Auschwitz and Birkenau

Note: The pictures in this post were taken at a Nazi concentration camp.  If you are easily upset by this sort of thing, you might want to go look at something cute instead.  I won’t judge you for ducking out on this post.

One more reason that I chose Krakow for my trip to Poland is the proximity of Krakow to Auschwitz and Birkenau.  Memorials to the victims of the Holocaust are everywhere in Europe.  I’ve seen many of them, and I’ve even been to one of the smaller concentration camps, Dachau near Munich.

Auschwitz is on a different scale altogether than anything I’d previously seen.  For one thing, it’s not one camp- it’s three.  Some of these photos are from Auschwitz I, and some are from Auschwitz II-Birkenau.  There is also an Auschwitz III, but I only visited I and II.

The Auschwitz camps killed an estimated 1.1 million people between 1940 and 1945.  The current population of New York City is estimated at around 8.4 million people, so imagine New York City with an eighth of the people missing.  That’s a lot of people.

As with most of the camps you can visit, the wrought iron “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign appears at the main gate of Auschwitz I – “Work makes you free.”

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The entire camp is fenced in by a double ring of electrified barbed wire fence.

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People were deported to Auschwitz from as far away as Oslo, Paris, and more.  And by people, I mean Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, and political prisoners.

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The prisoners of Auschwitz were killed with Zyklon B gas.  Empty canisters of Zyklon B found by the Allies at the end of the war are part of the exhibit now.

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A closer look at a Zyklon B canister, with absorbent granules.

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The trains carrying prisoners to Auschwitz II went straight through a central gate, to a platform in the center of the camp.

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The prisoners were packed into cars like this one.

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When the prisoners arrived, they were met at the train platform by an SS doctor who would determine immediately whether they were to be taken to a labor camp or taken to the gas chamber.

This is the view from the tower over the main gate.  The left side is all barracks for the workers, and the right side leads toward crematoriums 4 and 5.  The platform in the center is where prisoners were sorted as they came off the trains.

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Another high view of the barracks.  This camp also had a special children’s barrack, where they were kept for medical experiments.

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Those who were too young, too weak, or otherwise incapable of labor were put to death immediately.   They were told that they would have a shower, so they were all stripped naked before moving into the gas chambers.   This is some of the eyeglasses that were left behind.

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The people who arrived in Auschwitz had been told that they were being taken to a place where they could find work.  They weren’t all aware of their fate.   Because of this, they brought their most cherished possessions, thinking that they would be starting a new life.

When they arrived in Auschwitz, their belongings remained on the train platforms while the prisoners either went to work or went to die.  Nazi officers would then sort through the belongings for anything of value.  Piles of empty suitcases were left behind.

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…and shoes.  So many shoes.

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In the early days at Auschwitz, the prisoners were cataloged with sets of photographs like you see here.  This procedure was not maintained for long, however-  there were simply too many people in the camp.

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The Jewish star and the pink triangle are well known, but there were actually quite a few markers to designate why someone was in Auschwitz.

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The infamous striped outfits worn by prisoners.

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Auschwitz I was actually converted from soldier’s barracks.   Auschwitz II was built by prisoners out of materials taken from nearby homes.  The prisoners walked the seven kilometers from Auschwitz I to Birkenau each day before they began to construct the buildings.

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The razor wire was electrified, and even if you could get past that, the armed guards were in watchtowers at regular intervals along the fence.

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A wall where prisoners were routinely shot shows the stones placed by visiting Jewish mourners.

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Whenever an escape was attempted, the soldiers would gather ten prisoners for a mass hanging here.

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The mess hall for German officers to dine had a happy little officer riding a beer barrel over the door.

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This is the ceiling of a gas chamber.  False shower heads were installed to assist the lie that the prisoners were merely getting a shower before going to work.  The slot in the top is where the Nazi soldiers, wearing gas masks, would drop in the Zyklon B canisters.  Everyone in the room would be dead within ten or fifteen minutes.

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A longer view of one of the gas chambers.

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Auschwitz II had multiple gas chambers and crematoriums, although this particular crematorium was in Auschwitz I.  The metal tracks leading up to the mouth of each oven were installed to assist in the disposal of bodies.

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This pathway leads toward crematoriums 4 and 5.

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This is what remains of crematorium 2.  When Soviet forces marching through Poland were almost to the camp, the Nazi soldiers set about bombing their gas chambers and crematoriums in an attempt to hide what was being done.

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A tiny wire memorial stands at the very end of the Auschwitz II tracks.

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A larger sculptured memorial has also been erected in the camp, with signs in various languages.

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One plaque for each language.

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This is the bombed out ruin of a gas chamber and crematorium.  The stairs directly in front of the photo lead into the underground gas chamber, which is now overgrown.  The rubble at the end of the shot is where the crematorium stood.

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Those who survived Auschwitz only did so because they were able to work.  One half of the camp was dedicated to barracks where prisoners were housed.  Depending on the barrack, there were between 550 and 750 prisoners in each structure.

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This post doesn’t even remotely capture the full horror of this experience.   There were some things on display that I simply refused to photograph-  I’m glad that I went to see Auschwitz, but I never want to see it again.

If you got through all of this, why not go look at something cute to balance out the mood?  After I took this tour, I certainly needed some cuteness.

Have you ever been to Auschwitz?

11 thoughts on “Auschwitz and Birkenau

  1. I haven´t been, and don´t plan too. I was going to go once, but chickened out………..due to some family history, it would simply be too painful for me. Thank you, for posting this.

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    1. This comment totally got caught up in the spam filters, because a huge swath of comment spam says things like “Thanks for share.” I almost deleted it, but I noticed the e-mail address just in time.

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  2. I don’t know if I can visit or not. Just looking at your photos and descriptions made me cry. It’s such a tough part of history and my family were caught up in it, so it feels very close to home. Maybe one day I will make it there, but I think I will have to do it alone and I’m not sure I would ever be able to talk about it. I did the museum in Hiroshima and it was very strange being surrounded by Japanese people who are normally very emotionless, just opening sobbing as they walked around. It’s something I will never be able to forget and I will never be able to go inside again I think. But I think it is so important for people to see these things and experience them and hopefully it will stop this from happening again and again. Thanks so much for sharing, you did a great job!! 🙂

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    1. Thank you for your comment. While I don’t want to make anyone cry, I’m glad that I was able to capture the mood of the place well enough to do so.

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  3. As always, I love your attention to detail with your photos. I do want to go, some day. I’ve been to Sachsenhausen in Berlin but to be honest I was too young – it was a school trip when we were 17. Also, as you said, other places are just not the same.

    I think more people should be shown what you have seen, then maybe we won’t be so quick to do this kind of thing again.

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    1. Sadly, I think there are still quite a few people who would walk through this place and feel no sadness whatsoever. I try to remain optimistic, but watching the news doesn’t give me much call for that.

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