Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camps, Poland

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

I knew today was going to be a long difficult day but neither of us had any idea how overwhelming it actually was. There is a lot of information on the history of these camps if you are interested. This plaque greets us at Auschwitz. We walk towards the entry gate down this aisle of photos and quotes from people who survived these camps. I was soon in tears, and we haven’t even entered the gates. A double row of electrified barbed wire surrounded the camp. The sign above the gate which translates to ‘Work Sets You Free’ was made by the prisoners and had a hidden message in it. They made the B upside down.

This is a long post with lots of photos but not much commentary. The images speak for themselves.

Before the ‘selection’.

All the prisoners in the top right corner of this photo were sent to their immediate deaths. 75% of the people who arrived at Auschwitz were sent to the gas chambers and murdered upon their arrival…men, women and children. The gas canisters used to administer the poisonous gas in the showers. Sorting the belongings of those who were sent to their deaths. The Germans kept the belongings and valuables of all who arrived in the camps. They were stored in warehouses and shipped out for the use of the German population. When the camps were going to be liberated, the Germans destroyed as much of the stored belongings as they could. This were just a bit of what they collected as most of it was destroyed.

Eyeglasses Prosthetic devices. All people with disabilities were sent to their death immediately. Pots and dishes, piled 8 feet deep. A whole wall of suitcases. Both sides of this long room were filled with shoes. Shoes of all sizes… men’s women’s, and children’s shoes.
We were not allowed to take photos in hall #5. This was the most difficult collection to view. A long room with two tonnes of women’s hair piled high all along one wall. It was so completely overwhelming and horrific. I was not the only one in tears with the horror of what this represented. It is so impossible to believe that people could do this to each other. The Germans sold bales of women’s hair to manufacturers of cloth and felt. This is only a small part of what was collected.The enormity of this is staggeringThe halls of one of the barracks were lined with photos of the prisoners, none of whom survived. After a while the Germans stopped taking photos of the prisoners. I think they just couldn’t keep up with it, there were so many. Some photos of prisoners when the camp was liberated by the Russians. There were three people to a bed in these barracks.
The Death Wall between barrack 10 and 11. Thousands of prisoners were executed against this wall. The windows on either side were covered so the other prisoners could not see what was happening.These panels are covered with names of the people from the Netherlands who died in this camp.  Here is a close up. The barracks. The doctors and their medical experiments, which were often done on twins. The crematorium. The gas chamber. And the furnaces where they burned 340 bodies every day. They couldn’t keep up so built bigger crematoriums at Auschwitz II-Birkenau. We leave Auschwitz I and after a lunch break catch a shuttle to Auschwitz II-Birkenau.

The entrance to this camp with the railroad that carried so many thousands to their deaths.

“Birkenau was the largest of the more than 40 camps and sub-camps that made up the Auschwitz complex. During its three years of operation, it had a range of functions. When construction began in October 1941, it was supposed to be a camp for 125 thousand prisoners of war. It opened as a branch of Auschwitz in March 1942, and served at the same time as a center for the extermination of the Jews. In its final phase, from 1944, it also became a place where prisoners were concentrated before being transferred to labor in German industry in the depths of the Third Reich

The majority—probably about 90%—of the victims of Auschwitz Concentration Camp died in Birkenau. This means approximately a million people. The majority, more than nine out of every ten, were Jews. A large proportion of the more than 70 thousand Poles who died or were killed in the Auschwitz complex perished in Birkenau. So did approximately 20 thousand Gypsies, in addition to Soviet POWs and prisoners of other nationalities.”

Birkenau is enormous. These two camps covered forty square miles! The railcars used to transport people to the concentration camps had no windows and no ventilation. Many died before they even reached the camp. Each of the chimneys you can see in the distance was part of a barrack. I counted close to two hundred barracks on one of the Birkenau signs. The Germans tried to destroy the camp once they knew they had lost the war. The view from the end of the rail line, looking back back towards the entrance gives an idea of how huge this camp was. The memorial to the victims of the Holocaust at the end of the rail line. These were the warehouses where the belongings of the prisoners were sorted and kept before being shipped out for use by the Germans. All that is left are the footings. A display of photos taken from the prisoners fills a large room. I didn’t understand this quote until I walked into the next room and read that the ashes of the people who were murdered in this camp were dumped in ponds and spread on the fields as fertilizer. Human ashes can still be found in these fields and ponds today.One of the four bigger crematoriums that was built to handle 4,400 corpses a day. The Germans blew up the crematoriums when they retreated to try to hide what they had been doing. There are only a few barracks remaining in Auschwitz II- Birkenau. Here is a plan of Birkenau. the area within the yellow square of the plan houses the remaining barracks.
These three tiered bunks held 6 to 8 prisoners each. There were 500 prisoners in each barrack, with no insulation or sanitary facilities. The interior of the Death Barrack.

At the end of the day we walk back to our car in silence. It has been an long emotional day, and we are both quite exhausted and overwhelmed by the experience.