Day 18: Auschwitz

Main gate to Auschwitz 1

Shoes collected from victims

What can be said of a place which has seen the absolute worst of humanity come to fruition through torture, starvation, and murder? During the Holocaust years, close to 6 million people were murdered. Approximately 1.5 million of those victims were murdered at Auschwitz between its two camps. Our tour started at Auschwitz 1, where the famous entrance gate reads in German, “Abreit Macht Frei” which translates to “Work sets you free”. Auschwitz 1 is the oldest portion of Auschwitz and many of the buildings were built prior to the start of the war. In some of the old barracks, museum exhibits have been set up with the primary purpose of demonstrating just how many people were killed. Piles of hairbrushes, pots and dishes, and even human hair cut to create burlap are on display here. What struck me the most, just as it did when I saw the display at the holocaust museum in Washington D.C., was the pile of shoes collected just prior to the entrance of the victims into the gas chambers. The shoes filled two large display cases stretching the length of the room and included men’s, women’s, and children’s shoes representing only 5% of the victims murdered at Auschwitz. Here we saw the location of Rudolph Höss’ family residence, the hospital where medical experiments and experimental surgeries were performed, Block 11 (famous for being the on-site prison), and the only standing gas chamber in Auschwitz.

Rail line leading to the selection yard

We were then driven to Auschwitz 2 which is most famous for mass extermination in what the Nazi’s referred to as “the final solution”. Upon arrival, you are greeted by the front gate through which the main rail line runs ending at the selection yard. Once prisoners were unloaded from rail cars, they would face selection by physicians to decide if they were fit for work or not. Approximately 865,000 people were killed immediately upon arrival at the camp and the camp was capable of hosting close to 100,000 prisoners at one time. We were taken into two of the older buildings, once intended for use as German stables intended to hold 52 horses total. When they were converted to barracks, they were used to hold several hundred prisoners in horrid conditions.

Toilets in Auschwitz-Berkinau

Another building held the original toilets for prisoners of the camp. These toilets were not connected to any running water and are only as deep as the concrete structure is tall. They had to be emptied by assigned prisoners using buckets. While there were once wash basins in this building, water was extremely limited and no toilet paper nor soap was provided.

Remains of one of the gas chambers/crematoriums

Our guide walked us to the open area used for selection and described the process for us after which we walked the same path as those who were destined to be murdered in the gas chambers during the camp’s operation. The gas chambers were blown up by the Nazi’s just prior to the camp’s liberation in an attempt to cover any evidence of mass extermination. We know what the undressing rooms, gas chambers, and crematorium looked like from architectural plans. I was personally struck by the amount effort put into making the victims feel calm up until the last second. They were instructed to bring essential items from their homes onto the trains with them in order to start a new life elsewhere. Since victims had only around 10 minutes to gather what they needed, they were most likely to grab their most valuable things and bring them. These items were then confiscated by the Nazi’s and sent back to Germany. They were told to leave their clothes on numbered hooks and specifically to remember where they had left them so that they could collect them after they had showered (another lie told in order to get them to travel calmly into the gas chambers). Shoes were to be placed by size in order to save time in finding them once they returned. Before leaving suitcases near where the victims exited the train, they were told to write their names and birthdays on them in order to find them more easily later. There was so much work put into lying to and betraying the victims for the sole purpose of not enabling them to understand what was about to occur.

At the end of the rail line there is a memorial to the Auschwitz victims and plaques written in every language spoken by victims of this horror. The experience of seeing this site was humbling, sobering, and horrifying all at once. This site is a part of history which so many would wish to forget, but which has changed not only this nation but Europe and the rest of the world forever.

Memorial to Auschwitz victims

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