“…Auschwitz is not a site of Jewish concern, Polish concern, German concern, gypsy concern, historical concern…It is a site of human concern. As such, we believe everyone should visit.”–Krakow in your Pocket
We knew we wanted to take the 6-7 hours it took to see this memorial, paying the $50/per person fee, taking the 1.25 hour bus ride there and back, and walking through the two sites with a tour guide. Now that we have seen it, we feel even more strongly that it was an important museum to see and would recommend it to others. We met our bus and tour guide (‘Cracow Tours’) before noon having walked from Oskar Schindler’s Factory Museum and through Krakow’s Jewish Quarter (Kazimierz) beforehand. On this full bus, we were shown a documentary about the liberation of Auschwitz and Birkenau by the Russian Army on January 27, 1945. We were driven to the small town of Oswiecim, Poland, which is the Polish name of the town. When the Nazis invaded and chose this town in which to house their answer to “The Final Solution to the Jewish Question”, it was renamed ‘Auschwitz’ and became their largest extermination center. The memorial is actually two separate death camps–Auschwitz I, which housed up to about 16, 000 prisoners and was a former Polish Army base, and Auschwitz II/Birkenau (about 2 miles from Auschwitz I), which housed up to 90,000 prisoners at its peak in the summer of 1944.
While we walked around and through the original buildings of Auschwitz I with our tour guide, it was difficult to imagine what it was like for the prisoners here. Some interior floors were scrubbed linoleum, the three-tiered bunks had actual thin mattresses on them, the three-story brick buildings were intact and were separated with a somewhat green lawn. No doubt it was quite a different site 75 years ago. There were 28 buildings on the site–20 of them were there originally when the Nazis took over, and eight more were erected using prisoner labor. In addition, 20 one-story buildings were built in 1944 directly adjacent to the main camp and used for quarters for women prisoners, workshops, temporary SS barracks, and storehouses for property plundered from the Jews exterminated in the gas chambers.
We saw walls with photographs of Hungarian Jews brought here, whole rooms with piles of personal items which the Nazis failed to destroy as they attempted to remove all traces of their atrocities, rooms in which prisoners were starved to death for attempting to escape or for some other infraction. We walked through the courtyard between Blocks 10 (Medical Experiments) and 11 (Camp Jail) where prisoners were executed at one end and whose windows were boarded up in order to prevent other prisoners from witnessing. Our guide told us that taking photographs was allowed at any time during the tour except for two places–the basement of Block 11 and in the room where the pile of human hair was exhibited. She also said that selfies would not be appropriate.
It is not my bent to show extreme emotion most of the time, so I was not taken by surprise by not doing so here. I did witness one example of such passion though; a teenage girl with her mother had exited the crematorium and soon began kneeling down and weeping. Her mother hugged and consoled her as best she could.
Before our bus arrived at the second portion of our tour–Auschwitz II/Birkenau, our tour guide gave us the option of staying near the entrance, perhaps sitting in the cafe and having a drink (it was quite sunny and hot that day). She warned us that there would be a lot of walking (‘3 kilometers’) and no trees or shade. I think she was talking directly to me. But I decided to forge ahead anyway. For much of this tour, I was usually lagging behind, but eventually caught up with our group and heard most of what she said. By the way, as young as she was (maybe late 20s?), she showed extreme tact, professionalism, and knowledge in describing what most people would consider horrific actions.
Aschwitz II/Birkenau was unbelievably huge. Again, it held 90,000 prisoners (not counting the SS) at its peak in 1944. At that time, there were more than 300 buildings, mostly wooden barracks, 40 more barracks for the SS, 11 miles of electrified barbed-wire fencing, more than 6 miles of roads, and 8 miles of drainage ditches–all built in 346 acres. This death camp was created to be efficient: the train cars stopped as close to the crematoriums as possible, prisoners were divided up immediately as either strong enough to work or not, and if not, were murdered that same day. There were five total crematoria located here; “A report drawn up in 1943 by the camp SS construction bureau indicates that the capacity of all five Auschwitz crematoria was 4,756 corpses per 24-hour period.” [The Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Guidebook]. There are to this day traces of human ashes present in the vicinity of the crematoria and burning pits due to the dumping of ashes into the Vistula River at that time.
At the far end of the camp where the train tracks end is a monument to the victims. It was built in 1967, and, both physically and symbolically, marks the end of the road that, during the war, led to the gas chambers. There are 23 plaques on the monument, each of which has inscribed a text written in the principal language spoken by the deportees to Auschwitz.
On both sides of these tracks are the ruins of the two nearest crematoria, both were blown up by the Nazis as they attempted to leave nothing behind, no possessions, no people, no proof. They failed in every way.