TRIPS: Auschwitz and Birkenau

2:46 AM

Good Lord, it’s immense.

I told myself as we stepped through Hell’s Gate, Birkenau’s infamous main entrance. The land was vast, bisected by a railroad track that disappeared amongst the trees in the horizon. Used to be electrified, fences defined each alley and steer every person to the direction he could only go.

Auschwitz II or more popularly known as Birkenau is the second camp of the Auschwitz complex in Poland. It is ten times bigger than Auschwitz I – a former Polish army camp - and was built purposely as a concentration/ extermination camp. It has been said that about 1M to 1.5M people died in Auschwitz and about 1M of them were Jews.

There were groups of visitors here and there. They were somber and listening intently to their guide. Others – those without – read information plaques. While still others just looked on, perhaps trying to take it all in.

Just like this silly Asian girl staring at the horizon, who out of nowhere, started crying.

I hugged myself to fend off the wind. It was midday yet the sky was gray and there was a bite in the air. Summer, it seems, hasn't come to this part of Poland.

We started walking down the road to death, the end of which were two gas chambers and crematoria that flank the track, and the international memorial to the holocaust victims. Made from rocks, it was huge, teetering towards colossal and yet somehow managed to be understated. This vileness – due to lack of a more extreme word – is not to be celebrated.

We took the trodden path to the ruins of the gas chambers, barracks, and then back to Hell’s Gate. Stopping once in a while to listen to snippets from guides and to read information plaques. Each of which tells how each section of the camp played in the extermination of the unwanted.  

We took the bus back to Auschwitz I where the queues were as long as we left it this morning. Tour groups were given priority and walk-ins need to wait. So we stood there and waited for more than an hour.  When we finally were let in, the museum was officially closed. The grounds were still open until seven and we could still go around. Yet we didn’t have to pay the entrance fee as there were no more tour guides to explain what we were about to see.

But that’s the thing about history and the places it has anointed, you know exactly what to expect. In my own personal history, I learned about Auschwitz through Justine Shapiro back in the 90s. She was traveling for the Lonely Planet TV Show and they were going through each cell block of Auschwitz I. If there was anything that stayed with me decades after, it was the image of that bolt of fabric made out of human hair – proven to be of the ones gassed with Zyklon B.

Cell block after cell block, we were barraged by information, images, and witness accounts. Photocopies of documents, models, and sculptures, told the nightmare the SS created. The photographs – especially the mug shots of the prisoners, the sketches they drew, and the monumental piles of personal items seized from them the minute they arrived at the camp, further drove home the point that these bestial acts happened to human beings.

As we exited the camp - passing under the “arbeit macht frei” sign - and walked towards the bus stop, it finally dawned on me the most chilling part yet – the kind that sends a shiver down one’s back - of this entire undertaking. These people - the unwanted - were exterminated with such precision that can only be characterized as diabolical genius. 

And these diabolical geniuses were sons of the same society that also gave birth to Bach, Beethoven, and Handel. These musical virtuosos – distinguished to be some of the very best who ever lived – were so in tune with their humanity that they were able to have melodied the breadth of emotions a human being can experience. 

The “final solution” to the “Jewish Question”

“The existing extermination centers in the East are not sufficient to cope with an operation of such scale. Therefore I have designated Auschwitz for this purpose, both because its convenient location as regards communication and because the area can be easily isolated and camouflaged.
-                         -  SS Reichsfurhrer Heinrich Himmler, as quoted by Rudol Hoss – Auschwitz camp commandant, in his “Reminiscences” 

“On the model of the gas chamber and crematorium II we see people entering the underground changing room.  They are composed, because after the initial “selection” (i.e. segregation into fit and unfit for work) all have been assured by the SS that they would be allowed a bath. They are told to undress, after which they are herded into a second underground chamber resembling a bathroom. Showers were fitted to the ceiling – but they were never connected to the water supply. Into this room, 210 sq. m in area (approx. 235 sq. yards), around 2,000 victims would be led. After the doors had been firmly closed, SS men poured the substance Cyclon B into the chamber through special openings in the ceiling. Within 15-20 minutes the people trapped inside died. After gold tooth fillings, rings, ear-rings and also the hair had been removed from bodies, they were taken to the incinerators situated on the ground floor, or – if these could not cope with the mass of human flesh – cremation pits." 
          - From the Auschwitz –Birkenau Guide Book

At the gate of Auschwitz, it says "Arbeit Macht Frei." This German phrase means "work makes (you) free." 

From Krakow, it is an hour and a half ride on this van to Auschwitz.

The barracks at Auschwitz were turned into museums.

The fences and guard houses are still up. 


Fenced in the prisoners certainly were. 

The main gate called Hell's Gate is the point of no return for the prisoners. 

The Road to Death. 
The end of this road is flanked by Gas Chambers and Crematorium II and III.

At this point is the preparation for selection, who heads to the gas chamber and who gets to work at the camp.

"Jews selected by the SS [ Schutzstaffel; Protection Squadrons] for immediate death in the Gas chambers of Crematoria II and III were herded along this road."

Jews were treated like cattle. They were herded and packed into these cattle trucks. Locked inside - without any food or water, they'll be in transit for days until they finally reach the camp.

These are fireplaces of wooden barracks but they were never used. No coals were ever found in them. In 1944, it has been recorded that temperatures dropped to -20. The wood that made up the barracks were used as building materials after the war. 

Electric fences kept prisoners in place and from escaping from the camp. 

The ruins of Gas Chamber and Crematorium III. 

It was said that the SS blew up the Gas Chambers so as to not have any evidence of what happened in this place

The International Monument, erected in 1967, is flanked by the two gas chambers in Birkenau
and  located at the end of the railroad track the go into the camp.  


The old part of Osnabruck in Germany. 

A stolperstein in Osnabruck, Germany. 
Hermine Grunberg, the lady who used to live there, was deported to Auschwitz in Poland. 

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