I mentioned last time that I'd write a post about my visit to Auschwitz, and this is it. it may be a bit long and I apologise for that in advance.
I'll say at the outset that I'm not sure I'll be able to articulate the experince as well as I'd like but I'll do my best. I've included a few photos below but nothing too upsetting (I hope). I've changed them to black and white images because it was a gloriously sunny day when I visited and to me, it sort of seemed strange to show it in the sunshine. I'm also going to try and refrain from going over too many historical specifics where I can because I'll only get things wrong and muddled and that, of course, is not my intention.
The tour I went on was around both the Auschwitz and Birkenau camps (those are the German names of the Polish towns Oświęcim and Brzezinka). There is another camp in Monowice (Monowitz in German) quite close by - a labour camp at a chemical plant but the tour doesn't take you there. I'm not sure if you can visit it of your own accord.
The tour is split with two hours at Auschwitz and a further hour at Birkenau. We started out (as did all tour parties that were there) just outside the main building, next to the camp kitchen where our guide Evaline gave us some history about when the camp was built and it's purpose (a prison for Polish political prisoners in the first instance).
|Camp kitchen (left) and main building|
|Entrance to Auschwitz|
The earlier exhibits focus on the deportations to the camp from across Europe as well as explaining the "selection process" that was followed at Birkenau. Whilst the atrocities are well known and documented (and are certainly not for me to go over again here), the guide still told us things that I certainly didn't know - for example, some people actually voluntarily bought tickets to Auschwitz believing that this would offer respite from the war and, whilst still being under Nazi occupation, they'd have a better standard of living. Those tickets are on display for you to see.
The tour carries on with the exhibits that do their best to bring home the scale of what happened. One room houses a 100ft long display case with two tonnes of human hair that was shaved from the heads of prisoners (the Nazis sold it, using the money to fund the war). Another shows hundreds of suitcases with names written on the front (people were never reunited with their possessions) and one room has 40,000 pairs of shoes that were taken from prisoners.
|Shoes taken from prisoners|
The lower level of Block 11 contains the cells where prisoners were kept, including standing cells (where prisoners could do nothing but stand all night and then go back to work the next day) and starvation cells (where prisoners were locked away without food or water until they died). The cells were also the site of the first test of Zyklon B gas where about 850 people were killed in 1941. The tour lets you see these cells for yourselves.
|Courtyard between Blocks 11 (left) and 10 - windows boarded up to prevent prisoners seeing out|
We then got back on our mini bus to go to Birkenau (it's about 2 miles from Auschwitz). What really strikes you is the sheer scale of the place - I'd say it's at least 4 times the size of Auschwitz (though I'm happy to be corrected). Birkenau was mainly an extermination camp (Auschwitz predominantly being a labour camp) and approximately 1.1m people were killed here (up to 450,000 in one summer in 1944).
We walked down the train tracks that bisect the camp (where the 'selection process' took place) and saw one of the original carriages that brought people to Birkenau. On the right is the remains of wooden buildings that were torn down at the end of the war - brick chimney stacks are all that remain (though a few buildings have bee reconstructed) and stretch out to what feels like the horizon. On the left are the original brick buildings where the women where interned.
|Train tracks at Birkenau looking back towards to camp entrance|
|Chimney stacks of the demolished buildings|
Thanks for reading - I hope that was of some interest to you. Apologies for how long it went on.