“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, 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”).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
The “Gate of Death”
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.
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.
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.