A Grim Reminder of the Past: Auschwitz-Birkenau

Poland fell to the German Blitzkrieg (Lightning War) on October 6th, 1939. The invasion had started just over a month before on September 1st, 1939 and commenced the beginning of World War Two. The Soviet Union who had a pact with Nazi Germany also invaded Poland on September 17th, 1939 (this was part of a secret protocol of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact). The two nations then split Poland in two and began their own separate programs to make the country more Germanic or Soviet (both harsh on the populace).

In 1940 Germany held many political prisoners in Poland. Local prisons were more or less full so they started to establish similar concentration camps in Poland to those like Dachau in Germany. One of the most infamous around the world became known as Auschwitz which was established in 1940 (it was set up near the town of Oswiecim but the Germans renamed it to Auschwitz). By 1942 the Third Reich had a different more grim agenda and Auschwitz not only acted as a concentration but also became a dreaded death camp.

Auschwitz I main gates
Auschwitz I main gates
Auschwitz  Arbeit Macht Frei "Work Brings Freedom"
Arbeit Macht Frei “Work Brings Freedom” – a boldface lie

Auschwitz was actually a number of sub camps. There were 3 main camps but all up some 40 sub camps in total (smaller camps were used for forestry work, farming, construction, repair workshops, manufacturing including weapons, coal mining and so forth). What is known as Auschwitz I is the original section of the camp (22 pre-war brick barracks buildings), nearby is Auschwitz II – Birkenau (the largest camp intended to hold 125,000 prisoners it was also used as a marshaling camp to transfer prisoners as slave labour to industry within the Third Reich) and the third camp was Auschwitz III – Monowitz.

Aerial view of Auschwitz I & II
Aerial view of Auschwitz I & II

At the peak of the camps in 1944 the 3 main camps covered some 40 square kilometres and the outlying sub-camps were in a radius of anywhere up to several hundred kilometres away. At this time there were 135,000 prisoners in the Auschwitz camps who were mostly Poles, Jews and Gypsies but there were also Prisoners Of War from the Soviet Union and other countries. This is massive and incorporated approximately 25% of the total number of people in all concentration camps operated by the Third Reich!

Auschwitz I guard tower
Auschwitz I guard tower
Auschwitz I electric fences  Poland
At Auschwitz I electric fences abound
Auschwitz I electric fences and barracks
Auschwitz I electric fences and barracks
Auschwitz I concentration camp poland
Auschwitz I no escape

Despite the labour status of the camps, Auschwitz was also the largest camp for the immediate extermination of Jewish prisoners and became a central component of the Jewish Holocaust. From 1942 gas chambers and incinerators were the method for the final solution of the Holocaust at the Auschwitz camp. The official website for Auschwitz states approximately 90% of prisoners that died at the camp lost their lives at Auschwitz II – Birkenau.  That is close to 1,000,000 lives (9 out of 10 were Jewish, some 70,000 Poles and 20,000 Gypsies also died at Auschwitz along with an unknown number of Prisoners of War)!

Auschwitz Prisoners
Auschwitz Prisoners (Photo Source: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum Archives)
 SS doctor, Dr Josef Mengele Auschwitz-Birkenau
SS Doctor Josef Mengele – the smiling Angel of Death (Photo Source: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum Archives)

Auschwitz was also a centre for extreme medical experiments on prisoners by Nazi doctors such as the notorious SS Doctor Josef Mengele (the Angel of Death somehow fled capture at the end of the war and escaped to South America where he lived until his death in 1979). His specialty was genetic experiments on twins and people with inherited disabilities. Other doctors subjected prisoners to sterilization experiments, testing of experimental drugs and other foul deeds. Few survived these experiments.

In 2005 I visited Auschwitz I and II which are part of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. Grim places and an experience that I will never forget. The crematorium, rooms full of shoes, suitcases, personal possessions and even human hair from prisoners hit home the reality of what happened there between 1940 and 1945.

Auschwitz I crematorium
Auschwitz I crematorium
Inside the Auschwitz I crematorium
Inside the Auschwitz I crematorium

Today most of Auschwitz I remains intact as an everlasting reminder of what a horrible place it was. Auschwitz II – Birkenau has numerous buildings remaining with some rebuilt barracks but many foundations and chimneys remain from the old barracks that are dotted all over the countryside. You enter through the main gate building that has an ominous train line running through it. Despite German SS attempts to destroy gas chambers and crematoriums during their retreat from the Soviets in 1944/1945 some of them remain too.

The main gate of Auschwitz II - Birkenau
The main gate of Auschwitz II – Birkenau
Auschwitz II Birkenau
Auschwitz II – Birkenau main gate
Auschwitz II Birkenau
The trains that travelled this line were of the worst kind
Birkenau brick camp barracks concentration camp
Birkenau brick camp barracks
Birkenau brick camp barracks concentration camp
Auschwitz II – Birkenau was huge
Auschwitz II Birkenau Wooden Barracks Poland
Many of the barracks at Birkenau were wooden and primitive inside
Auschwitz II Birkenau Wooden Barracks Poland
The rough and close quarters of the wooden barracks at Birkenau
The chimney stacks point out where prisoner barracks once stood at Birkenau
The chimney stacks point out where prisoner barracks once stood at Birkenau
Auschwitz II - Birkenau
The ruins of Auschwitz II – Birkenau go on and on
The German SS attempted to destroy the Birkenau crematoriums Auschwitz
The German SS attempted to destroy the Birkenau crematoriums

The camp was liberated by the 60th Army of the First Ukrainian Front of the Soviet Union on January 27th , 1945. All that remained were 7,000 prisoners including approximately 400 children. The rest had either been evacuated by the SS or killed.

Child survivors of Auschwitz liberated by the Soviet Army in January 1945
Child survivors of Auschwitz liberated by the Soviet Army in January 1945 (Photo Source: USHMM/Belarusian State Archive of Documentary Film and Photography)

What a sad and horrifying sight this place must have been to the liberators and what a sense of relief and exhilaration the prisoners must have felt at the sight of the Liberators (one those not there will never truly comprehend). The Soviets quickly organized medical treatment and food for the prisoners. Those fit enough left the camp almost immediately and those who required medical attention  had left the hospitals within 3 to 4 months. They were truly the lucky ones to survive the horrors of Auschwitz.

 

Advertisements

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Great informative read. Well done. I went to Dachau back in September. A very confronting place. So horrible. You cannot even imagine what they must have been through. If you want to know a great book to read by a surviving prisoner, Franz Thaler. A 19 year old boy at the time. it’s called ‘A Memoir of Dachau’. Very inspiring and very simple to read (minus the start section before chapter 1!) But definitely worth the insight.

    1. Deano says:

      Thankyou. These places are a sombering experience. I have been to similar locations such as the Killing Fields of Cambodia. Sad places, but something to reflect upon so they hopefully never happen again. I will look up that book

  2. Doug says:

    Great reminder of history Deano… Great photos!
    Keep it coming…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s