Monday Feb 28, 2011
The tour company, Escape 2 Poland, picked me up outside my hostel at 9 am and we proceeded to pick up the rest of the group. Next to be picked up was Michael from London, then Neil and Sue from Mancester, followed by a man from UK and finally two ladies from Liverpool. In the beginning of the trip we were eagerly getting to know each other and share information, but after 30 minutes of our journey, the driver put in the video of Auschwitz and for the remaining hour drive, no one said a word. What words would you say??? “Wow, great video”…no…”what did you think about that???”…no….silence was the only option.
My first impression was of amazement. I was amazed that I was actually here. I have been teaching about Auschwitz for about ten years but my only experience with the concentration camp was through movies and text books. I was amazed that I was actually about to walk through the entrance to history myself and attempt to embrace the horrors that took place here. I was also amazed at the normalcy of the place. It looked “normal”. It seems so weird to say that but it looked like a regular military base…except for the barb wire that constantly reminded you where you actually were.
Life span of prisoners was around 6 months. The harsh winters, no food, starvation, diseases, you name it, took the life of many prisoners within 6 months. Every prisoner, which was not selected to be killed right away, was forced to work. There was no other option. They were to be slave labor for the Germans and they had to work. That was the only reason they were kept alive. In fact, Auschwitz was too “small” to house all the prisoners, so the prisoners were forced to build Birkenau to hold all the future prisoners. Auschwitz held about 100,000 prisoners and Birkenau was 30 times larger. I cannot even fathom what it must have been like to build your own “hell”.
Auschwitz is maintained as a museum. All the buildings are original but the insides have been reconstructed to house museums and historical belongings. Auschwitz was actually the “Ritz” of the camps and prisoners there were much luckier than those housed at Birkenau. We toured a couple buildings and actual artifacts were displayed and it was so deflating to see the magnitude of belongings. When prisoners arrived at Auschwitz their belongings were taken from them, sorted by the Nazis, and housed in warehouses called Canada 1 and Canada 2. They were called that because Canada seemed as the land of “plenty” and that is what the Nazis felt about the prisoner’s belongings. There were “plenty” of items to sell and make money from. In one room, there was a glass case the length of the building and inside were 80,000 pairs of shoes. Shoes in good condition were sold or used by the Germans. The unusable ones were stored in the warehouse and the Nazis didn’t have enough time to destroy the evidence at the end of the war. You can see the types of shoes indicated that the prisoners didn’t know where they were going or for how long they would be gone. Many pairs of “summer shoes” and high heels and shoes you wouldn’t wear if you thought you would be out in the harsh winter weather for long. Regardless if they knew or not, they would not have been able to keep their shoes anyway so it is kind of a mute point.
Starvation was a major cruelty to the prisoners. They were fed only 1500 calories a day. Breakfast entailed water with some sort of coffee powder. Dinner was meatless soup and a piece of black bread. Prisoners were slave labor so it was cheaper to starve them and save money on food because if they died, there would be plenty of new prisoners to take their place.
We toured Building 11. Building 11 is significant because it actually maintained the original interior and it was the horror building of the prisoners. It was the “Prison” of the prisoners. For no other reason, than looking sick, prisoners could be sent to the “prison” building. Inside an eerie chill filled the air and it was very hard to stay in one place very long. I am claustrophobic anyway, but my tolerance of the closed spaces was abnormally low. We went down into the basement and saw the “cells”. Cell 18 was where prisoners were put without food. It was known as the Hungar Cell. Cell 20 was the cell where they would cram up to 40 prisoners at once and they were forced to serve their “sentence” within that cell. The final cell we saw was at the end of the hall. They were known as the “standing cells.” Inside the small room were 4 smaller cells. The prisoners were forced to enter the small confined space through a door at the bottom of the cell that was no higher than my knees. The cell was only the size to stand in. Four prisoners were put together in the “standing cell” and forced to stay standing over night. I couldn’t stay in that room very long. Immediately I became claustrophobic and couldn’t breathe. I had to get out and left my tour group to view it a bit longer. We were told that during the experimentation with the Zyclone B gas, the put about 100 prisoners in the basement and dropped gas on them to kill them. After they were dead, the Nazis stressed about how to “explain” their mass death. Since they were trying to hide the truth, they wrote down that those 100 people died from a heart attack. 100 people all “died from a heart attack” the same day and time. Really??????
Wall where prisoners where shot
These are the two poles they would hang prisoners with their hands tied behind their backs
Inside the gas chamber
Gas cans used
Gas cans used
|Roll Call area|
Oh…also criminals were also sent to Auschwitz…murders, etc. The criminals were allowed to do anything they wanted to the other prisoners, including the Jewish prisoners. If they happened to kill a Jewish prisoner, they were “rewarded”.
I thought Auschwitz was life changing but it was nothing compared to the feelings that I felt at Birkenau.