Friday, 2 November 2012

Auschwitz, Poland

Auschwitz - Birkenau (Auschwitz I)

Some 50km or so outside of Krakow lies the small town of Oswiecim. Taken over by the Nazis during World War II, the residents of this area were driven from their homes, with the town renamed Auschwitz followed by the subsequent development of the horrific concentration camp 'Konzentrationslager Auschwitz'.

During the course of the war, the Nazis set up many sub camps, but by far and away the largest were Auschwitz I, the first and the oldest which acted as a base camp, and Auschwitz II - Birkenau,which was the principal extermination camp. This one was set up 3 km from Oswiecim in the village of Brzezinka. Again, the local inhabitants were expelled from their homes, buildings destroyed and the new camp set up.

From Krakow, it is possible to see both these camps via a guided tour which includes pick up and drop off from your hotel. Of course, it is possible to do it on your own steam but to save time, hassle with buses and to make the most of the time you will have, it is easier to just use one of the many tour groups in the city.

The tour starts with drop off at the gates of Auschwitz I with the whole complex being a museum. As you walk up to the gates, you can see the infamous slogan 'Albeit macht Frei' which translates to 'Work makes you free'. As you go through the gates, if you turn around there is a sign telling anyone coming the other way to stop, a double barbed wire fence and an entrance that housed SS guards. Once through the gates, there was no going back.

Main entrance

Original sign

Double barbed wire fence
The complex was originally a Polish army barracks comprised of 16 one storey buildings but given the expansion of the Third Reich's reign of terror within Central Europe, these were soon upgraded to house more prisoners and eventually the creation of Birkenau and other satellite camps.

Walking through the camp on such a beautiful day seemed so surreal, everything was so quiet as everyone listened to the horrifying truths of what happened within the camp. The buildings have all been renovated so that they are not in their original state of decrepitude or squalor as they would have been for the prisoners, but various buildings had been set up as their own independent exhibition within the museum.

Rows of Blocks

Old kitchen
Many of the blocks housed exhibits describing the atrocities that were carried out with many pictures supporting the facts the tour guide was relaying to the group. There were pictures of families being split up, never to be united again, a map covering all of Europe showing where the prisoners came from, parallel walls lined with photos of murdered Poles, Jews and people from other walks of life and nationality, empty gas cannisters that were used in the gas chambers and an outer wall of one of the blocks where thousands of prisoners were taken out and shot.

One of the most depressing sights was that of the possessions of prisoners encased within one of the blocks. These included suitcases, accessories and shoes. Seeing the children's shoes was incredibly sad and there's just no way to describe what it feels like to see two tonnes of human hair which is estimated to come from 40,000 women and children. We learn about WWII in history at school, but when you come to a place like this and see it with your own eyes it really is amazing that this was ever allowed to happen.

Map detailing origins of prisoners

Old Zyklon B gas cans

Living quarters

Of all the blocks, Block 11 was the most feared and refered to as a prison within a prison. If a prisoner had been deemed to have broken any of the camp rules, they were sentenced here, often to death. Below, there were standing cells; these were barely bigger than a phone box and four people would have to stay in here overnight with barely enough roon to stand, let alone sit. They then had to work the following day and then at night they were ushered back into the cell.

In other cells, prisoners were locked up and starved to death, however if they were surviving longer than expected they were just shot. It was also here where they tested the use of Zyklon B, the gas that was eventually used in the gas chambers, starting with Crematorium I which was reconstructed to its original specification after the war for the museum.

Auschwitz - Birkenau (Auschwitz II)

Once this section of the tour was complete, guests were given a ten minute break before being whisked over to Auschwitz - Birkenau, also known as Auschwitz II. This complex was far bigger and effectively built by the Nazis in order to house and kill as many people as possible, with Jews accounting for the highest death toll; 1,000,000 murdered.

Listening to all the statistics was pretty difficult. Even though you learn some basic facts in school, there is so much more that you don't realise happened until you actually come to the site and see for yourself.

This camp was at the centre of an extensive railway network, with the trains able to come into the complex itself. There is a carriage on site and the guide informed the group that a  minimum of 100 people would be in each carriage. Once the prisoners disembarked, 75% of them were immediately led off to the gas chambers: the old, women and children. Only the fit and healthy survived and were entered into the work logs.

Tracks through the camp

Entrance of the camp from within

Typical carriage

Burnt out crematorium

Living quarters
At the bottom of the complex is a memorial to those who were murdered here, with many plaques bearing the same quotation in different languages: 'For ever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity, where the Nazis murdered about one and half million men, women, and children, mainly Jews from various countries of Europe'. A somber reminder of what happened here.

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