Auschwitz/Birkenau (Poland) / Places We Go

KL Auschwitz and Auschwitz II (Birkenau)

What can I say that has not already been said? I’ll just tell it like it is.

The journey to Auschwitz… It’s just as gloomy as you would expect it to be.

Surroundings of Auschwitz

The forest around Auschwitz death camp

When Poland was invaded by Nazi Germany in 1939, the Germans occupied Krakow and the smaller towns around it for the duration of the war. In the quiet suburb town of Oswiecim, the Nazis converted a military barracks on the outskirts of town into Konzentrationslager Auschwitz (Auschwitz simply being the Germanized version of the name Oswiecim and Konzentrationslager, or KL,  being German for “concentration camp”).

And today Oswiecim is just as grim as you would expect it to be…

Ocsweim industrial scene

KL Auschwitz I

When it began functioning in June 1940, the Auschwitz complex was originally intended for Polish political prisoners. In addition to Poles, Soviet prisoners of war, Gypsies, homosexuals, and political prisoners of other nationalities were incarcerated there. Essentially the camp functioned as a prison rather than a place of extermination. It wasn’t until 1942 that Auschwitz became the site of the greatest mass murder in human history, as the “Final Solution” began to be put into place.

Auschwitz I served as the administrative center, and was the site of the deaths of roughly 70,000 people, mostly ethnic Poles and Soviet prisoners of war.

*************************

The infamous “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign greeting all who enter Auschwitz I:

Appreciate this view of the sign… The sign was torn down a few months after I took this photo, on December 18th, 2009, in a bizarre plot by a group of Polish thieves paid by and working on behalf of a Swedish right-wing extremist group. The group was hoping to use proceeds from the proposed sale of the sign to a collector of Nazi memorabilia, to finance a series of terror attacks aimed at influencing voters in upcoming Swedish Parliamentary elections.

Although the sign was recovered, the thieves had unfortunately hacked it into three pieces.

Arbeit Macht Frei sign at Auschwitz

Strolling around the cell blocks at Auschwitz I:

Auschwitz perimeter

Auschwitz blocks and boiler

Auschwitz electrified fence

Auschwitz

Auschwitz guard post

Some of the pots and pans taken from murdered Auschwitz prisoners:

Warehouse of stolen pots and pans from Auschwitz inmates

A warehouse filled to overflowing with human hair…

Warehouse of hair taken from murdered Auschwitz prisoners

The human hair was used to make things like cloth and blankets such as those featured below:

Cloth and blankets made from the hair of those murdered at Auschwitz and Birkenau

Block 11:

Block 11 of Auschwitz was the “prison within the prison”, where violators of the numerous rules were punished. Some prisoners were made to spend the nights in “standing-cells”. These cells were about 1.5 m2 (16 sq ft), and four men would be placed in them; they could do nothing but stand, and were forced during the day to work with the other prisoners. In the basement were located the “starvation cells”; prisoners incarcerated here were given neither food nor water until they were dead.

Also in the basement were the “dark cells”; these cells had only a very tiny window, and a solid door. Prisoners placed in these cells would gradually suffocate as they used up all of the oxygen in the cell; sometimes the SS would light a candle in the cell to use up the oxygen more quickly. Many were subjected to hanging with their hands behind their backs, thus dislocating their shoulder joints (which speaking from personal experience, is an excruciating experience).

Perhaps more significantly, on September 3, 1941, deputy camp commandant SS-Hauptsturmführer Fritzsch experimented on 600 Russian prisoners of war and 250 Polish inmates by cramming them into the basement of Block 11 and gassing them with Zyklon B, a highly lethal cyanide-based pesticide.

The Death Wall at Block 11:

The yard between Block 11 and the parallel Block 10 next door was surrounded by high stone walls, which connected the front parts of both buildings and protected them from curious eyes. A massive wooden gate barred the entrance to the yard.

One side of the stone wall in this yard was covered in black isolation plates. Thousands of prisoners from Block 11 were executed against this wall either by firing squad or by use of a small-caliber shot to the back of the neck. Most of those executed were Polish political prisoners, particularly the leaders and members of clandestine organizations and people who helped escapees or facilitated contacts with the outside world. Poles who had been sentenced to death in nearby towns were also brought here to be shot, including men, women and even children who had been taken hostage in revenge for operations of the Polish resistance against the German occupation. Prisoners of other nationalities and ethnic origins, including Jews and Soviet POWs, were also sometimes shot at this wall.

The last seconds of the victims standing against the wall were often drawn out in a cruel way. The condemned would feel the cold muzzle of a gun against their necks, they would hear the pulling of the trigger… and then nothing. The gun would be “jammed” or “blocked”. The executioner would then slowly “fix” the gun, telling his companions it was time to get a new gun. The iron grip on the victim’s arms never relaxed during this time. The gun would finally be “fixed” and would function properly before another “accident” would start the game for the SS officers again.

Auschwitz

The Auschwitz I gas chamber:

As mentioned above, the use of Zyklon B as a tool for murder was first pioneered at Block 11. This paved the way for the use of Zyklon B as an instrument for mass extermination at Auschwitz, and a gas chamber and crematorium were constructed by converting a bunker to more lethal purposes. This gas chamber operated from 1941 to 1942, during which time approximately 60,000 people were killed therein; it was then converted into an air-raid shelter for the use of the SS. This gas chamber still exists (see below), together with the associated crematorium.

Gas chamber at Auschwitz

Used canisters of Zyklon B:

Zyklon B canisters

The chimney leading up from the ovens in the Auschwitz I crematorium:

Chimney of Auschwitz gas chamber

The ovens inside the Auschwitz I crematorium:

Ovens next to Auschwitz gas chamber

Ovens and devices to load bodies into ovens at Auschwitz death center

Fortunately, there are still reminders (even around Auschwitz) that life goes on as this happy Auschwitz cat symbolized to me…

auschwitz cat

Auschwitz II – Birkenau

Auschwitz I gets all of the attention, but far more people were killed next door at Auschwitz II (Birkenau) where the main gas chambers were.

Auschwitz II was an extermination camp or Vernichtungslager, the site of the deaths of at least 960,000 Jews, 75,000 Poles, and some 19,000 Roma (Gypsies).

The infamous Death Gate leading into Birkenau:

The death tower at Birkenau

And a view into Birkenau from the Death Gate Tower:

View over Birkenau from the death tower

The tracks on which millions were brought to their early deaths:

Train tracks into Birkenau

As the trains unloaded their occupants, the SS were conducting the infamous “selections,” in which incoming Jews were divided into those deemed able to work, who were sent to the right and admitted into the camp, and those who were sent to the left and immediately gassed.

The group selected to die, about three-quarters of the total, included almost all children, women with children, all the elderly, and all those who appeared on brief and superficial inspection by an SS doctor not to be completely fit.

Auschwitz II-Birkenau ultimately claimed more victims than any other German extermination camp, despite coming into use after all the others.

Jews selected by the SS for immediate death in the gas chambers of Crematoria IV and V were herded along this road:

The road to the gas chambers at Birkenau

Electrified fences and sentry posts kept the condemned on their way…

Fence around Birkenau

A sentry post at Birkenau

On the way to the gas chambers, the squalid living conditions of the camp would have been visible, such as these ruined barracks below:

Birkenau

In an effort to conceal their mass extermination program, the Nazis dynamited the Birkenau gas chambers as they retreated from the Soviet Red Army. The Germans were not successful in covering up their campaign of genocide, but they were successful in destroying the gas chambers which is why they are in the state seen below:

Birkenau gas chamber ruined

The remains of a gas chamber at Birkenau

The gas chamber at Birkenau today

Interestingly, a number of members of the Israeli armed forces were touring the Auschwitz/Birkenau complex when we visited. I suppose such a visit provides a healthy dose of incentive.

Here’s one group of the Israelis:

Israelis visiting Birkenau

There were more than one set of gas chambers at the end of the Birkenau camp. This is the route to the twin of the gas chamber facilities seen above:

The grounds of Birkenau

The second gas chamber complex:

Birkenau gas chamber today

View of gas chamber

The last stairs that many people descended…

The entrance to the gas chamber

I scrambled over the ruins and was able to take this picture of the inside of the gas chamber:

Inside the Birkenau gas chamber

We continued on through the camp… There were no other visitors here at all.

Trees in Birkenau

A sewage treatment plant that was constructed at Birkenau:

Sewage treatment facility at Birkenau

An outbuilding we explored contained these machines that would blast steam over clothing to clean it. I thought they looked sinister as hell, but that probably had something to do with the setting.

Steam cleaning facility at Birkenau

The belongings of the arrivals to Auschwitz/Birkenau were seized by the SS and sorted in an area of the camp called “Canada,” so-called because Canada was seen as a land of plenty. Many of the SS at the camp enriched themselves by pilfering the confiscated property.

And according to former camp commandant Rudolf Höss…

“An immense amount of property was stolen by members of the SS and by the police, and also by prisoners, civilian employees and railway personnel. A great deal of this still lies hidden and buried in the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp area.”

Below are the remains of some of the “Canada” warehouses. These warehouses were destroyed by the SS when they evacuated Auschwitz at the end of the war.

Canada warehouse section of Birkenau

Canada warehouse section of Birkenau

This pond was used for dumping the ashes of those cremated in the giant ovens. Walk around this pond and you are treading on the remains of hundreds of thousands or even millions of people… Kind of a strange feeling.

Pond where ashes of countless gassed people were dumped

On their arrival in Auschwitz most Jews were sent for immediate death in the gas chambers. However, they were often forced to wait their turn in this clump of trees if the gas chambers were full at the time.

Woods where victims waited to be gassed or shot in Birkenau

This is a picture taken of a group awaiting the gas chambers. It was taken in almost the exact spot as the picture I took above.

Victims waiting in the woods for their death

The barracks where the camp’s slave laborers resided:

Quarters where prisoners in Birkenau lived

Where slave laborers "lived"

A door into the living quarters:

Door at Birkenau to living quarters for prisoners and slave laborers

Inside the barracks… The prisoners were forced to sleep with five or six people in each bunk:

Prisoners bunks inside Birkenau

A view from the Death Gate Tower over a section of prisoner housing:

Overview of slave laborers living quarters

I should point out that, although the facilities featured above were the largest, there were 46 subcamps as well…

The three main camps were Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II-Birkenau, and a work camp called Auschwitz III-Monowitz, or the Buna. Auschwitz III-Monowitz served as a labor camp for the Buna-Werke factory of the IG Farben concern.

The 45 smaller satellite camps were sometimes tens of miles from the main camps, with prisoner populations ranging from several dozen to several thousand. The largest were built at Trzebinia, Blechhammer and Althammer. Women’s subcamps were constructed at Budy, Pławy, Zabrze, Gleiwitz I, II, III, Rajsko, and Lichtenwerden (now Světlá). The satellite camps were named Aussenlager (external camp), Nebenlager (extension or subcamp), and Arbeitslager (labor camp). Danuta Czech of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum writes that most of the satellite camps were pressed into service on behalf of German industry.

Inmates of 28 of them worked for the German armaments industry. Nine camps were set up near foundries and other metal works, six near coal mines, six supplied prisoners to work in chemical plants, and three to light industry. One was built next to a plant making construction materials and another near a food processing plant. Apart from the weapons and construction industries, prisoners were also made to work in forestry and farming.

Below is a complete list of camps within the Auschwitz complex:

1. Auschwitz I (Oświęcim)
2. Auschwitz II (Birkenau / Brzezinka)
3. Auschwitz III (Monowitz / Monowice)
4. Babice (Babitz)
5. Bieruń (Berun)
6. Blechhammer (Arbeitslager Blechhammer)
7. Bobrek
8. Brno (Brünn)
9. Bruntal (Freudenthal)
10. Budy
11. Chełmek
12. Chorzów (Arbeitslager Bismarckshütte)
13. Chrzanów
14. Cosel
15. Czechowice-Dziedzice (Tschechowitz I & II)[1]
16. Czernica
17. Dziedzice
18. Jesenik (Freiwaldau)
19. Friedenshütte
20. Gliwice (Gleiwitz)
21. Goleszów (Golleschau)
22. Hajduki I-II
23. Harmeze (Harmensee)
24. Zabrze (Hindenburg)
25. Jawiszowice (Jawischowitz)
26. Jaworzno (Arbeitslager Neu-Dachs)
27. Kobiór (Kobior)
28. Lędziny (Arbeitslager Günthergrube)
29. Lesslau
30. Libiaz Maty (Janinagrube)
31. Lagiewniki Slaskie (Hohenlinde, Hubertushütte)
32. Lagisza Cmentarna (Lagischa)
33. Prudnik (Neustadt)
34. Pyskowice (Peiskretscham)
35. Pławy (Plawy)
36. Pszczyna (Pleß)
37. Radostowice
38. Rajsko
39. Rydultowy (Arbeitslager Charlottegrube)
40. Siemianowice (Laurahütte)
41. Sosnowiec (Sosnowitz)
42. Stara Kuźnia (Althammer)
43. Stara Wieś
44. Świętochłowice (Arbeitslager Eintrachtshütte)
45. Trzebinia
46. Wesoła (Fürstengrube)
47. Zittau
48. Żywiec

(The above list of subcamps was sourced from the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum).

On January 27, 1945, Auschwitz was liberated by Soviet troops.

30 thoughts on “KL Auschwitz and Auschwitz II (Birkenau)

  1. Gloomy, gruesome, awful, desperate but very well explained and straightforward post. I’ve studied and heard the story Auschwitz so many times. However, I am still shocked and I cannot believe that human beings are able to reach such a high level of cruelty.

  2. Pingback: A Model Of Birkenau « The Velvet Rocket

  3. Some of your photos are really good. Really good post.

    I have been to Auschwitz and it is grimmer than what you or anyone can describe.

    I personally think they should rid the human hair.

    Care to visit/comment on me travel blog? ;)

  4. There are still people dying in their millions around the world because of racial hatred. Not like this, but its as though we have learned nothing. You would think that it could happen once was enough but it has happened again and again and with the world watching. I think our disbelief betrays all of us. I went to Auschwitz in search of reason but you find nothing there but the same disbelief and horror. If we could believe it perhaps we could stop it happening

  5. A man from England stopped me on the way from the gate and with tears told me to take some acorns with me. Everywhere you dig with your heel you find white ash under the grass. I realized that the element of calcium from the ash of the victims had been taken up by the roots of the trees and resided in some minute part in those acorns. I took some acorns from the oak trees near Gas chamber 1 home with me. On my property at home I now have 8 trees growing from those acorns. I see one in the front yard every day and smile that some portion of the victims is free of that place and has a sunny place to exist.

    • What a nice thing to do, I can’t imagine the pure horror those people suffered the things you hear and read are deeply shocking and disturbing, it seems impossible to think humans could reach such a sickening low but the facts speak for themselves, I have often wondered how families found a way to move on, and it brings comfort to know that although we cannot restore the lost lives or change history a part of them has been taken away from such a place and now rest in gardens like yours.

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  7. This was really interesting to read, thanks. Just the thing is that everyone knows about Nazi killings but nothing of that what did those “liberators”. Recommend you to watch The soviet story.

  8. Thanks for the post. I visited in 1992 and it still comes back to me in bad dreams. I remember that when I walked through the blocks, nobody spoke and I put on my sunglasses to hide the tears. Words cannot beguile us of the inhumanity of what happened there. I will never understand murdering children.

  9. The Germans never paid for this – not today’s Germans nor their grandparents.
    And they should – they should pay in blood. 10 million Germans for the death of 1 Jew. Let the German race go.

    • I’m from Germany… and I’m not proud of our history at all..but don’t forget we’re still paying for this. Even though I have a the same feelings like you have, when I see those pictures (btw I’ve been to Buchenwald) but I can’t change the past..
      if I could I would do it immediately!

      Mostly of our grandparents were forced to live under the control of SS – even though they were Germans, they had no rights. They were victims too. When war was over the story wasn’t over for the people who lived in Germany. There was a “Entnazifizierung” – and a lot of people were killed (not officially – but everyone knew that they were murdered for their inhumanity) and a lot were taken to prison. But mostly of them were just “follower” or underdogs. They already were punished for their lifetime by carrying the guilt (and everything including this – memories, pictures in mind, voices of victims, and so on) on their shoulders.. I completely understand your hate, but it’s not as easy to pay for it as it seems to be. I’m not saying everyone of the Germans was a victim, but there were a few…
      The Germans will have to carry the weight of the historic guilt for forever. A solution like “10 million Germans for the death of 1 jew” would be almost like what the SS did to the jews…

      The mission of Germany is (and still should be for the future) to anticipate the radical right-wing conviction of the right-wing exremists in Germany.. but not just in Germany. There is a lot of right-wing extremism all over the world. It won’t be a all-around-solution just to punish the Germans..

      • I think Germany should lead the fight against ISIL, Al Qaeda, Hamas, and other Islamic-Terrorist groups. Taking a leadership roll in the eradication of these groups weighed be a proactive way for modern Germans to begin making amends for what was allowed to occur.

    • What I fond astounding is why Austria was let off scot-free as more than 75% of its citizens agreed with the annexation to join Germany and were willing nazis. I do know that the nazis thought of us slavs as sub-human and after they killed all the Jewish people they were going to enslave us all. That was their plan. I’m not a big fan of Germans to do this day because of that.

  10. Well done, Justin. Amazing pictures of so sad barbarity mankind should allways learn and avoid. There is no guilties anymore. Lets think about the future. Lets educate our children for tolerance first of all.

    • Thank you for your comment and your kind words, Marcos.

      Indeed, the savagery and cruelty that humans are capable of is truly shocking at times. One can only hope that values such as tolerance and respect for all living things take deeper root in future generations.

      However, I fear that that old expression – only the dead have seen the end of war – is a more accurate prediction of humanity’s future.

  11. I was raised in 2 religious institutions in Ireland and the treatment meted out to us was cruel beyond compare not that I’m comparing what I suffered to what happened in these camps but human behaviour is as perverse as imagination allows it to be. Hence the reason I would rather the company of animals than humans any day. Thank you Justin fo your brilliant blog.

    • Thank you for your kind words, Hana.

      Indeed, the depravity of which humans are capable of can be breathtaking at times. No wonder that many prefer the company of animals.

  12. Oświęcim is actually a really nice little town. I don’t get why the author thinks it is gloomy. Lots of cheap small bars, big shopping malls (with KFC!) and some bigger supermarkets (eg. Lidl) while still having a lot of green areas.

    You just need to walk around the place instead of taking the undoubtedly gloomy buses to the camps.

    As for the topic, Auschwitz I is more like a tourist trap, but Birkenau is really impressive. You can feel the oppression when you walk in the open field that was the camp, and looking at the situation in Palestine, Ukraine and Iraq, it makes a visitor really sad that we haven’t really learned anything.

  13. My wife and I were on a 5 month Vanabode trip up the East Coast of the United States and were privileged enough to visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC. I was astonished, and enlightened and that night as I slept in a nearby campground I had the first nightmare I have had in 20+ years. It was an extraordinary somber experience that created a sense of reality and horror that I have never experienced anywhere else (and we have road traveled over 700,000 miles seeing millions of things since marrying.) Do NOT go here if you have a weak stomach UNLESS you have no imagination (if you don’t like to read or can’t easily picture what they are describing then it may not be as horrifying as it is was for me).

  14. An interesting update to the Auschwitz story. Sky news has been running a short segment with no dialogue, only text and video shots, in between its main stories this week about how a whole bunch of newly discovered personal items belonging to victims of the camp have been returned to the Polish museum in Auschwitz. Apparently they where found stored in boxes for 5 decades and had gone un-noticed all these years.

    I checked it out on the web and it turns out the story is about a month old, so the term “news” in Sky news seems relative, maybe Sky old news would be more apt.

    http://www.ctvnews.ca/world/thousands-of-holocaust-victims-personal-items-recovered-1.2938317

    http://www.vidalatinasd.com/news/2016/jun/08/victims-personal-items-return-to-auschwitz-museum/

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