This post is a continuation from part one on Auschwitz I
Getting out of the museum we opted to try to get a bite to eat before continuing our visit to the camps. There are a few options available in the area for food, but generally not much. There is a cafeteria at the Museum and a few restaurants scattered outside of the parking lot of the museum entrance. Most of the options were very heavy or various fast food choices and I really couldn’t quite get myself excited about eating a heavy meal here, and all I wanted was something light. In the end we ended up back at the same restaurant we ate earlier, and oddly enough we were seated at the exact same table! I think it’s a bit too early to be having a usual table here already.
Between the two museums there is a free shuttle bus that regularly transports people between Auschwitz I and Birkenau. As the bus slowly approaches Birkenau I slowly start to get a better grasp for the size and scope of the Holocaust plan. Auschwitz I was small, with big brick buildings, and more permanent architecture. Auschwitz II was massive, and as I got closer it just seemed to go on in each direction forever. It seems almost unreal. We disembarked from the bus and walked towards to the main gate tower. We climbed the steps and gazed out over the camp in front of us. From up here you could see the true scale of the concentration camp, a facility that stretched far into the distance in each direction. Rows after rows of barracks, almost never ending…
In the front you can see reconstructed barracks, but all those stacks behind there used to be barracks as well. They are on both sides of the camp tracks.
We took our views, looked around, and in horror you realize the massive size of the camp. One one side is the men’s camp and on the other is the women’s camp. I don’t know if they started the plan that way, but over the years of building perhaps it developed that way. The camp was very large and it was still being expanded when the Nazis fled the approaching army.
From inside the gate you can better see the gatehouse tower. Named the “Gate of Death” by the prisoners in the camp, through here lead the train tracks through that brought the prisoners into Auschwitz. There was a constant flow of train cars through the gates to keep up with the flow of undesirables (mostly Jews) that were to be exterminated here.
Many of the barracks had been previously destroyed. But there were a few reconstructed to show what they had looked like during the time the concentration camp was functioning. Here you can see the row of barracks sitting there in a less well built nature than those barracks in Auschwitz I. These buildings were originally designed to as stables to house 50 horses. You can even see horse ties in places. However they have been repurposed in Auschwitz to house as many as 400 to 1000 inmates each. You can see below that the facilities inside the barracks were even way below primitive. The first photo shows the latrines in the barracks. There was not even an attempt at privacy.
Below that is a photo of the sleeping areas for the prisoners. Simple slats that the prisoners would sleep on in different levels. The prisoners had to sleep on their side, each one only afforded a few inches, and staying warm simply from the body heat of those near them. Often times given the nature of the barracks, people on higher levels would even relieve themselves while sleeping instead of risking the cold and losing their place and it would just drip down on those prisoners below them. The only heat sources were small chimneys on either end, that provided little heat, but even so people hoped to get close to catch even but a little warmth. Even the Nazis guards themselves would not venture into these barracks for fear of disease. This was not a work camp, but simply a waiting room for death.
The camp stretches on before us and you wander through just gasping at the scale of the place. There is not much honestly intact in Auschwitz II but the little you can see is haunting. About half-way down the track you can see the dividing platform and on the platform sits a reconstruction of a track car that the prisoners rode in on their voyage to Auschwitz. It was on this platform that a Nazi doctor would evaluate the prisoners, those that would be put into the camp, and those that would not. The ones who were marched the rest of the way down the tracks to the large crematoriums in the back and just gassed and cremated right away. Those that were left were not truly lucky, they just worked and delayed death for a short period of time, often for only a few months. They were fed food meant to barely sustain them and forced to live in the appalling conditions above. To be used of drained of every once of strength and value before being discarded and burned. Less than 25% of those who were brought here to Auschwitz ever entered the camp itself, most were gassed and cremated in one of the 4 large crematoriums built here for that specific purpose. Nearly Twenty Thousand people a day could be gassed and burned here. The Nazis were able to achieve the greater efficiency they had lacked at Auschwitz I.
The tracks themselves led all the way down to the end of the camp here, to the area where there is a memorial now, but more importantly to the area of the crematoriums. The Nazis realized there was greater efficiency in mass murder if they just reduced the time it took to bring people to their deaths. It is hard to write words to understand such convictions.
You can see the ruins of the crematoriums also in the camp. There were 4 huge crematoriums in the camp and they were destroyed by the Nazis as they were fleeing the camp near the end of the war. Even though they are ruins, you can get a bit of a sense of the size and scale of these Crematoriums.
Inside there was a set of locker rooms where prisoners were forced to strip and put their belongings away and then led away in the shower room. These shower rooms were not functioning but it was meant to convince the prisoners that they were going to shower in a group so as not to cause a panic. I learned that at some of the other concentration camps, those that were not specifically death camps like Auschwitz I, there were actual working group showers and this would be used to train prisoners to shower together so they would not be surprised by it when they entered a death camp like Auschwitz. There is also a pool nearby where the ashes were dumped into of those murdered in the nearby crematoriums. I opted against photographing that.
At the end of the tracks there was a large memorial to the victims here of Auschwitz. The over a million who had perished in these camps alone. One and a half million people, the size of a decent sized city, it is just hard to truly fathom that number in real terms.
The plaques are in the languages of the camp victims and additionally in English as well. Here below can be seen the plaque in English. You can get a sense of the size and scale of the place, but I think its truly still hard to imagine the despair of the place. It looks terrible at this moment, and I cannot imagine how it would have been during operations. I cannot quite fathom the lives of the prisoners and even also the lives of the guards. How they managed to do all the things that they have done. You would like to believe that they were just insane, that it was some abnormality. That it is truly “never again” in such regards to genocide like these things. But often we realize never again, means not until the next time. With historical hindsight you can think of other such incidents of mass murder and genocide throughout our history. You can only hope that one day maybe things will do change. There is something particular special about the holocaust. I would like to say maybe the scale, but truly the difficult part for me was the engineering of the crimes, the planning, the execution of it all. The way they managed to move people from their homes and then funnel them to these death camps. The ways of processing inmates, stripping the belonging, using all value, even skin perhaps for lampshades. There is a level of dehumanizing that needs to occur for people to commit such crimes as these, but this seems to be a bit of a level beyond that too. The guards who’s job it was to drop the gas into the chambers, the prisoners who were housed separately and forced to dig through the corpses for any valuables (gold teeth, etc.) before eventually being executed themselves as well, the lies to the red cross, the way they improved the efficiency and speed of murders. It all just seems to be a bit hard to believe, but yet it is all true and all in front of you at the same time.
There were various other things in the camp as well. We wandered among the grass here, walking through the buildings. There were various buildings in different states of damage and quality of structure. Some were far more sturdy brick buildings than the wooden buildings we had seen earlier. I believe some of these were offices or housing for the Nazis who were in the camps perhaps.
Beyond these buildings there were a few more things left to see in the camp, but we opted to head out ourselves instead. I think we were basically exhausted both mentally and physically at this point in the camps. Beyond these things we had seen, there were additionally two more crematoriums to be seen at the far back right of the camp when entering. There was also the remains of the building called the “sauna” which was used for processing prisoners who entered the camps, where they were shaven, deloused, and stripped of their belongings. The belongings themselves were housed in warehouses also at the camp, and you can see the foundations of these warehouses, but the buildings themselves are destroyed. These warehouses were nicknamed “Canada” warehouses which was a country they associated with great wealth and abundance.
We made our way back to the gate and out of Birkenau. We sighed and realized we were quite more tired than we had anticipated we would be, but it was a very long full day here in Oświęcim. It was a worthwhile experience but an exhausting one as well. I’m happy I didn’t plan much else for the day beyond this trip. With few words of conversation we took the shuttle to Auschwitz I and the boarded a bus bound back to Krakow.