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?

Dachau Concentration Camp

Dachau was the first of the Nazi concentration camps.  It was opened in March of 1933 and it was used as a model for the other camps to follow.  The camp served as a training center for SS guards, as well as a forced-labor camp for what Heinrich Himmler called “political prisoners.”   Dachau was built to hold about 5,000 prisoners, but by the time the camp was liberated by American soldiers in 1945, the number of prisoners held there was more than double that number.  In its twelve years as a concentration camp, over 200,000 prisoners were taken to Dachau, and nearly 32,000 deaths were recorded there.  When US troops liberated the camp in 1945, soldiers reported seeing a row of cement structures that contained rooms full of hundreds of dead bodies piled floor to ceiling.

Tdachau01oday, the camp is a memorial site.  Most of the barracks have been razed to the ground, but two of them have been maintained so that visitors can see the living conditions of the prisoners.   I visited the camp last Sunday, and the weather was suitably bleak and oppressive for the visit.  I think I would have felt a little strange if it had been a sunny, warm, cheerful day.

To visit the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial site from Munich, you must take the S2 line of the S-Bahn to the Dachau Bahnhof.  From there, a regular bus runs directly to and from the “KZ-Gedenkstätte” stop.   KZ is short for Konzentrationslager (concentration camp) and Gedenkstätte means ‘memorial.’  From the Munich main train station, the entire travel to the memorial site took us about 45 minutes.

At the memorial site, admission to the memorial is free, but there is a visitor’s center where you can pay a small fee for an audio tour guide.  You also get a map of the site which guides you through the path an incoming prisoner would have taken.  It starts with the main gate, pictured at right.   The German phrase written in the metalwork of the gate, Arbeit Macht Frei, means “Work makes you free.”  This phrase was used at the gates to many of the concentration camps, famously including Auschwitz.

After you pass through the main gate, you find yourself in an enormous open area, with one set of buildings to the right (currently a museum) and baracks off to the  left.  The giant field is the roll-call square.  Prisoners would stand here for roll call each morning, sometimes standing in place for up to an hour.  The dead would often be dragged into the roll call square to be counted as well.  This picture is looking across the roll call square towards the still standing barracks.

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Inside the barracks, you can see what the living conditions were like for the prisoners.  Privacy was nonexistent.

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These sleeping racks were overfull by the time of the camp’s liberation in 1945.   The single structure below contains sleeping space for 54 prisoners.  This is one structure at the end of one portion of one of the 32 separate barracks buildings.  In 1945, the camp was up to more than 12,000 prisoners.

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Today, most of the barracks are gone, but there are gravel outlines where they stood:

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Walking up the road alongside the barracks, you can see one of the remaining guard towers.   Prisoners who ventured too close to the fence were shot on sight, and it is said that some prisoners ran to the fence as a means of committing suicide.

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At the end of the walkway, there is a small gate leading to the old and new crematoriums. From the outside, it looks fairly inoffensive.

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When you walk inside, though, it’s a very sobering reminder of the atrocities of the Holocaust.  The room below is a gas chamber.  Up to 150 prisoners at a time could be forced to disrobe in the room next to this. False shower heads were installed into the ceiling so that the prisoners would believe that it was merely a large group shower room.  Once they were sealed inside, Zyklon B (prussic acid poison gas) would be used to suffocate the prisoners to death in fifteen to twenty minutes.

I was not surprised to note that nobody lingered in this room at the memorial.

Despite the presence of a gas chamber in Dachau, there is no evidence to support the idea that the gas chamber was used for mass murder there – most of the known deaths in Dachau were by gunshot or by hanging.  This model of gas chamber was used heavily in many extermination camps, however-   Auschwitz, Belzec, Chełmno, Jasenovac, Majdanek, Maly Trostenets, Sobibor, and Treblinka.

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The room adjacent to the gas chamber is a crematorium.  Each of these furnaces was capable of incinerating two or three corpses at a time.

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I usually try to end my posts with a question to spark discussion, but I honestly don’t know what to say on this one.  The entire experience of visiting Dachau is horrifying.  It’s important to be aware of the Holocaust and to know what happened in Nazi concentration camps, but I don’t think I really want to talk about it any more.