Thursday, April 14, 2016
Day 12 - Auschwitz-Birkenau
Last evening our Berlin guide, Olaf, joined us for dinner. He had flown to Krakow to be able to spend the day with us as he wanted to share the experience of having Shalmi as a guide through Auschwitz-Birkenau. Early this morning, at 6:30 a.m. Olaf and Paulina met us at the hotel and we headed off for the day in Oswięcim, the Polish town where Auschwitz is located. Perhaps we should not have said anything about the weather, because today it rained all day. In some ways it seemed fitting.
At 8:00 a.m. we arrived at Konzentration Lager [KL] Auschwitz. Auschwitz was not one camp but was a complex of three primary sites: Auschwitz I was the administrative center and concentration camp for primarily Polish prisoners, Auschwitz-Birkenau (Auschwitz II] was the death camp, and Buna [Auschwitz III] was for manufacturing and testing facilities, which also had dozens of labor subcamps.
We had requested Wojciech, as our guide through Auschwitz I which now serves as the museum. Wojciech had been our guide several times before and we had been very impressed with both his knowledge and his style of interacting with the students. We started under the iconic sign: Arbeit Macht Frei. There, he gave us the history of the camp. Built in the town of Oswiecim, Auschwitz is the Germanization of the name of the town. It was established by the Nazis in 1940 and was in use until the Allied liberation in 1945. The camp has 28 brick buildings, called Blocks, which served as barracks.
“The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again.” --- George Santayana. This quote confronts all visitors at the entrance to Block 4.
In 1940 there was only Auschwitz I which functioned as a prisoner of war camp. In 1941 Himmler ordered the enlargement of the camp and Auschwitz-Birkenau was created. In 1942, after the Wannsee Conference, this camp starts to function as a death camp. Wojciech told us that of the 11 million Jews living in Europe, 90% lived in Central and Eastern Europe which is why all of the death camps were located in Poland. He also said that 75% of the Jews killed in Auschwitz were not Polish, but because of railroad connections, many Jews were deported here from large centers such as Vienna, Paris, Amsterdam, Prague and Berlin. In 1940 he told us there were only two languages spoken: German and Polish. By 1944 more than 20 different languages were spoken.
The living conditions in the camp were severe ---hard work, starvation, disease and brutal treatment--- so that the average time between one’s arrival in Auschwitz I and his death was about 2 months. An estimated 1.1 million people were murdered in Auschwitz. An urn with a small amount of human ash symbolizes the loss of all these lives.
In Block 4 we were shown a large model of a gas chamber which we would see later in the day, in Birkenau, which showed the three phases of its operation. First, there was the disrobing room where people undressed. The second phase was where two Zyklon B pellets were dropped through the vents in the roof, which with water, created a deadly hydrogen cyanide. The total time necessary to kill all 1500 people in the gas chamber was twenty minutes. The third phase required Jewish prisoners in a special unit called the Sonderkommando, to remove the bodies, shave the hair and remove any gold fillings in the teeth, and then burn the corpses in the underground crematorium. The average length of time one served in the Sonderkommando before being killed himself, was 3 months.
In Block 5 were exhibited the ‘evidence of crimes’: belongings brought by victims to Auschwitz, confiscated by the SS and found after liberation. Thousands of items, every one belonging to a man, woman, or child, murdered in the camp. Separate rooms contained shoes, artificial limbs and crutches, eyeglasses, prayer shawls, shaving kits, household cooking items, and other items which had been packed in their labeled suitcases. 25% of the victims in the camp were children. Several cases contained baby clothes, dolls, and rattles. These cases provided physical evidence of the existence of so many victims as well as giving us some insight into what they might have thought would be their future. Before a case of tins of shoe polish, Wojciech noted that these would be packed by men who thought they might need to be looking their best, to look for a job.
Before we entered a long room in which we were asked to take no photos, Wojciech said “Nowhere else can you be as close to the victims of the camp as in this room.” A wall-to-wall display case held more than 4,000 pounds of human hair. The hair was sold to textile manufacturers for production of army uniforms or gloves and socks for railroad workers. We were shown a bolt of fabric; 30% of it was made from human hair. We could see strands of hair protruding from the fabric.
Leaving Block 5, we were taken next to Block 7 which showed us the living quarters of the prisoners in Auschwitz. Walking through the hall of the building we saw photographs of the predominantly Polish prisoners, women on the left and men on the right, with their name, prisoner number, nationality, date deported to Auschwitz and date of death. We had been told that the average life expectancy of a prisoner in Auschwitz I was 2 months because of the harsh conditions and the pictures bore this out. These photographs were taken as a part of the processing into the camp, most by Wilhelm Brasse, himself a prisoner. He spoke fluent German and was a photographer before the war. This made him useful to the Nazis who wanted good photographs of the prisoners as well as someone to take pictures at their private SS parties and of the experimental surgeries. In this manner he was able to survive the war. Wojciech told us that it was traditional for a moment of silence to be observed at Jewish burial in memory of the departed. If that we're to be done for each person whose photograph hung in the corridors of Block 7, it would require 8 hours. If this same moment of silence was to be observed for each of the 1.1 million victims of Auschwitz, it would take two and a half years.
There were 300,000 survivors of Auschwitz, we were told. But the official number of Jews in Poland is less than 5,000 today.
In Block 11, which served as the prison for the camp we saw three types of punishment cells: dark cell, starvation cell and the standing cell in which three or four people could be forced to stand for days at a time. Punishment might be 3-5 days in one of these cells for a minor infraction of a camp rule or 2 weeks for sabotage. Time in a punishment cell could be a death sentence. We visited the execution wall between Blocks 10 and 11, where tens of thousands of prisoners were lined up naked and shot.
We visited Block 27, an exhibit created by Yad Vashem which opened a few years ago. In the 1970’s the Auschwitz State Museum started allowing national exhibits to be set up in different blocks. Holland, Hungary, France and Belgium, for example, each have a special exhibit highlighting that nation’s experience during the Holocaust. From the perspective of Israel / Yad Vashem, Wojciech said, Auschwitz-Birkenau has a special place, because it is the symbol of Jewish suffering in Europe. Most Jews didn’t die in Auschwitz but it is symbolic of what the Holocaust means to Jews. The exhibit has several rooms: one in which Jewish life before the war is portrayed in film and pictures, a second room has screens which show Nazi propaganda speeches; a third room entitled “Geography of Murder” shows the extermination camps as well as killing sites on a huge wall map; a fourth room in which one can listen to testimony of survivors; and a fifth room which has children’s drawings painted on the walls. The final room is an exhibit called the Book of Names. In a long room, a book as big as the room, fills two sides of thousands of pages, listing the names and some information such as place of birth and birthdate, place and date of death, if these were known, of more than four million documented Jewish victims of the Holocaust. This was a powerful exhibit for many of our students who found their own last name or the name of a friend in the book; one student found names of her family members.
Our last stop in Auschwitz I was the crematorium of the camp. There we saw the home of the camp commandant Rudolf Hoss and the gallows where he was hanged for his war crimes in 1947. The gallows was used once --- for his execution. We then walked through the crematorium which was used to cremate the bodies of people who had perished in the camp and had been used as the prototype for the crematoria we would see this afternoon in Birkenau.
After a brief bag lunch on the bus as it was still raining, we drove the short distance to Auschwitz-Birkenau where Shami spent three hours showing us the death camp. He talked about how the camp had changed in the spring of 1944 when the Nazis expected one million Hungarian Jews to be transported here. It was then that they added the rail spur coming into the camp, preparing for the influx of prisoners.
We visited the quarantine barracks Towards the end of the war, Germany needed more workers as they sent more men and young boys to the front. Jewish workers were shipped into Germany to fulfill that need. The problem was that these Jews coming from camps were poorly nourished and could have diseases and secondly, they were Jews: according to Nazi racial ideology, by definition they were disease. Germany by now was essentially ‘Judenrein’ [Jew-free] but they were essential to the war effort so they were brought here and housed [no sleeping area - just an open space at one end and long rows of latrines at the other] for three days until they were declared disease-free and could continue their journey into Germany.
We also saw the Czech family camp which Shalmi had spoken to us about in Terezin. The Czech Jews had been transported to Auschwitz to reduce the overcrowding prior to the Red Cross visit as part of the beautification project. Once the visit had occurred, however, the Czech camp was liquidated and all of its inmates sent to the gas chambers. Again, Shalmi reminded us that the last thing the Czech Jews did before entering the gas chamber, was to sing the Czech national anthem. “People’s attitudes can change. Before the 20th century the Czechs were tremendously antisemitic. Then came Masaryk who changed the attitudes of the Czechs towards the Jews and the Jews towards the Czechs.” Positive change can happen with the right leadership.
We also learned of the existence of two other camps: the Mengele Twin Camp and the Gypsy camp.
Passing a large pool of water, Shalmi told us it was one of two such pools, required by the Swiss insurance company, Allianz, before it would agree to insurance Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Next Shalmi spoke of the importance of “The Ramp” where the selection process was made determining whether one was to live or die. He told us several emotional stories shared with him as he chronicled their testimony, in which they described their experiences on The Ramp. He told us many survivors often speak of their life “before the ramp” and their “life after the ramp.”
We saw the remains of the crematoria which had been destroyed by the Nazis before fleeing. Shalmi drew our attention to one beam. The Nazis hired professionals to do their construction. This architect knew he was creating a crematorium. It wasn’t enough to make straight, simple lines - he put moldings on the beam to make it more beautiful. He was concerned with aesthetics as he was making a chamber of death.
The 'sauna' served as the building where those who had been chosen to live were processed (uniforms, tattooed, shaved) and we walked through the processing rooms, and spent some time looking at the photographs displayed which had been found in peoples’ suitcases. We also viewed the remains of the warehouses called Canada which were massive storage buildings which housed confiscated Jewish property taken at the ramp, before walking back to the bus.
On our way back to Krakow, we dropped Olaf off at the airport and then continued to our hotel where we had a little time to dry out and get ready for dinner tonight near the Market Square.