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.
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…
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.
Strolling around the cell blocks at Auschwitz I:
Some of the pots and pans taken from murdered Auschwitz prisoners:
A warehouse filled to overflowing with human hair…
The human hair was used to make things like cloth and blankets such as those featured below:
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.
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.
Used canisters of Zyklon B:
The chimney leading up from the ovens in the Auschwitz I crematorium:
The ovens inside the Auschwitz I crematorium:
Fortunately, there are still reminders (even around Auschwitz) that life goes on as this happy Auschwitz cat symbolized to me…
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:
And a view into Birkenau from the Death Gate Tower:
The tracks on which millions were brought to their early deaths:
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:
Electrified fences and sentry posts kept the condemned on their way…
On the way to the gas chambers, the squalid living conditions of the camp would have been visible, such as these ruined barracks below:
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:
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:
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 second gas chamber complex:
The last stairs that many people descended…
I scrambled over the ruins and was able to take this picture of the inside of the gas chamber:
We continued on through the camp… There were no other visitors here at all.
A sewage treatment plant that was constructed 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The barracks where the camp’s slave laborers resided:
A door into the living quarters:
Inside the barracks… The prisoners were forced to sleep with five or six people in each bunk:
A view from the Death Gate Tower over a section of prisoner housing:
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)
8. Brno (Brünn)
9. Bruntal (Freudenthal)
12. Chorzów (Arbeitslager Bismarckshütte)
15. Czechowice-Dziedzice (Tschechowitz I & II)
18. Jesenik (Freiwaldau)
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)
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)
39. Rydultowy (Arbeitslager Charlottegrube)
40. Siemianowice (Laurahütte)
41. Sosnowiec (Sosnowitz)
42. Stara Kuźnia (Althammer)
43. Stara Wieś
44. Świętochłowice (Arbeitslager Eintrachtshütte)
46. Wesoła (Fürstengrube)
(The above list of subcamps was sourced from the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum).
On January 27, 1945, Auschwitz was liberated by Soviet troops.