.Auschwitz II – Birkenau

“The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again” – George Santayana

After seeing the maps of the Auschwitz camps I realized that Auschwitz II would be the biggest, but I had no idea how truly immense it would be. There is the long “Gate of Death” at the entrance to the camp and rows upon rows of houses and foundations. The true scope of what happened here started to hit me. This was a massive genocide where efficiency was key, and Auschwitz II was one of, if not the most, efficient.

The layout of the camp is this: the “Gate of Death” at one end with train tracks running underneath. These train tracks continue to go straight through the camp and split the camp in half. One side was for the women, one side was for the men. This is where they would arrive and deposit their baggage before one man acted as God and chose the fates for these people. There are multiple sets of train tracks because there was a constant flow of train cars filled with “undesirables” that were to be killed. On the site you can see an old train car sitting eerily in the middle of camp. I wonder how many people would be forced into that single train car? How many of them are still alive today?

We walked along the train tracks to the end of the camp where the destroyed crematoriums are. Right before the liberation, the Nazi’s blew up the crematoriums to try and get rid of any evidence of what occurred there. This is where prisoners would strip down from their blue and white striped pajamas, thinking that they would be taking a shower…instead, they had a different fate ahead of them. Next to these crematorium ruins, there was a small pond where ashes and ground up bones would be thrown and it now stands as a memorial to those who died in Auschwitz. Blue and white flags now are flown around the Auschwitz camps as a sign of respect to those who wore the pajamas.

In fact, the entire end of the train tracks is a memorial for those who died. There is a separate memorial for each country and lots of visitors were leaving flowers out of respect for family members or the situation. While we were there there was a memorial service for the Belgians who had lost their lives during the Holocaust.

The weather was sunny which didn’t seem fitting and there was grass growing all over. The tour guide quickly put the correct picture into our heads. Mud. That’s all the prisoners knew of. Mud around the houses, mud on the trails, mud in their food…mud everywhere.

The last thing we did was scale the tower above the “Gate of Death”. From here you can attempt to see the edges of the camp, but it truly isn’t possible. Parts of the camp are hidden in the forest, most sections are demolished and it spreads as far as the eye can see.

The barracks here looked completely different from the barracks in Auschwitz I. These were made of wood or brick and the room inside was so small for the amount of people that were placed in each barrack. Originally, these barracks were designed to house about 50 horses but during the Holocaust they housed anywhere from 400 to 1000 inmates…each. As for the bathroom? There were 5000 people per toilet and you had 30 seconds with no privacy to do what you had to do. On each slat (there’s no way I can call those beds) 6 to 8 people slept. There were two chimneys per barrack but those were only for show and were never used.

Less than 25% of the people who were brought to Auschwitz entered the camp; most of them were sent to the crematoriums for an immediate death – the Nazi’s could kill 20,000 people every day by this method.

Oświęcim and the ruins of Auschwitz were very interesting and historic. It isn’t a happy place but it’s amazing to see where the world is now after something as horrific as this occurred. One and a half million people perished in these camps and this is the best way to truly understand what happened.

This site left the group empty and few words were spoken on the bus ride to Krakow.