In January of 2009 I wrote about the concentration camp at Breendonk. It was an experience, for me, like no other. But I knew then that my treks across Europe would eventually lead me here, and with a little bit of mental preparedness I hop the train to Oświęcim, a Polish city that was annexed by Nazi Germany in 1939 and renamed as Auschwitz.
Konzentrationslager Auschwitz consisted of a base camp at Auschwitz I, an extermination camp at Auschwitz II-Birkenau, and a labor camp at Monowitz-Buna (or Auschwitz III).
More than 40 other sub-camps rounded out the network of human destruction. This sign, inside one of the buildings, gives visitors a chilling account of the reach of the genocide movement:
The Auschwitz-Birkenau camps are open to the public for free (the shuttle between the two camps is also free), but between May and October visitors may only visit Auschwitz I with a guided tour before 3pm due to the high traffic. If I could change one thing about my visit, it would be to do the tour without the crowds because it feels like a cattle call. We are rushed around in groups of 30, from place to place, without any time to read or process the vast information found here. Yet at the same time, the crowds today provide an eery sensation of how the camps must have been like with so many people sardined inside confined spaces.
And inside these walls…
are things you wish aren’t there. Like human hair,
lots of human hair,
lots of shoes,
tons of shoes,
and other personal effects
that once belonged to people, of the same human race as you and me, who paid a very high price for their existence. They were stripped of all their belongings, their dignity, their humanity.
I lag behind my group so that I could take a few pictures that are not blocked by the back of strangers’ heads…
…and mainly to digest the severity of what took place here. I have to escape the noises of the crowds and the sounds of the gravel crushing under my feet to answer the questions in my head…why, why, why, how, how, how, how did all this happen under our noses?
Birkenau was built in 1941 to offset the congestion at Auschwitz I,
and it is estimated that 90% of the prisoners died at Birkenau. It was originally intended to serve as a camp for prisoners of war, but by 1942 it was simply a death camp. Within a space of 140 hectares, it consisted of some 300 barracks and buildings, 13 kilometers of drainage ditches, 16 kilometers of barbed wire fencing, and numerous gas chambers and crematoria…
It’s hard to fathom the dire living conditions in these camps, even while standing inside one of these wooden barracks. The cold is brutal in the winter and the heat unbearable in the summer. Imagine living in congested and unsanitary conditions with inadequate nutrition and clothing. Was it any better to stay alive like this inside these prisons than to be exterminated? Is a slow death any more humane than a quick one? My tour guide tells us that some women hid their babies in these urinal drainages to spare their lives…
and I just wonder if there could ever be any forgiveness.
At the end of the tour, we reach the crematoria that were blown up shortly before the camps’ liberation:
Near here is a memorial where I find people of all ages milling about. Some are weeping, and others are celebrating life.
Above the gate to Auschwitz it is carved Arbeit macht frei, which means work makes you free.
The irony is rich.