Oswiecim. Translation: Auschwitz.
I know what you’re thinking. Why would anyone want to visit a Nazi Extermination Camp and witness the horrors and remnants of a cold, calculated plan that can only be described as pure evil? The sheer magnitude of it all, even viewed from a distance in our books, computer screens, and televisions, is enough to move one to tears. Why would anyone want to see it in person and stand in the desperate footsteps of all those who faced unfathomable suffering and ultimately perished? Why would anyone choose to walk the haunted grounds where the world turned a blind eye, and an estimated 1.1 million people were cruelly tortured and systematically murdered in one of the most notorious examples of genocide?
Because we should never forget.
We have an obligation to all those who entered through those metal gates and exited only when they took their last breaths, an obligation to all those who survived the horrors of Auschwitz and were forever traumatized by their experiences. We should never forget what hatred and evil are capable of doing to society, to mankind, and to innocent men,women, and children. We should never forget what blatant lies humans are capable of believing, and what those fabrications can lead to. We should never forget how dangerously simple it is for those in power to manipulative and brainwash an entire country through the incitement of fear and spread of propaganda. And we should never forget the victims – those innocent beings who were ripped from their homes, their families, their lives, and suffered at the hands of oppression, hatred, and ignorance. They may be gone, but their story remains very much alive and we owe it to them to be their voice.
January 27th is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. While this date previously had no significance in the Jewish calendar, it was selected because on January 27th, 1945, the Soviets liberated Auschwitz. This year marks the 74th anniversary of the camp’s liberation. As the war began to turn and the Soviets advanced on Krakow, the SS sent the majority of the prisoners at Auschwitz on a Death March to other concentration camps farther west. (You can read about the Death March in vivid detail in Eli Weisel’s novel “Night”.) The liberators arrived to find a somewhat empty camp, with only the sickest prisoners who unable to make the journey. Their ghastly discovery, would shock the entire world. Side note: We learned an interesting fact from our tour guide. The photos you see of the liberation of Auschwitz were actually staged several weeks later. The liberators did not have cameras with them, and the immediate priority was taking care of the 7,000 gravely ill and dying prisoners. Despite the efforts of the Soviets, combined with help from the Red Cross and Polish citizens, about half of the prisoners were in such bad shape they died in the days after liberation.
Walking around the camp, we learned a lot from our guide about the camp’s beginnings and how it’s function and purpose evolved. When the Nazis began construction on Auschwitz, they invaded the town of Oswiecim, forcing the Poles to relocate. By taking over the town and surrounding villages, the Germans essentially secured a perimeter around the camp, to ensure no one knew what they were doing. Auschwitz and it’s subcamps (Birkenau, Monowitz, and Buna) served multiple purposes for the Nazis. What began as a concentration camp for political prisoners (anyone who spoke out against the Third Reich and Nazi occupation of Europe), evolved into a concentration camp, forced labor camp, and extermination site for Jews, political prisoners, Soviets, gypsies, and others that the Nazis deemed “undesirable”. The Soviet POWs were actually the first victims of Zyklon B, the poison gas that later became synonymous with Nazi genocide. The first attempt at killing prisoners by gas, involved around 30 Soviet prisoners in the summer of 1941. At that time, there were no gas chambers so a room in the infamous Block 11 (the building used for torture) was used. On September 3, 1941, the Nazis experimented with their first mass killing by poison gas. Around 800 Soviets and Polish prisoners were crammed into cells in Block 11. The next morning, some prisoners were still alive. Ultimately, it took 24 hours to kill all the prisoners, so no doubt they suffered the entire time. This experiment is where it all started – the eventual mass extermination of hundreds of thousands of innocent Jews. Eventually, Auschwitz grew into a multipurpose camp with over 50 acres and more than 150 buildings, where prisoners were forced to work, starved, tortured, and ultimately, killed. In all, 1.1 million people were cruelly murdered by the Nazis at Auschwitz.
Upon arrival at Auschwitz, prisoners were issued a number which was tattooed on their arm; this was unique to Auschwitz as no other camp tattooed the prisoners. Your number became your name, the only thing you were called by the guards. The official language of the camp was German, regardless of where the prisoners were from; our tour guide explained speaking a language other than German was considered a punishable offense. As we walked along seemingly endless brick buildings, we heard stories about the camp and the inhumane conditions. Prisoners were separated by gender, ripped from their families. Many would never see their siblings or parents again. The barracks were overcrowded and unsanitary. In Birkenau there was no running water. Barracks were filled with rodents, bedbugs, and other pests. Prisoners shared their wooden bed with several others. Disease was widespread and it was common to wake up and find the person next to you was dead. The wake up call was as early as 4:30 am, and forced labor was physical and demanding, with many prisoners walking to the German chemical company I.G. Farben, to be used as free laborers. Often, prisoners worked more than 12 hours a day, 6-7 days a week, while surviving on daily rations as little as 400 calories a day. They were quite literally starved and worked to death. If a prisoner died at work, the other prisoners were responsible for carrying the dead body on the long walk back to the camp, because everyone needed to be accountable at roll call. Our guide explained that roll call was taken every morning and evening. Everyone needed to be accounted for and if there was a discrepancy, prisoners stood for hours in the elements. For every one that was missing or unaccounted for, multiple others were killed. Diseases like dysentery, tuberculous, and typhus were widespread in the camp and killed many. The odds were stacked against everyone who entered those gates. If you survived the selection process, you would likely die a slower, more painful death at the hands of the Nazis. If you knew a trade or had a special skill or talent, you were more likely to survive, particularly if you worked a job inside. The average survival rate at the camp was 2 months, less if you arrived during the harsh winter months; to the Nazis, there was point in keeping their laborers alive and healthy. Another train was always coming. Free human labor was replaceable, and seemingly endless.
As the war went on, the killings accelerated. Instead of using Jews as laborers, the Nazis shifted their goal to the elimination of the Jews. With the success of Zyklon B, the Nazis created gas chambers for mass extermination of Jews and others they considered undesirable. By the spring of 1943, four large gas chambers and a crematoria were in operation at Auschwitz. When trains arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau, prisoners faced a selection process. SS doctors, including the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele, would look at the prisoners and “select” them for either immediate death, or work, by pointing. To the right, meant registering as a camp prisoner to be used for labor. To the left, the gas chambers. Those headed to the gas chambers (typically the young, old, sick, and mothers) were told they were being sent for a shower. The Nazis did not want to create chaos. When young children were sent to the left, their mothers were always sent with them, even if they were healthy enough to work. Twins, dwarves, and people with congenital defects were sent to the right and became subjects in Dr. Mengele’s horrific experiments. When visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau, there is an exhibit of pictures that document the selection process. You can see the faces of Hungarian Jews being sent to the left, though they did not realize they were walking towards the gas chambers, and ultimately, death. The Nazis tried to destroy most of the evidence, but prisoners were able to save some of the records and pictures after the Nazis evacuated Auschwitz. It is estimated that 80% of the Jews who stepped off the train were sent straight to the gas chambers. Therefore, there are no records on these people as they were never registered as camp prisoners. Many of their families never knew what happened to them, and could only infer they were gassed, as they were never seen again.
The stories and facts provided by our tour guide were beyond unfathomable, and left me wondering how this could happen, especially when you think of the little children. We learned about the horrific experiments on children and women. Dr. Mengele was nicknamed the “Angel of Death”. He would send prisoners to their deaths, perform cruel and painful experiments on his subjects, but then would be kind to children and give them a ride in his car, all before killing them. Mengele was particularly interested in experiments on twins. Some of his experiments involved trying to change brown eyes to blue, performing blood transfusions on twins, surgery without anesthesia, and even removing limbs. Perhaps the most unsettling story we heard involved a set of gypsy twins. Dr. Mengele notoriously attempted to create Siamese twins by sewing them together, back to back, in an attempt to join them by their blood vessels and organs; they both died a few days later. As a result of Mengele’s crude medical experiments, many died, and their bodies were used for dissection. When one twin died, the other was killed as there was no use for them anymore. The sheer enormity of the Nazi’s disregard for human life is utterly indescribable.
Torture was not limited to the medical experiments in Block 10. As if enslavement, starvation, separation from families, and the threat of the gas chambers wasn’t enough, the Nazis were always creating new ways to torture prisoners. Punishments were often handed out to the entire group, as a result of the supposed wrong doing of one. A common group punishment was to have the prisoners stand in the courtyard in the cold and rain the entire night, in only their striped pajamas. Those still alive in the morning were sent to work. Beatings, executions, and public hangings were also common punishments. The Nazis elevated their levels of cruelty with the torture cells in the basement of Block 11. Our tour guide shared horrific stories about suffocation an starvation cells, as well as a standing cell. The standing cell consisted of an extremely small space, in which one would crawl through a narrow opening on the ground to get in. Up to four prisoners would be forced in this small space with no light. There was not enough room to sit down; prisoners were forced to stand all night (after weeks or months of working 12 or more hour days with little food). If they survived, they would be sent to work for the day and back to the standing cell at night. This cycle would repeat until the prisoner died. The despair and agony still linger in air at Auschwitz. Hearing the awful of fate of so many and witnessing where these despicable acts took place will forever haunt me. To this day I am still absorbing all that we saw and heard. While clearly a departure from our typical travel excursions, this powerful experience is one I will never forget.
Tips for Visiting Auschwitz
Visiting Auschwitz is an emotional and surreal experience. It may not seem like an ideal tourist destination, but if you find yourself in Krakow, its a must do. You can take the train to Oswiecim, but it’s easier to book a tour. We booked a half day tour from Krakow, and it was reasonably priced. There are many sites that book tours, we used Discover Cracow for all our tours and we were happy with them. Our half day tour included transportation to and from Krakow, a guided tour of the camp (both Auschwitz and Birkenau). I recommend going with a guide, ours did a wonderful job of explaining everything and keeping the tour moving. I’m sure we didn’t see everything, but we certainly saw enough. A full day tour would’ve been too intense for me. Keep in mind as you plan your visit how you feel. There are combo tours to see Auschwitz and the Salt Mines in one day, but for many the emotions felt touring Auschwitz will linger and heading to another tour immediately after may not be the best idea. Also, if you are prone to motion sickness, bring a dramamine. The roads were a little windy, and perhaps it was our driver, but several people in our van (myself included) felt sick. If you are flexible and still in the planning stages of your trip to Poland, consider going during the off season or winter. The camp (and other tourist sites in Krakow) were fairly empty in December compared to the huge crowds during summer. And bonus – Krakow has a beautiful Christmas market in December! Since you will be at the camp for several hours, bring change (Polish currency is zlotys) as all the restrooms at the camp require you to pay.
One last tip: decorum. You are touring a place where over one million people suffered and died. You are essentially visiting a mass grave site. I was disgusted by a woman who was posing for multiple photos on the train tracks at Birkenau, as if she were a model in a photo shoot on the Amalfi Coast. A death camp is not the appropriate venue for selfies. It is a place for reflection and remembering. Don’t be like that insensitive, self absorbed woman. (Actually, don’t do it in places like the Amalfi Coast either, because it’s so annoying and unnecessary).