We spent a full day in Auschwitz Birkenau, the largest concentration camp of the Second World War. The site has long been a symbol of horror, genocide, and the Holocaust. It was established by the Nazi regime in 1940, in the former city of Oswiecim that was taken by the Nazis during the war. The Polish civilian population of Oswiecim were evicted after having their houses confiscated and demolished. The name of the city was changed to Konzentrationslager Auschwitz.
In 1942 it became the largest death camp of its kind where over one million people lost their lives. Generations were taken from the world and visitors are invited, at their own discretion to learn what went on inside the camp. We found the experience heart wrenching and very emotional, other visitors were in tears and there was always an element of silence as we were guided through some of the buildings.
The camp was divided into two by the Nazi regime in order to manage the increasing number of ‘prisoners’. Auschwitz I was created first as the main camp followed by the largest part of the complex, the Birkenau camp (also known as Auchwitz II).Most of the apparatus used for mass extermination was built in Birkenau and the majority of the victims were murdered here.
Pulling up to the grounds gave us a chilling feeling. The Nazi regime isolated all of the camps and sub-camps from the outside world using barbed wire fencing and forbid the prisoners from contacting the outside world. The ground felt a lot more eerie in the middle of winter surrounded with naked trees and angry clouds.
Visitors to Auschwitz Birkenau are divided into groups of around 20-40 people to one tour guide. Each visitor is invited to wear audio headphones attached to a device that amplifies the Guide’s voice so they can be heard within a range of around 5 metres.
One of the first sights of the tour is the famous Arbeit Macht Frei gate.
Arbeit Macht Frei translates to “Work sets you free” in German. The same sign has been placed at the entrances to a number of Nazi concentration camps across Europe and the sign above Auschwitz I is said to have an intentional upside down ‘B’ which was done in rebellion by the prisoners who erected it.
The guided tour of the main Auschwitz I camp begins at Block 15, which houses the Historical Introduction exhibit. Exhibits are devoted to the hundreds of nations that were victimized by the Nazis.
We couldn’t help feeling a moment of dread as we were taken into the different exhibitions of Blocks 4.5.6 and 7. The blocks were former barracks and we knew we were about to see gut wrenching insights into what actually happened in the spot we were standing only 70 years prior.
The exhibit of Block 4 had a collection of some of the actual Zyklon B gas canisters used in the gas chambers.
In Block 5, the Material Evidence of Crime exhibition displays a collection of shoes from the victims. This was incredibly sad to see. Thousands of pairs of old shoes fill a glass cabinet half the size of the room, children’s shoes can be seen among the pile and they were all taken from those who died. It is also here that houses a collection of the human hair taken from the victims of the Holocaust. The horrifying exhibition shows a pile of human hair that was shaved from the heads of victims before and after being gassed. The Nazis would sell the hair on to external companies who would make various fabric products such as cloth. Rightly so, photographs are not permitted here, it is a truly horrifying sight.
On 19th July 1943, 12 Polish prisoners were hung in the biggest public execution of the Auschwitz Camp outside the barracks where the current exhibitions are being held.
The areas built for public execution have been preserved for visitors to see.
Tributes murals are placed onto the walls of various buildings in the camp where we learned that death was most likely inevitable to all prisoners once they were no longer seen to be fit for slave labor or they fell into an ‘unacceptable’ category defined by the Nazis such as homosexual or over a certain age.
At the end of this street is Block 11, the prison block which is open to visitors.
After weaving in and out of the old Barracks buildings, we were taken outside to the railway track where our guide described to us the process of transporting prisoners to the camp.
Now known as the ‘Holocaust trains’, a Nazi run organisation were responsible for transporting Jews and other victims of the Holocaust to concentration and forced labor camps. They would arrive to Auschwitz Birkenau in small cramped carriages, sometimes for days without sunlight’, on a false pretense of a better life away from the war.
Also on the outside territory of the camp, a demolished gas chamber stands as a pile of rubble. The rubble was preserved and our guide told us the Nazi regime had attempted to rid the evidence of what was going on in the camp as the soviets invaded and eventually shut them down. There was almost a sense of relief felt here as you would in the day of it happening.
There was almost a sense of relief while looking into the pile of rubble, that no more people would die here, as though we were living in the times it was happening.
Right by the rubble stands a wonderful memorial to the murdered victims who lost their lives at the camp.
The tour takes visitors into the living quarters where the prisoners who were used for forced labour would spend the rest of their lives.
The bunks were made from hard cobble stones and wood and the tour guide told us the sleeping areas would be over populated. The winters of Poland were incredibly harsh and there was no heating in any of the prisoner’s living quarters. We could feel the chill visiting in the height of winter.
The personal hygiene areas were visibly appalling, prisoners would maintain their personal hygiene in horrific conditions with no privacy at all.
We walked around the ground on the outside imagining what it would have been like for those walking the same path knowing their fate, knowing their lives were coming to an end. It’s hard to experience this unless you’re there. The whole camp gives you a feel of depression and even fear. The sheer size of the place is very intimidating, imagine how it would have felt with armed guards who were able to do anything to you if you didn’t obey their rules on forced labor.
It’s hard to imagine this ever happened.
As if we hadn’t experienced enough emotional trauma, reading through prisoner accounts, seeing photos of children being separated from their families and being shown public execution areas, our guide took us into a gas chamber. Still intact in the same state as it was in the War.
Out of respect to the victims, we didn’t take any photographs of the room. It was dark, cold and horrendously cold. We saw claw marks on the walls and the smell was unbelievably foisty and potent. It was here where we broke down into tears, our emotions finally gave in.
Though Auschwitz and Birkenau is a place of utter devastation, we are pleased we went to see what went on here and experienced how it must have felt being a part of the oppressed regime of the Nazis during the Second World War. Although a guided tour is no comparison to the experience of the victims here, the tour educated us on one of the darkest periods in the history of mankind.
We are glad we visited Auschwitz and Birkenau but we will not be going back.
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