After spending the day before wandering though the old Jewish areas of Krakow, I boarded a bus on a grey drizzly Saturday morning for my visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau. I wasn’t sure what to expect – of the day or of myself – and the mood was stilted, even restrained, as the coach wove through the busy traffic and out into the green and undulating Polish countryside.
Auschwitz is actually 3 camps – Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II (Birkenau) and Auschwitz III (Monowitz-Buna, a work camp built near the I.G. Farben industrial complex, which wasn’t part of this visit) – as well as a network of 45 subcamps in the surrounding area.
Our visit took us first to Auschwitz I, a group of 16 brick buildings surrounded by lush trees and the ubiquitous electric fence.
|About to enter Auschwitz I|
Once we’d passed through the gates and followed our local guide down the dusty path to the centre of the camp, it was obvious how compact the site was, not at all what I’d expected.
The buildings here were Polish army barracks prior to Nazi occupation and throughout the camp’s operation, more than 17,000 men, women and children marched under ‘work will set you free’, to the strident beat of the camp orchestra, and populated the bare floors, crowded beds, prison cells and medical wards of this, the base of the Third Reich’s Final Solution in Poland.
|Arbeit macht frei – work will set you free.|
In fact, most of the inmates were not ‘local’. The camps were well-positioned for transportation from other points within Nazi Germany’s rapidly-expanding reach – places like Austria, Czechoslovakia and Romania to name just a few – and so this and the other camps became a veritable Babel, with the only common language being terror.
|One display cabinet was filled with the suitcases and baskets that once held the possessions of these displaced people.|
Auschwitz I was not only the base camp but also a place of significant experimentation. Genetic experiments were carried out to develop methods promoting multiple births, an essential part of Hitler’s plan to populate Eastern Europe with the Ayran Race he so admired. (During the same period, men were castrated to prevent the proliferation of undesirables.)
And the testing of the pesticide Zyklon B’s effectiveness as a human exterminant occurred here in preparation for its wider application at Birkenau.
After 2 hours walking in and out of the old barracks and even into the gas chamber where Zyklon B was first tested, all the while trying to absorb the overwhelming monstrosity of Hitler’s vision, we were given a short comfort break before boarding the coach for part two of our visit. (Believe me, paying for a pee here seemed a really small price to pay!)
Birkenau is enormous and it’s here where the largest number of people were murdered during World War II. Building (by the inmates themselves mind you) commenced in 1941 to ease congestion in the other camps but it was on such a scale that there can be no doubt that its purpose was to extinguish the lives of all who entered.
The ruins of two of the crematoriums have long since ceased to pose a threat but walking around the remains felt sinister – I could feel the absolute and unremitting purposeful-ness of Hitler’s Final Solution.
Between the two ruins lies the monument to those that died here.
The bus was quiet on the way back to Krakow and alone with my thoughts,I tried to process all that I’d seen.
I was horrified by Auschwitz. The inhumane experiments, the displays of surrendered possessions, the inmate photos lining the walls, and the prison – with its starvation and its standing cells designed to punish those who disobeyed by punishing their comrades. I felt the sting of tears blinked away several times here.
But I was numbed by the scale of Birkenau. It’s difficult even now to find the words. I still think about standing on those train tracks, watching them disappear towards the crematorium ruins and the forest surrounding the camp, and silently wondering ‘How? How could that be?’
It still catches me out, filling my mind’s eye in the middle of my day-to-day when I least expect it.
Perhaps it always will.
Other posts in the Krakow series:
It Starts With The Locals
The Dark Side
Eat, Sleep And Be Merry
Lest we forget…