After invading Poland, Nazi forces took over the Polish army barracks in Oswiecim, turning it into a prison and renaming the city Auschwitz. In 1942, it was converted into a concentration camp, and along with the purposely built Birkenau camp nearby, became the sites of the largest number of deaths during the holocaust. By the time the camps were liberated by Soviet troops in January 1945, over a million Jews and a hundred thousand other people had been systematically killed. Two years after the war, the Polish government decided not to raze the camps, instead keeping them open as museums for future generations to witness the atrocities committed.
It was crowded when I arrived in the morning; tours were being offered in many languages. The English group was the largest, but felt much smaller because each of us were given headsets to listen to our guide speak softly into her microphone. She took us through the grounds and several buildings that described the camps history.
The first camp, known as Auschwitz I, had a sign over the main gate reading “Arbeit Macht Frei” work brings freedom – deceiving the prisoners as they arrived. Prisoners never left, instead remaining at the camp until they died of overwork, malnutrition, or summary execution.
Initial inmates had pictures in three poses taken: facing the camera, looking to the side, and off at an angle. Because of the large number of deaths and difficulty identifying bodies, Nazis eventually scrapped taking pictures and instead tattooed all inmates – no other death camp did so.
Each day, the entire prison was emptied for roll call where inmates were sometimes required to stand for hours. During the winter, poorly dressed prisoners often succumbed to frostbite or hypothermia. A few pictures showed children who had lost limbs due to exposure. Even though I was there in October it was already very cold – even with three layers on, without gloves I found it hard to tie my shoes.
Auschwitz eventually became the central death camp used in the holocaust, with Jews sent in from all over Europe. None thought they were being sent to be killed, instead bringing personal belongings with some even being tricked into purchasing their tickets.
One of the buildings just displayed personal items found when the camp was liberated. Suitcases were meticulously labeled with each owner’s name and address.
One display showed a stack of eyeglasses…
…another had shoes.
Bags and bags of human hair were left behind, shaved from women’s heads for various purposes. These were emptied and displayed in a huge stack that filled a room. This was one of the few areas in camps where photos were not allowed – our guide said out of respect for the dead.
The first gas chamber was built at Auschwitz 1. This chamber was the prototype for the larger ones at Birkenau.
Nazis experimented with different gases before choosing the pesticide Zyklon B, which killed in twenty minutes.
After our guide took us through Auschwitz 1, we boarded a bus to take us the two miles to Birkenau, or Auschwitz 2. Here is where the vast majority of killings were done. The camp was huge, with rows after rows of buildings, brick on one side, wood on another. Train tracks led directly in, and 75% of Jews arriving were separated by gender and sent to the gas chambers disguised as showers.
As the war was ending, fleeing SS soldiers attempted to hide their tracks, destroying the gas chambers and cremation pits, and removing as many prisoners as possible to Germany. A few thousand prisoners were found alive. Eventually only about 10% of SS soldiers who worked at the camps were put on trial.
The end of the train tracks leads to a memorial in each of the different languages of those killed stating: “For ever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity where the Nazis murdered about one and half million men, women, and children, mainly Jews from the countries of Europe.”