Day 12 – Auschwitz-Birkenau

Early at 7:00 a.m. we grabbed breakfast bags which had been made for us by the hotel and set off for the Polish town of Oswięcim.  The city was located on a major train track between East and West.  Shalmi reminded us that one of the reasons why the Holocaust was considered modern murder was the use of technology and one of the most important aspects was transportation.   The Nazis decided it was easier and more efficient to transport victims to the factories of death, rather than kill them on location.  Here in the outskirts of Oswięcim, the Nazis would establish Konzentration Lager [KL] Auschwitz.  Auschwitz was not one camp but was a complex of three primary sites:  Auscwhitz 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 sub-camps.  “How do we explain man’s behavior here? “ Shalmi asked.  “A factory which produces death.  So far we have been unable to come up with definitive answers.  As long as we don’t know why; none of us can say we couldn’t or wouldn’t do this, which is in itself a warning.”


Wojciech, who has guided us through Auschwitz I multiple times and who we always request, was guiding another group from Sweden today, so we were pleased to have been assigned his wife, Agnieszka [Agi] to take us through the camp.  We got our headsets and set out with Agi into the cold and very windy weather.  The first thing she said was that she did not consider herself a guide.  “Only those who came here and survived this place, can guide,” she said.  “I consider myself a story teller.”
We started under the iconic sign:  Arbeit Macht Frei.  There, she 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.  The camp has 28 brick buildings, called Blocks, which served as barracks.  The camp is 200 meters long by 300 meters wide.  There were 700-1000 people housed in each building.  The capacity of Auschwitz was 20,000 inmates.   Agi asked what the sign, Arbeit Macht Frei meant and when students answered “Work makes you free” she noted that for her, there was an irony because the harder you worked the faster you died, so for her, ‘Work was the way to Death’. 



The living conditions in the 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 was about 2 months. Agi showed us the kitchen which was a long building located to the right of the gate.  If you were lucky, you had a job in the kitchen where they were safe from most of the difficult jobs –  they often had access to 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. 
Agi said that the exhibits we would be seeing in the first blocks were created by survivors of Auschwitz in 1956 so we would be seeing what they wanted us to see.  We started with Block 4 and a quote at the entrance:  “The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again.” — George Santayana.    








In  1941, after the invasion of the Soviet Union,  Heinrich Himmler ordered the enlargement of the camp and Auschwitz-Birkenau was established.  There another 300 buildings were constructed for an additional 90,000 prisoners.  In 1942 after the Wannsee Conference this camp starts to function as a death camp.  Agi showed us a map of the European cities which transported Jews to Auschwitz and a plaque with the numbers of victims.  In the 5 years of the operation of the camp, an estimated 1.3 million came and 1.1 million were murdered.  90 % of the victims were Jewish and most of them never saw the sign, Arbeit Macht Frei as they were taken straight to Auschwitz-Birkenau and executed.  An urn with a small amount of human ash in Block 4 symbolizes the lost of all these lives. 
We were shown glass cases in which were documentary evidence of the Nazi processing of
Prisoners, lists of countries from which Jews came (Hungary was the largest group, Norway the smallest), pictures of the selection at the ramp in Auschwitz-Birkenau as Nazis determined who would live and who would die.
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 disrobe.  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 exhibited the ‘evidence of crimes’:  belongings brought by victims to Auschwitz, confiscated by the SS and found after liberation.  Separate rooms containing shoes, eyeglasses, prayer shawls, shaving kits, household cooking items, baby clothes, and other items which had been packed in the labeled suitcases they packed.  These provided physical evidence of the existence of so many victims as well as some insight into what they might have thought was their destination.  Agi said that the shoe polish, to her, was an indication that they had no clue what was going to happen, but were focused on tomorrow, not knowing there would be no tomorrow.  A large room with a wall-to-wall display case of human hair was especially moving.  When the Soviet army liberated Auschwitz they  found 7 tons of women’s hair in warehouses from 40,000 women who had been killed; the only remaining trace of them.  The hair was sold to textile manufacturers for production of army uniforms or gloves and socks for railroad workers.





In Block 11,  we saw accommodations for prisoners who were to be interrogated and/or punished.  Downstairs we saw 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 3-5 days in one of these cells for a minor infraction of a camp rule or 2 weeks for sabotage.   One of the crimes was smoking in camp which would give a prisoner 5 days in a standing cell.  Smoking meant the prisoner had access to the outside world and was able to smuggle in contraband.   We were told that if one person escaped from Auschwitz, that 10 other prisoners would be brought to one of these cells and punished.  Agi said that 147 people successfully escaped from Auschwitz which meant that over 1400 people  were taken to Block 11 and starved.  Time in a punishment cell could be a death sentence.   We viewed the execution wall, called the Wall of Death, between Blocks 10 and 11, where tens of thousands of prisoners were lined up naked and shot once in the back of the head. 








We next walked to Block 27.  Agi reminded us that all we had seen had been created by Holocaust survivors in the 1950’s.  She told us that since that time many nations such as the Netherlands and Hungary, had created special exhibits in other barracks buildings.  Three years ago, the State of Israel sponsored such an exhibit designed by Yad Vashem, in Block 27.  The exhibit began with a quote from the diary of  Zalman Gradowski, a member of the Sondercommando.  He had kept a diary during  his time in Auschwitz and before his death, had buried his diary in the courtyard of Block 3, which was later found.   His quote said “Come here you free citizen of the world, whose life is safeguarded by human morality and whose existence is guaranteed through law.  I want to tell you how much modern criminals and despicable murderers have trampled the morality of life and nullified the postulates of existence.”
The exhibition included a large room with photographs and videos of European Jews pre-war.  There were 11 million Jewish people in Europe.  11 million Jewish people were to be murdered, no matter where they lived or how they lived.  In another room were large monitors with speeches by Nazi leaders.  In one speech in 1939 Hitler states that the enemy of Germany, which must be totally annihilated is the Jew.  He openly states his intent to kill all the Jews.  This was 8 months before the war and 3 years before the Wannsee Conference.  There was a room with video testimony of survivors: “How Jews Coped During the Holocaust” and a room “Traces of Life” dedicated to the 1.5 million children murdered in the Holocaust which has small drawings made by children in Terezin. 
The highlight and last room of the exhibit was called the Book of Names.  In a long room, a book as big as the room, fills two sides of 16,000 pages, listing the names and some information such as place of birth and birthdate, place and date of death, if these were known, of more than four million documented Jewish victims of the Holocaust.  Students spent some time looking through the pages, some looking for their own name, or the name of someone they knew.











Our last stop in Auschwitz I was the crematorium of the camp.  There we saw the home of the camp commandant Rudolf Hoss and the gallows where he was hanged for his war crimes on April 16, 1947.  The gallows was used once — for his execution.  We then walked through the crematorium which was used to cremate the bodies of people who had perished in the camp.





After a brief bag lunch on the bus as it was still cold and windy, we drove the short distance to Auschwitz-Birkenau where Shami spent three hours showing us the death camp.  He talked about how the camp had changed in the spring of 1944 when the Nazis expected one million Hungarian Jews to be transported here.  It was then that they added the rail spur coming into the camp, preparing for the influx of prisoners.


We visited the quarantine barracks   Towards the end of the war, Germany needed more workers as they sent more men and young boys to the front.  Jewish workers were shipped into Germany to fulfill that need.  The problem was that these Jews coming from camps were poorly nourished and could have diseases and secondly, they were Jews:  according to Nazi racial ideology, by definition they were disease.  Germany by now was essentially ‘Judenrein’ [Jew-free] but they were essential to the war effort so they were brought here and housed [no sleeping area –  just an open space at one end and long rows of latrines at the other] for three days until they were declared disease-free and could continue their journey into Germany. 






We also saw the Czech Terezin  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.  




Passing a large pool of water, Shalmi told us it was one of two such pools, required by the Swiss insurance company, Allianz, before it would agree to insure Auschwitz-Birkenau. This factory of death was insured against damage by fire.



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 stories shared with him as he chronicled survivor testimony, in which they described their experiences on The Ramp.  He told us many survivors often speak of their life “before the ramp” and their “life after the ramp.”
We saw the remains of the crematoria which had been destroyed by the Nazis before fleeing.  Shalmi drew our attention to one beam.  The Nazis hired professionals to do their construction. This architect knew he was creating a crematorium.  It wasn’t enough to make straight, simple lines –   he put moldings on the beam to make it more beautiful.  He was concerned with aesthetics as he was making a chamber of death. 






The ‘sauna’ served as the building where those who had been chosen to live were processed (uniforms, tattooed, shaved) and we walked through the processing rooms, and spent some time looking at the photographs displayed which had been found in peoples’ suitcases.  We also viewed the remains of the warehouses called Canada which were massive storage buildings which housed confiscated Jewish property taken at the ramp,








Shalmi had started our visit with some observations about human behavior.  Throughout the day he had made some additional observations.  He had told us of people such as Dora, a woman in charge of the women’s camp who had originally been imprisoned as a communist and could have obtained early release but would not inform on her fellow communists, but then here, became a cold, harsh, unfeeling matron of the camp.  “We should all be afraid of what we can do under certain circumstances”, he said.    “Some people descend to the level of beasts, others rise to the level of angels.  And you ask, ‘Who are those human beings.  Is this a man?’”
 Day 12 Padlet Reflections at


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