This is the first of two posts Sarah Horton will be doing on here about her trip to Poland this past week. It’s something she’s talked about doing for a few years now. To bear witness to what happened. And not merely viewing it as history, but as evidence. Evidence of what, in certain circumstances, human beings are prepared to do to other human beings. Sarah has been to Auschwitz.
I’ve taken a proper two week summer holiday this year, time completely off work as a funeral celebrant. The first week of my holiday was sea kayaking in Anglesey – here. In complete contrast I have made a train trip to Poland to visit the town of Oswiecim in southern Poland, about 30 miles west of Krakow.
The Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Museum is located in Oswiecim, and that is the reason for my visit. The town of Oswiecim has been known by both its Polish name, and also as Auschwitz in the German language. In 1939 the town was annexed into the Third Reich and became known as Auschwitz until after the war. It was here the Nazi’s created their largest concentration camp in World War Two.
I eventually arrive at Krakow by train on a stifling hot afternoon at 3.30pm, 30 hours after leaving Liverpool at 9.30am the previous day having been on five trains, including a sleeper train. I have carefully learnt the correct pronunciation of ‘Oswiecim’ so that I can ask for my ticket. I have practised a few Polish phrases and am able to say ‘Dzien dobry, prosze, nie polsku’, (Good day, please, no Polish), although generally I find most Polish people do speak English. I ask for a ticket to Oswiecim, and am surprised when the ticket clerk simply says back to me, ‘Auschwitz, one person’. So I am on my way.
Although it’s only 30 miles to there, it takes nearly two hours. I am on a very basic train, completely different from the air-conditioned city to city trains I have been travelling on. The vinyl seats are sticky, the windows are open but there is almost do draught, it is oppressively hot. Then there is a thunder and lightning storm, and the guard closes all the windows. I am beginning to wonder why I decided to do this.
I arrive at Oswiecim station and huge plops of rain start falling, although it remains incredibly hot. But just as in all good adventures, the Hobbit finds the hotel, which is very nice, has a meal and a glass of wine, is early to bed, and greets the next day all ready for my taxi to Auschwitz.
Visitors to Auschwitz can come as individuals, but they recommend that you join a tour with an educator, the shortest being 3.5 hours. I have booked a 6 hour study tour, which I know will be an intense experience.
I am surprised that there are so many people here, there are lots of people around the entrance queuing, there are large groups of people who get off coaches. There is a security process, much like an airport, and everyone is given a receiver and headphones. These turn out to be absolutely necessary so we can hear our guide through our headphones, even whilst there are other groups around us. Our guide Agnieszka arrives, and I find I am with a group of 14 people – Agnieszka asks where we are from, and I am the only person from the UK, the rest are from various European countries, Canada and South America.
Instructions are given. Nothing is to be taken from here. Silence is to be observed in some parts of the camp. No food is to be consumed. In some areas photographs are forbidden. These are the rules of visiting.
We begin our tour in the courtyard with a brief introduction, Agnieska explains that the buildings here were a Polish military camp, the Nazis took it over and expanded some of the buildings, initially as a camp for political prisoners from May 1940.
We make our way to the entrance gate.
The inscription above the gate: Arbeit Mach Frei. Work sets you free.
Just inside the gate. ‘The camp orchestra had to assemble here to play marches while the prisoners filed past. This was to help prisoner’s keep in step and make it easier to count them as they went to and from work.’ All the information signs are in Polish, English and Hebrew.
There is a permanent exhibition in several of our blocks and Agnieska takes us through. It begins here. ‘Extermination’.
Agnieska explains the significance of the location of Auschwitz – it is central to the whole of Europe.
The buildings here at Auschwitz became known as Auschwitz I, and a larger camp was built nearby at Birkenau, Auschwitz II. In the photograph above you can see people arriving by train to the main platform at Birkenau. Agnieska tells us they came here believing they were being relocated, and starting a new life with work opportunities. The chimneys in the background look like factories. They are in fact crematoria – known by their German names as Krema II and Krema III.
At Birkenhau, the process of ‘Selection’ begins. The camp doctor separated new arrivals into those who were fit to work, usually men; and those who weren’t fit to work – the sick and disabled, women and children. By 1944, when this photograph was taken, those deemed unable to work were sent directly to death in the gas chambers.
The windows in the blocks are open, outside it is perfect summer day. I need to pause here for breath. Although I am familiar with what happened at Auschwitz, when I am hearing and seeing it presented to me like this, it feels huge. I am starting to get a sense of the scale of this operation, of how much human suffering and death happened here. I haven’t had this sense before. It’s really upsetting. And I am starting to see others in my group, and around me, looking really shocked, white-faced and tearful.
In another part of the display there are these canisters. These contained Zyklon B pellets, and these empty canisters were found when the camp was liberated. Zyklon B was the trade name of a cyanide-based pesticide invented in Germany in the early 1920s, used as a fumigant in grain stores. When the pellets are released and come in contact with air it creates a poisonous gas. The Nazis used this to murder humans here at Auschwitz-Birkenau and other Nazi camps.
There is a gas chamber and crematoria here at Auschwitz I, but when Auschwitz II at Birkenau was built there were purpose built gas chambers and crematoria. There is a model opposite the display of canisters which shows the gas chamber arrangement at one of the crematoria in Birkenau, known by the German name ‘Krema II’. Agnieska explains how people walked into the building, got undressed, and went into a shower room, and then the doors were shut. From vents in the roof, Nazis released pellets of Zyklon B, then closed the vents. Within 15 minutes everyone was dead. The corpses were then taken directly from there to the cremators into the next room. The work of burning the dead was done by Sonderkommandos, who were camp prisoners and who were forced, on threat of their own deaths, to aid with the disposal of gas chamber victims.
I couldn’t take a picture of the model. You can see some here, from someone who described their visit as ‘haunting and depressing’.
The exhibition continues in another block, ‘Evidence of Crime’. Here personal possessions of people who came to Auschwitz are displayed. The quantity of them also gives me a realisation of the scale of what happened here.
Believing they were coming to a start a new life, people brought to the camps packed bags of their personal possessions – kitchen utensils, shaving brushes, toothbrushes, shoe brushes, shoe polish cans, shoes, clothes brushes, various other brushes, and children’s garments. We see shoes, and suitcases with names. We see these personal belongings.
As we look at these, Agnieska says, ‘We know these, we are the same human.’ And I start to cry.
I have no photos of the next exhibit, they are forbidden, but I would be unable to photograph it. I almost have no words. I can see how profoundly moving everyone here found this. People are stuck silent by it. Some people just stared. It is a huge display of human hair, behind a glass wall.
When the camp was liberated tonnes of sacks of human hair was found. Analysis of the hair showed that it contained traces of Zyklon B, it is understood that after women were gassed, their hair was shaved off, and then sold to fabric manufacturers.
We go outside, and take a breath.
Next, Block 3. Unchanged since liberation.
Inside we see the dormitories, the bunks, the sinks for washing…
And the room with the single bed for the kapos, prisoners who were selected to help run the camp.
It’s really sobering.
As we go in and out of buildings and hear more information, I find myself looking up and wondering how all this could happen. A ‘why?’ floating up to the sky.
The tour continues to Block 11, the ‘Death Block’. This was the camp jail. People suspected by the camp Gestapo of clandestine activities were sent here – attempting to escape, organising mutinies, or maintaining contacts with the outside world. Sentences were given from a special German court. Usually the penalty was death.
No photos. This is simply too horrible. We enter through the door on the ground level (middle diagram on map), passing a sequence of rooms which includes a court room, a washroom to undress before being shot… and go into the basement (left diagram on map).
There are a lot of people in single file in a one way system, from other groups not just our’s, and I am glad we don’t linger here. It’s airless, despite the electric fans. There are the punishment cells, including cells with limited access to air and light, and the ‘standing cells’ (on the plan on the far wall to the right). These were so small it was impossible to lie down, they are about 30″ square (80cm), and four people would be put in them.
‘In this basement the SS carried out an experiment over two days, 3-5 September 1941, using Zyklon B. 600 Soviet POWs and 250 Polish political prisoners were murdered here, selected from the camp infirmary as human guinea pigs for the experiment.’
Zyklon B then became the Nazis’ killing tool.
From the basement we go out into the courtyard, and the wall of death. SS men shot several thousand people here. Visitors have placed flowers on the ground.
We are next at a special exhibition in Block 27. This was prepared by the Yad Vashem Institute in Jerusalem and opened in 2013. It’s called ‘Shoah’, the Hebrew word for catastrophe, and the word used for the Holocaust of the Jewish people.
It is dedicated to the memory of four women.
‘Remember these women,’ says Agnieska, ‘we’ll hear about them later.’
The exhibition is divided into several galleries – Jewish life before the war in an exquisitely moving display of film and music; the ideology of the Nazis and the extermination of Jews within the Nazi-occupied Europe, with film and recordings which bring this to life.
And filmed interviews with survivors. Incredibly moving.
One of the rooms is dedicated to the memory of children murdered during the Holocaust, the work of artist Michal Rovner, who used dozens of children’s drawings in her creation. These drawings are tiny, just a few inches and are around the walls of a plain white room.
The exhibition concludes with a section devoted to memory, with a book of names, in which are gathered all the names of the victims of the Holocaust collected by the Yad Vashem Institute. They currently number four million, and they are working on collecting every Holocaust victim’s name for inclusion in this book. The Book of Names.
The day we are visiting there are a large number of Israeli visitors, young people. And they are all gathered here, looking.
We leave the camp, crossing through a hole in the fence.
We pass the officers quarters.
And in front of the building – ‘This is where the camp Gestapo was located.’
‘Prisoners suspected of involvement in the camp’s underground resistance movement or of preparing to escape were interrogated here. Many prisoners died as a result of being beaten or tortured.’
SS-Obersturmbannführer Rudolf Höss (also spelt Hoess, not to be confused with Rudolf Hess), was the first commandant of Auschwitz. After trial, he was hanged here on 16 April 1947.
The chimney of Krema I, the first crematorium building is visible from here. This operated from August 1940 in a pre-war ammunition bunker adapted for its new function. The largest room was a morgue, which was changed into a provisional gas chamber. There were three furnaces for burning corpses in Krema I, ordered by the camp administration from the Topf and Söhne company, which installed them.
We go inside the building. We observe silence as requested. First the room where the gassing happened. And then the crematorium with the three furnaces, the iron doors, the trolley used to carry the bodies. It is chilling
I remember the first time I visited a crematorium, when my father died, 17 years ago. I remember the impact then. I also visited another crematorium when I did my training as funeral celebrant, so that we would be fully informed about the cremation procedure. I remember how I hardly slept that night, how unsettling it was. And in my work I am in crematoria all the time, and I see how dignified and respectful we are to the dead. This was not the case here. And I can see how deeply affected everyone here is. As am I.
It is the end of our tour here. I am not sorry to leave. Agnieska shows us where the shuttle buses to Auschwitz II (Birkenau) run from and we are given 30 minutes for a break and instructions to meet her at Birkenau for the next three hours of our tour.
What I hadn’t realised before my trip to Auschwitz is that it isn’t just one camp. The place I have visited first – Auschwitz I – is the first camp. When this wasn’t large enough a new camp was created nearby – Auschwitz II. The village of Birkenau – meaning birch trees – was demolished by prisoners under Nazi instructions. Using the bricks from the village they built new blocks. When the bricks ran out, they built wooden huts.
Also shown on the map above is Auschwitz III, also known as Monowitz, and a camp for prisoners who worked at the nearby I G Farben chemical factory. Initially the labourers walked the seven kilometers from Auschwitz I to the plant each day, but as this meant they had to rise at 03:00, many arrived exhausted and unable to work, so a camp was created there. Monowitz is not included in this tour or post, but I visited that area myself the following day.
This is Auschwitz II – Birkenau.
The entrance gate is recognisable from photos and films about the Nazis. It’s really hard to get a sense of scale about this place. It’s absolutely enormous.
The site is dominated by the railway track that runs from the main entrance, known as the Death Gate.
From the entrance we first visit some of wooden buildings. Most of these have decayed and there are just a few which have been preserved. The buildings weren’t meant for humans to live in, but for animals. You can see that there are gaps between the walls and ceiling, so imagine how cold and uncomfortable they will have been in the winter. The brick structure in the centre is a heating vent, although this wasn’t very efficient.
One of these buildings for each section of the camp is a sanitary block.
Yes, they are toilets. And they aren’t connected to a sewage system, so after use – and they were only allowed to be used twice a day – it was a job for other prisoners to clean them. They would remove the concrete top, and then transfer the waste into buckets, and carry the buckets on a yoke across their shoulders down to the sewage plant further down the camp. This was considered a ‘good’ job in the camp. No officers came into the sanitary blocks, so the prisoners who worked here could talk to each other freely, and they worked for the most part inside all year round.
Agnieska explains how each section of the camp was run independently, as it was so large. And you can see the different sections of camp separated by the electric fences.
We cross over to the other side of the camp, where the brick buildings are. The building we go into was a women’s block.
After looking at the living conditions for those who lived at the camp, rather than being sentenced to death on arrival, we go to look at where the selection process happened.
Prisoners would arrive in basic transport, like this wagon, used for transporting animals. Many of them didn’t survive the journey here. They were not seen as priority ‘freight’ during wartime, and often the journey to Birkenau took days or weeks, with up to 100 people in one wagon, with one bucket for a toilet, and another of water.
Once the selection process was done, those deemed unfit to work were sent directly to be gassed. We walk the same path they walked. It takes less than ten minutes. Some people were only ever a prisoner here for ten minutes. And then they were murdered.
These are the remains of Krema II, of which we saw the model in Auschwitz I this morning. When the Nazis evacuated the camp in January 1945 they blew up this crematoria building to destroy the evidence of the mass killings. This is what remains.
We are now standing on the steps of a memorial which was erected in the 1960s. Agnieska explains that under communism memorials were always ‘big’, and this is no exception.
She gives us a possible interpretation of the sculpture.
The floor is created of many blocks, perhaps representing huge numbers of people? The central sculpture are possible gravestones without names, and the tall part of the sculpture could represent a crematorium chimney?
There are panels along the front of the memorial, in different languages. The last one is in English, added after the others. ‘A warning to humanity’.
From here we walk through the woods, passing the sewage works and also some ponds, which remain untouched.
And arrive at the section known as ‘Canada II’. Canada I was the name of the first warehouse at Auschwitz I where the personal belongings of prisoners were stored. Canada was seen by the Nazis as a place of abundance, hence the nickname. Canada II was a series of warehouses, and another ‘good’ job in the camp was sorting possessions. These women here are smiling as they work, they are inside a lot of the time, and this is work but it isn’t the hard labour that some prisoners had to do.
These possessions were sorted, and sent back to Germany. Nothing is left of Canada II. At the end of the war, the Nazis burned Canada to the ground, lest its contents fall into the hands of the advancing Soviets.
And from these burnt remains are some of the possessions that have been retrieved, some of which we saw in Auschwitz I.
We walk on.
During renovation works further objects are found and kept. Also, in this part of the camp, ashes of cremated remains have been found. The memorial is in four languages – Polish, English, Hebrew and Yiddish.
To the memory of the men, women, and children who fell victim to the Nazi genocide.
Here lie their ashes.
May their souls rest in peace.
In the background of the photograph above you can see a low brick building, this is the ‘Sauna’ building. We will go there at the end of our visit.
We are now at the remains of Krema IV. It was here that a prisoner revolt took place on 7 October 1944. Roza Robota, a prisoner, and three other women Ala Gertner, Estusia Wajcblum, and Regina Safirsztajn who worked at a munitions factory smuggled dynamite into the camp. This enabled the Sonnerkommando to blow up Krema IV. The four women were hanged on 6 January 1945. The exhibition in Block 27 at Auschwitz I is dedicated to them.
At several points during the day I look at my watch and keep thinking, ‘There can’t be more or worse than this’. There always is. We go next to the building called ‘die zentrale Sauna’.
There is a glass walkway to preserve the original floor. This building is where those deemed fit to work were sent after selection. Here their belongings were taken from them, and sorted, by other prisoners.
And then the process of ‘disinfecting’ began. Their clothes were put into steam chambers for delousing. Typhus was a problem at the camp, and this was an attempt to prevent the spread of disease by lice.
Prisoners were shaved. All their body hair was removed. The were then subject to examination to check if they had any precious objects hidden on their bodies. Men are checked by men, women are check by women, and then again by men. Agnieska says she has met a number of survivors of Auschwitz, and none of the women will talk about their experiences of this procedure.
Showers are next. Brausen.
After this process, the prisoners are now given clothes and old shoes to wear. They have been stripped of everything. They are ready for their life in Auschwitz II. The average life expectancy here was less than four months.
The final room of the ‘Sauna’ building has been used to create an exhibition of photographs, found in a suitcase. These are family photographs from a number of families, and beautifully displayed with stories about the people in the photographs.
I was very taken by the self-portrait of the young woman.
We walk back to the entrance and say good bye and thank you to Agnieska for her informed and excellent tour.
So, I don’t yet have any final words about the experience. On my return trip from Poland I met a woman on the train at Brussels who’d visited Auschwitz last year. She said her reflections about the visit happened over a long period of time – weeks, months, and are still happening. She says she is glad she visited. And so am I.
Sarah booked her tour through Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Museum – here.
She stayed at the very nice Hotel Galicja in Oswiecim, great rates when booked through booking.com – here.
Her city to city trains were booked by the excellent service offered Rail Bookers – here.