What can one say about a day touring the site of such unspeakable horror? A visit here is obligatory for Polish 14-year-olds, and there were several school groups on the day we went, but otherwise it was relatively quiet and un-crowded. The “barracks” of Auschwitz that housed an average of 14,000 prisoners at one time have been turned into museums. Especially difficult was Block 5 where piles of victims’ belongings are displayed….a mountain of luggage, a room full of shoes, another room with crutches and prosthetic limbs, a case full of eyeglasses, and a horrific pile of human hair (that had been packaged presumably to send off to a factory making cloth for Nazi uniforms). We spent quite a bit of time in the barrack containing the national memorial to prisoners from the Czech Republic, since that’s where the relatives John has been able to trace to Auschwitz were from.
In the picture above, note the upside-down “B” in the Arbeit Macht Frei (the cruel lie of ‘Work Will Set You Free”) gate…apparently welded on upside down by belligerent inmates.
In 1941, when the original Auschwitz camp became too small for the Nazis’ plans, they build a second camp in nearby Birkenau (Auschwitz II). At its peak, Birkenau held 100,000 people and was planned to increase to 200,000. As one tour book says: “Having explored the Auschwitz I complex, many visitors decide not to visit Auschwitz II/Birkenau. Don’t dare make the same mistake. There’s less to see (since much of it was destroyed before the camp was liberated), but the sheer size and solitude of Birkenau leaves a great impact.” There are only ruins of the four crematoriums, but it’s chilling to see such a large complex devoted only to the process of killing people and disposing of their bodies (60,000 people a day at its height - or depth…) This is also the location of the international monument, which is meant to represent gravestones and the chimney of a crematorium. The plaques, inscribed in 10 languages spoken by camp victims, explain that the memorial is “a cry of despair and a warning to humanity.”
Below, views of the train tracks into Birkenau and acres of barracks ruins
The International Memorial to Victims of Auschwitz and Birkenau