A visit to KZ Auschwitz

This page describes my own impressions of the concentration & extermination camps Auschwitz and Auschwitz-Birkenau, from my visit there in August 2010. This is not an attempt to give a complete report about the camps and what once happened there but only a brief review of my own visit and my own reflections on the matter.

I have been interested in visiting Auschwitz since I missed the high school trip to Prague and nearby example camp Theresienstadt, in 1994. During my college time there was never enough money or time to realize such a trip either. And when I started working, a few other trips were realized first. But in 2010, me an my girlfriend (now wife) went on a road trip with the old SAAB 900. The goal was Krakow, Poland … if we could make it that far… and we did! … and when we finally arrived to Krakow (the SAAB did its job) we realised we should take the opportunity to go the extra miles to Auschwitz and have a look (Auschwitz/Oswiecim IS really close to Krakow, about 70 km or a little more than an hour by car).

The SAAB 900i, 1988. Would it last all the way to Krakow and back to Sweden? No problems at all … except for the curb-like distance between Cottbus (Germany) and the Polish border. And also the bad radiator that didn’t work in German Stauen.
The arrival in the village/town of Oswiecim was a bit of a travel back through time … to 1943 and horse and carriage.

When we arrived in Oswiecim the main road led pretty much directly to Auschwitz concentration camp (Stammlager/Auschwitz I). People living around this main camp competed in offering car parking for various expensive prizes. We parked in someone’s back yard about 500 meters away, I remember. Then we started off at the main camp (Auschwitz I) by ourselves (not with a guided tour).

In 2010 it was OK to enter the camp with a guided tour as well as individually.

The main camp, Auschwitz I, doesn’t look very horrific at all. Evidently, the red brick buildings were military barracks originally and the prisoners lived tight and shared sanitary facilities with each other, as is normal in military barracks. It reminded me about a residential area close to where I live (in Sweden) called Jonsereds Fabriker.

Inside Auschwitz I. It is hard to grasp what have happened here out from what you see. It looks like a well organised area of residences …
… except for the electrical barbed wire fences and the guard towers surrounding the area …
The whole area looks spookily alike old workers residences at Jonsereds fabriker, close to where I live.

My point here is NOT to diminish the horrors of this place. On the contrary, I want to describe that the architecture of this place does not signal death and torture today … and I can imagine that it didn’t do so to the villagers when the camp opened in 1940 either.

Inside the barracks are different exhibitions about the camp life, what happened there, who were the victims and how the camp was used during the war . As rather well informed prior to the visit, it was easy to relate to different items that are displayed but still, for me, it was hard to connect all the testimonies of the horrors of this place, to what was shown in the exhibition. The area seemed so small … and apparently, Auschwitz I was primarily an “ordinary” concentration camp between 1940 and 1942.

Used cans of Zyklon B, the gas pellets used in the gas chambers.
A pile of bags that belonged to murdered victims.
The executioner ground in Auschwitz I (where a lot of people were shot).
More electrical barbed wire.
In 1941, experiments using toxic gas were carried out on prisoners here …
… and the bodies were cremated here …
… and it all happened in this building. NOTE! As it turned out, this gas chamber and crematorium has been restored to its historic role AFTER 1945, to serve as symbolic representation of all crematoriums/gas chambers of the Auschwitz camps.

After leaving the main camp we walked towards Auschwitz II (Birkenau) which is located about 1.5 km away. We passed the so called “Judenrampe” when crossing the railway. This is an ordinary platform at the side of the railway and as it turned out, this is where most of the prisoner transports stopped and were unloaded. The specific rails that goes all the way into Auschwitz II (as seen in all movies) was installed as late as spring 1944 for the transports from Hungary. From the “Judenrampe”, the prisoners had to walk approx. 800 meters to the main gate of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

The infamous main gate of Auschwitz II (Auschwitz-Birkenau). When we came here, it started raining and everything felt very fateful.

First when approaching the fences of Auschwitz II, I realised how huge that camp complex really is. When the camp was in operation there were barracks all over the place where there now are only foundations left. I believe most prisoners, despite rumours, couldn’t imagine the worst would happen to them some hours later when they saw all those barracks. After all, that many barracks indicated that some kind of life was going on inside the fences.

After passing “the gates of hell”. Evidently, the rail seen in the picture was installed as late as in 1944, for the deportation of the Hungarian jews.
The platform were the prisoners were unloaded from the cars and the selection process began, about half way into the camp area.
Looking back at the main entrance, from the rail platform.
Nowadays I actually can depict being forced to travel in a car like this, packed with other people, without toilet, water, food, for several days. THIS IS TRUE HORROR!
When inside Auschwitz II, it became obvious how difficult/impossible an attempt to escape from the camp must have been. The main area was surrounded with electrical, barbed wire and guarded watch towers and patrolling guards with watchdogs. The interior of the camp was then divided into smaller areas, also surrounded with electrical, barbed wire and guards. If one makes the escape through one barrier, what are the chances of successfully passing the next barrier?

Being inside Auschwitz II was quite the opposite from being in the main camp. Here, almost the whole area indicates imprisonment and death. Apart from a few buildings, watch towers and barbed wire fences, most there is to be seen are ruins. But there is a very grave feeling over the whole place and it was obvious that other visitors, too, were deeply affected.

The main crematoriums/gas chambers of Auschwitz II were located near the fences on the opposite side from the main gate. They were all blown up and destroyed by the SS before the camp was abandoned. This is gas chamber/Crematorium II.
The gas chamber were located in the basement of the crematorium buildings. I believe this is a stairway down to the room where people were forced to undress before being locked in in the gas chamber itself (I must check the building models/blueprints about this). It is almost impossible to take in that more than a million human beings were murdered inside the camp, in this way.
The dimensions of the crematorium/gas chamber buildings are astonishingly small when thinking about the huge number of victims. Instead of restoring the experimental gas chamber in Auschwitz I, I think it would have been better to rebuild crematorium II or III. In that way, visitors of today could more easily understand how industrialized the killing really was.
The far end of the camp. Here grows a lot of birch trees. Unclear if that was also the case in 1944 … but the name Birkenau suggests just so.
At the far west end of the camp. I don’t remember the purpose of these buildings. When studying maps of the camp, they suggest some kind of sanitary/bath facilities.
Everywhere in the picture where there is a chimney, there used to be a barrack. At the evacuation of the camp in January 1945, the camp held 66020 prisoners. Friends Arena in Stockholm can take 65000 visitors (sitting and standing) as a comparison.
I was told that the now standing wooden barracks of Auschwitz-Birkenau are all post-war restored buildings, rebuilt for some movie. I don’t remember which movie though.

For people who are interested in understanding how large-scaled the so called “Endlösung der Judenfrage” really was, I strongly recommend a visit to the camp. But I also strongly recommend to read about it prior to a visit. For my part, there are also two movies that absolutely stand out in describing the horrors of the Holocaust:

  • “Shoah” (1985) by Claude Lanzmann. For some reason I was never aware of this film as a teenager. It is 9 hours and 26 minutes of pure misery. Through interviews with survivors, perpetrators and also villagers that lived around the death camps, it explains it all.
  • “Son of Saul” (2015) by László Nemes. The movie follows a Sonderkommando prisoner working in the Auschwitz-Birkenau crematorium during two horrific days.