Auschwitz-Birkenau in Oświęcim, Poland

So much has already been written about the notorious concentration, extermination, and labor camps in Poland that for this particular post I will let the photographs mainly speak for themselves.

Auschwitz is the German name for the Polish town of Oświęcim, about 42 miles west of Kraków.   Auschwitz I (main camp), Auschwitz II-Birkenau (extermination camp), and Auschwitz III-Monowitz (labor camp) and several satellite camps were established in the area by the Nazi Regime between the years 1940 to 1945.  We visited Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau.

It is estimated that 1.5 million people died at these camps over the course of the five years, the majority of them Jewish, along with many of non-Jewish decent from various countries.  Most prisoners were killed in the gas chambers but several thousand also died from starvation, disease, horrible executions, deranged medical experiments, or from hard labor.

Auschwitz I

Constructed from former Polish army artillery barracks, Auschwitz I was the main camp.  The first prisoners at the camp were Polish political prisoners and German criminal offenders.  The total number of prisoners fluctuated at any time between 10,000 to 16,000 men, women, and children.

Auschwitz I Main Gate

Auschwitz I Main Gate

“Arbeit Macht Frei” (work makes one free), the cynical motto placed over the main iron gate the prisoners passed under each day.

Double Electrified Fence

Double Electrified Fence surrounding Auschwitz I.

All personal possessions (including clothing, books, shoes, jewelry, etc.) were confiscated upon arrival, sorted, and stored in warehouses.  Anything of value was either taken by the SS (the Nazi special police force) or shipped to Germany.  The prisoner’s heads were also shaved and their hair was used to manufacture several different products.

Eye Glasses

Prisoner’s eye glasses confiscated upon arrival.

Prisoners Shoes

Prisoner’s shoes confiscated upon arrival.

The majority of prisoners at Auschwitz I lived in these two-storey brick buildings.

Brick Barracks

Brick Barracks

Various sleeping and living conditions at Auschwitz I.  Most barracks housed about 200 prisoners.

Straw Sleeping Quarters

Prisoners slept on straw scattered over concrete floors.

Straw Mattresses

Some prisoners slept on straw mattresses.

Three-Tier Bunks

Three-tier bunks were also used.

Auschwitz II – Birkenau

Auschwitz II-Birkenau

Auschwitz II-Birkenau

About 1.75 miles (3km) from the main camp, Auschwitz II-Birkenau contained over 300 buildings divided into several sectors.  The total number of prisoners reached 100,000.  Covering approximately 425 acres, the sheer size of this camp is overwhelming.   The majority of the Nazi’s mass destruction of human life took place here in their four large crematoria with gas chambers.

At Birkenau, the prisoner’s barracks are left as they were.  The barracks had no foundations and the living conditions were dire—lack of water, poor sanitary conditions, rats, and insects.  Women and children stayed in separate camps from the men.

Birkenau Women and Children's Barracks

Women and children’s barracks made of brick.

Sleeping Quarters

Six to eight women or children slept together on one level.

Drawings for Children

Drawings on walls to help comfort the children.

The men’s barracks, made of wood, once served as horse stables.

Men's Barracks

Men’s Barracks

Men's Sleeping Quarters

Men’s Sleeping Quarters

Prisoner's Washroom

Prisoner’s Washroom

Prisoner's Toilets

Prisoner’s Toilets

All areas were cleaned out by the prisoners, as proper plumbing was nonexistent.

Birkenau Main Entrance

Main Entrance at Birkenau

This is the main entrance at Birkenau for the trains carrying the deportees from various countries.  Here the new arrivals were “sorted”—segregated into “fit” and “unfit” to work.  Those selected as “unfit” were told to undress and lead into an underground chamber for a “shower”, but water never flowed, only gas.  Within 20 minutes, around 2,000 people would be dead.

Below, remnants of a crematorium destroyed by the SS in January 1945 to conceal their heinous crimes.

Ruins of a crematorium

Ruins of a crematorium

Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial at Auschwitz II

Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial

Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial

Visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau turned out to be a powerful and moving experience for both Kevin and I.   Physically standing in these camps gives you a perspective that no history book or film can match.  These camps make you hope that humanity continues to move towards a better place.

2 responses to “Auschwitz-Birkenau in Oświęcim, Poland

  1. Well done, really. I have an exhibition running on exactly this subject and know how difficult it is to avoid cliches.

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