Saturday, March 5, 2011


Birkenau Feb. 28, 2011

During the beginning of the war, Aushwitz housed about 100,000 prisoners.  It was quickly realized by the Nazis that Auschwitz was not going to be big enough to hold all the incoming prisoners.  Prisoners were then used as slave labor to build Birkenau.  Birkenau is located about 10 minutes from Auschwitz and it is about 30 times the size.  It is the largest cemetary in the world and you can definitely feel that as you walk through the entrance.  Most of Birkenau was destroyed by the Nazis after the war or it was rummaged by people who wanted to use the materials from the buildings.  Most of Birkenau is a flat waste land, where you can see the outlines of buildings and heaviness in the air.  The temperature was -5 degrees celcius and I was freezing.  I was layered with a wool sweater, jacket, gloves, scarf, and hat and I was freezing.  I cannot even imagine how the prisoners survived the -25 degree celcius winter temperature in just a thin pair of pajammas.  Unimaginable. 
                Birkenau was divided into three sections.  As you enter, on the right, is B1, the women’s barracks.  B2 was in the straight back, where the crematoriums were, and B3 was to the left, the men’s barracks.  As you enter, you can see the train tracks that led into the camp.  The train would enter, and prisoners would exit the railcar.  There would be up to 100 people per car for up to days of travel.  People coming from near by, like Poland, would be able to surive the journey, but people that were traveling as far away as Greece would not likely survive the trip.  I found out that people from Greece were even forced to buy their own “train ticket” to hell.  After the war, hundreds of train tickets from Greece to Auschwitz were found by Allied soldiers.  I can’t even imagine what it was like to have to “buy” your own ticket to hell.  It makes the saying, “one way ticket to hell” all the more realistic.  In fact, when I hear people make comments like, “I am in hell,” or other simple everyday phrases, they just have NO idea what it is really like to be in “hell” like the people sent to Birkenau and Auschwitz.  They know what it means to “be in hell.”
                We walked along the tracks and were told that when the people were exiting the train, there was calm among the prisoners.  They were told to leave their luggage and that they would be reunited with it later.  They were put into two lines.  Women and children in one line, and men in the second line.  There was such calm that only 4 SS officers were usually working at the “selection” point.  Along with the SS officers, a doctor was there and he simply pointed to the right or to the left.  With less than a second of observation, the doctor determined if someone was “healthy” enough to work or die.  Not to mention that many of these people had just traveled hundreds of miles with no food, bathroom, fresh air…yet their fate was determined in a matter of a second by a doctor.  Like I mentioned earlier, all children 14 and younger were immediately sent to the gas chambers, elderly, sick, and pregnant women were also killed.  A mother clinging to her child was sent to the gas chamber because it made less of a fuss than trying to take the child away.  It all came down to a direction of a thumb.  The doctor’s thumb either pointed left or right…life…or death.
                The prisoners that survived were cleansed and their hair shaven off.  The Nazis collected so much hair that bags and bags of it were found.  The Germans used the hair to make blankets, hats, and even socks for the soldiers.  Hair was also taken from the corpses and it was the job of prisoners to cut off the hair, clean it, and bag it.
                We went to the women’s barracks on the left.  The women’s barracks are completely original but the men’s barracks were reconstructed for remberance purposes.  Women’s barracks were made out of bricks and had a cement floor, but soon the Nazis realized that it was too expensive to continue using bricks so the men’s barracks were made out of wood and were built upon the ground.  During the rain and cold winter months, the ground in the men’s barracks was an actual swamp.  You could see green grass growing in the camp but we were told that during the 1940’s there was absolutely NO green grass…no color whatsoever.
                When we toured inside the women’s barracks, it finally hit me how horrific those times were.  I was overcome with emotions.  People in my group were taking pictures of themselves infront of the beds, etc but I just couldn’t do it.  I didn’t want my picture in front of ANYTHING.  I didn’t want to be a “tourist” and have a memory of me in that horror.  There was no way you could “smile” as your picture was taken and why would you want to remember yourself in that hell.  I would never “frame” a picture of me there so I felt it was best to just take pictures of the structures to preserve my memory. I also took most pictures in black and white because it seemed unreal to have the pictures in color.
                We were told that up to 8 women were housed in each bunk.  New arrivals got the worst bed, the bunks on the floor and the women had to fight for their own survival.  They were not allowed to use the bathroom at night or during working hours so those suffering from diarehha, or other illnesses had to relieve themselves where they slept.  Even dogs don’t usually go to the bathroom where they sleep….how could people treat people this way???  We were told that maybe every couple months of so, the SS would evacuate everyone and use rat poison to disinfect the barracks and “clean” it out…only to have the pattern repeat itself.  They were given a thin mattress and blanket to use but the winters were so cold that it really didn’t matter.  The blankets were even said to move by themselves because they were so infested with bugs.

                Outside the women’s barracks we walked to B2 where the crematory was.  I was told that all bodies were burned and no bodies were just buried in mass graves.  I had seen in so many movies that bodies were just dumped in mass graves.  I assumed that they were buried like that.  I was wrong.  All bodied dumped into the pits were then taken by prisoners and burned in the crematorium.  There are no bones buried at Auschwitz or Birkenau but their ashes were spread everywhere.  They had so many ashes that they were just spread on the ground for everyone to walk upon like it was nothing…The Nazis again tried to destroy the crematorium at the end of the war, but it all couldn’t be destroyed.  The Nazis wanted to keep all their evils a secret, yet they were maticulous about keeping records and photographs that it was impossible to destroy everything at the end of the war.  My tears started to fall as I left the women’s barracks.  It really hit me.  It is amazing what the human spirit will do to surive even though everything around you is determined to destroy it.
                B3 is the men’s barracks and most of them were destroyed or broken down for materials at the end of the war.  They reconstructed a couple buildings to perserve history and we had time to go look in them but I just couldn’t do it.
                The chill in the air was unblievable.  It was at least 10 degrees colder than at Auschwitz and it was a constant reminder of the conditions during the war.  They say that spirits/ghosts make themselves known by dropping the temperature of the room.  I am not sure if I was unbelievably cold because the weather was simply cold or because I was
surrounded by the spirits of those that lost their lives.  Many people don’t believe in ghosts or spirits but after visiting this place, I cannot see how you cannot believe in them.  The only sounds you hear is silence and all you feel is cold.  Just like Auschwitz, the feelings I had were overwhelming, even more so than Auschwitz.  It wasn't a happy day, but it was a life changing day.  We cannot EVER forget what happened during the Holocaust and it is sad that genocides are still taking place in the world.  If we don’t learn from our past, we are doomed to repeat it!

Memorial Plaque

men's side