We got off the bus in the town of Oswiecim which was renamed Auschwitz by the Germans in late 1939. Around this time, mass arrests throughout occupied Poland had caused overcrowding in the existing prisons, and the Germans needed to create a concentration camp. Because of its relatively isolated location, its railway junction, and its deserted pre-War Polish barracks, they decided on Auschwitz in April 1940, with the first Polish political prisoners being brought to the camp in June 1940.
From the outside it looks pretty much as it did back then, but it’s now a state museum with exhibitions inside many of the buildings, each looking at a different aspect of the horrors that took place here. In the first room of the first block is the camp’s memorial, simply an urn containing a handful of human ashes. Going from room to room and building to building, it’s possible to gain some appreciation of the magnitude of the crimes committed.
In this first block we saw large photographs taken by the SS at Auschwitz II – Birkenau during the extermination of Hungarian Jews. There is a detailed model that would fit onto a large family dining table of a gas chamber and crematorium showing the stages people passed through, from undressing for a shower to having their bodies dragged out to be burned. We saw a huge pile of empty Cyclon B (chemical used to produce poison gas) containers behind a window and an open container with the deadly crystals on display under glass. When the Soviet Army liberated the camp in January 1945 they found approximately seven tons (7,000kg) of human hair packed into bags. Human hair, mainly women’s, was sent back to Germany to be used in their textile industry, and it turns up in parts of Nazi uniforms, among other things. The hair is on display along with bolts of cloth the Germans made from it.
I can only scratch the surface of what we saw in Auschwitz. There are many thousands of personal effects on display, usually in great piles behind protective glass. With the approach of the Russians, the Germans attempted to destroy the evidence of what they had been doing, and part of this involved burning down the warehouses which contained the belongings of the murder victims, but much of the personal property survived. The second block we went to contained toothbrushes, shaving brushes, shoes, and suitcases with the names and addresses of the rightful owners written on them. The room containing artificial limbs is staggering, yet it’s all only the tip of an iceberg.
We learned more about the extent of the prolonged tortures suffered by the prisoners, which included Poles (and other Slavic peoples), the Gypsies, people with mental or physical disabilities, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, and many others the Nazis hated. The bizarre experiments conducted in this place by Mengele and various other Nazi doctors, without any form of anaesthetic, are especially horrifying, including: the gynaecological torture of hundreds of women; obsessive experimentation on twins, with such madness as trying to create Siamese twins from two normal twins; and all manner of terrible injuries and diseases deliberately inflicted on the victims.
The “Death Block” was also a place where the Germans carried out torture and murder to a highly efficient degree. Through the snow we walked along the courtyard between this block and Block 10 to the back wall where prisoners would be stood to face the firing squad. Thousands of people died against this wall, mostly Poles, and we were advised not to talk while in this courtyard. Where I stood in my boots thousands of others had stood in bare feet in terror. On the ground floor of the block we saw the room where the Gestapo court would be held, deciding the fate of prisoners. In any one session they might well issue over a hundred death sentences. I found it hard to grasp the need for a court because I got the impression an officer of the SS could shoot anyone he liked at any time on the merest of whims. Moving through the ground floor we saw the horrible place where the prisoners, both men and women, would have to strip naked, which was compulsory for anyone being led out to be shot. I suppose it was one last humiliation that could be imposed. After examining the ground floor we went down into the cold and dingy bowels of the building, to the concrete cellars where single and group torture was carried out, and also where experiments in killing en masse were conducted, leading to the development of the gas chambers and the use of Cyclon B. I really couldn’t imagine being down amongst those cells and chambers for any length of time, whether voluntarily or otherwise, and I was glad to get out into the open air.
We stood in the snow in Assembly Square where the camp’s emaciated prisoners were forced to stand for hours in bare feet and dressed in rags during roll-calls. Sometimes hangings would be carried out in front of the assembly. From here, walking directly down the street and outside the main fenceline of the camp, we saw the gas chamber and crematorium of Auschwitz I. To the right a small distance away was the commandant’s house where Commandant Rudolf Hoess (Hoss) lived with his wife and family. We didn’t approach the house but we learned a little about its former occupant. Hoess was a good commandant (camp commander) for the purposes of the Nazis, and he played an important role in developing the systems used for the mass murder of the Jews. After the War he was captured in 1946 and handed over to Poland. Between the crematorium and the house is the little gallows where they hanged him in 1947. After a look through the remains of the gas chamber and reconstructed crematorium we went into the museum’s movie theatre to watch a short film about the liberation.