CF Goes To Poland (Part 4: Aushwitz-Berkinau)

Please mind any formatting or tying errors as I completed this blog on my phone 🤫 I’ll review it when I’m able to in a couple days to correct anything glaring.

On Sunday I had a chance to visit the Aushwitz-Berkinau Concentration Camps which are just about an hour outside of Krakow.

Disclaimer: this post may be disturbing to some readers but, as our bus driver said before playing an original film depicting real footage of the camp after liberation, you should really know what you’re in for when you’re about to read about – or visit – Aushwitz-Berkinau.

This is the main gate to Aushwitz which you likely recognize.

I’ve always said that one thing I had to be sure to do if I ever finally got to visit Poland was to make a point to come to this camp in particular.

I was deeply moved and fascinated by learning about the Holocaust in grade school and it’s stuck with me ever since. The older I get, the less I understand how we as a collective people can and continue to allow these types of crimes to occur.

I also am forever disturbed that so many of us through history can be influenced in such a way to commit these types of acts.

Buildings as you enter through the main gates.

Admittedly my knowledge of these camps was faint prior to visiting, so here’s a brief refresher I received from the guide: Aushwitz was chosen as a main camp because of both its proximity to where so many people were being deported from, but mainly because of its already existing infrastructure like these buildings you see above. Before it was a concentration camp, it was a military barracks.

This is where the camp orchestra would play music in the mornings and evenings as people would be making their way to and from work – of that I mean the forced labour they were subjected to if they were of the few lucky ones deported to Aushwitz who were not immediately murdered upon entry.
Here’s what that looked like.

I found this interesting because it had never occurred to me in any way that there would be music playing at Aushwitz. I always consider music something that brings people together in a positive way and this pushes it into a whole new realm.

Each of these buildings had designated uses. Some were offices for the Nazis, some were court houses, some living quarters, hospitals, and of course: extermination and torture chambers. They all look virtually the same from the outside which is somehow even more unsettling.
I believe this to be wholeheartedly true of all things in life. Every mistake is an opportunity for growth.

It’s difficult to express how it feels to walk the camp grounds here knowing what’s occurred and the reasons why they did. I continually caught myself imaging what it just have been like, full of prisoner and soldiers rather than the small group I had arrived with.

Lessons on the holocaust of course focus largely on the fact that the Jewish population was targeted, but many different people of wide backgrounds were subject to these camps. Truly no one was immune here, some just luckier than others. These figures of course help put things into perspective.
A small snap shot of the shoes in Block 4.

In Block 4 (all the buildings are referred to as Blocks here) you gain a deeper understanding of the magnitude of people who were murdered here. There displays of human hair, shoes, suitcases, religious cloths and other artifacts that are so large in quantity that is incomprehensible.

Prisoners sleeping quarters.

Something I didn’t know before and learned on this tour is that all of the belongings the Nazis would steal from those deported to Aushwitz would be housed in a special building called “Canada”. The reason they called it Canada was because Canada was seen as prosperous and wealthy, so it made funny sense to the Nazis to call the room they store their loot that.

Childrens shoes and garments.
If you worked for the camp, you had some decent accommodation. This was for block elders.
If I’m recalling correctly this was more living quarters for staff of the camp. Better than the straw beds on the floor the prisoners had.

Not everything is allowed to be photographed at Aushwitz-Berkinau so of course you will have to visit for yourself to get a better sense of things than I’m able to show you here.

General perimeter.
Block 10.
Information about Block 10.

Looking at just the building, like all the others, you wouldn’t think too much of it. They all look rather plain. But then you hear about what happened within those walls and it completely changes the scope of where you are.

In Block 10 women prisoners were selected for experimentation, sterilized and who knows what else.

Block 11 isn’t much better.

The Death Wall.

Block 11 is where most executions took place if you were out of line in any way. The courtyard above where the Death Wall is at the back (recreated) is where you’d be lined up and shot in the back of the head. Several prisoners at any given time could be lined up watching others die before it was their turn to face the wall.

This is where prisoners would be hanged. There’s a very interesting story about a day when prisoners who were about to be hanged here jumped off their own stools, sacrificing themselves in protest and not allowing the Nazis to determine the moment they would die.
Here are some of the people who were unfortunate to have been put through this.
A lookout post. A nazi soldier would stand guard in here.
This one has a J on it. That’s all.
I’m assuming this one doesn’t need an explanation. People were cremated in these.
This isn’t specifically a gas chamber room, I don’t think I took a photo of one because it was quite dark and I wasn’t really focusing on my phone during it, but it is what they looked like (minus the window). There were square holes in the ceiling for the gas to come out, and the soldiers outside would wait at least 30 minutes after those inside stopped screaming before opening the door, to be sure.
The entrance to Birkenau. I am stood on the same railway the trains full of deportees would be taken on.

You probably recognize this building as well – it’s the entrance to Birkenau which is just a few kilometres from Aushwitz.

Unlike Aushwitz which was occupied by Nazis and was an existing complex, Berkinau was built out of necessity once the population of deportees grew too high to house at the main camp.

As a result it looks significantly different. It is a far larger camp with many more buildings but they are smaller in size than those at the Aushwitz barracks. When the Nazis became aware of the impending liberation of the camps, they also began to destroy as much evidence as possible, and so there are more ruins here.

How the grounds look when you first walk through the entrance.
A train car that would be full of prisoners/deportees.

It was described in much greater detail from our guide but these train cars are what you’d be placed in if you were either being brought to the camp, deported to another camp, or awaiting your execution. People inside at times could be inside for as little as a few hours or up to days without food, water, air, or anything else. Many of course did not survive these conditions.

This is a memorial placed between two of the three cremation buildings; both were destroyed before liberation and only ruins remain.
This plaque and 22 more just like it sits at the base of the memorial above. They are all in the different languages that would have been spoken at the camp.

Images of ruins like those pictured above really resonate with me. People throughout history, on large and small scales, will go through great effort to try to erase history and pretend that there was no wrongdoing, but pretending or covering up the facts doesn’t make lived experiences any less true. It’s important to stare these types of acts clear in their face and to continue to share the stories so that perhaps in time we will actually learn from these injustices.

Womens side – Labour camp living quarters.

Those who were seen to be fit enough to work were spared their lives and forced into labour positions. For many this meant that they would spend there last days working for Nazi soldiers as they health continued to deteriorate over time. Once they too were unfit, they would either succumb to starvation or be put to death in the gas chambers.

We ended our tour with a walk through of one of the labourers buildings on the womens side of the camp.

Now, I read that my grandmother Janina was sent to work as a labourer during the war before she was able to flee Poland to England; she wasn’t sent here of course but somewhere in Russia (I believe, but family members can fact check me – I only learned about this very recently). So walking through this building was particularly bizarre for me to imagine that this might be the type of place she lived in during her work contract.

Three-tier bunk beds.
Bathrooms. Labourers we’re allowed to use the bathrooms just twice a day – once before work and once afterwards.

I’m really glad to have been able to do this tour because actually being on the grounds is a whole other animal to simply watching films or seeing photographs, so I definitely recommend you check it out if you’re ever in Poland. Especially as I mentioned, there is a fair bit of stuff you’re unable to photograph here and a lot that I just personally didn’t take to include in this post.

On the way to the concentration camps, I mentioned a well we were shown a film that is all real footage from the liberation of the camps. It’s about an hour long and quite graphic at times – only 18 minutes of that particular film was ever used to showcase the truth of what happened at Aushwitz (I think 18 minutes was enough for the judge and jury).

The last part of the film is pretty comical. Given that the Nazis were keen to remove as much evidence of their wrongdoings as possible, of course they also went ahead and developed their own propaganda film. In the film they falsely show their own version of the liberation of the camp, full of healthy happy children and adults rejoicing at the sight of their arrival, when of course the reality was much darker, with those that remained skeptical of who was arriving, scared, hungry and clinging to what remained of their lives.

I believe right now we are living through one of the largest displays of mass propaganda ever seen in history, much to the thanks of modern technology and the internet, it is easier than ever to deliver false information and to settle into your own biases.

It is almost impossible, I think, for the average mind to even understand the complexities arisen by this. It is even more challenging to understand how to adequately combat them.

Modern laws are not even close to where they should be to better facilitate and educate the general public on this and there are far too many powerful people with entirely too much money at their disposal who are keen to, much like the Nazis in the 1940’s, remove any and all evidence of wrongdoing and build a narrative that further empowers them while enslaving and enduring suffering for the rest of us.

If the truth is told by those who win than we must never stop fighting for our freedoms and we must remember that we are stronger together than we are apart.

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