Red bricked buildings stand in quiet rows along a wide tree-lined boulevard, like a broader version of New York brownstones or a set of university dormitories in New England. We took pictures with blue sky and green trees and red buildings just outside of Oświęcim, a small town in southern Poland, 50km from Krakow. It’s when you turn the pictures to black and white that the scene take on its sinister cast. That, and the words “Work will set you free” that you walk under to get there — to the place that is more famous by its German name, Auschwitz.
Auschwitz is actually three separate camps plus 40 subcamps. The three camps had slightly different roles during WWII although they each included ingredients from the Nazi recipe of forced labour: human experimentation, starvation, disease and extermination. Auschwitz I is the one you think of, held 16k prisoners, and was the administrative head. Auschwitz II-Birkenau was built a short distance away primarily as an extermination camp and held 100k prisoners, with high volume gas chambers and crematoria. Auschwitz III-Monowitz focused on forced labour for a nearby rubber and chemical plant. Inmates there had a three to four-month life expectancy which dwindled to one month for those who worked in the nearby mines. The 40 subcamps provided slave labour for other factories in the 100km radius. The population of the Auschwitz complex comprised 25% of the entire concentration camp system with 1.3 million people deported there during WWII and only 200k making it out alive. 90% of those killed were Jews.
No picture can capture the size of the operation or the horrific things the Nazi minds thought up. The 2hr tour (joining a tour is mandatory) walked us though selected barracks to show just a touch of what was involved. The stats are what stick in the mind, a hopeless attempt to comprehend the scale of the horror:
Two trains could unload a total of 6k people at once. People were either sent directly to the gas chambers or to registration. The gas chambers killed 2k people in 20 minutes.
232k children arrived at the gates but only 22k made it as far as registration.
The gas, Zyklon B, was previously used as a pesticide for insects and rats before the Nazis thought to use it on humans.
Hair shorn from arriving women was made into textiles — human-hair blankets and cloth. Blankets were tested after the war and confirmed to be made of hair, likely female and containing traces of cyanide, left over from the Zyklon B. Liberation forces found two tonnes of hair in the warehouse. A selection fills a room today at Auschwitz, at a guess, approximately 30’W x 10’H x 6’D. Most impactful perhaps because it was so unexpected and so human. This is one room where no pictures are allowed although you can find them online if you search “Auschwitz hair.”
The warehouses contained the accumulation of the 25-50kg of luggage each prisoner could bring. Room after room, window after window, showed piles of these belongings grouped together: shoes, shoe polish tins, combs, brushes, children’s clothes, prosthetics (most people with disabilities were killed immediately) etc. We were ashamed to hear that the prisoners called the warehouses “the Canada Baracks,” as Canada was seen as a rich country with a lot of material goods.
There were 802 attempted escapes out of Auschwitz; 146 were successful. Out of 1,300,000 people.
But aside from all the numbers, what stuck us was the quiet. There were hundreds there with us. Filing along, communicating with each other through speaking glances. And not one selfie.
The 1.5 million tourists that visit Auschwitz every year read the memorial plaque: “For ever let the place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity…”
But for all the sadness and horror there are stories of help and hope. We walked through the Jewish Ghetto in Krakow and visited Schindler’s Enamel Factory. While Schindler was also described as a war profiteer, a womanizer and a cheat at business, the 1,200 Jews that worked in his factory were among the few that survived the liquidation of the ghetto in 1943, codenamed Aktion Krakau, and were fed, provided with jobs when that was the golden ticket and treated like people. The very things we take for granted.