We took a day trip from Cracow to the town of Oswiecim, some 60km to the south-west, the site of the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. (For additional information on Oswiecim, please check out the city’s Polish language website, http://www.um.oswiecim.pl/oswiecim/
.) The first impression upon arrival at Auschwitz is that the place is pretty small (20 hectares, or less than 50 acres) considering it was where at least one-sixth of all Jews murdered by the Nazis – at least one million people – were gassed and cremated.
The reason is that the original concentration camp was not built from scratch but, rather, established in April 1940 in a pre-existing but abandoned Polish military base with a number of all-weather brick barracks. (For more information, please see the official Auschwitz website at http://www.auschwitz-muzeum.oswiecim.pl/html/eng/start/index.php
.) The facility was meant to hold mainly Polish political prisoners, who were treated brutally and were mostly starved, worked and sickened to death. There is a small gas chamber and incinerator in the premises, but we could tell that it could not have possibly handled more than a couple of hundred victims per day. As we soon learned, you can kill a lot of people rapidly with Zyklon-B gas, but disposing of the bodies is a whole other matter.
In March 1941, SS Chief Heinrich Himmler ordered that a second and much larger camp (171 hectares, or 422 acres) be built some 3km away, even closer to the main railroad lines crossing the area. This was named Birkenau, or Auschwitz II, and it was purposely built as an extermination camp – mainly for Jews from all over Europe, but also for gypsies and undesirable Poles and Germans. (Auschwitz III or Buna, and 45 other sub-camps throughout this industrial region, would be set up in subsequent months.) Here the barracks were built of flimsier wood, for the purpose of housing tens of thousands of prisoners who were spared immediate death so they could become slave laborers – with a life expectancy measured in months, so one wonders whether they were, in fact, better off.
The majority of those who arrived by train every day, however, did not last even 24 hours: upon arrival at Birkenau, they would be selected for immediate death in the four large gas chambers operating there, each with the potential to kill 6,000 people per day. Their corpses were burned in large crematoria that operated 24 hours a day. As is well known, the chambers were built to look like shower rooms in order to confuse the victims, who were told that they needed to be cleaned and disinfected before being sent out to work in area factories. Whereas the small gas chambers and cremation facility at the original Auschwitz location have been rebuilt, the industrial-scale facilities in Birkenau remain in ruins: they were all demolished by the Nazis before evacuating the area.
Visiting Auschwitz is a deeply moving experience, especially for those of us who had relatives that perished there. Our only consolation was that by now many more millions of people have willingly visited these death factories, and have hopefully learned and reflected about what went on there, than were forcibly shipped there during 1941-44. Indeed, it was encouraging to see that most of the visitors to Auschwitz are visibly not Jewish or gypsy or otherwise representative of those who perished there. According to the available museum statistics, some 15 million Poles have trekked through Auschwitz over the years, as have more than one million Germans and nearly 350,000 Italians, whereas about 200,000 Israelis have visited the site.