It’s a nice day and the sun on the trees gives them a golden radiance. A deceiving setting for what sits right behind.
Out front of the main entrance under these trees there are a number of survivor stories on pillars with black slabs, pictures of the people reflecting out at you. They talk about the horrendous atrocities within the death camp and the unbelievable evil of it all. Seeing friends and family get separated, brutally beaten, executed, dying of starvation and disease. Praying and praying to an unreciprocating God. People losing their faith, “How can there be a God if this is allowed to happen?”
Walk slowly between them and read each one. So disturbing. Eyes welling up already. That sets the tone.
We take our tickets to the front and go through the turnstiles. They give us headphones and we wait a bit for the tour to start. A Polish girl holds her hand up and walks us to the front by a field, a brick building with a row of chimneys, and the infamous Auschwitz gate.
She starts talking quietly and everyone puts their headphones on. Mine aren’t working unfortunately and I miss her entire intro as I go back in to get a replacement pair. I get back to the group and tune in.
“….six million Polish killed in World War II. That was 1/5th of the entire population at the time. Auschwitz started as a camp for political prisoners. No gas chambers were here at the start. Let’s go to the gates.”
“Arbeit macht frei“, she explains, “Work sets you free. This was a concentration camp for political prisoners. They were sent here to work until they died. The Germans made them believe that if they worked hard they would survive. First concentration camp was Dachau in 33. Auschwitz later also became an extermination camp. For killing Jews. Whole families. This place was both concentration and extermination camp. It used to be a Polish military base”
“Professional musicians were forced to play marches here at the gate. While trains unloaded thousands of prisoners it helped the soldiers counting more automatic. Prisoners in rows and rows. And musicians playing propaganda music. We will talk propaganda later. Now is the dramatic moment. To imagine you are a prisoner and walk through the gate.”
She pauses and points around, “Every building you see, filled with prisoners. Sick and beaten by soldiers. People died in these buildings. Unable to carry on. The Nazis purposely break their will. Brutality. Terror. Nothing was too much for the final solution.”
“The final solution to the Jewish question. What Hitler called it. Hitler believed rich Jews were the reason for the terrible economy after the first world war. He hated them for it. Felt them not deserving and lesser than human. Severely racist. 90% of Polish Jews killed during the Holocaust. 90. May all their souls rest in peace. So brainwashed were the Germans. Even though they were losing the war they kept doing it. So brainwashed. Killing thousands of Hungarian Jews just weeks before the liberation.”
The camp was expanded and prisoners were used for all the construction.
We go into one of the buildings and this is hung there.
The walls are lined with documented prisoners. This is just like the Communists of Pol Pot’s regime in Cambodia where we saw detailed documents of all the S-21 prisoners. Meticulously documenting all the people you’re killing is so strange.
All these poor people, I can’t imagine what they went through
Everyone was crammed in tiny bunk beds stacked three high and two to each bed. It’s madness
Our guide breaks down some mind-blowing numbers. 1.1 million people died here?! That’s fucking crazy!
“The gas they used was cyanide based. Very painful death by suffocating. Killing up to 2000 people in half an hour by suffocation of cyanide. Prisoners were made to cremate the bodies. These are the pellets and the canisters they used.”
There’s a large model of a section of camp. It shows prisoners packed into the underground gas chambers and the ovens right beside them. Someone designed this. To be efficient at killing as many people as quickly as possible.
They collected ashes from the furnaces and put them in this urn as a monument to the unfortunately souls lost to this nightmarish place.
We go around to another room. It’s dark with glass surrounding and it’s a very affecting display..
“No pictures in this room. 7 tons of human hair. Remove the gold teeth and cut the women’s hair. One of the chosen prisoners did this. Women shaved by men. Their entire bodies. Before the gas chamber. Laughing at them and shaming them. They hate that procedure. Lose their feminity. Right before they lose their lives. It is quite horrible, you can understand this.”
Mounds and mounds of hair. Seven tons of hair, faded and shadowed behind the glass. This is fucking nuts. We walk slowly around counter clockwise passed it all. Some of it is still blonde. Children’s hair. This is a seriously disturbing image that I’ll probably never forget.
The next room is filled with luggage. Where the prisoners brought here were separated from their belongings.
“…and since they were told it was a new life they brought all their best stuff. They brought 25kg only in a suitcase. When they came it was immediately taken and stored in a warehouse. You see Neumann. Born 1939 so very very young to be in this place. At the time the country of Canada was a very alluring country. It was wealthy, pristine and many Europeans we’re moving there. It was a symbol of wealth. The richest country in the world. And so the warehouse was nicknamed Camp Canada. Most things went to German soldiers.”
“Prisoner possessions sorted. Glasses, shoes, garments. Crutches and prosthetics. These people were killed immediately. They couldn’t work. Same with children. 200,000 children. Gassed immediately. 20 percent of prisoners were saved. That’s all. Only the young people who were in the best shape to work. Elderly, no, gassed right away. Only that 20%. Everyone else dies within 3 months. People were dehumanized. He’s killed immediately, Jews. Never even recorded. Immediately gassed. Homosexuals were persecuted because they couldn’t have children and build the future. Every German was to have many children to build the future. Homosexuals, gassed immediately.”
We pass by a display of someone who infiltrated the camp and was able to get pictures and get them out so the public knew more about the atrocities happening here. One is a picture of children holding hands on their way to the gas chambers. I’m standing too close and only get the bottom section. It ends up getting most of it cut off but what is captured still resonates.
A pile of children’s shoes. Fuck that. It’s just a massive pile of children’s shoes who have been murdered. This is one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen in my life.
We’re led back outside into the sunshine again. We pass another tour group. It’s all the teenage girls we saw at breakfast this morning in One World Hostel. Their collective demeanor has changed drastically from the giggling, playful youngins we’d seen earlier. A mortified look on each one’s face.
“…here is what they called the ‘Block of Death’. The gallows. The execution wall. If one guy escapes they choose 10 others to kill by starvation cell. There is also standing cells. Four guys in a room standing all night in the dark. Prisoners all made to watch the 10 men hang at the gallows any time there was an escapee.”
We’re brought down into a dark dungeon type setting to be shown the starvation and standing rooms. It’s miserable. We’re not allowed to take pictures. Don’t really need to, it’s so haunting you can’t forget it.
Back out to a courtyard where she describes the killing wall. Where Polish political prisoners are lined up and executed. “May the souls of all Polish prisoners killed here rest in peace forever.”
“And this building was a hospital. 5 hospital buildings here where they experimented on prisoners. Mainly females were brought and sterilization experiments were done to keep their family lines from spreading. That was reason. Also many were killed by poison injection to the heart. Many polish children this way were killed.”
“180 successful escapes. It sounds like a lot, but half a million people were held here over time and killed. So 180 out of one point one million. This is a 400 volt electric fence. To touch it was death.”
She brings us around to the gas chamber and describes how they will fill it with 800 people at a time, close the door and drop the gas through the chimney in the top. Wait for a half hour until everyone has suffocated. Insane.
800 people in here?
Scratching on the inside walls..
Directly beside the gas chamber are the furnaces they used for burning the bodies. They forced prisoners to collect the bodies and burn them.
And this terrible scene is the end of the Auschwitz part of the tour. We walk back to the front gates. Next is Birkenau.
We decide that we won’t get to the Birkenau portion of the tour. There’s only so much daylight left and we figure we can move along to Warsaw earlier if we head back to Krakow now.
All in all that was an emotional tour through Auschwitz. Depressing for sure, but important. We seem to be getting to a lot of these types of places. Human history is so dark and disturbing. I will say that I was more moved at the Killing Fields and S-21 for some reason. Maybe because I didn’t know much about those places and was hearing a lot of it for the first time. Also, hearing the survivor stories on the audio devices was devastating. The Hiroshima Peace Park too, also very powerful and affecting. The War Remnants Museum in Vietnam as well. It’s unbelievable what people are capable of and seeing these stark pockets of history is a strong reminder to be thankful for the life that you have.