My trip Auschwitz and Birkenau came about by accident. I met a group of MBA students from the US,China,Poland, and Germany at my hostel. They were on a cultural tour as part of their program and invited me to join them since they had an extra spot on their tour. As I was planning to go anyway, and enjoyed their company, I decided to join. I had no idea how this “tour” would not only change my perspective on the Holocaust, but my perceptions of myself as a person. It’s taken me almost a year and a half to produce this piece because of the emotional and moral confusion I have with this subject matter. I plan to write about that soon. But in the meantime, I’ve compiled what I hope will be a brief introduction to what guest can expect when visiting Auschwitz and Birkenau in Poland.
As soon as you step off your bus the history hits you. I don’t care if you’ve never heard a word about the Holocaust, you’ve seen these images your entire life. Auschwitz is part of our western identity and one feels it instantly. It’s heavy. It’s dark. And yes, it’s emotional. Preservation efforts here are nothing short of spectacular. From the imposing gates, to the uniform barracks hiding heartbreaking interiors, historians and architects have preserved it all well. Prisoners were told “Work Will Set You Free” by the Nazi’s and emblazoned on the entrance gate. A lie which changed the face of the world.
I met this gentleman and his grand daughter outside the former barracks. I left the “Block of Death” a bit early and they were standing outside. We began chatting about the cold and I was told he was one of the survivors on his first visit back. His strength and character spoke to me. He didn’t speak much as his English was poor but meeting him and hearing his brief story was special. Out of respect I decided not to photograph his face as I didn’t think to ask him for permission given the gravity of his personal visit.
Inside Auschwitz I, personal items of former prisoners are on display. HAIR, Luggage, clothing, and prostheses are just a few of the items you’ll see. It can be a bit overwhelming once you see the sheer amount of items the Nazi’s confiscated. Once you realize the luggage has names on them, you begin to imagine the live behind those names. Who were they? Were they rescued? An internal struggle to understand what happened here. Unfortunately this leads you to more questions.
The most heart breaking site is easily the gas chamber. Word’s really can’t express the extreme cold, grief, and fear that still lingers in the air here. These walls still have the fingernail marks from people clawing at them as they choked on Zyklon-B gas. It would take up to 20 minutes in the winter for everyone to die, choking on poisonous gas while watching those around them die. Bodies later being removed and burned by other prisoners.
Photographing this place, knowing it’s history, is difficult. I wanted to educate and show those who can’t visit, what it’s truly like. But I found myself lost in thought most of the time. Wondering what these victims last thoughts were. What scare still haunted the survivors. As a former soldier, what would I have done if order to kill innocent people? Questions that still haunt me.
Somethings should NEVER be on postcards. An empty canisters of Zyklon-B, that killed thousands each, are at the top of that list. Not sure why Auschwitz has a gift shop selling such items.
Auschwitz I houses many sculptures and recreations that not only depict the camp, but also the suffering of it’s prisoners. The graphic details are on full display and I must warn you, some of the images you’ll see are graphic to say the least. Particularly for American’s. One of our greatest sins as a country is censoring the more graphic images of war. People in the west need to see what truly happened. See what war, torture, famine, and pain truly are. Our privilege has bred ignorance and that ignorance needs to end before places like Africa, where genocide is happening TODAY, spirals into another Holocaust.
Prisoners at Auschwitz weren’t only Jews. 5 million non-Jews were killed during the Holocaust which included Roma, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Homosexuals, and the disabled. Furthermore, Hitler instituted a sterilization program targeting mixed raced German children. In his manifesto, Mein Kampf, he wrote “The mulatto children came about through rape or the white mother was a whore. In both cases, there is not the slightest moral duty regarding these offspring of a foreign race.” These children were know as the “Rhineland Bastards”. He blamed the Jews, like pretty much everything else, for this as well. “Jews were responsible for bringing Negroes into the Rhineland, with the ultimate idea of bastardizing the white race which they hate and thus lowering its cultural and political level so that the Jew might dominate.” The influx of African’s came from the French Allies after WWI when they brought in African soldiers. Hitler created “Commission 3” which was tasked with the forced sterilization, usually without their parents consent by kidnapping them, of these children.
Wilhelm Friedrich Boger was one of histories most diabolical men. Many place the atrocities of the Holocaust at Hitlers feet. And of course they should. Butt it was the people under him that truly were the architects of torture and murder. Boger invented the infamous “Boger Swing”. ” A prisoner would be brought in for “questioning,” stripped naked and bent over the bar, wrists manacled to ankles. A guard at one side would shove him—or her—off across the chamber in a long, slow arc, while Boger would ask “questions,” at first quietly, then barking them out, and at the last bellowing. At each return, another guard armed with a crowbar would smash the victim across the buttocks. As the swinging went on and on, and the wailing victim fainted, was revived only to faint howling again, the blows continued—until only a mass of bleeding pulp hung before their eyes. Most perished from the ordeal; some sooner, some later; in the end a sack of bones and flayed flesh and fat was swept along the shambles of that concrete floor to be dragged away”. This from testimony by his former secretary Frau Braun at Bogers eventual trial.
I wasn’t aware that there were THREE Auschwitz main camps. Birkenau was the second one and the first built solely for the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question”. The sheer scale of this place really drives home how massive of an operation this was. Being the inquisitive fellow I am I asked my guide how did the Nazi’s keep this a secret from the US and Brits. I was informed that they didn’t. The US and Brits KNEW about this before we went to war and did nothing. Now I haven’t been able to confirm this but at the time it blew me away. Let’s just say at the time my “pre programmed” perception of the US war machine certainly was dinged.
You may notice the stones on top of these memorial headstones and on the train cars moorings. Although in Christianity it’s common to lay flowers, some Jewish people believe at to be a Pagan ritual and thus leave stones. This is why you rarely see flowers in Jewish cemeteries.
This was one of the most difficult places I’ve photographed and rightfully so. I place no judgement on those whom don’t, but most will have a very emotional experience here if their being honest with themselves. Death is inevitable. Unfortunately the existence of evil is as well. What took place here is still debated today with many on both sides of the conversation using assumption and conjecture to further their narratives. But a few things are fact. Millions of people died at these camps because of their race, religion, or sexual orientation. Not fighting for their country or family. But for existing. Any human being that cares about life should understand what’s so very wrong with that.
Have you been to Auschwitz? What was your experience? If not would you go?