Where to start? Last year, Bobby and I visited Dachau Concentration Camp and it was a sobering experience. However, our trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau was even more horrifying. It is commonly said, due to the robust rail network built by Nazi Germany, “all roads led to Auschwitz.” It became the number one extermination camp for Jews, Poles, the Roma community, homosexuals, the elderly, young children, and political prisoners during World War II. The Third Reich shipped the Jewish population, specifically, to Auschwitz from as far south as Corfu, Greece and as far north as Oslo, Norway. 80-100 prisoners were put on each boxcar with little room to sit, next-to-no food, and just a bucket to use the bathroom, for sometimes up to three weeks before reaching their final destination. Many passengers died during the hellish journey. For those that lived, the second they stepped off the train they were met by the head SS doctor. In an interview lasting four seconds, he would give a simple “left” or “right” with the turn of his thumb, effectively granting life or death. Those directed to the left were immediately put in the gas chamber. Those put to the right, the “lucky” ones, were condemned to hard labor, until they were no longer fit or worked to death. In all, 1.3 million people were deported to Auschwitz from 1940-1945; 1.1 million were Jews, 140-150,000 Poles, 23,000 Roma, 15,000 Soviet POWs, and 25,000 prisoners from other ethnic groups. An estimated 1.1 out of the 1.3 million people who entered Auschwitz died inside the gates and approximately 90% belonged to the Jewish community.
The original camp, named “Auschwitz”, was opened in May 1940. Because of overcrowding and the need to expand the Nazi’s operations at Auschwitz, a second camp, called “Auschwitz II” or “Birkenau”, was built nearby. Auschwitz was considered the base-camp, whereas Birkenau served as the extermination camp, or the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question”. We toured both sites last Wednesday and we were surprised by its incredible size.
Like Dachau, the entrance to Auschwitz has a gate bearing the statement “arbeit macht frei,” or “work makes you free.” It was one of the many pieces of propaganda used by the Germans to put forth a good image to the world and give the prisoners false hope that they had a chance to work their way out of Auschwitz Death Camp.
When the prisoners were deported from their home countries, the Nazis told them to bring valuables, home goods and enough food for a week long journey. Each person was allotted 25 kilograms and they were told they were headed east to start a new life. Sadly, the passengers were duped. When the prisoners arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau, they were stripped of all of their belongings. Typically, their food, jewelry, and clothing landed in the hands of the SS officers, who kept articles for themselves and then shipped off the rest for the German Army. Some of the clothing and shoes were reused for other prisoners in the work camps. Ambulating aids and braces for disabled passengers, who were sent to the left (directly to the gas chambers), were confiscated, disassembled, and the material was recycled.
At the gas chambers, a type of poison called Zyklon-B was used to kill 2,000 people at a time. At first, the solution was used as a disinfectant, but when it was found to be an “effective” method for mass-killing, it was employed by the Third Reich as a gas in the underground chambers. Passengers were told they would be taking a shower before heading to the barracks, but instead, they were killed in just two-minutes time. However, the Nazi SS officers were rather frugal with the gas. If there was a “smaller” number of people to be killed (200-300), the soldiers often killed the prisoners by shooting them in the neck, as to save the Zyklon-b.
In five years of operation, only 800 prisoners tried to escape the walls of Auschwitz. Most were too weak to make an attempt and others were naively hopeful of gaining freedom. One time, three Poles successfully jumped the fence and escaped, but twelve others were killed for the “collective responsibility” of the offense. It was not uncommon for the Nazis to find the families of the escapees and kill them. Offenses were also punished in a very public way. Gallows were placed in common areas, where 12 men could be hung at a time in front of a horrified audience. Others were lined up and shot against a wall in a central courtyard.
SS guards roamed the grounds and manned watch towers 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Men were segregated from women, and the Roma population was walled off from the rest of the population. Barbed wire fences divided each area, with SS soldiers standing guard at each gate.
Although the tour at Auschwitz was very informative, I felt like I needed more time to reflect on all the information I was receiving. A guided tour (except in the winter) is required, and there are a lot of visitors, so in some parts, we felt rushed. Bobby and I ended up staying close to three hours (an hour-long tour in Auschwitz I and two hours in Auschwitz-Birkenau) and I think we could have toured the grounds for longer had it not been so cold. Wanting to learn more, I bought one of the books recommended by our tour guide – Sono Stato L’Assistente del Dottor Mengele (I Was Doctor Mengele’s Assistant in English). It was written by Miklós Nyiszli, a Romanian-born Jewish doctor who was deported to Auschwitz with his wife and teenage daughter. Because of his German university training and his experience in conducting autopsies, he was chosen as the go-to man for Doctor Mengele, the head SS physician at Auschwitz. He saw thousands of people killed in the crematorium, conducted autopsies on Mengele’s “experimental subjects,” and lived to write about the atrocities under the Third Reich. It was a disgusting, horrifying, gut-wrenching book, and it left me feeling angry and sad at the same time. But, I think it is worth it to know just how horrible the deported prisoners had it at Auschwitz.