Our first lessons in Polish history are harsh. Auschwitz. A name that can only ever conjure up images of depravity and the worst mankind can do to each other. Our educator explains that the words above the entry to Auschwitz I mean “Work sets you free”. A taunt by the Nazis against those it brought to the camp to work until they died.
Auschwitz I started out life as a concentration camp long before it became a combined concentration and death camp. Before the Jews were brought here in their thousands, Polish political prisoners and captured Soviet soldiers were housed here. It was a concentration camp and a human medical laboratory.
This place is so harsh. There are no words to describe the stories our educator tells us. A young Israeli man in our group cries the whole time we are here. For Paul and I the tears and feelings for which there will never be words will come later when we think back on our time here (like when I am writing this post 13 days later). Because words cannot describe this place nor the experience, I will simply try to caption some of the photos I took during our tour.
The Nazis did not act out of passion. The transport of Jews to Auschwitz I, Birkenau (Auschwitz II) and the other 40 camps that fell under the Auschwitz umbrella was pre-meditated and planned with utmost inhumane precision. After years of being forced to live in various ghettos around Europe, the Jews were told they were being resettled in the East (or nearby for the 300,000+ who came from Krakow). They were told to pack their belongings and clearly label their suitcases so they could be returned from the baggage car of the trains. At the liberation of the camps, tens of thousands of suitcases were found by the Soviets. There are now held on display to remind us what we must never again allow to happen.
Auschwitz was the perfect factory of the most depraved kind. Everything was harvested for sale. Possessions were collected and sold to Germans. Hair was cut, harvested and sold to textile factories to manufacture into goods. Teeth were broken down and the gold from fillings melted into ingots. Even the ashes of those who were cremated were used as fertiliser.
Zyclon-B was discovered here in Auschwitz I. The Nazis were looking for the perfect killing agent to allow them to liquidate the Jewish population in Europe. Shooting was too messy and suffocation too slow. Zyclon-B provided the perfect answer.
This is the only remaining gas chamber at Auschwitz. It is in the Auschwitz I camp. The Nazis didn’t destroy it because they believed the Allies or the Soviets would bomb the camp, destroying evidence of their crimes. But they didn’t so it remains. I’ve been to places before where ghosts have roamed the halls and made their presence felt. There are no ghosts in this gas chamber. Not for me anyway. I think it must havebeen so awful that not even a ghost would want to haunt this place. This isn’t even one of the big ones that were located at Birkenau (Auschwitz II). Those were all dismantled by the Nazis in an attempt to cover their crimes.
The Death Gate at Auschwitz II-Birkenau.
The sorting place where Jews were sorted into those who would be worked to death and those who would be gassed. For many, this would be the last time they ever saw family or loved ones again. Those too weak to work were taken to the gas chambers where they were made to strip off on the pretext of taking a shower. But the shower heads were not connected. Instead, the Nazis made other Jewish prisoners open the gas canisters on the ceiling resulting in Zyclone-B dropping into the air and killing those inside the chamber. The Nazis knew the task of opening the canisters was dangerous so they used their prison labour to do it.
For those selected to work, life was inhumane. They were housed in unheated brick structures and slept in bunks like these. Eight people slept on each bunk. You wanted the top ones because starvation and dehydration and fear and abusive work conditions do disgusting things to the human digestive system. Most lived little more than 2-3 months in the work camps before they died. One young man lived just 6 weeks, dying one day after his 17th birthday. He probably wouldn’t even have known the date. Photos of the skinny prisoners with hollow eyes adorn a part of the museum. The dates and faces speak for themselves. Those who lived longer would have been the Jews the Nazis used to do their dirty work. A hell I doubt any of us would want to be in any more than they did.
At this memorial plaques in 24 languages pray that humans never forget and never repeat this depravity.
As our three hour tour with the educator comes to an end I cannot help but feel grateful to be able to exit through these gates. Over 1.4 million people entered the camp and almost all of them died there. That’s just this one Auschwitz camp complex. Multiply that by all the concentration and death camps the Nazis established and the thought becomes overwhelming.
I strongly believe that every person needs to visit a place like this at least once in their life. As our educator said, those who survived the camps are now elderly people. Their times will soon pass and it will be up to the next generations to keep alive these stories so we never again allow our governments to act in secret when it comes to the treatment of humans. Because it was secrecy that allowed these camps to be created and secrecy that kept the going. Let us never forget our history so that we are never tempted to repeat it.