Sightseeing Central Europe, Part II: Auschwitz-Birkenau

***Content Warning— this post contains sensitive content that may be disturbing and unsettling to some readers.***

Though we had only visited two of its cities, it was clear that these days Poland has a lot to offer visitors; beautiful streets with shops and cafes, friendly people, royal palaces, extravagant churches, peaceful green parks, and museums aplenty. This experience provides an astonishing contrast to the atrocities that occurred throughout the country during the Holocaust. During that dark stain on humanity’s not-so-distant history, the Nazi regime killed over 17 million people, including 6 million Jews and 11 million others who were Soviets, Poles, Serbs, and Romani. Also targeted and killed were people with disabilities and people who were gay or lesbian. It’s estimated that at least 1.1 million people were killed at Auschwitz-Birkenau, one of the six concentration camps that was established in Poland after the Nazis occupied the country and began their mass extermination of Polish Jews. 

Auschwitz I.

Auschwitz-Birkenau is a somber place and visiting can be an emotionally challenging experience. You will not smile, you will not take any beautiful photographs, you will not leave with happy feelings. But, I believe if you have the opportunity to visit Poland and to wallow in its splendor, then visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau is a way to honor the memory of those who were senselessly murdered and to acknowledge a critical chapter in the country’s incredible story. 

Electric gate at Auschwitz II-Birkenau.

We participated in a tour of Auschwitz-Birkenau led by a local guide whose family members were victims of the Holocaust. The site, now a museum and memorial, has two sections; Auschwitz I, which was initially used as a detention center for political prisoners, and Auschwitz II- Birkenau, which was added later as an extermination camp where mass murders took place. 

The gate at Auschwitz I reads “Arbeit macht frei” which translates to “work will set you free.”

In 1939 when Nazis came to power in Germany, they invaded Poland and began to segregate Jews, forcing them into crammed ghettos where many died from starvation and disease. You can read about my visit to Warsaw and the site of the Warsaw Ghetto, by clicking here. “Life” in the ghettos was abysmal but being deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau was a death sentence, sold as new opportunity. Families were brought in from the ghettos by train, crammed into cattle cars. 

Though word eventually spread that deportation out of the ghettos meant death, to avoid mass hysteria, deportees were promised work, better conditions, and perhaps a chance at living. They were told to pack all their valuables in a single suitcase.

Upon arrival, victims would line up for the selection process; young and healthy men and some women were shuffled to one side, deemed fit for work. The other side consisted of women, children, people who were sick, and the elderly. This group was informed they would be sent to take “showers” then housing would be assigned. Stripped of their clothing and belongings, they were herded by the masses into dark, enclosed rooms where shower heads lined the walls. Once inside, the doors were sealed behind them, but instead of being bathed the room was pumped with poisonous Zyklon B gas. It was an agonizing, inhumane death that lasted from 20 minutes up to an hour. 

Empty canisters of Zyklon B used in the gas chambers. 

If you can imagine further horror, after the victims’ bodies were lifeless, they were literally looted. Gold teeth were pulled from their mouths so they could be melted down to make bars of gold. The hair was stolen from their heads. Then their corpses were burned like trash and their ashes buried or used as fertilizer.

Learning about the cruel fate the victims faced was beyond disturbing. An overwhelming feeling of sadness and disgust took over as I walked through the buildings and saw rooms full of the victims’ belongings on display. Shoes, eyeglasses, and prosthetic limbs, piled up like a collection of trophies. How could this have happened? 

The most heart-shattering and painful sight was the room containing 4,000 lbs of decaying human hair, piled floor-to-ceiling behind a glass wall. Reality hits like a ton of bricks as you look upon this mountain of frail braids, wavy locks, curly ringlets, and ponytails that once belonged to women and children who were murdered in the gas chamber. Their lives rendered useless and their only redeeming quality was the hair on their heads, which the Nazis harvested to make socks, rope, and textiles. It’s chilling. A lump builds in your throat. Your heart sinks. The faint smell of mothballs lingers and your stomach turns. You look away in repulsion, anger, and disbelief. There are no words. Photographing this exhibit was strictly forbidden, out of respect for the victims.

Many times entire trainloads of Jews would be sent directly to the gas chambers, bypassing the selection process. Those who went through the selection process and were deemed fit for work, would still likely end up in the gas chambers. Forced into hard labor, their lives were prolonged for a few agonizing months, or however long their bodies and spirits could endure.

Housing in Auschwitz-Birkenau was provided in either brick barracks or wooden stables. Neither had sufficient heating during the cold winters. Inside, rows of three-tier bunk beds were built to sleep between 12 to 15 people. 

Many men, women, and children were spared from hard labor and the gas chambers but tortured and used as human guinea pigs for bizarre and brutal medical experiments instead. If the procedures did not cause death, victims were either killed after the study ended or were left with permanent disfigurements and disabilities. Surviving children were almost always killed; their bodies and lives no longer held any value.

There was truly no escaping the evil of Auschwitz alive, although 802 people tried. Unfortunately only 144 were successful while the others ended up being caught and murdered. “Life” in Auschwitz was so unbearable that it was common for victims to throw themselves onto the electric barbed wire fences that surrounded the camp, as a way to end their suffering and to have some sort of control over their own lives.

In January of 1945 as the war was coming to an end, the Nazis began evacuating the camps, destroying evidence of their crimes, and relocating the victims they held captive through “death marches.” Approximately 56,000 victims were forced to walk over 30 miles to other camps, in the frigid cold without food, water, or rest. The Nazis shot anyone who fell behind. An estimated 15,000 people died in the death march out of Auschwitz-Birkenau. When the camp was finally liberated by Soviet forces on January 27, 1945, only 7,000 living victims remained.

This is just a tiny glimpse of Auschwitz-Birkenau based on what I saw and learned during the guided tour. If you’ve made it this far, thank you for reading. It’s not an easy subject to digest but I encourage everyone to learn more about this unfathomable tragedy by researching the topic (references listed below), or reading stories told by survivors (Night by Elie Wiesel is on the top of my list). 

Time moves on, but we will remember. 

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