Saturday, 3 October 2015


Auschwitz 2 - Birkenau Death Camp
For most people a visit to Auschwitz is experienced by booking onto one of the numerous day tours that operate out of Krakow. These tours are convenient (usually involve a hotel or apartment pick up and drop off) and will efficiently whisk you around the main points of interest. Indeed, from 1st April until 30th October between 10am and 3pm, entrance to the camps is only allowed with a guide (hours outwith this it is possible to visit individually).
However, please be aware that on these day trips, the whole experience is that of a well oiled machine that is designed to keep the multitude of visitors moving at pace. The visitor is thus quickly moved on because the next tour group is snapping at their heels. The overall experience is therefore a very small snapshot of the vast area and historical structures. If entirely possible, I would whole heartedly recommend visiting independently or go with a small guided tour during October to April. Ask at the main entrance for this. However, if you are unable to engineer a visit on your own, the tours from Krakow are certainly professional and informative.

What many people don't realise is the scale of Auschwitz. Located in the town of Oświęcim, it actually consisted of 3 camps: Auschwitz 1 (now the main museum), Auschwitz 2 (Birkenau - the biggest section and main death camp) and Monowitz (which was attached to a large industrial sector and now no longer exists). Pre-visit reading would be a good idea. "If this is a Man" by Primo Levi is a superb insight into how the camp system operated. "Five Chimneys" by Olga Lengyel will certainly bring life to the Auschwitz experience.
Oświęcim and the camps can be accessed easily from Krakow if you fancy visiting independently. Regular minibuses run from the main bus station and stop at the main gates for Auschwitz 1 (main museum). Regular trains also run, but be aware the train journey takes longer and there is a further short bus journey needed from the train station to the camp.
Your starting point should be Auschwitz 1, the main museum. Entrance is free and if you visit during quieter times, your first port of call should be to watch a very harrowing 20 minute film made by the liberating Red Army of the atrocities they found when they entered Auschwitz. This link will give you a taste, but be warned, there are horrific images in this. Auschwitz Liberation Film  Ask at the main desk. It is shown in different languages. It is then a good idea to purchase the guide book to the camps which comprehensively covers the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Site.
Auschwitz 1 Blocks
Map guide to Auschwitz 1 camp 1990s style!
Auschwitz 1 is the original camp and took over what had been Polish Army Barracks. There is so much to view in this one camp alone, it would take many hours to absorb it all. These brick barracks housed the camp inmates when it operated as a concentration camp, but certain blocks had specific functions such as the camp hospital or the prison/torture block. Joseph Mengele, the notorious evil doctor who conducted inhumane and cruel experiments on twins and other inmates, operated out of Auschwitz.
The entrance to Auschwitz 1 is the most famous of all the Nazi death camps. It bears the infamously ironic motto "Arbeit Macht Frei" (work makes you free). On entering, rows of brick blocks, barbed wire fences and watch towers come into view. If visiting individually in the gathering gloom of a winter's day, an all encompassing sense of evil will send shivers up your spine.
Famous Entrance Gate:- Arbeit Macht Frei - 1990
From the entrance gate, the best route is to head past the former kitchens on your right. This is where the camp orchestra once played as prisoners marched to work. There are also communal gallows here where mass hangings were carried out. Then make your way to blocks 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 and 11. The displays here were established in 1955 and are what are referred to as the "Permanent Exhibition". In them you will find exhibits that will give you an excellent and ghoulish insight into the concentration camp from its initial plans, to how it actually functioned. The way the exhibits are displayed in all these blocks are exactly how they were established in 1955. This was not a great deal of time after the liberation of the camp and so the old fashioned nature of the displays undoubtedly lends to the overall atmosphere of morbid darkness that simply would not exist in some modern museum.
Block 4 is dedicated to extermination, and exhibits here include original architectural sketches for gas chambers, (it is hard to grasp what kind of human beings could design such machines of industrialised murder), and tins of Zyklon B gas used for extermination.
Weapon of mass destruction Auschwitz style
There are rows of prison mugshots of the inmates lining the corridors of the block. These are extremely haunting. Perhaps most disturbing though, are the tonnes of human hair collected for use in German factories. There is even a roll of material made from human hair on display! Look closely, in amongst the piles of displayed tousled clumps you will notice small pleats with ribbons still attached which must have been hacked from children.
In Block 5 you find piles of belongings that were confiscated from the arriving prisoners as they exited the trains, and is badged as "Material Evidence of Crimes". These include artificial limbs, glasses, shaving kits, shoes and suitcases that inmates had naively painted their names on thinking they would be reunited with them at some point.

Blocks 6 and 7 focus on the daily life of prisoners depicted in photographs and drawings. There are bare rooms with sacks spread out on the floor, and rows of communal washing facilities. One is even decorated with a mural of two kittens playing! Block 7 upstairs has some very disturbing, but sparse, photographic evidence of the medical experiments conducted on inmates. Forced sterilisations of women, skin transplants and the rubbing of toxic substances into the skin are exhibited in photographs. In addition, genetic experiments involving the handicapped and twins are all on view in picture form.
Mock-up of prison conditions
Many visitors horde to Block 11. This is because it was ‘The Death Block’. The windows between blocks 10 and 11 were blacked out with wooden shutters so that nobody could witness the executions carried out in the courtyard between them. It is in this courtyard you will find the ‘Wall of Death’ - against which thousands of prisoners were shot by the SS. The original wall is no longer there, but where it existed is now a memorial covered in flags, candles and flowers. Along the side of the courtyard are what look like tall, sturdy fence posts with a hook at the top. It is on these prisoners were tortured and punished by hanging by their arms that were bent behind their backs. Agonising!
The ground floor of Block 11 contains rooms where mock courts would issue death sentences. The condemned would then be led to two washrooms just along the corridor where they were ordered to undress and either shot in these rooms, or led out to the Death Wall outside.
Within the dingy, claustrophobic cellars of Block 11 the Nazi’s conducted their initial experiments with poison gas in 1941 on Soviet prisoners. They sealed off the basement floor of the building whilst they conducted these experiments, and one can sense the death scene when descending the stairs. Down here are many prison cells. Cell 18 was where prisoners who were sentenced to death by starvation were locked. This is where Father Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish priest, starved to death after offering his life to save another inmate. This is marked with a small memorial. There are also many other prison cells in this basement. Back in 1990 when I first visited I distinctly remember being allowed to enter these and viewing scratches, messages, dates and carvings of the Virgin Mary scraped into the walls by wartime inmates. I think it was cell 21. Sadly it now seems you are unable to access this. I also remember reading that cell 20 was so sealed off that prisoners in it often died of suffocation. However, contained within the end area of the block is cell 22 where one can still witness the tiny ‘standing cells’ measuring 90 x 90 cm. This is where up to four prisoners were held for indefinite amounts of time standing totally squashed together. Part of them has been removed so you can look into the minute size of these cells. For me it was quite poignant viewing them, as I had recently read a book by a camp survivor who had actually had to endure being punished along with 3 other inmates in one of these cells. He describes how unbearably squashed and claustrophobic it was after crawling into it through the small opening at ground level. Whilst enduring his punishment, one of the other inmates dies and they have to stay squashed together with this corpse propped between them for endless hours.
Auschwitz 1
The remaining blocks are dedicated to the specific suffering of individual nations called "National Exhibitions". There is also a block dedicated in memory of the Roma (gypsy) people who also perished in vast numbers in Auschwitz. This is well worth a visit. One must never forget the mass murder of the Roma since they often go unmentioned.
The tour concludes with a gruesome gas chamber and crematoria, whose two furnaces were capable of burning 350 corpses daily. Each sliding rail pushed 2 or 3 corpses a time into the furnaces. The gas chamber itself is the only intact one left in the whole Auschwitz memorial site. There is certainly an uncomfortable, stuffy presence when standing inside it's gloomy interior. Originally was a mortuary, but between 1941 and 1942, Soviet P.O.W.s as well as Jews from various ghettos in Upper Silesia, were gassed in here. Visitors should witness the names of the firms who built the crematoria machinery which are still visible on some of the metal parts - "Topf und Sohne from Erfurt".
The gallows used to hang camp commandant Rudolf Hoss in 1947 stand outside.
Witness industrial murder - these metal barrels pushed 2 to 3 gassed corpses a time into the furnaces

The back of the furnace where the ashes of incinerated human corpses were raked out 


Having completed the long detailed tour of Auschwitz 1 and all it contains, many may feel too weary to make their way up the road to Birkenau. This would be a disaster, as it is here you can really witness the vast size and scale of the evil functions of the Auschwitz death camp complex. Shuttle buses leave every half hour to transport visitors the 3 kilometres between the camps.

Birkenau (Auschwitz II) gate in 1990
The picture above was taken in 1990 shortly after the Berlin Wall came down. Birkenau in those days had an air of having been abandoned. The photo shows the approach to the gatehouse and the sudden appearance of the railway out of a field. It then immediately enters another field on the approach to the famous arch. Visiting Birkenau in those days very much felt a solitary affair. The grounds were overgrown with long grass, the buildings in need of maintenance and on entering the blocks, one had to shoulder bash the swollen wooden doors to gain access. It felt like it had been liberated the week before and certainly gave the huge area a feeling of tangible evil. One felt like a trespasser and not really sure if your were allowed to be there. However, it gave the visitor a full on experience which is unfortunately now gone, in a lot of ways. However, a visit to Birkenau is still a thought provoking, chilling experience.

The infamous Birkenau watch tower at the entrance and an appropriately named street outside
Guide to Birkenau - map 1990s style!
The purpose-built train tracks leading directly into the camp still remain. Birkenau (KL Auschwitz II) covers 425 acres, consisted of over 300 buildings and is divided into various sectors. A visit here will most certainly be more rewarding if you have done some pre-visit reading. At its peak it housed nearly 100,000 inmates who had to suffer constant heat, cold, mud, winds, rats, lice, disease, rats, beatings, thirst, filth and agonising hunger. For visitors it is important to remember that you are an important witness to what happened here. This is hugely important in these days of increasing Holocaust denial. It is fact that the territory you have just entered contained quite a selection of Nazi instruments of mass human murder! The site of the very first experimental gas chamber is here, and, if you know where to look, the remains of the second experimental chamber. It addition, there are the remains of four, industrial scale, efficient churners of mass murder in the form of the main gas chambers.

Typical Birkenau huts and barbed wire
So where do you start when entering this overwhelming plain of human misery and suffering? Guide books recommend you scale the tower in the gatehouse first in order to gain a perspective over the size of Birkenau.  Recorded commentaries in 12 languages can be heard here.
The railway takes the doomed souls to their death in the camp
After this follow the railway line through the heart of the camp. Immediately on your right are rows of wooden barracks which were initially stables that were adapted to house inmates.
 Watch tower and the wooden barracks in the quarantine block 1990
In 1990 visitors could wander inside a few of these, wooden bunks still occupying the draughty shed like buildings.

The remains of wooden bunks in quarantine block 1990 
These served as a quarantine area. A curious brick chimney flue system existed from which smoke was supposed to pass through the building heating it. This is an important point, because a vast area behind this contains nothing but an endless area of the same brick chimneys but no wooden buildings. This is because these wooden blocks which housed the men's camp, the Roma family camp and the camp for female Jews from Hungary, were set on fire as the Nazis retreated in a desperate effort to cover their crimes. All that remains is a sea of brick chimneys.

A sea of brick chimneys

Brick chimneys mark remains of burnt out wooden huts and brick huts beyond, Birkenau
To the left of the railway is a large area of the camp consisting of sturdier brick buildings. These are where you can really get a feel for what life in Birkenau must have been like. They were built without foundation, on a former swamp and for those trying to exist here, it meant living in a constant quagmire. This was mostly the women's camp. Each block still contains the 3 tier berths. These had on average up to 8 people at any one time squashed together, trying to sleep lying on rancid, rotting straw. It was the absolute worst to be allocated a berth at ground level which was colder and meant less chance of survival. This bottom tier was where Anne Frank and her sister were assigned, and contributed hugely to the rapid deterioration in their health which ultimately killed them.

The brick hut accessible today 
Nazi slogans are still visible on the walls and the rudimentary toilets/washrooms exist at the end of each block. Most of them also still have the Kapo's single bed area at the front of the block as you enter.
Kapo room at front of block fenced off
Very, very sadly you now cannot simply wander into these blocks independently. In fact, only one of these blocks can now be visited. The reason for this is that these foundationless blocks are suffering from ground heave, weathering, the general ravages of time, and are in desperate need of work and restoration. (Look up if you would like to help)
Brick hut interior 1990 - Nazi slogan still visible on wall
Back out on the railway line in the middle of the camp is the unloading ramp. It is here the infamous selection process took place. An unbelievable 70% of those who arrived were selected to go directly into the gas chambers. Those selected as fit for slave labour also had a brutal time of it.

Original railway carriage used to transport Hungarian Jews - tall extra hut on end of carriage housed the Nazi guard

Half way up the railway line there is a robust water tank. This was apparently for use to quell any fires that broke out in the camp. This was a stipulation by - wait for it - the company that insured the death camp! And here is it's name folks... Allianz! So guys, remember that when you are renewing any of your policies!
Straddling the end of the railway line are two of the major gas chambers and crematoria, or at least the remains of them. With the Soviets advancing, the Nazis attempted to hide all evidence of their crimes. The gas chambers were dynamited and all that remains are the mangled remains of the crematoria. However, if you know where to look there is still a lot that remains visible.

Pond into which human ash from the crematoria was tipped - note the ash colour of the water

Remains of Crematoria, Birkenau (Auschwitz II)

Remains of Crematoria, Birkenau (Auschwitz II)

Crematoria remains, Birkenau

This is the remains of the underground undressing area prior to entering the gas chambers. Here people were told to undress for a shower. Note the steps at the far end and ponder how many people walked down them to their death

Here, under the grill, you can see the passageway people walked along into the darkness of the underground gas chamber that exists beyond
In between these gas chambers is a pretty bleak Soviet style monument unveiled in 1967 to the victims of fascism.

This is the point where the day tours from Krakow fall short. Visitors are slowly herded back to the gatehouse. However, there is much more to Birkenau that exists beyond the end of the railway. A path continues into the trees. This is a very spooky area, especially when you know that there are endless mass graves in these woods, and ditches where thousands of victims were made to run towards naked, shot, shovelled into and buried. Eerie wooden watch towers still survey the area, and on the right are some ginormous circular brick sanitation systems that were being built in anticipation of Birkenau expanding as a concentration camp!
Keep following this trail as it bends to the right. You will find a large "sauna" block on your left which has now been kitted out for tourists. A glass floor protects the original concrete one and visitors learn about the shower, steam, disinfection process prisoners and clothing were put through in this building. There is some pretty big sinister steam machinery in here built by the Topf company who also manufactured the gas chamber ovens.
Opposite the "sauna" is a very well known area of Birkenau to those who have read up on it's history. It is the area nicknamed "Canada" and consisted of huts full of the valuables, clothing, trinkets that were plundered from the victims. Once again, the original huts were destroyed as the Nazis retreated, however, the field where they once stood is now still littered with the remains of the plundered booty. This is mostly in the form of crushed spoons, spectacles and other broken bits and pieces.
Wander on towards the trees along the trail from here and you happen upon a substantial pond. It was into here a large amount of human ash from the crematoria was tipped, hence the reason for it very grey brown murky colour. I once read a very creepy story about this pond that I will elaborate on in a separate post.
These areas of the camp are not frequently visited and will give a true sense of the lost souls who must haunt this place.

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