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Published: October 22nd 2006
It was a warm and sunny day when we arrived. There were a lot of people who arrived about the same time we did, all talking quietly to each other, wondering what this place was really like, trying to imagine…. The only difference was that we were arriving by car, not jammed into a rail car like so many who arrived here over 60 years ago to the infamous concentration camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau. We were there as tourists, not like the million and half men, women, and children who were slaughtered, many within a short time after their arrival.
Auschwitz is probably the most recognized of all the Nazi concentration camps and the biggest Nazi concentration camp complex during World War II. Poles and prisoners from other countries were condemned by the Nazis to isolation and slow extermination by hunger, cruel and exhausting work, criminal experiments or to a quick death as a result of individual and mass executions. In 1942, Heinrich Himmler singled out the camp in Auschwitz as the site of the total eradication of the Jewish population. Most of the Jews arrived at Auschwitz convinced that they had been deported for “resettlement” in Eastern Europe.
Arbeit Mach Frei
Arbeit Mach Frei - Work brings Freedom
These words were to promote the false hope that hard work by the prisoners would result in their freedom: however, the sad truth was that the prisoners were doomed to slave labor and death was the only real escape.
In many instances, the Nazis sold them non-existent plots of land, farms, shops or offered them work in fictitious factories. For this reason the Jews always brought their most valuable possessions with them. Often traveling 7 or even 10 days, crowded together like cattle and without food, the Jews arrived. Not surprising that after such a strenuous journey that some of the victims, mainly old people and children - were already dead, while the rest were in extreme exhaustion. Upon arrival, the SS officers and doctors immediately examined the new arrivals, allocating those capable of work to the camp. Those considered unsuitable were taken directly to the gas chambers. According to war trials statements made following World War II, around 70 - 75% of those arriving were executed this way.
There were three Auschwitz camps, but only Auschwitz I (the main camp) and Auschwitz II (Birkenau) remain. Auschwitz III (Monowitz) once located on the east side of the town of Oświęcim, is no longer in existence. Auschwitz was selected, as it was some distance from the built up area of Oświęcim and was the site of pre-war Polish military barracks. Another factor, there were 44 train lines coming into
The Entrance to Auschwitz
Notice carefully the upside down "B" welded proposely this way by a prisoner.
Auschwitz from all over Europe, making it at one time a larger railroad hub than Penn Station in New York. The Auschwitz complex was an extremely effective Nazi death factory. The size of Auschwitz “Zone of Interest” was 40 square kilometers or almost 25 square miles.
The former camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau have been preserved and are now visited by close to a million people a year. Birkenau is the world’s largest Jewish graveyard, the place where the ashes of more than a million innocent victims were scattered over the fields or thrown into several small ponds.
Auschwitz originally had 20 brick buildings. When Auschwitz was converted into a concentration camp, a second story was added to the 14 single story buildings and 8 new two-story buildings were built. Between 13,000 and 16,000 prisoners were crowded into these 28 buildings were they slept on three-tiered bunks. At one point in 1942 the camp swelled to 20,000 prisoners at Auschwitz.
In the beginning, Auschwitz was set up as a camp for Polish political prisoners and German common criminals, who assisted the Nazis in supervising the other prisoners. The first inmates consisted of 728 Poles, mainly students, who
The Camp Orchestra
Just past the entrance the camp orchestra would play as the workers filed past.
had joined the Polish Resistance. The first prisoners to be gassed at Auschwitz consisted of 600 Russian prisoners of war and 250 sick prisoners who were killed on September 3, 1941.
Here is an interesting point that I had never realized, the Auschwitz Concentration Camp Complex, consisting of Auschwitz, Birkenau and Monowitz, was the only location in which prisoners were systematically tattooed during the Holocaust. However, not every prisoner was tattooed. Prisoners selected for immediate extermination, many Soviet POWs and police prisoners were never registered or tattooed.
Birkenau, or Auschwitz II, was opened October 7, 1941 as a Prisoner of War camp for soldiers captured during the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. Most of the Soviet POWs quickly died from starvation and disease, while being overworked and inhumanly treated. Out of the 13,000 Soviet POWs brought to Birkenau, only 92 were still alive when the last roll was taken on January 17, 1945.
Birkenau was huge, covering over 425 acres. It was estimated that when completed Birkenau was 2.4 kilometers (1.5 miles) long and 1.6 kilometer (1 mile) wide. When construction was completed it consisted of over 300 buildings with a capacity of
The 28 brick buildings nestled among these beautiful trees are peaceful today. a little over 60 years ago they housed between 13,000 to 20,000 prisoners.
200,000 prisoners. Birkenau became the largest death factory in history.
Birkenau’s prison barracks consisted mainly of wooden buildings, originally designed as horse stables, with no floors or foundations. Originally designed to hold 52 horses, the barracks were crammed with 800 to 1000 prisoners. Prisoners slept on slats on wooden bunks, many with only their own clothing as protection from the cold. Prisoners slept 8 or 10 to a bunk. The prisoners were locked in at night and supplied only with buckets for toilets. The rations allocated to the prisoners were just barely enough to keep the prisoner alive for slave labor, but in a state of malnutrition. At breakfast, they were given 10 ounces of bread with a small piece of salami or one ounce of margarine and brown, tasteless coffee, with no sugar. The lunch meal was a watery soup usually made out of rotting vegetables and sometimes a few small pieces of meat. Dinner was bread with rotten salami or margarine and jam with a cup of watered down coffee.
On January 18, 1945, with the Soviet Union army approaching, the Nazis marched approximately 60,000 of the prisoners from the three camps to other camps farther
Caution-High Voltage-Mortal Danger
Besides the guard towers, there were two electric fences to keep in the prisoners.
west into Germany. Those who were too young, too old or too sick were left in the camp. This was a “death march” with those who couldn’t keep up being shot and left along the roadside. The Auschwitz complex was liberated by the Soviet Union on January 27, 1945. There were approximately 7,000, including 611 children, survivors when the Soviets arrived.
Walking around the concentration camps was a very moving experience for me. To be in a place where so many were either selected for immediate extermination or forced slave labor and resulting death, words cannot truly convey the feelings. One feeling that I can somewhat describe is the feeling that I have often felt when I walk through a military cemetery. Here lie so many who met violent deaths and yet it is so peaceful and quiet. It was very peaceful and quiet here. Somehow I sense the collective spirits of those who have perished. They are at rest. The violence is behind them. But I feel that they are saying to all who come here -
"Do not ever forget what happened here!"
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