Leaving the Czech Republic behind, we crossed into southern Poland and made our way towards Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest and perhaps best known of the Nazi concentration and death camps. From its beginnings in 1940 as a detention center for political prisoners, the camp grew from one site to many, where it’s estimated that at least 1.1 million prisoners died — around 90 percent of them Jewish. Today, the Polish government operates the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum at the site.
As you’d imagine, visiting Auschwitz is a powerful, emotional, and thought-provoking experience that feels almost uncomfortable to describe from my 2014 lapsed-Catholic American perch, so I’m not going to try. Instead, I’m just going to share what I saw and learned.
One of the most iconic images of Auschwitz is the gate at the entrance with the sign spelling out “Arbeit Macht Frei,” meaning “work makes (you) free.” Of course, at Auschwitz it meant no such thing. Adding further insult to ultimate injury, I also learned that the sign was recently stolen by a Swedish former neo-Nazi leader and two Poles. It was later recovered in three pieces and the culprits jailed, but, as a result, the original was moved into the museum and a replica installed over the gate. Sigh.
As succinctly summarized by the Auschwitz-Birkenau website: “Auschwitz I is where the Nazis opened the first Auschwitz camps for men and women, where they carried out the first experiments at using Zyklon B to put people to death, where they murdered the first mass transports of Jews, where they conducted the first criminal experiments on prisoners, where they carried out most of the executions by shooting, where the central jail for prisoners from all over the camp complex was located in Block No. 11, and where the camp commandant’s office and most of the SS offices were located.”
Some of the cell blocks have been renovated and re-purposed as museum space. On display are maps, photographs, and evidence of what happened here. A lone urn holds a symbolic amount of human ash, while empty cans of Zyklon B, the poison used in the gas chambers, are piled in a glass-walled case.
Also on display are the simplest and most human of items. Leg braces and eyeglasses. Suitcases and baskets. Shoes and shaving kits. Massive piles of braided hair. Baby clothes. It’s a heartbreaking collection.
From 1941 to 1943, the majority of executions at the camp were carried out in the walled-off yard of Block 11, in front of a specially built “Death Wall.” Today, it’s a living memorial. Our wonderful Polish tour guide had two uncles murdered at Auschwitz for political crimes, presumably here at the Death Wall. After making a promise to her dying grandmother decades ago to find out what happened to the men, she tracked them to Auschwitz, and has been with the museum ever since. Her story only reinforced that, when it comes to WWII and the Holocaust, the past is still very much the present.
Before leaving Auschwitz I you pass the spot in the yard where prisoners were publicly hanged, before stopping in front of another, smaller gallows. It was here that Rudolf Höss, the former camp commandant, was hanged for his crimes on April 16, 1947 following a trial before the Supreme National Tribunal in Warsaw, Poland. As commandant, he’d lived happily with his family, including small children, mere steps from the camp border.
Auschwitz II – Birkenau
Just down the road from Auschwitz I is Birkenau, or Auschwitz II. Again, as summarized by the Auschwitz-Birkenau website: “Birkenau is where the Nazis erected most of the machinery of mass extermination in which they murdered approximately one million European Jews. At the same time, Birkenau was the largest concentration camp (with nearly 300 primitive barracks, most of them wooden). Over a hundred thousand prisoners were here in 1944: Jews, Poles, Roma, and others. The nearly 200 hectares (nearly 500 acres) of grounds include the ruins of the gas chambers and crematoria and places filled with human ashes.”
The new arrivals came in by rail car in daily convoys, and were quickly segregated into two groups based solely on appearance by SS doctors. Those that were young and fit, meaning able to work, were sent to the right. Those deemed unfit for work (the young, old, sick, and pregnant) were sent to the left, and immediately gassed. After both groups had dispersed, their belongings, which still sat on the train platform, were gathered up and taken to an area of the camp known as “Canada” (because it was seen as a land of plenty) to be sorted, stolen, and taken back to Germany.
The platform plays a huge role in the Auschwitz Album — a rare collection of photos showing the arrival and sorting process of a group of Hungarian Jews from early summer 1944. I’ve seen these photos so many times in books and documentaries that standing on the spot where so many of the pictures were taken was completely overwhelming. Especially since the setting has remained nearly identical– the view you see today is largely the view they would have seen, minus, of course, the terrifying SS officers, barking dogs, and smell of decay and burning.
Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi shares more about the arrival process, and why the arrivals sent to the left didn’t put up a fight:
You may wonder why the prisoners who had just gotten off the trains did not revolt, waiting as they did for hours (sometimes for days!) to enter the gas chambers. I must add that the Germans had perfected a diabolically clever and versatile system of collective death. In most cases the new arrivals did not know what awaited them. They were received with cold efficiency but without brutality, invited to undress for ‘the shower.’ Sometimes they were handed soap and towels, and were promised hot coffee after their showers. The gas chambers were camouflaged as shower rooms, with pipes, faucets, dressing rooms, clothes hooks, benches, and so forth. If prisoners showed the smallest sign of knowing or suspecting the imminent fate, the SS and their collaborators used surprise tactics—intervening with extreme brutality, with shouts, threats, kicks, shots; loosing their dogs, which were trained to tear people to pieces, against people who were confused, desperate, weakened by five or ten days of traveling in sealed railroad cars.
The few that were deemed fit were admitted into the camp, and put to work, but more than 80% of those who arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau were murdered at once.
A sea of chimneys is all that remain of most of the barracks, or shacks, at Birkenau. The few that stand today were re-built for visitors using materials from other areas of the camp, and since no official records remain to ensure their accuracy, camp survivors were consulted instead.
Here, survivor Primo Levi describes a modern-day visit to Birkenau:
Here nothing has changed. There was mud, and there still is mud, or suffocating summer dust. The blocks of huts (those that weren’t burned when the war reached and passed this area) have remained as they were—low, dirty, with drafty wooden sides and beaten earth floors. There are no bunks but bare planks, all the way to the ceiling. Here nothing has been prettied up. With me was a friend of mine, Giuliani Tedeschi, a survivor of Birkenau. She pointed out to me that on every plank, 1.8 by two meters, up to nine women slept. She showed me that from the tiny window you could see the ruins of the cremation furnace. In her day, you saw the flames issuing from the chimney. She asked the older women: ‘What is that fire?’ and they had replied: ‘It is we who are burning.’
As terrible and painful as it was for inmates at Auschwitz, the gas chambers claimed the most victims. Today, they are in ruins, but not removed.
When a gassing was complete, a group of Jewish prisoners (called the Sonderkommando) wearing gas masks were forced to remove the bodies (salvaging the victims’ glasses, artificial limbs, jewelry, hair, and gold teeth) before burning the corpses and either burying the ashes, throwing them in the river, or using them as fertilizer.
As Soviet troops approached Auschwitz in January 1945, the Germans ordered most of its population (about 60,000) to evacuate on what became known as a “death march” to other camps. Those that remained (about 7,000) were liberated on January 27, 1945, a day now commemorated as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. In the following decades, the camp became a symbol of the Holocaust and, in 1947, a museum.
To close, a final thought from survivor Primo Levi:
The war can be explained, but Auschwitz has nothing to do with the war; it was not an episode in it, nor an extreme form of it. War is always a terrible fact, to be deprecated; but it is in us, it has its rationality, we “understand” it. There is no rationality in the Nazi hatred. It is a hate that is not in us; it is outside man, it is a poison fruit sprung form the deadly trunk of fascism, although outside and beyond fascism itself. If understanding is impossible, however, knowledge is imperative, because what happened could happen again. Conscience can be seduced and obscured again: even our consciences.
- Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum
- Primo Levi’s Heartbreaking, Heroic Answers to the Most Common Questions He Was Asked About “Survival in Auschwitz”
- Can Auschwitz Be Saved? | Liberated in 1945, the Nazi concentration camp is one of Eastern Europe’s most visited sites—and most fragile.
- In Pictures | Auschwitz-Birkenau, Then and Now
- Auschwitz: The Nazis and ‘The Final Solution’ — BBC six-episode documentary. Streaming on Netflix
- Hitler’s Children — Documentary portraying the struggle of Nazi family members with the burden of a family legacy, and surname, identified with the horrors of the Holocaust, including the grandson of Rudolf Höss. Streaming on Netflix.