You’d think being done with medical school (for now) and only working till 12.30pm would mean that I have more time to myself, but oh boy, how untrue that is. Somehow, there’s always something else to do, on top of reading up on new admissions to the hospital where I’m doing my clerkship. I wish I had a little more time to myself, to curl up with a book and pay no heed to everything else, but hey, being occupied isn’t so bad.
Rambles aside, I have time today, and it being Thursday, I thought I’d do a Throwback Thursday here (#tbt for you hip folks), and write (and show you pictures) of a trip I made on May 1, 2014. To my Facebook friends, there will be a considerable amount of repetition of my captions from the album I uploaded to Facebook, and for that I apologize.
It took me almost 3 years living in Krakow and a visiting friend to finally make a trip to what is arguably one of the most historically significant places on Earth: the Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp. Long post ahead!
My friends and I at the camp
Auschwitz-Birkenau camp is actually a network of Nazi concentration camps near the Polish town of Auschwitz, or in Polish, Oswiecim. History being a weak point for me, I may have some facts wrong, but I believe that this camp was spread over 3 sections, and we visited 2 of them, the first of which our guide referred to as Auschwitz, and the second, Birkenau.
We traveled from Krakow to Auschwitz by bus (we simply bought a bus ticket from the conductor and spent about 1.5-2 hours on board) and arrived around noon, where we bought our tickets and stated our preferred language, then waited for the tour guides to group all of us English speakers together. Each group comprised 10-15 people, and each person was given a headset so that we could always hear what the tour guide was saying.
My first impression of the place was how pretty and serene it looked, which in my mind, stood in stark contrast to the obvious horrors which took place back in the 1940s. I just couldn’t shake off that difference the entire time I was there. How could a place which looks so nice in spring bear so much heartache all year round?
As we began the tour and entered the camp, we were greeted by gates that bore the words “Arbeit Macht Frei”, which means “Work Frees You” in German. How terribly deceiving! Many who passed under those words would, very literally, work to their deaths. I suppose, in a morbid way, they were freed of their physical suffering.
We were then led through hallways and large rooms which once housed kitchens and workplaces, but are now filled with glass displays, all aiming to depict the history that is written in their walls. From uniforms to food rations, from children’s clothes to pots and pans, from broken suitcases to torn shoes – everything on display pointed to the kind of treatment the victims received from the dreadful moment they reached camp.
Those victims all went to camp willingly (at least initially, when no one was aware of the nature of the camps), duped into leaving their countries and towns in hopes of a new and better life. The false prospect of better employment was so well-spun that people would often sell their property and gather enough money in hopes that they could buy one of the lands in Auschwitz to farm. It didn’t matter that they were packed into small train carriages and made to travel long distances, for they were promised warm food and a hot bath upon arrival, and hope of a much better life.
When they did eventually reach Auschwitz, they would be given uniforms – a set each which were to be their only clothes from that point on; some were also given shoes, many others hard wooden clogs – and directed to the showers, where they would be blasted with cold water to “rid them of any impurities”, and then tattooed with serial numbers, which marked the beginning of their imprisonment.
Of course, that only happened if they weren’t sent to the gas chambers. In the beginning, Auschwitz was only intended to be a labour camp, not one where people were killed. But the numbers grew so greatly that they decided that the only solution was to eliminate the useless ones (a bit more on that later when we reach Birkenau), which included the elderly, the lame, those who lacked manual skills, and many women and children. The Nazis, being occupied with the idea of creating a master Aryan race, had a preference for blue eyed blonde girls. Many other little girls were sent to their deaths upon arrival simply because the colour of their hair wasn’t “right”.
Nazi-issued uniforms for the camp prisoners
And what became of their belongings? They were confiscated, every single article. I cannot even begin to describe the piles and piles of reading glasses, pots, pans, labelled suitcases, shoes of every size, shaving brushes, clothes for the young and the old, combs, hair brushes, vanity items, and the most heartbreaking of all, human hair.
There was an entire block of just human hair! Piles and piles of them, all shaved off the heads of the women who were gassed at camp. Even recalling it now sends shivers down my back. And those I saw were just that which happened to be at camp when it all went south for the Nazis. They used to salvage women’s hair and send it to factories to be spun into fabric. Waste not, want not, yeah? Can you imagine how much more hair must have been obtained the entire time the camp was up and running? The horror!
A sculpture titled “Starvation” in one of the hallways at Auschwitz
Those who survived the initial selection were put to work immediately. Most started off with serious hard labour – digging trenches, burying their fellow travelers, etc. Some skilled workers were given other tasks, including a certain Wilhelm Brasse, who was a trained photographer of Austrian-Polish descent. He photographed almost every member of the concentration camp, and in an interview with our tour guide, he said “Do not think I kept these photos for the future generation – I kept them because they were my work.” He survived World War II, and passed away at a ripe old age of 94, refusing to take another photo ever again.
Among the many portraits of the prisoners which survived WWII
Auschwitz, being built with the initial intention of only being a slave labour camp, only had a small gas chamber. It was an unassuming little building which used to be painted white inside and out to resemble a bathing area. It was yet another trick by the Nazis to ensure compliance among the victims – the Nazi guards told the 1000+ victims that they had to strip down and be sardined in that tiny space to receive their nice, warm bath.
The tiny space would be their death bed. Because it was so small and there were way too many people, many of them would die standing, arms linked in the final moment when they realized that they were being gassed to death.
The gas chamber at Auschwitz, now blackened by time. Next to the lights are little holes where the soldiers could drop Cyclone B pellets into the hall, then shut those holes tight until everyone was dead.
The crematorium, also very small, right next to the gas chamber.
After that, we were taken by a shuttle bus to Birkenau, which is a lot larger than Auschwitz (if you want numbers, you’ll have to look it up yourself). There is a train track that runs right down the middle of the camp, and it is on those tracks that trains carrying hundreds of people from 23 different countries, all crammed into spaces so small that they could barely sit, transported them to their fate.
If you look at the picture below, you will notice a long building at the far end of the picture. That is the entrace to the Birkenau camp. Running down the middle are the aforementioned train tracks, and midway through that, the train would stop, and everyone would alight. Some others got off the train before they passed through the entrance, opting to walk into it instead. One woman who was travelling with her mother asked her elderly mother to stay on the train, saying that she would meet her once they were inside. She never saw her mother again.
Once inside, they were asked to segregate themselves into groups of men and women and made to line up, thus beginning the selection process. At the front of the line was the camp doctor, who would give every person an all-over, and then point them either to the left or to the right. If he gestured to his right, the victim would be headed down the so-called “pathway to heaven”, meaning he would have to walk his way to the gas chamber, and he wouldn’t even know until it is too late. If the doctor thought you were fit for work, and you had a skill that they needed, you would be sent the other way to hard labour.
It’s amazing how well the deception was executed. No one ever rebelled, no one suspected anything because they were all promised a good life at the end of the arduous journey. And even if they had their suspicions, they were already so worn down from the journey to the camp that they wouldn’t be able to physically fight back.
The Auschwitz-Birkenau War Memorial.
At the very end of the tracks was a large empty area which now houses the Auschwitz-Birkenau War Memorial. It is made in a rather abstract manner, intended to cause the observer to deduce for themselves the chimney of the crematorium, the fallen victims, the gas chambers, all of which are regrettably not well photographed here. At the foot of the memorial are several plaques in the languages that were thought to have been spoken by the prisoners, then. There is a solitary plaque in English simply because it is an international language.
The plaques read:
“For ever let this place be
A cry of despair
And a warning to humanity
Where the Nazis murdered
About one and a half
Men, women, and children
From various countries of Europe
There were 3 crematoriums in Birkenau and an underground gas chamber, and again, the victims were told that it was a shower area. Mothers were even assured that the water will not be too hot for their infants to bear, so that those women would take their innocent babies with them to their deaths.
When the Nazis realized that the war was ending, they burnt down much of Birkenau, and much of the camp which was still under construction was left unfinished. Many buildings weren’t well destroyed, however, because it seems the soldiers at camp were rushing to get away from it.
One of the crematoriums, or what is left of it
Sleeping quarters at the concentration camp. 4 to 5 people were made to sleep on each level, that’s on all 3 levels. The bottom-most level was the worst, with feces and rats all over the floor. There was absolutely no heating, even in the bitter Polish winters.
At the concentration camps, the prisoners were only allowed to defecate at fixed times throughout the day. They were all brought in groups into communal latrines such as this one, ordered to sit, and then minutes later ordered to stand and leave. There was no way of cleaning yourself, and many would go on to urinate all over their living quarters. Clearly, the Nazis did not consider hygiene an important aspect for the prisoners.
As I left the camp, I realized how difficult it is to walk away untouched by everything I saw. As bright and beautiful as the day was when we were there, there was still an eerie, heavy gloom looming over the place. It’s almost as if its past still clings to it like a stubborn stain, a reminder of how inhumane the human race is capable of being.
And yet, I saw that as difficult as it is, it is possible to leave thinking of Auschwitz as just another museum of sorts. What you take away from it depends a lot on how much of it you allow to reach your deepest recesses. I have so much more to say about this, but my word count is already over 2000, and I think it’s high time I stopped writing. I have this to say, that while I regret what has happened at that camp, I am thankful for the chance to have walked those grounds. The difference to just reading about it is immense.
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” – George Santayana