Moving on from the original Auschwitz Camp, we arrived at Auschwitz Birkenau, a new camp built in 1942 as an expansion to the 1st, where the true horrors of the Third Reich would be unleashed…
The entrance to Auschwitz A, the original Auschwitz Concentration Camp was a reasonably small scale affair, with the main gates headed by the phrase “Arbeit Macht Frei” or “Work Makes You Free”. The camp was originally designed for political prisoners and POW’s, however Birkenau would change all that.
As you approach Birkenau, the true scale of the place hits you. A train line runs straight through the main administrative block, and it really does feel like you are approaching a prison. Enormous train loads of prisoners would arrive here daily, their fate decided almost immediately…
In 1942 construction on Birkenau began. The original camp was full, and ill-equipped to meet Hitler’s new plan, that of the Final Solution, AKA the Holocaust, which aimed to kill the Jewish population of Europe. Rudolf Hoss (1900 – 1947, Auschwitz A Commandant) was put in charge of both Auschwitz A and Birkenau, and helped to orchestrate the mass killings that would follow.
Birkenau is only a few kilometres away from the original camp, and prisoners arrived by train to this platform just inside the complex, from all over Europe. Many of the prisoners were Jewish, Polish or Soviet, as the Red Army was being overwhelmed by the German Army to the East. Other groups also being persecuted included Homesexuals and Disabled People, all seen as inferior by the German Reich. Anybody deemed unable to work by onsite Doctors, mainly disabled people, Women, Children or the Elderly were sent to the Gas Chambers and executed within the hour, whilst the rest became a workforce.
Even the trains used to transport the prisoners were horrendous, with an example of a wagon that people were pushed into like cattle shown above. Many people didn’t survive the journey, with cramped conditions, and a lack of basic sanitation.
The Nazi’s grand scheme for mass extermination still required 1 thing, a method to carry out the killings. Early attempts had been tried by hooking up a pipe from a van exhaust into an enclosed space to kill people, but it was inefficient and time consuming. This was soon to change. A chemical called Zyklon B was already being widely used in Germany as a method of pesticide, however it was very deadly as it contained Cyanide.
It was soon tried out at Auschwitz, where 2 cottages were converted specifically for killing. The prisoners were marched inside, and the Zyklon B released. After a visit by Heinrich Himmler (1900 – 1945, head of the SS and overseer of Concentration Camps) in July 1942, the killing capacity of Auschwitz was ordered to be increased. As part of the new Birkenau Complex, multiple dwellings had been constructed, along with a large mortuary. This mortuary was converted into a gas chamber (crematorium), and was already equipped with large ovens to burn the bodies of the victims. This also spurred the creation of new crematoria, with a total of 4 eventually in operation. They could take huge numbers of prisoners at once, who were herded inside, and the Zyklon B dropped in through a hatch in the roof. The bodies were later burnt, but the crematoriums were soon unable to cope with the influx of people, and bodies were being buried in mass graves all over the site.
As shown in the pictures above, you can still see the remains of the original gas chambers. The chambers were blown up by the Germans themselves as the Red Army broke through their lines and marched through Poland, eventually liberating Auschwitz on January 27th, 1945. Most of the buildings were burnt and records destroyed, however in the confusion thousands of prisoners were left behind, and were able to give the Russians, and the Allies a full account of the horrors that had happened here. The Germans had evacuated a few days before the Russians arrived, marching thousands of prisoners to other camps inside German territory, later to be liberated by the British.
The conditions the prisoners were being kept in were absolutely horrific. Here you can see rows and rows of the huts used to incarcerate prisoners, along with the interior of a surviving example. These were originally designed to take just 550 people each, but this was soon changed to over 700 in the original plans. As our tour guide made sure we remembered, these huts were used to take as many prisoners as possible, regardless as to whether they would be comfortable or not. They were forced to sleep on those wooden platforms in close confinement, with multiple people to a bay, above and below. Disease would spread, and food was scarce, many people starving to death every week.
Many prisoners were employed to sort through the belongings of new prisoners, as well as the deceased. As in Auschwitz A, all belongings were kept, with money being transferred to Berlin in any currency available. Other collections made included Human Hair, as well as golden teeth to extract the gold.
Aside from the full scale murder of Jews and other ethnicities, medical experiments were also being carried out here at Auschwitz by medical staff. The most famous of these is probably Josef Mengele (1911 – 1979) who became the chief physician of the camp. He was particularly fond of Twins, amongst others, and carried out experiments on them from the moment they arrived. He was fascinated by their physiology, and should 1 twin die he immediately had the other killed to study them both together. He managed to escape capture at the end of the war, and ended up in exile in Argentina, where he remained until 1979 when he had a stroke whilst swimming, and drowned.
At the centre of the camp lies a large Memorial to all those who suffered and died at Auschwitz. Large tablets list the Memorial message in the languages of all nationalities who were interred here, with the English version reading:
“For ever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity, where the Nazi’s murdered about one and a half million Men, Women and Children, mainly Jews, from various countries of Europe.
Auschwitz -Birkenau 1940 – 1945”
It’s a warning from history that terror and murder on this scale should never be repeated, and we can only hope that in the future history is remembered.
The Memorial faces the train line that brought people into the camp, and looks straight up it to the camp’s main gates. It is not just the inmates here who suffered, as when the camp was built local villages were destroyed to get building materials such as bricks and wood.
Even though World War II in Europe ended in May 1945, Poland itself was not so lucky. Whilst the Germans had gone, they were replaced by the Soviets. At the start of the War, the Germans/Soviets had agreed a non-aggression pact, and invaded Poland together, the Germans taking the Western half, the Soviets the Eastern. When Germany turned on the Soviet Union, they expelled them from Poland and took the whole country under their direct control. But the Soviets had fought back, and helped to defeat Nazi Germany, now a smoking ruin in the centre of Europe.
Germany itself had been partitioned between West Germany, under the control of the Allies, and East Germany, run by the Soviets. Berlin itself fell into East Germany, with the Western part of the city becoming the capital of West Germany (extra-territorially), and the same in East. Eventually the Berlin wall was built through the city to seperate the 2 halves, and all areas East of the Wall, to Russia itself became known as the Iron Curtain, under Soviet Control. Poland’s independence wouldn’t be granted once more until the late 1980’s/early 1990’s when communism fell across Eastern Europe. The Soviet Union dissolved, and Poland became a free country without outside influence, later joining the European Union and becoming a peaceful nation.