Last weekend, I was blessed with the opportunity to go to Poland and visit both Auschwitz concentration camps. Before I start, I want to make sure you prepare yourself for some of the pictures that follow some of my thoughts.
Throughout the course of the semester I have been learning about everything involving the Nazis during World War II, form their rise to power, to their fall of power. But, more importantly I have been learning about what they did to Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, and many others. The rise of the labor camps, and then the death camps were also mentioned in class. But, even though I was learning about these camps in the classroom, nothing really made sense to me until I visited Auschwitz I and II. After studying the Nazi power, their leaders, their ideals, and more, I thought I had a full grasp as to what they did during this time. But, I was wrong. It wasn’t until this trip to Poland that I was able to truly see what went on during the War.
The Jewish Quarter in Krakow, Kazimierz, was the first thing (related to the War) I got to witness. It housed Jews for over 500 years and is filled with synagogues and a cemetery. The Remuh cemetery was named after a rabbi, Moses Isserles. Today, Jews still come to this cemetery to pray at his grave and the several other graves of the Jews buried there. At times, people will come and leave notes or prayers, hoping the Rabbi will answer their wishes and prayers. Moreover, there are several synagogues that make up this Jewish Quarter. The Old Synagogue was one of the synagogues that I had the privilege to enter. Its old façade and delicate interior really gives it this old feel—especially since it is one of the oldest synagogues standing in Poland.
In March of 1941, the Nazis forced all the Krakow Jews to move to a new ghetto a little bit north of Kazimierz. Then, the ghetto was liquidated two years later in March 1943. I had the opportunity to see the area where the Jews were told to report before deportation. An open area of land, with one small building that housed Nazi officers. The Jews were told to wait there, and because they would be waiting there for hours and hours on end, many brought chairs with them to sit on. Today, there is not just one monument that sits in this area to commemorate what went on in this area. Rather, the monument consists of big and small cement chairs scattered throughout this area. Many of the Jews that were told to wait in this area were taken to concentration camps, such as Auschwitz-Birkenau and Plaszow.
A couple blocks away from this waiting area, was Oskar Schindler’s factory. Oskar Schindler was a businessman from Czechoslovakia who opened up this enamelware factory with a man named Itzhak Stern (a Jewish accountant). Schindler employed Jews, and used bribes to do so. He was arrested several times, trying to save these Jews, but by the end of the war, he ended up saving about 1,100 Jews. After reading Schindler’s Ark, for the term paper, I had a pretty good understanding of his story and the story of those he saved. But then, I was able to walk the same streets he did, and see the location of the factory where he worked. These small experiences made everything so surreal, that it is just something that I can never forget.
The next day, I was able to take a tour of Auschwitz I and II. The Auschwitz camps were the largest of the Nazi camps. At the time, the SS declared an area of 40 square kilometers around Auschwitz and Birkenau a “special interest zone.” Most of the polish people living in this area during 1940 were forced out. The houses were then used by the SS and their families. Others were used to house certain services for the SS—the rest were torn down. Between 1940 and 1944 the camp authorities used this are to set up farms, factories and workshops using prisoners to do so.
Between the years 1940-1945 the Nazis deported at least 1,300,000 people to Auschwitz. Among these people, about 1,100,000 were Jews, 140,000 were Poles , 23,000 were Gpysies, 15,000 Soviet prisonders of war and 25,000 were prisoners from other ethnic groups. On the drive over, all I could think about was how these Jews were transported. Being that the drive, on a bus, took a little over an hour, I can only imagine how long it took for the Jews to arrive at the camp back in the 40s. The Jews were transported in these wooden cars, by railway. Back then, it took days to be transported from Krakow to the labor and death camps. I arrived at the first camp, Auschwitz I and the first thing I saw was the entrance to the camp. Above the entrance were there words “Arbeit Macht Frei.” These words translate to mean, “labor makes you free.” Auschwitz I was a camp, that used to be the Polish military base. This camp housed Polish prisoners, and was the location of medical experiments. When the Jews got out of the cars, that they were transported in, all of their belonings were confiscated. They were then separated into two lines. The doctor would come over and inspect them and if they were fit enough to work, they would be sent to the right and the people who weren’t were sent to the left—the side of death. Pregnant women, disabled, and the elderly were among those sentenced to death.
In Auschwitz I, there was an exhibit that contained all the belongings, to the Jews, that the Nazis confiscated. Among those were piles and piles of suitcases, glasses, dishware, brushes (hair and toothbrushes), Talits, and shoes. Also, there was an entire room filled with crutches, back splints, and prosthetic legs—confiscated from the disabled before they were sentenced to death. What struck me most was the piles and piles of hair that the Nazis confiscated from these innocent human beings. In the exhibit, there is aroom filled with piles and piles of people’s hair. The Nazis planned to ship the hair back to Germany to be used to make other resources for the war.
After going through a couple of rooms and looking at all these confiscated belongings, I came across a glass window of the uniforms that prisoners had to wear. Upon arrival at the concentration camps, the prisoners were told to strip, their clothing taken away, and they were replaced with a striped uniform. Men would wear pants a long sleeve type, cotton shirt. Women would wear a smock type dress. On their feet, the prisoners wore wooden or leather clogs. Socks were not supplied, so prisoners would often suffer from blisters, and other foot sores. This became extremely dangerous because the conditions in the barracks were so unsanitary that prisonders would catch infections, some of which led to death. The clothes would be changed about every six weeks. To most prisoners, this felt like forever because they would have to work and sleep in the same clothes—which also didn’t help the sanitary problems. All the prisoners were identified by numbers—numbers branded on the arms of adults, and sometimes the legs on smaller children. This number would also be printed on their uniforms. Along with these numbers, different types of triangles were placed on the uniforms to signify the different reasons for imprisonment (criminals with a green triangle, political prisoners with a red, homosexuals with pink, Jehovah’s Witnesses wore a purple triangle, Gypsies wore a black triangle). And of course, the Jews wore a yellow triangle over a red triangle to form the Star of David.
As I continued to walk down a dirt road, in between block numbers 10 and 11, I came across an open courtyard. From 1941-1943 this was the courtyard where the SS shot thousands of people along the wall—most of whom were Polish political prisoners, people who helped others escape or facilitated contacts with the outside world. The Polish people who were sentenced to death outside of the camp, in nearby towns, were also brought to this area—where they were shot. Men, women, children had been taken during operations of the Polish resistance against the Germans. Some of the punishments that went on in this courtyard included, hanging from the “post.” Here, prisoners’ hands were tied behind their backs and they were hung from the wrists. This often led to dislocation of limbs and was a torturous way to die. The gas chambers and crematoria (at Auschwitz II) were among the other places where the SS carried out these torturous killings.
Then there was block 11. Block 11 was referred to as the “death block.” This was where the camp jail was located. Most of the people that were housed in these jails were male and females who the SS thought were attempting to escape, or they were maintaining contacts with the outside world. Also, for some time, the Sonderkommando (the special unit of prisoners employed to burn bodies) were held here. In the basement, there were “punishment cells” where the SS confined the prisoners. There were standing cells, where the SS would place about 4 prisoners (into this tiny square foot cell) and would make them stand there for days at a time. These were the prisoners accused of violating camp regulations, some prisoners were also sentenced to starve to death, in this block, in 1941.
As I was walking towards the exit in Auschwitz I, I noticed a couple of wooden poles with a hook. By this point, I knew it was meant for hanging. It wasn’t until I got closer that I realized that this was the place where the camp Gestapo was located. This pole was where the Polish Supreme National Tribunal sentenced the first commandment of Auschwitz, SS Rudolf Hoss, to death after the war. He was hung in this location on April 16th, 1947.
What hit home most was seeing the inside of the gas chamber. This was where the prisoners were told that they were going to be taking showers. They were taken into a front room, where they were told to strip. The Nazi officers would often tell the people, “remember the numbers [above the hooks where the clothes were placed], because you will need your towel after.” This sickened me most. They were fooling these innocent people, and nobody had any idea what was really going on. These people truly thought they were going to get a shower—most people excited to just be near water, to drink. They were so deprived of food and water that they were desperate and couldn’t wait to take this so-called “shower.” The Nazis used cans of a specific poison, called Zyklon B. They would drop these cans through small holes in the ceilings of the gas chambers. Inside the gas chamber, you could still see the scratch marks on the walls from people trying to escape. The gas chamber held up to 700 people at one time. This was shocking to me because my tour group, of 20 people, took up most of the space in the first half of the room. I cannot even fathom the idea of 700 that cement room fitting that many people.
Then I went to Auschwitz II, which was about a five-minute drive from the first labor camp. You could tell from the start that this camp was built specifically to house millions and millions of people. It was huge! I never really imagined how big this camp could have been until I saw it. It went on for miles, and the forest in the distance seemed to be hours away. The very first thing I noticed was the train tracks running through the middle of the camp. Auschwitz II, or Auschwitz Birkenau, was the death camp. It was in an area of open land, and all you could see are these long wooden barracks, in rows, that went on for miles and miles. We started walking down this dirt road and came across the spot where people were separated into the different lines, as mentioned before. During this time, the SS doctor would divide the Jews who had just arrived, into two lines. One line for the pople fit for work (to become prisoners) and the other line was for those who were to be sentenced to immediate death in the gas chambers and crematoria. Most of the barracks and building were demolished in this camp. As I started walking down this dirt path, towards the back of the camp, I realized that I was taking the same steps the Jews took. I was taking the walk to my death, and boy did that walk feel like an eternity. I cannot even imagine taking that walk and not knowing where I was going, or what was going to happen to me. When I arrived at the back of the camp, where the crematoria were, I noticed that there was nothing left but ruins. But, even though only ruins remained, you could still see the outlines of the crematoria—the three separate rooms. As I walked around one, you were able to see these two huge large holes in the ground. These were the holes where the ashes were dumped after they bodies were cremated.
The gas chamber and Crematorium was the place where hundreds of thousands of Jewish men, women, and children were murdered. They were gassed and their bodies were burned. The crematorium was used for other people other than the Jews, other people who had died from other causes—it was the place to dispose of bodies. On October 23rd, 1943, there was a revolt by some Jews, who resisted being taken into the gas chambers. Nazi officials quickly placed the resistance under control. But, towards the end of the war, the SS began to remove and dispose of the evidence of the atrocities at Auschwitz. In 1945 they used dynamite to destroy what remained. This is why most of the camp seemed to be demolished.
But, for the barracks that did remain, I was able to have a look inside. The first one I went into was the “bathhouse” barrack. I walked in and all I could see were these two long concrete benches with hundreds of holes, one after the next. This was the place where the people would go to the bathroom. But, the prisoners were only allowed to go the bathroom twice a day—once before they went to work, and once when they came back from work. Many of the prisoners preferred to work in this barrack as supposed to another job in the outdoors. Although the smell in this room was so foul during the times of war, filled with feces and diseases, people still hoped to get a job in this barrack. The main reason for this was that they wanted to be sheltered from the weather.
Then, I got to witness and see the living conditions of the barracks. The cold, eerie, wooden looking barrack was filled with 3 layered bunk beds on both sides of the room. Each bed, on each layer, supposedly housed between 5 to 8 people. This just gives you an idea of how many people were cramped into these barracks. Wearing only cotton, thin uniforms, people often suffered from diseases, hypothermia, and more. Many people died in these barracks due to these harsh living conditions. This was the last thing I saw in Auschwitz II and it was definitely a picture in my mind that will never be forgotten. On January 27, 1945 those that were not dead or evacuated were liberated by the Soviets.
You often see pictures on the Internet, or see documentaries of what happened at these camps. But nothing of the matter does enough to truly portray what it was really like in these camps, and what the suffering was like during this time. Auschwitz is a place that has become a symbol of evil and terror, and most importantly is the symbol of the holocaust.
By reading books (Schindler’s List, The Nazi Germany Sourcebook, Hitler and Nazi Germany and others), traveling to such historical places and understanding class lectures, I have a full grasp on world war II and the Nazi party—what they did, how they did it, why they did it, and everything else that goes along with the party. If there’s one thing I learned in traveling to Auschwitz, is that everyone has a story. No matter if you were Jewish, a homosexual, a gypsy, Jehovah’s Witnesses, or anything else, everyone endured such extreme suffering during this time. Taking this trip, has imprinted an understanding that is indescribable—an understanding of the Jewish people and the terror that people endured in these frightening years. I cannot believe I am so blessed to have had an opportunity like this. I have been learning about the Nazis in class, and now I can feel for those who have died, risked their lives, or even survived during this time. I was able to truly witness, first hand, what happened during the holocaust. We can never forget what happened.