We decided to watch a scary movie one night at the corridor. Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3d. Part way through the movie, I got a bit bored so I opened up my laptop and started editing my Budapest pictures. Deleting bad pictures, removing duplicates, all that jazz. All the sudden, I scrolled a bit too far down on iPhoto and came across my Auschwitz photos. A wave of dread washed over me in an instant and I started feeling sick. But why did I feel sick? I had seen Auschwitz photos a thousand times before, and although I would feel uneasy when I saw them, it was never as searing as this. Then I realized that looking at the photos immediately took me back to that surreal place. I had always empathized for the victims, but it never felt real until I set foot on the same place where they once stood. This was the effect that Auschwitz had on me.
Rewind a bit to my actual trip to Auschwitz. I knew that I had to go to Auschwitz no matter what happened. I was not going to leave Europe without seeing what I believe to be perhaps the most important place to visit and pay respect to in Europe.
On the way there, I was listening to music and dozing off by looking out the window on the bus. The sights of the town we passed through got weary on the eyes, so I drifted in and out of day dreaming. Then, out of nowhere, brick barracks started passing by. That’s right, those ones. I immediately sat up, wide awake.
I was at Auschwitz.
The first part of the tour takes you through the infamous front gates of Auschwitz 1 – “work sets you free”.
Beyond the gates are rows after rows of barracks where prisoners lived. Each barrack had 700 prisoners crammed in them.
The tour guide took us into several barracks that had been turned into museum exhibits, giving us an in-depth explanation of what happened in Auschwitz.
Note: there used to be no trains directly into Auschwitz. Prisoners had to walk miles upon miles to get to Auschwitz, thereby taking too much time. Nazis realized that they were not killing prisoners fast enough. To increase efficiency, the Nazis built train tracks so that prisoners could arrive quicker.
You see, efficiency was very important to the Nazis. It was always the key. How were they going to kill a higher amount of prisoners in a shorter amount of time?
As prisoners arrived at Auschwitz by train, they were told to drop their personal belongings because it would be waiting for them later on. Every prisoner was allowed to take a piece of luggage with them.
What they did not know is that they would never see their possessions ever again. The Nazis had taken all these possessions and put them in piles for either personal profit or for the war effort.
And what did they call the storage rooms in which they placed these belongings? Canada I and Canada II. The reason they called it Canada was because they wanted to name the rooms after a place that symbolized wealth and riches. I know, I was just as surprised as you are.
The prisoners were then divided by men and women.
Then came the infamous doctors. People stood in line as doctors placed prisoners in one of two groups. The first group was for healthy looking, able-bodied people who were able to work. The second group consisted of the rest of the people, who were to be sent immediately to the gas chambers. 30% of those who got off the trains were in the first group, while 70% were confined to the second group. In the picture below, you can see a doctor telling an elderly man to join what must be the second group.
The prisoners walked underground (left part of the picture), and were ushered into a corridor where they got haircuts. They were informed that hair was needed for the war effort (middle). Finally, they were ushered into a huge room with showers in them, as they were told that these showers would cleanse them of bacteria (right side). Once the people were inside and the door was locked, doctors poured Cyclone B into the chimneys (right), which would make its way into the “shower room” and kill everyone inside.
1,500 people were locked into the room each time, and it took 15 minutes for the Cyclone B to kill everyone.
In earlier times, Nazis lined prisoners up and shot them in the head. Heinrich Himmler had once visited an internment camp and fainted upon witnessing these executions. As a result, he ordered Cyclone B to be used because he didn’t want the Nazi soldiers to go crazy. That’s right, going from gun execution to gas chamber was for the Nazis’ sake!
Also, Nazis were not killing prisoners fast enough with guns, and bullets were also very expensive too. Using Cyclone B (pictures below) allowed Nazis to kill prisoners at a much greater pace and save money on bullets. Again, efficiency.
Here is another gut-wrenching story of the Nazis’ obsession with efficiency. When prisoners entered Auschwitz, they used to take 3 pictures of each prisoner. However, as time went by, the Nazis realized that this was becoming too expensive. So instead, they put numbers on prisoners’ arms instead. They only did this in Auschwitz, so any prisoner who has a number tattooed on their arm means that they were prisoners at Auschwitz.
This is the story of Father Maksymilian Kolbe: “At the end of July 1941, three prisoners disappeared from the camp, prompting SS-Hauptsturmführer Karl Fritzsch, the deputy camp commander, to pick 10 men to be starved to death in an underground bunker in order to deter further escape attempts. When one of the selected men, Franciszek Gajowniczek, cried out, “My wife! My children!”, Kolbe volunteered to take his place. In his prison cell, Kolbe celebrated Mass each day and sang hymns with the prisoners. He led the other condemned men in song and prayer and encouraged them by telling them they would soon be with Mary in Heaven. Each time the guards checked on him, he was standing or kneeling in the middle of the cell and looking calmly at those who entered. After two weeks of dehydration and starvation, only Kolbe remained alive. The guards wanted the bunker emptied and they gave Kolbe a lethal injection of carbolic acid. Some who were present at the injection say that he raised his left arm and calmly waited for the injection. His remains were cremated on 15 August, the feast day of the Assumption of Mary.” – taken from Wikipedia.
Kolbe was canonized and recognized as a martyr after this heroic act. When the tour guide told us this story, I couldn’t help but get a bit misty. This was the most emotional part of the tour for me.
Kolbe and countless others were tortured here.
This was a shooting wall used by Nazis to execute prisoners. On the left, you can see that the windows are boarded up so that the prisoners could not see these executions. However, they most certainly had heard them.
This is an actual gas chamber where thousands of people have actually died in. I have pictures of the interior, but out of respect, I won’t be posting them.
As the commander of Auschwitz, Rudolf Hoss had fleed after the war. However, once they found him, they brought him back to Auschwitz and created this gallow especially for Hoss. Thus, the last thing Hoss saw before he was hung was Auschwitz. Poetic justice.
After Auschwitz 1, we were taken on a bus 3km away to Auschwitz 2.
If you watched Schindler’s List, then you should definitely be familiar with this guard tower, which has come to symbolize Auschwitz along with the gates in Auschwitz 1.
Auschwitz 2 is much, much larger than Auschwitz 1. Auschwitz 2 was built because the Nazis could not kill prisoners at a fast-enough pace with Auschwitz 1. Thus, they needed a much larger internment camp.
Prisoners arrived here on these trains. The Nazis packed 80 prisoners on each train.
10 people slept on each bed in these barracks. Being on the top bunk was very sought after because when people got sick, they would often diarrhea in their sleep. Also, prisoners had been known to fight and kill each other in order to take each others’ clothes and blankets. The reason for this is because there was no central heating and the buildings had no insulation at all. In the Polish winter, this was disaster. Take a look at the right side of the left picture where the beds are. Above the beds, you can see space between the wall and the ceiling, which meant that snow could creep into the barracks. What is often forgotten is that the cold and the starvation were sometimes as deadly as the gas chambers.
This was an actual gas chamber that had been destroyed by the Nazis as a way of getting rid of evidence before the Allies could figure out what happened. It’s worth noting that the Polish government did not do anything to this chamber, so what you see in the pictures below is what the Russians saw when they liberated Auschwitz back in the 40s.
I really have no way to end this blog post. When I think of Auschwitz, I don’t really think of how Nazis could do this to their prisoners. Instead, I think of how people did this to other people. How did we do this to our own brothers? It’s one of the most devastating moments in human history, and it is important to preserve its remembrance so that we can learn from this and make sure that it never happens again. Never again.