Following lunch, I took a free shuttle bus from Auschwitz I to Auschwitz II-Birkenau. The journey only took a few minutes, but it took us out of the small town and into a more rural area.
We passed open fields and then, there it was. This was what I had been expecting when I arrived at Auschwitz I. A concentration camp in the middle of nowhere, surrounded only by fields, no other buildings. I got chills as I saw the main entrance to Auschwitz II-Birkenau.
I got off the bus and started walking around the concentration camp. As I mentioned in my previous post, Auschwitz II-Birkenau was predominantly used as an extermination camp. However, some prisoners were kept here to work, so wooden and brick barracks were built here. Today only a few of each kind of barrack still stands, since the Nazis bombed the camp to hide the evidence, but the ruins of all the barracks still remain.
That’s enough to give you a sense of the massive size of Birkenau. All around you stand the chimneys of the ruined barracks, as far as the eye can see, each chimney in close proximity to its neighbors. Then think about how many people were crammed into each barrack, and how many didn’t even survive to live in one of the barracks, and it’s just… wow. And this is only one camp. It helps give you a perspective of just how many people were affected by the Holocaust.
Near the main entrance of Birkenau are some wooden barracks, some of which you can go into. At least 400 prisoners were housed in each barrack, although you have to use your imagination today to see the wooden barracks filled with bunk beds. Other wooden barracks were used as washrooms. The back half of these wooden barracks is filled with cement toilets, some of which are cracked and falling apart today.
I went into a few of the wooden barracks and then meandered around the concentration camp. I didn’t walk down every path, since most only led between the ruined barracks, but I did walk away from the main entrance towards the back of the camp. The final row of buildings was where the infirmary and surgery were located. It was here that the Nazis performed medical experiments on the prisoners.
Just beyond the buildings was a forested area, with a pond or two dotting the landscape. It was back in this area that I came across one of the five crematoria located in Birkenau.
There is not much to see of the crematoria in Birkenau these days, again because the Nazis bombed the camp. However, you can see the floor outline and some of the metal pieces used in the crematoria. Each crematorium in Birkenau consisted of a room where people undressed prior to entering the gas chambers (this room was also used to store corpses following gassing), a few gas chambers, and the crematorium incinerator. Because the Nazis murdered more people than could be burned in the crematoria, bodies were also burned outside in the open air. The ashes were strewn onto areas surrounding the crematoria.
This first crematorium that I saw was Crematorium V, near which is a small pond. Ashes of the victims were also thrown into the pond, and today a memorial stands there. The memorial is simple but very powerful–I teared up when I went up to it.
I continued walking around, coming to Crematorium IV. Crematorium IV is special in that it wasn’t bombed by the Nazis; in 1944, members of the Sonderkommando (Jewish prisoners who were forced to move and burn the corpses following gassing) revolted and destroyed Gas Chambers and Crematorium IV. This was the only armed revolt that ever occurred at Auschwitz, and during the course of the revolt and afterwards, 450 prisoners were killed.
I next came to the Sauna building. When prisoners arrived in Auschwitz II-Birkenau, those who weren’t immediately exterminated were taken over to the Sauna. It was here that their belongings were confiscated. Confiscated belongings were stored in buildings just opposite the Sauna, called “Canada.” The prisoners also showered and were given sterilized clothing here to help prevent the spread of disease in the Sauna.
I walked through the Sauna then continued around the camp, coming upon Crematorium III and Crematorium II. At this point I was on the far opposite side of the camp from the main entrance, where the train tracks terminate between the ruins of Crematoria II and III.
I next started walking back towards the main entrance of the camp. On this half of the camp were the brick barracks. I went in a few of them, and unlike the wooden barracks, the bunk beds were still in the barracks.
Finally I came back to the main path that runs along the train tracks. The trains bringing prisoners in stopped here, and the selection process was undertaken alongside the train tracks. Those who were fit to work either remained in the barracks in Birkenau or walked over to Auschwitz I; those who were selected for extermination were walked down the road to Crematoria II and III.
The train tracks remain in Birkenau today, along with a single freight cart, which was placed there to commemorate the Jews deported from Hungary who were murdered at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
By this time I had walked around the entire camp, so I took the shuttle bus back to Auschwitz I and then a bus back to Krakow from there.
Auschwitz II was more of what I had been expecting from a concentration camp. While Auschwitz I is more informational, containing lots of buildings filled with pictures and descriptions, Birkenau gives you more of the atmosphere and allows you to experience the enormous size of the concentration camps. As I mentioned before, Birkenau is massive–it took me a few hours to walk around the camp.
Going to the Auschwitz concentration camp was a depressing experience, as it should be. Yet it is something I would recommend to everyone (and definitely plan on spending an entire day there–I think in total I spent 6 hours at both camps). You can’t fully understand the horrors of the Holocaust until you’ve seen a concentration camp in person, and it will be something you never forget.
To all those who were cruelly murdered at the hands of the Nazis simply because of your disabilities, ethnicity, sexuality, nationality, political preferences, or religion, may you be at peace now.
And let the rest of us have the strength to ensure that nothing like the Holocaust ever happens again.