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“Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.”
“There is a gaping hole in the history of the Holocaust. Between Adolf Hitler and Joseph Mengele there was a hierarchy of scientists whom were responsible for writing the infamous racial legislation of the Third Reich. These scientists, doctors, and legislators enjoyed prestigious positions in the various institutions within Hitler’s Germany. To be more precise, many of the ghastly experiments credited to Mengele were ordered by this group of high-ranking scientists and doctors. Mengele was following their orders, yet many of these German doctors and scientists were set free after being captured by the Allies.”
Located just a short 70 kms from the city of Krakow in the city of Oświęcim, lies the site where ghastly acts were imposed on men, women and children. A place that when you walk up to the entrance gates, a shiver gets sent down your spine and the hair on the back of your neck stands at attention, even on the hottest days of the summer months. A place where barely a whisper is muttered out of the mouths of its visitors, as they walk among the grounds in which the largest Crimes Against Humanity in modern day history took place.
The place I speak of, is the Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camps.
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After Germany sparked World War II by invading Poland at the beginning of September 1939, the Schutzstaffel (SS) converted Auschwitz I, which was originally used as an army barracks, into a prisoner-of-war camp. The initial transport of political prisoners to Auschwitz consisted mainly of Poles to whom the camp was initially established. The majority of inmates were Polish for the first two years.
Prisoners at Auschwitz-Birkenau were beaten, tortured, and executed for the most trivial reasons, such as sharing food. The first experimental gassing took place August 1941, when a man by the name of Karl Fritzsch murdered a group of Soviet and Polish prisoners by throwing Zyklon B crystals into their basement cell in block 11 of Auschwitz I. A second group of 600 Soviet prisoners and around 250 sick Polish prisoners were gassed at the beginning of September. The morgue was later converted to a gas chamber, which was able to hold over 800 people. Zyklon B was dropped into the room through slits in the ceiling.
Construction of Auschwitz II (Birkenau) began the following month, and from 1942 until late 1944 freight trains delivered Jews from all over German occupied Europe to its gas chambers. According to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, a little over 17 million people were killed during the Holocaust, but no single document exists recording the exact total number. Six million of these were Jews, which was approximately two-thirds of all Jews living within Europe at the time. Of the 1.3 million people sent to Auschwitz. The number of victims brutally murdered was 1.1 million. Approximately 90% of those were Jews. Other number include 140,000 – 150,000 ethnic Poles, 23,000 Roma, 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war, Jehovah Witnesses, homosexuals and 25,000 other European ethnic groups including Yugoslavians. Those not gassed were murdered via starvation, exhaustion, disease, individual executions, or beatings. Others were killed during medical experiments by doctors that “practiced” at Auschwitz. Many of those experimental medical procedures were done on women and children.
During my time in Poland, Krakow to be more specific, I made sure to make some time to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camps, not just out of curiosity and my fascination with WWII history, but also to gain knowledge about just how the prisoners lived, how they were treated and how it got to the point where the masses agreed that the acts done to living, breathing human beings by the Nazis and Hitler was accepted not only through Europe, but seemingly around the world. Large brands were even complicit with Hitler’s ideas. Companies such as IBM, Volkswagen, Hugo Boss, Coca-Cola, The Associated Press, Kodak and Bayer were large contributors towards Nazi collaborations during the war. Bayer was the maker of Zyklon B, the gas that was used to kill the prisoners. IG Farben (a part of Bayer) employees frequently told their slave labourers that, “If you don’t work faster, you’ll be gassed.”
Upon arriving in the city of Oświęcim, I looked out the window and caught a glimpse of the train tracks in which prisoners arrived via train cars to the site of Auschwitz I. The tracks are no longer in use, but just catching a glimpse of them signaled to me that we were getting closer to Auschwitz I. In 1947, Poland founded the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum on the site of Auschwitz I and II, and in 1979 it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Once at Auschwitz I, I, along with a few others assigned to my English speaking guide, were brought through security and through a “disinfecting” spray, which I thought was slightly ironic and eerie, but it was compulsory at the time of my visit to the grounds.
As my group made our way towards the infamous gates with the cruel and misleading phrase, “Arbeit Macht Frei” – Work Sets You Free, I immediately had flashes of WWII documentary scenes fill my head. I couldn’t believe I was actually standing in a place with such a horrendous past. A prisoner’s first encounter with Auschwitz, if they were registered and not sent straight to the gas chamber, was at the prisoner reception center near the gate with the Arbeit Macht Frei sign, where they were tattooed, shaved, disinfected, and given a striped prison uniform.
The first plaque at the entrance marked the spot where dead bodies were piled up as a warning to those arriving that a bullet was awaiting them should they even try to escape. As if the entire degrading arrival process and knowing where you were going wasn’t anguishing enough, prisoners had to witness dead bodies at the front gates. There were Camp Warehouses that stored all of the prisoner’s belongings upon arrival and were dubbed “Canada” because back then, Canada was a rich country that was bountiful and full of resources.
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Someone who recalls the “Selection” process vividly is Viktor Frankl. Viktor Frankl was one of the most famous Auschwitz prisoners and was an Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist, philosopher, author and Holocaust survivor. He passed away (on my birthday, of all days) September 2nd, 1997 in Vienna, Austria. He was the founder of Logotherapy, a school of psychotherapy which describes a search for a life meaning as the central human motivational force. Logotherapy is part of existential and humanistic psychology theories. Viktor Frankl went on to publish 39 books during his life. The autobiographical Man’s Search For Meaning, a best-selling book, which I just so happened to purchase a few days ago while writing this post, is based on his experiences in various Nazi concentration camps.
After having visited Auschwitz-Birkenau in person and now diving deep into Frankl’s book, I can visualize the parts of Auschwitz-Birkenau that he speaks about. From the gas chamber location, to the “Selection” area, to the registration office, to the wooden bunks in the barracks, to the hospital ward. It’s all so vivid in my mind as I read every word typed on the pages, which makes it such an intriguing read to me.
As we made our way in and out of the numerous Blocks at Auschwitz I, my mind couldn’t help itself from wandering away from what my guide was saying into my earpiece. There were display cases full of confiscated shoes, dishes, glasses, as well as an entire display case filled with artificial legs, crutches, canes etc. These people were murdered the day they arrived and during the “Selection” process, as a prisoner, you were either told to go to the right, or to the left. The right side were prisoners that were physically able to work, while the left were those that were deemed unfit to work and disposed of immediately. The cripple, the frail, the mentally challenged and yes, even babies that had no idea what was going on, were sent to the gas chambers directly after the “Selection” process.
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We were then guided into a hallway that was covered in portrait style photos of prisoners dressed in their infamous striped Auschwitz uniforms. These photos were taken shortly after registering the prisoners and shaving their heads. The photos stated their name, their heritage, the number they were assigned and tattooed with upon arrivals, the date they were deported and the date they died. All the hair shaved was then confiscated and the Nazis would then use the hair and sell it to companies to make textiles, socks for the Navy’s men and other items. There was a room with a display case filled with the leftover hair, which we were not allowed to take photos of. Just being in that room made my stomach flip flop. If you’ve been to Auschwitz you will know exactly what room I am speaking of.
While walking around outside under the bright sunny blue skies, birds were chirping and singing their songs, I couldn’t help but recall an article I had once read stating that during WWII, birds did not sing at Auschwitz at all. In fact, I couldn’t believe the ironically beautiful weather I had during my visit. If it was dark and dismal outdoors, I can just picture what Auschwitz would’ve looked like during harsher days.
The most prominent area of Auschwitz that stuck out to me, was the wall where people were lined up to be shot and executed. The surrounding Barracks had windows that were all boarded up, so that fellow prisoners were not able to see what was happening outside, but only hear the screams of horror and torture. The poles with hooks located in the same area were used to inflict a horrific torture method of stringing up prisoners backwards by their wrists, which would then result in dislocating, or sometimes even breaking prisoner’s shoulders. And what happened after their shoulders were destroyed and they couldn’t work? Death by execution for being deemed worthless and useless now.
The Nazis were complete motherfuckers, if I’m putting it lightly.
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My group slowly made its way to what the Holocaust is famous for around the world: the gas chambers. As we approached the door that saw hundreds of thousands of innocent men, women and children being led to their deaths, I felt that flip flop in my stomach again. The gas chamber that we were about to see, was the only remaining gas chamber left at Auschwitz I. From the moment we walked in, I couldn’t help but noticed the scratch marks on the walls. These chambers would sometimes be crammed with up to 2000 people at once and then the Zyklon B was dropped from the slits above. The gas would eventually kill everyone within a 15 minute time frame. Most of the small children were killed not from the gas, but from being suffocated by the vast amount of people crowding the space. To think that HUMANS came up with this concept to do to their fellow man, was absolutely mind-blowing.
Once everyone inside was dead, the lifeless bodies were then scooped up and carted away like garbage to be burned to ashes within the now notorious ovens. The term Holocaust comes from the Greek word holokauston, meaning sacrifice by fire. Once I caught a glimpse of the burnt soot stained oven edges, I needed some fresh air ASAP. How people could do this to other people with zero remorse was beyond me. The amount of brainwashing that went into conditioning people to think this was OK, is just outstanding.
My overactive mind was just whirling at this point. No history book can prepare you for seeing these rooms with your own eyes.
After a small break, we boarded a mini-bus and made our way just down the road to Birkenau, or Auschwitz II. Auschwitz II-Birkenau was a concentration and extermination camp with gas chambers and the first gas chamber at Auschwitz II was operational by March 1942. By late March, a transport of Polish Jews sent by the Gestapo from Silesia and Zagłębie Dąbrowskie regions was taken straight from the Oświęcim train station to the Auschwitz II gas chamber, then buried in a nearby meadow on the grounds. The most famous photo that everyone knows from Birkenau is of the train tracks leading to the Gatehouse. This track was operational from May – October 1944, which led directly to the gas chambers.
As WWII was coming to an end and the Nazis heard that the Soviets were making their way closer, the Nazis attempted to cover up any evidence as to what went on at Birkenau, by destroying and burning down many of the buildings leaving them in piles of stone and rubble. The buildings that remained, look as though they were untouched as you walked in. There are rows upon rows of wooden bunks, which would sleep up to 9 people on one level. We were told during our visit that being on the bottom was the worst place to be because you’d often be urinated and defecated on by leaking excrement from the higher bunks due to lack of toilets and nowhere else to relieve oneself. The scratch marks on the walls within the bunks are painful visual reminders of the utter desperation these people faced for sometimes years, if they were to survive that long.
There was another major camp dubbed Auschwitz III-Monowitz, which was a labour camp for the chemical company IG Farben and was located several kilometres away from Auschwitz-Birkenau. There were also 45 sub-camps in German occupied Poland from 1942–1945 that aren’t spoken of all that much. Although many don’t hear, or know about Monowitz, it became a major site of the Nazis’ Final Solution to the Jewish Question.
During the duration of the Holocaust, at least 802 prisoners tried to escape, only 144 were successful. We must remember that the Holocaust did not start in the gas chambers. Starting in April 1933, harassment and economic pressure to the Jews was relentless. Their businesses were boycotted and denied access to markets, forbidden from advertising in newspapers, and deprived of government contracts. The Nazis issued numerous anti-Jew laws over the next several years throughout WWII. Jews were banned from public parks, fired from civil service jobs, and forced to register their property. Other laws barred Jewish doctors from treating anyone other than Jewish patients, expelled Jewish children from public schools and placed severe travel restrictions on Jews. In schools, non Jewish children were taught that Jews were dirty and carried disease, so it was best not to associate with them. Think about that…carefully.
Visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau was intense and informative and I truly think it is necessary for any traveller, or history buff visiting Poland to spend a day with a guide there. I learned and saw so much more by having a guide explain things that I was looking at in great detail. You can watch all the historical documentaries and read all the books you want about the Holocaust and Auschwitz, but nothing compares to the experience of walking the grounds yourself.
One of the most memorable and poignant quotes you’ll see while walking through the buildings at Auschwitz is, “Those who do not remember the past, are condemned to repeat it.” A message like this hits you like a slap in the face and will leave you questioning if we, as a human race, have learned from our past mistakes and must know that what happened during those horrible years never happens again.
Have you guys been to Auschwitz before? What’s one fact about the Holocaust that sticks in your mind? Let me know in the comments below. xo
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