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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Our Day Trip from Krakow to Harrowing Auschwitz/Birkenau

N.B. The subject matter and photos below are disturbing. I have enlarged the photos of the signs so they can be better read. AEB

Why visit Auschwitz, you may ask?

We’d decided that the only concentration camp we’d see would be Oswiecm as it’s called in Polish or Auschwitz as the Germans called it and how most of us know it.  There are so many camps we could visit on this trip and I know many people choose to visit more than just one as each is very different. For us however, Oswiecm was enough to get a sense of the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis against the Jews, Romas and so many others during WW II. Oswiecm was the scene of the largest attempt at genocide in human history and though visiting it is a grim experience, it’s an essential element in understanding the full evil of the Holocaust.

The medium-sized industrial city of Oswiecm is located about 40 kms or 25 miles west of Krakow. We could have paid a fairly hefty fee and gone on a tour arranged by the hostel but we preferred getting there by ourselves, being able to go at our own speed and see exactly what we wanted rather than being shuffled about in a large group. We made a point of getting there before 10 so we needn’t take a compulsory tour and could enter as individuals. We picked up a booklet guide I had known about in advance and that proved invaluable as we toured Auschwitz and Birkenau.

Some Background:                      

The Auschwitz extermination camp was established in April, 1940 by the German occupiers in prewar Polish army barracks on the outskirts of Oswiecm.  It was originally established for Polish political prisoners but then adapted for the wholesale extermination of the Jews in Europe in fulfillment of Nazi ideology. For this purpose, the much larger camp at Brzezinka, or Birkenau as we know it, and also referred to as Auschwitz II, was built 2 kms west of the original site in 1941 and 1942.

It is now estimated that in total this German-run death factory eliminated well over a million people of 27 nationalities. The name Auschwitz often describes the whole Auschwitz-Birkenau complex but in 2007 its UNESCO World Heritage listing changed to ‘Auschwitz-Birkenau: German Nazi Concentration & Elimination Camp (1940-45).'

Auschwitz was only partially destroyed by the fleeing Nazis and many of the original red brick buildings stand to this day as a bleak testament to the camp’s history. Some 13 of the 30 surviving prison blocks now house museum exhibitions.

From the visitor entrance we entered the barbed-wire encampment through the infamous gate through which prisoners arrived, displaying the grimly cynical message in German: ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ (Work Brings Freedom).  The sign is in fact a replica because the original was stolen in late 2009; it was soon recovered but had been cut into a number of pieces by the thieves and took 17 months to restore. The original sign is to be put on exhibition in the museum.Prisoners arrived through this gate.

I didn't really know what we'd see but
large, red brick buildings like these
were not what I expected or envisioned.

The 1st extermination/crematorium area above
and below located just steps from the entrance.

Visible in the ceiling were the vents for the gas
to escape after the people were murdered.

Exterior vents.

The urn containing a handful of
human ashes, gasthered from Birkenau,
commemorates the dead.

5-7 cans were enough to kill 2000 people at a time.

Everyone's hair was removed upon entry;
Nazis used the hair for wigs and even to fill mattresses.

Before entering the camp, this woman
weighed approximately 75 kilos or 163 lbs;
when the photo was taken, she weighed 25
kilos or a mere 55 lbs.

We saw wall upon wall of photos,
each taken as part of the registration process.
 Underneath each was the person's name,
camp number and dates of birth and of death;
 most died within 1 month of arrival. 

Initially prisoners slept on straw; later on mattresses and on bunks which were added in 1941; prisoners slept on tri-level bunks that during the day had to be made up to military precision; usually 2 slept on each level.

The courtyard located between Blocks 10 and 11 was known as
the Wall of Death; the wooden blinds on the windows of Block 10 were installed to prevent observation of the executions taking place here. At this Wall of Death,the SS shot thousands of prisoners. Look for the tall wooden pole on the left; a larger picture is below. Called the 'Post',
prisoners were hung by their wrists with their arms tied behind their backs

Guardhouse by the 'Wall of Death'

For many years, the Allies refused
to believe news of the Nazi atrocities.
This article was published in 1944.

Block 28

Last photo from Auschwitz.
Spent about 3 hours wandering around Auschwitz before taking a shuttle bus to Birkenau. It was actually there, not at Auschwitz, that most of the killing took place. Massive (175 hectares) and purpose-built to be efficient, the camp had more than 300 prison barracks (they were actually horse stables built for horses), but housed 300 people each. Birkenau had 4 huge chambers complete with crematoria; each could asphyxiate 2000 people at a time and there were electrical lifts to raise the bodies to the ovens.

Though much of Birkenau was destroyed by the retreating Nazis, the size of the place, fenced off with long lines of barbed wire and watchtowers almost as far as we could see, gave us a sense of the scale of the crime.  We walked into some of the surviving barracks that are open for viewing, silent contemplation and prayer


Cattle car used to transport prisoners.
Jews selected by the SS for immediate death
in the gas chambers of Crematoria IV and V
were herded along this road.

The Nazis, knowng the war was about to end,
tried to destroy evidence of their crimes.

I remember seeing a haunting photo of Elie Weisel,
the Jewish political activist who was a prisoner
at Auschwitz, lying in a bunk just like these.