If I live a hundred years I will never forget the horrors of the Auschwitz death camp. I saw the cramped, sparse wooden sheds, originally designed to store horses, but that prisoners slept in. I saw the cattle containers that were used to transfer millions of Jews to their death. I saw the barbed wire, the electric fences, and the watchtowers that meant few escaped. I saw Block 11, where cruel and barbaric experiments were conducted by deranged Nazi doctors. I saw the hidden courtyard, where prisoners were secretly executed. I saw the starvation cells, where prisoners were denied food and water until they were dead. I saw the enormous chimneys. I saw the furnaces which left no remains of an entire race. I saw the gas chamber, the face of pure evil. I saw the gates of hell. I saw Auschwitz.
Situated outside Krakow in Poland, an estimated 1,300,000 people were murdered there, 90% of whom were Jews. Auschwitz was initially used as a concentration camp for Polish prisoner-of-war after Germany invaded Poland in 1939. In 1942 it was converted into a death camp where Jews were killed immediately on arrival.
Over the entrance to Auschwitz is an infamous sign, “Arbeit Macht Frei”, “Work Makes You Free”. It is hard to tell whether this is a cruel joke or an attempt to deceive the prisoners. In reality many prisoners were worked literally to death. For most, once they passed under that sign, they were never free again.
There are a few memories which will stay with me for a long time. Like the sight of piles and piles of prisoners human hair stacked up. Prisoners were shaved as humiliation and so the hair could be sold to be made into carpets and blankets. The sight of such blatant profiteering by the Nazi’s from their dead victims completely shocked me. Similarly moving was the piles of suitcases each one with the name and address of its owner. Here was everything a person owned, everything they had. They had planned for a new life but instead were killed and their possessions stolen. But the most shocking of all were the shoes. Thousands and thousands of shoes belonging to the dead piled into a small mountain. You stand in a room and on all sides there are shoes, the only thing left of thousands, millions of murdered people. I felt surrounded, like I was about to be overwhelmed by a tsunami. It is impossible to put the mass genocide that is the Holocaust into perspective, but this went some of the way.
As soon as prisoners arrived at the camps in cattle containers, they were divided. The young, healthy and strong (roughly 20%) were sent to the work camp, where they would be worked to death. The old, weak and young would be sent immediately to the gas chambers. They were told they need to shower to remove lice before being sent to a ‘rest’ camp. Fake shower heads were installed to keep up the deceit. Few if any protested, instead being lead meekly and peacefully to their extermination. They were killed using Zyklon B, which was originally used to kill lice. This gives an idea of how the Nazi’s viewed the Jews.
After they were murdered, the victim’s mouths were searched for gold fillings which were extracted with a hammer and chisel. They were then loaded into incinerators and burnt. The smoke form Auschwitz’s furnances could be seen for miles around. It was described as “Human Smoke”. The ashes of dead fell on the living.
At the end of the tour, our guide brought us to a small, simple gallows. After the war ended, she said, that is where they hung the camp commander.