“The one who does not remember history is bound to live through
it again.” — George Santayana. This quote confronts all visitors at
the entrance to Block 4 in Auschwitz.
Today we spent the day in what was Konzentration Lager (KL) Auschwitz.
Auschwitz was not one camp but was a complex of three primary sites:
Auschwitz I was the administrative center and concentration camp for
primarily Polish prisoners, Auschwitz-Birkenau (Auschwitz II) was the death
camp, and Buna (Auschwitz III) was for manufacturing and testing facilities,
which also had dozens of labor subcamps.
We met our guide, Wojciech, who would take us through Auschwitz
I which now serves as the museum. Wojciech had been our guide before
and we had been very impressed with both his knowledge and his
style of interacting with us, and answering questions, so we were very
pleased. We started under the iconic sign, present in many camps,
which we had seen in Terezin (Theresienstadt): Arbeit Macht Frei.
There, Wojciech gave us the history of the camp. Built in the town
of Oswiecim, Auschwitz is the Germanization of the name of the town.
It was established by the Nazis in 1940 and was in use until the Allied
liberation in 1945.
As we stood outside the gate we could see many of the 28 brick buildings
identified by Block numbers which made up Auschwitz I. Before
passing through the gate, Wojciech showed us a drawing which depicted
an orchestra playing as inmates marched out the gate. He informed us
that many in the orchestra also worked in the kitchen which was a long
building located to the right of the gate. There they were safe
from most of the difficult jobs – they often had access to or were able
to “organize” [euphemism for ‘steal’] some extra food, and were also
protected from the weather extremes, and so their chances of survival were
better than those who had to labor outside. The living conditions in the
concentration camp were severe— hard work, starvation, disease and brutal
treatment — so that the average time between one’s arrival in
Auschwitz I and his death due to one of these factors, was about 2 months.
In 1941, Himmler ordered the enlargement of the camp and
Auschwitz-Birkenau was established . In 1942 after the Wannsee
Conference this camp starts to function as a death camp. 90% of the
victims in the camp are no longer prisoners, but are taken directly
from the trains to the gas chambers. In 1942, there are estimated to
have been 11 million Jews in Europe, primarily Central Europe:
5 million in the Soviet Union, 3.5 million in Poland and 850,000 in
Hungary. There were 6 death camps, all located in Poland:
Auschwitz was the largest and the only one still functioning towards
the end of the war. The others are Belzec, Treblinka, Chelmno, Sobibor,
and Maidanek. An estimated 1.3 million people were murdered in
Auschwitz, a compromise between the low estimate of 1.1 million and the
high of 1.5 million. An urn with a small amount of human ash in
Block 4 symbolizes the loss of all these lives.
As we climbed the stairs to the second floor of Block 4, we were
shown a large model of a gas chamber which we would see this
afternoon in Birkenau and which showed the three phases of its
operation. First, there was the disrobing room where people were
told to remove their clothes. They were often told to remember
the number on which they put their clothes, or make sure to tie
their shoes together, some were even given a piece of soap – all in
the name of deception. A gas chamber could hold 1,500 people at
a time.The second phase was to have two Zyklon B pellets dropped
through the vents in the roof. The Zyklon B pellets alone were
harmless, and had been used in delousing, but when dropped into
water created a deadly hydrogen cyanide. In 20 minutes, all the
people would be dead and the room would be ventilated which
required half an hour. The third phase required Jewish prisoners
in a special unit called the Sonderkommando to remove the bodies,
shave the hair and remove any gold teeth from the corpses, and
then burn the bodies in the underground crematorium. The average
length of time one served in the Sonderkommando before being killed
himself, was 3-4 months. About 80 Sonderkommando survived the
war and were able to provide testimony.
In Block 5 were belongings brought by victims to Auschwitz which were confiscated by the SS and found after liberation. Separate rooms containing shoes, artificial limbs and crutches, eyeglasses, prayer shawls, shaving kits, household cooking items like can openers and cheese graters, baby clothes, and carefully labeled suitcases which carried these things provide physical evidence of the existence of so many victims as well as giving us some insight into what they might have thought was their destination. A large room with a wall-to-wall display case of two thousand pounds of human hair was particularly moving for our group. This hair was sold to German textile manufacturers for production of army uniforms or gloves and socks for railroad workers.
Leaving Block 5, Wojciech took us next to Block 7 which showed us the living quarters of the prisoners in Auschwitz. Walking through the hall of the building which had photographs of the predominantly Polish prisoners, women on the left and men on the right, with their name, prisoner number, nationality, date deported to Auschwitz and date of death. We were told that the average life expectancy of a prisoner in Auschwitz I was 2-3 months because of the harsh conditions and the pictures bore this out. These photographs were taken as a part of the processing into the camp, most by Wilhelm Brasse, himself a prisoner. He spoke fluent German and was a photographer before the war. This made him useful to the Nazis who wanted good photographs of the prisoners as well as someone to take pictures at their private SS parties and of the experimental surgeries. In this manner he was able to survive the war. Wojciech told us that it was traditional for a moment of silence to be observed at Jewish burial in memory of the departed. If that we’re to be done for each person whose photograph hung in the corridors of Block 7, it would require 8 hours. If this same moment of silence was to be observed for each of the 1.1 million victims of Auschwitz, it would take two and a half years.
We next visited Block 11 which served as the prison for the camp. One of the things that concerned the Nazis was the threat of escape. This was not a major problem as of the 400,000 prisoners, less than 700 tried to escape and less than 200 succeeded. The Nazis used the principle of collective responsibility to discourage escapes. If you escaped, twenty prisoners might be executed or your family might be arrested and taken to Auschwitz. We were shown the three types of punishment cells: dark cell, starvation cell and the standing cell in which three or four people could be forced to stand for days at a time. Punishment might be 3-4 days in one of these cells for smoking a cigarette or 10 or more days for sabotage. Time in a punishment cell could be a death sentence. After viewing the execution wall between Blocks 10 and 11, where tens of thousands of prisoners were lined up naked and shot, we walked to the crematorium of the camp which was used to cremate the bodies of people who perished in the camp and also viewed the home of the camp commandant Rudolph Hoss and the gallows where he was hanged for his war crimes.
After a brief bag lunch, we drove to Auschwitz-Birkenau where Shalmi spent the afternoon showing us the death camp. He talked about how the camp had changed in the spring of 1944 when the Nazis expected 1 million Hungarian Jews to be transported here. It was then that they added the rail line coming into the camp preparing for the influx.
Shalmi took us through the quarantine barracks where Jews, toward the end of the war, were taken into Germany for forced labor. Germany desperately needed labor and the Nazi leadership was able to convince Hitler to postpone killing some Jews who could supply that labor. They were first brought here and kept in quarantine in miserable conditions of overcrowding and little food, but after three days if there was no sign of disease they were put on another train to Germany. In the barracks had recently been placed a stone with writing in Hebrew. Shalmi read it: “It’s not one but many who tried to kill us; but God saved us.”
We also saw the Czech family camp which Shalmi had spoken to us about in Terezin. The Czech Jews had been transported to Auschwitz to reduce the overcrowding prior to the Red Cross visit as part of the beautification project. Once the visit had occurred, however, the Czech camp was liquidated and all of its inmates sent to the gas chambers. Again, Shalmi reminded us that the last thing the Czech Jews did before entering the gas chamber, was to sing the Czech national anthem.
We also learned of the existence of two other camps: the Mengele Twin Camp and the Gypsy camp.
Next Shalmi spoke of the importance of ‘The Ramp’ where the selection process was made determining whether one was to live or die. He told us several emotional, heart-wrenching stories survivors have shared about their experiences on the ramp. We saw the remains of the crematoria, the ‘sauna’ which served as the building where those who had been chosen to live were processed (uniforms, tattooed, shaved) and the remains of the warehouses called Canada which were massive storage buildings which housed confiscated Jewish property.
We sat for a short while under some trees to reflect upon what we had seen
and heard today and then walked back along the path, passing through the
iconic gate of Auschwitz to head to our final stop on our tour, Krakow.
Standing where the SS officers stood, where they selected millions of victims was quite overwhelming. I could not understand how anyone could determine the fate of others. Hearing stories of how mothers were so conflicted on whether or not to walk straight to the gas chambers with their small child or to walk to the left to the woman’s barracks without their child was extremely heartbreaking.
What struck me at Auschwitz was that the physical place was inconspicuous and even pretty; there was nothing inherently evil or horrific about it. For someone who did not know what it was there is little to suggest the atrocities that took place there. The dehumanization, degradation, torture and mass murder came from the people and the capabilities of man to create this evil is what we must remember.
I began to feel sick after the testimony that Mr. Barmore shared with us about the boy who was separated from his father during the selection process. I felt as though I can see the father being ushered into the work camp as the boy and his grandmother are walked toward the gas chamber. This process and natural human experience of regret and fear demonstrate the evil nature of the death factory.
Viewing the places where people were dehumanized, tortured and killed was the most horrifying aspect of our visit to Auschwitz. The stories we heard about both the victims and perpetrators were difficult to digest while standing in the places where they occurred.
I did not realize how large Auschwitz was. Walking around the grounds brought about much sadness in me. All the lives lost; so many lives lost; the innocence lost; how could one place be so destructive?
What had an impact on me at Auschwitz was seeing its effect on others in our group. It absolutely boggles my mind that I know people who have lost relatives in the Holocaust because my life, my history- the history of people I know- always seem from separate from textbooks.
When touring Auschwitz today I became very emotional. When I witnessed the walls displaying pictures of Jewish families I truly realized that the people in the camps were no different than my family. We both celebrate birthdays, weddings and other special occasions. We both have loved ones and we boy cherish our lives. It is unbelievable to me that anyone could take those precious moments away from such innocent people.
Auschwitz itself was a lot to grasp. When walking through it what really shook me up was when Mr. Barmore shared stories about people knew who had been in Auschwitz. The story that hit me the most was when the boy told his mom he wished she would die and then she was separated from him in the line to the gas chambers.
Kelly M. says…
Today in Auschwitz I felt my emotions come through stronger than ever. When I saw the pictures of the victims on the wall, I saw two pictures of men with the same last name, presumably brothers. I noticed that they died 7 months apart, and I could not imagine being without my sister for 7 months in a place such as Auschwitz.
I have never felt worse in my life, then how I felt at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Upon seeing the photos and quotes on how the first to die were children, I could not do anything but cry. Never have I been to a location were the presence of evil emanated so literally.
Standing on the ramp at Birkenau and listening to Shalmi tell stories of victims of the Holocaust, left a feeling of sadness. To hear personal stories of families being separated in this exact spot was heart wrenching.
Nazi ideology, bystanders, perpetrators, victims, Final Solution, were all pieces of the Holocaust. This can be written down on paper, looked at and studied. But in Auschwitz-Birkenau, it made no sense, none of it made any sense.
In Mrs. Sussman’s Holocaust class we read “This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen,” by Tadeusc Barowski which described life for prisoners who were members of Canada. Today we saw pictures of men who had to take peoples last possessions before being sent to their deaths. Seeing real but stoic images of people who seemed to have the best job in the camp gave a more positive impression than Barowski’s description of the type of person he became to gladly send thousands of people to their deaths for a chance to steal their food.
It’s difficult to fathom what people will do for their personal benefit. Europeans first accepted Jews only to improve commerce and trade. In the Holocaust, everything the Jews had left including their hair, prosthetic limbs and luggage was taken and sold to benefit the Germans. Jews were only seen as objects to manipulate for personal gain.
There are no words to describe the things we experienced today. We were able to see where millions of people experienced the cruelest treatment by human beings breathing the air, walking on the pavement and seeing the scenery left me unsettled.
Today we went to Auschwitz and it was very emotional. Seeing the hair of the deceased was very upsetting to see and I was in shocked that the Nazis utilized the hair to make blankets and uniforms. This really demonstrated to me the process of dehumanization that the victims went through.
Today I found it very hard to fathom the horrific, inhuman, and unjustifiable crimes that took place in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Walking down the same path that millions of others had been directed down, carrying both their belongings and emotions, I could not help but realize how different it was now from then. A a result, it was hard to imagine what actually transpired where I stood. I struggled with these feelings throughout the day and found my breaking point to be in the room full of women’s hair and I felt with the question of why life was so cruel to these innocent people?
The biggest surprise for me today was the fact that I did not know what to expect. I felt that there was this immeasurable amount of emotion that continued to follow me because the sites that we aw today were nothing like I ever pictured before. The Holocaust came together for me today, but yet left me struggling for answers.
As we walked around Auschwitz and Birkenau I felt my legs grow heavy and my stomach drop. From the room filled with hair to Mr. Barmore telling us heart-wrenching stories of families being separated on the ramp, I felt everyone was holding back tears. It is hard to believe that people were forced to live in such conditions.
Today was both physically and emotionally moving; just being where over a million people were sentenced to death. Seeing the whole camp made me depressed, not for the fact that I was there, but for those who were there before. I was emotionally drained seeing the tracks, gas chambers, and crematoria.
Actually being at Auschwitz-Birkenau was overwhelming. Standing where the mass murder of innocent lives occurred revealed a harsh reality. I felt pain and sorrow for the Holocaust victims.
Kelly B. says…
Walking through Auschwtiz-Birkenau today, it was heartbreaking to think about all the lives that were lost there. What really struck me was that most of the people murdered there were convinced that they would be leaving and returning to their lives with their families. The false hope that they were given was cruel and left a lasting impression on me.
Today when we were standing at the selection site at Birkenau, Shalmi told us three stories about peoples personal experiences at the selection site. For me, I started thinking about my family and how I connected to that site. I knew that I was standing in that exact place millions had their fate decided for them.