When writing a blog post about a place like Auschwitz, it’s hard to know where to start. My intention for writing this post is to share some photos and words with my family, my friends, and those who might never be able to visit. I feel the need to emphasize my respect for Auschwitz, because I always feel a bit odd when I express my interest in the Holocaust.
I believe that if we talk about these horrific events, it keeps the topic alive and in doing so will hopefully prevent them from happening again.
Auschwitz has been on my list of places to visit for as long as I can remember, and after walking through the camp I struggle to put into words what the experience was like for me. I admit I felt a bit numb while I was there, mostly because I think the tour I took moved too fast and I didn’t have time to process what I was seeing. It wasn’t until days later while preparing photos for this blog post that the wave of emotions hit me.
Ultimately no one will ever feel the emotions felt by those that entered this camp to live, work, and die.
My intention for this post is to share a brief view into the largest immediate death camp founded by the Third Reich authorities. Auschwitz has three main camps, Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II (Birkenau), and Auschwitz III (Monowitz), as well as many sub-camps. I was able to visit Auschwitz I and II. In the first years of its existence (June 1940 to February 1942) Auschwitz functioned similarly to the concentration camps founded in Germany before the war. Most of the people brought to the camps were Poles.
At the time Jewish people accounted for only a small percentage of the inmate population.
Before visiting Dachau, I assumed most inmates were Jewish, but in the beginning that wasn’t the case. Anyone that was perceived as a threat to the Nazi’s could be sent to one of the many concentration camps around Europe. Upon arrival anyone that was deemed unfit for work was killed on the spot, including pregnant women. Upon arrival to Auschwitz II-Birkenau, a German doctor would decide whether or not someone was fit for work just by looking at them.
A swift hand gesture to the right or left determined if one was meant to work to death, or proceed immediately to the gas chambers.
Many people were told they were going somewhere that would provide them a fresh start, they weren’t aware of what they were about to endure. This was a common theme for the German SS authorities, telling the prisoners something to make them believe death was not coming. The most well known example of this is likely telling prisoners they would be taking a shower, when really they were taking their clothing off to enter a gas chamber.
At Auschwitz I the gas chamber was small, and in the room next door was the crematorium. At Auschwitz II the gas chamber was much larger, however there is nothing left of the gas chamber or crematorium because upon the liberation of the prisoners the German Nazi’s blew up as much evidence as possible to try and hide what they did. All that remains at Auschwitz II is ruble and ruins.
Gas chambers are likely the first thing most of us think of when we think about the method of murder in these camps, but the high mortality rate among inmates also resulted from malnutrition, atrocious sanitary conditions, diseases, physically exhausting hard labour, and executions. At Auschwitz I, those who didn’t die soon or at all, lived in old Polish army buildings.
Upon first glance, the buildings almost look nice.
At Auschwitz II-Birkenau, smaller farm houses were used for housing. Some of the buildings were old horse stables. From the outside, these also don’t look so bad. It was the unfit living conditions on the inside that made these horrific. No proper ventilation, too many people crammed into one space, being locked in, using the farthest bunk from the door for the bathroom, no heat, and no air flow.
At Auschwitz I each building has a block number and the buildings were intended to house around 700 people, but had upwards of 1200 people at points. Originally there were no beds in these buildings and prisoners were forced to sleep on their sides on the floor due to overcrowding. Eventually the buildings had beds, but even then there were too many people forced to sleep in one bunk.
Of all the blocks, block 11 is the one I will never forget. Known as the “death block,” this is where the camp jail was. Prisoners would be sent here to starve, and to spend their time away from work in standing cells. They would literally stand for the entire night in a tiny square, and then be forced to work again the next day. This memory continues to haunt me a week later. When exiting block 11 there is a death wall, where prisoners stood naked and were shot in the head.
I felt physically sick looking at this wall.
The personal belongings of prisoners were kept by the Third Reich, and some of the items were found and collected upon the liberation. There is a room at Auschwitz I with actual belongings, including glasses, suitcases, shoes, prosthetic limbs, pots and pans, toiletries, and human hair. Each prisoner had their head shaved, and the hair was used to make items for the German soldiers – things like socks – but not all the hair was used.
The hair and the children shoes got to me the most.
Auschwitz is one of those places I think everyone needs to visit at least once in their life. I would like to go back and be on my own time someday. There were many rooms we skipped on the tour, and I’d like to see the areas I missed. My words on this page provide a very brief look at the camp, and anyone interested in learning more should not only visit for themselves, but should also read more about the history. I continue to learn more each time I visit a concentration camp.
The sanitary conditions, the medical experiments, the torture, the murder, the punishments, the inhumane living conditions – the number of people that endured this life is heartbreaking, and I continue to wonder how humans could do this to each other. This visit continues to put things into perspective for me in my own life, and I find myself having flashbacks to my visit whenever I have negative thoughts.
I was saddened and surprised by the amounts of people I saw taking selfies, or taking group photos, or having others take photos of them smiling while posing in front of areas within these two camps. Part of me felt guilty for taking photos at all, but I knew I wanted to share my experience with my family back home. This is a place of remembrance, and posing for a photo or a selfie is so unbelievable inappropriate. If you do have the opportunity to visit, please remember this.
Freedom is often something I take for granted, and I have to remind myself how blessed I truly am. This post is in remembrance of those who lost their lives simply because they were themselves.
Q: What period of history intrigues you the most?