Whilst there have been many cases of genocide throughout history, with a shocking number in the 20th Century alone, the Holocaust is generally considered the worst of these atrocities. Today the memorials of the Nazi death camps at Auschwitz provide an opportunity for people to see the abominable things that man will do to man. Nearly 75 years since the end of World War 2 it stands as a reminder to where unchecked nationalism and insanity can lead.
Auschwitz Concentration Camps
Oświęcim is a Polish town about 31 miles (50km) from Kraków and is where the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camps can be found. Over 1,300,000 people, predominantly Jews, came through the camps with the majority being gassed and then incinerated to hide what was happening. It wasn’t just the exterminations that happened in the camps though. For example, Dr. Josef Mengele – the Angel of Death, also carried out his barbaric genetic research here. He had a particular interest in identical twins, dwarfs and people with heterochromia iridium – two different colour eyes. I’ll not detail what he did but you can find out more here.
I’ve said before I will never be surprised by how appallingly humans have and will continue to treat each other but Auschwitz is a place where this can be brought home to those of us so far removed from the effects of war by both distance and time. It is free to enter the memorial, with a limited number of passes available for individuals. However, I believe the best way to tour the camps is with a guide on an organised tour. You will be provided with a pair of headphones through which a guide provides commentary as you visit the different parts of the memorial and discover so much more about the history. Some of the guides and their families were personally affected by what happened in the camps.
The original camp, Auschwitz I, was formerly a Polish army barracks and is the better maintained of the two sites. This is partly down to the fact that the buildings in Auschwitz I are made of brick whilst many of those in Birkenau were wood. It opened in 1940 as a concentration camp but was also where the Germans first experimented on inmates using Zyklon B. Originally designed as a cyanide-based pesticide it was first used against Russian prisoners in Block 11 before the decision was made to move the executions directly to the crematorium. This was to ease the disposal of the bodies and also had a greater capacity – 700 prisoners at a time.
Many of the buildings are still intact here and house exhibits from the Holocaust. With so many people killed, many of whom had brought a suitcase of possessions with them, there was a lot to dispose of. Some of the buildings now contain these items. Rooms are piled high with shoes, suitcases and glasses. The most macabre and disturbing, in my opinion, are those with a collection of hair shaved from victims after they had been gassed and the collection of artificial limbs; as if these people hadn’t already suffered enough.
Auschwitz II – Birkenau
Auschwitz II – Birkenau was the main extermination camp and opened in March 1942. A train line still runs through the front gate where the prisoners were delivered, almost directly, to the gas chambers. A genuine railroad car stands as a monument at the place where prisoners would have been unloaded before selection by the guards to see who would be used for forced labour and who would die immediately. 70-90% went straight to the gas chambers.
These doomed prisoners were ordered to strip, being told they must be disinfected and showered before entering the camp. They then went into what they thought were underground shower blocks but in reality,
In all, over 1,000,000 people died in the Auschwitz Extermination Camp as part of the Nazis Final Solution. However, the picture below serves as a reminder that other groups were persecuted and died here too. Poles, Gypsies and Russian POW’s to name a few. I found the visit to the camp both eye-opening and moving. I had the opportunity to see the scale of what happened here which is something, I think, unimaginable without actually visiting. This memorial is a moving monument to all those who suffered and died here at the hands of the Nazis.
If you are interested in other things to see and do in Krakow then see this post here.