanted to die as one. Although the guards shot the prisoners from behind to spare them the emotion of having to look the victim in the eye, apparently this guard met the request, and shot this soldier prisoner from the front.
The firing wall – notice the blacked out windows of the next door bunker so that they couldn’t see the mass number of people being shot
One particularly touching story of this prison block was when 6 prisoners escaped, and in retaliation, the guards picked 6 men at random to shoot. One of them stood up to the guard and said hey mate, I have a wife and a family to go back to when all this is over… a Priest who was nearby spoke up and said, hey, I’m a priest, take me instead… and in a rare moment of graciousness, the guard allowed the men to trade places. This Priest was later canonised; where are these priests at these days!?
Auschwitz I also had its own small termination building; in case it was too inconvenient to bring prisoners the short 5km journey to Birkenau for termination… To say that walking through this building was overwhelming is such an absolute understatement.
As soon as I entered, the air changed, it was thick and heavy and I instantly found myself crying. You could see the ‘showers’ they had set up in their elaborate scheme to keep the prisoners calm. There were holes in the ceiling where SS Soldiers climbed onto the low roof and poured the gas crystals down into the room. Within half an hour, all prisoners would have been dead. I don’t have much more to say about this room, you can’t describe the reality of visiting such a place.
When the Nazis decided to start mass murdering, The Final Solution, of the thousands of prisoners who were brought in on the train daily, only 10% were sent to live in the concentration section of camp – the other 90% were deemed ‘useless’ and ‘unfit to work’ by a Nazi doctor, and by the wave of his hand, were sent straight to the gas chambers at Auschwitz II – Birkenau. They got so lazy about having to move the thousands of prisoners that they deemed unfit to work in fact, that they extended the railway literally right up to about 20 meters from the gas chambers… an efficient factory of mass murder.
The ‘Tower of Death’ Watch tower entrance to Birkenau with the train leading into the camp (I am standing in the camp when taking this photo) right up to about a 20 meter walk to the gas chambers.
An original garage which would have housed approximately 80 prisoners. The journey could often take up to 2 weeks.
The train would have been bringing in prisoners non stop, especially towards the end of the war. With the wave of a Doctor’s hand, you were given the chance to live for another day, or sent straight to the gas chambers. Other prisoners were working the crowd on orders of the Nazi’s, assuring their fellow human beings that they would be fine, luggage and belongings were being taken and stored in 2 nearby warehouses (called Canada in reference the sheer amount of wealth they housed) and then the the ‘lucky’ ones set off to their new barracks; men to the left in the wooden housing, women to the right in brick housing.
The remains of the wooden bunkers; each chimney represents a prison
Although all the wooden barracks have long since perished, this photo gives an indication of the sheer size of the concentration camp held at Auschwitz II; every standing chimney you can see used to be the central heating system of the wooden barracks… There are hundreds and hundreds of them.
An indication of what the camp would have looked like if all wooden bunkers had survived; note the chimneys made of bricks that are all that remain in the previous photo.
There was a section of wooden bunkers that were authentically rebuilt. They had no windows and were of a very similar set up to those I spoke of in my Sachsenhausen post. There were no toiling facilities, but instead, they had very few toilets to cater for the hundreds of thousands of prisoners and they were only granted access to these twice a day; morning and night – and with that, any more than a few seconds and the prisoners were hurried along by the ever lurking guards.
Toilet facilities used only twice a day; it was not unusual for hundreds of prisoners to line up for a few seconds use.
We were told that one survivor remembers her friend being awfully sick with diarrhoea – she risked an illegal visit to the facilities in the dead of night, fell in because she was so thin, and died in the pits. Apparently the job of taking care of these pits was highly sought after; it guaranteed that no guard would come near you. We can’t imagine this kind of reality.
Some carvings in a bunk post in the women’s dorm
Next we visited the women’s bunkers. The conditions were as appalling as we’d been seeing all day. We were told a tragic story of a brave woman who knew she was pregnant, but managed to keep it from the guards when she arrived on the train (pregnant women were ‘unfit to work’ and immediately sent to be killed). As she started to show more, some of the women got angry as it put them all in danger. Eventually, her room mates agreed to do her work and help cover for her. She carried to full term and had the baby. Only days after it was born, the baby was sick, and spent the whole night crying; an SS guard came into the barracks, found the woman and her newborn, shot them straight away without any questions, and walked back out again. You struggle to comprehend how one human could be so cold.
The female bunks where they would sleep 5 women to a section; at least
The view of the men’s barracks from the women’s side… so many chimneys
The prisoners who weren’t so lucky as to survive a few more weeks were sent down to follow the railway tracks, depending on where the Doctors sorted the masses. It was chilling to actually walk the path that so many hundreds of thousands of prisoners would have walked in their last minutes.
Retracing the footsteps of the last walk of so many poor souls
A picture tells a thousand words. All that’s missing in this photo is the babies screaming, mothers clutching their children with uncertainty, trying to catch last glimpses of their husbands perhaps heading in a different direction; fear thick in the air, dogs barking, chaos everywhere.
The biggest termination building in Auschwitz II
Unsurprisingly, the Nazi’s burned any evidence when they were certain they would lose the war. They bombed their own Termination Buildings. However, the layout of this facility was still easily recognisable with the explanation of our guide. Along the right was an enormous space where the prisoners were told to undress and prepare for their showers. This is where the panic begins, but not for the reasons you’d think. Men and women were ordered to undress in the same space; there are men and women, and children who in this era, have probably never even seen their parents naked. Young girls start to panic and protest, children start to cry upon feeling the tension in the air, dogs are barking furiously as impatient soldiers are hurrying everyone along; the door is locked behind them now, the charade is over, there is no need for the guards to continue to keep everyone calm. Finally they are herded into the ‘shower rooms’ where the gas is unleashed from the roof. It takes the form of tiny crystals that fall to the floor and release the gas. Because of the properties of the gas, the smallest and shortest die first, people realise and start scrambling over each other to get to higher, fresher air. When there is silence, after about 30 minutes, the guards open the door to find naked bodies, often entangled in embraces, piled high on top of each other; a last display of human nature to fight for life for as long as you can surrounded by those who are dearest to you. Bodies are then carted off by prisoners who often break down upon recognising a family member, friend or fellow member of their community, to the next door crematorium which is constantly working overtime, burning thousands of bodies per day.
There is only one occasion where someone is known to have survived the gassing. It was a 15 year old girl who was found by a Jewish prisoner when he was carting the lifeless bodies to the crematorium. After his initial shock, he wanted to help the girl escape. They didn’t even get outside of the building before a soldier found them and shot the girl; it was reported he didn’t shoot immediately, however… he too was absolutely shocked as to how someone could survive the gassing… it is now thought she managed to find an air supply somewhere in the gassing chamber; an amazing example of luck and the will to survive.
There is another termination building opposite the one photoed above, it is built in absolute mirror image. Between them both is the memorial constructed to commemorate the victims of WWII and Auschwitz concentration and termination camps.
The memorial is meant to be symbolic of the crematorium chimney and the bodies falling around it
The memorial was simple and tasteful. There was a plaque in all of the languages that any recorded prisoner may have spoken.
‘For ever let this be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity, where the Nazis murdered about one and a half million men, women and children, mainly Jews, from various countries of Europe’ Auschwitz – Birkenau 1940-1945. The tribute to the innocent lives lost in this place.
With that finale, it was time to call it a day. I was physically exhausted, and even writing this post has been an effort. I could not dream of covering everything I saw and felt here in such great depth; I just hope that I can share a little about what I learnt today with some of you in some small effort of honouring the lives of those murdered, sharing their stories, their fight and their bravery, and spreading the knowledge of these atrocities in the hope that nothing this appallingly wicked will ever, ever happen again.