Welcome back to another throwback Thursday post, we are going to pick up where we left off previously where I shared the third day of our holiday in Krakow, Poland. This post is a little bit later than planned, sorry! I wanted to make sure that I included everything I could possibly remember and make sure it truly reflected my visit to Auschwitz.
Day 4 of Krakow, Poland (24th June 2019) – Part 1, Auschwitz
Marysia’s Dad had organised a day trip for us to visitAuschwitz and the Salt Mines. I have always been interested in the history ofWorld War 2 and what happened during the holocaust, due to this, I have alwayswanted to visit Auschwitz to understand more of what had gone on. Marysia hadvisited the Salt Mines before and wanted to see it again, from the photos shehad shown me I also wanted to see it. However, in this post, I am going to talk about the first half of thetrip to Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II – Birkenau and next week I will talk aboutthe second half of the trip to the Salt Mines.
‘Auschwitz’ was made up of 48 camps, most of these were small work camps that manufactured goods for the war. The two main parts and that are most widely known are Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II – Birkenau. We visited both of these camps during our trip. There are two terms used when talking about the Nazi camps; concentration camps and extermination camps. A concentration camp is aimed to kill prisoners slowly through inhumane conditions such as starvation and torture. Whereas extermination camps were built with the intention of killing large numbers of people quickly.
Auschwitz I was the original concentration camp that wascreated using former army barracks as the base. Within the first year of theopening of Auschwitz nearly 11000 people were imprisoned there, the majority ofthe prisoners held there were Polish intellectuals, resistance members andJews.
The approach to Auschwitz I is very eerie and difficult to describe. Even though there were a lot of people walking around, it still felt empty. We met our tour guide before we entered Auschwitz I, he was able to explain the history very well, and thoroughly explained the horrific things that happened in Auschwitz. I think it was good to have a tour guide as he was able to point out things during the tour that we may have otherwise missed, plus it also meant we had someone we could direct our questions to.
Before we entered Auschwitz I and also whilst we entered the different buildings there were photos of prisoners. It was so sad to see the faces of those who had to endure life at Auschwitz, some of them not even making it passed a day within the camp.
I don’t think that you can prepare yourself for the feelingsand emotions of walking through either of the Auschwitz camps. When you firstwalk through the gates of Auschwitz I, which say “Arbeit Macht Frei”(which translates to “Work sets you free”), you walk into an almosttranquil area. A complete contrast to the reality of what has happened there. Notlong after entering Auschwitz see a map which uses letters to indicatedifferent locations within the concentration camp:
- C – sites of execution by shooting
- D – sites of execution by hanging
- E – sites of mass gassing using Zyklon
- B, F – sites of murder by lethal injection
This map instantly brings you back to the reality of whattook place here and the tranquillity of the green spaces become almost hauntingas you imagine the thousands of people who have lost their lives there. I don’tthink anyone could comprehend the true feelings of being trapped as a prisonerwithin Auschwitz and what those people would have felt or gone through. One ofthe things you can’t help but notice as you walk around the concentration campis the multiple layers barbed wire fencing, guard towers, and the”Halt” signs which as scattered all around which again bring you backto the reality that this is where all of those horrific things happened tothousands of people.
We saw so many things that were horrific to see whilstwalking through the concentration camp. One of the particularly haunting thingswas seeing the stacks of shoes, piles of suitcases and the mound of shaved hairas seeing these items that were once someone possessions and even the hair thatwas a part of someone really brings the reality to something I had only everread about or seen on film and documentaries. It is incredible to think theseitems belonged to families that were ripped apart after being shoved likecattle onto a train after being lied to about where they were going, leavingtheir homes under the promise of a great opportunity serving the ThirdReich.
As we visited Auschwitz during June it was quite hot, the longer we were walking around the hotter the sun became and I couldn’t help but think of how those who would have been kept there would have felt as there was nowhere they would have been able to go to escape the heat and they would have also had limited access to water to stay hydrated.
Whilst most of the buildings within the concentration camp housed prisoners, there was also an “infirmary” where experiments were performed on sick prisoners, identical twins, Jewish women who were forcibly sterilized, and more by Dr. Mengele. Our tour guide spoke to us about Eva Mozes Kor and her twin sister Miriam who were one of the many sets of twins Dr. Mengele did tests on. Sadly Eva passed away this year but she has left behind an incredible legacy and has educated many people of her experience during the Holocaust.
The prison block has cells in the basement designed for various punishments. Some had no light, some were designed to only be able to stand in, others were starvation cells (the prisoners in these cells were given water to keep them alive until they starved). In amongst these cells, there is a memorial to honour a Polish priest, Saint Maximilian Kolbe, who volunteered to take the place of a prisoner who was randomly selected for death by starvation, as punishment for a prisoner who escaped.
Next to the prison block is the execution wall. Just beforeyou reach the wall there is a sign outside of the courtyard which says,”You are entering a courtyard where the SS murdered thousands of people.Please maintain silence here: remember their suffering and show respect fortheir memory”
Just outside of the barbed wire fence was what wasoriginally the crematorium. However, in 1941 the largest room was adapted to beused as an improvised gas chamber. This was the first of its kind in Auschwitz.In this room, thousands of Jews were murdered, along with several groups ofSoviet prisoners of war and sick prisoners who were unlikely to return to work.
At this point, we had concluded our tour of Auschwitz I. Thewhole experience of actually walking through the concentration camp where somany people had been tortured, starved and murdered was so surreal. Whilst wewere leaving Marysia and I were talking about the things we had seen and I couldn’treally describe how being in Auschwitz made me feel and I still can’t find thewords for it, it was a combination of being empty, sad, horrified, and angrythat those things happened.
We got back in the minibus and headed towards Auschwitz II –Birkenau. Apart from the gates that enter into Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II – Birkenauis the camp that I recognised the most from photos and videos I had seen.
Auschwitz II – Birkenauwas constructed in 1941 by soviet prisoners of war. The original goal was forthis camp to be able to hold 200,000 prisoners of war. The following year in1942 the first improvised gas chambers were created. Birkenau was a combination of a concentrationcamp and an extermination camp. Most of the concentration camp prisoners dieddue to starvation and most of the extermination camp prisoners were killed ingas chambers. The original gas chambers were located in modified farmhousesnear the camp and eventually, four much larger chambers were constructed. Itwas estimated by the Nazis that 1.6 million people could be killed there eachyear.
We had parked in the main car park which is a short walk away from the main entrance of Birkenau and had walked alongside the train tracks towards the entrance. Once we walked under the watchtower, known to prisoners as ‘Death’s Gate’, the scale of Birkenau really hit me.
I think this is because most of Auschwitz II – Birkenau is in ruins following when the Nazis began trying to cover their tracks and what had happened at Birkenau as the Soviet Army had started moving across Poland in 1944. They destroyed written records and burnt buildings down, they also blew the gas chambers and crematorium up. The majority of the prisoners were transferred to other camps and the remainder were sent on a death march to the west.
Seeing rows of building in ruins which had once housedthousands of prisoners is an incredible and horrifying sight. We were stoodalongside the train tracks which continued in front of us as far as we couldsee.
One of the first things we saw was the platform which was about halfway down the train tracks where the prisoners were ‘sorted’. Here the prisoners were either assigned to life or death. Already at this point, the prisoners had lost their identities, no one cared about their personalities or who they were.
We also saw the monument which was constructed in 1967 and took a few moments here to reflect upon where we had seen and learned about the Auschwitz camps and think about those who had lost their lives within Auschwitz and those who had managed to survive the camps. There are plaques here that read “Forever 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”
When we were leaving Birkenau we stopped at the book shop there as both Marysia and I wanted to get a book to continue reading and learning about what had happened within Auschwitz. I bought a little guide book and I also bought Eva Mozes Kor’s book called Surviving The Angel of Death as I hadn’t heard of the things Dr. Mengele had done and wanted to learn more about him and the things he had done to people.
The Soviet Army liberated Auschwitz II – Birkenau on 27thJanuary 1945.
It is estimated that 1.3 million people were imprisoned atthe Auschwitz camps and 1.1 million of them died. Out of those prisoners, 1.1million were Jews, 150000 Poles, 23000 Roma, 15000 Soviet prisoners of war and25000 prisoners from other ethnic groups.
I hope that we as a society have learnt from the horrificthings that we done at the Auschwitz camps and are never repeated. It is so sadthat so many people lost their lives during the holocaust and were treated sohorrifically. Even though I had read a lot about the Holocaust and seen a fewfilms and documentaries based upon this time period I still wasn’t prepared forwhat I saw and learnt whilst visiting Auschwitz. It will always be beyond mycomprehension that one human can do anyone of the things that the Nazis put theprisoners of the Auschwitz camps through. I also think that because themajority of the photos and films where Auschwitz is shown are in black and whiteprior to visiting Auschwitz I had been able to completely detach myself fromthe realities of what had happened within the Auschwitz camps. But seeing thecamps in Summer and in full colour I was reminded that these things actuallyhappened and aren’t just words within texts books or scenes in films.
There is a lot to take in during one visit and whilst it isa very sad place to visit it would be good to go back and see some of the otherparts of Auschwitz I that we didn’t see on this visit.
“Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it” –
I will be posting part two of the fourth day from our Krakow adventures next Thursday at 6pm, so make sure you come back if you want to find out what we got up to as the Salt Mines!