I have watched movies and documentaries, I have read books, I have heard stories but never, never before have I felt as I felt when I stepped on the grounds of Auschwitz and saw with my own eyes the place where the most cruel crimes in human history had taken place ! It was a shattering experience that had a huge impact deep inside me.
Auschwitz today is not just a museum, an exhibition of people’s life and death in the worst possible conditions. It is a life lesson that will affect you emotionally, will make you think, and even change somehow the way of seeing the world. It is not easy, but it is a unique experience … Every human should visit it and realise the magnitude of the cruelty.
A few things about Auschwitz
Auschwitz was the Nazis’ largest concentration, forced labor and extermination camp, a complex of more than 40 main camps and sub-camps, occupying an area of 40 km². It was the principal and most notorious of the six concentration and extermination camps established by Nazi Germany. It was founded in 1940, in the suburbs of Oswiecim, a small city 60 kilometers west from Krakow, after the command of Heinrich Himmler, the head of the Schutzstaffel (SS) and the main architect of the Holocaust.
It consisted of:
- Auschwitz I, the first and oldest camp also known as the “main camp” that also included the administrative headquarters. In September 1941, the first gassing of prisoners took place in Block 11, the most infamous block where the cruelest punishments were held. More that 70,000 people (mostly Polish and Soviet prisoners) were killed here.
- Auschwitz II–Birkenau, a combined concentration and extermination camp three kilometers away from Auschwitz I. It was the largest camp and it was the main site of the Nazi’s Final Solution to the Jewish Question. It included around 300 prison barracks; four large so-called Badeanstalten (German: “bathhouses”), in which prisoners were gassed to death; Leichenkeller (“corpse cellars”), in which their bodies were stored; and Einäscherungsöfen (“cremating ovens”) where the dead bodies were burnt. More than 1 million people (90% Jews) were killed here.
- Auschwitz III–Monowitz, a labor camp created to staff a factory.
- Other subcamps, mostly serving as labor camps.
The area was isolated from the outside world and was surrounded with barbed wire fencing. All contact with the outside world was forbidden. The main reason it was initially established was in order to accommodate Polish political prisoners (most of them members of the Polish intelligentsia that were more suspicious to organize a resistance movement) because the capacity of the prisons in Poland wasn’t enough. They were brought here to be used for slave labour and increase the profits of Germany. Above the main gate of Auschwitz I there is the famous ironic sign “Arbeit macht frei!” which means “Works sets you free“. From early 1942 until late 1944, the mass majority of deported prisoners were Jews, delivered in transport trains in very bad conditions from all over German-occupied Europe. Others deported to Auschwitz included 150,000 non-Jewish Poles, 23,000 Roma, 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war, 400 Jehovah’s Witnesses, tens of thousands of others of diverse nationalities, and an unknown number of gay men.
Overall, more than 1,3 million people were expelled to Auschwitz and more than 1,1 million died or were killed with around 90% of them being Jews. Some of them were killed as soon as they arrived during the Selection process (weak people weren’t appropriate for work and were immediately killed). Others died due to infectious diseases, starvation, physically exhausting hard labor and atrocious living conditions. Others due to medical experiments (for example sterilisation of Jewish women and experiments on children, especially twins) carried on them by Nazi doctors, such as the infamous Josef Mengele. The majority of them was systematically murdered by being poisoned with the gas Zyklon B in the gas chambers, executed, hanged or injected with phenol in their heart.
In the second half of 1944, facing the reality of the Soviet Army’s imminent arrival, Nazi authorities began evacuating prisoners from Auschwitz and erasing the evidence of their crimes, including the human beings who had been living in the camp. In January 1945, most of its population was sent west on the so-called death march. A vast number of people died on these forced marches due to exhaustion, hunger, and cold. Those who were too weak to keep walking were often shot and killed by SS officers and guards. The remaining prisoners (around 7000) were liberated on 27 January 1945, a day commemorated as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Despite the efforts of Allied troops and doctors, more than half of these people would die within days of the liberation of the camp.
Auschwitz has become the dominant symbol of the Holocaust, genocide and the ruthless abuse of human to human. In 1947 Poland founded the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum on the site of Auschwitz I and II, and in 1979 it was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
No photo, no film, no book can really describe the horror of the landscape, the inhuman living conditions unless you go there and face it with your own eyes.
Visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum
Visiting Auschwitz includes two parts: a visit to the original camp (Auschwitz I) and a visit to the extermination camp (Auschwitz II – Birkenau).
The Auschwitz Memorial is more than extensive grounds and original camp blocks, barracks, and guard towers. It is also tens of thousands of objects of a special nature, special meaning, and special symbolism.
The tour starts at the gate of Auschwitz I where you will see the sarcastic sign “Arbeit macht frei!” which means “Works sets you free“, that appears in other camps as well. It is a replica of the original one that was stolen. If you notice, the letter ‘B’ is reversed which has been interpreted as an act of defiance by the prisoners who made it.
As you move further, you will see barracks, rugged buildings, control towers everywhere, double rows of barbed wire, fences, high voltage, perfection in construction, all studied, to the slightest detail. You just start realising that living here wasn’t that pleasant.
The tour continues by visiting several blocks.
Block 4 - Photos, Women Hair, Numbers
Block 4 holds the oldest exhibition. Here you will see the map of countries from where prisoners were deported and a board with the number of the victims and their origin.
You will also see black and white photos taken that time. People arriving with big suitcases with their belongings, families being separated, the selection process, and their movement to the gas chambers. The anxiety, horror, fear are depicted in their faces.
Probably the most horrific evidence of the crimes conducted by the Nazis that you will face is a the exposed almost two tonnes of female hair, cut off after being killed in the gas chambers and being used for making fabric to be used for mattress, socks, sweaters for the Nazis … for keeping them warm.
As the tour goes on, you stand in front of a window with a few dozen of used cans of Zyklon B, the chemical that was used for the extermination of millions of people.
Block 5 - Evidence of the crime
This block mainly contains the personal belongings of the prisoners. They weren’t aware of what would follow, they were hoping for a better life as they had been deceived that they would be moved to another and more spacious ghetto. Their possessions were taken and accumulated to a building called Kanada, because Canada that time was a rich country and they were later sent to Europe to be used by the Nazis.
Glasses, suitcases, shoes of adults and children, clothes, toys, dolls, artificial limbs, brushes, pans are exhibited here. It is really shocking to see all these and imagine what had happened. It is a material testimony of the cruel reality and the crimes.
Block 6 - The everyday life of the prisoners
This block exhibits information, facts and photos regarding the everyday life of the inmates from the time of their arrival until their death.
The process of entering the camp was a traumatic experience for newcomers. All orders were given in German which was a language unknown to most of them. They were usually separated into two groups: men and then women and children separately. Then, they were forced to have their head shaved, undress and shower, usually in front of hundreds of other people and the SS guards. They were tattooed with an identification number that would replace their name and they were forced to wear a uniform. Entering the building you will see the most typical uniform, made of coarse grey-blue striped material and clogs marked with a badge indicating the prisoner’s category and an identification number.
As you move in the corridor you will see several photos of the victims with their identification number, name, profession, date of birth, date of arrival and date of death. Apparently, all of them had died.
Block 7 - The living conditions of the prisoners
In this block you will witness the living conditions of the prisoners. Seeing their rooms, toilets, kitchen you will be shocked and you will wonder how was it possible to live under those conditions.
Block 10 - The experiments
This is the block were the medical experiments by SS doctors were conducted. Entrance is not allowed. However, our guide informed us regarding the type of the experiments and their purpose. Some of the sadistic experiments were: sterilization of women and men, hunger disease, genetic tests (especially on children), testing of various toxic substances, hypothermia, electroshocks.
The most common one was the sterilization on hundreds of Jews women by the doctor Carl Clauberg who injected formaldehyde preparations into their uteruses — without anesthetics. Most of the women died or had permanent disability.
Another very “famous” doctor was Josef Mengele, known as the Angel of Death who was obsessed with twin children and conducting brutal experiments on them. For example, in an effort to study eye color, he injected serum into the eyeballs of dozens of children, causing them excruciating pain. He also injected chloroform into the hearts of twins, to determine if both siblings would die at the same time and in the same manner. He was also one of the principal doctors participating in the selection process of those who would live to work and those that would be sent to the gas champers or used in his experiments.
Block 11 - The block of Jail and Death
Block 11 is the building that was used for the executions and torture of the prisoners. Punishment here was usually connected with suspected sabotage, contact with civilians, escape attempts or aid to escapees. Between Block 10 and Block 11, there is a wall, the so-called Death Wall where thousands of prisoners were lined up for execution.
Entering inside Block, you will see that there are several types of cells, regular cells, dark cells, or standing cells depending on the type of the “crime”. In some of them, photos are not allowed. As you can guess the conditions were just horrible and inhuman. The standing cells were four spaces measuring less than 1 sq. m. each with the only source of air a 5 x 5 cm. opening covered with a metal grille. Entry to the standing cell was through a small opening at floor level, closed with bars and a wooden hatch. Four prisoners were confined in each of these spaces for the night, forced by the lack of space to remain standing all night for up to twenty nights, while still being forced to work during the day !
In September 1941, in the basement of the building, the first mass killing test was performed using Ζyclon B gas.
Gas Chamber and Crematorium
Horror … this is the main feeling when entering this building, you picture in your mind what happening within those walls and you lose your breath. It can’t be true, but it is.
People fated to die were unaware of what awaited them. They were told that they were being sent to the camp, but that they first had to undergo disinfection and bathe. After the victims undressed, they were taken into the gas chamber, locked in, and killed with Zyklon B gas.
Children, women, humans were murdered here, non-stop for 3 years. Then their dead bodies were moved to the crematorium and burnt in the ovens. Horror !
Auschwitz II - Birkenau
Birkenau was the largest camp in the Auschwitz complex. The majority—probably about 90%—of the victims of Auschwitz died here, 90 % of whom were Jews.
Birkenau is recognized from its gate and the railway lines, known as the “Gate of Death“. Trains were bringing here the victims from all over Europe. Each of the trains carried in excess of a thousand victims, packed into cattle wagons with no room to sit, no food and two buckets: one for water and another to use as a toilet. The smell of vomit, urine, and excrement was overpowering, and most transports had no windows or ventilation. The journey could last several days, even weeks, while the prisoners had no idea where they were passing through or where they were going. Many victims died during the journey as a result of suffocation, illness or hunger.
Upon arrival, the selection process was carried by SS doctors with the famous Josef Mengele. During the selection process, the Jews were immediately sent to the gas chambers, regardless of their health condition, age, sex, occupation, citizenship, or political views. They died only because they were Jews.
Birkenau had 6 gas chambers and 4 crematoria used for systematic genocide. While they were operating non-stop, from 1942 when the number of prisoners has grown large, people were burnt in the open space.
Prisoners lived in brick barracks and wooden barracks. They had only one entrance and 17 barred windows. Inside there were 60 brick partitions, each with three levels of bunks, creating in total 180 bunks, on each of which four people were to sleep. Each of them lacked sanitary facilities, lights, and heating. In addition, there was high humidity in the barracks, and lice and rats were a huge problem for prisoners.
The prisoners received three meals during the day: Half a liter of water with a substitute of coffee or tea in the morning, 1 liter of soup for dinner (Soups were disgusting, so it was hard for the new prisoners to eat them) and 300 grams of black bread for supper, with 25 grams of sausage, margarine, marmalade or cheese.
Surviving under those living and hard working conditions was almost impossible. Therefore, many prisoners that weren’t gassed were dying due to starvation, illnesses, infections.
As 1944 came to a close and the defeat of Nazi Germany by the Allied forces seemed certain, the Auschwitz commandants began destroying evidence of the horror that had taken place there. Buildings were torn down, blown up or set on fire, and records were destroyed.
When the Soviet army entered Auschwitz on January 27, they found approximately 7,600 sick or emaciated detainees who had been left behind. The liberators also discovered mounds of corpses, hundreds of thousands of pieces of clothing and pairs of shoes and seven tons of human hair that had been shaved from detainees before their liquidation.
All those are exhibited at Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum which is an UNESCO World Heritage Site and I believe everyone should visit it and realise the magnitude and cruelty of this crime. Unfortunately, history is repeated and we are still witnessing human abuse by human.