Arriving in the dark from Krakow, it’s McDonald’s golden arches and a giant illuminated KFC sign that are the first things that greet you on the main road leading into the city of Oswiecim. Soon a small shopping centre, featuring international brands such as H&M, appears at the side of the carriage way. Apart from people entering the fast food restaurants I’ve just mentioned there appeared little sign of activity – indeed my guidebook describes it as “a quiet, medium-sized industrial city”.
Oswiecim city authorities, however, consider the place worthy of producing their own guide, which I picked up in the reception of my hotel later on. The booklet describes how a settlement already existed in the 11th century, how everything beyond the town walls was destroyed by an invasion of Tatar troops in 1241 and how it was then re-constructed with a brick fortified tower, which survives to this day. It later became important on the salt route, as well as being known as a place where fish was traded and lead was stored.
The first Jews came here in the 16th century and established a thriving community with synagogues and actively participated in the trade here. In 1867 – just four years after a fire wiped out two thirds of the city’s buildings – the first Jewish councillors joined the City Council and the industrial-sized businesses of this period were typically owned by Jews. By the outbreak of the Second World War, this community accounted for nearly 60% of the city’s population.
This story is probably familiar to many towns in Poland. But then a few pages into the booklet there is an aspect of history that is familiar to people, for all the wrong reasons, the world over. The German translation of Oswiecim is Auschwitz, which was the scene of the largest attempt at genocide in human history. Of the 1.3 million people that were brought to Auschwitz-Birkenau camps created on the outskirts of the city, 1.1m were killed. And of the victims, 90% were Jews, mostly gassed to death, but others simply died because of the dire living and working conditions they encountered.
Oswiecim was occupied by the Nazis following their invasion of Poland at the outset of the Second World War and then in 1940 they established a concentration camp for Polish political prisoners on the outskirts of the city. In 1942, the Birkenau extension served as the site for the mass extermination of European Jews. Among the victims were residents of pre-war Oswiecim itself – 90% of the town’s Jewish inhabitants had been killed by the end of the Second World War, most of whom met their deaths at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Entering the Auschwitz work camp, visitors are greeted by the now infamous words above the gate (actually a replica installed after the original was stolen in 2009) “Arbeit Macht Frei” – Work Brings Freedom. It’s a reminder that when the Nazis took over this former Polish military base and opened it in 1940 as a place to house political prisoners – originally the Polish intelligentsia, often selected for such trivial reasons as simply because they wore glasses – that work was at the heart of its purpose.
Inmates would either work onsite, perhaps in one of the kitchens, or find employment in a nearby factory owned by a German company, such as Siemens. The employees would have earned wages, but the money went straight into the pockets of the Nazis – this was slave labour that they were ready to exploit.
If you look beyond the double layer of barbed wire and tall watchtowers however, Auschwitz doesn’t seem at first glance that terrifying a place. The two-storey red brick accommodation blocks look from the outside to be well-built, complete with windows and set along tree-lined avenues. About 13 of the 30 surviving prison blocks now house museum exhibitions.
But for the 20,000 prisoners here it would have been a different story. With between 7,000 and 10,000 people sleeping in each building, conditions in the large dormitories would have been cramped. Originally they slept on the floor however when it was believed the Red Cross were due to pay an inspection visit three-tiered bunk beds were introduced. And they never had enough food, so many of the prisoners looked like skeletons.
I was fortunate to be shown Block 3, which is pretty much as it was when Auschwitz operated as a camp. Passing down the long, dark corridor with dorms and single rooms for supervisors on either side (the SS didn’t want to stay in the camp itself for fear of catching a disease, so they worked with senior prisoners from elsewhere). But I also saw the latrines and washrooms, the latter of which could only be used for two specific time periods every day – and even then people were lucky if they had time to wash their hands and face. And being forced to wear the same clothes for weeks on end, it was highly likely they would catch a disease like typhoid.
Most of those that escaped from Auschwitz did so when they went off-site for work and often were helped by others from outside the camp. The punishments for those that were caught here were severe. Block 11 was reserved for so-called trouble makers and it was here that every couple of weeks the Gestapo Court was held. There are no records of anyone being found ‘not guilty’; the punishment saw them shot to death in the yard outside. Men, women and children were forced to strip naked and stand up against a wall that can still be seen to this day. The windows of neighbouring buildings were blocked up (as they are today), so no one could see what was happening.
Perhaps the most chilling part of visiting Auschwitz was entering the gas chamber where 700 people at a time had met their deaths. The most famous of these were at Birkenau, but they have all but disappeared, so this provides a fitting illustration of the terror that happened here. Introduced after an experiment in Block 11, within a few hours everyone in the room would have been wiped out by Zyklon B gas. The Nazis didn’t want any mass graves because it would have left traces of their crimes, so the bodies were immediately burned in the attached crematorium. The ashes were then scattered on surrounding fields.
But it quickly became apparent that Auschwitz wasn’t big enough to hold all the prisoners required and so an extension needed to be built. The extension also coincided with deadly Nazi policy made in 1942 which was known as the Final Solution to the Jewish Question – a plan to wipe out 11 million Jews living in Europe, 3.5 million of them from Poland. According to the Nazis, the gassing techniques developed at Auschwitz needed to be redefined on an industrial scale.
If Auschwitz actually seems a pleasant place at first glance, nearby Birkenau is the opposite – it immediately looks like a camp of terror. The landscape is scattered with single storey brick and wooden buildings, some still standing, while others have withered away over time leaving only their chimneys standing. At its peak up to 90,000 prisoners would have lived in the 300 barrack blocks, although as we’ll see some people arrived here and didn’t stay for very long at all. The site was guarded by 55 members of the SS; their watch towers remain to this day.
Opened as an extension to Auschwitz in 1942, the first task for the new arrivals was to build their accommodation. The brick structures you see were constructed using materials from the farmhouses that were demolished to make way for the camp (the villagers were thrown out of their homes and moved to camps away from the area). And the wooden ones had been used elsewhere as stables for 52 horses and re-assembled on site. There were no windows and ventilation was poor, while the heaters you see in the centre of these sheds which were intended for 400 people were never used – fuel was not provided for them.
Those arriving at Birkenau made their way to large hall where their valuables and clothes were removed, the first stage in a controlled process where they were also made to take a shower and then issued with a camp uniform. By the end of it they had been de-humanised; they were now prisoners, not individuals.
The arrivals’ personal effects were intended to be sorted (and, in the case of clothes, washed in giant vats that can still be seen) and re-distributed in Germany, but much of these are on display at the camp. As those travelling here wouldn’t have known where they were going or what they would have needed, they packed as much as they could into their two permitted suitcases – including pots and pans for cooking, as well as toys to keep children entertained. This was all taken from then when they entered the camp, even shoes (the museum has 80,000 in its collection) and keys for the front doors of the homes they had left behind. But perhaps most harrowing was seeing the hair that had been removed from 40,000 women displayed in a cabinet, a batch that never made it to Germany for use in the textile industry.
New arrivals to the camp were sorted into various groups when they arrived by train. Men, women and children were broken up. Able-bodied were separated from those unable to work. Over time, this process became more sophisticated and efficient to the extent that by 1944 when Hungarian Jews were brought to Birkenau they were sorted on the platform in the centre of the camp. The railway tracks had been extended so they went right into the compound itself.
Visitors can today stand on the very spot – the platform where the trains that had previously been used to house cattle stopped – where decisions were made about whether an individual was going to live or die. Families were torn apart and in many cases never to meet again. Those that had no use to the camp authorities were immediately marched to gas chambers a short walk away.
The gassing complex – underground so people in the surrounding area wouldn’t hear what was going on – was designed so that those marching to their deaths did not panic. They were told that they would be taking a shower, which after a long journey must have been appealing to most. In the first basement room they undressed, before being told to enter the next one. This was where 2,000 lives ended in the space of 30 minutes. As with the original Auschwitz, the bodies were then burned in an attached crematorium.
Seven days before the Nazis fled from Birkenau in 1945 they blew all four gas chambers up, so all you see today is decaying ruins. But in amongst the rubble you can still see the steps that the victims would have descended. By then it was too late – their time on earth was over. It’s a harrowing place to visit, but at the same time it’s important to stand at this spot and consider the terrible things that happened here.
The man who is said to have been the architect of Auschwitz was Rudolph Hoss, who ran the camp between 1940 and 1943, before being promoted and sent back to Berlin. He lived for three happy years with his family in a house just out the camp wall (and he returned in 1944 to oversee the arrival of Hungarian Jews). After the war he tried to evade capture by disguising himself as a farmer, but was though eventually caught and faced the gallows in 1947 in a marked spot just a short distance from where his family home was.
But there were many more Nazis and collaborators that were responsible for crimes at Auschwitz. The day before I visited the camp, a former SS medic who served there became the oldest person to face trial for his role in the Holocaust. Hubert Zafke (95) has been charged with being an accessory to the murder of 3,681 victims, with his unit said to have put gas into the chamber to kill Jews. He is the third former Nazi who served at Auschwitz to be brought to trial in his nineties – in June Reinhold Hanning (94), who was a guard was convicted of being an accessory to the deaths of 17,000 people at the camp, while last year Oskar Groening (now 95) was given four years for aiding abetting the murder of 300,000 Hungarian Jews in 1944.
Whatever the outcome of these court cases, time must surely be running out to prosecute many more Nazis – they will soon all be dead. And so attention must turn to preserving the memory of all those that died at Auschwitz. I think the museum which looks after the camp has done an excellent job into trying to humanise the tragic losses, but this historical research, particularly of the Nazi records that weren’t destroyed, must continue. As the recent emergence in the church archives of more details about the efforts of Jane Haining – a Scot who sacrificed her life caring for Jewish girls in Budapest – proves, there are still more stories to be uncovered. The Nazis did everything they could to de-humanise those entering Auschwitz. It is our job as visitors and guardians of these memories to remember the victims as individuals.