The entrance to Auschwitz, Oświęcim, Poland, is marked by the infamous sign “Arbeit Macht Frei” (‘Work Makes You Free’); note that the one photographed is a replica, as the original was stolen in 2009. The lie that detainees were entering a work camp was part of the Nazi deception hiding the fact that the site was the largest death camp in the history of the world.
“For centuries the town of Oświęcim [about an one hour drive southwest of Kraków] was a quiet backwater community, largely bypassed by world events. That changed with WWII when Oświęcim, known as ‘Auschwitz’ under German occupation, became the chosen site of the largest death camp in the Third Reich. Between 1.1 million and 1.5 million people were exterminated here, etching the name of Auschwitz forever into the history books and countless films, documentaries, books and survivor accounts have since burned it into the collective consciousness.” — www.inyourpocket.com/krakow
For many visitors to Kraków, the question they ask themselves is whether or not to visit the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. In designing our trip, we added Kraków (following visits to Budapest, Vienna and Prague) specifically in order to visit Auschwitz. We wanted to pay our respects to several family members who perished at the site. We also wanted a sense of completion in seeing in person the largest of the Nazi killing “factories”, having been “prepared” for our trip through years of visits to Holocaust museums around the world (particularly several visits to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. and Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, Israel), extensive reading and watching a large number of television programs and movies, particularly Schindler’s List (directed by Steven Spielberg).
We were overwhelmed by the enormity of the site(s). It’s one thing to read about several thousand people arriving by train daily (70% of whom were immediately murdered in the gas chambers), but until you walk among the brick buildings and, mostly in Birkenau, the empty fields where the wooden barracks buildings stood during World War II, the numbers are just that – numbers. We had an excellent guide from the Auschwitz Museum (who now mostly trains teachers, including many from Israel) take us through the site and she explained in detail the operation of the death camp. She, along with excellent museum (Państwowe Muzeum Auschwitz – Birkenau) signage outside and inside the many buildings that are open to the public, really brought alive the day-to-day life in the camp for those who were not gassed on arrival. One knows about the proclivity for “man to practice inhumanity on fellow man”. What we were not prepared for was witnessing many sites where the Nazis (particularly the SS guards) were malevolent, brutal and sadistic to those who were not gassed to death immediately upon arrival at the camp. For example, one building’s basement has about 21 brick-walled vertical cells measuring considerably less than two feet by two feet (0.6 m x 0.6 m) where detainees were given solitary confinement – the cells are so small (we entered one…) that an individual cannot squat nor sit down and there was no water nor toilet facilities. We heard the story of one woman who was given three days and nights in a cell for catching one apple that was thrown over the camp’s barbed wire fence by someone from town.
“NEVER FORGET” is a very well-known expression that is particularly important now that there are few living survivors of the Nazi concentration and death camps and they are in their 80s and 90s – against a backdrop of some leaders and segments of the world’s population working to spread the lie that the Holocaust never happened. While at Auschwitz, another visitor expressed a more powerful admonition, “ALWAYS REMEMBER”. And with that, continue ensuring that the true story of the Nazi’s brutal genocide activities before and during World War II continue to be told, especially to children and young adults.
Some of the older, former brick barracks on the site that became Auschwitz, Oświęcim, Poland – established by the Nazis in 1941
“[A] tour of Auschwitz I begins by passing beneath a replica of the infamous ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ (‘Work Makes You Free’) entrance gate. [The original sign was actually made by inmates of the camp on Nazi orders and is no longer on display after it was stolen in December 2009 and found in pieces in northern Poland a few days after the theft.] From the entrance gate, the prescribed tour route leads past the kitchens, where the camp orchestra once played as prisoners marched to work, before starting in earnest inside Block 4. Here an overview of the creation and reality behind the world’s most notorious concentration camp is given, with exhibits including original architectural sketches for gas chambers, tins of Zyklon B used for extermination and mugshots of inmates. Most disturbing is over seven tonnes of human hair once destined for German factories, which does much to demonstrate the scale and depravity of the Nazi death machine.
Text on sign from Auschwitz Museum; Auschwitz, Oświęcim, Poland (#3)
As the Nazis expanded the initial site, wooden barracks (cheaper and faster to construct than brick buildings) were added, Auschwitz, Oświęcim, Poland
Text on sign from Auschwitz Museum; Auschwitz, Oświęcim, Poland (#5)
Luggage (emptied of personal effects that were sorted and “recycled” by the Nazis) from arriving detainees, Auschwitz, Oświęcim, Poland
“Transported to Auschwitz in cattle trucks, newly arrived prisoners were stripped of their personal property, some of which is displayed in Block 5 including mountains of artificial limbs, glasses, labeled suitcases, shaving kits and, most affectingly, children’s shoes. Block 6 examines the daily life of prisoners with collections of photographs, artists’ drawings and tools used for hard labour while the next set of barracks recreates the living conditions endured by prisoners: bare rooms with sackcloth spread out on the floor, and rows of communal latrines, one decorated with a poignant mural depicting two playful kittens.
Text on sign from Auschwitz Museum; Auschwitz, Oświęcim, Poland (#7)
Text on sign from Auschwitz Museum; Auschwitz, Oświęcim, Poland (#8)
If you remove the guard tower and the double barbed-wire fences, the scene could be a leafy college campus – giving no clue to the barbarity, brutality and death that was the “business” of the Nazis at Auschwitz, Oświęcim, Poland
“Block 11, otherwise known as ‘The Death Block’, is arguably the most difficult part of the tour. Outside, the ‘Wall of Death’ – against which thousands of prisoners were shot by the SS – has been turned into a memorial festooned with flowers; it was here that Pope Benedict XVI prayed during his ground-breaking visit in 2006. Within the terrifying, claustrophobic cellars of Block 11 the Nazi’s conducted their experiments with poison gas in 1941 on Soviet prisoners. Here the cell of Father Maksymilian Kolbe, the Polish priest starved to death after offering his life to save another inmate, is marked with a small memorial, and tiny ‘standing cells’ measuring 90 x 90 cm – where up to four prisoners were held for indefinite amounts of time – remain intact.
Text on sign from Auschwitz Museum; Auschwitz, Oświęcim, Poland (#10)
Painting “Roll-call in 1941” done in 1972 by a Polish Auschwitz survivor Mieczysław Kościelniak, Auschwitz, Oświęcim, Poland
Text on sign from Auschwitz Museum; Auschwitz, Oświęcim, Poland (#12)
Construction drawings and model of gas chamber and crematorium II at Auschwitz, Oświęcim, Poland
Used (empty) canisters of the poison gas, Zyklon B, that the Nazis dropped through holes in the roofs of crematoria (disguised as large community shower rooms), Auschwitz, Oświęcim, Poland
Text on sign from Auschwitz Museum; Auschwitz, Oświęcim, Poland (#15)
A former munitions bunker that was reconstructed as a gas chamber and crematorium (used as such until 1943), Auschwitz, Oświęcim, Poland
“The remaining blocks are dedicated to the specific suffering of individual nations, including a block dedicated in memory of the Roma (gypsy) people who perished. The tour concludes with the gruesome gas chamber and crematoria, whose two furnaces were capable of burning 350 corpses daily. The gallows used to hang camp commandant Rudolf Hoss in 1947 stands outside.” — www.inyourpocket.com/krakow
“HALT!”, Auschwitz, Oświęcim, Poland
A corner view of the barbed-wire protected barracks at Auschwitz, Oświęcim, Poland, as seen from outside (near the location of the crematorium in the photo above)
Text on sign from Auschwitz Museum; Auschwitz, Oświęcim, Poland (#19)
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