Many people have written the horrifying story of Auschwitz, so I’m not going to rehash it here.
I encourage you to click the link above and read the history, and to read the accounts of survivors who somehow lived through these events.
I obviously can’t improve upon their stories, but I want to share with you what it feels like to visit that site today — and why it’s so important to do so.
Auschwitz was actually made up of 3 main camps — the original Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II – Birkenau (a combined concentration and extermination camp), and Auschwitz III – Monowitz (a camp to provide slave labour to the nearby IG Farben factory) — and 45 smaller satellite camps.
Tomoko and I spent a day visiting the two remaining camps (I and II) when we were in Krakow.
We entered the site through a gate in the wire, where ceramic insulators still supported a section that once carried a continuous electrical current surging at lethal strength. It was meant to keep prisoners in, but that wire also provided a means of escape for the many who chose to throw themselves onto it to end their suffering.
The brick buildings of Auschwitz were constructed as army barracks by the Poles before the war. They’re sturdy and orderly, there are trees and birds and sun, and visitors walk along silently, deep in thought.
This site is strangely beautiful, and that is an uncomfortable feeling to reconcile, especially when you venture into the barrack buildings to learn about what happened here between May 1940 and January 27, 1945.
Today, the barrack buildings of Auschwitz are filled with exhibits that describe the events and seek to memorialize some of those who were killed.
The first exhibit set the context by telling the story of the gradual alienation, segregation, and rounding up of Polish Jews. We learned that intellectuals and leaders were killed first, because they would speak out. Teachers, priests, and community leaders were quickly taken and liquidated so that the others might be rounded up more passively.
Nearby, we saw photos of people on their way to the gas chamber. These people are moments away from their death, but they aren’t panicking or weeping, or even expressing anger. They stare directly into the camera lens — and directly at you.
I still can’t get one particular photo out of my mind, or the face of the man looking back at me. And this is something you’ll be forced to come to terms with at Auschwitz: the people who were killed here. Vast numbers and body counts are so large that we have trouble imagining them. But thankfully these photos were saved, and they tell a more personal story.
One long room held an entire wall of mugshot photos taken from Nazi files when those who qualified for “work detail” were first processed into the camp. Each frame showed the date when this person came to Auschwitz, and the date that he or she died. Most prisoners lasted less than a year. And remember, these were the few people selected for work. The vast majority were murdered on arrival.
From there, we walked through the dark basement of Block 11 that held the punishment cells: one for starvation, where a Polish priest offered his life in exchange for that of another prisoner, and was starved to death; the “dark cells” where prisoners were left to die in total darkness as they gradually used up all the air and suffocated in this windowless room; and one “standing cell”, about the size of a telephone booth, where 4 people at a time would be forced to stand all night before being sent back to forced labour the next morning.
We learned about medical experiments conducted on the prisoners, many under the auspices of the SS “Doctor” Joseph Mengele, who had a particular interest in conducting cruel research on identical twins. Jewish women were sterilized by both chemical and surgical means. And prisoners were injected with poisons, and with diseases like typhoid and leprosy, just to see how it would progress, and how they died.
And remember, when I write “prisoners”, that these people were not criminals. They hadn’t done anything. The were people like you and me, with families and jobs and hopes and dreams. And they were rounded up, tortured and murdered simply because they belonged to a different ethnic group or followed a different creed.
The men who did this to them were not “monsters”. They were human — also like you and me.
The most deeply moving area of the camp was the exhibit of personal items taken from prisoners upon their arrival, or immediately prior to their execution. The Soviet forces who overran and liberated Auschwitz found entire warehouses filled with such belongings. The inmates referred to those buildings as “Canada”, because the Poles saw Canada as a land of plenty, a dream.
We walked through a room filled with an enormous pile of human hair — two tonnes of it. This was made into blankets and socks for Nazi U-boat crews, and into other textiles.
We saw a tangled pile of eyeglasses rusting in a heap.
And a room filled with shoes: men’s on one side, women’s on the other. The heap was taller than me and went on for the length of an entire barracks. Near the pile, I saw suitcases stencilled with a dead man’s name and address.
We walked through Auschwitz in silence, each small group led by a guide who spoke into a microphone, preserving the dignity of this place. And as we got farther into the camp, couples began to hold hands, to stand closer, and to stare at the ground transfixed by sorrow and shame.
Even beyond grieving for those who suffered and died here, another thought must have been as near to them as it was to me. What if it were me instead of that man on the wall? What if those were my friends, or my family?
Our final stop, before leaving the camp, was the only remaining gas chamber in the entire area.
All of the gas chambers at nearby Birkenau were dynamited by the Nazi’s in order to conceal their crimes from the liberating forces and the outside world. But this chamber at Auschwitz had been converted into a bomb shelter right near the end, by Nazi guards who feared aerial bombardment.
The layout had been modified from its original purpose, but thanks to detailed architectural blueprints discovered by the Soviet army, the Allies quickly figured out the true horror of what they were seeing.
Executions at the camps originally took the form of a bullet to the head, whether up against a wall or standing over an open mass grave, a hole which had been dug by the condemned prisoners themselves.
But this was too slow. And the new gas chambers allowed for the extermination of people on an industrial scale.
From 600 to 700 people at a time were led into this chamber at Auschwitz. They were made to undress and leave their clothing and valuables in the anteroom, because they must “shower and disinfect” before being admitted to the camp barracks.
The Nazi guards reportedly even told them to, “Please remember which peg you hung your clothes on, so that you can retrieve them.” But this — like the fake shower heads that apparently lined the walls — was only meant to stave off panic until it was too late.
When the prisoners were inside the actual chamber, Nazi soldiers locked the door and shook Zyklon B crystals through holes in the ceiling. The screaming lasted for about 20 minutes. And then they opened the doors, pried apart the pile of bodies, and took them away for burning.
It is estimated that at least 1.1 million prisoners died at Auschwitz. Ninety percent of them were Jewish, but the victims also included Poles, Romani (“Gypsies”), Soviet prisoners of war, homosexuals, and tens of thousands of others from diverse nationalities.
We stepped outside the barbed wire of the gates, where we found a bench beneath a tree and sat in the shade to reflect on this. These events are so horrifying that it’s difficult to wrap your head around them. Difficult to imagine that you aren’t watching yet another fictionalized WWII drama. All I could do was sit there in silence. I didn’t know where to begin.
The break was very brief, as we had to meet our guide at the Birkenau camp, which was just 2 km away.
You’ve probably seen photos of the railway line which ran into Birkenau. It’s been depicted in countless stories, documentaries and films. But it’s another thing entirely to stand on that spot and imagine the events that took place there.
The spot about halfway between the imposing camp gate and the woods was known as the “selection point”. It was here that a cattle car packed with as many as 100 people would roll up after 10 days of travel. These people were locked in there without windows, food, water or toilets. I had read about these rail cars before, but I never would have believed how small they were if I hadn’t seen one in Birkenau for myself.
The rail car would roll to a halt, and the door would be yanked open, letting in a harsh stream of light, and the even harsher shouting of grey-clad soldiers.
The prisoners stumbled out — at least, those who were still able to walk — and were formed up into a line. One by one, they approached a man seated at a desk. This was an SS doctor.
He took a cursory look at each person. If he gestured to the right, that person was sent to the barracks to be worked until he or she died. If the doctor gestured to the left, that person was deemed too sick, weak or otherwise unsuited to hard labour. He or she was walked to the end of the railway tracks, to those trees I could see in the near distance, and directly to the gas chambers.
Two thirds of new arrivals were executed immediately, including all pregnant women, Jewish children, the elderly, the sick, and most women. For thousands of people, that sudden separation represented the last time they ever saw their loved ones.
I looked over at my wife, who was busy photographing the tracks and the camp gate for the article I planned to write. And I imagined us standing in their place: guards suddenly wrenching us apart, a last glimpse of fear, perhaps a fist or the butt of a rifle striking my back, and her face disappearing into the distance, to be replaced by the vast emptiness of never knowing what had happened to the other, or our eventual ends.
Please stop reading for a moment and think about that.
Imagine your partner or your children in that scene. How would it feel to be both the victim and the temporary survivor? Can any of us truly imagine?
For those who survived the initial selection process, what remained of their lives would be bleak. We were able to visit one of the living quarters where prisoners were systematically stripped of their dignity and will to survive.
The room was filled with wooden bunks stacked in 3 layers. The bottom row of people were forced to sleep directly on the uneven stone floor. People slept 8 to a bunk, with no blankets, or extra clothing, even in the depths of winter. The bunk buildings were not equipped with a toilet, heat, or running water.
One of the bunk rooms we saw housed only children. These blond-haired Polish non-Jewish children were often spared the gas chambers. In fact, hundreds were taken from their parents, to be adopted by “good German families” and raised in different parts of the country. The children were left alone in this bleak barracks, which resembled nothing more than a barn with stalls to house animals. Some of the adults drew scenes on the wall to help the children maintain their morale amidst such loneliness and fear, and two of these drawings are still visible today.
In addition to the massive gas chambers, Birkenau had 5 operational crematoria. By summer 1944 the capacity of the crematoria and outdoor incineration pits was 20,000 bodies per day. Local villagers and other inmates reported a constant stench of burning bodies in the air around the camp. But even this wasn’t enough. The Nazi’s planned a sixth crematorium, but it was never built.
I was initially apprehensive about visiting Auschwitz with a small group. I wanted to be able to walk through this place on my own. To think about all I had read, and to try to imagine the plight of the many who died here.
But after having visited, I would urge you to join a walk led by one of the Auschwitz Memorial guides. Ours was excellent. She was extremely direct about what the Nazi’s had done, and blunt about the plight of their victims. She spared no one’s feelings in walking us through the story of this place. But more than that, she raised questions, not in a lecturing or hectoring tone, but questions about our shared humanity. And she left everyone who visited with something personal to think about.
It’s important that we visit these places, both to remember the past and to remember those who suffered.
I don’t accept excuses like, “I could never go there,” or “It would just be too emotional for me.” Too emotional for YOU? Get your head out of your ass. This story isn’t about you. But it could have been if you had chanced to be born in the wrong time and place.
We must also visit places like Auschwitz because they embody a warning for the future.
The notion that people like Hitler are monsters separates them somehow from the rest of us, and absolves us of responsibility. By putting a human face on such people — one of the things I liked about the film Downfall — it forces us to look for the monster hidden deep within ourselves.
And this isn’t just history, or even the distant past. After postings photos of my trip on Facebook, I was contacted by a friend called JB, who said:
“In the mid-90s I was involved with the investigation of alleged war criminals in the former Yugoslavia. Amongst a short list of the most heinous of alleged perpetrators were a paediatrician, a psychologist who specialized in family counselling, and an esteemed instructor of classical music.
“The thing that frightened me most about my time there — which was the darkest and most terrifying of my career — was that for the first time I felt like I was operating against people who were for all purposes every bit just like me.”
I worry today about Brexit and all the disaffection in the EU. People seem to have forgotten that the European Union wasn’t just about spreading money around. The roots of this political and cultural integration came out of the ashes of World War Two. It was meant to make another continental war too expensive to contemplate, and to foster feelings of shared Europeanness among the peoples of these small countries.
But right wing nationalism is on the rise again, and racism and xenophobia are still with us. It reminds me very much of the early 1930’s.
It’s easy to visit a site like Auschwitz and to walk away saying, “Never again.”
But what of Cambodia, and Rwanda, and the former Yugoslavia? And what of the conflicts we’re seeing right now?