Oct 06 2007

Auschwitz

by in Central & Southern Europe, Poland

“With one stroke, mankind’s achievements seemed to have been erased. Was Auschwitz a consequence or an aberration of “civilization”? All we know is that Auschwitz called that civilization into question as it called into question everything that had preceded Auschwitz. Scientific abstraction, social and economic contention, nationalism, xenophobia, religious fanaticism, racism, mass hysteria. All found their ultimate expression in Auschwitz.” – Elie Wiesel, Nobel Peace Prize Lecture, December 1986

A mere 50km from the beauty of Krakow lies a mid-sized city by the name of Oświęcim, recognizable to most people only by its German name: Auschwitz. It was near Oświęcim that the Nazis established the largest of their extermination camps, the mass killing machines designed to fullfill their “Final Solution to the Jewish Question.” By the time that Soviet forces liberated the camp in January 1945, over 1.5 million Jews, political prisoners, Soviet POWs, and other people deemed “undesirable” by the Nazi regime had been systematically murdered.

Auschwitz was actually composed of several camps: Auschwitz I (the main administrative camp), Auschwitz II (Birkenau), Auschwitz III (Monowitz), and a number of smaller subcamps associated with various slave labor operations. Of these camps, we toured Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II (Birkenau).

Auschwitz I
Auschwitz I, the administrative center of all the Auschwitz camps, was established on the site of old Polish army barracks in May 1940. It was at Auschwitz I that prisoners marched to and from their work assignments under a gate that declared “Arbeit Macht Frei” (“Work sets you free”).

Auschwitz gate
Auschwitz gate
Auschwitz perimeter
Camp perimeter

Auschwitz
Auschwitz barracks
Auschwitz barracks
Prisoner blocks

Several of the blocks that formerly housed prisoners have been turned into educational exhibits detailing prisoner origins, camp life, and the process of selection and extermination. In some blocks, mounds of shoes, human hair, suitcases, Zyklon B canisters, and prisoner belongings fill massive glass display cases. Perhaps the most moving, though, is Block 11, the building that housed Polish political prisoners and others accused of sabotage or participating in the camp’s underground resistance movement. Many of these prisoners perished in the starvation cells and standing cells located in Block 11′s basement. It was also here, in September 1941, that the Nazis conducted their first experiments using Zyklon B for mass murder, killing 600 Soviet POWs and 250 Polish prisoners taken from the camp hospital.

Auschwitz execution courtyard

In the courtyard situated between blocks 10 and 11, there is a black wall built out of logs and covered with cork. At the base of the wall lie several wreaths, flower bouquets, and lit candles to commemorate the thousands of prisoners who were executed on this very spot.

Auschwitz
Auschwitz guard tower
Guard tower

Auschwitz fence
Electric fence

We walked to the opposite end of the camp and entered a small building that served as the camp’s gas chamber from 1942-43, and was later converted into an air raid shelter. Directly above us, cut into the ceiling of the gas chamber, were holes through which the SS poured the deadly Zyklon B pellets onto their unsuspecting victims below. We passed through the gas chamber and into a side room containing two ovens. This was the camp’s crematorium, where the bodies of executed prisoners were loaded onto steel trolleys and shoved into the ovens.

Auschwitz gas chamber
Auschwitz gas chamber
Entrance to the gas chamber

Auschwitz II (Birkenau)
Due to overcrowding at Auschwitz I, the Nazis began construction on Auschwitz II (Birkenau) in October 1941. With the construction of four gas chambers and crematoria, it was designed to execute mass amounts of prisoners as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Auschwitz-Birkenau railroad tracks

Prisoners arrived at Birkenau via long journeys in sealed cattle cars. Conditions in the train cars were so horrendous that some prisoners died before arriving at Auschwitz. The wreath placed on the tracks displayed the colors of the Hungarian flag, in memory of the Hungarian Jews sent to Auschwitz:

With the deportations from Hungary, the role of Auschwitz-Birkenau as an instrument in the German plan to murder the Jews of Europe achieved its highest effectiveness. Between late April and early July 1944, approximately 440,000 Hungarian Jews were deported, around 426,000 of them to Auschwitz. The SS sent approximately 320,000 of them directly to the gas chambers in Auschwitz-Birkenau and deployed approximately 110,000 at forced labor in the Auschwitz concentration camp complex.

Auschwitz-Birkenau selection area
Upon arriving at Auschwitz, prisoners were forced out of the cars and ordered to stand in line as an SS doctor made his selections, looking a prisoner over and simply declaring “right” – an assignment to a work detail – or “left” – to the gas chambers. With a mere glance from this doctor, a prisoner would be given a chance at life, or condemned to an instantaneous death.

auschwitz selection

It was late at night that we arrived at Auschwitz. When we came in, the minute the gates opened up, we heard screams, barking of dogs, blows from…from those Kapos, those officials working for them, over the head. And then we got out of the train. And everything went so fast: left, right, right, left. Men separated from women. Children torn from the arms of mothers. The elderly chased like cattle. The sick, the disabled were handled like packs of garbage. They were thrown in a side together with broken suitcases, with boxes. My mother ran over to me and grabbed me by the shoulders, and she told me “Leibele, I’m not going to see you no more. Take care of your brother.” – Leo Schneiderman

Auschwitz-Birkenau gas chamber
Auschwitz-Birkenau gas chamber
Auschwitz-Birkenau gas chamber
Auschwitz-Birkenau gas chamber
Auschwitz-Birkenau gas chamber
Ruins of the Krema II gas chambers and crematorium, where over 500,000 prisoners – told that they would be taking a shower- were gassed to death. In an attempt to hide their crimes, the Nazis blew up the gas chambers days before the Soviet Army arrived at Auschwitz.

Auschwitz-Birkenau guard tower
Guard tower

Auschwitz-Birkenau death gate
The “Gate of Death”

Auschwitz-Birkenau
Auschwitz-Birkenau prisoner barracks
Site of former prisoner barracks

Living conditions at Auschwitz were horrible. Food rations were meager, disease was widespread, and the living quarters were unfit for human habitation. When we visited Auschwitz in July, it was cold and windy, with the occasional light rain. I was glad I had brought along my jacket. I couldn’t imagine how cold the winters were for these prisoners, with nothing but a wooden shack for shelter.

Auschwitz-Birkenau prisoner barracks
Auschwitz-Birkenau prisoner barracks
Prisoner barracks

Auschwitz-Birkenau prisoner latrines
Latrines

We climbed the stairs to the top of the “Death Gate” tower for a view of the camp. The size of Birkenau, when compared with Auschwitz I, is staggering. Brick chimneys, the only remnants of many of the barrack buildings, stretch for hundreds of acres.

Auschwitz-Birkenau

Visiting Auschwitz was an incredibly moving experience. Standing in the gas chamber of Auschwitz I and on the train tracks of Birkenau, it was hard to comprehend that 1.5 million people were systematically murdered here, in this beautiful Polish country side. As a history minor in college, and history aficionado in general, I had certainly read a fair amount of material about the Holocaust, but no amount of reading or sitting through college lectures could prepare you for a visit to Auschwitz, where silence reigns and the smell of ash still lingers throughout the vast Birkenau complex.

Auschwitz-Birkenau


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25 Responses to Auschwitz

  1. From Ann:

    Wow… what an awesome experience. I’d love to visit this place and really feel what you have felt. I studied the Holocaust a lot in school. The travesty of it all just holds some sort of historical fascination of ‘how did this really happen.
    Thanks for letting me visit through your eyes.

    Posted on October 7, 2007 at 10:33 am #
  2. From Anonymous:

    yea i would like to go i saw the maovie and it’s wrong or sad

    Posted on November 23, 2007 at 9:51 pm #
  3. From Barrie:

    My wife, Daughter and I have just returned from a visit to Auschwitz. It was so very moving and sad. I work in a school and my visit has increased my compassion for the children. It has been a isit I will never forget.

    Posted on March 1, 2008 at 11:38 am #
  4. From Johnathan Jenkins:

    Great site. It’s amazing to see some of what you have seen with both this and Cherynoble. Thank you for posting the pictures.

    Posted on March 23, 2008 at 5:57 am #
  5. From Anonymous:

    Know what? I`m a Pole, I livie in Poland, about 200 km from Auschwitz and I`ve never been there. It`s unexplainalbe. Maybe I will go there one thay.
    Here in Poland we have learn a lot about holocaust in school, I saw a lot of films about it, but I have never been there. Weird isn`t it?

    Posted on July 10, 2008 at 3:10 pm #
  6. From daniel:

    i wish i could visit auschwitz some day

    Posted on July 25, 2008 at 12:07 am #
  7. From Alan Hayes:

    Hi
    I have just returned to my hotel in Krakow after visiting Auschwitz/Birkenau…..I agree with all you say…everyone should visit it and then they will think more clearly about how to treat others…a truly moving experience….thank you for sharing yours…
    Alan

    Posted on October 30, 2008 at 4:07 pm #
  8. From Tony Ferrara:

    The world new what Aldof Hitler was up too….
    but no one cared about his speeches the whole world should be taken to court

    Posted on November 6, 2008 at 4:15 pm #
  9. From Tony Ferrara:

    The world new what Aldof Hitler`s plans were THE FINAL SOLUTION the world did not pay attention to some of his speeches

    Posted on November 6, 2008 at 4:26 pm #
  10. From christian:

    i hate Hitler i mean it. I HATED HOW HE TREATED the jews just cuz of there religoun and the ways of life that just bugs me.

    Posted on December 18, 2008 at 8:41 pm #
  11. From Martin:

    I hate how hitler treated not only jews, but us Poles. I’m the Pole and i don’t like when ppl from other countries say ”Polish work camps”. It’s horrible. It wasn’t polish! There were killed poles by stupid german soldiers. One Pole wouldn’t kill other pole for nothing.

    Posted on December 20, 2008 at 3:49 pm #
  12. From Ugly:

    Hey Christian, get over it, man. He probably didn’t treat many people badly, but in a cowardly commander fashion recruited others to do his dirty work. And it wasn’t just the Jews, but anyone who didn’t fit into his ideal of perfection. Being short, disabled, bisexual, I wouldn’t have gotten off any easier even though I’m agnostic. Indeed my Polish ancestors had already settled in North America by this time and I’m glad of it.

    Posted on January 17, 2009 at 1:44 pm #
  13. From Remus:

    I was in Auschwitz three weeks ago,and i was very sad and angry on Adolf Hitler to see what he was doing there,to kill a lot of innocent people and childrens

    Posted on June 8, 2009 at 1:48 pm #
  14. From Erica:

    I first learned of the concentration camps when I was young. Actually I remember first learning about the camps and the millions of jews, and other minority’s that were killed on the WB11 show Seventh Heaven. There was a Holocaust episode where an actuall Holocaust survivor was a guest star. I was immediately intrigued and wanted to learn more about the holocaust and the nazi bastards. I just cannot believe that One man (Hitler) could have so many millions of people “EXTERMINATED”!! I cannot believe that, that one man had the power of death for so many minority’s. He was power and money hungary and didn’t care who he killed in the process for Absolute Power.
    It still saddens me when I see pictures of the concentration camps and the slaughter photos. The dead body pics are horrible. The emaciated pictures that I have seen are so horrible that it brings a tear to my eye every time. No matter how many times I see these devastating photo’s I am always saddened that all the people who were apart of the holocaust had to endure the kind of conditions that they did. My heart goes out to all those who were murdered tortured and humiliated in 1940-1945. If only our soldiers would have known sooner about the camps. There might have been more survivors. DOWN WITH HITLER AND JOSEPH STALIN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Posted on January 28, 2010 at 11:05 am #
  15. From nobody:

    i wouldnt even go near that place. i dont even want to say the name. it is really sad what happen there and i just couldnt take it. i am so glad i live on the completely different side of the world. i think i would go crazy knowing that place is next to me. that is one feild trip i would not take!

    Posted on April 21, 2010 at 7:59 pm #
  16. From mike s:

    Nice photos. I took pictures of Krema II in 2001 – yours are much better – and I don’t remember a rope around it. Had I wanted to I could have walked into the undressing room. (Well, I would have been scrambling across the roof remains.) I stood at the top of the stairs wondering if there is another place on the planet where so many people have been killed. Sobering.
    Thanks for the photos.

    Posted on April 29, 2010 at 11:35 pm #
  17. From Bruce Holtgren:

    Thank you for visiting here, taking these pictures, and sharing them. Even as a journalist who always imagined myself fairly well-informed, I never had a grasp of the enormity of this place. As horrible as it is, I am glad the authorities have preserved it as well as it has been, and that so many people from all over the world are free to see it.

    The only thing that more deeply astounds me then the depth of the evil this place shows is the depth to which people will go in denying that it happened, despite the enormity of the evidence.

    Posted on May 5, 2010 at 1:45 am #
  18. From Shaina Carey:

    It’s disgusting how “Pro-lifers” Compare abortions to this monstrosity.

    Posted on May 28, 2012 at 10:12 pm #
  19. From Rod Taylor:

    The chimney pictured at the auschwitz gas chamber is not connected to the building.

    The russians built it after the war.

    Posted on June 9, 2012 at 9:16 pm #
  20. From Seba:

    auschwitz camp is a fun place, i recommend to visit it if you are on a trip to poland but overall Krakow is a much better place with excellent pubs and great people :D

    Posted on July 7, 2012 at 9:07 am #
  21. From hanna:

    hello! I’ve just been at auschwitz a few weeks ago, and i didn’t bring a camera. I wondered if i colud use some of these pictures in my school project about holocaust? I will write underneath every picture where they are from. Thank you.

    Posted on October 11, 2012 at 3:32 am #
  22. From Lindsay:

    Yes, you may use the photos.

    Posted on October 11, 2012 at 7:26 am #
  23. From Melissa R.:

    Thank you very much for sharing about your trip there. I found it so interesting but sad to hear about the history there. Thanks again!

    Posted on March 9, 2013 at 9:16 pm #

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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    [...] Is, in Derbyshire’s view, equivalent to this?: (This is a photo of the infamous “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign that Derbyshire alludes to. I took this during my July 2007 visit to Auschwitz.) [...]

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    [...] lots and apartment buildings is where the disgusting reign of the Third Reich, a dictatorship that terrorized and killed millions across Europe and North Africa, finally came to an end on April 30, 1945 when Hitler killed [...]

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