The last day of my trip in Poland with Heritage Seminars was spent at Auschwitz/Birkenau. We visited the camp about two weeks ahead of Auschwitz’s 70th anniversary of liberation, and there were lots of signs of the upcoming celebration (you may have seen it mentioned in the recent news). Some of the buildings were undergoing restorations, and I saw multiple film crews getting shots of the camp during my group’s visit.
The camp operated for about 4 years, and during that time 1.3 million people were killed – 1.1 million of them Jews. Auschwitz has become the most infamous of the Nazi concentration camps, and the name itself has become a symbol for killing and horror. I have to say, after spending a day there, it’s really not hard to see why.
The camp actually has three sections: Auschwitz I (the original camp used initially for political prison), Auschwitz II (often called Birkenau), and Auschwitz III (the smallest section of the camp, and it also generally had the most ‘livable’ conditions). Most of the people who survived Auschwitz were from Auschwitz III.
In the morning, my group spend about 3 hours at Birkenau – Auschwitz II. This camp was comprised primarily of large fields and barracks:
About 90,000-100,000 slave laborers were working here at a given time. The turnover, however, was extremely high because prisoners died quickly due to starvation, illness, and disease. The average lifespan of a prisoner was only 3 months.
Auschwitz was placed in this location due to its proximity to a railway juncture, thus making it easy to ship prisoners here (this was a key railroad crossing because of coal industry in the area). The train tracks used for shipping prisoners to the camp go right to Birkenau, and thus, most of the crematoriums were also built in this section of the camp:
In the last year of the war, the Nazis increased their ‘production’ at killing Jews from some of the conquered areas outside of Poland and Germany. For example, 400,000 Hungarian Jews were brought to Auschwitz in a period of 3 months during 1944. At the end of the war, the Nazis started to destroy many of the crematoriums and gas chambers. This is what remains from one of the crematoriums at Birkenau:
The structure was built beneath ground in order to insulate the sound, making it more difficult to hear the screams of the dying. The gas chamber rooms themselves were very small, meaning that people would be crammed in together very tightly. The gas chambers at Auschwitz used the chemical Zyklon B. Zyklon B is crystalized at room temperature, and it disperses into a gas after being heated. The chemical would be dropped in solid form into the gas chamber, and the body heat from so many people pushed together would release the gas – people would generally be dead in about 5 minutes. Thus, the gassing part of the operation was quite fast – the burning of the bodies was by far the slowest part of the process (the reason why accounts from the Holocaust describe the crematoriums as burning all through the night).
This is what the Zyklon B gas looked like in solid form as well as a display of empty containers found at the camp:
Many of the buildings were open and preserved for visitors to see, including this room which served as a sorting area for new prisoners to the camp. Prisoners would enter this room, be stripped of their belongings (including clothes), have their hair cut, and continue on to be showered/disinfected and then receive camp clothes:
These are the areas in which prisoners would receive camp clothes and their old clothes were placed to be disinfected (and then sold for profit by the Nazis back in Germany or repurposed for German military use):
Most of those who arrived to Auschwitz never saw these areas; about 80% of those brought to the camp were taken directly to the gas chambers.
We were able to enter one of the buildings with barracks and to see where prisoners slept. Prisoners were crammed into these barracks, making sleep difficult and enabling the spread of disease. Something we learned in the barracks building that stood out to me was the connection between relationships and survival. Of course, to a large extent, surviving came down to luck. Yet, beyond this, having someone else with you (a family member or close friend) was an extremely significant factor for many who survived. The other components of camp life that most aided survival were: access to food beyond the rationed amount, having a work assignment under a roof, and speaking German (ie, being able to understand the SS and orders given). 22 different languages were spoken at the camp, and prisoners who spoke the same language often supported each other in small groups.
If someone died in the barracks overnight, the other prisoners of the bunk were expected to carry that person to roll call in the morning. If anyone was absent from roll call (even if that missing person was dead), all of the prisoners would be expected to stand until the person was accounted for. The longest roll call at Auschwitz lasted 19 hours – I can’t imagine standing that long in any circumstance, much less when I am literally starving.
After a rough morning at Birkenau, my group headed to Auschwitz I for a tour with one of the camp’s official guides, Dakota Jak. Dakota was amazing – she had an incredible knowledge base and relayed the information in a very engaging and challenging way.
Auschwitz I is the area with the infamous Albeit Macht Frei sign (although other camps also had this sign):
The look of Auschwitz I was very different from Birkenau – Auschwitz I was defined primarily by brick buildings, small courtyards, and relatively narrow walkways:
There were two things that were particularly interesting to me that came up during the tour with Dakota. The first was about a commonly voiced question, “why was there not more revolt from the Jews?” Dakota highlighted a few things to answer this question. First, families often tried to stay together, attempting to comply with orders in hopes of being kept together. What’s more, there are almost no Holocaust survivors who were woman during that time period – the reason being that when families were separated, children were sent with the women. Mothers would not leave their children (even if they were technically strong enough to have been selected for work), causing essentially all of the women to go with their children to the gas chambers. Also, Dakota noted that 15,000 POWs were sent to Auschwitz – trained Soviet soldiers. Only 96 of them survived. This was to highlight the horrible conditions and true helplessness of the prisoners; if trained soldiers were unable to help themselves, how much more so would it be essentially impossible for regular civilians.
The second point of great interest to me is the disturbing reality that the Allied forces didn’t do anything to stop what was happening at the concentration camps. Aerial photos from the wartime period as well as accounts from escapees prove that what was happening at the concentration camps was not a secret from the Allies. Why, then, would they not do something? Bombing the train tracks, for example, that were bringing thousands of prisoners to their deaths every day could have potentially saved hundreds of thousands of lives. The historical answer is, disturbingly, not very satisfying. Essentially, it seems that initially the thought was that what was happening in the camps “wasn’t their problem.” Casualties were accepted as a part of war, and what was going on internally in Germany didn’t register as part of the Allied agenda. Second, the priority of the Allied forces was winning the military war. Bombing the tracks or focusing efforts on liberating the camps was considered as a diversion away from the primary objective. The goal was to win a war – not help the Jews.
At Auschwitz I, the buildings were a combination of preserved rooms and exhibits. Most of the exhibits were relatively brief: a few signs with basic information, a few pictures, and displays with physical remnants from the camp. In this case, the displays were able to relay information without needing a lot of printed information as accompaniment. For example, here is a room full of suitcases that prisoners brought with them to the camp. These suitcases would have been immediately taken upon arrival and then sorted through to look for valuables or anything that could be resold by the Germans:
This is a walkway lined on both sides by shoes (also taken from prisoners, many shoes were repaired by prisoners and then sold by the Germans):
One of the most memorable buildings we visited at Auschwitz I was Block 11 – the building that was used as the camp prison. Being in the prison involved being subjected to various conditions and treatments that would certainly qualify as torture. The first experiment using Zyklon B took place in Block 11. Next to Block 11 was an area called the Black Wall:
The wall was used as a site for the public executions of prisoners, and it’s in a particularly ominous location because it’s sandwiched in a courtyard between Block 11 on one side and the ‘medical’ center (ie, where experiments were conducted on live subjects) on the other.
The last building we visited at Auschwitz I was the crematorium – the only standing crematorium left at the camp.
The crematorium building was set up with a doorway that led into a small indoor foyer that fed directly into a gas chamber room (at this particular crematorium, prisoners were generally made to take off their clothes before even entering the building):
After being gassed, prisoners were carted (by other prisoners) into the attached crematorium room with ovens:
While some prisoners who had this job did survive the Holocaust, accounts from their personal experiences are almost nonexistent – most likely, understandably, due to the extreme trauma and guilt associated with their particular role at the camp. An interesting anecdote, however, is that some information about the camp was found in canisters hidden within the ashes by the prisoners who worked in the crematoriums. The canisters often contained secretly-taken photographs and notes about the horrors happening at the camp.
After a long day at Auschwitz, our group went to another facility for a quick processing session and then headed to the airport:
Goodbye, Poland. Part of me wants to come back, but part of me never wants to subject myself to seeing these sorts of things again. I feel very strongly after this trip, however, that visiting Poland and seeing these sites to gain a better understanding of the Holocaust was overall a very positive experience and one that I would suggest to almost anyone. After this trip, I felt as though I could experience my life in a more aware, grateful, and appreciative way. I think this sort of trip also has an impact on building a positive relationship with Israel. The existence and legitimacy of Israel is in no way solely tied to the Holocaust, but I do believe that understanding the Holocaust on a deep level can make someone more thoughtful and appreciative of the essential role that Israel plays in the world today and for the Jewish people.
In closing, I will say that flying from Poland back ‘home’ to Jerusalem was an amazing feeling – perhaps some small piece of hope and optimism in a week that was often tragic.
Other Poland posts: