As you may know, Poland was devastated by WWII. While there were lots of tensions and conflicts leading up to the war, most historians denote the tipping point as the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact – a non-aggression agreement between the Nazis and the Soviets which divided “lands of interest” among present-day Poland. Shortly thereafter, the Nazis began their invasion of Poland, tipping the continent into war.
On Sunday I took a day trip to see the site of the worst of WWII atrocities, the Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps. Here, the Nazis conducted the systemic murder of over 1,500,000 European civilians, mostly Hungarian and Polish Jews. The camps at Auschwitz were the single deadliest site for victims of the Holocaust, though many other camps existed.
I won’t attempt to recall all the horrors committed at this place; the Holocaust has been written about extensively by authors far more eloquent than myself. If you are looking to educate yourself on the subject I would encourage you to do so, but recognize that you will walk away with a heavy heart. Today I just want to recount my experience there, giving you an impression of the site and retrace my steps as I remember them. I will share some of the details which I learned while visiting the sites. The fainthearted may opt to skip this post.
Walking around Krakow in the touristy areas, you see advertisements for what I assume are the top two attractions to see from the city: Wieliczka and Auschwitz. My first reaction to this was frustration – how could so many companies be profiting off of the suffering of countless victims? But then I realized I was more ok with it – it is important that people go to see the camp and learn about history. As long as the tours were being conducted in a respectful and dignified manner, I decided the organized tours were alright.
I had booked a tour in advance, so I got up early, grabbed some breakfast, checked out of my hostel, and made my way to a nearby hotel entrance to wait for my ride. It was a grey morning with a slight drizzle, fitting for the mood I was in while I was waiting there. The square was very quiet on a Sunday morning, with just the occasional delivery truck passing by. Around 5 minutes after my scheduled pickup time, just as I was beginning to worry something had gone wrong with my reservation or that I was in the wrong place, a van arrived to take me to a meeting point where we were to meet with the main tour group and our bus. Shortly thereafter we departed on a bus ride lasting just over 1 hour. During the ride we watched a video which gave some historical context and a brief overview for what we were about to see.
We arrived at Auschwitz I and began our tour, walking through the main gate.
The sign reads “Arbeit macht frei,” literally translated “work makes freedom,” or “work will set you free”. The Nazi officer who ordered it claimed not to have intended the slogan as a cruel joke, but rather maintained that endless labor and drudgery would bring about a spiritual freedom. Most of the prisoners (especially in the camp’s later years) knew the only means of escape was death. Forced to march through the gate regularly towards hard labor, the sign became a source of psychological torment.
We made our way through some of the prisoner barracks. At first, Auschwitz was used to hold political prisoners. Inmates were well documented and therefore detailed records have been maintained on some of the first prisoners at the camp. The conditions of the camp were horrible, but nothing compared to what we would see later. Inmates slept on cramped wooden slats in some barracks, and on straw mats in others. They were forced to work long hours every day, waking early for role call and standing in silence until all were counted. Dead bodies also had to be present and standing for the role call, propped up by other prisoners.
Some of the barracks were left intact, but others have been converted to museum exhibitions showing the extent of the crimes committed there and the scale of the destruction. seemingly endless piles of shoes, glasses, and luggage were on display. In some cases, the Nazis would deceive victims into thinking they were being relocated. Before being shipped to the camp, prisoners were forced to pay the Nazis for property in Poland, complete with false documents. Then, they packed up their most precious belongings and boarded cramped rail-cars. After the establishment of Birkenau, most prisoners arriving at the camp lived only for hours, after which their belongings were looted and shipped to Germany. The massive piles of belongings only represent what was found at the camp upon its liberation, and are just a small fraction of all of the stolen goods.
One particularly disturbing exhibition showed how the Nazis left nothing to waste. Having killed new arrivals, their heads would often be shaved so that the hair could be used for weaving cloth. A mountain of unprocessed hair sat behind a glass wall, found when the camp had been liberated.
The tour also went through the notorious Block 11, where inmates that had been causing issues were kept. The prison featured “standing rooms,” no larger than a small closet, where 4 prisoners per room were physically unable to lie or sit down for up to 10 nights while maintaining normal working duty. Most prisoners faced with this torment did not survive. The basement of Block 11 was the location of the Nazis’ first experimentation with the cyanide poison Zyklon-B, used in the mass-killings at Birkenau.
Outside Block 11, there was an isolated courtyard, hidden from the rest of the camp. There, before Zyklon-B had been put to use, Block 11 prisoners were shot en-masse. While the initial killings were hidden from most of the inmates, the Block 11 barrack itself featured windows looking out on the courtyard. Once assigned to Block 11, one rarely left alive.
We left Block 11 and headed for the first gas chamber used by the Nazis for continued Zyklon-B killings. Initial gassings took place in the basement of Block 11 for some time, but eventually a new chamber was built so that bodies did not need to be hauled across the camp to the crematorium. Shortly before the camp’s liberation in January 1945, the SS attempted to destroy and hide the gas chambers at Birkenau. Because this initial chamber had fallen out of use by then, the SS did not destroy it. Our tour went inside in silence, remembering thousands of innocent lives which had been taken where we stood.
After a short break we boarded the bus to make a short drive (3km) to the second, much larger, camp – Birkenau. After the Nazis turned on the Soviets, a rapidly advancing eastern front meant that the Nazis had a lot of prisoners to “deal with”. Therefore, a much larger, second camp “Birkenau” was erected, intended initially to house 50,000 inmates (it was later expanded to house 200,000). Much of Birkenau was destroyed in an attempt to hide evidence (and some of the materials were looted by impoverished locals after liberation), but the most striking thing I noticed upon my arrival was the sheer scale of the complex. Endlesss chimneys dotted the landscape, remnants of makeshift wooden barracks that prisoners were forced into. Most of these living spaces did little to keep out the cold in winter and got unbearably hot in the summer, many inmates died from poor sanitation and starvation.
We walked the darkest steps of the camp. As you saw above, rail tracks were built to take prisoners directly into the camp. Disembarking trains, many were confused as they had been told they were being resettled. Greeting them was an SS doctor, who gave each prisoner a cursory glance and pointed either left or right. Depending on whether the prisoner was deemed fit (about 15%) or unfit for work, they were taken to be trained or unknowingly marched directly to a gas chamber. Prisoners who were deemed able to worked faced a sort of “training period,” where they were issued a prisoner number via a tattoo, forced to memorize a few phrases in German, and told the camp rules. If they survived the first few weeks of initiation they were assigned to a barrack and worked to death, usually by starvation, exhaustion, or disease.
Arguably the worst-off in the camp were prisoners who had initially been fit to work, but became so weak that they could no longer contribute. These prisoners were cleared from the camp record and transferred to a temporary barrack. This barrack was vastly overcrowded – at some points there was no room left inside so prisoners would be left outside in a contained courtyard exposed to the elements. Once transferred to this barrack, prisoners were given no food nor water and left to die. For those that survived long enough, once a week a truck came to take prisoners to the gas chamber. The truck could only come once a week because of how busy the chambers normally were.
The other 85% of people disembarking the trains were told that they were to be given “light labor” and that they first needed to be “decontaminated” in a group shower. They were led to gas chambers disguised as showers. Many victims were suspicious of what was happening, but those who caused any trouble were quietly taken away and killed away from the rest of the group. Thousands died every single day, shipped in on trains, during the height of the slaughter. Birkenau was a factory of death.
The Nazis destroyed those large-scale gas chambers in the days before liberation. Only ruins remain where countless lives were taken.
The memorial features the same inscription in every language spoken by a known victim. In English, it reads:
For ever let this place 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.
Everyone reads about the horrors of the Holocaust. Everyone knows it was a terrible genocide. But there is a huge difference between reading the statistics and figures and witnessing the site where it happened. Experiencing it was hard for me, as it would be for anyone with a sense of empathy. But the emotional trauma of seeing the remnants of that terrible place pales in comparison to the countless individuals forced to live it. Recounting the adversity and hardship people suffered through does a lot to frame one’s own problems and forces us to wrestle with our perspective. I, unlike so many others, was able to walk out of that camp unscathed. For that, I am grateful. Never forget, lest we let history repeat itself.
Best wishes and safe travels everyone,