Thursday, August 12, 2010

Auschwitz concentration camp

The one way tracks for prisoners that entered Auschwitz.

Auschwitz will be a name that lives in infamy. It invokes so many ideas, so much turmoil, so much distrust, so much terror, so much death. However, visiting the actual site did not convey those same feelings, which surprised me. Whether you believe in energy left behind or just associations with a place, something was missing for me.

A view of the larger camp, Auschwitz II-Birkenau, from the guard tower.

The Nazis were so efficient that almost nothing was left behind. The Soviets tore down most of the larger camp after the war, and understandably so. No one needs such a large scale reminder (when there was a smaller one). Also, I have no idea what the camps looked like in color when they were in use, but they seem to have been sterilized and cleaned up for tourist consumption. They have beautiful trees and grass between the buildings. This is probably going to sound terrible, but with a quick glance out the window, you could mistake the place as an adult summer camp with barracks instead of an ex-concentration camp. The noise of all the tour groups talking over each other as they were herded around did not help either.

The gas chamber where up to two thousand people could be killed at once.

An incinerator. I believe only 400 people could be 'processed' per day and that is what slowed down the Nazis.

Officially, Auschwitz was three camps. We visited two. The areas that affected me the most were the remnants of the largest camp. Most of it is gone, but the railroad tracks that you can imagine prisoners being rolled in on as the gates closed are still there. The ruins are still there to show the sheer size of the camp. The silence, if you could get away from the groups, was immense. That same silence was powerful in the gassing and incineration chambers at the smaller complex.

A member of the Israeli military at the entrance to Auschwitz I.

Half way through our tour, I spotted military uniforms. For some reason, they seemed out of place. I eventually figured out that they were representatives of the Israel military. I did not get a chance to talk to them so I am not sure if their visit was a more profound experience than the usual tourist has or whether they are so far removed from it, since most of them were not alive when it happened, that is was the same visit for them as it was for us. There was probably a little of both. However, when they reached the larger complex, they carried out what I am, probably incorrectly, going to call an honor guard. They had a moment of silence and then marched into the camp led by two very old men, who I believe were survivors of the camp liberated by the Soviets on January 27, 1945.

Thousands, maybe millions, of shoes from prisoners.

Some of the prisoner quarters at Auschwitz I.

A map showing how centrally located Auschwitz for the delivery of prisoners.

By the time the Soviets arrived, it is believed 1,100,000 people died there. Ninety percent of these were Jews, but the camp also held Poles, Roma (Gypsies), Sinti, Soviet prisoners of War, homosexuals, and any other group or individual considered undesirable. Almost none of the prisoners of war survived. 420,000 of the Jews were from Hungary which helps to explain why the second largest synagogue in the world, that I visited in Budapest, is not well used anymore.

The human side of Auschwitz.

A photo of children at Auschwitz.

One of the images that I hold on to is the Soviets original liberation video. Later, they remade the video for propaganda purposes, but with healthy prisoners who returned. The prisoners were all cheering in the second video. However, the original was so drastically different, the second one was never used. In the original, no one was cheering. They did not know who these new solders were and were afraid. They were mentally beaten down, some never to recover. Hope had been extinguished.

The facilities at Auschwitz II-Birkenau which were not even built until the last few years of the camp.

A picture of what the housing at Auschwitz II-Birkenau looked like when in use.

Stories and images like this invoke the human element for me. When I hear the individual stories, see photos of the misery, or think about the sheer size of it is when I am effected by Auschwitz the most. I did not need to visit the camp for these. In fact, the only thing I was able to do well at the camp was envision the size better when I saw just how much ground the camp covered, saw thousands of pounds of human hair, envisioned four hundred people sharing a small building, or saw thousands of shoes meant to be recycled. I think the Holocaust museum in Washington, DC does a slightly better job of delivering the human element for me. Each of us is different and experiences things in their own way. I have some friends who have been to Auschwitz and will never visit another concentration camp again. Make no mistake though, learning about Auschwitz via books, photographs, or an actual visit will be a powerful experience.

The entrance to the smaller camp, Auschwitz I.


  1. If you haven't yet, read "Maus", a graphic novel by Art Spiegelman.

  2. זה עצוב מאוד