On a lovely sunny day we walked under the Arbeit Macht Frei sign (not the original as it was stolen) into wide, clean streets full of two storey brick buildings at Auschwitz I. Walking further in the area we saw streets full of one storey buidings that resembled warehouses. There was a uniformity and tidiness about these brick buildings that, if you didn’t know the history, could give the impression of a rather pleasant place.

Streets, Auschwitz I

We began our visit early in the day, so there weren’t too many people there at first. You need to book online a time you want to enter as the site is very popular so they control the amount of people at any given time. It was easy enough to get to on the train from Krakow.

Walking around outside a bit we soon saw the barbed wire fences and guard towers that reminded us that although today it’s a quiet, relatively pleasant place with lots of trees and sunshine, 75 years ago it was anything but pleasant for those who were brought here to work, suffer and die. We saw the group gallows where the Germans conducted public hangings to intimidate other prisoners during roll call and the firing wall between block 10 and 11 where many were shot.

Barbed wire fences & guard tower, Auschwitz I

Top: Group gallows. Bottom: The Yard between Block 10 and 11 – the block of death – with execution wall.

Many of the buildings are open to the public. Some are as they were when Auschwitz was in operation between May 1940 and January 1945. You could see toilets, sinks, bunk beds, prison cells underground etc. Some blocks have exhibits belonging to the nations that were vicitmized by the Nazis. We had a look in the Netherlands building, where there was information about Dutch Jews, their enterprises and contributions to society. Other buildings were not open but signs outside them told you all you wanted to know – like the one below – it’s of Block 10 where women were kept and used for medical experiments

Left: where women stripped before being executed in the Yard by Block 11. Right: Women underwent horrible experiments here in Block 10.

Some of the barracks have been converted into museum rooms with glass display cases. One of these rooms was full of shoes behind glass on both sides of the room. Another was in the same way, full of human hair. Aritifical limbs were behind another glass display case and named suitcases were behind another. The Nazis extracted everything they could from the prisoners before they killed them … from gold off their teeth to their shoes, glasses, artificial limbs and even their hair.

Shoes, Auschwitz I

One of the most disturbing and lasting memories I have of Auschwitz was the room full of human hair. Hair was used to make cloth- two bolts of which was also on display. When the Soviet army liberated the camp they found 7000 kilograms of human hair packed in paper bags. This display room made me feel physically sick and even writing about it now gives me the creeps. 

The Book of Names

There were interesting interviews with survivors of the holocaust playing on big screens in another building. Children’s drawings on a wall in another and in one room was the book of names, listing those who died in Auschwitz. It was an incredibly huge ‘book’, the photo above only shows one half of it.

Exact numbers of victims are hard to determine as many prisoners were not registered and the nazis burnt the corpses and distributed the ashes so as to make it difficult to determine the number of people killed. It is believed over 1,300,000 people were deported to Auschwitz. Of these 1,100,000 were Jews, 140-150,000 were Poles, 23,000 Roma (Gypsies), 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war and 25,000 were prisoners from other ethnic groups. 1,100,000 of these people were killed at Auschwitz, 90% of them being Jews.

Gas chamber & Crematorium, Auschwitz I

We went inside the room first used as a gas chamber and the room beside it which was the crematorium at Auschwitz I. Very sobering. It only functioned in the early years of the war. Most of the mass murders took place at Auschwitz II Birkenau where specific gas chambers were designed to exterminate large numbers of people. There were displays in one of the barracks showing how these worked. Horrid. After spending a few hours at Auschwitz 1 we headed on the transfer bus over to Auschwitz II Birkenau

Top: Entrance to Auschwitz II Birkenau from the street. Bottom: looking down the rail line back to the entrance, about a quarter of the way down the tracks.

Other travellers say visiting Auschwitz was an emotional experience for them. For me it was not really emotional, but definitely mind blowing. The sheer size of the place was incredible. Birkenau was the largest of the 40 camps and subcamps that make up Auschwitz, covering an area of nearly 200 hectares. We spent hours walking and did not see it all.

Looking either side of the railway line, Auschwitz II Birkenau

There were kilometre after kilometre of roads between fields which behind barbed wire had remains of around 300 primitive barracks. Most of the wooden barracks were burnt down so what remained were the brick foundations and brick fire places.

Auschwitz II Birkenau – one of the many roads & remains of the barracks

We were there on a beautiful sunny day and at one point saw deer springing through the trees, sunlight sparkle in the bright green leaves… signs of life and happiness. This was in stark contrast to the photo and information board we then spotted informing us that this clump of trees was where Jews were forced to wait, after arrival at the camp, if the gas chambers were full. They had to wait here until the gas chamber could take them. On the other side of the path from the trees was one of two areas we saw where the ashes of the victims lay.

Trees, Auschwitz II Birkenau

Ashes, Auschwitz II Birkenau

Seeing the reminders of what took place there made me feel empty and just in disbelief that human beings did what they did towards other human beings. Displays of photos brought the reality home, these are not just numbers- as awful and huge as they are, but mums, dads, kids, aunties, uncles…people loved and treasured, that were treated as inhumanely as one could possibly fathom.

Auschwitz II, Birkenau

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