We took a tour to Auschwitz. I knew that it would be a hard day.
Auschwitz is the German name for the Polish city Oświęcim. On the drive, we watched a movie made by the Soviets about their liberation of Auschwitz. They called WWII the Great Patriotic War.
We learned that there was a nearby factory run by IG Farben. The Germans built factories near the concentration camps and made way for German settlers in occupied Poland. Several IG Farben leaders were tried at Nuremberg for their support of Nazi Germany. IG Farben paid for this slave labor. I had never heard of this company. They also made Zyklon B that was used in the gas chambers.
It is an ugly story. I believe that they are still in business.
Once we arrived, we were shocked by how many visitors there are: three million per year. It makes me sad to think that horrific death is big business. Our driver, Andrew, said that even though he was born and grew up in Oświęcim, he had never met a tourist.
Auschwitz consisted of three parts:
Originally, Auschwitz I was a military base of brick barracks with access to a great railway system. It was converted to a work camp. The first to arrive were the young ethnic Poles on June 14, 1940.
Behind the double barbed wire fence the prisoner orchestra would play to keep order as it provided for the proper pace to and from work.
Auschwitz II-Birkenau was initially made for Soviet camp POW prisoners. All citizens were expelled from this land in order to construct the camp.
Jews were sent to Auschwitz II-Birkenau in 1942 not to work but just to be exterminated. This was a death camp. Auschwitz II-Birkenau was constantly expanding. The area of new construction by the prisoners was called Mexico as it was always in chaos. The huge complex covered the equivalent of 422 football fields. It was as far as the eye could see.
Auschwitz III-Monowitz was a work camp near the factory. It no longer remains.
There were 1,200 people in each barrack. Overcrowded conditions led to health problems.
Soviet Jews were murdered in their homes. They were not transported. There have identified 1,600 places as extermination sites. Hungarian Jews lived fairly unharrassed until late in the war due to the sad fact that they had aligned with the Soviets. They arrived in Auschwitz in 1944.
The Nazis acted like resettlement was a good thing for the Jews. The Jews were promised land and jobs. Some unknowing people even bought tickets…to their own death!!
Selection took place: men capable of working in one line, and women children, elderly and disabled in another line for immediate disposal. Gas chambers were underground and it would take 25-30 minutes to die by suffocation using Zyklon B.
Nakedness was a visible sign of imminent execution. One did not want to go to the hospital either as you would not get better… and you might be used by medical students to practice their surgery skills.
The plunder of belongings were sorted and put into warehouses called Canada. This was proof of criminal activity.
Of the dead, they would extract the teeth and were able to harvest 8k per day gold from teeth.
There were pyramids of hair, glasses, shoes, brushes, combs, cooking pans and even prosthetics. A sad forerunner of recycling.
Block 11 was known as the Death Block. St. Maximilian Kolbe was starved to death there. There were standing cells. Five men were crammed into a room the size of a phone booth accessed through basically a dog door. They were left there, released for work and then returned.
Rudolf Höss was the commandant of Auschwitz and lived there with his growing family of 5 children. He was tried and hanged outside the crematorium in Auschwitz I in 1947. Ninety percent of the people responsible were not punished for their involvement.
Who was taking these photographs? Heinrich Hoffmann was Hitler’s personal photographer but his photos were mainly of Hitler. Our guide said the other photos were likely made as SS training videos.
I asked our guide about non-prisoners that were involved in building the four crematorims in Birkenau. He said that one crematorium would be expected as death happens … but so many??? They had to know. So many arriving … so few leaving. The crematoriums could not keep up, and the Nazis started burning bodies in open pits.
On January 17 in advance of the Soviet Army, 56,000 prisoners marched 60 km to another camp. Many died on the way. This was the largest death march.
Camp liberation occurred on January 27, 1945 and is celebrated each year. Alas, many didn’t survive evacuation. They were too far gone.
Poles decided to rebuild Auschwitz in 1947 to serve as a museum as an ugly reminder of the atrocities done here.
Time has no power over these memories.