This may be a little hard for some to stomach, particularly some of the images, but we feel it is important to remember the Holocaust.
A visit to Auschwitz was a must for us, so we added Krakow to our itinerary as we travelled from the Baltics to Slovakia to ensure we’d get to visit. It is only an hour or so drive from Krakow.
As we waited out the front of the Auschwitz “museum” for our tour to start, it was hard to imagine this place as the scene of such heartless and heinous atrocities. The sky is blue, the grass and leaves are very green, looking into the distance the rows of red brick buildings could easily pass as old classic university dorms branching off a broad tree-lined street.
Auschwitz was made up of 3 main camps (Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II – Birkenau and Auschwitz III – Monowitz). Our tour took us through Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II – Birkenau. As we started walking through the gates of Auschwitz I the scars of this place’s history are immediately revealed. On the right hand side, in front of an old wooden building, there is a memorial for the band that used to welcome the prisoners as they entered the camp. It is said this was there to keep the prisoners calm, and help them to march in time, conveniently making it easier for them to be counted.
As we continued to walk through the camp, we began to be presented with unbelievably horrifying numbers. In the 5 years of camp operation, 1.3 million prisoners were sent to Auschwitz of which 1.1 million were jews. At least 1.1 million people died at the camp, 90% of them Jewish. People died of the poor living conditions, starvation, untreated medical conditions or in gas chambers. Approximately 16% of Jews who perished in the Holocaust did so at the Auschwitz camps.
Prisoners arrived by train in carriages normally used for transporting cattle. Once off the train they were subjected to a selection process where the strongest and fittest were chosen for hard labour. Those deemed too young, too old or too weak were sent to their deaths. In fact it is impossible to say how many people were really brought to Auschwitz as those who failed the selection process were not even registered but sent immediately to the gas chamber. These people were assured they were just going for a shower, keeping them calm and even happy as they hadn’t showered for some days, often completely unaware of their imminent deaths. This myth was perpetuated by the fake shower heads installed in the gas chambers. The prisoners were brought into a room, removed all their clothes and were ushered into the adjoining ‘showers’. Once in the chamber, Zyklon B, a pesticide, was poured into the room and within 20 minutes their lives had been taken. So smooth, so efficient and so disgustingly deadly.
After their murder in the gas chambers, the prisoners were stripped of any jewellery, gold teeth or other valuables, and their hair was cut, before being cremated. The human hair was then used to make textiles, woven into rugs and blankets for the Germans. One of the most horrifying sights we have ever seen was the hall of hair, which contained 2 ton of left over human hair. In the same building there were mountains of personal items left behind including shoes, brushes, glasses, coffee cups and even shoe wax.
The crematorium at Auschwitz I could only burn through 340 bodies per day so the Nazis decided to build Auschwitz II – Birkenau with 4 gas chambers and more crematoriums, increasing their killings to 2000 people in 20 minutes.
The prisoners surviving selection were forced to live and work in equally horrific and abhorrent conditions. Some were kept in cells which were no more than 1m x 1m square where 4 prisoners were forced to stay. They had to stand butting up against each other and with so little room that they physically could not move. Other cells which were no more than 3m x 3m square held up to 50 prisoners at a time and some where in total darkness with no air supply. Once selected the prisoners had their heads shaved and photos taken as a form of ID. This resulted in them looking so similar it became difficult to distinguish them so as a new method of identification the prisoners were tattooed with numbers. They also had differing badges on their uniform (of which they were only given one) with various meanings such as whether they were political prisoners, jewish, etc. The uniforms were grossly inadequate. A striped shirt and matching pants similar to a light pyjama was to last them 11 hours of hard labour each day, through the hot summers and icy winters.
As we walked through a hall with the identification photos of the prisoners, we could see when they arrived at the camp and when they died. Many of the prisoners didn’t last very long at all, some barely a few days. And the horrors don’t end there, there were photos of two young female twins side by side. These twins were among the many subject to serious medical experimentation and we’ll never really know what pain and suffering that had to endure.
We were totally and completely moved by this excursion. We were able to understand appreciate a critical piece of history not just for Poland, or Germany, but for the world. This is dark period of history with a wide-reaching impact that is still felt today, over 70 years later. As confronting as this excursion is, it is without a doubt a journey that every single person should take. This is a past we cannot escape, a past that is in all of us. A past that has shaped humanity and changed the course of history from which it is imperative that we learn. As philosopher George Santanyana said, “those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it“.