To be honest, most of my posts here are written ‘off the cuff’ – I have an idea and I write with little planning. This one has taken a lot longer to make it into the blog. I considered writing a purely fact based account of my visit to Auschwitz but that would be no better than reading about it in any of the (much better researched and written) books that are available. So this is an imperfect account of my visit. For want of a better term, I refer to anyone in the camps as prisoners, although most were not guilty of any crimes. Inevitably, it’s not pleasant reading but it must be remembered.
I had wanted to visit Auschwitz for a while. It sounds like a ghoulish statement but I strongly believe that history is best experienced in person. I am interested in military history, particularly WW2. I had read a lot about the Nazi death camps, watched documentary films and programmes and I felt I knew a lot about this part of the war. Most of us have seen the grim images of ‘selection’, the iconic gates with the railway track passing through, the cynical ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ sign above the gate of Auschwitz. The complex called Auschwitz was actually a series of camps. Auschwitz itself was a concentration camp, bringing political and racial ‘undesirables’ together. Several other camps nearby were work camps where the prisoners were forced to toil building factories and industrial complexes. There was a prisoner of war camp in the area but this didn’t form part of the Auschwitz complex and the prisoners, mostly western troops, were treated much better. Finally, there was Birkenau which was the purpose built extermination camp.
We pulled up outside Auschwitz and I felt nervous and a little apprehensive. There were quite a few people milling about outside and as I neared the entrance I saw that there were a lot of young people in the crowd. I’m glad of that; this is an event and a place that needs to be remembered.
Inside, our group made our way towards the main entrance to the camp. This is the one that prisoners would have been marched into and out of every day. Above the gate, the jauntily designed ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ sign cast more of a shadow than was apparent in the sunshine. Beyond the double fence of barbed wire – which was electrified during the camp’s use and which was one way a prisoner could, and did, end their misery in the camp – the red bricked barracks didn’t look like I expected at all. This camp was originally a Polish military camp and the barrack blocks were large and well built. As the camp expanded, more blocks were built on the pattern of the original building.
The tour of Auschwitz took two hours, during which time we visited some of the barracks – now mini museums, each with its own theme. For me, the two hours was an ordeal (one which I gladly undertook and I’m not complaining) as we were given the cold statistics of what went on here. There were up to 20,000 people in the camp at any one time. More than 8,000 Russian prisoners of war died here, and 21,000 Gypsies were murdered in the camp. The profit from the sale of Zyklon B pellets to the camp were 300,000 marks. When the camp was liberated by the Russians, they found 7 tons of human hair packed up ready to send back to Germany; that was only the latest grim harvest. Many more tons had gone before.
In one particularly chilling museum the personal possessions brought here were displayed. We walked past huge cabinets full of shoes, shoe, shaving and hair brushes, tins of boot polish and prosthetic limbs. In a cabinet on its own were a number of Jewish prayer shawls – symbols of the faith that brought many of the prisoners here. Newly arrived prisoners and those destined for the gas chambers were told to make sure their possessions were labelled so that after the ‘shower’ they could find them again. It was done to ensure the minimum of fuss when taking prisoners to their deaths. An example of Nazi efficiency. In one room, a collection of suitcases with their owners names printed neatly on them were piled up as they had been left by their owners. It made all the statistics into real people.
We were asked not to take photographs of the cabinet full of human hair out of respect for the victims. I found this display hard to take in but the next one was worse. In a small cabinet on the way out of the room were a few tattered and worn teddy bears and dolls. A child’s shoe lay next to them. It doesn’t bear thinking about.
We moved on through the camp, free to walk about as we wished before being guided to the punishment block, Block 11. This was also known as the Death Block and most of the prisoners who went in didn’t come out alive. Here, the barracks had been left as it was in 1945. I found seeing what the prisoners would have seen gave this particular building even more atmosphere that the others. We passed the dormitory rooms, where those condemned to trial slept their last nights on the floor with only thin mattresses of straw or, in some cases, just the straw. We passed the room where the ‘trial’ was held and made our way back along the corridor to the guard room. At the end of the corridor away from the entrance was a portable gallows used for some executions.
Block 11 was the only one to have a basement and it was here that the punishment cells were located. This was a grim place and it felt oppressive, depressing and unnerving. What it must have felt like for the prisoners, I dread to think. Some of the cells were used to starve prisoners to death. One was used to suffocate them. There were three cells which were only big enough to stand in, and more than one prisoner was kept in there at the same time. It was an awful part of a terrible place and I was glad to get out of the gloom and back to the stark corridor.
Outside was the courtyard where executions were carried out. usually, the guilty prisoner ( they were all ‘guilty’ of course), were taken out immediately after sentencing, and shot. To minimise the effect of gun shots on other prisoners, small calibre pistols held close to the head were used and the windows of the neighbouring barracks were blocked up. As we looked, a Jewish visitor was praying against the execution wall. I felt like an intruder, and I left.
Opposite the Death Block were the camp hospital wards. These were known as the waiting rooms for the gas chambers as many of the patients were rounded up and sent to their deaths from here. Medical experimentation took place here as well. A complete barracks were set aside for sterilisation experiments, for example. You did all you could not to be ill in Auschwitz.
We walked back toward the gate, past the assembly square, where prisoners were paraded and counted, a process often taking hours in all weathers. In front of the square was the mass gallows, where offenders were hung in front of their fellow prisoners. To one side was a small wooden cubicle, where the officer in charge to the roll call sheltered from the weather. It was beautifully made and resembled a grandfather clock case only on a larger scale.
Instead of leaving, we walked to the other side of the camp, where the crematorium was situated. As we stood opposite, it, the guide pointed out the camp commandant’s house – a villa shielded from the camp by some trees. Rudolph Hoess was the first commandant and the one most associated with Auschwitz. Next to the crematorium was the gallows on which he was executed after a proper trial.
Finally, we were led in to the crematorium and as we went, so we were told that the part we were going in to first was the gas chamber. It was dark and silent (out of respect for those murdered here, we were asked not to speak). There was an atmosphere in there that I still can’t adequately describe – a mix of horror and depression and a grim feeling of hopelessness. The guide pointed out the chutes through which the gas pellets were dropped and then we moved on to the room containing the ovens. In another chilling example of efficiency, there was machinery designed to make the loading of the corpses quicker. I was glad to get out of the building.
We were transferred to Birkenau, only a few minutes away. This is probably the place you would be familiar with from film and stills of the Nazi extermination programme. We entered through the ‘Death Gate’ alongside the railway line (purposely built as a spur off the main line to speed up the transfer of prisoners). We walked along the tracks until we got to an open area and I turned around to look back. I saw the image I’d seen in pictures and realised that we were at the point where the prisoners were unloaded from the cattle wagons and the selection process took place. With the aforementioned efficiency, prisoners selected to be murdered were separated from the others; more often than not families were split up here and sent to the one of the four gas chambers. In less than half an hour, prisoners were being gassed.
We were stood next to a cattle wagon and I was surprised at how small it was. It would house at least 40 people but almost always more were crammed in. Our guide explained that in one transport (the name for the train full of prisoners) that took four long, hot summer days to get to Birkenau, only three people survived out of more than 2000 who started out. Heat, thirst and suffocation accounted for the rest.
Birkenau is huge. It covers 425 acres, with more than 300 buildings, and was being expanded in 1944. Most of the wooden huts, which once housed horses before being converted to house the prisoners, were dismantled immediately after liberation to provide building materials for locals. All that remain are a surreal forest of red brick chimneys for the fireplaces in the huts. In the sunshine on the day of my visit, they shone like square red tree trunks.
We made our way past the end of the railway tracks to the giant memorial to the victims of Birkenau. It had been created from the funeral and burial architecture from all the societies and religions represented by prisoners in the camp. It was an impressive sight but in the context of environment I found it hard to really take it in.
Because either side of the memorial were the remains of Crematoria 2 and 3. The four crematoria, with their attached gas chambers, were blown up by the Nazis in an attempt to hide the evidence of their crimes. But despite this, it was quite clear what I was looking at. The crematorium was at the junction of a right angle formed by the underground undressing room and the gas chamber. Prisoners would enter the changing room, usually believing their were going to have a shower, and be moved through to the gas chamber. They were locked in before most of them realised what was happening. After 15-20 minutes, the corpses were transferred to the crematorium, which could cope with around 5000 bodies a day. In a further example of terrible Nazi efficiency, crematoria 3 and 4 were built with their gas chambers level with them to make it easier to transfer the bodies from one to the other.
We passed a water filled pit, in which the ashes of the burnt corpses were deposited. They were also used to fertilise nearby fields and deposited in the woods that surrounded the camp. As we left this part of the camp, a party of Jewish students were singing a haunting song by the side of the ruined crematorium.
We made our way to the Women’s camp and into one of the huts. This was more like what I was expecting to see at Auschwitz. Instead of bunks, there were what can only be described as shelves and 3-5 prisoners slept in each one. Although there were two fireplaces, the terrible cold of Polish winters killed many occupants, and the lack of ventilation meant that many more died in the heat of summer. Our guide explained that the hut ‘kapo’, usually an ‘ordinary’ criminal selected by the camp guards to manage each hut, would live in a small room near the door and could be bribed for favours. A kapo’s favourite was far more likely to survive the camp ordeal.
By now, I was feeling emotionally drained. A lot of what I’d seen and heard was very hard to take in and fully comprehend. 1.3 million people were murdered in Birkenau. I don’t know what that number of people all together looks like. Around 100,000 people would be in Birkenau at any one time – that works out at more than 300 prisoners per hut. I just about know what 300 people look like together and I can’t imagine what conditions in the hut must have been like. The views along the wire to the guard towers was familiar from so many prisoner of war movies, but here it was for real. Even as a visitor, I felt a little unnerved by their presence. So much of this place was familiar from photographs and yet it was so different from what I was expecting.
And suddenly, we were being led to the exit gate. Something the former prisoners could only dream of. Although I was a willing visitor, I felt some relief at being able to get out of the camp. It had an oppressive, depressing atmosphere despite it being a bright sunny and warm day. I’d always imagined visiting here in grey, dreary conditions. And I’d heard that no birds sing in the area. I didn’t hear any while I was there.
I wondered about the guide, too. She was very good – her English was excellent and she had a very clear delivery. But throughout, it was level and business like. I guess she had to protect herself from the horrors she was describing. I’m not sure I would be able to keep the emotion and judgement out of it if I were leading a group around the camps.
More than 6 million Jews were murdered in Hitler’s death camps, or on the streets of their home towns or in their homes. It is estimated that between 15 and 20 million people were imprisoned in camps or ghettos during the war. It wasn’t just Jews that were sent to these places; Gypsies, political prisoners, homosexuals, disabled people, Jehovah’s witnesses and Catholic clergy were also routinely sent there.
It’s almost impossible to understand the mentality that created and maintained these places but we must understand that it can never be allowed to happen again.