Tour of Auschwitz and Birkenau

Visiting Auschwitz will be our second tour of a concentration camp on this trip. We will also visit Dachau in a few weeks. After visiting Sachsenhausen (), I was curious to see what the differences were between the camps, as well as how the information would be presented to us.

We had booked the tour on Viator ahead of time. There were plenty of tourist offices selling tours to Auschwitz so I am sure we could easily have waited until we arrived to book. We prefer to have things lined up ahead of time, though. A van would pick us up at the hotel just before 9 am.

The drive to the camp was approximately an hour. The van was actually a taxi that seated 8. We were all English speakers, but not all Americans. On the drive, we watched a documentary narrated by a Soviet that had filmed the liberation of prisoners. One of the parts that stood out that I had been unaware of was that the Germans collected human hair from their victims and used it to create socks. Massive amounts of human hair was found stockpiled at the camp. Part of the camp was called “Canada”, the land of plenty. This is where the items taken from prisoners as they arrived were piled up. At the liberation, there were over 800,000 women’s outfits and 38,000+ pairs of men’s shoes stockpiled (50-60 million pairs of shoes had been collected in all). Eyeglasses were given to the Wehrmacht and 10 kilograms of gold teeth were pulled and melted down daily to help finance the war.

When we arrived at Auschwitz we met up with several other groups and met our tour guide. We were given headsets and earphones (nice, comfy ones) and entered the camp. We were given about 10 minutes to use the WC (pay toilets).

Unlike the tour of Sachsenhausen where we were given the historical background information to help us understand how the Holocaust happened, the tour of Auschwitz walked us through what would happen to a person as they arrived. I will walk you through the process as best I can.

Auschwitz existed before it was repurposed as a concentration camp, constructed in the 1920’s by the Polish army. It was both isolated and centrally located; easily accessible by train from camps all over Europe. Unlike Sachsenhausen, its main purpose was as an extermination camp. The first set of prisoners arrived here on June 14, 1940. There were 5 other death camps in Poland but Auschwitz was the biggest. It had to be expanded twice. Auschwitz II was known as Birkenau and was ten times larger than Auschwitz 1; Auschwitz III was known as Monowitz. The first two years of the camp it operated as a prison only. In 1942, after the Final Solution was put in place, it became predominantly a death camp.

During this period, people were arrested for any reason. Farms were seized and given to Germany. Religious leaders, Roma (gypsies), gay, physically disabled, mentally challenged, POWS, and other groups considered unworthy were sent to camps. In Eastern Europe, large groups of people were simply taken in to the forests and shot rather than being sent to camps. In Central Europe, first, Jews were herded into ghettos and then received letters stating that they were being relocated to start a new life elsewhere where they could ply their trades. They would arrive at Auschwitz by train in the middle of the night, with crematoriums 2 and 3 visible.

At this point, two lines were formed – men in one, women and children in the other. A doctor (Angel or Master of Death) eyeballed the prisoners. A simple hand gesture from the doctor determined the fate of each person. Anyone who resisted would be shot on sight. Most children were sent immediately to be gassed or burned alive. If a person looked healthy, strong, and able to work, they were sent to the camp. About 25% made the cut; the rest were sent to the showers.

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In order to keep people calm, the guards would tell the people that after their shower, they would be sent to work; to start their new life. They were told to remember which hook they hung their clothes on so that they would be able to retrieve them after they were clean. These chambers were underground. Two thousand at a time would be locked inside; poison was dropped in from the ceiling above. It took 15-20 minutes until all inside were dead. Their bodies were moved to the top level by lift and sent to the crematorium to be burned.

Before the war, ten percent of the population of Poland were Jewish; ninety percent of them were murdered here.

Auschwitz 1 had one gas chamber. Five thousand a day were burned in the crematorium and killed with gas.

In 1941, the Germans needed to expand so Birkenau (Auschwitz II) was built. This camp had 4 gas chambers and was much, much larger.

After murdering Jews in the showers, their personal items were sorted. Gold teeth were pulled. Clothing items were carefully examined for valuables hidden in pockets and hidden compartments. Anything of value was repurposed or sold.

We walked through the hair room, where 7 tons of human hair is displayed (no photography allowed). Most of the hair is from women, but if a man’s hair was long enough, it was also added to the pile. Again, this was used to create socks. Sickening.

The 25% that were not sent to be murdered immediately were sent to live in barracks (400,000 lived here in all). Their number was tattooed on their arm and they were issued “stripes”, the scratchy prison uniform; most did not properly fit. Each barrack held between 700 and 1,000 prisoners. There were three levels for each bed – 5 to 7 people squeezed in at each level. Just like at Sachsenhausen, there were insufficient toilets for the number of people squeezed in to each barrack.

Lining the walls of the building were pictures of former prisoners. Most only survived a couple of months under these conditions.

A prisoner’s day would start with roll call at around 5 am. All prisoners had to be accounted for; even the dead ones. After the count, prisoners were sent off to work. They would have to walk between 6 and 10 km to get to work, work a 10 to 12 hour shift, and then walk back to the count for evening roll call. The evening roll call typically lasted longer than the morning one, The longest on record lasted 19 hours. Prisoners had to stand with their arms over their heads this entire time.

We passed by Block 11, the prison, but were unable to enter. There was a special celebration going on today. It was the anniversary of the death of a priest that had volunteered to take the place of a prisoner that was supposed to be killed. They put the priest in a starvation cell for two weeks but he survived, so they shot him. There were many dignitaries there that looked (and sounded) to be celebrating a Catholic mass on the site.

Our guide told us about various death sentences given to prisoners: shooting, hanging, flogging, and starvation. There were also “standing” cells where prisoners were forced to stand all night long as well as “suffocation” cells where there were windows or air supply.

The camp had a hospital as well, but its purpose was medical experimentation. Mengele worked here; his focus was twins, but there were two other doctors, Dr. Carl Clauberg and Dr. Horst Schumann that focused on sterilization techniques.

We walked toward the crematorium; Rudolph Hess’s house was visible just down the street. We walked through the gas chamber area; it was shocking how small it was. I cannot imagine packing 2,000 people in the small space available. The area of the ceiling where light is shining through is where the gas was placed.

It was now time to move on the Birkenau, which is located 3 km away from Auschwitz I. We were driven there and rejoined our tour guide. The first thing that was apparent was how enormous this camp was – 170 hectares worth of land. Auschwitz II (Birkenau) was ten times larger than Auschwitz I. Train tracks run through the middle of the grounds. Men’s barracks were on one side of the tracks; women’s on the other. The railroad car was halfway between where we arrived and the end where the gas chambers/crematoria were located. This where the unloading platform was. Each railroad car would hold from 50-60 people. The selection process took place here.

Those able to work were sent to the barracks; all others were sent to the gas chambers. There were two gas chambers visible (their ruins); the other two are located in the trees.

The area between gas chambers 2 and 3 contains a memorial. There are plaques in multiple languages that all bear the same message.

We stopped to look at one of the ruins. There were ditches here for the ashes of those murdered. When those filled, the ashes were dumped in the river.

There was an uprising here at building 4. Young Jewish men burned down their barracks and tried to escape. Of course, they were executed as punishment.

The camp was destroyed in 1944 by German soldiers, trying to hide the evils that they had committed here when it was apparent that they were losing the war. The last barracks was destroyed one day before the liberation. Polish people took the bricks and wood to rebuild their homes. Survivors have returned to the camp to rebuild some of them as a testament to what they endured.

There were 350 buildings here. The first built were brick but that became too expensive, so they switched to prefabricated wood stables. They housed about 90,000 prisoners, 30% of whom were women. The living conditions for the women were worse than for the men. The female guards were more cruel than the male guards. The windows in their barracks didn’t open. They had access to toilets only two times per day, morning and evening. You could only take a shower once every few weeks, and it only lasted for a few seconds. There was no privacy.

Prior to the liberation, anyone able to walk was force-marched to other camps. Those left behind (about 7,000) were too weak and were liberated by the red army.

Survivors were the first tour guides here, starting in 1947, when the sight became a memorial.