30.07.2011 - 30.07.2011 18 °C
Early start to a very tough day. Auschwitz is a good 2 hr drive from Krakow so early today I was picked up from my hotel and taken out to the concentration camp. This is probably the toughest blog I will write and will also be quite detailed (for those of you who will never be able to come and see for yourselves) therefore this could be quite confronting for some readers.
The camp itself was divided into 4 separate sections all on the outskirts of the Polish town of Oshwiz. The residents of this town were all evicted so that the area surrounding the camp was only SS soldiers. Originally the camp was for Polish political dissidents and Russian POWs but by 41 the camp was massively increased to also accommodate the “Final Solution”. Auschwitz was chosen as the main camp for the Jewish problem mainly because of its location. When you view a map of Europe it is clear that Auschwitz is pretty much in the centre, it was already an established Polish military camp and it already had extensive rail links. Most of the Jews who were exterminated here were either from Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia but some were sent from as far away as Norway and Greece (over 2000km). Over 1.5 m people died at Auschwitz before the camp was liberated by the Russians.
The start of the tour is through the first of the Auschwitz camps (and the original). It is the camp with the famous gate sign “Work will set you free”, and it is the camp that housed the “workers” for the surrounding industries. The people who lived in this camp were fed on ½ litre of coffee for breakfast and a bowl of soup for dinner (the soup was mainly water with a hint of veges). Most who entered the “work” camp did not survive longer than a couple of months. They were beaten daily by the guards and were required to do very manual work for more than 15hrs a day. With almost no clothing and no food the mortality rate was very high.
Most of Auschwitz 1 is now a museum housing the remnants of possessions of those who died within the gas chambers. There is a whole room dedicated to discarded shoes and suit cases of those who died.. and when I mean shoes I mean thousands upon thousands of pairs of shoes. The most chilling (and I really struggled to keep my breakfast down) exhibit is a room filled with human hair. They estimate that there is over 2T of human hair in this particular room and that therefore equates to over 150,000 people’s heads of hair.
For those readers who don’t know, all prisoners of the camp were forced to strip, remove all valuables and had their heads shaven before they entered the camp. There are also many photographs that line the walls of the museums.. these photos were taken by the SS and survived the war because they were not burned and destroyed as they were supposed to be by members of the camp. (The photographic lab was manned by concentration camp workers and they defied the SS at the end of the war and did not torch the precious negatives). These photos were used as evidence during the Nuremberg trials as well as are evidence today of the horrible atrocities that wee committed here 60yrs ago.
After leaving the museum exhibits we drove across to Auschwitz- Birkennau. Birkennau was the main extermination camp and is at least 2km square.. It is absolutely enormous. It is also where the famous “Death Gate” is located.. the one in all of the pictures of the SS guard post that the trains used to drive underneath. This camp could contain over 100,000 prisoners. Most of those who entered this camp were immediately sent to the chambers. When the trains pulled up, everyone was off loaded (many were already dead inside the cattle trucks) and their possessions relieved from them. One SS doctor would then make the recommendation of whether they lived or died. Those who lived, were sent into the camp to become “workers” the others were herded to the end of the platforms and to the chambers.
This might sound gruesome but after hearing about the camp itself I think I would have preferred to go straight to the chambers. You see, the people were told that the first step of “resettlement” (the Jews thought they were being resettled here in Eastern Europe and that the camp was just a staging area whilst they got moved to their new lands and houses) was for everyone to have a shower and get clean after being in the trucks for so long. In fact, some of the people were given soap and towels so they probably did believe they were going to have a shower. They stripped out of their clothes and were then herded into the gas chamber itself. Kyclone B crystals were then dropped into the air vents and about 10min later the chamber was opened, ventilated and the bodies were removed and cremated.
Apparently up to 80,000 people per day could be exterminated at Auschwitz. That number just staggered me.. There were originally 4 chambers and crematoriums. All 4 were demolished by the Nazis before the Russian’s liberated the camp. All that remains today of the chambers (and in fact most of the Birkennau camp) is rubble.
I can’t describe how haunting Auschwitz is. I felt it was fitting that today’s weather was so poor.. it was quite overcast and cold.. I couldn’t imagine visiting the camp in bright sunlight, it would somehow feel inappropriate.
After more than 4hrs walking amongst the ruins and the museum we headed home. It was a much more subdued group who sat on the bus on the return journey.