"Beyond these gates the land groans."
The Auschwitz Concentration Camp is, arguably, the twentieth century’s most pervasive symbol of human suffering, and of the depths of human cruelty.
The largest prison complex ever built by the Nazis, the facilities at Auschwitz included prison camps, labour camps, and later, the construction of a purpose-built extermination camp designed for ‘processing’ vast numbers of victims with machine-like efficiency. In the last years of WWII, the sleepy Polish town of Oświęcim saw the cruel massacre of as many as three million innocent men, women and children in the gas chambers: almost 50% of the Holocaust’s total death toll.
Nowadays the well-preserved concentration camp at Oświęcim attracts more than a million curious visitors each year. Two weeks ago I finally made the trip for myself, and joined the crowds of tourists flooding through the gates of Auschwitz.
Here’s my report.
The Train to Oświęcim
I really didn’t know what to expect from my visit to Auschwitz. On the one hand, I was excited to be visiting a site which had played such a pivotal role in the course of twentieth century history; however, the very real horror of the death camps became more palpable the closer we got. A part of me was scared that my excitement would give itself away, that I would get lost in taking photos and somehow fail to show the due respect. The sheer magnitude of the massacre was simply too hard to comprehend.
We took a shuttle bus from the airport into Katowice, one of the larger and more industrious cities in the south of Poland. From here it was a train ride to Oświęcim, home of the camps. As we worked our way around information desks at the station, tentatively asking for tickets to Auschwitz in subdued voices, it occurred to me how inappropriate it was that we should be asking for the town by its German name. Once or twice people corrected us, nodding, and then repeating the destination as ‘Oświęcim’. There was no rebuttal, no condemnation, merely a friendly indication of preference.
It didn’t take long before we were sat on a clean, modern train, heading south and slightly east towards our destination. Strange to think that we were following the exact same route as so many of the camp’s victims.
I spent the journey gazing out the window, watching the urban sprawl wash by; soot encrusted terraces, smokestacks, derelict factories and forlorn towers passed us in a blur of brick and steel. I wondered how much the landscape had changed since 1942, when the first carriages began ferrying Europe’s jews along these tracks to the gas chambers.
The ride took less than an hour, and then we were in Oświęcim. Surrounded by forest, this picturesque town can trace its history back through a millenium of kings and dukes. A shame then, that it is best known for the events which took place here in the mid-twentieth century.
Outside Oświęcim Station an information board displayed a map of the camps. The first lay to the south, while the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp was just a short distance to the west. After a quick meal in a diner beside the tracks, we set out on foot to our first destination: the original Auschwitz Concentration Camp.
Auschwitz I: Concentration Camp
The vast majority of visitors to Auschwitz arrive at the camp on tour buses rather than public transport. As a result it was a strange contrast to wander the streets of a sleepy Polish town, only to turn the final corner and enter a bustling car park filled with noisy crowds of foreign tourists. I’ll be honest, my initial reaction to the scene was one of disgust… this was not at all what I had imagined.
As we approached the entrance people were pushing past us this way and that, clustering around tour guides or queuing up to collect the audio-guide headsets offered in an extensive range of different languages. Entry to the Auschwitz camp is free of charge, but at this stage it was hard to even ascertain where the entrance was. Eventually we managed to beat the queues, declining the offer of a guide, and stepped out into a grassy courtyard flanked by austere red brick buildings.
The barracks at Oświęcim – formerly occupied by the Austrian, and later the Polish army – were requisitioned by the Nazis when the existing prisons in the Silesia region began to reach their capacity. On 21st February 1940 this complex of 16 one-storey buildings were converted into a detention camp, under the watchful eye of first commandant Rudolf Höss. In those early days the camp was used to house Polish prisoners, with a first transport of 728 Poles arriving by train on 14th June. By March the following year the Auschwitz camp held a total of 10,900 inmates; following the scourge of Poland’s dissidents, intelligentsia and resistance parties.
From this first enclosed area we crossed the railway towards the prison blocks, passing under the infamous metal banner that reads, ‘ARBEIT MACHT FREI’. Translating to English as ‘Work sets you free’, this slogan featured at a number of Nazi concentration camps. It’s taken from the title of an 1873 novel by Lorenz Diefenbach, a work extolling the merits of hard work and the virtues of labour. Understandably, many of the prisoners took it for an insult; however, German philosopher Otto Friedrich had a different understanding of Höss’s decision to display the slogan at Auschwitz. In ‘The Kingdom of Auschwitz’, he writes:
“He seems not to have intended it as a mockery, nor even to have intended it literally, as a false promise that those who worked to exhaustion would eventually be released, but rather as a kind of mystical declaration that self-sacrifice in the form of endless labour does in itself bring a kind of spiritual freedom.”
Beyond the sign we entered the prison camp proper, where a series of brick buildings were arranged in rows around a central pathway. Wooden watchtowers looked down on the thoroughfare from either end, while double barriers of electrified barbed wire separated the compounds from one another. Rudimentary gallows had been erected to one side of the path for executions. The visitors were more spread out here, some moving slowly in groups while others, like myself, chose to explore the bleak paths and alleyways alone.
Even in the early days of Auschwitz conditions were harsh, as the SS developed increasingly cruel treatments for prisoners who stepped out of line. Most of these punishments took place in the infamous Block 11. ‘Standing cells’ restricted movement and denied comfort, while those condemned to ‘starvation cells’ in the basement were left without food or drink until they perished. There were also ‘quiet cells’ – inmates in these chambers were deprived of air and left to suffocate – often with a candle placed in the room to help speed the process.
Many of these buildings are now open to the public, containing museum-style exhibitions detailing different aspects of prison life. One building was dedicated to the stories of Belgian inmates, another to the Hungarians.
There was a separate museum showcasing the treatment of Roma prisoners, while a more recent addition in Block 27, titled ‘Shoah’, had been prepared by the Yad Vashem Institute of Jerusalem. Opened on 13th June – just two weeks before my own visit – the exhibition is dedicated to Jewish life before and during the Holocaust.
Before the outbreak of WWII, more than half the population of Oświęcim was Jewish; a community of around 8,000 people. At the Shoah exhibition visitors are given a glimpse of local Jewish culture in those pre-war days, leading into a series of increasingly distressing rooms detailing the worsening conditions in the camps.
In one particularly moving display, images drawn by Jewish children murdered in the camp had been reconstructed by artist Michal Rovner to form one vast collage. These crude, hand-drawn images told a story that facts and figures alone could never hope to deliver with such impact.
Many of these exhibitions felt like an exercise in driving home the reality of the figures involved. One room in a building dedicated to French victims was lined with framed photographs; countless faces peering out from sepia shots, some posed formally, others at play.
In one of the Shoah rooms a book had been created which listed all the names of the victims of the Holocaust. The resultant tome was several metres deep, and took up the greater part of the room.
In Block 20, formerly a camp hospital, prisoners were killed by lethal injections of phenol directly into the heart. A sign near the entrance explained that a few dozen prisoners were killed here in such a fashion, almost every day from 1941 onwards.
The cruelty of the SS spiralled to new levels on 3rd September 1941, when deputy camp commandant SS-Hauptsturmführer Fritzsch conducted a lethal experiment in the basement of Block 11.
A total of 600 Soviet prisoners-of-war and 200 Poles were sealed in a large chamber, and gassed with the cyanide-based pesticide Zyklon-B – formerly used for killing the lice which thrived in the rags worn by inmates.
The experiment was deemed a ‘success’, and a bunker on the site was subsequently converted into a gas chamber. Operating between 1941 and 42, a total of 60,000 inmates were exterminated in this bare, subterranean cell. An adjacent room was fitted with a series of ovens, and served as a crematorium.
On entering the bunker, a sign asked visitors to maintain a respectful silence. It needn’t have bothered, though – there was simply no fitting comment which could have been made in response to these barren chambers, the adjacent ovens.
If a tour of the Auschwitz I Concentration Camp had been moving however, then words fail to describe the clinical detachment apparent in the design of the next site; the purpose-built mass extermination facility known as Auschwitz II-Birkenau.
Auschwitz II-Birkenau: Death Camp
There’s a shuttle bus that runs between camps I and II every half hour, leaving from just outside the main gate. We ambled through the car park, past a hoard of tour coaches, and hopped onboard. It was only 3.5km to Birkenau – a distance we might have walked had we not been so pressed for time.
Even the location of the death camp reveals something of its function; situated close to the main train station, an offshoot of the track leads directly between the gates of Auschwitz-Birkenau and straight down the middle of the camp. Rather than being removed from sight, as one might imagine of such a horrific facility, instead it sits upon one of the larger roads on this side of the town; from a distance I had assumed the traffic ahead to be purely tourists, but drawing closer to the gates I realised that many of these cars were passing by on their daily commute.
The bus pulled up in a car park outside the compound, where a cluster a taxi drivers stood smoking and cracking jokes beside their cars. People were coming and going: a group of college students bustling around the collection stand for audio-guide headsets; a large party of American jews fussing about with their yarmulkes. The Birkenau site is so large though, that just minutes from the main gate we were once more alone with history’s ghosts.
Construction of the Auschwitz II-Birkenau camp was started in October of 1941, as part of a plan to ease congestion at the first camp. Whereas Auschwitz I was adapted from existing artillery barracks however, Auschwitz II was designed with the sole purpose of extermination en masse. It was on 20th January 1942, at the Wannsee Conference, that plans were fixed for the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question”. Reinhard Heydrich delivered the order, though it was common knowledge that the initiative had come down from Heinrich Himmler. After this point, the Auschwitz Birkenau Extermination Camp became a ruthlessly efficient processing facility.
Walking the path of the train tracks it was easy to see how the camp would have functioned. Trains passed the checkpoint at the main building to pull up alongside platforms, where their cargo would be unloaded. Under the view of numerous watchtowers, inmates would be sorted according to worth before being herded – like cattle – through a series of gates and holding pens. A number of low buildings provided storage space… after looking inside these bleak huts lined with wooden shelves, I can’t quite bring myself to call them ‘accommodation’.
It’s not that the site was macabre in itself. In other circumstances these red brick buildings in a field of green grass, hemmed in by dense forest, could almost have been attractive. The thing that I found most shocking however was the efficiency of the design; it made me think of production lines, of how the livestock facilities for firms such as KFC must look. I was chilled by the complete lack of empathy for human life, so apparent in every aspect of the site’s layout.
At the back of the Birkenau site, one finds the remains of the gas chambers. The first gassing took place here in 1942, at a converted farmhouse; the building was gutted, its windows bricked up, and the interior converted into four large rooms which were designed to look like showers. Due to the remote location however, as well as the lack of plumbing or running water, it would seem that few of the prisoners were fooled by the ruse. It was known as the ‘Little Red House’. In June of the same year a second building – the ‘Little White House’ – was also put to use.
A year later, by June of 1943, the Final Solution was well underway and commandant Rudolf Höss had greatly increased the camp’s gassing capacity with the construction of a further four chambers. ‘Krema II’ had originally been a camp crematorium, featuring a morgue and furnaces. In early 1943 it was converted with the inclusion of gas-tight doors, vents for the insertion of Zyklon-B pellets and ventilation equipment to remove the gas after use. The other three buildings were constructed following the same design: Crematoria III through V.
Pictured here are the collapsed ruins of Krema II. It was hard to comprehend how this inoffensive brick abandonment had once been the scene of the largest mass murder in recorded human history; over 500,000 Jews were gassed in this building alone, herded inside like cattle as pellets of the Zyklon-B insecticide were poured in through hatches on the walls.
By the time we left the camp, taking the train from Oświęcim and then the shuttle bus back to Katowice Airport, I was feeling decidedly unwell. I’ve seen horrific prisons and execution sites before, and if not for the scale of the atrocities, I would tentatively place Auschwitz I into the same category.
The camp at Auschwitz II-Birkenau is something entirely different though, and the cold methodology behind its design, construction and use belies a clinical detachment which scares me even now.
After The Holocaust
On the approach to Auschwitz I had been torn between guilt and excitement. I needn’t have been so self-critical, though: Auschwitz is one of the most interesting places I have ever visited, the museum nothing if not tasteful, and I would recommend a visit to anybody with an interest in learning more about the Holocaust.
There was a sense of comradeship between the visitors; solemn nods and even the occasional strained smile showing the recognition that each visitor was on their own emotional journey as they toured the camps, be they students, descendants or merely interested parties such as myself. Nobody seemed apologetic for the natural sounds of human interaction – and perhaps after all, that’s the best way to counter the clinical objectification of human life which had occurred here.
There is nothing we can do to change the fact that the Holocaust happened. It changed the course of the twentieth century, and its effects are still felt by many today; the impression I got was that victims would prefer recognition, to having the whole series of events cast in taboo. Even more dangerous is the notion of Holocaust denial, which can only be countered by the propagation of truth.
Something strange happened under National Socialism. The detachment required to commit systematic slaughter on such a grand scale – or at the very least, to turn a blind eye – speaks volumes about the desperation of Germany in the 1930s.
Talking about the gassings at the Little White House in his autobiography, Camp Commandant Rudolf Höss wrote:
“Hundreds of men and women in the full bloom of life walked all unsuspecting to their death in the gas chambers under the blossom-laden fruit trees of the orchard. This picture of death in the midst of life remains with me to this day. I looked upon them as enemies of our people. The reasons behind the Extermination Program seemed to me right.”
Immediately following WWII, there was a temptation to point the finger at Germany; the world over, people told themselves that such heinous events could never have been permitted in their own countries. Such an attitude however, sidesteps our responsibility to understand the events running up to the Holocaust.
In the 1960s, Stanley Milgram at Yale University conducted experiments looking at obedience to authority figures.
Participants were ordered to administer increasingly powerful electric shocks, every time another participant answered a given question incorrectly. In reality, the victims were actors and the shocks nonexistent. The results showed however, that a disturbing number of participants – even in countries such as England and America – would procede to administer potentially lethal voltages merely because an authority figure in a lab coat ordered them to do so .
Other post-WWII works, such as the uncomfortable study of morality offered in Eichmann and the Holocaust by political philosopher Hannah Arendt, have examined our moral obligation to question authority, even at the risk of our own lives .
Although a visit to Auschwitz is far from a comfortable experience, it is nevertheless an important one; as it is crucial that the events of the Holocaust are not forgotten.
The overall message of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, as I perceived it, was not one of apportioning blame; but rather to recognise humankind’s capacity for cruelty, and, through better understanding the past, making certain that nothing like this is ever allowed to happen again.
 The relevance of these experiments to the Holocaust has since been debated; Professor James Waller for example, Chair of Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Keene State College, argued that the experiment failed to take into account the decades of racist propaganda prior to the Holocaust, or the extended duration of the cruelty of Nazi Germany (the experiments generally only lasted an hour, thus allowing little time for reflection).
 Adolf Eichmann was a bureaucrat in Hitler’s Third Reich, responsible for managing the logistics of the Holocaust. From his desk job in Berlin, he signed the papers which sent millions of Jews to their deaths. Finally put on trial in Jerusalem in 1961, Eichmann countered charges of attempted genocide with the claim that he was ‘only following orders’.
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