Thursday, 7 June 2012



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
Looming in the background is the gate to the camp and the ominous "ARBEIT MACHT FREI" sign above them.  I found myself holding my breath a lot as we walked into different blocks of the camp.  I didn't take as many photographs as I normally would because it ultimately didn't feel like the right thing to do.  You are allowed to take pictures virtually anywhere (it's forbidden in a few select places) but I didn't want to reduce my experience to a load of "holiday snaps".  It's worth pointing out that other people on my tour group didn't have as many reservations as I did, but it's each to their own I suppose.

Entrance to Auschwitz
There were 20 original blocks at Auschwitz whilst the Nazis built an additional 8 during the war.  The tour took us round 4 or 5 of these which are open to the public.  It's worth pointing out here that Auschwitz-Birkenau is an official museum and as such some of the blocks house exhibits, photographs and documents - the way in which it's organised and preserved is incredible.

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
Blocks 10 and 11 are particularly moving.  Block 10 was where women and children were held and subjected to 'experiments' by Dr Josef Mengele (who died a free man).  Across the courtyard is Block 11, the so called "Death Block".  Here, the Nazis held court over prisoners who had broken camp rules.  They were invariably sentenced to death and taken out to be shot in the courtyard between the two blocks.  Inside the walls are covered in photos of prisoners who died at Aushwitz. 

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
After that we walked back towards the entrance, passing the gallows where Rudolf Hoess was executed for his role as First Commandant at Auschwitz.  The house he lived in with his wife and child is visible but not part of the tour.  It lies about 30 feet from the fence around the camp and about 150 feet away from the gas chamber and crematorium.  The final part of the tour leads you into the gas chamber and then into the crematorium.  Whilst it's not for very long, walking into a gas chamber is an incredibly sobering experience and something that's incredibly difficult to forget.  The full horror of what happened was recounted by our guide but I don't think it's appropriate to go into it here.

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
The tour walks down to the far end of the camp where the railway line comes to an abrupt end and there now stands a memorial. There are 22 separate inscriptions, each in a different language (one for each of the nationalities that suffered at the hands of the Nazis).  On either side of the tracks are the remains of 2 gas chambers and 2 crematoria (the Nazis destroyed them as they fled from the Soviets).  The rubble remains untouched.  At the side of one dilapidated chimney stack are two pools where ashes were dumped (and still remain to this day).

Demolished crematorium
The final part of our tour took us through 3 of the brick buildings that were used as sleeping quarters, wash rooms and toilets for women prisoners.  We were told that thousands of people would queue twice daily for the toilets (as that is all that was allowed) and were given only 10 seconds before being moved on.  The sleeping quarters were continuously rife with lice, rats and disease.  Prisoners were fed approximately 800 calories worth of food per day, a lot of it rotten.  A number of people who survived the camp and were freed by the Soviets died shortly after as they ate too much too quickly - history was not equipped to understand how to save people that were so utterly malnourished.
Chimney stacks of the demolished buildings
It's difficult to put into words how the experience makes you feel.  I knew of what happened before I visited, but it all seemed so abstract in a way.  Knowing the facts and figures of the Holocaust is one thing, but to be there and see it is something else entirely.  It's still hard to translate what you see and hear into understanding how hundreds of thousands of people could be murdered in such a fashion.  It almost seems trite to say that it's an emotionally exhausting day - living through it is unimaginable - but seeing only a fraction of the camps and hearing only about a number of the atrocities that were carried out is completely sobering.  I'm glad I went and if you ever have the opportunity to visit then I'd recommend that you do.  But I don't think you can ever be prepared for it.

Thanks for reading - I hope that was of some interest to you.  Apologies for how long it went on.

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