Life changing moment & educating myself at Auschwitz
The journey from Krakow to Oswiecim on the 20th January 2008 took little under two hours by minibus, passing fields and open plains of the southern Poland countryside to which the scenery reminded me of my days when I used to cycle through the Bedfordshire countryside back home during the middle of winter, dull, flat, boring with the weather not being that much pleasant. Ollie (my travel buddy from back home) went to sleep as today was an early start for us but I just leaned my head against the window, staring outside into the wilderness. I didn’t see many towns, villages, people, and cars on the way to Oswiecim. All there was were just fields, not many trees and sheep were seen from time to time. Mention the town of Oswiecim and not many people would have heard of this. If you say the German name for this place, Auschwitz, then a lot of people would know where you are and the events which took place there.
Auschwitz is a network of concentration and extermination camps built and operated by the Nazi German forces during the Second World War. It was the largest of the German concentration camps which consisted of Auschwitz I (the main camp), Auschwitz II-Birkenau (the extermination camp), Auschwitz III-Monowitz (a labour camp) and forty-five satellite camps in the area. Our journey today would consist of visiting the main camp and the extermination camp to which I hope to learn more about the history of Auschwitz and have a better understanding of the horrible events which went on here. My history on the Second World War isn’t that knowledgeable but whilst travelling in Europe over the last few years, I have learnt a lot more than I did back in school. I knew the basics to the history and the events of which happened at Auschwitz but I wanted to know more. I wanted to see the camps for my own eyes to get a better understanding.
The minibus dropped us outside the main entrance to the main camp and straight away I was standing underneath the famous wrought-iron sign which the Nazi Germans used to tease prisoners when arriving at the camp. The words Arbeit Macht Frei (Work makes Free) strikes fear to the new arrivals and is now a slogan which is much associated with Nazi Germany. I walked further into the camp where red clay brick buildings scatter the area. Originally the sixteen, one story buildings which I saw served as an army barracks for the Polish army but were turned into the administrative centre for the concentration camps in the area. The first prisoners arrived at the camp on June 14th 1940 which consisted of 728 Polish citizens. Nine months later, the camp had just fewer than 11,000 people imprisoned which most of them were Poles. The prisoners (when not being exterminated) were made to work for the good of the Nazi forces like working in associated arms factories. The harsh work requirements, combined with poor nutrition and hygiene led to high death rates among the inmates.
I learnt that if the prisoners didn’t work to the requirements of the Nazis, then they were punished very badly which affected them mentally and physically. I came across some standing-cells which was like a prison within a prison. Usually four men would be placed in a room which was about 16 square foot and they would have to just stand there and do nothing. This usually happens at night because during the day time the Nazis would make them work which lead to a lack of sleep and tiredness in the muscles. I also noticed the starvation cells which is situated in the basement of one block. Prisoners incarcerated here were given neither food nor water until they were dead.
Another torture the Nazis used to like inflicting on the prisoners was the dark cells. These cells had a very tiny window and a solid door. The prisoners would gradually suffocate as they would have used up all the oxygen in the cell. Sometimes the SS (The Schutzstaffel known as the Protective Squadron and was a major organisation under Hilter and the Nazi Party during the Second World War) would light up a candle in the cell to use up the oxygen more quickly. The SS also loved to hang the prisoners with their hands behind their backs, thus dislocating their shoulder joints for hours just for fun.
I walked into Block 11 and went down into the basement. It was here on September 3rd 1941 that the deputy camp Commandant Hauptsturmfhrer Fritzsch experimented on 600 Russian POWs (Prisoner of War) and 250 Polish inmates by cramming them into the basement and gassing them with Zyklon B which is a highly lethal cyanide-based pesticide. After experimenting and getting the thumbs up by the commandant, Zyklon B was the main gases used for extermination at Auschwitz, so after experimenting, a gas chamber and crematorium were constructed by converting a bunker at one end of the camp. I walked up to the gas chamber which was destroyed after the war but reconstructed using the original components and went inside. I was positively sure that I could smell the gases after all this time. A bunch of flowers lay inside at one end of the bunker. So many people were killed in the gas chamber which I was standing in right now which was estimated to be around 60,000 deaths which operated from 1941 to 1942.
I found a concrete block wall where the prisoners would be lined up and killed by the shooting squad. Also I found the gallows near the gas chamber which the camp commandant, Rudolf Hass was hanged in 1947, two years after Auschwitz was liberated and being found working on a nearby farm by British troops and then trailed in court before his death.
Walking around the camp was like walking around a museum. Each block had a story to tell and an exhibition on display. Outside, the barred mental wire remains with the lookout posts. The ground was muddy and the rain started to fall. We spent all morning looking around but we had to move on to the next camp which was about a twenty minute walk from the main camp.
Auschwitz II-Birkenau, the extermination camp was built not long after Auschwitz I was in operation as this was to ease congestion of the main camp. The camp was three times the size of the main camp and a heck of a lot more people passed through its gates. The camp was designed to hold several categories of prisoners and to function as an extermination camp in the context of a certain Heinrich Himmler (The Chief of German Police and Minster of the Interior for Nazi Germany) preparation for the final solution of the Jewish question, basically the extermination of the Jewish faith. The commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Hass had prepared the camp for the extermination of all Jews in Europe and by March 1942, the camp was operational with its first gas chamber in use and a second would follow.
By June 1943, there were five crematoria built and in use and most of the prisoners were gassed soon afterwards. I was standing at the entrance of the camp where the rail tracks would come in from the mainline nearby. Trains with carriages filled with prisoners, mostly people from the Jewish faith would pull up to the low level platforms not far from the main gates and it was here where the selection process would take place. The SS would conduct the infamous selections in which incoming Jews were divided into those deemed able to work (which they were sent to the right hand side and admitted into the camp) and those who would be gassed immediately (were sent to the left hand side). The group selected to die were mostly all children, women with children, all the elderly and all those who appeared on brief and superficial inspection by an SS doctor not to be completely fit. Standing here, I felt a chill shiver down my spine. All those people who had travelled across Poland and Europe by train in awful conditions, not knowing where they were going until they arrived then straight away were chosen to die or work. The thought of the selection process was awful, let alone what was going to happen next to them. This was just simply awful but not as awful on what I was going to see next.
I came across a small block towards the back of the camp where the prisoners were told to undress their clothes and take a shower to undergo delousing. The Nazis lied to them big time. The victims would walk into the gas chamber which was disguised as a shower facility complete with dummy shower heads. After the doors were shut, the SS would dump in the cyanide pellets (produced from Zyklon B pellets) via holes in the roof or the windows on the side.
I stood nearby in an area which was just a field with a few trees on the outskirts at the back of the camp. Where I was standing was the area where most of the women and children had to wait outside before being lead into the gas chambers. There was a chill in the air and there was no one else around. Ollie had wandered off to see the open air pits which were used to burning the corpses after the bodies had been gassed. I stood there for a few minutes, feeling the people, the worry which had come across them, wondering what was going to happen to them in the next few moments. At one point I am sure I had the screams and crying of young children. It was all too distressing. I have never in my life felt anything to what I am feeling right now. I moved on solemnly.
Nearby there was an area which had two buildings, which have since been destroyed. The building was known as Canada. This is where the belongings of the arrivals were seized by the SS and were sorted out. Many of the SS at the camp enriched themselves by pilfering the confiscated property.
To one side of the camp was the buildings which housed the prisoners who were deemed fit to work. Inside rows of wooden bunk beds would stand to which each bunk bed would have four inmates sleeping at one time. At one point there were a thousand inmates per barrack and there were quite a few barracks in this area. I found an interesting description on display of what life was like for the prisoners which for some unknown reason as stuck in my mind. The prisoners day would begin at 4.30am with a roll call, after which they were frogmarched to their place of work. All of the prisoners would wear striped camp fatigues, no underwear and wooden shoes without socks to which most of time were ill-fitting. The day would last twelve hours during the summer and a little less in the winter. No rest periods were allowed and there was one prisoner assigned to the latrines to measure the time the workers took to empty their bladders and bowels. After work there was a mandatory evening call. If a prisoner was missing, the others had to remain standing in place until he was either found or the reason for his absence was discovered, even if it took hours regardless of the weather conditions. After the roll call there were individual and collective punishments depending on what had happened during the day and after these the prisoners were allowed to retire to their barracks for the night to receive their bread rations and water and then back to sleep. The prisoners would lie on their bunk beds whilst still wearing clothes and shoes to prevent them from being stolen by other inmates.
Whilst walking around both camps, I noticed that the Nazi like to do a lot of human experimentation in special blocks designed for medical experimentation. SS doctors tested the efficacy of X-rays as a sterilization device by administering large doses to female prisoners. One doctor even injected chemicals into women’s uteruses in an effort to glue them shut. I came across a photo where the SS doctors would practise brain surgery on a child who was still awake, which kind of disturb me a little. There were all kinds of experimentation taken place here but the one which would really shake me up was in Auschwitz II camp. Near the main entrance where the arrivals would come in was a small building like the rest of the buildings in the camp. It wasn’t opened as the door was locked. A notice on the outside reads that the building was a place where woman who were pregnant gave birth. The woman was not killed straight away when they arrived. When it was time to give birth and the baby arrived, straight away the SS doctors would inject the woman and kill her. The baby then would be killed. Now this was a sickening scene. If she was going to be killed, why not just simply kill her straight away in the gas chambers instead of her going through the pain of childbirth and then get killed straight away along with the child. This is just sickening and I felt a lot of anger inside. I just had to walk away from the building. The words of sick bastards was going through my mind for some time after that.
Standing at the main entrance of the camp I was feeling sad, not depressed. I had learnt a lot today on Auschwitz or any part of the Second World War and I have the Polish government to thank for this. It was them in 1947 that a decision was made not to destroy the camp but to keep it as it is as a reminder to future generations of what happened here during the five years Auschwitz was in use. They have devoted the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum to the memory of the murders in both camps. In keeping this open as a museum, it has proved to be a great learning tool for many of the 700,000 visitors who come here each year, including myself and I can walk away knowing that I have learnt a lot of history in the day spent here. I am sure I can also feel the pain of the events which occurred here and I still have a lot anger built up inside me as well towards the Nazis, not towards the German citizens of today. The events took place over sixty years ago and should never be repeated ever again. At the time, Nazi Germany had learned their lesson. Invading other countries, trying to wipe out religious faiths and experimenting on humans without their consent can never happen again. It is our duty as human beings to make sure that it never happens again.
Feeling a bit down from the events of today, at the train station I decided to have a small pizza whilst waiting for the train. Ollie had a burger which had loads of fat pouring out of the meat. My pizza arrived (which I had already paid for), and found out it was a base, filled with peppers, whole tomatoes and the other usually stuff topped with a thin layer of melted cheese. I didn’t want to touch this and just walked out! Usually it’s the other way where you don’t pay for the food, eat the food and quickly run out. I just like to do things totally the opposite.
A few years later (October 2016) I was back in the area and decided to visit the camps again. Not much has changed apart from the security measures at the entrance in place (airport style security). I managed to have more time in the first camp, to look around all the museum displays inside the building, refreshing myself on what I learnt the first time round. Walking around the second camp, the weather was cold and dreary like the first time. There weren’t many visitors here and had the whole place to myself. Has my feelings changed since the first time, no they haven’t, but since then I have become a father, so when I was at the science experiment block etc, I had more anger than ever on what the Nazi’s did to children here.
Back in Zakopane where I was staying that week, I had to have a few drinks. People ask me why I keep going back to places with sadness and nastiness? Like I said, to learn, to pass on my knowledge and educate, to show the world via my blog to those who can’t get to the camp. I don’t go there for a vacation and think it’s fun, that’s for sure! Would I go back there in the future? In the past I would say no, but now I have children, when they get to the point of understanding, when they are learning about the history of the world, and if we were in Southern Poland, I would take them here. By the time they are early teenagers, the Second World War would have finished 80 – 85 years previous. Events like this should not be forgotten and a reminder to the world to never get in this state again.