…Auschwitz and Birkenau – Poland : A Photo Journey
On a gloomy, grey afternoon in May, I traveled 50 kms outside Krakow, Poland to visit Auschwitz and Birkeneau, or Auschwiz-2 as it is also referred as. Which are 2 of the surviving camps of the 3 that the Nazis set up to eliminate the Jews and other lower races.
Auschwitz was spread over 92 acres of land and once housed around 20, 000 prisoners, and was the largest of the Nazi concentration camps.
The complex consisted of three main camps: Auschwitz I, the administrative center; Auschwitz II (Birkenau), an extermination camp or Vernichtungslager; and Auschwitz III (Monowitz), a work camp.
Up to 2.5 million people died at Auschwitz. The Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum revised this figure in 1990, and new calculations now place the figure at 1.1–1.6 million. About 90 percent of them were Jews from almost every country in Europe.
Most of the dead were killed in gas chambers using Zyklon-B. Other deaths were caused by systematic starvation, forced labor, lack of disease control, individual executions, and so-called medical experiments.
As I walked into the former camp, now a popular tourist attraction, my mood began matching the gloomy weather. The austere, red-bricked buildings and the forlorn foliage seemed like they were still tinged with the grief this place had once witnessed.
Though an extremely well-maintained property now, Auschwitz is still an uncomfortable experience. The somber silence that hangs heavy over it, like an invisible fog, makes it even more so. Instructions frequently repeated throughout the former camp, and from the guides, forbid tourists from talking aloud. I didn’t think they were necessary as the solemn atmosphere of the former camp somehow manages to choke back any words that anyone may have.
Auschwitz and Birkenau were where unsuspecting Jews and other ‘lower’ races were brought to be killed.
During and after my trip to Auschwitz, I often wondered why Hitler hated the Jews and other races so ferociously. And somehow, just the fact that he wanted all ‘lower races’ to be eliminated, and the Aryans to rule the world, seems like a rather flimsy excuse.
Jews, and other lower races, from 13 countries around the world, some as far as Oslo, were brought to Auschwitz with the promise of a better life. They were told they were going to a new place of settlement which was called ‘ Canada.’ Why ‘Canada? Because in Poland it was – and is still – used as an expression used when viewing, for example, a valuable and fine gift. The expression comes from the time when Polish emigrants were sending gifts home from ‘Canada
After they were killed, each person was divested of their precious personal belongings like jewelry. Even people with gold teeth weren’t spared and the teeth were pulled out.
Women with long hair had their hair cut off, as close to the scalp as possible, and all the hair collected was used to manufacture cloth
Though Auschwitz did house some genuine prisoners too, they were completely unaware of the real goings-on. Thanks to being confined in cells with boarded up windows, most of the other ‘prisoners’ were hapless Jews and other races.
Most of the dead were killed in gas chambers using Zyklon-B/Cyclone-B. Other deaths were caused by systematic starvation, forced labor, lack of disease control, individual executions, and so-called medical experiments.
This is ‘The Wall’ where the starved, bound, gagged and naked Jews were shot dead. They were shaved clean from head to toe the previous night and divested of each item of clothing the next morning. A perfunctory ‘bath’ that consisted of a tumbler or two of water being thrown on them, and they were ready for the mindless execution. The were brought to The Wall and made to stand facing it, with their hands tied behind their backs, and shot repeatedly until they collapsed. Their death certificates citied the reason of death as a ‘Heart Attack.’
In the 2 photographs below, notice the buildings flanking The Wall, that housed actual prisoners. Note the windows which were boarded up so that the real prisoners could not see the injustice being committed against the hapless Jews and other races.
Though,the above is also the building that doubled up as the ‘administrative office’ where it was decided who would die and when. The dead-bodies and ‘death certificates’ were also discharged from here.
Shooting the Jews happened in the initial days of setting up Auschwitz, till the Nazi’s realized that gassing thousands together would consume less time than shooting just a few Jews at a time.
Barbed Wire seemed to be the favored the décor of the camp.Around the buildings, in between them, these cruel looking fences were everywhere, making, even the thought of, escape impossible.
Not that escape was a probability on the mind of the starved, sleep-deprived and fatigued Jews who were made to work for more than 12 hours a day.
The Living Quarters: Birkeneau (Auschwitz-2)
Birkenau or Auschwitz-2 as it is also known as was the largest killing center in the entire Nazi universe; the very heart of their system. Birkenau, which was 30 times larger than Auschwitz, was spread over 398 acres and housed 100,000 prisoners. The main camp, Auschwitz I was on the outskirts of the Polish city Oswiecim. Birkenau was in a suburb named Zasole.
The Polish government has maintained Birkeneau or Auschwitz-2 as it is also known as, as a memorial for all those who perished there during World War II. Unlike the main camp at Auschwitz, Birkenau is not a museum, research archive, or publishing house. It is preserved more or less in the state it was found at liberation in January 1945.
However, only a few of the wooden barracks remain and are now being restored. The brick barracks and other structures in the women’s camp still stand. All four Birkenau crematoria were dynamited by the retreating SS, however their ruins can still be seen.
This is where the train carrying the Jews came right into Birkenau, directly from the local railway station.
Within minutes of alighting from the train, the selection process for the people on the ‘must-be-gassed-immediately’ list began.
Women, especially pregnant women, and children were the first to be sent to the gas chambers and within hours of entering Birkenau they were dead.
Strong and well-built men were spared a visit to the chambers as they would be used around the camp for manual labor. They were made to work for more than 15 hours a day without a break.
Almost all the prisoners suffered from diarrhea, which worsened and caused infections, both internal and external due to the lack of toilet facilities. Many prisoners died because of the infections.
The Communal Toilets…
…that prisoners were ‘allowed’ to use once a day. Each morning at around 4 am, regardless of the weather, the prisoners were stripped naked and taken to the toilets and allowed to use them, communally, for 3-5 minutes, irrespective of the time they needed them.
To clean them up, they were then made to stand with their faces against the wall *notice the raised platform on the side* and hosed down with a powerful jet of water. After this they proceeded for ‘breakfast’, usually a thin gruel, with some stale bread, if the officers were felling particularly kind, and then taken to the fields to work for 12-15 hours at a stretch.
There were 7000 survivors, most of them children, when the Russian Army finally liberated Auschwitz on the 27th of January 1945.