Last month, I visited Auschwitz, the site of the most notorious extermination camp in human history. Finding the right words to describe how I felt while standing in the spot where millions of people were murdered was very hard. It was beyond comprehension. I just got to sorting the pictures and videos I took from the trip when the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh happened. So, imagine how I felt when I heard about the senseless killing in the United States. I kept going back to the sights I saw in Auschwitz and the words of George Santayana, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” So, if you do have the opportunity to visit Auschwitz, you should. But I understand that not everybody will have the opportunity, so I just wanted to share some insight from my trip.
Auschwitz I - The Main Camp
In 1940 Himmler, the head of SS ordered a former garrison site in the town of Oswiecin (Auschwitz in German) to be taken over and held as a concentration camp. The camp has been left almost untouched, just like it was when the Nazi left in January 1945.
Like most visitors to Auschwitz, I joined an organized tour group. After meeting our guide and collecting our audio set, we headed to the gate, the main entrance to the camp. The mood was subdued as we entered the main gate that read “Arbeit Macht Frei” which means “Work will make you free.” Our guide’s voice began to tremble as she described how the prisoners thought they were going to labor camps, but in reality, the camp was designed for mass extermination.
We walked through the tree-lined street between rows of brick buildings reminiscent of a college campus to see the original barrack buildings that were converted into a state museum/exhibition rooms. Except for the heavy presence of electric barbed wire fencing and the wooded guard tower at the end of the street, it was hard to imagine that the most horrific things happened there.
I did not have a strong emotional reaction until we turned a corner into the barracks buildings and saw the word “EXTERMINATION” above the doorway of Block 4. I learned so much just from entering that building alone. There were informational signs as to the number of people deported and killed in Auschwitz and pictures of people that went through the process of deportation and selection, and a room dedicated to the selection of Jews from different countries in Europe and deported to Auschwitz
As if the number of people killed was not enough to bring chills down my spine, original fragments of the crematories and a model of a gas chamber, and canisters which contained a chemical compound called Zyklon B, a pesticide, used for killing victims in the gas chamber were on display in glass cases. There was an urn with human ash. And seeing the room where the hair, cut from the people that had been murdered in the gas chamber, was the saddest part.
These are the canisters that contained the compound. In its raw form, Zyklon B comes in small pellets which after exposure to the air gives off a cyanide gas.
We moved on to Block 5, the “Material Proofs of Crimes” exhibit. After the liberation of the camp in 1945, the Soviet Army found buildings full of human possessions ranging from shoes to human hair all of which were on display in Block 5, There was a large display case with artificial limbs that belonged to the peopled deported to Auschwitz for extermination, and another large display case of suitcases with names written in large letters. The Jews were instructed to mark their suitcases for later identification. Some of the possessions from the victims were plundered by the SS and became the property of the German government. Women had their hair shaved and bagged and used as mattresses.
In Block 7, the “Living and Sanitary Conditions” exhibit, we saw 3-tiered bunk beds, the original camp toilets, and original washroom. According to the information posted, the living condition in the main camp (Auschwitz 1) differed according to the particular period of the camp existence. The number of prisoners assigned to each barrack varied from 700 to over 1000.
After viewing the exhibits, we went to Block 10 and 11 where much of Auschwitz gruesome history was carried out.
Block 10 was originally used to house women for the brothel. In 1943-1944 it was used by several SS doctors to carry out sterilization and other medical experiments. Our guide explained so many things about this form of punishment, but basically, sterilization is a form of biological extermination
Block 11 was known as the camp jail or as the death block. Prisoners suspected of escaping or organizing resistance were held here. One of the ways of killing prisoners was through starvation. Cell 18 in Block 11 serves as the memorial of a Franciscan Friar, Maximillian Kolbe, the Polish priest who sacrificed his life to save another prisoner. A sign says, “Cell in which in 1941 died prisoners sentenced to death by starvation as a result of collective responsibility for escapees” Kolbe was arrested for anti-Nazi activities and transferred to the Auschwitz camp. In July 1943, three prisoners escape from the camp prompting the SS to pick up 10 men to be starved to death as a deterrent to others thinking of escape. When one of the selected men became distraught Kolbe volunteered to take his place and led others in prayer. In 1982 Kolbe was canonized and became the patron saints of political prisoners.
Another way of killing a prisoner was through the “Punishment Cell”. There were four standing cells in the basement of Block 11. There was only a 2" opening for air so that prisoners wouldn't suffocate. The prisoner was asked to stand up all night before sending to work in the morning. This type of punishment was usually imposed for a period of 10 days.
Another cell was the site of SS attempt at gassing people at a concentration camp. In Sept 1941, commander Rudolf Hoss decided to test Zyklon B and tested then over 600 POWs and it worked.
Outside, between Block 10 and 11 was the execution wall – the spot were people who were intentionally executed met their fate. Our guide pointed out the difference between Block 10 and Block 11 windows. The windows of Block 10 were covered with black-painted wooden boards so that no one could see what was going on inside while the windows on Block 11 have bars.
Hanging was also carried out in the camp to intimidate other prisoners caught from escaping. In July of 1943, twelve prisoners were hung in the camp – the biggest execution by hanging carried out in the history of the camp.
Rudolf Hoss, the commandant of Auschwitz, lived with his family in the house on edge of the camp, a few steps where he was executed.
|Rudolf Hoss was executed here in 1947|
The most significant structure was the gas chamber. It was originally used as a storage until it was converted as a gas chamber. The use of the gas chamber in Auschwitz gradually stopped when the gas chambers were completed in Auschwitz II Birkenau. It was used as an air raid shelter for the SS.
Auschwitz II, Birkenau – The Death CampAuschwitz II-Birkenau is about 2 miles from Auschwitz I. Construction of Auschwitz II – Birkenau camp started in October 1941 to ease congestion in Auschwitz I. It was part of the plan to implement the so-called Final solution to the Jewish question
The first thing that struck me was the sheer size of the area. We walked the trail to the entrance which was used as a checkpoint for prisoners at the main building. Past the entrance, we walked the path of the train tracks passing rows and rows of barracks bordered by electric barbed wire fencing.
If not for the heavy presence of barbed wire fencing. I would not have been able to tell that it was the site of the biggest mass murder in recorded human history. The red brick buildings in the field of green grass, with thick forest in the far end, almost looked pastoral and peaceful.
We stopped at the boxcar said to have been used to transport Hungarian prisoners. In 1943-1944 when the “Final Solution” was well underway, prisoners transported to Birkenau were sorted according to worth. When the boxcar stopped, they had everybody in line and Dr. Mengele would select and point either to the left or right. The people on the right were the people that had a good chance of survival, and people on the left went straight to the crematorium toward the gas chamber.
At the end of the road opposite the gate was one of the most powerful sites in the camp – the site of the largest gas chamber and crematoria in Birkenau – Crematorium #2 and Crematorium #3. They were built to accommodate thousands of people a day. According to our guide, there was a dressing room where people were forced to undress before entering the crematorium. After death people were examined in the examination room for valuables.
The last scenery and narration were more than enough to send chills down my spine, but our tour was not over yet. We went to see a typical barrack where the foundation was original, but the wooden structure was replaced due to infestation. Wooden stable-type barracks were installed in Segment B1 (see picture below for layout).
The typical barrack had no windows, Instead, there was a row of skylights at the top. The interior was divided into 18 stalls, intended originally for 52 horses. Three-tier wooden bunks intended for 15 prisoners to sleep in were installed on one side, and two stalls were reserved for prisoners’ sanitary needs with containers for excrement stood in two stalls. The barracks were frequently damp, and lice and rats were an enormous problem for the prisoners. Some prisoners walked naked in the freezing cold to use the bathhouse that led to sickness and death.
I had seen a few documentaries on Auschwitz, but nothing prepared me for being there. It was incomprehensible. A question kept reverberating in my brain as I left the tour: How did 'they' let it happen? The efficient and cold methodology behind Auschwitz II design and construction horrifies me even now.
Press play and take the tour with me
All photos by the author