Thursday, January 22, 2015

Auschwitz (Oświęcim)

Saturday we had scheduled a driver, Andrew, to take us to do a morning tour of Auschwitz.  This was a big learning day and going with a private driver (Rick Steves recommended) was well worth it. I was a little unsure at first that maybe we were just paying a premium for riding in a car by ourselves.

Andrew arrived right on time, maybe 8ish. It took almost two hours to get there and we planned on the 10am tour. Andrew had a bag of polish donuts and a thermos of coffee ready for us! We had actually gotten up extra early to hit up the bakery not knowing he'd have treats for us. He had also brought sandwiches, two for each of us and two different kinds. It was unexpected and so nice, especially since the tour lasted until after lunch and there were lots of people there with limited options. 

On the drive, we got to know each other. Andrew actually lived in Chicago for a few years (in the 90's I think). Did you know Chicago is home to the largest Polish population outside of Poland? Actually as I look to verify this, Wikipedia says New York is ahead of Chicago....but it's also wikipedia :). Anyhoo, we exchanged our mini back stories and then Andrew started to share some history and tell us what we were about to see. 

It's been a couple months and my memory isn't as crisp, but here is some stuff I do remember. 

Auschwitz is the German name of the Polish town, Oświęcim (roughly pronounced ohs-vee-chim), which the Germans captured at the beginning of WWII. There are actually three sites of Auschwitz. Auschwitz II is also referred to as Birkenau. We know of Auschwitz because it became a death camp or extermination camp, different from the concentration or work camps in Germany. The only death camps run by Nazi Germany were in Poland and I believe there were five. But Auschwitz was the biggest and most well known. One reason is that it was accessible. Trains run all over Europe and many tracks intersect near Oświęcim allowing the easiest transport of prisoners to one location. No mass killings (i.e. the gas showers) occurred in Germany.

This was a picture in the museum that showed all the places across Europe where prisoners were shipped to Auschwitz. 

The prisoners were not only Jews. It included German intellectuals and those against the Nazi regime (actual or apparent threat). It included many Poles who were not Jewish, again those who were in position to speak out against the Nazis (politicians, journalists, intellectuals, etc.). In fact, as I tried to confirm some of my comments in this post against the website, it notes that Auschwitz began as the number of Polish prisoners exceeded the capacity of local prisons. In 1940 when it was started, most of the population was Poles and the Jewish population only really took off when the importation from across Europe began later. Andrew's uncle was one of those Poles. He told us of a spot we would visit during the tour where many firing squad executions occurred. His uncle was killed there. How weird to think that all this occurred so recently.  
Above is the area where firing squads were used for execution. The windows of nearby buildings were boarded up so it could not be seen (although it was heard). Many leave memorials for those killed.

Another thing to consider is geography. It was late November and we were bundled up in our long underwear and gloves and hats. Oświęcim is just west of Kraków which sits at 50 degrees latitude, whereas Chicago is at 41 and Vancouver is at 49. So I imagine the winters are pretty rough. I have only been to visit prison camps in Asia and saw the bamboo huts with no doors. I should have expected it to be different based on climate alone, but the brick structures did surprise me. Auschwitz I was a Polish military training facility taken over by Germans. So it was more similar to an army base and therefore the structures a bit more appropriate. However Birkenau (Auschwitz II) was constructed by the Germans, is much larger and had some brick buildings but also many wooden structures. 
Here you can see Auschwitz I & II, their proximity to town and also there was a III, to the far right of the sign. It was at a factory and the workers lived in that camp. The factory was not part of the tour, but before we left town, Andrew drove us around that area and gave us some history. 

Our tour started at the front gate of Auschwitz I, which is the original gate and that filmed by Spielberg for Schindler's List. 
Our guide gave us each earbuds and she talked into a mic, so as long as you were nearby you could always hear her. The tour took us through several of the buildings. Men and women were housed separately. There was a hospital in one. Kitchen or cafeteria in another. Even a whore house in one. Imagine that the Germans basically turned the camp inside the barbed wire into a mini town. Although that word 'town' is not how I would describe it; it sounds too nice. Auschwitz I housed 15,000-20,000 prisoners. 

At Auschwitz I, they experimented with gas chambers. The first try was done here and the Nazis learned from it. When they built Birkenau, they used that knowledge to build the main two chambers which were used for massive killing. Below is a model of the Birkenau chambers. People were led down, underground into rooms. Here they undressed and left all their belongings and continued on to the shower rooms. Here they were gassed. The Nazis were then left with piles of dead bodies to be disposed of. At Birkenau, they linked the underground chamber to giant furnaces. Prisoners worked here, transferring corpses to the furnace rooms. All out of sight (though not smell) of the other prisoners. The camp was designed so that when the trains pulled up, the people were sorted and either went into the camp or went into the underground tunnel. 

Inside the buildings of Auschwitz I, they had rooms of the belongings left behind. Stacks of suitcases, shoes, pots, hair brushes, prosthetics. It helped provide you with some sense of magnitude. 


And halls of pictures of those who died here. In total, an estimated 1.3 million people died here.
1.1 million Jews
~145,000 Poles
23,000 gypsies
15,000 Soviet POWs
25,000 Others

We then left for Birkenau (Auschwitz II). It housed around 90,000 prisoners and the train tracks come directly into the camp. Most structures have only the foundation left, but some have been preserved. 

An example of one of the rail cars that would have entered the camp carrying prisoners. 

Entrance to the camp. Seen also in the pictures below. 

The remains of one of the gas chambers after the Nazis blew it up towards the end of the war. 

A view of the brick structures and the remaining foundations and chimneys in the foreground. 

Wooden buildings reconstructed to give an idea of how many people were in this camp. The row seems never ending. 

Here's an aerial view of the camp. The yellow outlined block of houses is the one row that has been recreated in the picture above. 

I learned a lot on this day. I thought I would be more emotional that I was. However I think that is in part to always having the tour guide in your ear as she moved on to the next topic. You didn't have much time to let it soak in and really contemplate it while you were there. It is unbelievable how someone pulls off a travesty like this. 

If you're interested in knowing more or my info has provoked some questions, please take a look at the museum website. Besides Schindler's List, there is another movie (on Netflix) called the Boy in the Striped Pajamas. They are still movies, but do help illustrate some of what occurred. 

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