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Visiting the Auschwitz death camps in Poland

July 5, 2013

June 14, the day I visited Auschwitz, happens to be the anniversary of the first day prisoners were transported into the death camp in 1940. Below are my pictures and story.

The day I visited Auschwitz, a survivor who’d succeeded in making a daring escape also visited. It would have been exciting to meet him. He and three friends somehow donned stolen Nazi uniforms, hopped in the general’s car and drove out to freedom.

Those four men were gutsy and incredibly lucky. In this place designated as the “final solution of the  Jewish question in Europe,” the Nazis murdered some 1.5 million people—most of them Jews—from 1940 to 1945. Victims also included Poles, Roma and Sinti, Soviet prisoners of war, Jehovah Witnesses, and thousands of others. Those not killed in gas chambers died of starvation, forced labor, infectious diseases, executions and medical experiments. Auschwitz was liberated by Soviet troops on January 27, 1945.

Auschwitz I

First we toured Auschwitz I, the larger of the two camps, which was built as a concentration camp and later converted into a death camp. “You’ll see this place worked like a factory,” Lukasz L., 29, our tour guide, noted grimly more than once.

We toured some of the brick buildings and saw the beds where prisoners slept, many crammed into one bed. Exhibits made it all more real. There were piles of shoes. Piles of eyeglasses. Piles of kitchen items such as graters, packed for the victims’ “relocation” homes. Piles of human hair. The human hair was used to make mattresses and Nazi uniforms.

A few walls had joyful pictures, like something you’d see in an old children’s storybook, that some prisoners had risked their lives to draw and paint. Did it lift spirits to see these pictures? I think so.

Some walls were lined with photos of prisoners. Their expressions were sad, defiant, hopeful or blank. Did they know their fate?

Like the prisoners, we descended into the crematorium. There were the rooms where people stripped. There were the ovens.

Auschwitz  II

Birkenau, also called Auschwitz II, was built from scratch on 350 acres as a death camp. So it was a more efficient death factory than Auschwitz. The rail cars came right into the camp. As the people filed off the rail cars, carrying the belongings they’d packed for their “relocation,” men and women were separated. The move of an officer’s thumb left or right meant life or death.

Two thousand could be killed at once in the gas chamber. Then it took two days to remove prisoners’ jewelry and gold teeth and shave them. “This is not made up,” our guide said. “There are records.” Our guide was talking to us, connecting with us, not just intoning facts.

The facilities at this camp are not as well preserved. Some were built of wood. We stepped into the sleeping quarters. “Imagine you were here,” our guide suggested. “Where would you want to sleep?” We’d want to sleep on the top because prisoners had dysentery and were only allowed to go to the bathroom for five minutes twice a day.

Working in the smelly 200-seat outhouse was actually a good job, although there was no heat. Prisoners who worked here were at least inside in winter and could pray and trade.

Some chilling facts: Auschwitz was the only camp with tattoos. Some ashes were used as fertilizer. So the Nazis could get insurance on the buildings, there were water reservoirs.

Our guide has a personal reason for being a guide. His great-grandfather, a Pole non-Jew, was a survivor of Auschwitz.

Survivors are aging and dying. “In 10 or 15 years, there won’t be any survivors left,” our guide said. Thankfully there are still people like our guide and his mother, who’s been a guide for 38 years, who will continue to share their stories. Lest we forget.

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