Auschwitz II-Birkenau

As I explained in my last post, Auschwitz was actually a camp in many parts. The two largest were Auschwitz I which I talked about, and Auschwitz II-Birkenau which is probably the most well-known.

Auschwitz I was built first. It was mostly for political prisoners and some POWs and was a concentration camp. This was where the gas chamber “trial runs” took place, in buildings modified for the purpose of mass murder.

Construction on Auschwitz II-Birkenau started in 1941. The goal was a camp for 200,000 prisoners of war. It was also decided that mass execution facilities would be included, and these were ready by 1942. It became a combination concentration and extermination camp where the majority of concentration camp prisoners died due to starvation, and extermination camp prisoners were killed in gas chambers.

To give you a sense of the layout and scale of Auschwitz II-Birkenau, here’s a map.
Red – Sector I, built first, brick buildings, primarily barracks
Green – Sector II, wooden barracks divided by row into different “camps” for men, women, Roma families, etc.
Yellow – Sector III, never completed
Blue – locations of the four purpose-built gas chambers
Orange – shower house for concentration camp prisoners
Between red and green is the entrance and the railroad tracks through the camp.

Ten-thousand Soviet POWs were brought to Auschwitz I to construct Birkenau. Through the winter, they worked and walked the 2.5km between the camps. Over 9,000 of them died within 6 months. In total, 300 buildings were constructed at Birkenau, mostly prisoner barracks. The original gas chambers were located in modified farmhouses near the camp, and eventually, four much larger chambers were constructed. The Nazis estimated that 1.6 million people could be killed there each year.

Path away from camp towards one of the farmhouse gas chambers.

Remaining brick buildings in Sector I.

Today, much of Auschwitz II-Birkenau is in ruins. In 1944, when the Soviet army started moving across Poland, the Nazis began trying to cover their tracks at Birkenau. Written records were destroyed, buildings were burned to the ground, and the gas chambers and crematoria were blown up. Most prisoners were transferred to other camps, and the remainder was sent on a death march to the west.

Looking out at the remains of Sector II.

Auschwitz II-Birkenau was liberated by the Soviet army on January 27, 1945. Conservative estimates are that 1.3 million people were imprisoned at the Auschwitz camps, and 1.1 million of them died. Of those prisoners: 1.1 million were Jews; ~150,000 Poles; 23,000 Roma; 15,000 Soviet POWs; and 25,000 prisoners from other ethnic groups. Those numbers don’t add up because everything is estimated. No one knows exactly how many people were killed, and it’s probably more than 1.1 million.

The International Monument to the Victims of Auschwitz. In front, there are inscriptions in all major European languages that read, “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”

Walking through the entryway into Auschwitz II-Birkenau, my first reaction was, “Wow. This place is huge.” My second reaction was one of recognition. It looks exactly like it does in movies and pictures. I know that’s obvious, but looking at a black and white picture can sometimes feel like fiction. You can separate yourself from it. Standing there, seeing it all in full color, I couldn’t do that anymore.

The only row of wooden barracks standing. The rest of the camp would have looked similar, but now it’s nothing more than brick chimneys.

I had no plan for where to start, so I went in the less-travelled direction, hoping to get away from the crowds. I walked by a row of wooden barracks, the only ones that can be seen today as they were (though much cleaner now) during the camp’s operation. These structures were prefabricated barns, quick and easy to assemble.

Exterior of the barracks

Inside one of the barracks. Each level of bunk was meant to hold 4 people, but more likely there were closer to 8 on each. The wooden slats were covered with a layer of straw. The brick wall running through the center connects the two stoves on each end of the building.

The barracks had a brick stove at each end

Latrines. There isn’t a pit underneath the “toilet” holes. The cavity is only as deep as the latrines are high. Prisoners had to clean them out when they were full.

Wildflowers outside of the barracks.

The other visitors quickly thinned out as I moved away from the entrance. I spent the rest of my time wandering the grounds with practically no one else around me… I suppose most people simply come in the entrance, walk to the memorial straight ahead, and then turn around and walk right back out. I, on the other hand, wanted to see as much as I could manage.

Remains of a kitchen building.

Gate into Sector II

After passing the first row of wooden barracks, intact buildings were few and far between. Almost more eerie is what remains of the majority of the camp… all of the wooden shells are gone, and only the brick stoves and chimneys remain. Brick chimneys pop up as far as the eye can see. Imagining a building to go with each pair is mind-boggling. Imagining 500 half-starved prisoners to go with each building is painful.

Barbed wire surrounding the camp

Brick chimneys as far as the eye can see.

Service road through Sector II

I was already feeling a little uneasy after only walking a few paths. I started feeling better immediately when I spotted a grove of trees ahead. I love forests… they always make me feel at ease. This one was beautiful. Towering trees, sunlight filtering through the branches just right, wildflowers scattered here and there. Again, I had that feeling of “if only things had happened differently, this place would be beautiful.” And then, I came across a sign that reminded me of where I was.

Grove of trees

Isn’t it beautiful?

“On their arrival in Auschwitz most Jews were sent by the SS for immediate death in the gas chambers. However, they were often forced to await their turn in this clump of trees if the gas chambers were full at the time.” It was accompanied by a picture of people sitting underneath the trees, waiting for death. Those same trees that I was just admiring. The things those trees have seen, and they keep standing there, still living. I wonder if those people also thought about how pretty the trees looked. Did they know what awaited them? How lucky am I that I can go to these places freely and then leave again? No one is telling me that I can’t, controlling my movements, hating me for no reason.

Beyond the trees, there are fields and a lake marked with signs saying that they’re filled with the ashes of the dead. People. People are in those fields. Their ashes are the ground that the grass grew from. What. If I didn’t know, I could have just walked across them. Walked across these graveyards for literally THOUSANDS. Hundreds of thousands. More than a million people were killed at Auschwitz. 1.1 million people. There are plenty of countries made up of fewer people than that.

The stones read:
“To the memory of the men, women, and children who fell victim to the Nazi genocide.
In this pond lie their ashes.
May their souls rest in peace.”

One of the fields where the ashes of the murdered were spread.

The thing is, unless you really, really make yourself think about it, unless you stand there and imagine the scared, naked, innocent people in front of you, it’s easy to feel nothing at all. It’s like you’re numb. Your brain doesn’t want to feel the full weight of the truth, so it doesn’t allow you to. Unless you push through your mind’s self-preservation wall, you don’t feel anything. Everything is written so factually that it’s possible to just read it factually. “The gas chambers at Auschwitz were designed to hold 2,000 people at once.” Oh, okay. But then if you stop and think about it. What does 2,000 people look like? My high school had about 1,200. That’s more than 1.5x my high school’s student body. All of those people, gone, dead within 3-15 minutes. All of those people were connected to so many other people. That’s the other thing. When you think about people as numbers, it’s not as meaningful. When you think if it as 2,000 families losing someone so incredibly dear to them, it’s harder. Or when you think about an entire family wiped from the face of the earth. How do you even comprehend that? Sometimes, one person survived from a family. What if that happened to my family, if I was the one person who survived? What if I could never talk to my parents again or see my brothers or nieces or cousins? If I knew that they were all gone forever, and I, for some reason, survived? How do you go on? How do you start over and integrate back into society after years of seeing and experiencing horrors beyond comprehension? I don’t know how I could manage to pick myself up after something like that.

The remains of Gas Chamber and Crematorium V

Looking back at the forest from the gas chamber

This gas chamber and crematorium was blown up by the Nazis in an effort to cover their tracks

The remains of Gas Chamber and Crematorium IV. This building burned down in the only prisoner revolt to take place at Auschwitz. It was led by a group of the Jewish prisoners in charge of emptying the gas chambers. 450 prisoners were killed in the revolt, but they succeeded in their goal to destroy this gas chamber.

The most disturbing thing is the realization that none of that pain was necessary. Sometimes, people die young. They get sick or get in an accident, and it’s heartbreaking. This though, this wasn’t an accident. It was a complete disregard for human life. Each of those people had a personality. They had dreams and thoughts and talents. They had people they loved, things they enjoyed. They laughed, they cried, they felt. Each person was not a number. They were humans, filled with life and light, and in an instant, they were turned into empty shells. In an instant, their bodies went from being animated and alive to being nothing.

Inside the prisoner shower building (the actual showers, not the “showers” that were actually gas chambers). This room was where prisoners had to undress.

They walked down this hallway to the shower room.

Prisoners received “medical examinations” in this room after getting their hair shaved. The shower room was through this doorway.

These furnaces were used to steam-clean clothing.

The “sorting area” near the train tracks is another place where all you can do is shake your head because none of it makes sense. This is where people got off a train and were assigned to life or death. All of those precious little children and strong grandparents and loving parents were scrutinized and sorted. Already, they were nothing but bodies. No one cared about their minds or personalities. The question was, is this creature physically capable of labor? They weren’t people; they were tools.

The area where sorting took place after people arrived by train.

The gas chambers were dynamited, but still, looking at the ruins and knowing what happened in there, how do you begin to make your brain process that? I couldn’t. I tried to imagine the trains coming in. The chaos and disorder as people got off. The confusion, the shouting, the crying. The families trying to make sure everyone was together. Then, the sorting. People getting ripped away from their loved ones. Mothers from fathers from their children. Not knowing what was coming. Being told that you were going to shower. The discomfort of undressing in front of so many other people. Undressing your kids first, the ones too young to help themselves. Then you. Then waiting. Going into the shower room, making sure that your kids were with you. “Stay close, it’s crowded.” And then that’s it. Then there’s a room filled with empty shells of people, and later, there’s only ash, sprinkled in a field. One minute there’s all that life, the next minute there’s an empty field filled with ash. What the heck. What the freaking heck.

Again, I got to the point where I just had to leave. I didn’t want to be there anymore. I didn’t want to see the ruins of the rows and rows of buildings that used to hold PEOPLE. How? That’s the ongoing question in my brain. How could people do this to people?

The remains of Gas Chamber and Crematorium III. This was destroyed by the Nazis. The room straight ahead was the undressing room.

The area to the right with a lot of rubble was the crematorium. The gas chamber was perpendicular to this space, on the left side of the photo.

The train tracks directly next to the gas chambers. The entrance can be (barely) seen, about a mile straight ahead.

The remains of Gas Chamber and Crematorium II.

 

Auschwitz I

Poland was added to my “must go” travel list during a visit the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. Before that, I don’t think I’d ever thought twice about Poland, but I was standing there, looking at a map of the concentration camp locations when I realized that if I wanted to really understand, I could go visit one in person. What was stopping me? (Not a job, like any normal person.) With that, my future was decided; my trip to Poland was definite. I obviously ended up wanting to see much more of the country, but that was the spark that got me there.

It’s always a difficult experience to visit somewhere like Auschwitz. There’s so much emotion tied up in the place, and it’s challenging to figure out the best way to manage it. This is my general approach… On one hand, you don’t want to completely desensitize because then, hearing something like “1.1 million people were killed here” isn’t emotionally jarring. You SHOULD feel uncomfortable. If not, you aren’t allowing yourself to truly process that reality. On the other hand, you can’t let yourself feel everything fully because then you’ll never be able to continue existing. You won’t get through the experience, you’ll turn into a puddle of despair, and you won’t learn what you need to learn. You need to hover somewhere in the middle. You give yourself a chance to process. You try to turn the numbers into actual people. You let yourself feel… and then you also remember that hope exists, that this massive evil doesn’t define the entire world, and that in you taking the time to learn and mourn, you’ve already helped to move the world one step in the direction of becoming a better place.

The hallway in one of the barracks. The walls are lined with prisoner photos that were taken when people were processed into the camp.

Auschwitz is near Oświęcim, Poland, about 1.5 hours from Krakow. I took a bus there and got a general entry ticket when I arrived (note if you’re ever planning to visit – I thought I needed to get a ticket online and freaked out because there were barely any left… and then I had no problem getting one on the spot when I showed up that day). You can also choose to get a tour, but I ended up deciding no because 1. I’m a cheapskate (normal entry to Auschwitz is free, or they have paid tours in various languages) and 2. There are some things I like to do on my own, without having to worry about moving at a group’s pace. A guide isn’t REALLY necessary because there are a lot of informational signs, but it would have been nice to at least know what buildings to visit first.

Here’s a picture of the map of Auschwitz I, to give you a sense of the layout of the camp. The main area with all the buildings is surrounded by barbed wire and is where the prisoners were kept. The C-shaped building below there was the prisoner registration building, and the gate into the camp is to the left of that building. To the left of the camp, outside of the fenced-in area, was the crematorium.

Auschwitz was actually a camp in many parts (there were 48 “Auschwitz” camps, most of them small work camps that manufactured goods for the war). The two main parts were Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau. Auschwitz I, as the name suggests, was the original concentration camp. Some former army barracks were used as the starting point, and the majority of prisoners were Polish intellectuals, resistance members, and Jews. Within a year of opening, nearly 11,000 people were imprisoned there.

There are two terms used when talking about the Nazi camps: concentration camps, and extermination camps. Concentration camps aimed to kill prisoners slowly through inhumane conditions. People died from disease, starvation, and torture. Guards did things like pour cold water on naked prisoners and leave them outside to freeze. Extermination camps were built with the intention of killing large numbers of people quickly. Auschwitz I was a concentration camp.

When visiting Auschwitz I, you take a similar route into the camp as the prisoners did. You start in the building where new prisoners were processed and make your way through the famous entry gate that declares, “Arbeit macht frei”. Work sets you free.

The iconic Auschwitz gate, proclaiming, “Arbeit macht frei” or “Work sets you free”. This is the most famous of these signs, but Auschwitz was neither the only nor the first Nazi camp to sport this slogan.

Walking into Auschwitz.

On the way to the gate, you pass a large green. The signs nearby explain very matter-of-factly that this was one of the sites used for shooting executions. The camp map has letters to indicate various locations: “C – sites of execution by shooting, D – sites of execution by hanging, E – sites of mass gassing by means of Zyklon B, F – sites of murder by lethal injection”. I read through those a few times before the words really sank in. In case you forgot where you are, this is Auschwitz.

This green was used for prisoner executions by shooting. The registration building is in the background.

First glimpse of the double barbed-wire fence after walking through the gate.

For me, it was incredibly hard to reconcile what I was seeing in person with the reality that I knew. Inside the gate, the camp doesn’t look like the place of nightmares. There are brick buildings, tree-lined paths, green grass, wildflowers… if you didn’t know where you were, it would seem almost serene.

Deceptively peaceful

That potential feeling of serenity is extinguished around the perimeter of the camp. There, multi-layer barbed wire fences, imposing guard towers, and intimidating HALT! signs snap you back to reality. I couldn’t look at the signs without getting chills.

This brought me back to reality VERY quickly.

Most of the buildings within the barbed-wire boundaries housed prisoners. There was also an “infirmary” where experiments were performed on sick prisoners, identical twins, Jewish women who were forcibly sterilized, and more. It’s nauseating, what was done to these people.

These long barracks housed prisoners.

The early prisoners slept on the floor on mats like these.

Eventually, triple-decker bunks like these were used.

The prisoner housing has been converted into a series of exhibitions. Each WWII occupied country has an exhibition that tells the story of its Jewish population during the war. It seemed like they were put together by their respective countries which I thought was cool. They all have different exhibit design styles, and you get to see history from different perspectives.

It’s hard to imagine crowds of prisoners on those tree-lined paths.

Guard tower.

The most jarring displays are the ones showing the confiscated belongings, sorted by type. Glasses. Suitcases. Shoes. Pots and Pans. The shoes and the suitcases got to me the most. There was a corridor lined on both sides with piles of shoes. I can’t even venture a guess of how many there were, in every size and style and color. To think, every shoe in that display was once on someone’s foot. A human being’s foot. And then they were taken off, thrown into the pile, and that human was killed. Baby shoes. Mom and Dad shoes. Brother and sister shoes. Grandpa and Grandma shoes.

Then, the suitcases, each labeled with the owner’s name in white paint. Names make things feel real. You can stand there and read off name after name of these people who were just as real as you and me, people who took the time to pack their suitcases, thinking about what they might need to take with them. The shoes and the suitcases sent me into a downward spiral. I could have ended my day there, in a puddle of despair, mourning the state of the world, but I reminded myself that I had to keep going. I still had more to learn.

“The Book of Names. The names of the murdered are inscribed in this book as an eternal memorial.”
Just take a second to look at the size of that “book”.

The prison block was rough too. The basement has cells designed for various punishments. Some are too small to sit down, others have no light, some were “starvation cells” (prisoners were given water to keep them alive until they starved, prolonging their suffering). One room has a memorial honoring (Saint) Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish priest who volunteered to take the place of a man randomly selected for death by starvation, as punishment for a prisoner who escaped. The man ended up surviving the war. A glimmer of light in the darkness.

Next to that building is the “wall of execution”. A sign outside of the courtyard says, “You are entering a courtyard where the SS murdered thousands of people. Please maintain silence here: remember their suffering and show respect for their memory.”

The wall of execution. The original wall was dismantled in 1944, and this portion was reconstructed after the war by the museum.

Thousands of people. Standing there, about where the executioner would have stood, I looked around and tried to imagine the scene. How can I picture something that is so far beyond my comprehension? The place looks nearly the same now as it did then, but the people, the sounds, and the circumstances are completely different. The rooms where people had to undress before their executions are right next to the courtyard. They knew exactly what awaited them outside. Try as I might, I couldn’t imagine being someone in that situation. I didn’t want to; it was too scary. They didn’t have a choice.

Auschwitz I had its own crematorium just outside the barbed wire fences. Then, “in the autumn of 1941, the largest room… was adapted for use as an improvised gas chamber, the first of its kind in Auschwitz… many thousands of Jews were murdered here by the SS within hours of their arrival at Auschwitz. Several groups of Soviet POWs were also murdered here in this way, as were sick prisoners whose return to work was considered unlikely. Poles from outside the camp who had been sentenced to death… were shot here”. In 1942, the first improvised gas chambers were created at Auschwitz II-Birkenau, and this one fell out of use. It’s a strange feeling, standing alone in a room that looks so ordinary and so empty and knowing that thousands of people were killed there.

The crematorium/trial gas chamber

On the outside looking in.

After visiting the crematorium, I felt overloaded. I was ready to leave. I walked out of Auschwitz I unobstructed, past the “Arbeit macht frei” gate and out of this place that consumed thousands of people who were no guiltier than I.

I made my way to the bus stop to catch the next shuttle bus to Auschwitz II-Birkenau.