02.07.13

Auschwitz

Posted in Travel Log (N. America & Europe) at 2:35 pm by Benjamin Ross

Two hours outside of Krakow, Poland is the small town of Oświęcim, better known by its infamous German name Auschwitz–namesake of the concentration camp located just outside the town.  Scholars disagree on exact figures, but it’s estimated that anywhere from 800,000 to 4 million people, mostly Jews, were murdered by the Nazis in Auschwitz and its neighboring camp Birkenau between 1942 and 1944.

All visitors who arrive at Auschwitz after 9 am need to join a tour group.  If you arrive before 9, you explore the area on your own, and in relative quiet.  I arrived at 8 am, and was greeted by this eerie fog at the notorious front gate.  The German reads “Work makes free.”
Much of Auschwitz has been restored and rebuilt, but in a way which so as to preserved the setup of the camp.  Most striking for me were the barbed wire fences which surrounded the entire area.
Most of the barracks have been converted to museum exhibits.  My impression was that the exhibits were geared primarily towards a local audience, serving as a documentary of what happened on the grounds.
Auschwitz wasn’t originally designed as a Nazi extermination camp, but rather was built by the Polish army as military barracks.  After the Nazis invaded Poland, they decided Auschwitz would be an ideal location to house their growing population of prisoners, and facilitate Hitler’s “final solution.”
Located a 10 minute bus ride away from Auschwitz is the site which came to be known as Auschwitz II or Birkenau.  While Auschwitz served primarily as a prison and labor camp, Birkenau was designed specifically as a human extermination facility.  This was very apparent by the layouts of the camps.  The picture above is the front gate of Birkenau.  A railroad, built to ship prisoners in cattle cars, led through the hole in the middle and inside of the camp.
The railroad spanned the entire length of the camp from front to back, a length of over a mile.
The end of the railroad led directly to the gas chambers (not pictured) so that those not deemed fit for labor could be gassed immediately.  On either side of the railroad were long stretches of barracks which housed prisoners.  When the Nazis realized that World War II was coming to a close, they burned the barracks as a means to destroy evidence of the mass exterminations.  For most of the barracks, all that remains are the brick chimneys and a rectangular outline where they once stood.
Unlike Auschwitz, Birkenau does not have many museum exhitits.  Rather, most restoration efforts have focused on preserving the site in situ.
Here is one of the buildings which remain standing.
…as well as a lookout tower and the remains of a sewage facility.
This is the inside of one of the barracks.  I it’s a reconstruction, but it shows the types of quarters in which prisoners had to live.  These are the sleeping quarters.  As many as 8 prisoners would be jammed into a single section at once.  In such close quarters, lice and disease-bearing pathogens were rampant.
The end of the railroad tracks.  The gas chambers would have been directly behind.
Here is what is left of one of the gas chambers.  Like the barracks, the Nazis destroyed the gas Birkenau chambers when it became apparent that the war was coming to a close.  Restoration efforts have focused on preserving the remains to the greatest extent possible.
another one of the gas chambers
A final shot from Birkenau.  Never Forget.

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