I got up early and wandered over to the bus station to catch our bus to Auschwitz. It was a cool September morning and we tried to get there early to catch our bus over to Auschwitz. I had been wanting to see Auschwitz for a long time. Maybe I should wonder why on holiday I would want to see such a tragic place. I have always been interested in the history and trying to understand this stain on human history. And while I knew the stories, read the history, watched the movies, and otherwise thought I knew about the place, I was not certain how it would impact me.
The original decision to get up early had to do with being in the museum before the required tour times. This required us to get in before 10 am. The bus dropped us off at the entrance to Auschwitz I and we still had some time, so we opted to get coffee before entering the museum. Directly outside of the museum are several restaurants and even a hotel. The one thing that is easily forgotten or even possibly unknown is that there is an actual town here, the polish town of Oświęcim. The town existed before the concentration camp did, and the name Auschwitz is the German derivation from the polish name. Either way sitting there having breakfast made me wonder how people who lived here dealt with the history of this part of the world. Did they just get used to the fact that it was always here, and when they were traveling was it a difficult concept having to explain life to all those passersby they meet?
We entered the museum and attempted to try to find tickets for the film about Auschwitz, but the only tickets were for the tours. We also tried to figure out how to enter prior to the required tour times and even then there really wasn’t a definite way. We saw the entrance past the turn-style and figured we’d just try and walk through and see what happens. Success. Or at least no one stopped us as we walked into the camp.
It was so strange entering Auschwitz, it looked so familiar from history and the movies and everything and yet so different at the same time. There were trees everywhere, and green, it looked a lot nicer of a place than I would have imagined it to appear like.
And then as you get closer you see the infamous sign of Auschwitz, the one that the prisoners were greeted with upon their entrance to the camp too. For most the last time as well, as they wouldn’t be leaving the camp alive. The sign “Arbeit Macht Frei”, which in almost irony states “Work makes Freedom”. It is chilling to see this sign that I only saw or read about in history books in years past.
Barring the barbed wire, the first thing I noticed as I entered the camp is that it is not that bad of a looking place. Now bear with me, I know the atrocities that were committed here, but honestly, it is not like I had expected it to be. There were tree-lined streets and large brick buildings…this was not the Auschwitz that I had anticipated. It was interesting to learn that Auschwitz did not start out as the infamous concentration camp, it began its history before the German Occupation as a Polish military barracks. This was not something I had known before and it lends itself to the reason that the buildings and facilities seem to be a lot more permanent in nature than I had expected.
The Camp itself is fairly small, but there is definitely a lot to see here. There are two main components on the camp, the blocks in the front contain memorials to the inmates from various European countries. Many of the countries have their own memorial, as well as a memorial to the Gypsies who were in the camp, and a tribute to the liberation of the camp by the Red Army. The back set of blocks contains the information about the inmates in the camp, life in the camp, living conditions, punishments, etc. This is where most of the information and exhibits of the camp reside.
We started our visit at the first block we arrived at, the tribute to the liberation of the camp. This outlined where on January 27th 1945 the red army entered Auschwitz and liberated the camp. This describes finding the inmates, the actions of the red army, etc. It also makes me wonder since the Red Army liberated the camp if that is why Auschwitz managed to survive through the cold war in the such a preserved state.
The second block we headed to I found to be very fascinating. It traced the history of the Roma (Gypsy) people and those who perished here in the camp. This was amazing to read; sure I knew about the Roma being interred in Auschwitz, but generally you know so little about their history in the camp. Seeing all the photos and stories was interesting and incredibly sad. Reading about the families, even the ones who were for a long time part of Germany, citizens, etc.
Some of the stories were unbelievable when you read how they had served and were highly decorated in the Germany military. Even one such man who served during world war two in Rommel’s Afrika Korps and was later shipped to Auschwitz in 1944 and died in the gas chambers. They were so vilified that they would rather ship them off to die than to leave them fighting on the lines in the war.
It is also the first time I had read about the Einsatzgruppen (Mobile Killing Units). The gas vans that they drove around and then would kill people without having to bring them to a camp. The driver would push a button and wait for all the screams to end and then drive to the truck to a pit and dumped the bodies out. In the earlier days the mobile killing units would use guns and bullets, but then it was determined that it was a bit inefficient and had a psychological impact on the troops doing the killing so they changed over to the gas van approach. I was already starting to get mentally exhausted from Auschwitz at this point and at this level of stories and information, and I had just started my tour.
We opted now to try to see the second row of barracks where much of the information about the camps existed. This is where most of the tourists to Auschwitz visit which was apparent by all the tour groups we kept running into. One of the nice things perhaps of not having your own group is that you could pop in and listen to one of the groups for a while and then hop out and walk around and take your time on different things. We saw a lot more I believe than those who had taken the tour groups, however, perhaps we didn’t get as much explanation on a lot of the things that they perhaps did.
The next blocks focused on the extermination of the inmates in the camp. I have almost no words for this, it was unreal yet so real at the same time. You know there is the knowledge of the events that occurred here and then there is the understanding that you are standing in the place where those events happened. It seems to bring a level of realism to the history that you were missing otherwise back home when just reading about the stories and watching interpretations in movies.
From the picture I can see the size of Auschwitz II that I will visit later.
It was strange to read so much more about the history of Auschwitz than I had before. Learning about how Auschwitz changed from a polish military camp, to a camp for political prisoners, to POWs, and then to the final solution. It showed all the places where prisoners had been shipped in from. They were first told this was a transitional camp to relocate them on to other parts of Europe. Some of those folks even bought property in their believed new homes that they would be resettled to. The museum talked a lot about the extermination of the prisoners and the final solution. They even had a model of the crematorium upstairs.
The first crematorium was simply an experiment. Yes, I had no idea about this, but they were just “trying it out” to see how it would work and whether it would work. The first gas chamber and crematorium were also eventually considered “inefficient”. They could gas 740 people per day, but it took two days to burn all those bodies. This inefficiency is a lot of the reason the Nazis began work on Auschwitz II.
The next block showed the evidence of the concentration camp and the people who died. The Nazis were meticulous in their processing of the prisoners. They saved almost as much as they could possibly save that was valuable from the prisoners. Shoes, watches, suitcases, and even hair were stored for later uses. The hair was used to make Nazi uniforms. I’m sure many of the soldiers never knew.
I didn’t take photos of everything in these buildings. I didn’t feel it to be too appropriate. The room of hair was particularly disturbing as was the room of shoes (particularly the children’s shoes). Even more disturbing than that were the folks who I saw posing next to these items and to statues of and photos of suffering people from the camps. I can’t comprehend why they would stay there smiling taking their photos as if it was some Disney character or amusement park attraction they were posing with. Maybe I’m not completely better for taking photos (although Auschwitz does encourage you to take photos to share with people back home), but I hope to try not to reduce it to some amusement park attraction.
The next exhibition talked about the prisoners at the camp and the life at the camp. There were also many photos from the camp, the photos of the prisoners of the camp. In the beginning, every prisoner was photographed and documented. It listed their name, nationality, birthday, date of deportation to Auschwitz, and their death date.
The striking thing is the short period of time that elapsed for many of the inmates between the dates they were deported to Auschwitz and they died, many lasting only but a few short months. It is through these records that they know who came to Auschwitz, and for how long they stayed. Later in the war when it was too expensive, they stopped photographing inmates and simply tattooed them to keep track as it was cheaper.
I have a hard time getting past all the photos. The row after row of people, their emotionless eyes staring at you from behind the thin pane of glass. Having the knowledge so far in the future to know the fate they all suffered, and wondering and just wishing history could have been different. It makes you angry and frustrated and powerless. Even though I was born so far in the future, you feel as if you are a witness to history and the atrocities of past lives.
One of the other things I didn’t really know about was the different symbols and colors of triangles for the different prisoners. Each one represented a different prison group, from Jewish prisoners, to gypsies, to homosexuals, to political prisoners. It was a way of quickly identifying those out in the camp for any sort of purpose that was necessary, whether they were a flight risk or were prisoners of war.
The next block detailed life in the camp, showing the living quarters and the sanitation, bathrooms, etc. This was interesting. It chronicled how the camp changed over the years, how the bedding and living conditions changed over time.
There were even certain prisoners who had privileged living conditions and status because they were responsible for overseeing other prisoners in the barracks.
It was also just interesting to see how as the war progressed and as Auschwitz and the final solution came to be how the living conditions for prisoners so drastically changed. More of it can be seen later in Auschwitz II – Birkenau but they showed some photographs of there as well. In the beginning, it looked more like a prisoner camp before it morphed more into a death camp.
Block 10 is where the medical experiments were carried out. The famous medical experiments on various different groups by Josef Mengele. He was known as the angel of death and lead to the deaths of many of the inmates in Auschwitz. He was particularly fond of identical twins for the experiments that he performed inside. This block was off-limits to those visiting Auschwitz. I wonder if anything remains inside from the experimentations, and I wonder if I would want to know or see it myself…
The windows of the blocks facing this courtyard were blocked off so that no one could witness the executions that were taking place outside.
Outside of here between blocks 10 and 11 was where political prisoners and other prisoners were executed during the earlier days of Auschwitz. The wall behind here was made of a material to prevent the bullets from ricocheting when the inmates were shot.
The last block along the line here was block 11 or the death block. Photographs were not permitted in this block as this is a block where any prisoner who entered never left again. The odd thing I found was that early in the days of Auschwitz they even had trials that were conducted in here. The trials themselves were mostly a sham, but you have to wonder why they even had sham trials in the first place. I guess it had to do early on when they still executed prisoners by firing squad and that people were mostly worked to death instead of simply gassed to death later on. in the basement, you could see various forms of torture rooms, from starvation rooms, to dark rooms, and to standing rooms, where groups of four inmates were forced to stand together in a tight spot for hours at a time. There is a tribute also to the prisoner Maksymilian Kolbe who took the place of one of the prisoners who was sentenced to a starvation cell for a fellow block prisoner escaping. After two weeks in the cell, Kolbe was the only remaining survivor. Afraid that he would be an inspiration to other inmates and to clear the cell of people the Nazis decided to execute him in the end by lethal injection.
The trials themselves were mostly a sham, but you have to wonder why they even had sham trials in the first place. I guess it had to do early on when they still executed prisoners by firing squad and that people were mostly worked to death instead of simply gassed to death later on. in the basement, you could see various forms of torture rooms, from starvation rooms, to dark rooms, and to standing rooms, where groups of four inmates were forced to stand together in a tight spot for hours at a time. There is a tribute also to the prisoner Maksymilian Kolbe who took the place of one of the prisoners who was sentenced to a starvation cell for a fellow block prisoner escaping. After two weeks in the cell, Kolbe was the only remaining survivor. Afraid that he would be an inspiration to other inmates and to clear the cell of people the Nazis decided to execute him in the end by lethal injection.
There is a tribute also to the prisoner Maksymilian Kolbe who took the place of one of the prisoners who was sentenced to a starvation cell for a fellow block prisoner escaping. After two weeks in the cell, Kolbe was the only remaining survivor. Afraid that he would be an inspiration to other inmates and to clear the cell of people the Nazis decided to execute him in the end by lethal injection.
We wanted to see some of the memorial blocks too but we didn’t have much time remaining so we opted to only visit the Belgium and France memorial exhibit since C was originally from Belgium.
I didn’t take too many photos inside this exhibit. Just seeing the news stories, the places, the people who were taken. Oddly it even discussed how many of the Jews were self-identified. There was a push for them even by the Jewish leaders in the countries at the time for the Jews to identify themselves to the authorities. At first, they truly believed it was for relocation, although even that doesn’t make the identification right in any way. However even more hard to believe was that there was no way for the Nazis to identify the Jews there at the time unless they went and identified themselves (or if neighbors identified them).
The caption of the photo states. “What should be done with the women and children? The decision should be taken to make these people disappear from earth.” – Heinrich Himmler
This is the gallows where at the end of the war the first commandant of the camp Rudolf Höss was hung for his crimes. This area was also known during the time of the camp where the Gestapo were located and many prisoners were interrogated and punished.
Lastly we took some time to go and visit the crematorium of the camp. I did not take any photographs from inside the crematorium, but I did take a photo of the outside to show people. It was very difficult walking through realizing this is where thousands of people were gassed and burned to death. You could see the slots above where the SS dropped the canisters of Zyklon B gas to kill the inmates below. You wonder what they thought while they did so, did they laugh, did they care, did they truly grasp the atrocities they were committing?
I was getting past the point of emotionally drained. It was very hard to grasp and understand what had happened here even though I had already known previously. I think what shocks me most of the genocide was the systematic approach to death that was carried out. The methodical way each prisoner was identified and cataloged and how they were meticulously processed and killed and stripped of their belongings. Perhaps this was Nazi engineering at its worst… We began leaving the camp, we tried to catch the 15-minute movie of the liberation of the camp, but couldn’t quite figure out how to buy tickets and ended up still seeing about half of the movie. We opted at this point to leave Auschwitz I, grab some lunch, and get ready to head over to Auschwitz II – Birkenau
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If you are looking for advice on Visiting the Camps, be sure to visit my post on Tips for visiting the Auschwitz Concentration Camps.