Arbeit Macht Frei – work will set you free…
Imagine traveling for days with 60-80 people in each “wagon”… Imagine arriving at Auschwitz-Birkenau and being met by SS guards…Imagine being told to leave all your earthly belongings in a pile while you are escorted to a “shower”… Imagine being ordered to strip naked… Imagine that “shower” was a gas chamber…Imagine the fear…
For the hundreds of thousands of human beings, people, Jews, Poles, Hungarians, gypsies, Soviets, men, women, and children… they didn’t have to imagine. It was their reality…
For some, their “life” at Auschwitz-Birkenau…mere hours!
I read this quote and thought it was a good starting place. “Millions of people around the world know what Auschwitz was but it is basic that we retain in our minds and memories awareness that it is humans who decide whether such a tragedy will ever take place again. This is the work of humans, and it is humans alone who can prevent any such return.” Professor Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, a former Auschwitz prisoner.
Relocating to Poland, yes, I knew of Auschwitz and some of the other camps, but I didn’t realize the magnitude. Sure, we tell ourselves we know of the horrors, but do we? Between 1933 and 1945 Nazi Germany and its allies established more than 44,000 camps and other incarceration sites. These other sites also included the ghettos. In March of 1933, the first concentration camp, Dachau, opened outside of Munich. Dachau was primarily used for political prisoners. It was liberated in April 1945 making it the longest-running camp in operation.
Since arriving in Poland in February of 2020, I have visited Auschwitz I, Auschwitz-Birkenau, and Majdanek. Although, I will dedicate this post solely to Auschwitz I and Auschwitz Birkenau and address Majdanek in a future post.
To most of the world, Auschwitz is probably the best-known symbol of the holocaust. Although Auschwitz is often spoken about as if it is one camp, it is actually 3 separate camps; Auschwitz I (main camp), Auschwitz-Birkenau (concentration and extermination camp), and Auschwitz III-Monowitz (labor camp) also called Buna. The original camp was opened in 1940 on the outskirts of the Polish town of Oświęcim. The Germans changed the name of the city to “Auschwitz” and this also became the name of the camp. The German name has led some to think the camp was in Germany, but it is in Poland approximately 75 km west of Krakow. Its location put it at the center of German-occupied Europe. Not only did the camp expand into 3 main camps, but also 40 sub-camps. It is estimated that 1.1 million Jews were sent to Auschwitz alone and beginning in 1942 became the scene of the largest mass murder in human history.
Many of the men, the women, and the children of Jewish decent were sent directly after their arrival to their deaths in the Birkenau gas chambers. Their “life” at Auschwitz-Birkenau…..mere hours.
Most of us have seen pictures of Auschwitz and other camps, but nothing can prepare you for the reality of coming face to face with the entrance to Auschwitz I with the inscription Arbeit macht frei (work will make you free). The guide, with his gentle, soft voice and sad undertone led us solemnly through the gate, and then we stopped at the rear of a building, the camp kitchen. This, he told us, was where the camp orchestra played. Nice touch, right?!…prisoners playing music is the first thing you see/hear upon coming to camp…NOT. Of course, there was a more sinister use of the music which was played as the inmates left camp in the early morning and returned in the late evening from their labor. As one inmate stated, “the coordination of the marching labor commandos to the inexorable rhythm of the music, which many inmates sensed only subliminally because of exhaustion and apathy.” Another prisoner said, “we often returned from the field with a comrade’s corpse in our arms and had to march to the beat of the music with our left leg.” The music was also played during public punishments and executions as a demonstration of unlimited SS power. However, another prisoner, Franz Danimann, said that the Leonore Overture from Beethoven’s Fidelio which was performed by the official band during roll call in the summer of 1943, strengthened his will to survive.
Leaving the site of the camp orchestra we moved to the barracks. Auschwitz I originally consisted of 22 brick buildings, eight of which were 2-story. A second story was added to the others later and an additional 8 new ones built. I visited on a warm sunny day in June (2021). As I looked around, I saw nice brick buildings, green grass, flowers, and trees. It almost looked like an apartment complex. The guide, in his quiet voice, reminded us that the camp did not look like this when it was a “camp”. With the number of people confined to this space, trampling to and from the work fields, standing for hours during the role, and general moving about, there wouldn’t have been grass. It would have been dirt and mud and many of the trees were planted later. He told us to picture it on a grey day in November and malnourished people without proper outer garments milling about.
Next, he led us to a building. Upon entering we are met by a sign that read, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” George Santayana
In the first room, we entered there was no photography permitted. Behind the glass wall, out of the nearly 8 tons that were found when Auschwitz was liberated, is 4000 pounds of human hair shaved from the heads of prisoners before they were sent to the gas chamber. It is here you really start to feel the human element. As you look at the hundreds of pieces of braided hair still intact, you start to picture faces, you imagine what it would have felt like to have your hair lobbed off “because of lice”. You try to picture the woman with the long braid, what color were her eyes? But all you can picture is a woman with fear in her eyes still not realizing these were her last moments on earth.
Next, you walk into a room, and behind that glass wall are pairs of children’s shoes…not just 10 or 20 pairs but 100s or 1000s…then comes the room filled with the shoes of adults. 110,000 pairs of shoes were found after the camp was liberated. You see a glass wall behind which are some of the 88 pounds of eyeglasses left behind. Then there are the 246 prayer shawls and the 12,000 pots and pans brought to the camp by people who thought they would be resettled. Finally, behind a glass wall, the 100s of empty canisters of Zyklon B. Zyklon B was the trade name of a cyanide-based pesticide invented in Germany in the early 1920s. It consisted of hydrogen cyanide, as well as a cautionary eye irritant. Our guide told us 1 canister contained enough pellets to kill 1000 people. Imagine…this is just one building at one camp.
It is difficult just reading about the horrors of Auschwitz, but coming face to face with portraits of the men and women in striped uniforms lining the corridor as we entered Barracks 6, the prisoners barrack, is haunting. Looking into their eyes, seeing their nationality, their date of birth, and date of death you realize not one of these faces looking back at you survived Auschwitz.
From the prisoners’ barracks, we slowly and silently made our way to Barracks 11, the Camp Jail and Death Wall. Walking to the entrance of Barrack 11 the first thing you notice is a fenced-in courtyard and a wall we would later learn was the Death Wall.
It was here that the SS shot several thousand prisoners between 1941 and 1944. The SS also shot more than 5000 “police prisoners” at the death wall. Executions by shooting and hanging took place in the side yard at the “death wall” where so-called “punishment by the post” and flogging was also inflicted. The total number of prisoners brought to the camp for execution from outside the camp is not known. As we walked through the building we were told the Germans held court here. We saw the living conditions in the “regular” cells and then were told the horrors of the basement.
The basement had starvation cells, dark cells, cells with no fresh air, and standing cells which held 4 prisoners for 3 to 10 days with only room for them to stand. The first trials of mass killing of people with Zyklon B were held in the basement. Finally, exiting the building you walk past the death wall.
It is hard to comprehend what took place at that wall when the guide tells you to take notice of the Barrack across the courtyard with the blackened windows, Block 10. It was here that German gynecologist, Professor Carl Clauberg, carried out criminal sterilization experiments on women prisoners.
As we are slowly making our way back through the camp, I can’t comprehend that I have seen only 3 buildings out of 30 and this is only one camp out of more than 44,000 camps and incarceration sites. I struggle to put my thoughts and feelings into words. Even if I can’t find the words, deep inside I will never forget how I felt. We continued our walk, past the kitchen and the site of the camp orchestra. It was also here that roll call took place and also the public hangings on the multiple gallows while the camp orchestra played.
As we were finishing our tour of Auschwitz I, our guide led us toward what looked like a small hill. Before the war, it was a Polish Army ammunition bunker. As soon as I entered the first barren room, I knew something more evil had taken place here. Then I saw the ovens….
The largest room was designated as a morgue to hold the bodies of murdered prisoners. Crematorium furnaces capable of reducing 340 corpses to ashes per day were installed in the adjacent room. From the autumn of 1941 to the beginning of December 1942 the morgue served as a gas chamber. The yard outside, surrounded by a concrete fence served as an undressing room. SS men used Zyklon B to kill thousands of Jews and several large groups of Soviet prisoners of war here. For the most part, the building has been preserved in its original condition. When the gas chambers in Birkenau were operating, the furnaces and chimney here were dismantled.
With the construction of the higher capacity crematorium at Birkenau, 4,576 corpses could be burned per day in the 5 crematoria.
“You are in a building where the SS murdered thousands of people. Please maintain silence here: remember their suffering and show respect for their memory” Signage in the gas chamber/crematorium.
After finishing the Auschwitz I tour, I was numb. I was thankful for some time to regroup before we went to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Maybe even more chilling than the Arbeit Macht Frei sign at the entrance to Auschwitz I is the entrance to Birkenau also known as the “Gate of Death.”
Leaving Auschwitz I, we had a short drive to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Arriving at Birkenau, you are left off some distance from the camp and given instructions to walk along a road to the entrance of the camp and our guide would meet us there. It seemed strange that we were left off so far from the entrance…. Until, as you are walking along the railroad tracks, you see the brick structure which was the main SS guardhouse, and you follow the rail to the gate through which the trains with wagons stuffed full of people passed. For many who passed through this gate, not knowing that it was their last day on earth…. then you understand the unimaginable.
Our guide led us through the entrance gate, and we paused. Spread out in front of us 432 acres of land, 300+ buildings mostly wooden barracks, some brick barracks, and the remnants of barracks, we stared at what was the largest center for the extermination of Jews. Our guide asked us to walk silently along the tracks until we came to “the ramp”. The trains stopped at the ramp or unloading platform that was the central point in the camp.
This spot was the destination for trains carrying more than a half-million Jewish deportees to Auschwitz. Most of the new arrivals were classified by SS doctors as unfit for labor and murdered that same day in nearby gas chambers.
Placed at the ramp in 2009, the Wagon is a reminder of the conditions in which the people were brought to the camps. It is also a symbol of the Holocaust as it took place in Auschwitz.
We continued walking to the end of the railroad platform. Here between the ruins of the gas chamber and crematoriums, which were blown up in January 1945 by the SS, 800 meters (.5 miles) from the main gate, stands the monument to the victims of Auschwitz…the nearly 1 million Jews – men, women, and children – and the prisoners of other nationalities who either died or were murdered in the camp. Not far from the ruins, there is a pond…one of the places where human ashes were strewn.
As we made our way back, we stopped in one of the brick barracks, part of the women’s camp. Left mostly as it was, we were shown the living conditions of the camp. Designed for 700 people, containing 60 3 tier bunks. Each of the 180 sleeping places had a nominal capacity of 4 people (in practice, 6 or 7). Prisoners slept on straw scattered on the boards of the bunk without pillows. The lower bunk was often a dirt or brick floor. Several people shared a single blanket and many of the small stoves to heat the interior were for show or insufficient to heat the interiors. The sickest were always on the bottom and between the odor of sweat, the excrement, and vomit dripping from above, they had little chance of survival. The barracks were usually lice and rat-infested also.
As we made our way out of the camp, I paused at the entrance gate to the women’s camp. Like at Auschwitz I, the camp orchestra played marches while the women were going to work and then returning to camp. As I paused, I tried to imagine what it was like…I couldn’t, as it is incomprehensible. Even after hearing the stories and seeing the evidence, it is nearly impossible to imagine the atrocities. Nothing can prepare you for a visit to Auschwitz.
Throughout both camps are actual photographs showing life at Auschwitz. Photos of the people on the ramp, including images of the SS carrying out selections on the new arrivals. Images of people going to the gas chambers or awaiting death, as well as the sorting of things that belonged to the murdered. After the liberation of the camp over 200 photographs, which the SS didn’t destroy, taken at Birkenau were found, along with about 39,000 negatives of newly arrived prisoners. I was physically and emotionally drained when I returned to Krakow that evening.
The site of the former camps was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. I have only touched on what I saw and what I felt on this day. It was overwhelming and something I will never forget. I would like to end with something I read in a booklet I purchased, Auschwitz-Birkenau the Past and the Present as I think it has a powerful message.
“In keeping with the act passed by the Polish Parliament in 1947, the task of the museum was to safeguard the former camp, its buildings, and environs. To gather evidence and materials concerning German atrocities committed at Auschwitz, to subject them to scientific scrutiny, and to make them publicly available.
Despite this, there is still much debate amongst former prisoners, museum experts, conservationists, historians, teachers, and the mass media on how to organize, manage and develop the museum.
Even before the museum was opened, people wondered whether it should limit itself to reconstructing history, or rather explaining and clarifying the principal mechanisms underlying the criminal system. Views on the matter differed radically: some believed that the site should be plowed over, others demanded that every single object be retained and protected.
The very word “museum” is also a topic for debate. Not everyone accepts the name “Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum”. Some believe that the former camp is a cemetery, others that it is a place of memory, a monument, others still regard it as a memorial institute, research, and education center on those who were killed. The museum, in fact, fulfills all of these functions, as they do not cancel out, but rather complement one another.”
“Auschwitz is forever a painful expression of the world’s bad conscience. The remains of the Nazi death camp remind us of the darkest moments of human history.” Donations can be made via the website www.auschwitz.org
I commend the people of Poland and the administration of the museum as one of the basic activities of the center involves cooperation with young people and teachers from Poland and abroad.