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Mike's Adventure to Poland - 2002

Part 8: Auschwitz

When we told everyone we were going to Auschwitz, the reaction was the same: "Why do you want to go there?"  The answer is simple:  we don't want to go there, we HAVE to go there.  With all of these people saying now that the Holocaust never happened, we felt we had to go see with our own eyes the horrible place known as Auschwitz.

Prior to World War II, Auschwitz was home to a former Polish military base.  During the Nazi occupation, the base was converted into a prison camp, originally for Polish resistance fighters, political prisoners, and Soviet prisoners of war.  Later, Jews and Gypsies were sent to the camp.

I learned that the Auschwitz that you hear about all the time (the extermination camp) is actually called "Auschwitz II-Birkenau" and is located about 3 kilometers away.  The retreating Nazis tried to destroy all evidence of Birkenau, and they destroyed as many buildings as they could.  However, they did nothing to Auschwitz I, and as a result, it remains today exactly how it was in World War II. 

This camp had 28 buildings and held between 13,000-16,000 prisoners at a time - and in 1942, there were 20,000 prisoners housed here.

Auschwitz I contains a museum of the Holocaust.  It houses photographic and documentary evidence about the atrocities committed there by the Nazis, but nothing prepared me for the exhibits.  The exhibits that really got me were the huge piles of shoes, luggage, and other goods that people brought with them to the camps, only to have them stolen by the Nazis and placed in warehouses for shipment back to Germany while they were executed in gas chambers.  A huge pile of empty zyklon-B canisters shows you exactly how widespread the killing was, as does the amount of human ashes located all over the Birkenau camp - so many ashes that they were used to fill in ponds.  When you consider that a single canister of zyklon-B would be used to kill 2,000 people, and then you see hundreds of them piled up in a room, it is staggering.  Then when you consider that this was only a small portion that the retreating Nazis hadn't destroyed because they ran out of time, then it hits you exactly how horrible this crime was.

It is estimated that 1.5 million people lost their lives at Auschwitz and Birkenau.

Wide View of Auschwitz
The Auschwitz camp entrance.

Entrance to Auschwitz
The main gate at Auschwitz.  The sign translates to "Work Brings Freedom" - a sadistic Nazi joke, as the only way one would leave the camp is through death.

Auschwitz Buildings
A main road in the camp.  If you never knew of the atrocities committed here, the place would be indistinguishable from any military base.

Auschwitz Fenceposts
The camp was surrounded by 2 fences (electrified with several thousands of volts of electricity), machine gun emplacements, and a concrete wall.

Close-up of the Electric Fence Posts
A close-up of the electric fence posts.

Guard Tower and "Kanada"
A guard tower.  Behind it is a warehouse called a "Kanada" - another sadistic Nazi joke of the warehouse being a "land of plenty."  Goods plundered from prisoners were kept here until they could be shipped back to Germany.

Execution Wall
The execution wall.  Prior to the invention of the gas chamber, prisoners were lined up in front of this wall and shot.  In the building seen on the left, Dr. Josef Mengele held medical experiments.  In the building at the right, prisoners were held for execution.  The four cells seen at the bottom on the right had no windows and were used to suffocate and torture prisoners.

Gas Chamber and Crematorium
Originally designed as a bunker, the Nazis turned this into a gas chamber and crematorium.  The Nazis experimented with Zyklon-B here and killed Soviet POWs and Polish Jews here in 1941 and 1942 until Birkenau took over the extermination function.  The Nazis then dismantled this crematorium; as a result, it was not destroyed during the hasty Nazi retreat and remains as it was.

Crematorium
A picture of the furnaces in the crematorium.  These furnaces could burn 350 bodies a day.

Gallows
This gallows stands on the site of the former Gestapo building at Auschwitz next to the crematorium.  It was here in this gallows that Camp Commandant Rudolf Höss was hung on April 16, 1947.  It was justice, but it seemed to me it would have been better to make him stay in prison for the rest of his life - perhaps in one of those small cells in the prisoner block or perhaps the crematorium.  Hanging him seemed just too easy for someone who committed such terrible inhumane atrocities...

Continue on to Part 9: Birkenau