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Trip to Auschwitz and Birkenau

October 21, 2015

as a day trip from Kraków Poland


The Nazis had concentration camps as early as 1933 (Dachau) to accommodate (concentrate) 5,000 communists and socialists who would be disruptive to society and over burden conventional prisons. Through the end of the Reich in 1945, there were about 1,200 concentration camps in Germany and occupied territories. 3.5 million Germans were confined for political reasons, and about 77,000 German citizens were executed.

Adolph Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in 1933, and Führer in 1934. He was consistently anti-semitic and anti-communist, and longed for an Arian super race.

At first his plan was to relocate Jews and others he considered undesirable, but there weren't sufficient suitable destinations. Jewish Ghettos were a form of concentration camp in most cities. He started execution of those chronically ill or handicapped (often with exhaust fumes piped into the back of a vehicle) but the process was slow and people are messy when they die - cleaning the vehicles was bad for the morale of the German soldiers. Firing squads were also hard on morale and used expensive ammunition. So on January 20, 1942 there was a meeting at the House at Wannsee near Berlin to discuss the final solution to the Jewish question. See the travelogue of our visit there a couple years ago. The conclusion was industrial level extermination and cremation of the 11 million Jews and other undesirable people in Europe. The 1942 conference was delayed, but the construction of extermination camps had already begun before the conference was over.

Sachsenhausen concentration camp, also near Berlin, became a virtual training ground for Nazi SS officers, who went on to build and run other concentration and extermination camps. We also visited there a couple years ago.

Auschwitz had previously been a military facility, so had general security and many permanent (brick) buildings.

As it's role as a concentration camp developed, extensive electric fencing was added around the outside fences, with the addition of guard towers.

Note the double electric fence between the facilities for the guards on the left (with grass) and the prisoner facility. Armed patrols and dogs were used between the fences, in addition to lethal electrical power to the fence.

Auschwitz was a concentration camp, that killed many Jews, political prisoners, gays, prisoners of war (Russians), Gypsies, and others, even though that was not it's primary mission.

Each gas chamber was disguised as a shower that held 2,000 people. Several SS personnel oversaw the killings at each gas chamber, but the bulk of the work was done by the Jewish prisoners known as Sonderkommando (special squad). Sonderkommando responsibilities included guiding victims to the gas chambers and removing, looting, and cremating the corpses. The Sonderkommando were given slightly better living facilities, but each few months were themselves killed and replaced with new prisoners.

It took two cans of Zyklon B insecticide, (Hydrogen Cyanide), handled by SS officers, dropped as pellets through holes in the ceiling, as seen above, to kill everyone in 20 minutes. They were never able to mask the screams of the dying, even by running a motorcycle at full power nearby.

The belongings of the arrivals were seized by the SS and sorted in an area of the camp called "Canada", so called because Canada was seen as a land of plenty. Many of the SS at the camp enriched themselves by pilfering the confiscated property. The prisoners working in "Canada" considered it a prime assignment since they often were able to steal food found among the possessions. This pile of suitcases was behind a glass wall, that reflected the windows behind us. The actual pile continued to the ceiling.

Clothing was collected - this was a room full of the men's shoes that remained when the camp was freed. The piles were not shrunk to show the windows - they were also behind glass that reflected the windows from the other side.

More men's shoes. Why is the volume so important that it took two pictures? Because in another room they had a pile that big of human hair. Out of respect, we were asked not to take pictures of the hair since it was actually part of people who had been killed. 8.5 tons of hair that had not yet been processed into fabric or mattress filling were found by the Soviet soldiers; 2 tons filled the room like the shoe display.

Ladies shoes were kept separate. This was a year-around process, so many shoes were just sandals. There was also a room full of children's stuffed toys.

People with artificial limbs were just going to get a shower, so they wore their braces and artificial legs. But they were collected after they had been killed.

People thought they were just moving, until the end. The took along some of their pans and dishes. Valuables like silverware and jewelry were processed by the Nazis.

There was even a collection of hair and shaving brushes.

The volume of people killed was so high, in full production, that there were elevators and tracks to bring the bodies to the ovens, and machines to push the bodies into the ovens. When the ovens could not keep up, the bodies were burned in open pits.

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, and many died as a result of being beaten or tortured. The first commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Höss, who was sentenced to death after the war, was hanged here.

Those prisoners who were sentenced to death (as opposed to the trainloads of people brought to die without being sentenced) were often shot at this wall, reinforced to capture the bullets rather than allowing them to ricochet off the bricks or wear the wall.

Men who had been sentenced to be shot at the "death wall" stripped in this room. It happened that the death penalty was often executed here.

Auschwitz was close to the town of Oswiecim, creating problems of traffic (train loads of prisoners) and odor of furnaces, so an annex camp was built a few miles away, Auschwitz II, also known at Birkenau. Gas chamber 1 and crematory 1 were at Auschwitz I. Gas Chamber 2 and 3 at Birkenau were initially converted houses holding 800 and 1,200 people, but industrial facilities holding 2,000 people each (with railroad carts and elevators to load the crematoria) were built at Birkenau. When that wasn't enough, Gas Chambers 4 and 5 with corresponding crematoria were built at the Birkenau facility but a distance away from the first two, behind some trees.

Auschwitz II - Birkenau - was a new facility. Originally the buildings were brick, similar to Auschwitz I

but as the construction became more hurried, the buildings were less durable - many are now being rescued.

Look carefully at the forest of chimneys through the fence, which extended as far as the eye could see. When they ran out of bricks they used wood with brick chimneys, which is all that is left of hundreds (or thousands?) of buildings in Birkenau.

An example of the rail cars that were used to bring people here was on the tracks. Prisoners spent days on the train without food, water, or sanitary facilities, then were unloaded on this dirt platform. Visitors have put roses on the rail car as a memorial. After selection (as on the previous web page) some were marched ahead to their shower (gas chamber), but those who would be worked to death were moved to the wooden houses. We walked the path those going directly to the gas chambers would have taken.

The people who were not killed immediately were housed in these buildings with, typically, 9 people on each wooden bunk.

When the Nazis saw they were losing the war, they destroyed as much evidence as they could. This is what is left of Crematoria 2. Gas chamber 2 was underground and preserved as a bomb shelter for the SS in case the Allies chose to bomb the camp.

Block 11 of Auschwitz I was the prison within the prison, where violators of the numerous rules were punished. Some prisoners were made to spend the nights in standing cells. These cells were about 16 square feet, and held four men who had to crawl in through a small hole at the bottom; they could do nothing but stand, without foot, water, or sanitary facilities. During the day they were forced to work with the other prisoners. Prisoners sentenced to death for attempting to escape were confined in a dark cell and given neither food nor water until they were dead, usually in less than 2 weeks. The rooms were dark and the pictures did not come out.

When the Germans recognized the end was near, mass graves were opened and the bodies burned to destroy the evidence.

A small portion of the human ashes found when the camp was liberated were put in this transparent urn as a memorial.

Estimates of how many people were killed in Auschwitz and Birkenau vary widely, but the generally accepted count is 960,000 Jews, and 1.1 million total people. By 1944 the capacity of the crematoria and outdoor incineration pits at Auschwitz-Birkenau was 20,000 bodies per day. There were many other camps, so the total number killed by Hitler was over 6 million Jews, and over 12 million people total, with some counts as many as 20 million people.

Among the items found by the liberating Soviet soldiers were 370,000 men's suits, 837,000 women's garments, and 8.5 short tons of human hair.

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