When I visited Poland and more exactly Krakow, I chose to spend a half-day to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Indeed, our lessons of history at school and my interest in World War II made me know this horrific name soon enough. And I must say that despite having read many stories and other testimonies, I’ve never realized the horror of the place until today, during this tour of the former largest concentration and extermination camp of the Third Reich.
You can choose to visit the site with an organized group in the morning or afternoon or all day on your own. I choose the first option and it is around 9am that my driver takes me up at my hotel in Krakow to drive me and a few English tourists at Auschwitz.
We arrive at the visitor center, where we are separated and join our groups. Mine is in French, so I get my audio guide (a receiver device in fact, as our guide has the transmitter and it is to her I listen to) and starts the visit beyond the infamous door of the main camp, labeled with the words “Arbeit macht frei” (“work makes (you) free”). This phrase is found in the German nationalist party, which explains its subsequent adoption by the NSDAP. It was also found at the entrance of one of the Solovki islands camps in the 1920s an inscription proclaiming “By working, you obtain freedom!”.
Then follows a tour of the different blocks, as blocks 4 and 5 which were restored and used since the 1950s by Poles to achieve a permanent exhibition which presents the living conditions of prisoners, mainly from recovered object in the ruins of Birkenau camps in the liberation of the camp. Therein including personal effects of deportees: dishes, glasses, shoes, etc., displayed in showcases. One of these even shows hair of prisoners which was supposed to be used to make fabric. Everything that belonged to the victims had to be reused to profit the Reich. As in, we realize the horror of this tragic time.
The most shocking part for me was the visit of Block 11, also called “Block of Death”, a prison within the prison. This two floors brick building and its basement was a place of punishment and torture. Many people have not survived their incarceration in Block 11 because of the inhuman conditions of detention and frequent abuse. Various reasons led to a confinement in Block 11. People who were guilty of abuse or had violated one of the many camp rules or simply were suspected to have done so could be conducted there.
Block 11 was equipped with 28 cells and torture chambers to impose different types of tortures to prisoners. Some could be locked up without food or water in a “dark cell” for several days. Prisoners in these cells frequently have choked after having burned all the oxygen in the cell (when the SS didn’t light a candle to accelerate the process). Some were hung by the arms, hands bound in the back for hours and even days until the shoulder joints were completely dislocated. Such torture poles were placed for this purpose in the yard between Blocks 10 and 11. In the “standing cells,” people were forced to stay alone or by four in a cramped cell of less than one square meter, and were only allowed to stand up. Only a small opening of five to five centimeters allowed them to breathe. They remained there for one to twenty nights and were nevertheless forced to work the next day with the other prisonners.
We also go through the first gas chambers of the site, converted from an old morgue, partially demolished but rebuilt according to the instructions found on site. Needless to say that the atmosphere is very heavy inside, nobody speaks and we all come out of the building quickly after barely a minute. Before taking a shuttle to Birkenau, we pass by the shop of the visitor center where you can find many books about the camps and World War II.
Auschwitz II, or Birkenau, offer a completely different landscape, but equally tragic. The site is spread over an area of 170 hectares and originally had over 300 barracks. Only a row of wooden barracks used for quarantine was rebuilt. You can see the ruins of other brick barracks almost everywhere on sight. Auschwitz II was deliberately left as it was as a silent witness of the extent of crime.
Prisoners arriving from all over Europe to Auschwitz-Birkenau by train, often after several days in cattle wagons. Some died of thirst, hunger, illness or suffocation during the journey. During the greater part of the existence of the camp, the prisoners arrived at the former goods station of Auschwitz (Judenrampe) and walked about a mile to Birkenau. The route was extended in spring 1944 just before the arrival of the Hungarians to complete the trip within Birkenau, getting then closer to gassing devices. Barely out of the train, the prisoners were passing the “Selektion.”
On one side, the weak, the elderly, the sick, pregnant women and children were to be gassed immediately. The other, adults (in theory from 15 years) the more valid who the SS destined to death by forced labor. Often, doctor Josef Mengele operated a selection among the newcomers to conduct his experiments. In all cases, prisoners were stripped naked, shaved, tattooed, dispossessed of their belongings which were stored in warehouses called “Kanada” in the jargon of the camp. Personal valuables were being accounting in a very accurate manner, established by the administration of Auschwitz under the command of Karl Möckel and were then sent quarterly in Germany. Survivors to the first selection were divided into working groups (Kommandos) and used as slave labor in factories within the camp, but also in farms around.
At the other end of the entrance to the site is a memorial, a place of contemplation which can be considered as the largest cemetery in the history of mankind. The following text is written of 21 slabs laid on the floor of the monument, all translated into different languages.
For ever 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.
After the guided tour, you can walk freely in the camp or take the shuttle bus to continue your visit of Auschwitz. Personally, I had enough emotion for the day, but to avoid ending the day on a note of tragedy, I traveled to Wieliczka Salt Mine, halfway between Auschwitz-Birkenau and Krakow.