Vienna and Krakow, Part 9.

Alright, let’s do this. Better we just get it over with. Head’s up: It’s going to get pretty dark so if you’re not into that maybe skip this one.

Auschwitz is the German name for the Polish town of Oswiecim. Here is some info from the Wikipedia page:

Auschwitz I was first constructed to hold Polish political prisoners, who began to arrive in May 1940. The first extermination of prisoners took place in September 1941. Auschwitz II–Birkenau went on to become a major site of the Nazis’ Final Solution to the Jewish Question during the Holocaust. From early 1942 until late 1944, transport trains delivered Jews to the camp’s gas chambers from all over German-occupied Europe, where they were killed en masse with the cyanide-based poison Zyklon B, originally developed to be used as a pesticide. An estimated 1.3 million people were sent to the camp, of whom at least 1.1 million died. Around 90 percent of those were Jews; approximately one in six Jews killed in the Holocaust died at the camp. Others deported to Auschwitz included 150,000 Poles, 23,000 Romani and Sinti, 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war, 400 Jehovah’s Witnesses, and tens of thousands of others of diverse nationalities, including an unknown number of homosexuals. Many of those not killed in the gas chambers died of starvation, forced labor, infectious diseases, individual executions, and medical experiments.

Just to give you an idea of how many people were killed, there was one point in the war where 5,000 people arrived at Auschwitz every day for years. When the Soviets came in there was a total of 7,000 people there, many of whom died after being liberated. The purging was extremely thorough.

We arrived at the main camp called Auschwitz (the secondary camp is either called Auschwitz II or Birkenau). I think it used to be a Boy Scout summer camp with rows of brick buildings. I saw the sign and I thought I was going to freak out but I didn’t. Surprisingly to me, I thought I was going to freak out at several moments and I didn’t. I was just sad.


All these buildings are now displays of exhibitions. Each building has a theme. We only walked through about two of them. They had piles of the things left behind, like 800,000 shoes, or eyeglasses.

Or the opened cans of Zyklon B.

Or human hair. Everyone arriving got shaved and the hair was woven into blankets and socks for the German submarine crews. When Auschwitz was opened there was approximately 7.7 tons of hair.

I decided a while back that even though I really did not want to go to Auschwitz I would because sometimes you need to suck it up and see history but I had one condition: No Mengele. I cannot deal with the idea of medical experiments. As soon as we walked past Mengele’s building I was getting ready to bolt out of earshot but luckily the guide basically said, “This was the building where Mengele worked,” and that was it. You could go in if you wanted to and see the exhibit but I decided I’d like to not have nightmares for forever so I took a hard pass on that.

We walked past the firing squad area. There were all kinds of bouquets and memorials all over different part of the property. It was kind of heartwarming to see, these acknowledgements of the loss and sacrifice.

We also stood where the band played every day to set a marching rhythm for the prisoners coming home from the fields. I found that particularly macabre, being a prisoner, having to play upbeat music while people are struggling and carrying their dead friends (your whole bunk was penalized if everyone wasn’t there for roll call, meaning you had to hold up the dead on your shoulders until everyone’s name was called).

I was surprised to see the lack of gas chambers and crematoriums, but that was to come in Birkenau. We took the short drive over to the second camp where I got to walk through the Gate of Death.

That’s where the train cars would come in filled with people. Between the tracks they were separated into two groups – ones that were fit to do forced labor and not fit. Interestingly, the opening scene from the first X-Men movie does an excellent job of showing what that was probably like. 95% were found not fit and sent to the gas chambers immediately. (The fit ones would be worked to death, a process taking on average about three months, after which they would succumb to starvation, alimentary dystrophy, gangrene, necrosis, internal hemorrhaging, and typhoid fever.) Zyklon B would come out of the shower heads instead of water which took approximately 20 minutes to kill everyone. Zyklon B contains potassium cyanide which prevents cellular respiration. After everyone was dead they were brought to the crematorium which ran 24/7. They still could not burn the bodies fast enough so some prisoners’ jobs were to grind up the unburnt remains like teeth and bones of strangers as well as potentially their friends and relatives. The ash was then thrown into the fields or dumped into the lakes in the area.

Before the end of the war the Germans didn’t want the world to know what they did so they destroyed most of the gas chambers and crematoriums before they abandoned Birkenau. There are remnants left.

To represent the destroyed gas chambers, a memorial was built in the location of one with phrases written in every language of people who were sent there to die.

If you’re in the area I recommend you take some time and visit. It’s definitely depressing but I think it’s worth the opportunity and Auschwitz is far more sanitized than other camps I have visited (like Mauthausen, which is in far better condition and where I found myself standing in the gas chamber itself.)

Next entry: Back to churches and art and probably churches.

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