#36 – Visit Auschwitz
Auschwitz. A name familiar to us all. A name with shadows upon it. A name which almost defines horror. I’ve been asking myself why I put this on The List. Why did I want to see it for myself? The vast majority of children in the western world learn about concentration camps at school. I did. Many have read Anne Frank’s diary showing the lengths Jews went to to avoid the persecution of the Nazis. I did, and I’ve visited the house in Amsterdam where her family hid. I’ve seen images of starving concentration camp survivors, heard stories of people lost forever and people miraculously reunited. But I think that for me, reading about it was not enough. I wanted to see it, to stand there, to see if the silent earth retained any trace of the blood shed upon it.
I was unprepared for the scale of the camp. The sheer numbers who died there are so large they are difficult to comprehend. The conditions so basic it is impossible to imagine what life would have been like there.
Although I thought of Auschwitz as one entity, when operating it was actually three camps. Two remain: Auschwitz I (the original camp) and Auschwitz-Birkenau (the larger of the two and the more recognisable from film imagery).
The third, smaller, camp was a work camp established near a German factory to provide slave labour. Auschwitz I was established in 1940 as a prison camp for Poles in the village of Oświęcim, using an existing Polish army barracks. In 1941 the Nazis cleared an area about 3 kilometres from the village, evicting the population and demolishing their houses to build Birkenau. In 1942 the Nazis started deporting Jews from all over Europe and Auschwitz became their largest forced labour and extermination camp. Auschwitz I had one gas chamber and crematorium, build to experiment with using Cyclon B gas (basically cyanide) to exterminate prisoners. At Auschwitz-Birenau there were four, and the SS located the gas chambers there underground to try to hide the screams of those being killed. Auschwitz-Birkenau was built as a death camp, not a labour camp.
In total, the Nazis murdered a million Jews at Auschwitz along with about 100,000 other nationalities and races including Poles, Romanies and Soviet prisoners of war. The vast majority of the Jews deported to Auschwitz did not enter the camp at all, instead being transferred straight from the transport to the gas chambers. There are therefore no records of those who were killed in this way because they were never registered as having arrived at Auschwitz. Only those the SS considered capable of work or required for medical experiments were registered and lived at the camp. Others simply disappeared without trace.
The Nazis fled from the camp in January 1945, taking the majority of the prisoners with them on the Death March to other concentration camps in Germany. Only about 7000 people (those the SS considered too weak to attempt the journey) remained at Auschwitz when the camp was liberated on 27th January 1945. Before fleeing, the SS attempted to destroy as much of the camp as possible, setting fire to the crematoria and the gas chambers to hide the evidence of mass murder, and destroying the wooden barracks in which prisoners were housed.
To enter Auschwitz I and see the famous ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ sign above the gate was a sobering experience. It made it very real. This was not just something that you see in films, it was there, on the ground. It really happened.
The camps are memorials as well as museums, and it was particularly difficult to see groups of Jewish teenagers in tears, disbelieving, distraught, yet trying to support and comfort each other. As with other sites where atrocities have been committed (I felt the same at Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was held during apartheid), the land seems too small, too insignificant to support the weight of history it holds.
It is hard to describe how it feels to see the shoes, glasses, clothes, suitcases and even hair of those who died at Auschwitz. To see the execution yard where thousands of prisoners were shot or hanged. To see the prison block with its punishment cells – tiny, one metre square cells into which five or six prisoners were crammed, standing up all night. Seeing all of this really brought home the fact that the Jews and others deported to these camps were not seen as people, were given no dignity, no identity; they were either exploited and then killed or killed and then exploited. Not only were their possessions appropriated and sent to Germany, but elements of themselves were too. There were letters discussing the price to be paid for the gold extracted from the teeth of those who died, and a blanket made from human hair. There were contracts set up for the supply of these kinds of things. The SS took everything and wasted nothing.
At Birkenau, the ruins of the barracks stretched as far as the eye could see and we were told that each one held between 700 and a thousand prisoners. There were next to no sanitary facilities. Toilet blocks were not necessarily unlocked everyday and if they were unlocked, they were only available for an hour or less a day which was not enough time for everyone to use them. In any case, the prisoners had to clean these out themselves, although that was considered to be a ‘good’ job because at least you were indoors and warm. I simply cannot imagine what it would have been like to have to exist in this place and wonder that the impulse for life can be so strong as to make you want to carry on and fight to live when life is like that.
I cannot say I’m glad I’ve been there but it has made it more real. It’s still very difficult to take in the scale not only of the systematic execution but also the numbers involved in perpetrating it. I think this will have more impact for me as time goes on, particularly if I read anything about the camps as I now have a picture of the conditions and suffering.
I can only tell a small part of its story. To read more about the history of Auschwitz and the conditions in the camps, see the museum’s website: http://en.auschwitz.org/h/