There were piles and piles of shoes- each shoe representing a human being, another senseless killing. They had been treated as objects, not people. Auschwitz Concentration Camp is quite simply, Hell on Earth.
I was in two minds about visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau. On the one hand I felt strange about being a tourist to something so barbaric- we’re talking about a Nazi Concentration Camp and Death Camp in Poland where millions of people, mainly Jews, were murdered during the Holocaust in the Second World War. On the other hand it is something I felt I needed to visit whilst I was in Krakow. I wanted to pay my respects. I needed to know what the people who died here had gone through.
I can tell you now, it was the most depressing, horrible place I have ever witnessed in my life. I learnt so much about the Holocaust in school and through watching documentaries, but no matter how much you learn about it, nothing prepares you for what you’ll feel when you’re there.
It was only appropriate that it was a grey, rainy day at Auschwitz. The first part we visited was the Auschwitz Museum at Auschwitz I, where we were given headsets to listen to the guided tour in English.
The famous sign, ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ (Work Makes You Free) may have been mistaken as a ‘welcome’ sign, but the barbed wire said something completely different.
The first building we entered contained images, maps and statistics about Auschwitz. It was the largest Nazi German concentration camp and death camp, and between the years 1940 and 1945, at least 1,300,000 people were deported there, including Jews, Poles, Gypsies, Soviet Prisoners of War and Prisoners from other Ethnic groups. 1,100,00 were killed at Auschwitz, mainly in the gas chambers, and 90% of them were Jews.
“Why do you think that UK Jews weren’t killed?” our guide asked the group.
“Because the Nazis couldn’t get to us” I replied.
“Yes that’s right, the UK resisted.”
“And why then, if Denmark was invaded by the Nazis, did their Jews not get killed?” she asked us, looking around for an answer.
“Because Sweden was neutral and opened up their borders to let the Danish Jews in.”
Then she said something interesting;
“If other countries had opened their borders, who knows, maybe the Holocaust would have never happened.”
I could sense the anger in our guide’s voice, and she asked us some thought provoking questions. She really made us think.
When people arrived at the camp, women and children were separated from the men. The strongest were sent to work in the camp, whilst the weaker ones, and most of the women and children, were sent to the gas chambers.
Our tour guide pointed to the photo below and asked:
“If it was blue skies in the middle of summer, why were these people wearing winter coats?”
The answer? Because they didn’t know they were going to be killed straight away. They thought they would be going away for a long time, and that they would need their coats for the harsh winters ahead.
An interesting fact was that the Zyklon B used in the gas chambers at Auschwitz came in fact pellet form, not spray gas like it is depicted in the movies. It was dropped to the ground and then the gas spread upwards through the chamber.
Then we saw rooms full of objects the belonged to people killed at Auschwitz. A pile of broken spectacles all squished into a ball of wire.
Suitcases- all carefully labelled by people who had no idea what would happen to them. The Nazis told them to bring their belongings because they knew the suitcases would contain valuables like money and gold.
Then we saw the piles of shoes. Behind glass were the shoes of babies and children- a lone Wellington perched on top. It was heartbreaking.
Another room, with shoes covering the length of the room on each side. These were people reduced to a pile of shoes.
And then we came to the room full of hair. This will haunt me forever. In a huge room behind a glass case, was the hair of 40,000 people. 40,000. Amongst the heaps of hair I noticed some blonde curls, definitely those of a little girl. In a separate case at the end of the room was a display of plaits found amongst this huge pile of hair. The Nazis shaved people’s hair and used it to make rugs. How could human beings do this to other human beings? How did it ever get to this point?
We moved to another block. Bock 6. The faces of those who were killed at Auschwitz stared back at me from a long corridor filled with photographs. To the left side, the women. To the right, the men. Each one of those people is long gone, yet there they were in black and white. They looked so frail, so empty.
One photo in particular caught my attention. Amongst the faces, Aurelia Bienka was almost smiling, a Mona Lisa smile. She was Polish, born 1912, died 1942 aged 30 years old. She lasted under 3 months after she was deported. To me it looked like a smile of defiance, as if she didn’t want to look defeated in what would be her final photo.
If they weren’t killed in the gas chambers, it was usually only a matter of weeks before prisoners were worked to death in the camps. Below is the reconstructed interior of a brick barrack at Auschwitz II- Birkenau. More than 700 prisoners were put in one barrack, and at least 5 people had to sleep in each pallet.
Onwards to Block 11 known as “The Death Block”, which functioned as the central camp jail. Men and women who tried to escape, organise mutinies, or maintain contact with the outside world were held here, before being brutally interrogated and usually sentenced to death by shooting. In the basement we saw the chambers where people were punished by the SS for violating camp regulations, including cells where people were sentenced to death by starvation, and the ‘standing cell’, where prisoners were made to stand in a tiny space for extended periods of time.
We took a moment of silence at the ‘death wall’ where people were shot to death. Many prisoners would be heard singing and praying before they were shot, showing that they had not lost faith despite the Nazis’ efforts to wear them down. The shooting wall was therefore sandwiched between two buildings, so that other prisoners couldn’t hear the singing.
Walking back through the camp, we passed the place where the Gestapo was located. The First Commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Höss, was tried and sentenced to death after the war, and was hanged on gallows in that same spot at Auschwitz on 16th April 1947.
Our tour group filed into the gas chamber, and if this was 70 years ago, we’d have all been gassed alive.
On arrival at Auschwitz, Jews were told they would be ‘disinfected’ and were ordered to take off their clothes, but in fact, in a matter of moments, they would be murdered. Unaware of what lay in store, apparently the thing that bothered them most was the humiliation of being naked in front of each other.
Once they were inside, pellets of Zyklon B would have been dropped through the chimneys onto the floor, and they’d have started to scramble for air. When the doors were opened up again, children and weaker people were found on the floor, and the stronger adults were found on top- in the death struggle the stronger ones climbed upwards fighting for air. In the room next to the chamber was the crematorium, where the bodies were burned.
Everything about this place was evil, wrong, barbaric. Even these words don’t cut it. How did the Nazis ever think that the systematic killing of innocent people was the right thing to do?
Birkenau extermination camp, or ‘Auschwitz II’ was much bigger than Auschwitz 1. It’s also much more sinister looking. There’s no sound here, there’s no life here, you won’t hear any birds singing. Animals can sense death, and they know what happened here.
This site is enormous- just one huge killing factory.
A train track runs through the centre of the camp, which was used to transport people to their deaths. The track just stops abruptly, symbolising the end of the line for so many lives. As we stood at the entrance, people were beginning the 15 minute walk to the memorial alongside the train track. The flame of a candle flickered in the rain on the railway line.
Along the sides of the train track were barbed wire fences and watch towers, behind which were the ruins of gas chambers and barracks.
It’s an overwhelming experience actually being there, one that I couldn’t possibly find the words to describe. I made the right decision to visit- I think it’s important for people to see Auschwitz so that it never ever ever happens again. People should never be allowed to forget what the Nazis did, and we should never forget the 1,100,00 souls who had their lives taken away from them.
Where is Auschwitz?
The location of Auschwitz is about an hour’s drive from Krakow in Poland, outside the town of Oswiecim.