Yesterday, I took a tour of Auschwitz and Birkenau. Auschwitz is a name that most people recognize as one of the concentration camps that Nazi Germany utilized in WWII, but it actually pales in comparison to Birkenau. Roughly 1,300,000 people were killed at these two camps between 1940 and 1945.
If you don’t know the details on how they were killed, you may not like this post. Basically, the tour shows you each building at each location, explaining in detail the system used to exploit and ultimately murder each person. First, the entrance to Auschwitz:
Auschwitz was initially designed to be a prisoner camp, not a concentration camp, for anyone in Poland deemed a threat to the Nazi’s occupation. Prisoners were forced to work in German factories by day and forced into these barracks at night, where living conditions were remarkably poor. If a worker missed a quota or no longer became useful, they were killed. If you tried to escape, you, along with 20 others randomly selected from your barrack, were publicly executed. If you did something minor to upset an SS officer, there were various ways for the officer to punish you; one such punishment was being forced into a standing room, where you were put in a brick room the size of a telephone booth along with five other people. These people would stand there until their death.
One thing that really stands out on the tour is the way that Nazi Germany exploited these people. They didn’t come to Auschwitz or Birkenau thinking they would die, necessarily. The were actually told they were being relocated and that they should bring their personal belongings with them in order to establish a new life where they were going. As such, doctors brought medical equipment, teachers brought textbooks, and so on, in addition to the everyday necessities they would need, like shoes, clothes, etc.
This is particularly poignant at Birkenau, which was actually created to be a death camp, not a prisoner camp. 90% of those who arrived by train were instantly sent to gas chambers to die. But they weren’t told that. They were told they would need showers before entering their barracks, so they entered this massive chamber where they were asked to take off their clothes and place their personal belongings. 20 minutes later, after an SS officer had filled the room with hydrogen cyanide, a biproduct of Ziklon B burning, they were dead. All 1500 of them in the room.
The dead bodies were then removed and then this sequence of events happened:
- Those who had hair longer than 10 centimeters were shaved. This hair was then sent to factories within the Reich (Germany) where they became socks, gloves, etc.
- Those who had gold teeth had them removed. The gold was melted down for use within the Reich.
- Personal belongings were taken, sorted, and redistributed within the Reich.
- The bodies were set in a crematorium where they would be burned to ash.
- The ashes were distributed to farms around the Reich for use as fertilizer.
Another thing that stood out at Birkenau was the train. The train route ended here, and there was no way for trains to go but back out the way they came. And they did. Full of all the belongings mentioned above.
I was fortunate enough to take the tour at the same time as a group of middle school students from Israel. They all walked along the tracks wearing Israeli flags in what was an absolutely powerful scene.
Overall, it was well worth the experience. It was obviously incredibly depressing, but also a very poignant reminder of both human cruelty and the power of propaganda. Never again.