September 30, 2018

Auschwitz: The Hardest Post We Have Ever Written

by Steve and Rosemary

If you have been following this blog, you know that we like to write about the fun we are having and the interesting sights we get to see. This is not one of those posts. Before reading this, please be aware that some of the things discussed and shown might be very disturbing to read. They were certainly disturbing for us to see in person. Some of these are pictures that we took, and some are copies of photos taken at the time.

During World War II, the Nazis made a conscious effort to exterminate certain classes of people who they felt "contaminated" Germany and the rest of Europe. In order to do so, they set up a number of concentration camps where millions of people were murdered and their bodies either buried in mass graves or cremated.

About 90 minutes outside of Krakow, Auschwitz is one of the most infamous of these camps, where over 1.1 million people died. The camp is now a museum both to honor the dead and to remind people of the atrocities that took place there. The memorial's mission statement is "Remembrance – Awareness – Responsibility".

At the entrance to the camp is a sign that translates to "Work sets you free", an attempt by the Nazis to make the prisoners believe that they would be working towards their freedom. Nothing, of course, could have been further from the truth. Only death would set them free.

"Arbeit macht frei"

Immediately past the gate are barbed wire fences that have been electrified to prevent escapes.

As a deterrent, the corpses of those killed trying to escape were put on display for the other prisoners to see. Sometimes, those who tried to revolt or escape were hanged in a public area.

The buildings here were originally army barracks. If you didn't know what happened here, the place would seem normal and peaceful.

Every morning, the prisoners were marched out for inspection, while an orchestra made up of fellow prisoners played. The music helped the prisoners keep in step, making it easier for the guards to count them.

Although the extermination of Jews is well known, there were other groups targeted by the Nazi regime as well. Otto Thierack, Minister of Justice for the Third Reich, said, "We must free the German nation of Poles, Russians, Jews and Gypsies." The Nazis deported about 1.3 million people to Auschwitz, among them:

     1,100,000 Jews
        140,000 Poles
          23,000 Gypsies
          15,000 Soviet prisoners
          25,000 prisoners from other ethnic groups

The Nazis considered these people "subhumans," worthwhile only as disposable slave labor, if that.

Much of what we know about the concentration camps comes from the Nazis' own documentation of events; they kept meticulous records and took many photos. They were intent on documenting everything they did, because at some point Hitler wanted to set up a museum about the extermination of the Jewish race.

Upon being deported from their home countries, the prisoners were often told that they would be moved into new homes. They were instructed to bring with them their most valued possessions and to mark their suitcases with their names so that they could retrieve their things at a later date. Thousands of suitcases and many tons of personal possessions were found in the camps after the war, and are now displayed at the memorial.

Suitcases brought by the prisoners, with their names and addresses for "future retrieval".
Upon arrival at the camp, the prisoners were sorted by gender, age and the ability to work. The handicapped were immediately put to death, but the evidence of their existence remains.

Crutches and artificial limbs of the prisoners.
The Nazis stored the prisoners' property in a huge warehouse. Everything had potential value, whether it could be redistributed, sold, or recycled in some way. In addition to eyeglasses and shoes, there were all the other things the prisoners had imagined they would be able to use: combs, shaving brushes, tools, kitchenware, clothes, toys.

Note the small shoes of children at the bottom of the photo.
Upon liberating the camp, the Russians found over two tons of human hair from the shaved heads of murdered women and children, which the Nazis used to make into clothing. There is a huge room filled with hair, in braids, ponytails, and curls, various colors, sometimes streaked with gray. Out of respect for the deceased, photos of the hair - their only physical remains - are not permitted. It is heartbreaking to see.

The Nazis took photos of the prisoners who were assigned to work, and recorded their dates of birth, dates they were sent to the camp, and dates of death. The halls of one of the buildings are lined with these photos, men on one side and women on the other. We were struck by the picture of a woman who, for some reason, seemed to be smiling. Perhaps she still believed that hard work would set her free. With the ever-increasing number of people pouring into the camp, the Nazis decided that photography was too expensive, and they started tattooing the prisoners.

Did she still have hope?
The SS shot thousands of political prisoners against a wall between two buildings. Although torn down by the guards before the camp was liberated, it was reconstructed after the war and made into a memorial.

It is disheartening to know that many doctors were enthusiastic Nazis. Both men and women were used as subjects of medical experiments, which often led to death or severe health problems. Doctors were often the ones who selected new arrivals for work or death.

The prisoners selected for death were told they could take showers and delouse themselves, in order to lull them into compliance. After a long, miserable journey in cattle cars, getting clean sounded like a good idea. Many of them had brought their own soap and towels. They were led into airtight rooms where poisoned gas was dropped from vents in the ceiling. Afterwards, their bodies were taken to the crematorium for disposal.

The SS Kommandant of the camp was Rudolf Hoess, a man called the worst mass murderer in history, responsible for the deaths of over 2.5 million people in his career. Hoess and his family lived in a house at Auschwitz, just yards from the crematorium. Mrs. Hoess furnished her home with possessions stolen from the prisoners. It is hard to imagine the mindset of Hoess, his wife and children, living so close to where thousands of people were killed every day.

At Auschwitz, 700 prisoners could be killed at a time and their bodies cremated. But the prisoners were arriving faster than they could be killed, so Hoess, a master of organization, established a second, larger camp at Birkenau, three kilometers from Auschwitz. Called Auschwitz II, it had the capability to kill 2,000 people at a time in a matter of minutes. Burning the bodies took longer, and at times there were more victims than the crematoriums could handle, so they were burned in open pits.

Prisoners were brought to Birkenau by train, the tracks leading right into the camp so as not to arouse suspicions among the local townspeople. But, as Hoess noted in his writings after the war, the stench of death was obvious to those living near the camp. Here, the cars were unloaded and the prisoners sorted, depending on whether they could work. If not, they would be put to death immediately. Workers didn't survive long; they lived in horrific conditions and were fed starvation rations. Sometimes the authorities were in too much of a hurry to sort people, and just killed everyone.

Prisoners being sorted. Note that the men are on one side and the women and children are on the other. Usually the women and children met death immediately upon entering the camp.

The sorting area between the tracks today.
Here are pictures of the victims about to be led to "the showers". After they were murdered, their bodies were stripped of jewelry, gold teeth, and hair.

Note that there are only women and children in these photos.
Here, the gas chambers and crematoriums were much larger and more numerous than at Auschwitz I. There are remains of some of the structures at Birkenau. As the war was ending and Allied forces were getting closer, the guards tried to destroy the evidence of what they had done.

Part of the walls of the gas chamber.
Above and below are the crumbling remains of the some of the crematoriums.

If there was anything positive to be seen here, it was the gallows in Auschwitz where Rudolf Hoess was hanged after being found guilty of war crimes.

All Polish schoolchildren are required to take field trips to Auschwitz. This should be a requirement for everyone on the planet.

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  1. An awful, but important and well-presented post. Thank you S&R.

  2. The orchestra (I had no idea), the photo of the artificial limbs, the children’s shoes, 2 tons of human hair, Helena smiling in her photo, the thought of thousands burning in open pits…anyone not rattled to their core by this insanity is asking for this kind of evil to walk across the world again. Thank you for creating and sharing this Rev. Beautifully put together and rightfully devastating post. Glad they hung Hoess. And you are right- this should be required for absolutely everyone.

  3. Elena probably would be a relative of ours. My grandmother lived in Colorado. Her last name before she was married at 16 was Biskup.


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