Inside Auschwitz Concentration Camp

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.

Auschwitz Barbed Wire

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.

 Arriving at Auschwitz Concentration Camp

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.

People arriving at Auschwitz concentration camp and death camp

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.

Zyklon B

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.

Spectacles on display at Auschwitz

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.

Suitcases at Auschwitz

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.

Wellington boot on a pile of children's shoes at Auschwitz

Another room, with shoes covering the length of the room on each side. These were people reduced to a pile of shoes.

Pile of Shoes at Auschwitz

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.

Portrait Photogaphs of Male Prisoners at Auschwitz

Prisoners Life Photographs at Auschwitz

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.

Aurelia Bienka photograph, Auschwitz

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.

Reconstruction of Brick Barracks at Auschwitz

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.

Death Wall at Auschwitz

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.

Auschwitz Gas Chamber

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.

Auschwitz Crematorium

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

Auschwitz Birkenau Train Track

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.

Roses at Auschwitz Birkenau Concentration Camp

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.

Candle on train track at Birkenau, Auschwitz II

Along the sides of the train track were barbed wire fences and watch towers, behind which were the ruins of gas chambers and barracks.

Barracks at Auschwitz Birkenau

Watch Tower at Birkenau, Auschwitz II

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.

The tour of the Auschwitz Birkenau Museum cost 35 Polish Zloty and the headset for the walking tour cost 5 Zloty. We had a driver take us there, but if you wish to travel to Auschwitz you can also arrange guided tours from Krakow or take public transport. If you want to know more about visiting the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Mueum, Click here to go to the website. 
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10 Responses to Inside Auschwitz Concentration Camp

  1. neil @packsandbunks April 24, 2012 at 10:38 am #

    In a sense I’m glad I went, but at the same time visiting was one of the worst experiences of my life. The hair was the worst bit for me.

    • victoria April 26, 2012 at 6:01 pm #

      Yeah it was definitely the worst thing I have ever seen, will never forget it.

  2. PM September 5, 2012 at 10:14 am #

    I think your story is very inspirational and essential.. thank you so much for informing me a lot of the holocaust.. and I can feel your emotions through reading it

  3. rezzak yilmaz October 25, 2012 at 4:11 pm #

    Hi Pommie,
    I am very surprised to see Aurelia Bienka’s photo in the web. I am a turkish guy went to Krakow last summer. During my visit in the camp, i came across to the interesting smile of Aurelia Bienka. I think i have spent 10 mins. in front of this smile and tried to imagine the moment of the photo taken. What she was thinking? Was it an ironic smile against all horror? Or was it a funny thing happened just before taking of the photo. I imagined lots of thing like that and tried to find another face with a smile but i could not.
    Then i decided to organize a rememberence myself for her and i noted her dates. I lit a candle in those days at home for her memory.
    I dont know why but i happened to browse her name and i found you website. I am happy that someone mentioning about her. I copied her picture from your website. I dont want to disregard other inmates there but i wish we could know much about her.
    Thank you.
    rezzak

    • Victoria March 15, 2013 at 9:07 pm #

      Hi Rezzak. I couldn’t help but wonder what she was thinking. She did stand out as being the only one who was smiling, and interesting that you noticed it too. That is lovely that you organised a remembrance for her.

  4. erik urbaniak April 5, 2013 at 4:43 pm #

    So I’m not the only one who found the picture of Aurelia Bienka an outstanding one.

    I visited Auschwitz last year and – as you – looked at the picture for quite a while, wondering what had made her smile that way. Back then, to me it didn’t seem to be a smile of defiance. I tried to imagine the situation in which the photo was taken and I thought of a person under tremendous pressure, just having been taken in arrest, been shaved and thus fearful, not knowing what will come next. Her shaved head and prisoner’s clothes could not disguise her beauty. Was she used to being photographed? I interpreted her smile as a kind of mere reflex: camera – smile.
    Anyway, for some reason I found the photo of Aurelia Bienka hugely touching.

    Two weeks ago I was in Auschwitz again and, of course, I went to see her picture again. This time I took a picture of her myself and afterwards, now knowing her name, tried to find out more about her. (This is how I landed on this site)
    I learned that she was from some place near Opole and it seems she was a member of the pathfinders / scouts who in those dark days were part of polish resistance. This makes me see her smile in a different light now. Maybe it really was sort of defiant.

    Nobody will ever know, however. Her smile remains to have a mystic touch and every now and then people will thoughtfully stand in front of her picture.

  5. Sheila Epstein hunter April 15, 2013 at 9:11 am #

    As an Ashkenazi Jew it’s so astonishing to me that the nations of the earth gave our ppl up for death and worse!!How can ny human being who is aware of such evil go on with daily life? I’m talking about governments and others who were most defiantly aware of this!!I feel such anger when I see such waste of beautiful lives of children and adults! I will NEVER give up my right to bear arms. And if a Nazi comes to our door or if the Muslims take over the US (don’t think it can’t happen!!) Shiria law. Look how many states are allowing for ‘religious freedom’ I will simply shoot n kill any nazi or anti Semite who try’s to take me or harm me period. When will we Jews learn that we must fight evil and anti semitism and stop being so politically correct!!

    • David September 25, 2013 at 9:02 pm #

      Sheila – I think you might have missed the point about the Nazis and the Jews. Do you not see that your comment about the “Muslims taking over the US” is exactly the same about the Nazis spreading fear about “the Jews taking over Germany”?

      And as for your comment about your right to bear arms….firearm injury in the United States has averaged 32,300 deaths annually since 1980. That is just over a million people.

      Your fear of history repeating itself is making history repeat itself. Your fears and prejudices are creating a new Auschwitz every 30 years. You have not learned the lesson. Please think about this!

  6. Andrea September 23, 2013 at 11:35 pm #

    I haven’t been to Auschwitz yet, but I went to the Imprerial War Museum in London, and I saw the section designed for Auschwitz, and it was depressive: the camp model, the shoe collection, the photographs of prisioners, the experiments, the cans, the wagon… It is incredible and horrible to see how a ‘human’ can be this evil with his fellows. It really makes me angry to know that there are ‘people’ denying this cruelty and spreading lies everywhere. Humans don’t learn the lesson!!!! :(((((

  7. Cindy December 28, 2013 at 10:32 pm #

    Thank you for this very emotionally moving article. My mothers 2 male cousins were executed at Auschwitz. We will never ever forget the pain this has left upon our family.

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