I have to say I debated whether I should put this post up or not, I understand it's very sensitive material and a very difficult subject, please be warned before reading this post. After debating whether to post or not I decided sharing it was of utmost importance, as as our tour guide told us, people still do not know the extent of the horrors that went on in Auschwitz and that it should never be forgotten, I also wanted to share our experience with you...
Our tour guide was fantastic and taught us so much we didn't know, his information certainly made everything feel very raw and real. What amazed me was that nothing had really been touched since it was shut down in 1945; even the atmosphere at the camps felt so still and sad. It was a very interesting yet traumatising day, something I think I'll never forget.I kept looking around and feeling as if it was a set or a museum, then reality set in that this only happened just over 70 years ago to real women, men and children. Our tour guide kept enforcing that throughout the tour, he wanted us to try to look at the people as individuals when looking around the camp, look at their faces in the photographs, look at each pair of shoes, look at the barracks and remember each bed contained around 5-8 people.
To begin our tour we took a bus from Krakow Main Market Square and it took us around an hour to get there, we passed more forest areas of Krakow dotted with little villages and towns. Whilst driving in our tour bus they played a documentary which told us facts about what had gone on in Auschwitz. The footage itself even before arriving at the camps was disturbing to say the least.
Upon arrival we first stopped at AUSCHWITZ I: CONCENTRATION CAMP...
We arrived and were given our headsets by our tour guide where we were then let into the camp. One of the first facts he told us upon walking in was as we passed under the gate entrance, the infamous metal banner reads ‘ARBEIT MACHT FREI’ translating to English as ‘Work Sets You Free’, this slogan featured at a number of Nazi concentration camps. The tour guide informed us that many of the things in the camp we would see were intended as a mockery toward the prisoners.
“He seems not to have intended it as a mockery, nor even to have intended it literally, as a false promise that those who worked to exhaustion would eventually be released, but rather as a kind of mystical declaration that self-sacrifice in the form of endless labour does in itself bring a kind of spiritual freedom.”.
Beyond the sign we entered the prison camp, where a series of brick buildings were arranged in rows around a central pathway. Wooden watchtowers looked down on the thoroughfare from either end, while double barriers of electrified barbed wire separated the compounds from one another. Rudimentary gallows had been erected to one side of the path for executions.
Even in the early days of Auschwitz conditions were harsh, as the SS developed increasingly cruel treatments for prisoners who stepped out of line. Most of these punishments took place in the infamous Block 11. ‘Standing cells’ restricted movement and denied comfort, while those condemned to ‘starvation cells’ in the basement were left without food or drink until they perished. There were also ‘quiet cells’ – inmates in these chambers were deprived of air and left to suffocate – often with a candle placed in the room to help speed the process.
Next we headed over to AUSCHWITZ II-BIRKENAU: DEATH CAMP...
We then got back on our tour bus to visit Birkenau, I was completely oblivious to the fact the camps were split up into a concentration camp and a death camp. It was around 3.5km to Birkenau – not far really, we probably could have walked but the tour bus took us over anyway...
Construction of the Auschwitz II-Birkenau camp was started in October of 1941, as part of a plan to ease congestion at the first camp. Whereas Auschwitz I was adapted from existing artillery barracks however, Auschwitz II was designed with the sole purpose of mass extermination. It was on 20th January 1942, at the Wannsee Conference, that plans were fixed for the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question”. Reinhard Heydrich delivered the order, though it was common knowledge that the initiative had come down from Heinrich Himmler. After this point, the Auschwitz Birkenau Extermination Camp became a ruthlessly efficient processing facility.
At the back of the Birkenau site, you can finds the remains of the gas chambers. The first gassing took place here in 1942, at a converted farmhouse; the building was gutted, its windows bricked up and the interior converted into four large rooms which were designed to look like showers. Due to the remote location however, as well as the lack of plumbing or running water, it would seem that few of the prisoners were fooled by the ruse. It was known as the ‘Little Red House’. In June of the same year a second building – the ‘Little White House’ – was also put to use.
Although a visit to Auschwitz is far from a comfortable experience, it is nevertheless an important one; as it is crucial that the events of the Holocaust are not forgotten.
The overall message of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, as I perceived it, was not one of apportioning blame; but rather to recognise humankind’s capacity for cruelty, and, through better understanding the past, making certain that nothing like this is ever allowed to happen again.