For me it was the shoes. Thousands of timeworn, black leather shoes piled behind a window in Block 5. Every pair was a life, and as immense as the pile was, it likely represented less than one average day’s worth of victims of Auschwitz and its satellite camps.
This is no pleasure trip. Auschwitz, where the horror remains vivid, forces you to confront the dark side of humanity. For every visitor there will be something that hits them; a point where you finally think you comprehend the evil that happened here, but, of course, you never really can.
The camp, 43 miles west of Krakow in the town of Oswiecim (renamed Auschwitz by the Germans), was established in 1940 in an abandoned army barracks as a prison for Polish enemies of the state.
A year later Hitler chose this as the core of the final solution and Birkenau (also known as Auschwitz II) was constructed two miles away. It was here that most of the executions took place, up to 9,000 a day.
You enter Auschwitz through the gate that taunted prisoners with the sign ARBEIT MACHT FREI ("work brings freedom") and walk amongst the barracks which now contain an inventory of horrors: bags of human hair and the fabric woven from it; piles of plundered personal belonging such as glasses, suitcases, artificial limbs, toothbrushes, and, of course, shoes. Displays tell of the appalling living conditions in the camps and describe the shocking medical experiments conducted on prisoners. The grisly contents spare no details of camp life—and death—and many people walk out of the buildings wiping away tears.
Tour guides, some of whom were imprisoned here and others who were witnesses to the camps immediately following their liberation by the Soviets, recounted many survivors’ tales. The most heart wrenching for me was of the girl who cried when she found her mother dead: not because her mother was gone forever, but because someone had stolen the bread from her hand before she could get it for herself. Priorities change under such unthinkable conditions.
In the far corner of the camp is the "Death Block" where torture and executions routinely took place. Those who stared down the SS firing squads in front of the pockmarked execution wall must have considered themselves lucky not to be locked away to die of starvation or suffocation in one of the 35 inch by 35 inch standing cells which held four prisoners at a time. It was here, in 1941, that the Nazi’s experimented with Zyclon-B cyanide gas pellets eventually perfecting their new found method of mass murder which would be used to such frightening efficiency over the next several years throughout the Third Reich.
The last stop at Auschwitz is the reconstructed gas chamber and crematorium where you follow in the final footsteps of so many prisoners. Needless to say, it is a sobering experience.
And if Auschwitz wasn't depressing enough, the Birkenau extermination camp, the largest in the Third Reich, is even worse.
More than 300 barracks were spread out across the 425-acre compound. About one-fifth of the buildings remain standing and have been left essentially as they were found. People were herded like livestock into the crude, foundationless buildings and crammed into wooden bunks with straw mattresses. The buildings had been designed as field stables for 52 horses but those erected at Birkenau housed as many as 1,000 prisoners. In some buildings paintings of camp life done by defiant captives remain on the walls.
Walking inside the stark dwellings you can, to a degree, imagine the horror of the prisoners’ lives…and then you remember that this dreadful night time existence was actually a respite from the slave labour they performed during the day. Even while slaving in a factory or quarry these were the lucky ones because they were still alive.
Most prisoners never saw the workers’ barracks. After being unloaded from the railroad freight cars that had delivered them from across occupied Europe they were marched straight to the gas chambers. They were built to resemble showers to prevent resistance and panic. These now lie in ruins: three blown up by the fleeing Nazis to conceal their crimes and the other destroyed during a prisoner revolt a few months before the end of the war.
Beyond the crematoria, where the murdered were disposed of, are ponds where human ashes were dumped and pits and pyres used when the crematoria couldn't meet the demand.
Nobody knows for sure just how many people died at Auschwitz-Birkenau--the Nazi’s didn't keep exact records in the dim belief that their actions would not be discovered--but estimates range from one and a half to four million people. During his trial after the war camp commandant Rudolf Hoes claimed that the total was at least two and a half million. About 85-90% of the victims were Jews, but Poles, Russians, Gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, the physically and mentally handicapped and other "undesirables" were killed here too.
To call this sad chapter in human history "tragic" is a vast understatement. Tragic is only slightly more accurate than calling it "happy" or "joyous". Words cannot, and never will, adequately describe what happened here. As the philosopher Theodor Adorno said, "there can be no more poetry after Auschwitz".
FACT FILE:There are frequent bus and train connections between Auschwitz and the city of Krakow, just an hour and a half away, so most visitors to the camps make it a day trip. The detailed guidebook is more than adequate to lead you through the camps, though guided tours in English are conducted daily. You'll need most of a day to see the camps properly. For general tourism information check out the Polish National Tourist Office’s website at www.polandtour.org.