Auschwitz/Birkenau, outside of Krakow Having spent the day touring the most notorious concentration camp in the Nazi system, we were immersed in the atrocities inflicted on the Jews and the many other groups deemed undesirable by the Nazis.
Auschwitz was both a concentration camp and an extermination camp. Being there makes real the story that we all know, starting with the entrance and moving through various buildings. They look very substantial because they were previously the barracks of the Polish army, but ignore the campus-like feeling of the layout.
Displays like the systematically sorted personal items bring a special chill, and the horrors of buildings where Dr. Mengele had his way with the prisoners, under the ‘leadership’ of Rudolph Hess – what could be more terrifying, contrasted with a day which was particularly beautiful.
Though it seems far too large, it only held about 15,000 prisoners, which made it far too small for the eventual scale of Hitler’s plans.
Though the Germans tried to destroy as much evidence of their crimes as possible, one gas chamber and its crematorium remain, with empty canisters of gas used also shown. I never thought I would enter such a place, and I never will again. The only redeeming feature was the nearby gallows where Rudolph Hess was hung.
But this was only Auschwitz I. Though it had the resources to eventually exterminate over one million people – approximately 960,000 of them Jewish, early on in the war the Germans decided on a much bigger, more purpose-built camp.
Nearby Auschwitz II (Birkenau) was begun in 1941, ultimately about four times larger. At its peak, it held about 100,000 prisoners. The tracks of trains from all over Europe ran efficiently directly into the camp, right up to the dividing platform, where life and immediate death decisions were made about the usefulness of new arrivals by a camp doctor. If he pointed to the right, the prisoner was immediately marched to the gas chamber. If left, one would be registered to work and live a bit longer.
This place looks open and inviting, but only because most of the barracks were dismantled for fuel and building materials right after the war. Only their chimneys remain.
The long central road leads directly to the site where the four crematoria stood, each with the capacity to dispose of more than 4,500 people daily. In an attempt to hid their crimes, the Nazis destroyed them in the days before they were just about to retreat. The area is now a monument in various languages to the millions who died here. The ruined gas chambers and crematoria remain in their damaged state.
The final part of the camp we saw was the women’s barracks and a miserable sanitary facility, which must have been anything but.
Both of these camps have been open as museums for 75 years. Our guide explained how important the Polish government felt it was for people to see and learn from the horrors of what happened in these places.
But, she said emotionally in conclusion, “It seems we have learned nothing.”