The Auschwitz concentration camp & mass murder centre
Our travels today took us to Auschwitz, arguably the world’s most notorious concentration camp and site of over a million murders. It wasn’t exactly a fun day, but certainly a memorable one. The museum that has been set up at Auschwitz was quite moving and gave us both a new appreciation for the sheer scale of the atrocities carried out by the Nazi during WWII.
Neither of us realised before today that Auschwitz was in fact made up of 3 large camps and 45 smaller, satellite camps. Today’s visit took us to Auschwitz I (the original camp) and Auschwitz-Birkenau, the second and largest camp built (it covers and area of over 400 acres and housed over 100,000 people).
This network of concentration and extermination camps were built and operated by the Third Reich in Polish areas annexed by Nazi Germany during WWII. Initially Auschwitz I was used to house Polish prisoners-of-war, but then, as the Nazi campaign to rid the world of “undesirable peoples” (i.e. Jews, Roma people, etc) gained momentum, it was also used for the mass murder of more than 70,000 people.
Auschwitz II (Birkenau) was built in 1942 to accommodate the ever-increasing numbers of victims destined for the gas chambers. We saw the train tracks and platforms at Birkenau where train-loads of Jews from around Europe were deposited, destined either for forced labour (if they were deemed to be strong and fit enough), or for immediate death in the gas chambers. We also got to tour through some of the barracks at Auschwitz II where prisoners working in the labour camps were kept; the conditions must have been brutal and it is no wonder most did not survive for long.
The numbers were just mind-boggling: we were told that at least 1.1 million prisoners died at Auschwitz, around 90% of them Jewish. The rest were Roma peoples (i.e. Gypsies), Polish prisoners-of-war (including many of the countries intellectual and spiritual leaders whom the Nazis wanted to remove to cement their control over the country), Soviet prisoners-of-war and other other peoples deemed “undesirable” enough to be removed (e.g. homosexuals, Jehova’s Witnesses). Those that did not immediately die in the gas chambers often died within a weeks of starvation, exposure and/or disease.
The genius and efficiency with which the death camps were arranged and run was truly disturbing. The way things were run as smoothly ad possible so as not to instil fear or panic in the victims so they literally did not realise what was happening until it was basically too late. The way mothers with young children were kept together so the children would remain calm all the way into the gas chambers. The way all the bodies were looted for hair, gold fillings and anything else of value; and how the victims’ possessions were used to fund the ongoing Nazi war effort.
Most distressing were the things that put a human face to the tragedy and made it a tangible reality. Things like the piles of human hair, collected from women killed in the gas chambers and then sold by the kilogram to a German cloth manufacture who then made sacking cloth from the hair. Or the piles and piles of tiny children’s shoes, collected from the 200,000+ children that were killed in the gas chambers of Auschwitz.
I cannot even begin to detail everything that we saw and won’t even try to recount all the sad stories the Auschwitz Museum tour guide gave us. Suffice to say it was terribly upsetting seeing how the prisoners existed (because that certainly is not living) while at the camp, and how inhumanely they were treated. We knew before visiting Auschwitz that war can be horrendous and that human beings are capable of incredible brutality, but seeing evidence of such horror for ourselves made it very real.
So much evil has been done in the name of power, wealth, religion and race; we only hope that the lessons from Auschwitz, Hiroshima and other similar tragedies around the world add weight to the argument for peace.