Thursday, March 28, 2013

Auschwitz and Birkenau

I can't exactly describe today as a "fun" day on the journey.  In fact, on the long bus ride back to Krakow from the concentration camps, I wondered how I would even begin to describe today's experience in this blog.  I still don't have an answer.  As much as I love words and believe in their power to express every possible emotion, situation, viewpoint, etc...they fail me today.  I considered "powerful," "incomprehensible," "heartbreaking," "painful," "tragic"...and others that are equally lacking to manifest the multitude of feelings that you experience while walking around Auschwitz and Birkenau.  No matter how many movies you've seen, books you've read, or pictures you've viewed regarding the Holocaust, nothing will have prepared you for the heavy cloak of sorrow you will bear in this place. 

You arrive at Auschwitz and after going through a museum-like building, you are free to walk around the grounds.  Some buildings are closed, some have been turned into mini-museums with exhibits behind glass exploring the lives of those who were imprisoned there, and in some you are allowed to walk around freely.  Auschwitz started as just a labor camp to hold Russian POWs and German dissidents, but it became very much more in Hitler's plan.  Cell block 11, known as the "prison within the prison" is where those who tried to escape, or were suspected of any number of crimes, were held.  Many of these prisoners (thousands) were taken into the adjacent courtyard and shot at what was known as the death wall.  Some were hung at an outdoor gallows, their bodies left on display as a warning.  Others were sent to the basement, which contained 3 kinds of cells: starvation cells that people were thrown into and left without food and water until they died, standing cells which were too small to do anything but stand in (these prisoners were taken out daily for hard labor and then put back in), and dark cells which contained a solid door and in which prisoners would suffocate gradually as they used up all the oxygen in the cell.  It was in this basement that the first experiments using zyclon B to kill people in mass quantities were conducted.  When the gas method proved effective on 850 prisoners hauled into the basement as guinea pigs, a bunker on the Auschwitz property was converted into a gas chamber and crematorium for the purpose of mass killing.  It still stands today.

When Auschwitz became too small, Birkenau (known as Auschwitz II) was built.  A free shuttle runs between the two camps.  I was unprepared for the sheer size of Birkenau.  Many of the prisoner barracks have fallen into decay and been removed, but the chimneys of the two small stoves used to heat each large barracks building still remain.  The field of chimneys, each representing a barracks holding hundreds, goes on for acres and acres and acres, as far as the eye can see.  The buildings that still stand are a horrific testament to what life here was like.  There is nothing behind glass at Birkenau, and you are free to walk through almost every part of it. The entirety of the camp is considered a cemetery, as the ashes of the dead were scattered each day between the barracks.  Even today, some 70 years later, the ground remains gray underneath the grass.

Birkenau was built from the start as a death camp to fulfill Hitler's "final solution" for exterminating all Jews and any other group he considered unfit.  There were five crematoriums at Birkenau where 20,000 people a day could be gassed and incinerated.  It was here that Jewish families were brought on train cars and then underwent a cursory fitness test by an SS doctor.  If he pointed you to the right, you had been deemed fit to work as a slave laborer.  If he pointed you to the left, you were herded directly to the gas chambers.  This was the fate of children, the elderly, the sick, and most women.  It is estimated that about 3/4 of all arrivals were sent to the left.  Over 1.5 million people died at Birkenau, more than at any other concentration camp...or any other place and time in history. 

At the end of the war, as allied troops were approaching, the SS destroyed the crematoriums to cover up evidence of what they had done.  At one far end of the camp, between the rubble of crematoria II and III, a memorial has been built.  It contains a series of engraved plagues, one in each of about 25 different languages, that reads in part "Forever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity..."


The entry gates at Auschwitz.  Ironically, the words translate as "labor makes you free."

Rows of prison barracks at Auschwitz.

Inside the barracks
This is a starvation cell.  This one is now a shrine to Father Maximilian Kolbe, who died here in 1941.  Father Kolbe was a Catholic priest imprisoned for hiding 3000 Polish refugees, most of whom were Jewish, in his friary.  The SS had a rule that if any man escaped, ten men from his barracks would be send to block 11 to starve.  When this punishment was enacted on ten men in Father Kolbe's barracks, one of them, a man named Franciszek Gajowniczec, cried out in despair that he would never again see his wife and children.  Father Kolbe stepped forward and asked to take his place in the starvation cell.  His request was granted. Two weeks later when Kolbe was the last prisoner who remained alive, he was executed by lethal injection inside the cell.  According to Polish workers in the cell block, his last words were a prayer of forgiveness for his executor.  Father Kolbe was canonized as a saint by Pope John Paul II in 1981.  The man he saved, Mr. Gajowniczec, was reunited with his wife, but both of his children died in the camps.  He lived to be 95 years old, but every single year for the next 50 years after he was liberated from the camp, he returned on August 14, the day of Father Kolbe's death, to pay homage to the man who saved him. 

These are standing cells.  Four men at a time were put into each cell.  It's hard to tell in the photo, but each cell is about 3'x3'.

This is the death wall beside block 11 where thousands of prisoners were executed.

This is the exterior of the gas chamber/crematorium at Auschwitz.

Inside the gas chamber

The crematorium

The main gate into Birkenau where the trains carrying prisoners came in on the tracks.

This is what is left of the vast field of former barracks.
This single car, used to transport Jews from all over Poland to Birkenau, still stands on the tracks.
Inside barracks at Birkenau

These were the latrines at Birkenau

The remains of a gas chamber/crematorium at Birkenau

The steps used to lead prisoners into the underground tunnel of crematorium II, where they thought they were being taken for a shower. 

This is the English language plaque at the memorial.

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