It’s almost impossible to imagine what it must have been like to be a prisoner of the Nazis at Auschwitz, despite the meticulous efforts that have been made to preserve the camp since it was liberated in 1945.
But when you walk through the gate under the iconic and chillingly ironic sign “Arbeit macht frei” (Work sets you free), you do get the feeling that your world has changed for the worse.
It’s impossible to remember everything we saw and heard over a five-hour tour of Auschwitz and the neighboring camp at Birkenau. There are plenty of sources for the history and statistics, and this post will be a little random in its organization, but it’s mostly about feelings moreso than the facts. What follows are just some things that stood out about that afternoon.
There were more death camps in Poland than anywhere else in Europe, we were told by our excellent tour guide, because of Poland’s central location in Nazi-occupied territory and the transportation advantages of a good railway system.
The people, mostly Jews, that the Nazis brought to Auschwitz and camps like it were stuffed in railroad cars like the one below that we saw at Birkenau. Nearly 80 people and their belongings were crowded into these cars — in many cases, little room to sit or lie down, and their harrowing journey just to get to the camps could last for as many as nine days from faraway outposts of the Nazi Empire like Greece.
When they arrived, the Nazi officials divided the refugees into two groups in the “selection” process. Those deemed “fit for work” would go in one direction for processing into the campus. The rest — often the elderly, the infirm, or children — went to their immediate deaths in the gas chambers under the guise of being taken for showers. (See Wiliam Styron’s marvelous novel “Sophie’s Choice” for a wrenching recounting of the kinds of life-and-death decisions that people had to make at this point.)
We walked through lots of the camp’s buildings on our tour, and one showed how the Nazis processed those who would be put to work. One of their bequests to history was a penchant for detailed record keeping. Each inmate was photographed — police mug shot style — with information about who they were — name, birth date, home town, occupation.
I don’t think I’ll ever forget these images, mostly of men – and most from the first couple of years of the camp’s existence, before the sheer number of prisoners became too overwhelming to record them all. Some bear the marks of beating or torture and most look terrified. And most were dead in a matter of months, according to the information accompanying their pictures.
Even if you avoided being gassed, there were lots of ways to die at Auschwitz. Many perished from a combination of brutal 12-hour days of forced labor, inadequate food and clothing, and diseases which spread easily through the barracks.
Punishments for infractions were also swift and unsparing. One building served as a prison within this prison. We saw “standing cells,” in which as many as four prisoners were confined in a space barely big enough for one man – and worse, “starvation cells” where prisoners were kept without food or water until they were dead.
And pictured below is the execution wall, where public shootings took place as an example to other inmates:
In addition to taking their dignity and their lives, the Nazis also robbed the prisoners of their possessions. An entire building is devoted to “Plunder”. Room after room displayed collections of items confiscated from people upon their arrival, and after their deaths – luggage, shoes, eyeglasses, even crutches and prosthetic limbs. Many of these items were found in warehouses when the camp was liberated.
But the one that gets everybody is the most personal theft of all. There’s a case about 100 meters long filled with nothing but human hair. Males and females all had their heads shaved as they were processed td guard against the spread of disease by body lice. Guides request that no photos be taken and some people gasp audibly when they see it. The hair is all gray now, robbed of its pigment by the passage of time. It’s a disturbing sight.
The next block of buildings houses displays remembering the prisoners of various nationalities – we walk through the exhibit from Hungary, which like Poland, suffered especially heavy losses of its Jewish citizens during the Holocaust.
We move from Auschwitz to the Birkenau camp, just a brief bus ride away. It’s also huge, and we see there a little more of the Nazis’ industrialization of death. One of the first things we see there is also one of the most memorable – a couple of long rows of seats with openings where toilets used to be, Inmates got only a couple of opportunities a day to take a break to relieve themselves. Our guide explains that even though there was no privacy, this was a valuable time for inmates to exchange information. And even the awful job of cleaning the toilets was prized by inmates, as it was, after all, indoor work.
The evening ends in a building which has a moving series of exhibits which chronicle the stories of individual families, some of whose members survived and some of whom fell victim to the Holocaust. The photos remind me of the video back at the Jewish Center in Oswiecim – people who had hopes and dreams for the future and were just living their lives when they were targeted and killed just for being who they were.
As Father Deselears suggested earlier in the day, it seemed like a reason not to leave depressed – these people had at least survived in someone’s memory and the Nazis hadn’t succeeded in wiping the evidence of their own crimes off the face of the earth.
But it seemed small consolation. It was still raining when we boarded the bus for a quiet trip back to Krakow and the comfort of a dry hotel room and a dinner with new friends.