The above plaque may sum up the numbers of peopled deported to and murdered at Auschwitz-Birkenau, but it cannot describe the horrific extents to which the Nazis reached in carrying out their genocidal plans.  The kangaroo courts where Polish protesters against the Nazis’ invasion and brutalization of Poland were tried, then shot or hanged after “judgment.”  The basement cells where both political prisoners and Jews were tortured in ways that defy man’s capacity for creative cruelty.  The barracks where Jewish women’s bodies were mutilated as part of the Nazis’ quest to find the most efficient means of mass sterilization, because simply killing the Jews took too much time to achieve the “final solution.”  The brick building where Dr. Josef Mengele performed his inhuman experiments on children and the deformed.  The gas chambers.  The crematoriums.  The endless ramp along which hundreds of thousands Jews trudged from their cattle box cars to the dividing point where a handful of Nazis pointed right or left – who shall live, who shall die.

The tracks and ramps from the gate house at Birkenau. Hundreds of thousands disembarked on these ramps and were directed to the left or right, to live or to die.

One would have to have lived in a hermit’s cave the last 60 years or be a master of self-delusion to not be aware of the Nazi atrocities leading up to and through WWII.  I had severe reservations about whether I should even attempt to write about this incomprehensible place.  Indeed, until the morning Michael and I boarded the bus for the trip to Auschwitz, I was not certain I wanted to or could even handle seeing this most infamous of death camps.  But I did, and while “glad” is an emotion I hesitate to use here, I am thankful I went.

Initially, I’d resisted the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum’s mandate that all those who wish to visit the camps are required to join an “official” guided tour.  I did not want to be with a large group of strangers while I wrestled with emotions and my composure.  Now I can appreciate that this requirement means that visitors will come away with an unvarnished and comprehensive understanding of what happened there.  The complex is so huge, and so much was destroyed by fleeing Nazi troops, it would be impossible for unguided visitors to grasp the full story and horror of what took place at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

In fact, the first realizations that struck both Michael and I was the sheer size of the Auschwitz complex.  There were three death camps: Auschwitz I, II (Auschwitz-Birkenau) and Auschwitz III with about 40 other smaller camps in the area forming the Auschwitz complex.  The more substantial, two-story buildings had been built pre-war by and for the Polish Army. Subsequently the Nazis used the larger buildings as barracks and offices for Nazi and SS troops, but some of these also housed prisoners.  The majority of the single-story, flimsy brick and timber “barracks” which housed the prisoners were built by slave labor.  In the pictures below of Birkenau, you can see just a portion of the remaining barrack buildings.  Where the lone chimneys stand on the far side of the tracks, wooden barracks once stood before being burnt.

The “death wall” between Blocks 10 and 11 where many “political” prisoners, primarily Poles in the early years, were shot.  In Block 10, doctors experimented with sterilization techniques on Jewish women, and Josef Mengele conducted his “studies” on twins and deformities.  Block 11, to the right, is where the Gestapo held “trials” and sent the condemned  to the wall.

Part of the expanse of Birkenau.  Most of the prisoner barracks were wood.  A fire destroyed much of the camp at Birkenau.

Having now visited, I am very appreciative of the Polish government and the UNESCO’s World Cultural Heritage for their incredibly sensitive, honest and unflinching portrayal of the Auschwitz complex and the horrors that took place there.  The written and visual exhibits were concise and powerful, stating facts without resorting to emotional hyperbole — the facts, plainly stated, are enough.  The Polish tour guide maintained a fairly consistent neutrality as she narrated the unbearable, horrific story of Auschwitz-Birkenau during the 3 hour visit – although several times her voice trembled and I could see her face crumple slightly as she described the worst parts.  Since she’d told us from the outset that she was “from Roma,” meaning part “Gypsy,” she may have had relatives who died in these camps.

Interestingly, at all times the guide used the words “Nazis” or “SS” when referring to those people who engineered or carried out the atrocities; she never referred to “the Germans” as a nationally cohesive group as being behind the genocidal crimes.  Moreover, she was careful to point out that all Poles had been deported from the area at the outset of Nazi occupation and therefore had no participation in the atrocities; this was a Nazi death camp, not Polish, a distinction lost a few days later on President Obama’s speech writers.  I would imagine these distinctions are as important for today’s Poles and Germans as it is for white Americans today not wanting to be hereditarily linked to the rabid racism and lynch mobs of bygone years.  Ironically, just two days after visiting the Auschwitz complex, we heard on the news that the German Medical Association had just formally apologized for the medical atrocities performed by German doctors in the camps during WWII, an apology long coming.

A row of the “blocks” at Auschwitz I. Originally these brick barracks were built for and used by the Polish Army. When the Nazis invaded Poland, they took over the area around Auschwitz, expelled all Poles from the region (other than those being held in the camp).

As most people know the basics, I will simply share some facts, then impressions that struck me, as well as a lot of pictures, as pictures can show the story of Auschwitz far better than words:

  • While I’d known that the original Auschwitz was primarily a forced labor or “concentration” camp, I had not realized how few of the 1.3 million people deported to the complex were actually slave laborers.  Of the 1.1 million who were murdered here, primarily in Birkenau, the vast majority went from the trains to the death chambers as rapidly as the Nazis could “process” them.  Only 400,000 persons were registered as working prisoners at Auschwitz, with about half Jews and the other, non-Jews.
  • The Auschwitz complex became the primary and largest “camp” to which the Nazis sent Jews and other “undesirables” due to its isolated but central location and the abundance of existing rail lines. To further increase its isolation from all but official eyes, the Nazis conducted forced removal of all Poles from the area.

A map of mainland Europe, showing the origins of those deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Two reasons for establishing the camps here were the central location and good rail routes.

  • Of the slave labor force, the average prisoner survived 4-8 weeks before succumbing to starvation, disease or murder.
  • The first prisoners at Auschwitz were not Jews but Poles from all walks of life who had been perceived as a threat to the Nazis:  captured partisans and POWs, anti-Nazi activists, student protestors, intelligentsia, priests and nuns, intelligentsia, and others.
  • The mass numbers of Jews deported to the camp began to rise radically in early 1942.  By mid-1942, Jews comprised 26% of the camps’ population.  By mid-1944, the peak of the prisoner population, Jews comprised 68% of the prisoners.  Of all the Jews deported to the complex, about 90% were exterminated.
  • In two months alone during the summer of 1944, 437,000 Jews were deported from Hungary; nearly all of them were immediately exterminated.  It was estimated that of all those murdered at the Auschwitz complex, one-third were Hungarian Jews.

An actual box car used in WWII to transport Jews to the death camps. It stands alone on the Birkenau tracks in commemoration of over 400,000 Hungarian Jews murdered at Auschwitz-Birkenau, approximately one-third of all deaths at the camp.

  • Whenever the slave work force at Auschwitz or in Nazi Germany became depleted, the hardiest of the deported Jewish men (and sometimes women) were selected as workers and thus spared the gas chamber – for a time.  One Jewish boy was 15 years old in 1944 when he arrived in Birkenau with his family from Hungary.  As was the case for virtually all the women, children, the old and the infirm, his mother and siblings were separated on arrival and sent in one direction, his father in another.  A prisoner on the ramp instructed the boy to tell the guards that he was 17, not 15, and the boy was sent with his father to the Auschwitz work camp instead of to the gas chambers.  The father did not survive the camps.  The boy, Elie Wiesel, not only survived, but went on after the war to found the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity.  He received the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1985 and the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 for his lifetime work against repression, violence and racism.
  • The Nazis took more than gold teeth from the condemned.  They confiscated and either reused or reprocessed virtually everything removable from the dead:  shoes, artificial limbs and braces, cooking pots, personal articles such as shaving and tooth brushes – all and more were confiscated and sent back to civilians and the army for use.  And, of course, jewelry was melted down and jewels extracted, all to help refill the depleted war chest. 
  • Most distressing among the exhibits were the bales and bundles of human hair.  Despite the Nazis’ attempts to destroy evidence of their inhuman slaughter and harvesting, 2 million pounds of human hair were left behind by fleeing troops and discovered by the invading Soviet Army when it liberated the death camps.  After being gassed, the women’s hair was shorn then used to stuff pillows and mattresses, as well as mixed in with cotton and wool to make clothing and blankets for the army.  (The display of hundreds of pounds of hair was one of the few areas where visitors were not allowed to take photos, out of respect for the dead.)
  • Living conditions were beyond what any of us can imagine.  Two to three minutes per day for going to the bathroom – two trips to the latrines per day if you were lucky.  Rations so limited that death from starvation came as a blessing within two months – if disease didn’t kill first.

Row of latrines in Birkenau

These troughs at Birkenau were the only way prisoners could clean themselves.

Re-creation of “bunks” in a barrack.  As many as a dozen prisoners slept on each level, even on the brick or concrete floor.

Concepts are more difficult to explain or understand than facts.  No matter how many times one hears of it, the whole concept of a “final solution,” a plan to systematically – and most expeditiously and efficiently – exterminate an entire race, the Jewish people, as well as any other “undesirables” is beyond belief.  So, also, to understand the planning and mechanics that went into murdering over a million people as efficiently as possible was both unbelievable and harrowing.  The gas chambers were able to gas 1500-2000 persons in about 20 minutes.  But it took far longer than 20 minutes to cremate the bodies.  Five crematoriums were built and still were insufficient to dispose of all the victims despite the ovens often burning 24 hours a day.  So open pit “crematoriums” were dug and used as well.  Still, the Nazis couldn’t “process” people fast enough through the death chambers.  So, the mass of barracks at Birkenau were built, housing as many as 1,000 people per filthy barracks, where they were starved and brutalized while awaiting death.

One of the underground gas chambers at Birkenau. The former crematorium once stood to the right. Below it now lies in ruins.

One of the crematoriums at Birkenau.

One of the crematoriums at Auschwitz I.

The goal of the final solution was to eradicate all 11 million Jews in Europe, and the Nazis reached over half that goal, along with killing several millions of other targeted ethnic groups as well.  By the time the war was over, more than 60 million people around the world, mostly civilians and noncombatants, had perished as a result of a megalomaniac who sought to impose his hateful “vision” upon the world.  Most of us are familiar with the slogans, “Never forget,” or “Never again,” aimed at preventing another large-scale genocide in the future.  But perhaps we should all be more acutely attuned to the smaller, quieter beginnings of fear and ethno-religious hatreds espoused by petty, vicious politicians and religious zealots of all stripes because, unchecked, we know where they can lead.

“There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.” 
― Elie Wiesel


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