Monday, 17 October 2011

78 Auschwitz and Birkenau

Monday 17th October

Today we were on our way to visit Auschwitz and Birkenau. We knew it was going to be a rather sombre and sobering day. On our arrival, it is one of the sunniest days we had had in a long while, and we were both surprised at the number of other people who were there to pay their respects.

We had to enter with a group and a tour guide and the actual tour around Auschwitz took us about 2 hours. The place is very much as it was in the days of its use and was not destroyed by the Nazis prior to being liberated. It has been turned into a museum and done with great sympathy for the many many victims.
ARBEIT MACHT FREI = Work will set you free - one of the German lies
A lot of effort is put into keeping the place authentic
Auschwitz was a Polish Army barracks before WW2

They have not tried to make it easier for people to accept what went on, it is a very honest account with survivor accounts and also the harshness of the discoveries that the Allies made  at the liberation, such as all the personal possessions that the thousands of Jews, Gypsies and other undesirables, as decided by the Nazis, had taken with them believing that they were being relocated into new areas.  In one of the very first buildings is a monument which contains some of the ashes and small pieces of bone that was found.

A sample of the victims ashes

I, like most people have heard about the atrocities of WWII but I did not realise how far reaching the hand of the Germans were for gathering up all who they believed were not deserving.

We were taken through Block 11, which was where all trials for political prisoners, were held, without jury, defence lawyer or the right to speak for yourself, so invariably the court found guilty, and there were only two punishments, one was to have hands tied behind the back and hung on a post for hours at a time, or execution.
On the left is one of the posts mentioned above. Centre is the "Death Wall" for executions. Building on the right is block 11 where the Zyclon B gas was tested. Building on the right is where medical experiments took place. One Doctor experimented on women to try and find a quick and simple way to sterilise them. Their aim being to sterilise all Eastern Europeans to eventually eradicate them and let the superior Germans take their lands.

The official explanation of cell block 11
Hair shaved from the victims heads. It was used to make blankets and military clothing

The pile of prosthetics taken from the victims

Shaving and hair brushes. Everything taken was sorted and if possible recycled. Clothing was laundered to be redistributed to the Germans that were to inherit this land.

When the camp was finally liberated, there were a few survivors the following picture shows a female, this was taken two months after that date and she had been receiving medical care. She was fed very slowly and was still only 25Kgs about 55lbs. She went on to make a full recovery and even appeared as a witness at some of the camps guards trials.

There were also pictures showing the twins that the evil Dr Mengela experimented on, along with others and rows upon rows of the Polish people who were taken there at the beginning of the war, most of them only lasted a few weeks in the awful conditions that they were forced to deal with.
Our final visit was through the gas chamber and the incinerators. We were asked to remain silent throughout this building as a mark of respect for the dead.
We were both very humbled by the suffering and the tales of bravery and survival. 
One of the good things to come out of it was, is that the Commandant of the camp was himself, executed by hanging in the grounds of Auschwitz in 1947 after being found guilty of war crimes.

A gallows fit for a commandant.

The oven beside the Auschwitz gas chamber.

Auschwitz was in fact 2 camps, the original Auschwitz and a second one was built 3km away as the first was too small to accommodate the wishes of the Nazis. This second and much larger camp was called Birkenau. Auschwitz was initially a prison that shortly became a slow death camp with excessive work, little food and poor conditions killing the detainees after some time. Although not intended as an extermination camp, extermination tests and a small gas chamber were built here. Birkenau on the other hand was designed for the purpose of eradicating its occupants.

We had a wee bit of time to take it all in and then we were off to Birkenau.
One track in. They came in loaded and went out empty.

In 1943 to 1944 this camp was used solely as an extermination camp. Trains full of Jews pulled into the prison and those people that survived their cramped journeys of days in some cases that were still alive were herded off the cattle trucks with men on one side and women and young children on the other.  The Nazis then picked a few men that would be useful for work, the rest were told they were being taken for showers and food and happily walked the 1k loading platform, straight into the "shower room".  There are many accounts from survivors who state that they were envious of the people being able to get a shower after the long journey, totally unaware what was really happening. It only took them days to find out.
These carriages held 100 to 120 victims who had travelled across Europe in them without light, food or sanitation.

Once the trains arrived, men and women were segregated; most of the women and children were marched straight to the "showers". The men were selected on their ability to work. The old and infirm were sent with the women and children to the gas chambers.
Before the liberation, many huts were taken away by the Germans for timber. The remainder were stripped by returning locals to rebuild their homes. Some however still remain. These are the chimneys that are left behind.

The Nazis did destroy Birkenau. It was 4 times the size of Auschwitz and had 4 cremetoriums which could hold up to 2000 people in one gassing, one gassing could be over in half an hour, when you put that into perspective, it becomes even more frightening.  After a mini uprising in 1944, one of the cremetoriums was destroyed by the prisoners who were kept alive to feed them with the bodies, they were caught, most went into the gas chamber themselves, but others were shot.

One of the purpose built gas chambers. Blown up by the Germans to cover up their crimes. They have been left exactly as they were found on liberation.

There were bunk houses for 20,000 women and 60,000 men. The Polish town was taken by the Germans and the houses demolished, the bricks were used to make the huts for the women and the wood for the men's huts were built from wood brought in from Germany, they were previously stables and there is still evidence of that now.
The inside of one of the huts.

Most of the wooden houses were demolished by the Germans and all that remains are the chimneys for the bunk houses which are actually a cruel reminder that the prisoners never really received any coal during wartime, the guards took all the rations and if they did get some, it was one bucket for a whole night.  The Germans systematically and ruthlessly degraded their prisoners and it took many more years for the survivors to recover.    

At the end of the camp, there is a monument to the many that died in the camps. There are 22 plaques in the languages representing the 22 countries the prisoners came from.  There is a 23rd plaque in English, for the Allies.
The Monument

The 23rd plaque in English. The only language not to be represented among the victims.
Poland has been a very interesting mix of rich and poor. The main towns that we have visited have lots of money going into them, and the outer country side is like a step back in time.  It is a highly religious place and that can be seen by the number of churches again.
There is a lot of road works going on at the moment, and not before time really. We have travelled on some awful main roads. They have tracks in them and at times you feel that you are running on rails.  There is no such thing as health and safety laws, and I cannot reinforce how awful the driving is.
All in all, it has been a learning curve and certainly here in Krakow.  Our hotel is fully booked for the next few nights, mostly by classes of university students from Israel, here to visit the Jewish town and Auschwitz.  The Jewish town, which prior to Nazi intervention was thriving, now has only 400 residents and just two working Synagogs left.

Tomorrow we are off to the Salt mines and then on to the ski resort of Zakopane and the Slovenian border in the Tatry mountains. It is going to be cold.


  1. Wow....some amazing pictures guys. It's not until you see the buildings in real life that it sinks in as to what happened there all these years ago. Absoilutely amazing. Xx

  2. OMG i was eating my dinner and had to put it down as i felt so sick and sad. The pics really hit home. Thank you for sharing this with us. x