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Auschwitz-Birkenau

05/10/2012

Auschwitz-Birkenau

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I presume we all know what happened during WWII, we know what the nazi did to millions of people. We saw that on TV, we read that on books, we listened to it hundreds of time in our life. We know. But going there and actually seeing the whole place, listening to what they did is something really intense. We just leave the place wondering how men could have done that.

There are 3 main camps in the area:
Auschwitz I (the Stammlager or base camp)
Auschwitz II-Birkenau (the Vernichtungslager or extermination camp)
Auschwitz III-Monowitz, also known as Buna-Monowitz (a labor camp)
– and 45 satellite camps.

I was surprised how huge was the second camp. Over 160ha of wooden structures, chamber gas & crematorium. A total killing factory.

The first camp to be created (Feb 1940) was Auschwitz I, located in Oświęcim, a Polish military camp. It was originally designed for Polish war prisoners but soon became a concentration camp.

One year later, in March 1941, Himmler ordered the expansion of the camp and the building of another camp, in Birkenau (just few kilometers away). There was a village there, the inhabitants had to leave their houses in a hurry. Their home were demolished for their material.

At the beginning, these camps were just concentration camp. The Final Solution wasn’t yet on operation. The prisoners were used as labour.

The first gassing occurred in September 1941. The germans were still testing their well-known Zyklon B gas by killing over 800 prisoners (Soviets and weak people). The testing took place in the cellar of Block B in Auschwitz I. At that time, it could take few hours to kill the prisoners. The right dosage was still a search-in-progress work.

Deportations from all over Europe started to arrive in Birkenau at the beginning of 1942.

In January 27, 1945, Auschwitz was liberated by the Soviet army.

Between these two dates, the nazi deported at least 1’300,000 people to Auschwitz.

1’000,000 jews
150,000 Poles
23,000 Gypsies
15,000 Soviet prisoners of war
25,000 prisoners from other ethnic groups.

1’100,000 of these people died in Auschwitz. Approximatively 90% of the victims were jews. The SS murdered the majority of them in gas chamber. Those not killed in the gas chambers died of starvation, forced labor, infectious disease, individual executions and medical experiments. Little few survived. When the camps were liberated by the Red Army, they found about 7,000 survivors in Auschwitz (and thousands of killed) while few days or weeks before over 65,000 were forced by the SS to march to concentration camp in Germany.

As I wrote above, the visit is pretty intense. There is a lot of things to see and to assimilate. Visiting the 2 camps takes something like 3 hours with a guide (which I strongly recommend). There is plenty of people from all around the world. Groups of French, Polish, English, Spanish, Japanese, Americans…

It’s allowed to take pictures everywhere in both camps beside on two places (in the room containing Victims’ hair & in the cellars of block 11).

Now let’s see in details what you can visit there. But I strongly recommend that if you’re passing by Krakow, to spend an afternoon visiting these death camps.

Auschwitz I

The entrance of Auschwitz I with the inscription: Arbeit macht frei – Work will set you free. That sign (5 metres, 41 kilograms, wrought-iron, made by Polish workers on Nazi orders) was stolen in the early morning of December 18, 2009. The sign was found back in Northern Poland few days later. It’s now a replica, the original will be part of a new exhibition.

The nazi used to store nearly all prisoners belongings in a special building called Kanada – This is just a small part of what was found after the war… Plenty of goods (like money, paintings, silverware, etc.) were sent to Germany, or given as a present to the SS, or whatsoever.

Replica of the execution wall located between blocks 10 and 11 where thousands of political prisoners, mostly Polish resistance fighters, were killed by a single shot in the head at close range after been convicted by the Gestapo Summary Court.

In one of the pictures above, you can see a sign warning the prisoners not to touch the deadly electrically charged fence. You can find that fence everywhere, and as you can notice, it’s a pretty good one, a double row all around the camp.

The building with the chimneys is the kitchen. On the other side of that building, close to the main entrance, the camp orchestra was playing, on a regular basis, for the inmates and the SS guards hears.

On the first picture above is the Krema I gas chamber, it operated from 1941 to 1942, and during which time about 60,000 people were executed with Zyklon B. It’s a replica as the germans used that place as an air raid shelter in September 1944. It was associated with the crematorium on its left. Which you can see on the other picture. The crematorium had 4 oven.

There were also two places I could not take pictures. The room containing Victims’ hair & in the cellars of block 11.

The room containing Victims’ hair. In that room you can find hair cut from the heads of about 140,000 victims. After 6 decades, they seems to be all grey. When the Red Army liberated the camp, they found over 7,000kg of hair packed in paper bags. Only a small part of what was surely cut during all these years. After the Nazi cut the hair of inmates heads, they were sent to the Alex Zink company in Germany to be transformed into different products like fabrics, clothes…

There is a presence of hydrogen cyanide, a poisonous ingredient proper to compounds known as cyclons (Institute of Forensic Medicine in Krakow). This is an evidence that Jews were gassed at Auschwitz.

The cellars of block 11. Auschwitz was a jail, and that cellar was a jail within the jail. They had several types of cell. Each one with a different way of killing people.

The Standing Cells, about 1.5m2, and “enough” room for 4 people. They could do nothing but stand. They had to work for 10 hours during the day, and then spend the night in these cells.

The Dark Cells, with a tiny window. Inmates there would die from suffocation.

The Starvation Cells, where prisoners were incarcerated and not given food or water until they died.

Auschwitz-Birkenau

That camp is only few kilometers away from Auschwitz I. The construction began in October 1941 to help the germans killing more people as the camp I was way too small for their purpose. It was a camp designed for the Final Solution of the Jewish Question (the Nazis had committed themselves to that “solution” no later than January 20, 1942).

The entrance where the daily trains loaded with people arrived. Hundreds of people packed into cattle wagons, sometimes during thousands of kilometers, for days, without any way of getting out. Some of them were dying during the trip. Then, at their arrival in Auschwitz-Birkenau, they were sorted, by a doctor, by gender, age, physical abilities. In fact, pregnant women, young children, old people, disabled, infirm, all were going straight into the gas chamber to be killed.

Those strong enough to work could survive few more days, weeks or months, some of them even manage to survive till the end of the war. In an exhibition in Auschwitz I, we could see that most of the people didn’t survive few months though.

On the three last pictures above, you can see details of the memorial you can find close to the gas chambers. There is writings in plenty of languages (if I remember well, of all the nationalities that were in that extermination camp). It’s for us to remember the atrocities that were perpetrated in that camp.

We were there while it was raining. It added to the emotion. When you enter that camp, and see how huge it is, how long is the dock, you starting to wonder how in the hell these people even thought of doing that…

All gas chambers in Auschwitz-Birkenau were blasted by the germans before they left the place but one (destroyed by insiders)

When they were all working, there was a total of 5 gas chambers-crematorium. Auschwitz-Birkenau killed more people than any other German extermination camp. Only prisoners were working in the crematorium while the Nazis were operating the gas chambers. The last picture, with some kind of a pit, is where they were throwing the ashes.

Some views of the camp. The camp was divided into two parts. Women on the left and men on the right. Most staff were prisoners. Some of them were Kapos and Sonderkommandos.

The Kapos were kind of guards, sometimes even more sadistic than SS. They were usually convicts.

The Sonderkommandos, workers at the crematorium, were preparing new arrivals for the gas chamber. The asked them to remove their clothes and give away they belongings, then they were removing any gold teeth from them, and finally they had to transport the corpses from the gas chamber to the crematorium.

These workers were killed on a regular basis, just to shut them up. The Nazis really wanted nobody to know about what was happening there, even amongst the prisoners.

Now when you visit the camp, it’s all green, plenty of grass everywhere, when the camp was operational, there was mud all over the place.

The dormitory. 3 floors, at least 4 women per bunk and thousands of them in one barrack. No water, no toilets, a little hole in the middle of the roof for fresh air. It was dirty, smelly, mud everywhere…

Toilets and washroom barracks for women. I don’t really want to write down how it was back then. Just imagine by yourself, in that place, ten of thousands of people using these facilities.

It was very interesting to visit these camps. Like I wrote above, nearly everybody know about what the Nazi did during WWII. But we can’t imagine how big it is, how their “solution” was something they thought a long time before. It was surely not improvisation. Everything was build and made to be “efficient”.

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2 thoughts on “Auschwitz-Birkenau”

  • This is a place / are places that my fiancee and I are intending to visit. For a sensitive subject I feel ou have portrayed it in a balanced manner. The use of black and white photographs is evocative of the film “Schindler’s List”.

    Thank you.

    Chris.

  • beaucoup d émotions , en voyant ces photos et les écris, ça me bouleverse…je comprends pas comment des personnes on pu faire subir tant de choses à d autres

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