I never really understood why almost EVERYone I met looked horrified when I said I planned to go to the Auschwitz Extermination Camp. They told me that it’s too much to take, that people come out crying, and suggested that I go to some of the less ‘infamous’ ones like Sachsenhausen or Dachau instead.
The difference between these two and Auschwitz, I was told, is that the first two were ‘concentration’ camps- the Nazis sent people there to work (though many did die of exhaustion, disease or malnutrition). Auschwitz, on the other hand, was explicitly for killing the prisoners. Later, Sachsenhausen was also used for Soviet Prisoners of War (POWs), so you can see how it, sort of, moved on from the Holocaust.
All three camps would have been easy to go to (Sachsenhausen is near Berlin, Dachau is near Munich and Auschwitz is near Krakow), it was just a matter of choosing which one. Eventually, I decided to go for Auschwitz.
Auschwitz is in a town called Oswiecim, about an hour and a half from Krakow by minibus, bus or train. I could have taken one of the numerous tours offered, but decided to go by myself- cheaper, and plus I could move at my own pace.
Entrance into Auschwitz is free, but because of the huge number of people going there, if you reach between 10am and 3pm in the summer, you need to take a guided tour (that costs 30zl, about 7 Euros, for students). I wanted to reach before 10, but I fell asleep on the bus from my host’s place in Krakow to the main station, and had to find my way back, and so I reached Auschwitz at, believe it or not 10:02am.
Our tour group had, I would say, about 25 people. All of us were handed headphones and our guide took us on an extensive, albeit slightly rushed, tour of the camp.
The tour was disturbing, to say the least.
Auschwitz is made of two parts- Auschwitz I, where we entered first, and Auschwitz II, or Birkenau, which is a 3km bus ride away. We entered Auschwitz I (the base camp) and were greeted with these signs.
The museum starts with a lot of quotes, some history, pictures and scale models to explain the enormity of the situation.
A model of the cattle trains that brought people to the camp. I’m sorry, it’s not a good picture 😦 It was STUFFED with people.
The prisoners were promised they were being taken to a better life, so they packed all their meager belongings and willingly got on the trains that led them, unbeknownst to them, to their deaths. The displays at these rooms had all sorts of personal artefacts- shoes, money, clothes, books, glasses, toys, even prosthetic limbs.
There was a room of several TONS of human hair that we were not allowed to take pictures of. It was unnerving. Several tons had already been used to make mattresses and carpets.
We walked along corridors which were lined with these framed pictures of men and women with their names, date of arrival, date of death, and their identification numbers.
Inmates were given identification numbers that were tattooed onto them. This served two purposes- one was to dehumanize them. It is, of course, easier to justify killing ‘numbers’ than actual ‘people’, right? (Or am I just trying to justify this behaviour?). The other was to actually be able to identify them. Faces had no meaning because the condition of the inmates deteriorated so quickly, it was impossible to recognize them by face within mere weeks.
We saw toilets in the men’s barracks.
Every set of inmates had a ‘leader’, or a Block Master. He had a slightly better life with his own room
While the rest slept 3-4 in a bunk in dorm style rooms.
Block 10 was the Experimental Block. Nazi ‘doctors. performed ‘experiments’ on the inmates. Carl Clauberg, for example, tried to develop a way to sterilize women by injection. His subjects were 20-40 year old married women who had already borne children. Josef Mengele, also called the ‘Angel of Death’, worked on twins, worked on cloning and attempting to change eye colours (by injecting colour into their eyes, I can’t even imagine), trying to develop the perfect Aryan race.
Block 10 is not open to the public.
We were then taken to the ‘Black Wall’, in between Blocks 10 and 11.
Considering the context, it is easy to understand what ‘Black Wall’ meant. Prisoners were lined up by the wall, and simply shot.
Block 11 was a particularly dreaded block. Used for torture, there were 4 kinds of ‘cells’ in there.
(1) The Standing Cell
4 inmates were made to stand in a 1m X 1m space ‘room’ (if I may call it that) with a 5cm X 5cm hole for breathing, night after night after they worked at the camp all day. The recipients of this method of torture suffered through several days, even weeks.
(2) The Starvation Cell
As the name suggests, the prisoners simply received no food, and died soon enough due to exhaustion and malnutrition.
(3) The Dark Cell
Inmates were kept in perpetual darkness. Pitch black, complete disorientation.
(4) The Kneeling Cell
The prisoners were just stuffed in there and were forced to crouch in that cramped space for hours.
We saw a gas chamber, a relatively small one compared to the ones that were built later at Birkenau.
This is the chimney of a crematorium.
Bodies were burnt in here and the ashes were later dumped unceremoniously.
We then moved on to Birkenau, which was a larger extension to Auschwitz I, built to ease the pressure on the base camp.
Birkenau was where the mass exterminations took place. People got off the trains, formed a queue, and a doctor would look at them and judge them quickly, sending those who were deemed unfit towards the gas chambers, where they would be killed immediately, and sending the others towards the labour camps in Auschwitz I, where they would die eventually anyway.
As people got off the trains, there was a vaguely hopeful atmosphere. There were families, with children clutching their dolls. They were asked to leave their luggage on the platform, and told they would be brought to them later. All the luggage we saw were marked carefully with names and addresses. Everything they owned was inside them, after all.
The ones sent to the gas chamber were told that they were being taken to a shower, and were handed towels as they entered the building. There were even shower heads on the walls. As soon as enough were inside, they were gassed. Each of these gas chambers could kill up to 6000 people in a DAY. There were 4 major ones.
It took up to 20 minutes for the prisoners to die. As they started to realise what was happening, they began to clamber upon each other, trying to find some air to breathe. There were scratch marks on the walls, as people tried to escape.
We went to the women’s barracks. 3-4 women slept in each of these wooden bunks.
That’s a human being for scale.
Chimneys of the crematoriums.
The average weight of the women who were eventually rescued during the liberation was 25-30kgs.
Needless to say, I was nauseous the entire tour, so much so, that I wrote a short post the very same day. While writing this post, I’m feeling sick to the stomach all over again. Every school-going child in Germany is required to visit at least one camp in their lifetime. It is a part of their education. And I think that is very important. You need to know what the human mind is capable of.
When I was talking to one of my hosts in Berlin about the Holocaust, she told me that no-one’s grandparents ever wants to talk about it. Maybe they want to forget the atrocities, maybe they are still in shock, maybe they were involved and regret it, or maybe, just maybe, they do still believe in the ideology and just don’t dare say it anymore.
So I guess I’m going to end this one here. But before that, a thought.
Even though this trip was a highly disturbing experience, I think I can say that it didn’t affect me as much as it does many others. Maybe because, yes, it is terrible and gruesome history, but it isn’t my history. At the time these things were happening across the world, my own people were fighting for our freedom, suffering all sorts of atrocities themselves. I felt selfish and heartless thinking this way, and I discussed that with my hosts that evening. They agreed with me, saying other surfers from other countries had said the same thing. For people who have actually lost loved ones during the Holocaust, of course, it is a much more harrowing experience.
This was just a barely exhaustive post on whatever we were shown. But, of course, so much more happened. The horror is unimaginable. Sometimes I wonder, do such things continue to happen in other parts of the world even today? Humans are capable of the greatest good, and the darkest evil. I can’t comprehend what thought process can lead people to committing such crimes.
I hope we remember this quote.
(The featured image is a picture of the gate that says Arbeit Macht Frei, that means ‘Work Makes (You) Free’.)