I had the chance to visit Krakow, Poland and the “Auschwitz” concentration/extermination camps in 2004. My visit to Poland was for business and I was petrified to see what happened there between 1940 and 1945 (the Soviet liberation). Our last minute trip to Berlin, Germany made it possible to reverse a past regret. On the way to Zdiar, Slovakia we spent a few days around Krakow and Auschwitz.
To summarize our experience, Auschwitz is a place everyone should see. Yes, it is unimaginably sad and gruesome….. but, at the same time a valuable reminder of how dangerous the world can be. Believe it or not, these Nazi Germany crimes happened less than 70 years ago. Operated by the Third Reich during WWII, Auschwitz was the largest death camp where 1.1 million of the 6 million European Jews were killed.
Auschwitz was the name given to the town of Oswiecim by the Germans. We took a 1 1/2 hour drive outside Krakow to visit the site. The “Auschwitz” network included 48 camps in total. The main camps were: Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II-Birkenau, Auschwitz III-Monowitz. Auschwitz I was the first concentration camp and mainly served as an administrative base for SS and Gestapo workers. It is where the first 70,000 people were killed. They were mostly ethnic Poles and Soviet POW’s. Birkenau was constructed to carry out all of the mass killings as the “final solution to the Jewish question in Europe”. This was the extermination camp.
If you arrive between 10am – 3pm, then a guided tour is required. Before and after these hours, you can roam freely about the site. We met our Polish guide who provided audio headsets so we could hear her throughout the duration of the tour. She reminded us to treat the site with respect since it is essentially a mass grave. Human ashes were often used to fertilize the surrounding land.
Auschwitz I is where today’s museum exists. Most buildings are structurally intact, but restored with exhibitions. It was a logical facility for the Nazis because it previously served the Polish military. We spent a few hours learning the German SS characters and timeline from construction to mass extermination and destruction. The tour provided a detailed overview of the selection process, life in the camps and the mass killings. The breath of information is beyond the scope of this diary. Here, I will attempt to recapture the walking tour.
Auschwitz I quickly became overpopulated, forcing the Nazis to construct Birkenaw. Actually, the concentration camp workers built the enormous facility with over 300 barracks, a railway and four crematoriums. The first “gas chamber” existed at Auschwitz I and helped the Nazis perfect their use of the industrial gas “Zyklon B” to kill hundreds at a time within 20 minutes. This crematorium is the only remaining structure of its kind for touring.
The Nazis forced Jews from annexed countries into “Jewish Ghettos”. They shipped them to various camps across Europe for labor and extermination. Numbers were tattooed on prisoner’s wrists, chests and thighs. Name records were not kept, prisoners were numbers. Prisoners were encouraged to pack all of their valuables in luggage before leaving for the camps. Upon arrival via rail, everyone would drop their luggage off and wait in line. Women, children and the elderly were given the thumbs down by the judging doctor or SS man. They were immediately escorted to the gas chamber. Strong men were given the thumbs up and some time doing hard labor before their death. Hungarian and Russian Jews were killed in the largest numbers at Auschwitz.
The women, children and elderly were told to label their luggage while they went to take a shower and clean up. Luggage was precisely moved to “Canada” warehouses for pillage and sale. Their hair was cut and stored as they stripped down naked. Their clothing and shoes confiscated for “Canada”. These poor humans were gassed and died within 20 minutes before the SS removed their gold teeth. They were then cremated in ovens or burned in large outdoor pits when facilities were overcrowded. At the museum, we witnessed exhibits with indescribable amounts of human hair, shoes, clothing, luggage, kitchenware, photos and Zyklon B canisters. The germans either sold these items in Canada stores or kept for themselves. One exhibit showed clothing made by the Germans from human hair. Enough to make you sick for weeks.
We walked near the entrance gate to the the site where Rudolf Hoss (1st Commandant) was hung in 1947 for his crimes. There, still stands the original iron gate with “Arbeit macht frei” meaning “work makes free”. About 1.3 million visitors pass this symbol of deceit each year since 1947.
The famous shooting wall and prisoner’s block provided glimpses of the Nazis spontaneous brutality and hunger for murder……… but, nothing was creepier than the medical experimentations that took place at Block 10. German doctors tested the efficiency of X-rays as a sterilization device for women. They injected large doses of chemicals into women’s uteruses to glue them shut. The company “Bayer”, yes the aspirin, purchased prisoners for testing new drugs.
Josef Mengele is the best known Nazi doctor as the “Angel of Death”. He would do research on identical twins often giving one diseases and killing the other to compare their autopsies. He also experimented on dwarfs by inducing gangrene in them to study the effects. Mengele is known for hanging twenty Jewish children from wall hooks at the conclusion of his experiments.
Auschwitz I tour provided the background for what we were about to digest at Auschwitz II-Birkenaw. The large entrance tower and railway system sits in the middle of the enormous campus site. To the right of the railway, one could easily imagine hundreds of living barracks. Only a few still stand as part of the tour. We visited one shack where hundreds of men slept together in tiny wooden bunks. Through the middle was a furnace system, barely effective in the winters because the walls were open everywhere. Next door, we viewed a showering facility with toilet holes cut into the center counter structure. If lucky, some sewage made it outside through the floor. Men worked 14 hour days starting at 4:30am and lived with awful hygiene and nourishment. Those not killed in the gas chambers died of starvation, forced labor, infectious disease, individual executions, and medical experiments.
To the right of the railway, hundreds of barracks stood for women and SS staff. There was also a “Gypsy Family Camp” designated. The middle railway tracks were eary. Just like the photos seen in the movies and Auschwitz I exhibits, one could imagine the deceitful orchestra playing at the selection process and theft of personal property before execution. We walked about 1km to the back where ruins lie for the two main crematoriums. The Nazis destroyed both facilities as the Soviet Union approached in 1945. It was their attempt to hide evidence of their wrongdoings. A very peaceful memorial exists at the far middle of the site. Each country has a large stone commemorating the deaths of its citizens. Our tour ended as we climbed the entrance tower for pictures of the full Birkenau site.
The camp was staffed partly by prisoners, some of whom were selected to be “Kapos”. Most were German convicts and workers at the crematoria. The Kapos were responsible for keeping order in the barrack huts and preparing new arrivals for gassing before transferred corpses from the gas chambers to the furnaces. Only a few Kapos were ever prosecuted for their part in such hideous crimes.
In the end, 90% of the Auschwitz Holocaust victims were Jews. Large numbers were of Russian and Hungarian descent. The obvious reactions to our visit were anger and disbelief. The Allies were provided information regarding Auschwitz during the years 1940–43 by the accurate and frequent reports of Polish Army Captain Witold Pileckiasi. They repeatedly called the allegations “exaggerated”. Why didn’t anyone bomb the railways used to transport victims from all over Europe? Why didn’t the United States get involved earlier? These questions and debates go on today and peak our curiosity to learn more about recent world history.
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