Auschwitz and Birkenau


The extent of human massacre and suffering of the Holocaust is something we read about but when you stand in the place of that horror, well, there are simply no words.  Our local guide was Simon, who spoke with an edge and a smoldering anger.  Enroute to Auschwitz we viewed two documentaries on the bus which made me close my eyes more than once.

Six death camps existed in Poland, and Auschwitz was initially a concentration camp, although a section was built as a death camp.  The Nazis rounded up the educated elite first and murdered them.  Educated people pose the threat of organizing others.

A concentration camp was not the same as an extermination camp – as a concentration camp was not constructed with the purpose of mass murdering Jews and other victim groups. Despite this fact, the concentration camps claimed many thousands of victims.

As Simon unrolled his story, we learned of the cold, calculated methodology of the Nazi Germans to maintain control and order in the camps with no riots or panic.

A photo of men and women patiently waiting in line after arriving in Auschwitz.  “No panic, very orderly,” says Simon.  The Nazis were masters of mass crowd control and were able to murder 2,000 within an hour and a half of their arrival. At nearby Birkenau it was an efficient process of unloading the train cars and within exterminating thousands daily.

There are 208 actual photos which were uncovered and some of them are enlarged and displayed. They were hard to look at.  “And why were photos taken?” asks Simon. “Trophies!!! Hey, look what we did!” As the Nazis showed off to their comrades.

200,000 children were murdered at Auschwitz.

All personal possessions were stolen, sorted, recycled, and sent as needed back to Germany.  The section of the camp where goods were kept was called ” Canada” because that represented prosperity.

We viewed about 1% of Canada.

The two tons of hair on display is not photographed out of respect.  Hard to look at long braids, long silver locks.  Nazis used hair for mattress stuffing, collars in uniforms, and fabric.

I simply couldn’t photograph the shoes, luggage, children’s clothes. I couldn’t photograph the ovens.

A short bus ride away was Birkenau, and if it wasn’t enough to visit Auschwitz, off we went to the place which was constructed as a death camp.

90,000 prisoners were kept in one square mile.  Barns designed for 52 horses housed 1000 prisoners.  430,000 Hungarian Jews were executed at Birkenau.

My knowledge of WWII, the Polish people, the Russians, the Allies ( who knew and didn’t want to believe despite photographic and first-person reports) expanded.  I kept asking myself why Poland isn’t more respected on the world stage.  

Warsaw would provide more answers. 

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