Welcome back to another throwback Thursday post, we are going to pick up where we left off previously where I shared the third day of our holiday in Krakow, Poland. This post is a little bit later than planned, sorry! I wanted to make sure that I included everything I could possibly remember and make sure it truly reflected my visit to Auschwitz.
Day 4 of Krakow, Poland (24th June 2019) – Part 1, Auschwitz
Marysia’s Dad had organised a day trip for us to visit Auschwitz and the Salt Mines. I have always been interested in the history of World War 2 and what happened during the holocaust, due to this, I have always wanted to visit Auschwitz to understand more of what had gone on. Marysia had visited the Salt Mines before and wanted to see it again, from the photos she had shown me I also wanted to see it. However, in this post, I am going to talk about the first half of the trip to Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II – Birkenau and next week I will talk about the second half of the trip to the Salt Mines.
‘Auschwitz’ was made up of 48 camps, most of these were small work camps that manufactured goods for the war. The two main parts and that are most widely known are Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II – Birkenau. We visited both of these camps during our trip. There are two terms used when talking about the Nazi camps; concentration camps and extermination camps. A concentration camp is aimed to kill prisoners slowly through inhumane conditions such as starvation and torture. Whereas extermination camps were built with the intention of killing large numbers of people quickly.
Auschwitz I was the original concentration camp that was created using former army barracks as the base. Within the first year of the opening of Auschwitz nearly 11000 people were imprisoned there, the majority of the prisoners held there were Polish intellectuals, resistance members and Jews.
The approach to Auschwitz I is very eerie and difficult to describe. Even though there were a lot of people walking around, it still felt empty. We met our tour guide before we entered Auschwitz I, he was able to explain the history very well, and thoroughly explained the horrific things that happened in Auschwitz. I think it was good to have a tour guide as he was able to point out things during the tour that we may have otherwise missed, plus it also meant we had someone we could direct our questions to.
Before we entered Auschwitz I and also whilst we entered the different buildings there were photos of prisoners. It was so sad to see the faces of those who had to endure life at Auschwitz, some of them not even making it passed a day within the camp.
I don’t think that you can prepare yourself for the feelings and emotions of walking through either of the Auschwitz camps. When you first walk through the gates of Auschwitz I, which say “Arbeit Macht Frei” (which translates to “Work sets you free”), you walk into an almost tranquil area. A complete contrast to the reality of what has happened there. Not long after entering Auschwitz see a map which uses letters to indicate different locations within the concentration camp:
- C – sites of execution by shooting
- D – sites of execution by hanging
- E – sites of mass gassing using Zyklon
- B, F – sites of murder by lethal injection
This map instantly brings you back to the reality of what took place here and the tranquillity of the green spaces become almost haunting as you imagine the thousands of people who have lost their lives there. I don’t think anyone could comprehend the true feelings of being trapped as a prisoner within Auschwitz and what those people would have felt or gone through. One of the things you can’t help but notice as you walk around the concentration camp is the multiple layers barbed wire fencing, guard towers, and the “Halt” signs which as scattered all around which again bring you back to the reality that this is where all of those horrific things happened to thousands of people.
We saw so many things that were horrific to see whilst walking through the concentration camp. One of the particularly haunting things was seeing the stacks of shoes, piles of suitcases and the mound of shaved hair as seeing these items that were once someone possessions and even the hair that was a part of someone really brings the reality to something I had only ever read about or seen on film and documentaries. It is incredible to think these items belonged to families that were ripped apart after being shoved like cattle onto a train after being lied to about where they were going, leaving their homes under the promise of a great opportunity serving the Third Reich.
As we visited Auschwitz during June it was quite hot, the longer we were walking around the hotter the sun became and I couldn’t help but think of how those who would have been kept there would have felt as there was nowhere they would have been able to go to escape the heat and they would have also had limited access to water to stay hydrated.
Whilst most of the buildings within the concentration camp housed prisoners, there was also an “infirmary” where experiments were performed on sick prisoners, identical twins, Jewish women who were forcibly sterilized, and more by Dr. Mengele. Our tour guide spoke to us about Eva Mozes Kor and her twin sister Miriam who were one of the many sets of twins Dr. Mengele did tests on. Sadly Eva passed away this year but she has left behind an incredible legacy and has educated many people of her experience during the Holocaust.
The prison block has cells in the basement designed for various punishments. Some had no light, some were designed to only be able to stand in, others were starvation cells (the prisoners in these cells were given water to keep them alive until they starved). In amongst these cells, there is a memorial to honour a Polish priest, Saint Maximilian Kolbe, who volunteered to take the place of a prisoner who was randomly selected for death by starvation, as punishment for a prisoner who escaped.
Next to the prison block is the execution wall. Just before you reach the wall there is a sign outside of the courtyard which says, “You are entering a courtyard where the SS murdered thousands of people. Please maintain silence here: remember their suffering and show respect for their memory”
Just outside of the barbed wire fence was what was originally the crematorium. However, in 1941 the largest room was adapted to be used as an improvised gas chamber. This was the first of its kind in Auschwitz. In this room, thousands of Jews were murdered, along with several groups of Soviet prisoners of war and sick prisoners who were unlikely to return to work.
At this point, we had concluded our tour of Auschwitz I. The whole experience of actually walking through the concentration camp where so many people had been tortured, starved and murdered was so surreal. Whilst we were leaving Marysia and I were talking about the things we had seen and I couldn’t really describe how being in Auschwitz made me feel and I still can’t find the words for it, it was a combination of being empty, sad, horrified, and angry that those things happened.
We got back in the minibus and headed towards Auschwitz II – Birkenau. Apart from the gates that enter into Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II – Birkenau is the camp that I recognised the most from photos and videos I had seen.
Auschwitz II – Birkenau was constructed in 1941 by soviet prisoners of war. The original goal was for this camp to be able to hold 200,000 prisoners of war. The following year in 1942 the first improvised gas chambers were created. Birkenau was a combination of a concentration camp and an extermination camp. Most of the concentration camp prisoners died due to starvation and most of the extermination camp prisoners were killed in gas chambers. The original gas chambers were located in modified farmhouses near the camp and eventually, four much larger chambers were constructed. It was estimated by the Nazis that 1.6 million people could be killed there each year.
We had parked in the main car park which is a short walk away from the main entrance of Birkenau and had walked alongside the train tracks towards the entrance. Once we walked under the watchtower, known to prisoners as ‘Death’s Gate’, the scale of Birkenau really hit me.
I think this is because most of Auschwitz II – Birkenau is in ruins following when the Nazis began trying to cover their tracks and what had happened at Birkenau as the Soviet Army had started moving across Poland in 1944. They destroyed written records and burnt buildings down, they also blew the gas chambers and crematorium up. The majority of the prisoners were transferred to other camps and the remainder were sent on a death march to the west.
Seeing rows of building in ruins which had once housed thousands of prisoners is an incredible and horrifying sight. We were stood alongside the train tracks which continued in front of us as far as we could see.
One of the first things we saw was the platform which was about halfway down the train tracks where the prisoners were ‘sorted’. Here the prisoners were either assigned to life or death. Already at this point, the prisoners had lost their identities, no one cared about their personalities or who they were.
We also saw the monument which was constructed in 1967 and took a few moments here to reflect upon where we had seen and learned about the Auschwitz camps and think about those who had lost their lives within Auschwitz and those who had managed to survive the camps. There are plaques here that read “Forever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity where the Nazis murdered about one and a half million men, women, and children, mainly Jews from various countries of Europe. – Auschwitz – Birkenau 1940-1945”
When we were leaving Birkenau we stopped at the book shop there as both Marysia and I wanted to get a book to continue reading and learning about what had happened within Auschwitz. I bought a little guide book and I also bought Eva Mozes Kor’s book called Surviving The Angel of Death as I hadn’t heard of the things Dr. Mengele had done and wanted to learn more about him and the things he had done to people.
The Soviet Army liberated Auschwitz II – Birkenau on 27th January 1945.
It is estimated that 1.3 million people were imprisoned at the Auschwitz camps and 1.1 million of them died. Out of those prisoners, 1.1 million were Jews, 150000 Poles, 23000 Roma, 15000 Soviet prisoners of war and 25000 prisoners from other ethnic groups.
I hope that we as a society have learnt from the horrific things that we done at the Auschwitz camps and are never repeated. It is so sad that so many people lost their lives during the holocaust and were treated so horrifically. Even though I had read a lot about the Holocaust and seen a few films and documentaries based upon this time period I still wasn’t prepared for what I saw and learnt whilst visiting Auschwitz. It will always be beyond my comprehension that one human can do anyone of the things that the Nazis put the prisoners of the Auschwitz camps through. I also think that because the majority of the photos and films where Auschwitz is shown are in black and white prior to visiting Auschwitz I had been able to completely detach myself from the realities of what had happened within the Auschwitz camps. But seeing the camps in Summer and in full colour I was reminded that these things actually happened and aren’t just words within texts books or scenes in films.
There is a lot to take in during one visit and whilst it is a very sad place to visit it would be good to go back and see some of the other parts of Auschwitz I that we didn’t see on this visit.
“Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it” –George Santayana
I will be posting part two of the fourth day from our Krakow adventures next Thursday at 6pm, so make sure you come back if you want to find out what we got up to as the Salt Mines!