I was wondering how to approach this blog post. I realise it’s not the happiest of topics. But The Holocaust happened, and Auschwitz and Birkenau were major sites in this tragedy. Sometimes we need to put things back into perspective, and so I think it’s important to write about these things.
Witnessing the ground on which millions of people’s freedom was completely and utterly taken, made me realise and appreciate the ridiculous freedom I am so lucky to have today.
The freedom to walk, the freedom to love, the freedom to sing, the freedom to travel, the freedom to eat, the freedom to even just walk out of my front door.
This will be a brutally honest post about the genocide that happened at Auschwitz during World War II.
If this is too much for you, switch off now.
We did our tour (and our whole trip) through escape2poland, who I highly recommend.
We were picked up from our hotel at 8am by a mini bus, and departed on the hour trip from Krakow to the camp, in the town of Oświęcim. During this hour we were shown a video on the Liberation of Auscwitz to give us a bit of a background.
Once we’d arrived, we were all given individual headphones and a pack where we all were on a channel specific to our tour guide, who spoke to use through her microphone. This avoided unnecessary conversations and noise, and made the experience very personal.
Here you can see the entrance to the first camp built: Auschwitz I. ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ means ‘Work sets you free’.
Barbed wires surrounded the camp, making escaping nigh on impossible.
Buildings in Auschwitz I, where the prisoners stayed, worked and were killed, have been restored. Now, they serve as museums to the evidence and are full of artifacts.
Transported from all over Europe during World War II, people were told many different stories about where they were going. Some were told they were going to work elsewhere. Some were told they were going east for a better life.
Families packed up their suitcases and ascended upon the trains in hope.
Greeks even paid for their train ticket to Auschwitz, because they had been sold a dream life elsewhere. Some of the tickets can be seen in the exhibits.
Little did any of them know where they were really going.
Upon arrival men, women and children were separated. All belongings were taken from the prisoners: clothes, glasses, suitcases, shoes, hair, family, everything.
Pregnant women, the elderly, the young and the ill were taken straight to gas chambers and killed as they were considered ‘unfit to work’ and so completely ‘useless’.
They were told they were being disinfected and cleaned before being housed and fed. Really, that was just a lie and they were led into gas chambers and murdered.
For those that I can’t even say were ‘lucky enough’ to survive this stage, they were given rags to wear, and were distinguished only by marks and a number. The number was tattooed on their left forearm and represented their prisoner number. For children, the number was tattooed on their legs as their arms were too small.
From this point they no longer had a name or an identity.
We walked round the exhibits in the restored buildings. The last building is the original structure, to help visitors understand what it was really like.
As you walk into the cellar of the building there are cells upon cells. Cells to suffocate prisoners, cells to keep them in the dark and cells simply for torture.
The one that stood out to me the most was the standing cell in Block 11, used for further punishment.
Typically prisoners would work solid and graft for an 11 hour day, then would then return to these. Measuring about 1-1.5 metres squared, these cells held 4 people, stood up. There was a cat flap at the bottom that prisoners crawled through to enter the cell, and a 2 inch gap in the cell for air. The cells were pitch black and prisoners were unable to move, or even to sit down. They were for the night before being released for another 11 hour day. Prisoners were kept here for ridiculous lengths of time, from 3 nights to 6 weeks.
Human rights removed completely, being treated like animals.
This made me feel sick and really hit a nerve.
Others were lined up against the wall between Block 10 and Block 11 and shot. This wall became known as “death wall”.
You can see the windows boarded up so that other prisoners couldn’t see the extent of what was going on. But, the sound was piercing enough and couldn’t be mistaken.
Prisoners were publicly hung. Officers believed that by showing the prisoners the hangings, it would scare them. And by scaring the prisoners with their fate, it allowed them to control them more.
Many threw themselves at the barbed wire surrounding the camps to attempt to end the torture themselves.
Many prisoners were also used for medical experiments. Famous ones include the experiments of Josef Mengele.
The average prisoner lasted for 3 months before they simply died of exhaustion or starvation.
The lady below weighed 47kg upon arrival, and in 3 months weighed 23kg (3.6 stone). Less than half her original weight. The average weight of a UK 7 year old.
We got on the minibus for the 5 minute drive to Auschwitz II – Birkenau.
This camp was built soon after Auschwitz I, for the intent of a larger scale extermination.
Prisoners would descend off of the trains upon arrival here at Birkenau.
Despite the blue skies, the fact we were stood exactly where it happened was kinda haunting.
They’d fit a ridiculous number of people in each of these carriages, more than you can imagine, along with all their belongings and very very little ventilation. No water, just a very long train journey from their country of origin to the camp. Many died in the carriages on the way.
Although the first gas chamber killings took place at Auschwitz I, it was here at Auschwitz II-Birkenau that thousands of prisoners could be killed at a time in the gas chambers. It was a very efficient way to exterminate in the eyes of the evil.
In my pictures, you can see a model of the gas chamber operation. Prisoners were informed they were going for showers. They were told to hang their belongings on numbered pegs, and to remember their number so they could retrieve their belongings after. Effort was made so that it was all very believable.
The detail turns my stomach.
Obviously, no one ever survived the 15 minute gas chamber.
Once the operation was complete, hair would be removed, gold teeth melted down and both were shipped out of the camps to sell in industry.
When the camp was liberalised, the gas chambers and records were destroyed to remove as much evidence as possible of the goings on here at Birkenau.
Nevertheless what was left of a gas chamber still stands today, and you can see it below. You can see the stairs at the far end of the ruin.
Some authentic accommodation for the prisoners still stands today and we were able to walk around. It was only towards the end of the war that the concrete floors were installed. Before that, it was soggy mud and ridden with rats.
There were 3 tiers of ‘bunks’, each would squeeze 8 flat laying prisoners for the night.
These were the toilets.
Cleaning these out with bare hands was considered the best job on the camp. It meant the prisoners were under shelter and when no one was looking they could sit down for a minute.
Climbing the watch tower really puts into perspective the colossal size of the camp.
I can honestly say it was a grounding experience. Reading about it and watching documentaries on it keep it small, it keeps it fictional and it never seemed as real as it did when I stood there.
Freedom is actually everything to me.
To even begin to comprehend what it must have been like, blows my mind. And it wasn’t even that long ago.
We are so lucky to have the freedom we have. And I think it’s definitely something we take for granted.
As we walked through the camps it was pretty cold and windy, and a few times we naturally went to moan. We weren’t even there in the height of winter, when it got as cold as -40C.
When putting things into perspective, our problems really are miniscule.
We cannot let this happen again.
I hope this blog post has, even for a minute, made you realise how lucky you truly are.
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