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?

Remembering the Holocaust on September 11th

On the 11th of September, I was able to attend the installation of several Stolpersteine.  I’ve posted about Stolpersteine before, when I first learned what they were.  For those of you just tuning in, I’ll refresh your memory:

The German word Stolperstein literally means “stumbling block” or “obstacle” and Stolpersteine is the plural.    They were created by artist Gunter Demnig in 1993 and the first installation was in Cologne, Germany, in 1994.

The Stolpersteine blocks are designed as memorials to commemorate individuals who were sent by the Nazis to prisons and concentration camps, as well as those who emigrated or committed suicide to escape the Nazis.  Some of the blocks represent those killed by the Nazis and some represent survivors.    The Stolpersteine are not limited to Jews, either.  The vast majority were Jews, but there have also been blocks placed for various other types of people, including Romani people, homosexuals, blacks, and even Christians who opposed the Nazis.

The actual block is a ten centimeter concrete cube covered with a sheet of brass.  Demnig stamps the details of the individual, the name, year of birth, and the fate as well as the dates of deportation and death, if known.  Each block begins with “Hier wohnte,” which is German for “Here lived.”  Most are set at the last residence of the victim, but some are set near workplaces.

More than 40,000 Stolpersteine have been installed so far, in over 1000 cities and towns in about twelve countries.

On this particular day, they were installing 26 Stolpersteine in eleven separate locations around town.  I was able to attend two of the eleven installations before I had to head into work.  Before an installation, here’s what a Stolperstein looks like:

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The place where the stone would be installed was marked, and a city worker dug out the existing sidewalk.

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A gentleman who works with der Initiative Stolpersteine in Regensburg said a few words, then a guy from the city spoke, Next, a woman read the biography of Johann Baptist Fuchs, the individual named on the stone. Finally, a relative of Johann Fuchs said a few words.  Afterward, the stone was set into place with concrete.

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After the stone was installed, the man who was related to Johann Fuchs laid a white rose next to the stone.

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A short while later, at a second location, we  began the same procedure.  This time, with four Stolpersteine and fewer speeches.

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Each installation had a bit of flute music, though.

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The installation was done very carefully, with the workman making sure that the stones were level and flush with the rest of the sidewalk.

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Once the concrete was set in, the stones were cleaned off with a sponge.

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Once again, roses were laid on the newly installed Stolpersteine to conclude the installation.

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Have you ever stumbled across a Stolperstein?

Stumbling Blocks

On the corner of Maximilianstraße and Königsstraße in the Altstadt, I stumbled across nine gold colored blocks on the ground with names and dates.  They’re obviously a memorial of some sort, and I’ve taken pictures of them on several occasions with the intent to find out the story behind them.

Today, I found five more at the place where Pfarrergasse intersects Neupfarrplatz, and in a fit of amazingly coincidental timing, I’ve also found an explanation and a history of these blocks.

The blocks are called Stolpersteine.  The German word Stolperstein literally means “stumbling block” or “obstacle” and Stolpersteine is the plural.    They were created by artist Gunter Demnig in 1993 and the first installation was in Cologne, Germany, in 1994.

Today, there are more than thirty thousand Stolpersteine in at least ten countries.  I first learned what they are because of a blog entry about them on andBerlin.com.  That post led led me to the official site about them as well as http://stolpersteine-regensburg.de/.

(Edited to add:  Fiona was able to witness the installation of some Stolpersteine and posted about it on her own blog recently.)

The Stolpersteine blocks are designed as memorials to commemorate individuals who were sent by the Nazis to prisons and concentration camps, as well as those who emigrated or committed suicide to escape the Nazis.  Some of the blocks represent those killed by the Nazis and some represent survivors.    The Stolpersteine are not limited to Jews, either.  The vast majority were Jews, but there have also been blocks placed for various other types of people, including Romani people, homosexuals, blacks, and even Christians who opposed the Nazis.

The actual block is a ten centimeter concrete cube covered with a sheet of brass.  Demnig then stamps the details of the individual, the name, year of birth, and the fate as well as the dates of deportation and death, if known.  Each block begins with “Hier wohnte,” which is German for “Here lived.”  Most are set at the last residence of the victim, but some are set near workplaces.

These tiny little memorials are an amazing idea.  Since I started researching this, I’ve seen countless instances of people commenting, “so that’s what those are.  I was wondering.”  That’s how the Stolpersteine got me curious, and I’m sure I won’t be the last person to hunt down this information.

More importantly, though, people are still visiting the memorials and remembering.  One evening, while I was walking through the Altstadt, I noticed that someone had left flowers and a Yartzeit (bereavement) candle at the first set of Stolpersteine I had stumbled across.

When I walked home a few hours later, the candle was still burning.   I think that’s kind of fitting.