The Holocaust is something that has always been present in my life. I had to read about it in middle school and write reports on it in high school. It’s been a subject of History classes and of my history, so a location filled with so many dark memories was very important for me to visit. I went to Auschwitz already knowing an incredible amount about the Holocaust, yet I still learned more, and seeing the area where the devastating things occurred added to my knowledge.
This post is quite dark and a bit gruesome so only continue reading if you want to try and stomach it.
First of all, there were many concentration camps during the holocaust located all over Poland, Germany and more, but Auschwitz was one of, if not, the worst. There is Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II and Auschwitz III, but I visited only the first two. We started at Auschwitz I, closest to the polish town of Oświęcim. Right outside of Auschwitz I there are restaurants and hotels and that surprised me. I have always thought of Auschwitz as being far away from any town – literally in the middle of nowhere so that nobody could figure out what was going on. The town actually existed before the concentration camp did, and the name Auschwitz is the German derivation of the Polish name Oświęcim. I kept wondering how creepy it would be to live there. To know how many people had died on the outskirts of the town.. Do the people who live in Oświęcim get used to the fact that Auschwitz is right there?
I had seen historical photos and videos of Auschwitz I, read novels from doctors forced to work there, and watched holocaust movies, but when I saw Auschwitz I I was still surprised. It looked like a military base and there were trees and grass all over the grounds. There were even flowers in the small fields between houses and it looked like a place much nicer than I imagined it was when it was in use as a concentration camp.
The first thing you see is the infamous metal Auschwitz sign that would greet prisoners as they entered the camp. The sign reads “Arbeit Macht Frei” which ironically means “Work Makes You Free”.
I mentioned before that Auschwitz I looked like a military base to me and as I learned, it used to be one. Before it became “Auschwitz I” it was used as Polish military barracks. Now, they have made most of the blocks into a museum. Many countries have their own blocks as dedications and memorials, as well as a Gypsy memorial and a tribute to the liberation of the camp by the Red Army. In the tour I took we looked at the exhibits and information regarding the living conditions, torture methods, punishments, and general life in the concentration camp.
I was so shocked by the things that they have at this museum, but I was also shocked by the way the museum was being treated by tourists. I hardly felt right taking any photos but when I saw a person taking a smiling selfie in front of a pile of hair (I’ll get into this soon) I was truly disgusted. How can people be so cruel? Thousands of people died right here and tourists are now coming here and smiling for what? So they can put it in their album at home? Disgusting. There was even an ad in Krakow that made me feel sick. It was a “Visit Auschwitz” poster of a girl smiling next to a barbed wire fence. Auschwitz I isn’t a happy place and seeing people acting like that made me so angry.
The first part of the museum was filled with giant pictures of the arrivals of Hungarian Jews and it made my stomach turn. One person, just one, had the power to decide whether a person would live or die. No matter what they would be stripped of all personal possessions and led to different areas. If the Nazi had decided that you were to live, then you were a strong person and you would go to an area where your head was shaved, your picture was taken and you would receive your uniform – the striped pajamas. If you were a child, an old person, a pregnant woman or looked generally weak then the Nazi would condemn you to die. You would right away be marched to a large chamber to shower, be told to strip down and then gassed. You would die without having spent one day in the camp. Your body would be searched for any jewellery, any gold teeth, your head would be shaved and then your body would be taken to the crematorium. It was a brutal beginning.. one that you had to pay for. To “get the privilege” to go to one of these concentration camps, you would in fact have to purchase your ticket. Many were purchasing their death sentence.
This was also the first time I had heard about the Einsatzgruppen or the Mobile Killing Units that Nazi’s would drive around to kill people with, without having to bring them into a camp. The driver would push a button and wait for the screams to end before backing up the truck into a pit and dumping the bodies out. This was the most advanced of Einsatzgruppen. At first it was guns and bullets but that wasn’t efficient enough and it was leaving psychological damage on the troops doing the killing, so the gas vans started being used.
In next part of the museum showed the living conditions of the camps. Later, you’ll see the living condition differences between Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II. In the beginning it looked more like a prisoner camp before it morphed more into a death camp…the beds were military style and the prisoners were forced to make going to the bathroom an unwanted journey. Certain prisoners were privileged and had special living conditions and status because they were responsible for overseeing the other prisoners. These were also the prisoners that would take care of bodies and get to know some secrets about the camp. These were also prisoners that would have to be routinely killed because they knew so much.
There was a very moving area in the museum that showed items collected from the prisoners. Pots and Pans were collected, watches were collected, even prescription glasses were collected! There was a large pile of tonnes of hair collected from the heads of prisoners. The hair was used to make Nazi uniforms but I’m sure many of the soldiers never knew that. There was one big pile of stolen children shoes and someone from our group laid a white rose in from of the exhibit and we all thought about the tragedy for a moment. Who could do such a thing?
The exhibit that really moved me was the luggage. Piles of suitcases that listed names and places of birth in large white letters. Real people were brought here unknowingly to the most cruel place possible and that was it. There lives ended just like that. No more family history, no more stories about them. Did they live for very long? Did they make it through? Absolutely tragic and I have no words for how I felt.
In this museum they also had a model of a crematorium. I felt sick looking at this. Did you know that it was an experiment? Yes, the first crematorium was simply an experiment to see if it would work and how well it would work. In fact, the first crematorium was considered “inefficient”. They could gas 740 people per day, but it took two days to burn all those bodies, but that wasn’t good enough. This inefficiency is a major part of the reason that the Nazi’s began work on Auschwitz II.
The next exhibition block specifically targeted the prisoners of the camp. There were photos of individuals listing their name, nationality, birthday, date of deportation to Auschwitz and the day they died. Some lasted at the camp for months while others lasted only a day. The looks in their faces were truly haunting and it made you feel so powerless knowing that all these people are now dead and you did nothing. Even though I wasn’t born when it occurred, I was I could’ve stopped it from happening.
They stopped photographing inmates after a while and simply tattooed them and kept their number in “inmate books” to be cheaper and once again more efficient.
Block 10 is where the medical experiments were carried out by Josef Mengele, the “Angel of death.” He was personally responsible for many deaths at Auschwitz – especially the deaths of twins who were his favourite to experiment on. Between Block 10 and Block 11 there is a wall where people were shot and bludgeoned to death. The windows of the Blocks facing this courtyard were blocked off so that no inmate would witness the executions…only hear them.
Something I found very interesting was the information on Jews and how many of them were self identified. I always thought that it would be very easy to simply not say whether you were Jewish or not, but I learned that even Jewish leaders in the countries were pushing Jews to identify themselves to the authorities. Many believed that it was truly for relocation, even neighbours thought that, although many neighbours were threatened until they gave up some amount of information.
The last part of the tour was visiting the crematorium at the camp. This was so eerie and creepy and I’m pretty sure I was shivering the entire time I was inside. Because of the tours going on a hundred people or so were shoved into this tiny area and movement was minimal. Then you would look up and see holes where the SS would drop 12 canisters worth of Zyklon B gas to kill the prisoners below. It was a snapshot of history that I felt like I was standing in. I got out of there as quickly as I could.
Next to Auschwitz I, literally right next door, was the house where the head of the camp lived. It was closest to the gas chambers and crematorium of Auschwitz I and I was shocked to hear that the leader of the camp head three children. Wouldn’t they wonder what was going on? Wouldn’t they be able to smell the crematorium? That house is now privately owned..it gives me chills.
I left Auschwitz I emotionally drained. People were talking to me but their words were literally bouncing off of me as I thought about where I was standing and the atrocities that had happened there. There was such a technical and systematic approach to everything…it was a very organized genocide. Yet it wasn’t the worst. It was time for Auschwitz II – Birkenau.