AUSCHWITZ - BIRKENAU
IMPORTANT INTRODUCTORY NOTE - PHOTOGRAPHY
All photographs in this blog are my own.
(Auschwitz - Birkenau official photographic policy: Taking pictures on the grounds of the State Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau in Oświęcim for own purposes, without use of a flash and stands, is allowed for exceptions of hall with the hair of Victims (block nr 4) and the basements of Block 11).
I truly had absolutely no intention whatsoever to take photographs at Auschwitz - Birkenau when my wife and I were planning our long weekend in Poland, which included a day - long visit to the site. I therefore didn't even take my SLR camera with me on the day and consequently only carried a small pocket camera.
However, at the main gate on arrival, I immediately felt a tremendous 'need' to record as much of what we were seeing as was possible and as the day developed, to 'capture and share' our moving experience with family, friends, colleagues and even wider, on our return home.
I therefore felt both vindicated and indeed encouraged to publish this blog when, at the end of our visit, our incredible young guide - Gabriella - thanked us profusely for attending and said that she hoped we would help to make sure that the terrible events she had explained to us were never forgotten.
Those who have viewed my photographic gallery page on this blog will know that I generally take pictures that capture and accentuate the beauty, colour, form and patterns that I see in the beautiful world around us. I saw absolutely none of that in Auschwitz - Birkenau, only scenes of hatred, pain, misery, torture and death, perpetrated by organised and heavily armed thugs, against totally defenceless people, starting with the most vulnerable women and children immediately upon their arrival.
Pure monochromatic evil!
We entered the Auschwitz 1 site through the main gate.
The slogan 'ARBEIT MACHT FREI' (work sets you free) was placed at the entrance to Auschwitz by order of commandant Rudolf Höss.
In 'The Kingdom of Auschwitz', Otto Friedrich wrote about Rudolf Höss, regarding his decision to display the motto so prominently at the Auschwitz entrance:
He seems not to have intended it as a mockery, nor even to have intended it literally, as a false promise that those who worked to exhaustion would eventually be released, but rather as a kind of mystical declaration that self-sacrifice in the form of endless labour does in itself bring a kind of spiritual freedom.
The sign was seen by all prisoners and staff—all of whom knew, suspected, or quickly learned that prisoners confined there would likely only be freed by death.
Auschwitz 1 was a former Polish army barracks. It was the main camp and administrative headquarters of the Auschwitz complex.
Intending to use it to house political prisoners, Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler, head of the Schutzstaffel (SS), approved the site in April 1940 on the recommendation of SS-Obersturmbannführer (lieutenant colonel) Rudolf Höss, then of the Concentration Camps Inspectorate. Höss oversaw the development of the camp and served as its commandant.
Around 1,000 m long and 400 m wide, Auschwitz 1 consisted of 20 brick buildings, six of them two-story; a second story was added to the others in 1943 and eight new blocks were built.
After viewing a number of blocks from the outside, we entered two blocks in the camp that contain museum exhibits from Auschwitz.
It is estimated that the SS and police deported at least 1.3 million people to the Auschwitz camp complex between 1940 and 1945. Of these deportees, approximately 1.1 million people were murdered.
The best estimates of the number of victims at the Auschwitz camp complex, including the killing center at Auschwitz-Birkenau, between 1940 and 1945 are:
Jews (1,095,000 deported to Auschwitz, 960,000 died)
Non-Jewish Poles (140,000- 150,000 deported, 74,000 died)
Roma (Gypsies) (23,000 deported, 21,000 died)
Soviet prisoners of war (15,000 deported and died)
Other nationalities (25,000 deported, 10,000- 15,000 died)
The Museum collections include the evidence of the crimes directly connected with the extermination of prisoners conducted in the camp by German Nazis. These are among others Zyklon B cans, which contained the gas used as a killing tool in the gas chambers, as well as the remains of crematoria and gas chambers which were not destroyed during the evacuation of the camp.
Zyclon B - an example of the pellets used in Auschwitz to murder people in the gas chambers. In early 1942, Zyklon B emerged as the preferred killing tool of Nazi Germany for use in extermination camps during the Holocaust. Around a million people were killed using this method, mostly at Auschwitz.
We saw piles of suitcases stolen from people deported to Auschwitz. Suitcases with names, birth dates, transport numbers and addresses have important documentary value and are often the only proof that a given person was deported to Auschwitz.
Pots and pans that belonged to people brought to Auschwitz for extermination.
Shoes (including many small children's) that belonged to people deported to Auschwitz for extermination.
Clothes that had belonged to small children deported to Auschwitz for extermination.
These items are particular personal possessions brought by deportees and found in the camp after the liberation. They constitute a unique collection of items connected with the suffering of the people, in the vast majority Jews deported to Auschwitz by the Germans to be killed immediately, as well as those forced to slave labour. There are thousands of items of everyday use, such as: kitchen utensils, shoes, eyeglasses, shoe polish containers, brushes or combs. They bear witness not only to the scale of the plunder carried out by German Nazis, but also to the suffering and death of their owners.
NO PHOTOGRAPHY ALLOWED - OUT OF RESPECT
BUT FOR ME WHAT FOLLOWED WAS WITHOUT DOUBT THE MOST MOVING PART OF OUR VISIT TO AUSCHWITZ.
We entered a very long room piled high (almost to the ceiling) with human hair. Children's pony tails cascaded down through the huge mass of adult hair, the whole length of the room, from the very top, right down to the floor.
Holding back the tears was almost impossible. I'll never, ever, forget that room!
In block 10 German doctors performed a variety of experiments on prisoners. SS doctors tested the efficacy of X-rays as a sterilization device by administering large doses to female prisoners. Carl Clauberg injected chemicals into women's uteruses in an effort to glue them shut. Prisoners were infected with spotted fever for vaccination research and exposed to toxic substances to study the effects.
The most infamous doctor at Auschwitz was Josef Mengele, the "Angel of Death", who worked in Auschwitz II from 30 May 1943, at first in the gypsy family camp. Particularly interested in performing research on identical twins, dwarfs, and those with hereditary disease, Mengele set up a kindergarten in barracks 29 and 31 for children he was experimenting on, and for all Romani children under six, where they were given better food rations. From May 1944, he would select twins and dwarfs during selection on the Judenrampe, reportedly calling for twins with "Zwillinge heraus!" ("twins step forward!"). He and other doctors (the latter prisoners) would measure the twins' body parts, photograph them, and subject them to dental, sight and hearing tests, x-rays, blood tests, surgery, and blood transfusions between them. Then he would have them killed and dissected.
Experiments in block 10 included, among others: sterilization, pharmacological experiments that included testing the prisoners tolerance to the medicine or drug as well as their effectiveness, tests on the changes to the human body due to starvation and experiments on people born with disabilities.
The experiments carried out on prisoners, who were sentenced to live in the most extreme of conditions, were for many a simultaneous death sentence. SS doctors were indifferent to the fate of prisoners used in experiments. Often, to hide the criminal activity, they had their victims killed with a lethal injection of phenol to the heart or in the gas chambers.
Roll calls were a more than a daily part of the regimen in Nazi concentration camps. The first was at 4:00 in the morning. All prisoners were made to line up in rows and be counted early in the morning and again at night, even those who had died in the interim. The roll calls were held here every day, regardless of snow, pouring rain or any other foul weather. The purpose of the roll calls was to count the prisoners, but also to inspect, humiliate, and intimidate them. Sometimes they would be chosen for death if not healthy anymore.
Selections were also sometimes made during roll calls. There were harsh reprisals for anyone who was late or did not remain perfectly still during the roll call. Reprisals included beatings and death. Prisoners were made to stand at attention for the entire process of counting thousands of prisoners, which sometimes had to be done more than once, if a mistake was made. Prisoners had thin uniforms and were made to stand for roll calls year round, regardless of the weather or temperature. Some people died during the roll call.
Block No. 11 was known by the prisoners as "the death block." It filled several roles, of which the most important was that of central camp jail. Here, the SS placed male and female prisoners from all over the camp who were suspected by the camp Gestapo of belonging to the underground, planning escapes or mutinies, or maintaining contact with the outside world. Poles from outside the camp were also held here after being arrested for such offences as offering aid to prisoners. They were subjected to brutal interrogation that usually ended in a sentence of death by being shot or hanged.
In the first years of the camp, the penal company (Strafkompanie) and corrective company (Erziehungskompanie), assigned to the harshest labor, were quartered here. Almost all newly arrived Jewish prisoners and Polish priests were initially placed in the penal company, where the number of victims was highest.
The special group of prisoners assigned to burn corpses in the crematorium (Sonderkommando) was temporarily quartered in this block.
So-called police prisoners (Polizeihäftlinge) were imprisoned here after 1943. These were Poles, suspected of resistance activity and held at the disposition of the Katowice Judicial District Gestapo. They waited in this block for the verdict of the German summary court, which usually sentenced them to death.
NO PHOTOGRAPHY ALLOWED - OUT OF RESPECT
BUT WHAT FOLLOWED WAS A MOST DISTURBING PART OF OUR VISIT.
We slowly descended the ever darkening stairs to the basement where we saw the many cold, tiny, dark and damp cells used to keep prisoners in solitary confinement. The basement was also the site for the first experimental use of the Zyclon B gas pellets to kill humans.
In connection with SS operational plans for beginning the total extermination of the Jews, a trial of the use of Zyklon B gas for mass killing was carried out in the basement on September 3-5, 1941. In this test, 600 Soviet prisoners of war and 250 Polish patients selected from the camp "hospital"were murdered.
The SS incarcerated prisoners guilty of violating the camp regulations in the punishment cells located in the basement. Prisoners sentenced to death by starvation were also placed here in 1941. Among those who died in cell no. 18 in the basement of this block was St. Maksymilian Maria Kolbe.
We then emerged into a courtyard and blinding sunlight.
From 1941-1943, the SS shot several thousand people at the Death Wall in the courtyard between Blocks No. 10 and 11. Those who died here were mostly Polish political prisoners, and above all leaders and members of the underground organization, people involved in planning escapes and aiding escapers, and those maintaining contacts with the outside world. Poles brought from outside the camp were also shot here. They included hostages arrested in reprisal for Polish resistance movement operations against the German occupation authorities.
Men, women, and even children died here. Cases are also known in which prisoners of other nationalities were shot here: Jews and Soviet prisoners of war. The SS administered floggings in the courtyard, as well as the punishment known as "the post," in which prisoners were hung by their wrists, which were twisted behind their backs. The Death Wall was dismantled in 1944 on orders from the camp authorities, and the SS carried out most executions by shooting in the gas chambers and crematoria of Auschwitz II-Birkenau.
The Museum reconstructed the Death Wall after the war.
We entered gas chamber 1, which is preserved in an original state to a large degree. Crematorium I operated from August 1940 in a prewar ammunition bunker adapted for its new function. The largest room was a morgue, which was changed into a provisional gas chamber. There were three furnaces for burning corpses in the crematorium.
There were no restrictions except the use of flash and we were free to stand anywhere in the room. I simply can't begin to explain how it felt standing in the centre of the chamber surrounded by the bleakly scarred walls and then entering the adjacent room containing the ovens. Words simply do not exist!
When the gas chambers in Birkenau were going into operation, the camp authorities transferred the mass killing operation there and gradually phased out the first gas chamber.
In July 1943, after the completion of the Birkenau crematoria, the burning of corpses in crematorium I ended. The furnaces and chimney were dismantled, and the holes in the roof used for introducing Zyklon B were closed. Two of the three furnaces and the chimney were reconstructed (from original parts), and several of the holes in the roof of the gas chamber were reopened.
Our guide pointed towards a house, surrounded and shielded by lush trees and gardens, just outside the camp perimeter. She said Rudolph Hoss resided here and lived a 'seemingly normal family life' during his time as commandant at Auschwitz.
Sited between that house and gas chamber 1 are these gallows.
Camp commandant Rudolf Höss was arrested by the British at a farm near Flensburg, Germany, on 11 March 1946, where he had been working under the pseudonym Franz Lang. He was eventually taken to Nuremberg to testify for the defense in the trial of SS-Obergruppenführer Ernst Kaltenbrunner. Höss was straightforward about his own role in the mass murder and said he had followed the orders of Heinrich Himmler.
Extradited to Poland on 25 May 1946, his trial before the Supreme National Tribunal in Warsaw opened on 11 March 1947; he was sentenced to death on 2 April and hanged on these gallows in Auschwitz I on 16 April.
There was a short 10 minute journey by bus to the Birkenau part of the site and on arrival, the first scene was that above: the single rail track on which prisoners arrived, taking them straight into the camp.
Birkenau (also known as Auschwitz II) was the section of Auschwitz that was devoted mainly to gassing. The rest of the camp was devoted to slave labour and also included the Auschwitz women's camp.
Inside the compound stands a lone wagon of the type used to transport prisoners.
The huge lock on the wagon.
Now inside the camp, the track divides and we stood on the very 'platform' where prisoners arrived - for selection.
Jewish deportees arriving at Auschwitz-Birkenau immediately underwent selection. The selection process spent just a few seconds on each victim. Basically, women, children under sixteen and the very elderly or disabled were led straight to the gas chambers, just a few yards from the platform, which were disguised as shower installations to mislead the victims. The SS staff chose some of the able-bodied for forced labour. The belongings of all deportees (who had been encouraged to bring a small case with their most valuable possessions) were confiscated and sorted in the "Kanada" (Canada) warehouse for shipment back to Germany. Canada symbolized wealth to the prisoners.
What struck me about Birkenau was the shear scale of the camp. Spread out on both sides of the track were hundreds of long prisoner blocks, as far as the eye could see. It was the quite literally the size of a town.
During the first half of 1942, the Auschwitz SS moved the gassing operations to Auschwitz-Birkenau by converting two farmhouses just outside the camp’s fence into gas chambers. Bunker I began operating in spring 1942, the larger Bunker II in mid-summer 1942. These gassing facilities soon proved inadequate for the task of murdering the large numbers of Jewish deportees being sent to Auschwitz. Between March and June 1943, four large crematoria were built within Auschwitz-Birkenau, each with a gas chamber, a disrobing area, and crematory ovens. Gassings ceased at Bunkers I and II when Crematoria II through V began operating, although Bunker II was put back into operation during the deportation of Hungary’s Jews in 1944. Gassing of newly arrived transports ceased at Auschwitz by early November 1944.
We then entered the women's camp.
The women's concentration camp (Frauenkonzentrationslager or FKL) was established in August 1942, in 15 brick and 15 wooden barracks in sector BIa (Bauabschnitt Ia) in Auschwitz II, when 13,000 women were transferred from Auschwitz I. The camp was later extended into sector BIb, and by October 1943 it held 32,066 women. Conditions in the camp were so poor that, in October 1942, when a group of male prisoners arrived to set up an infirmary, their first task, according to researchers from the Auschwitz museum, was to distinguish the corpses from the women who were still alive.
We walked around the internal corridors of one block in the women's camp. It was incredibly sparse and the buildings had no floors whatsoever. It's impossible to comprehend just how difficult it must have been to survive the incredibly cold Polish winters.
In late November 1944, as Soviet forces continued to approach, SS chief Heinrich Himmler ordered the destruction of the Auschwitz-Birkenau gas chambers and crematoria. During the SS attempt to destroy the evidence of mass killings, prisoners were forced to dismantle and dynamite the structures.
As part of the overall liquidation of the evidence of crime, crematoria II and III together with their gas chambers were blown up in January 1945. Crematorium V functioned until the very end, and was blown up on January 26, 1945, the day before the liberation of the camp.
The construction of 4 large gas chambers and crematoria had begun in Birkenau in 1942. They went into operation between March 22 and June 25-26, 1943. The gas chambers at crematoria II and III, like the undressing rooms, were located underground, while those at crematoria IV and V stood at ground level. About 2 thousand people at a time could be put to death in each of them. According to calculations made by the Zentralbauleitung on June 28, 1943, the crematoria could burn 4,416 corpses per day—1,440 each in crematoria II and III, and 768 each in crematoria IV and V. This meant that the crematoria could burn over 1.6 million corpses per year. Prisoners assigned to do the burning stated that the daily capacity of the four crematoria in Birkenau was higher—about 8 thousand corpses.
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
THE INTERNATIONAL MONUMENT AT BIRKENAU.
On the steps of the monument, there is a row of granite slabs, each with a metal plate on top which has an inscription in a different language, including Yiddish, English, and every major language of Europe.
At the end of our visit, our guide - Gabriella - reminded us of these words by George Santayana, printed on the wall back at the entrance to the museum block. She thanked us profusely for attending and said that she hoped we would help to make sure that the terrible events she had explained to us were never forgotten.
I will certainly never forget what we saw and heard that day in Auschwitz - Birkenau. Indeed, now, when I look at my grandchildren as I'm checking their seat belts when we get into the car (at that moment where I've always sneaked a quick kiss on their foreheads) I now have the added thought - how could those bastards have taken those beautiful young children and their dear loving mum's off of those trains and just gas them?
I find those and all their other evil Nazi actions totally incomprehensible!
I 'prepared' for our visit to Auschwitz - Birkenau (if indeed that is in any way possible) by reading 'NIGHT' by Elie Wiesel. His first hand account of life inside the evil camp.