Today was a day one will never forget. As somber as a day can be. After years of studying WWII while in college getting departmental honors in International Relations and of course watching films like Schindler’s List and reading Viktor Frankel’s book, it was certainly time to visit the Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps.
The first thing you see at Birkenau is the train tracks that so many people entered the camps on…so many who never left. In fact, 1.3mm Jews, poles and other “undesirables” came to Auschwitz or Birkenau from all over Europe of which 1.2m of them died from starvation, beatings, the cold, medical experiments, intensive labor, gas chambers and straight up execution by gun. Here at the Auschwitz museum you will find massive amounts of evidence of the mass genocide that took place here at the hands of Nazi Germany including 2,000 kg of hair that was cut from the female prisoners, rooms full of shoes, luggage, pots and pans, clothes and tooth brushes as well as urns full of ashes of human remains discovered in the crematoriums. The capacity of the 5 crematoriums at Auschwitz was 4,756 corpses per day. Moreover, you can still see the buildings where the prisoners slept on straw mattresses or on the floor – sometimes more than 700 prisoners in one small block and only two chimneys for heat which was insufficient given the size of the chambers; latrines that consisted of small holes on a long wooden block for defecation with not near enough capacity to handle the number of prisoners encamped here and you can will learn how such overcrowding led to plagues of lice and rats and epidemics of infectious diseases that frequently broke out in the camp. Some of the prisoners were forced to do “special working detail” which consisted of dragging the corpses of their fellow prisoners from the gas chamber, removing their metal dental work, jewelry and hair before burning their bodies. Traces of human ashes and bones still remain on the ground near the crematoriums.
At the end of the war when the camps were liberated as the Red Army was drawing close, the prisoners were forced to evacuate. At least 56,000 prisoners left the camp in January 1945 and over 9,000 of them died during what is referred to as the Death March. The remaining prisoners were forced to assist in the destruction of all the evidence of the Germans murderous reign including all the files and lists of names of the deported Jews that were victims of this mass extermination. Not all of the evidence as aforesaid was destroyed before the Soviets arrived and liberated the camp.
As I said, a somber day to say the least; however, it is an absolute must see when traveling to Poland despite the difficulty and pain you feel walking through these camps if for no other reason than to grieve the loss of so many innocents and to learn exactly what George Santayana meant when he said “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.
That’s it for now. From Poland with lots of love and tears.