Poland: Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp

Whilst visiting Krakow I went on a day trip to the nearby Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps the scene of the largest organised genocide in history. Over 1.1 million people were killed in these camps most of whom were Jewish.

There were three camps. Auschwitz (sometimes know as Auschwitz I) was built in 1940. The Birkenau camp (sometimes known as Auschwitz II) was built in 1941 and was much larger than the first with over 300 buildings. The main aim of this second camp was to act as an extermination base for Jewish prisoners as part of the Final Solution of the Jewish question. Monowitz (Auschwitz III) was a labour camp manufacturing chemicals for the IG Farben. There is still a chemical factory close by this site today.

Although I had seen this camp many times on TV and read all about what went on there in the past I found it very hard to take in. We were not allowed to take pictures inside the buildings as a mark of respect to the people who died there – although this didn’t stop a lot of people. One of the most shocking displays is a room with a huge pile of human hair which was shaved from the heads of prisoners after they had been killed in the gas chamber. The 2.5 tonnes of hair was from around 40,000 people and was sold on to stuff pillows and for other uses. Another room has another huge display of children’s shoes which is was also truly shocking.

The courtyards between blocks were sometimes used for exercise and sometimes as a place to torture and to execute prisoners. Some of the blocks had windows boarded up so the prisoners couldn’t see what was going on but it can’t have been too hard to imagine.

Going into one of the gas chambers gives you some idea of how the prisoners were crammed in into a tiny space before they are killed. You are shown the rooms where they were told to remove their clothes and the corridors are lined with pictures taken by the Nazis of some of the prisoners. All the latest mass production techniques of the time were utilised but for extermination rather than manufacturing. I had rather naively imagined a small group of the Nazi hierarchy sitting around making decisions about the holocaust but the size and complexity of these camps shows that there were thousands of people involved.

The entrance to the much larger Birkenau camp above (sometimes called Auschwitz II) which was largely destroyed by fleeing Nazi soldiers who knew the war was lost and were eager to cover up evidence of what had happened there. This entrance is somewhat a symbol of Auschwitz and from the top of the tower you get a really good idea of how huge the Birkenau camp was.

The train entered through the main gate and the tracks took the train deep into the camp before stopping between gas chambers either side. After the selection process many of the passengers from the trains were marched directly into the gas chambers after being told that they were being sent for a shower. The Nazis saw these tracks as much more ‘efficient’ then having to march their victims from the trains to the gas chambers as they did in Auschwitz I. They were told to leave their possessions on the platform and they would be brought on later. The Nazis grew flowers beds outside the gas chambers to make them look more welcoming for new arrivals.

This is an accommodation hut at the Birkenau camp. Inside there are rows of bunk beds stacked three high with as many three or four prisoners sleeping in each one.

James Mullarkey

I write about the web and digital, mediocre sporting performances and places I've been, for this blog and only this blog.