Monday, August 21, 2017

Post 11: Auschwitz

Just an hour or two bus or train ride from Kraków is the site of the world's largest mass murder in history: Auschwitz. I had mixed feelings about visiting this place, which is probably normal for most people. I knew it wouldn't be a happy or pleasant visit, but it still seemed like something I had to do--if for no other reason than to pay respect to the victims who died there and as a reminder that just because someone is of a different religion, nationality, or  __ fill in the blank __, they're still human beings and should be treated as such.

The entrance to Auschwitz II-Birkenau

I arrived on a train late on a hot, sunny afternoon. I didn't have any tickets, which I thought might be a problem since it was a popular place to visit and the tourist high-season was swinging into gear. Visits in the morning and early afternoon all required one be part of a guided tour. I walked up to the information booth and told them I didn't a ticket--what could I still see?

The lady gave me a ticket (free!) that would allow me to get in at 4:00 in the afternoon. I had a couple of hours until then, however, and she suggested that I visit the Birkenau site a kilometer or two away. There was a free shuttle bus that would take me there and no tickets were needed.

Awesome! I walked over to the bus and took the quick ride to Birkenau.

If you're like me before my visit to Poland, you might not know how Auschwitz was laid out. Auschwitz had three distinct parts to it. Auschwitz I was a camp used to house Polish Army barracks until the Nazis decided to turn it into a camp to hold political prisoners and would later become the headquarters for the entire Auschwitz complex. It's also the location of that infamous entrance with the Arbeit macht frei sign (works sets you free). It's very well preserved and the former barracks are now full of displays covering the history and atrocities of the camp.

As Auschwitz I filled to capacity, the Nazis built Auschwitz II nearby--a considerably larger camp they called Birkenau. That's where I was headed first. This camp is largely in ruins now with little more than foundations and chimneys left to mark the barracks location. This camp is also where they built the gas chambers that would be used to murder hundreds of thousands of innocent people where the bulk of the murders at Auschwitz took place. (Which isn't to say that tens of thousands of people weren't killed at Auschwitz I, but it was a relative drop-in-the-bucket compared to the assembly line death they instituted at Auschwitz II.) This was not merely a concentration camp, but an extermination camp.

Birkenau was absolutely massive in size--probably ten or more times larger than Auschwitz I. It was built to hold 250,000 people at a time. It's mostly just ruins now, though, with little but foundations and chimneys left. (And the fences. The fences are still maintained.)

Later, when the Germans wanted to build a new manufacturing camp, they created Auschwitz III--a.k.a. Monowitz concentration camp--to support it. It was located a few miles from the other two camps and I would not be visiting it. I'm not even sure what there is to see there anymore, but the other two camps were more than enough to satisfy my depression and horror limits for the day.

So I arrived at Auschwitz II-Birkenau and was immediately shocked at the sheer size of the complex. Barbed-wire fences and guard posts lined the road as far as I could see. The place was absolutely massive in size.

And there were those infamous railroad tracks leading into the entrance of the extermination camp. You couldn't help but feel a sense of dread walking up to it. How many hundreds of thousands of people went to their deaths along that narrow path?

The exact number of people killed at Auschwitz will never be known since many people were never even registered and the Germans went to great effort to destroy evidence of their crimes near the end of the war. The burned bodies and scattered the ashes in such a way that nobody could ever calculate the number who died.

Shortly after Soviet forces liberated the camp, the Soviet government claimed that 4 million people had been murdered--but that's an estimate generally everyone considers greatly exaggerated. Eventually some people took a look at documented train arrivals and deportation records to estimate 1.1 million total deaths which is the official number adopted by the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, but it could have been as many as 1.5 million people.

Regardless of the specific number, it's absolutely staggering. That's about the same as the entire population of Rhode Island--every last man, woman and child, because women and children were not spared in the slaughter. As many people as the entire population of Vermont and Wyoming combined.

I walked around the camp, reading the posted signs about the horrors that took place. It was quiet and peaceful now. Flowers grew among the ruins and I even saw a couple of deer wandering through. I wondered how they got in given the high fences that still surrounded the place. Obviously, the fence is no longer guarded, but it's still maintained as part of the preservation of the site.

It seemed a little incongruous to see such pretty flowers blooming in a place with such a horrible history.

In the back of the camp were the gas chambers. They're rubble now, what's left after the Nazis blew them up near the end of the war in an attempt to cover up their crimes. But you can still see them, the shape of the floor plan, and the nearby forests where victims would have to wait while previous victims were being cleared from the gas chambers and the grounds where ashes were scattered.

One building near the back of the complex was still intact and open for visitors. It was where they processed incoming arrivals. Where they'd be forced to strip and and take showers (actual, real showers--not the fake ones like found in the gas chambers), all of their possessions stolen and removed. Horrible things happened within those walls.

Eventually I looped back towards the entrance and took the shuttle bus back to Auschwitz I just in time for my 4:00 ticket. I was hot, sweaty, hungry and severely depressed.

And I couldn't find my ticket. I don't know what the heck happened to it. Did I accidentally drop it somewhere? I cursed mildly under my breath and returned to the information desk. "I had a ticket for 4:00, but I seem to have lost it...."

They gave me another ticket, this time for 4:20 since the 4:00 tickets had long since been given away already. That actually worked out really well for me because that would give me 20 minutes to eat some snacks and get a drink. It was hot out and I hadn't eaten since breakfast!

Ashes of burned corpses were often dumped in this pond, which is the reason for the memorials in front of it.

At 4:20, I was in line to go through the security checkpoint. There was no security checkpoint when I entered Birkenau, but there definitely was here. No backpacks, weapons, foods, etc. allowed. (There was a place to check bags nearby, though, which I made use of.)

There's not really much more to say about this camp. It's much better preserved with plenty of buildings to house all of the exhibits about the history of Auschwitz, other concentration camps, Nazis and WWII in general. It's where there's that enormous pile of shoes representing all of the victims that died there.

Auschwitz I was the headquarters for the entire Auschwitz complex and it's where they first tested the idea of a gas chamber. So yes, people were gassed here too, but just to figure things out for building the high-volume gas chambers at Birkenau. The medical experiments took place in this area as well, horrible experiments that were inhumane and cruel.

At the end of the day, I was emotionally drained. How could people do something like this to each other? How could the people who worked in these camps live with themselves?

It did occur to me later that the tour guides and people who run the camp now would certainly have an interesting resume. "Yes, I worked at Auschwitz. What of it?"

I'm glad I visited the place. I'm glad to see it firsthand, and size and layout of the place. It makes it feel more real somehow--not just something you read about in history books. But once was enough. I never want to go back there again.

The infamous entrance to Auschwitz I.
Thousands of people had been executed against this wall during the course of the war. The building on the right (not really visible, I know) was where Nazis first tested the idea of gas chambers.
The buildings in Auschwitz I are generally well preserved and now house exhibits about the camp.

I stumbled into this fascinating YouTube video about "The Soldier Who Voluntarily Became a Prisoner in Auschwitz"--yikes!


Paulinski said...

Wow. Thank you, Ryan.
~Outdoor Adventurer~

Mary said...

I just saw a Rick Steves travel show tonight and he was in Krakow and he saw all these things! The salt mine and the size of just one cathedral was impressive. I saw the pile of shoes and inside some of the buildings and the same sights as in your photos of Auschwitz. I don't think I could there visit in person. I'm an emotional mess at the Vietnam Wall and the WWII Memorial in Washington, DC.

Busy Mom said...

This is one place I would very much like to see one day. I am Jewish myself and going back into my own genealogy often ended very quickly and I was unable to find much information besides the fact that my family was from old Prussia. I am curious to know how many in my family made it out in hiding and how many were put to death beyond these gates. Thankyou so much for this post. Very interesting.

I did however visit another Monument of the era at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I felt very awkward being an American among a sea of Japanese touring the site. However, the Japanese love America and I received no ugly looks or stares, although the Japanese culture may just be too polite to show any misgivings toward me.