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Krakow Part II - Auschwitz-Birkenau

From the Ashes of the Past

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View Scott's Eastern Europe 2009 on sfoshee's travel map.

NOTE TO READERS – The Entry “Krakow Part 1 – A Celebration of Life” below is intended to be read before this entry. Thank you.

WARNING - This entry contains graphic descriptions and photographs possibly disturbing to some people. The intent is not to offend, but to explain what took place at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Please proceed with caution.

The next day in the breakfast room I met Kate, who is from Perth Australia. Kate has been traveling alone since September. She spent 5 months in Switzerland during ski season providing sports massage therapy to sore skiers. She plans to be away from home until next September. Kate’s parents were backpackers too and made a point of taking her and her brother on trips when they were little, including one to Bali. She said that she thinks going away makes you appreciate home that much more. Besides Switzerland on this trip she has been to the United Kingdom, where she enjoyed Cork, Ireland the most. “Dublin is the capital, but Cork is the heart of Ireland.” She has her own business in Perth doing massage therapy and personal training. Her real passion, she said, is netball, an Olympic sport that is very popular in Australia. Kate described netball as being kind of like outdoor basketball, without a backboard or dribbling. She has had two knee surgeries from netball injuries, but is now fully recovered and plays in Perth on a club team. I mentioned that I planned on visiting Auschwitz that day, and she said that she was headed there too. So we took off walking to the bus station.


Kate had a great sense of direction, and we found the bus to Oswiecim, home to the Auschwitz and Birkenau World War II German concentration camps. The 90 minute bus ride only cost about $3. When we got to the camp and up to the counter to buy tickets for an English language tour, the cashier’s computer went down. They called the Auschwitz computer guy, who came to the rescue! Solidarity to my fellow I.T. computer professional! Imagine having "Auschwitz Computer Guy" on your resume!


We put on headsets that were wirelessly linked to our guide’s live microphone. I liked this setup because it allowed the guide to talk to our entire group while still keeping her voice down, preserving the reverential hush on the grounds. It worked fairly well, except when we were spread out as a group in the barracks, separated by walls.

The Auschwitz we all know is actually Auschwitz I, a former Polish army camp taken over by the Nazis and turned into a concentration camp during World War II. The grounds were very well kept and the trees added to a sense of peace about the place, much like the quiet park-like atmosphere of many graveyards. We were led up to the front gate of the camp, with the cruel sign at the top saying “Work Sets You Free” in German. The “B” was welded upside down by contentious inmates. You can see it in this shot on the left side of the sign.


Auschwitz I actually felt a bit smaller than I expected. Still, it held an average of 14,000 inmates at any one time in extremely crowded conditions. Birkenau, which was built as Auschtitz II just a few miles away, housed up to 100,000. The camp was surrounded by two fences of electrical barbed wire run through ceramic insulators on concrete poles.


The counting of the prisoners occurred every morning, regardless of weather. A camp band played music for the prisoners to march to in order to make the counting easier. This is a very rare photo of the Auschwitz camp band. Auschwitz’s mere existence was a German top secret, so any photos surviving today were taken by arrogant German guards in secret.


Several prisoner barracks contain visitor exhibits. The first row of barracks displays National Memorials, created by the home countries of the camps' victims. They explain the sufferings of the camp inmates by nationality including the Jews and the Roma, or Gypsies. People were brought to Auschwitz and turned into prisoners because the Nazis did not agree with their religion, politics, or other beliefs. No cameras were allowed inside any of the barracks. This is one of the streets of Auschwitz I.


Museum exhibitions were in the second row of barracks. They displayed the incredibly crowded living conditions here, as well as the horrific sanitary problems encountered by inmates. Prisoners were brought here from all over Europe by the Nazis. Some inmates were even brought here from as far away as Greece and Norway.


An extermination exhibit included hundreds of open, empty canisters of Zyklon-B crystals, which were recovered when the camp was liberated. According to Rick Steves, Guards would herd inmates into "shower" rooms at Birkenau, complete with shower heads that were not connected to water. Inmates were told to disrobe, hang their clothes on numbered wall hooks, and to remember their number so that they could retrieve their clothes later. Guards did this to discourage rioting. The shower room was then closed, and a guard would put on a gas mask, open a can of Zyklon-B, and drop it in. When exposed to the air, the crystals produced cyanide gas. In 20 minutes, Nazis could kill 20,000 people in four different gas chambers. An elevator then would raise the bodies to the crematorium where they were picked clean of gold teeth and shaved of hair, which was then sold. Certain inmates were forced to do this duty and were kept isolated from the rest of the population. These inmates often found their own wives, parents, and even children among the dead. Some of the inmates committed suicide by throwing themselves against the electric fences. Most of the others who were able to work were exterminated after about two months. The gas chambers at Birkenau were largely destroyed by the retreating Nazis before liberation, but the one at Auschwitz I remains, as I discovered later.


There were extremely moving exhibits of prisoners' personal effects. Before being moved from their homes, they were told that they were being "resettled" in the east and that they should bring everything they would need with them. Some even paid for their new homes in advance. When they arrived in Auschwitz the Nazis took their belongings and used them for their own war effort. On display were recovered items from the victims, including thousands of eyeglasses, pairs of shoes, and suitcases with the prisoners' names and dates of birth written on them. One exhibit that especially got to me showed a mountainous pile of shoes from children. Upon arrival, anyone under 15 years of age was immediately executed. Their shoes were then taken and used to produce leather goods for the Nazis.


If I had to pick one image that I cannot erase from my brain, however, it would be the exhibit of human hair. There were hundreds of pounds of it on display, shaved from the dead bodies and used by Nazis to make fabric for clothes and uniforms. Some of the hair was beginning to turn white, a natural part of the aging process - it has now been 64 years since the camp was liberated. Near the front of the pile something caught my eye, and I moved closer to the glass. In the stack of human hair was a little girl's perfectly braided ponytail, cut off just after she was gassed and before her body was incinerated. I was unable to hold back my welling tears.


Building 11 was the most feared building in Auschwitz I. No one ever left alive. Prisoner bunks, stacked three high, could be seen here. Three prisoners were assigned to each bed, and they had to lie on their sides so that they all could fit. The cells in the basement were particularly disturbing. There was the Starvation Cell, where prisoners were kept to starve to death, the Dark Cell, holding up to 30, and the Standing Cells, where prisoners were forced to stand together for hours or even days at a time. These cells were also the places where the first tests of the Zyklon-B gas were held. Insidious human experiments by Dr. Mengele took place here as well. The basement of building 11 was one of the most disturbing places I have ever visited and "felt" for myself. My hands were literally shaking, and it took everything I could do to keep from bolting for the stairs.

Trials were held in this building in the German language with no translation provided. The condemned prisoners were then forced to strip and then were taken out into the courtyard and shot standing against this wall. As you can see, the barracks windows facing the courtyard were boarded up so that prisoners inside could hear the screams of the executions without being to see exactly what was happening.


The memorial at the courtyard wall.


A hallway in one of the barracks displayed photographs taken of prisoners during processing. I stared into the eyes of those now gone, and was struck by their familiarity. Even though they passed away over 60 years ago, I recognized these people. They were the faces I see every day back home in Athens, Georgia. Here were the eyes of the grocery store clerk at Pubix. This was the wrinkled expression of the lady I walked past on College Avenue. I found myself developing a very close kinship with these familiar strangers, and the thought of their passing in such an unspeakably brutal manner deeply saddened me. This is a close-up of some of the flowers and candles at the wall, left in memory of the victims here.


Between buildings at Auschwitz I.


This is the guard's counting hut. The prisoners at Auschwitz were counted every day, rain or shine. The longest count at Auschwitz lasted 18 hours. In the extreme cold weather, the guards with sit in this hut, protected from the elements, while the starving, scantily-clad inmates stood outside freezing for hours. Long counts often happened after an escape. It is a little known fact that 144 people actually escaped from Auschwitz. When one did escape, however, the rest of the camp suffered terribly.


A close-up of the barbed wire at Auschwitz.


The fence's cold efficiency.


Between the wire.


A guard tower located in the middle of the blocks.


The Auschwitz I crematorium and chimney.


The entrance to the Auschwitz I gas chamber.


People were forced to undress outside before being herded in to this gas chamber. Up to 700 people could be gassed here at one time. Guards would put on gas masks and drop the Zyklon-B through vents in the ceiling. This gas chamber is all original. Hundreds of thousands of people were ruthlessly murdered in this room.


The next room held the crematorium, which could burn up to 340 bodies a day. This meant that it took two days to burn all of the bodies from one round of executions, and the inefficiency caused the Germans to erect the much larger and more efficient Birkenau camp, which had four huge crematoriums on its grounds.


We then boarded the shuttle bus for the short ride to Birkenau, just a few minutes away. This is the main gate, featured in the movie Schindler's List.


Train cars full of prisoners would roll through this opening into the huge 440 acre camp.


Train tracks into the heart of Birkenau.


Our guide told us that Birkenau was started in 1941 when the original Auschwitz got to be too small. Birkenau held about 100,000 people, and the Nazis were still adding on to it when it was liberated in 1945. The original plan was for Birkenau to hold upwards of 200,000 prisoners at one time. Buildings stretched as far as the eye could see.


This is a stove inside one of the barracks at Birkenau. The summers were stifling due to lack of ventilation, and the hard Polish winters were warmed only by these meager stoves. A brick duct linked the stoves at either end of the barracks, and the bricks are worn smooth from inmates sitting on them to warm themselves.


Each of the Birkenau barracks buildings held from 400 to 1000 prisoners. Rick Steves says that the buildings were actually prefabricated horse stables, which made them cheap and easy to erect. Horse-tying rings can actually be seen on some of the walls.


Five to seven people slept on each level of the bunks. The bunks are angled so that more prisoners would fit into them at any one time.


These are the latrines. There was no running water, and the prisoners were responsible for keeping them clean. The horribly unsanitary conditions led to numerous rats and disease. Because of the disease, the German guards were afraid to enter the latrines, which made them a center for the resistance movement and the camp black market.


Numerous bare chimneys mark the sites of barracks which were destroyed by the retreating Germans, who tried to get rid of the evidence before the Allies came.


New camp prisoners would step off of their cattle cars onto this dividing platform. After having ridden in unheated train cars from as far away as Greece and Norway, the prisoners would tumble out of the cars and be greeted by a Nazi doctor at this location. The doctor would evaluate each prisoner to see if they were able to work. If he pointed to the right, the prisoner would unknowingly trudge to his or her instant death in the gas chamber. If he pointed to the left, the prisoner would live to work for a few months until he starved to death, died of rampant disease, or was gassed. Rick Steves says it best when he states that "It was here that families from all over Europe were torn apart forever."


We turned to the right, and walked the path of the condemned.


A beautiful wreath placed at the end of the line in Birkenau.


This is the Birkenau Memorial. At the 60th anniversary of the camp's liberation in January 2005, several Auschwitz survivors came to the bitterly cold outdoor ceremony here. Our guide said that even though the former prisoners were very old then, many were still in terrific shape, and sat refusing to wear winter hats.


Our guide left by telling us that if we ever met anyone with the tattoo of a concentration camp number on their arm, to count ourselves as very lucky. Tattoos were only given to inmates at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Very few of them made it out alive, and now, 64 years later, there are fewer alive still. The seeds of their subsequent generations, however, have since taken root in the soil nourished by the ashes of their ancestors. It is a wonderful thing that their chidren and their children's children are now flourishing again in the vibrant, new Poland, as well as all over the rest of the world.

"The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again." - George Santayana


Posted by sfoshee 11:08 Archived in Poland Tagged backpacking

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Even without the description you provide, the pictures show the pain and horror that occurred. I'm glad they have kept these around, just to show the history and educate those that may not understand.

by Alan

Nice article - we're heading there ourselves and also to Dachau so it was nice to see another perspective in writing and pictures before going :)

by Paul McG

Amazing account. Brian and I saw Dachau in 1986, but it sounds like your experience was even more intense.

by Louise Freeman Davis

I got linked to your blog whilst looking for something totally unrelated on Travellerspoint, and was really moved to read your vivid account of visiting Auschwitz. I was just over in Germany myself and didn't have time to make a visit. Thanks for taking me there in spirit, and for your lovely tribute.

by coolmcjazz

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