Kraków Day 3 – Part 1: Auschwitz & Birkenau

My trip to Kraków, Poland was a memorable one in many ways. It is the first international trip I undertook on my own, leaving behind Vijay and my girls. It was the first of the girls-trip my friend and I plan to do each year. It was the first trip where I did have to worry about getting the kids ready and hungry, sleepy kids throwing tantrums. It was the first trip where I did proper sightseeing with legit tour guides.

On the first day, while waiting for my friend to arrive from London, I explored the Old Town square on my own. The lively sights and happy sounds are still so fresh in my mind! We did an in-depth exploration of the Old Town with the Free Walk Tour on Day 2! The sights I saw on the first day was such a contrast to all the tragic history we got to hear during our Free Walking Tour.

It was on Day three of our trip we stepped into one of the most horrific places recorded in history – Auschwitz & Birkenau!

To visit Auschwitz & Birkenau was a tough decision to make. But having watched and read numerous movies and books on the World War II such as Life is Beautiful, Schindler’s List, the Pianist, the Boy in Stripped Pyjamas, the Diary of Anne Frank and Corrie Ten Boom, I was compelled to see the place where all this actually happened. However the greater reason I wanted to go there was… Having gone through the tragedy of losing my only brother, I felt going to a place where thousands have gone through a painful path of greater unimaginable proportion will diminish my pain and inspire me to put the painful past behind and push forward like how the numerous survivors of Auschwitz & Birkenau did.

That morning, we woke up to a very dark, gloomy and heavily rainy day. It set the tone to what we were about to hear and experience. We had booked a one day tour of Auschwitz & Salt Mine with the Krakow Shuttle. The shuttle promptly arrived at eight. We were played a documentary about Auschwitz as was drove through fields, forests and small residential quarters with houses that were built in the early 19th century. By the time we arrived at Auschwitz, we literally felt like we were back in time!

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‘Arbeit macht frei’ the paradoxical Nazi slogan that meant ‘work frees’ at the entrance of Auschwitz! Standing there was our tour guide who did an excellent job guiding us through the emotional exhibits.

In this post, I will not be sharing about Auschwitz and Birkenau, as it’s very elaborate and there is plenty of information about it on the internet. This post is about what I learned and experienced there.

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For those who are not aware of Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps, here are some quick facts that will help you get the perspective of what I will be writing further –

  • All over the world, Auschwitz has become a symbol of terror, genocide, and the Holocaust. It was established by Germans in 1940, in the suburbs of Oswiecim, a Polish city that was annexed to the Third Reich by the Nazis. (Source)

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  • More people died in Auschwitz than the British and American losses of World War Two combined. In all, 1.1 million people died during the four and a half years of Auschwitz’s existence; one million of them were Jewish men, women and children. (Source)

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  • On arrival at concentration camps prisoners had their clothing taken away, often to be replaced by a striped uniform (now known as striped pyjamas). Men would wear a vest, trousers, hat and coat. Women would be supplied a smock type dress.

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  • Clothes would be changed approximately every six weeks. As prisoners would have to work and sleep in the same clothes, irrespective of the weather, they would be very dirty. (Source)

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  • Upon arrival in the Auschwitz camp, victims were forced to hand over all their belongings. Inmates’ belongings were routinely packed and shipped to Germany for distribution to civilians or use by German industry. (Source)
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Clothing the victims arrived in.

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  • Families, who had disembarked together, were quickly and brutally split up as an SS officer, usually a Nazi doctor, ordered each individual into one of two lines. Most women, children, older men, and those that looked unfit or unhealthy were sent to the left; while most young men and others that looked strong enough to do hard labor were sent to the right.

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  • Unbeknownst to the people in the two lines, the left line meant immediate death at the gas chambers and the right meant that they would become a prisoner of the camp. (Most of the prisoners would later die from starvation, exposure, forced labor, and/or torture.) (Source)
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The room where the SS soldiers made their ‘selection’ – they selected the ones that were fit for work from the ones fit for death.
  • But they didn’t know, so the victims latched onto the hope that the Nazis wanted them to believe. Having been told that they were going to be sent to work, the masses of victims believed it when they were told they first needed to be disinfected and have showers. (Source)
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The clothes the victims left behind thinking they were just going for a shower.

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  • The condemned prisoners had to strip naked in block 11, on the ground floor. Any women among them disrobed in separate rooms. The women were then led into the courtyard and shot first. The condemned prisoners were led to the wall in pairs. The SS executioner walked up from behind and shot them in the back of the head with a small-caliber rifle. (Source)
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The Death Wall
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Prisoners were also subjected to other form of punishment in the yard, including flogging and “the post.” (Source)
  • Before killing women, the Nazis cut off their hair. Masses of hair were packed in bags. Twenty kilos, twenty-two kilos, raw material for German factories. Seven thousand kilograms of hair, 140,000 murdered women. The Fascists traded in death. They made fertilizers of human bones and delivered them to the Strenn firm. They sold hair to factories in the nationalized upholstery industry. (Source)
  • The victims’ glasses, artificial limbs, jewelry, and hair were removed, and any dental work was extracted so the gold could be melted down. Even if every tenth inmate wore spectacles, then how many had to be killed to provide this? (Source)
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Victims glasses
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Jewish prayer shawls that belong to the jewish prisoners.
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Suitcases
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Personal belongings of the the prisoners. These small objects were often considered treasures by the inmates.

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Pile of shoes that once belonged to thousands of innocent victimes
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Combs
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Shoe polish tins
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Inmates were stripped of all their belongings. Their heads were shaved and their identity was reduced to mere numbers.
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Most of the prisoners would later die from starvation, exposure, forced labor, and/or torture. (Source)
  • The use of camps equipped with gas chambers for the purpose of systematic mass extermination of peoples was a unique feature of the Holocaust and unprecedented in history. Never before had there existed places with the express purpose of killing people en masse. Genocide at extermination camps was initially carried out in the form of mass shootings. However, the shootings proved to be too psychologically damaging to those being asked to pull the triggers. The Nazis next tried mass killing by blowing victims up with explosives, but that also was found unsuitable. The Nazis settled on gassing their victims (usually with carbon monoxide or a cyanide-based pesticide). Stationary gas chambers could kill 2,000 people at once. Once in the chambers, about one-third of the victims died immediately, though death could take up to 20 minutes. (Source)
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Canisters that contained Zyklon B, a pesticide used for killing victims in the gas chambers
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Entrance to the gas chambers
  • At various concentration and extermination camps, the Nazis conducted medical experiments on their prisoners, which included placing subjects in pressure chambers, testing drugs on them, freezing them, attempting to change eye color by injecting chemicals into children’s eyes, and various amputations and other surgeries that were often conducted without anesthesia. The most notorious of these Nazi physicians was Dr. Josef Mengele, who worked in Auschwitz. According to one witness, Mengele sewed together a set of twins named Guido and Ina, who were about 4 years old, from the back in an attempt to create Siamese twins. Their parents were able to get some morphine and kill them to end their suffering. (Source)
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Children in Auschwitz
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The walls in Auschwitz blocks left as it was.

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To escape from Auschwitz meant death by being electrocuted in the barbed wire!

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After a two hour tour of Auschwitz I, we drove to Birkenau which was a 20 minute drive.

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  • Auschwitz II, or Birkenau, was established on October 8th. Built in an open, swampy field less than two miles from Auschwitz I and across the main set of railroad tracks.

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  • When individuals arrived in Auschwitz-Birkenau, they were forced to undergo a Selektion , or sorting process, in which healthy adult persons who were desired for work were permitted to live while the remaining elderly, children, and ill people were taken directly to the gas chambers.
  • 90% of all individuals who entered Birkenau perished – an estimated 1 million people total.
  • 9 out of every 10 people killed in Birkenau were Jewish. (Source)
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Jews, Gypsies (Roma), homosexuals, asocials, criminals, and prisoners of war were gathered, stuffed into cattle cars on trains, and sent to Auschwitz. (Source)
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When the trains stopped at Auschwitz II: Birkenau, the newly arrived were told to leave all their belongings on board and were then forced to disembark from the train and gather upon the railway platform, known as “the ramp.” (Source)
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While those considered ‘unfit’ were directly sent to the gas chambers, those who were considered ‘fit’ were assigned barracks and made to endure cruel labour in the most deteriorate conditions.
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Wooden stable-barracks (Pferdestallbaracken) – designed to hold 52 horses, were partitioned into stalls. The stalls contained three-tier wooden bunks. Several hundred prisoners lived in each such barrack. (Source)
  • Dampness, leaky roofs, and the fouling of straw and straw mattresses by prisoners suffering from diarrhea made difficult living conditions worse. The barracks swarmed with various sorts of vermin and rats. A constant shortage of water for washing, and the lack of suitable sanitary facilities, aggravated the situation.

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The remains of one of the common toilets. Sanitary facilities for prisoners at Auschwitz-Birkenau were extremely poor. It was impossible for inmates to keep clean or have a change of clothes.  For the first two years of the camp’s existence the prisoners had no access to water for washing. When, later, there was water, it was not clean. Prisoners, therefore, spent their existence in the camp dirty and in filthy clothes, which increased the likelihood of them contracting infections and diseases. (Source)

The tour was well organised by the Krakow Shuttle. If not for the guided tour, we would have been lost in the vast area of real-time exhibits and could not have grasped the intensity of the holocaust.

The Auschwitz-Birkenau experience is so powerful that it will definitely grip a person for life. It took me a few days and weeks to fully absorb my visit. When it did, this is what I learnt –

The Power of Will 

On 27 January 1945 Soviet soldiers entered the gates of the Auschwitz concentration camp complex in south-west Poland. The site had been evacuated by the Nazis just days earlier. Thus ended the largest mass murder in a single location in human history. The Soviet troops found grisly evidence of the horror. About 7,000 starving prisoners were found alive in the camp. (Source)

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“…even in this place one can survive, and therefore one must want to survive, to tell the story, to bear witness; and that to survive we must force ourselves to save at least the skeleton, the scaffolding, the form of civilisation.

“We are slaves, deprived of every right, exposed to every insult, condemned to certain death, but… … we must certainly wash our faces without soap in dirty water and dry ourselves on our jackets…. …for dignity… We must walk erect, without dragging our feet… …to remain alive, not to begin to die.”

– Primo Levi, Auschwitz survivor and author of “Survival in Auschwitz”

I often wonder how did so many survive such extremes of weather in the most unfathomable inhumane conditions. It was purely the power of will. It is what pushes a man to achieve the impossible. It has the power to transform a human into a superhuman. Anything is possible for the one who wills and believes!

Every time I get discouraged with some setback, I remind myself of the Auschwitz survivors. If they could endure and overcome something of such great magnitude, mine is just a piece of cake!

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The Power of Forgiveness

Corrie Ten Boom, a holocaust survivor, recalls meeting and forgiving a guard in the concentration camp in front of whom she and her sister had to walk past naked and eventually where her sister died:

“Didn’t he and I stand together before an all seeing God convicted of the same murder? For I had murdered him with my heart and my tongue.” 

“Forgiveness is possible no matter what hurts. i have experienced not through human will power, but through the supernatural, amazing grace of the One who forgave my great debt. ~ Corrie Ten Boom

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There are numerous such stories of holocaust survivors forgiving the Nazis who tortured them. It makes me shamefully wonder how often we harbour hate and bitterness against those who have spoken or committed the most trivial mistakes against us.

Just imagine, if someone could forgive the very person who tortured them and murdered their family, I am sure you can forgive that one person who is weighing down your heart. It’s not easy. But it is possible!

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The Power of Love

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”― Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom

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We often magnify the power of evil. Yes evil is out there. The holocaust is a painful scar of evil and hate that can never be erased from our history. But what we must never forget is that the power of love is greater. If this is what hate is capable of, what could be the magnitude of what’s possible with love? What a massive difference and impact we can make in our generation and the ones to come if we as individuals, communities, cities and nations simply love one another?

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