Visit to Auschwitz/Birkenau
September 29, 2002
Although Auschwitz/Birkenau was not somewhere I might have organised to go if it had not been part of my tour, I am glad that I went. It is an experience that will be hard to forget.
Following the defeat of Poland in the later half of 1939, the Germans founded a concentration camp on the site of a deserted pre-war Polish barracks in Oswiecim, in order to accommodate the rising numbers of Polish prisioners of war. The first prisoners were dispatched to the Auschwitz camp on June 14, 1940. The camp grew from 20 to 28 buildings between 1940 and 1942. During 1941 the Germans began construction of a second camp, Auschwitz II - Birkenau, situated approximately 3km away. By 1942 there was also a third camp on the territory of the German chemical plant IG-Farbenindustrie. Auschwitz I and Birkenau are now maintained as museums.
Around five of the original brick buildings that comprised Auschwitz I have been converted into general exhibition rooms, 'Extermination' 'Material Evidence of Crimes' 'Everyday life of the Prisoner', 'Living and Sanitary Conditions' 'The "Death Block"'. Entering the first exhibition room the first thing that strikes you as you start to look at the first exhibits in the museum is the sheer enormity of it all. Some of the most shocking are the room sized piles of objects that belonged to those who were killed at the camp. Rooms of shoes, rooms of suitcases, rooms of pots and pans. A twisted chaos of metal and glass turns out to be, on closer inspection, thousands and thousands of eyeglasses, the frames twisted in all directions. Some of the piles are 20m by 10m across, viewed through large glass windows in the adjacent room.
I appreciated the style of our guide (I think his name was Miro). I liked the way he simply told the facts of what happened at the camp during those years, acknowledging the massive scale of the human tragedy. I felt he did a good job in restoring a little of the sense of humanity that was lost during the war years. While he pointed out that Jews were the main victims of the camp, he also stressed that many other peoples lost their lives, and that these people came from a wide variety of places and backgrounds (eg. Gypsies, Poles and Russians).
One of the most things I found most disturbing was the use of human remains for German industry. After the liberation of the camp by the Soviet Army they discovered approximately 7 tons of hair, tightly packed into bags. Traces of hydrogen cyanide indicated that this hair had come from the gas chambers. This was made into haircloth and used by German industry as tailor's lining. One of the most dramatic exhibitions in the museum is a huge display of cut human hair, approximately three average rooms long and one room wide. This conveyed the enormity and the sheer scale of the operation in a very tangible way.
The camps have largely been preserved and/or rebuilt to be like they would have been during WWII, however there are a couple of obvious differences. One of the most evocative images most people associate with a concentration camp is the barbed wire designed to keep people in. However, the barbed wire has largely been removed in order to extend the life of the concrete fence posts (made of very cheap concrete). Grass has also been planted over the open areas of the camp in order that large numbers of people can walk around. These changes make the camp look less desolate than it appears in the photographs. While I walked among the old brick buildings of Auschwitz I had another very disconcerting experience. For one moment it was easy to forget where you were. While the buildings were not aesthetic, they were not completely ugly. If you were transported directly into the Auschwitz I complex, it could be mistaken for a brick village of streets.
Although I was horrifed by this thought, to me it demonstrated something important about how we regard such places. Most likely due to conditioning from Hollywood, beautiful places are meant to look good, awful places are meant to be ugly. It is a good example of how human perception is directed by our expectations. In awful places we are more likely to identify the ugly things, however when we come across things we normally associate with safety and beauty (such as even green grass) the experience is jarring. To me I found this experience demonstrated the danger of cliche. Awful things can happen in seemingly normal surroundings. This can be a dangerous thing to forget.
Walking into the sole remaining gas chamber is a hell of an experience. It looks like a concrete warehouse with a low ceiling, yet the meaning of what the place is takes a few seconds to hit you. When I was informed that the concrete on which I was standing was made including human ashes I felt truly sick, it was like being surrounded by mass death on all sides.
While Auschwitz has the name as the most feared of all the death camps, the vast majority of the mass exterminations occurred at Auschwitz II - Birkenau. The sheer size of Birkenau is unbelievable. The camp was made up of over 300 buildings over 425 acres.
A railway line enters the camp through an archway in the main building, the line cutting through the middle of the camp, leading directly to the four main gas chambers.
When a train entered the camp it stopped halfway between the entrance and the end of the line where people were sorted into those that could work, and those considered incapable or inferior. What those on the platform could not have realised was that to go through the gates to the left meant at best a slim chance of survival, whereas not to go though these gates was not to see another day.