They say hope was the last thing to die in Auschwitz.
It's been just over 70 years since the Allies liberated the death camp and the horrors of the "Final Solution" were revealed to the world. Prior to their arrival, Auschwitz was the most effective death camp ever created, having taken the lives of over 1.1 million Jews.
Block 4 of Auschwitz holds the museum, explaining the best it can about what happened seven decades past. The museum explains what Auschwitz was originally built for – a camp for Polish prisoners of war – and how it became key to the Nazi's "Final Solution". The museum goes over the construction of Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II (Birkenau) and Auschwitz III (Monowitz), the increased sizes and effectiveness of gas chambers and the factories of death that stood and smoked over the camp during its operation.
The museum held several displays of items found around the camps, such as photographs taken by the prison guards and the prisoners, shoes, pots and pans, combs and brushes, and clothing and suitcases of the victims.
One of the most powerful rooms in the museum was one simply labeled "Exploiting the Corpses". This room contains a long hallway with a glass window on the left that shows an endless mountain of human hair, shaved off the victims after their time in the gas chamber. To the right are windows outside, tinted pink so the sunlight doesn't further damage the hair. The pink light and the piles of human hair, together, created the most haunting thing I have ever seen. Historians know this hair belonged to the victims because it still contains traces of Zyklon B – the gas used to kill the prisoners. The hair has faded with time but what it is – and who it once belonged to – is too much for words. While most rooms of the museum had the odd person whispering, this room was silent. There was nothing anybody could say.
The museum answers a lot of questions about the camp, but it doesn't answer the most important one: how could this happen? Our guide said that, even today, this is the most difficult question to answer. Germany needed a scapegoat after being punished by the Treaty of Versailles following World War I, and the Jews were an easy target. They were businessmen, bankers, professors, doctors and politicians. By exterminating some of the most influential leaders in society, the government could more easily manipulate the people, which is exactly what they did. The question of morality and how easily it can be corrupted by those in power is something humanity is still struggling to understand, and something that still makes us incredibly uncomfortable to think about.
With these thoughts in our heads, we left Block 4 and carried down the streets of the camp.
Block 10 was used for scientific sterilization experiments. It was understood that if the Nazis couldn't remove the Jewish religion from Europe, they would be able to sterilize it and let nature remove it instead. Many women were kept in Block 10 and were used for experiments, and some were deliberately murdered so their corpses could be studied instead.
Block 11 was the prison, the only place that was worse than Auschwitz itself. If you were sent to prison while in the camp, you did not leave. The basement of Block 11 – also known as "the bunker" – is where cyanide gas was originally used to see if it could effectively kill prisoners. After gassing a group of prisoners for over a week straight, it was discovered a more potent poison was needed, and Zyklon B entered the picture.
The bunker also held several cells meant to kill people slowly and painfully: the Standing Cell, where a person would be forced to stand until exhaustion killed them; the Suffocation Cell, where prisoners were crammed into a single room and suffocated until they all died; and the Starvation Cell which is where prisoners starved to death.
The day I visited the camp was the anniversary the camp was ordered to be constructed. It was one of the busiest days they have, and many people brought flowers and wreaths to remember the victims. One of these victims was Maximilian Kolbe, a priest who sacrificed himself for another prisoner in the camp. After three prisoners escaped the camp, the guards decided to arrest 10 innocent men and put them into the Starvation Cell. As they picked one man, he fell to his knees and cried for his wife and children. Seeing this, Kolbe stepped forward and offered to take his place. Surprised, the guards agreed, and Kolbe was sealed into the cell instead.
For two weeks the guards checked on Kolbe, and every time they found him standing or kneeling, while the other nine men around him had long starved to death. Finally, the guards grew tired of waiting for Kolbe to die and injected him with carbolic acid. It is said Kolbe raised his arm and took the injection, and calmly waited for his own turn to die.
The man who Kolbe saved, Franciszek Gajowniczek, would survive Auschwitz and would be reunited with his wife, but not his children. He would die in 1995, at the age of 93.
Photographs of the prison are forbidden, but a shrine has been placed in the cell for Maximilian Kolbe by Pope John Paul II.
The courtyard between Block 10 and Block 11 holds the famous Wall of Death, where many prisoners were executed. The courtyard also held torture devices in which prisoners crossed their arms behind their back and ropes lifted them off the ground, breaking their arms and tearing their tendons, permanently crippling them. While only two of these devices are still in the courtyard, our guide told us there used to be over thirty.
We then passed the site where prisoners who were believed to be part of the underground resistance were executed. It was here, after the war, SS-Obersturmbannführer Rudolf Höss was executed for the crimes he committed in the camp. He was the man who introduced Zyklon B, and is responsible for the effectiveness of the gas chambers which, at their peak, killed 2,000 people every hour.
Past the execution site, we entered the first ever gas chamber in Auschwitz, one that could kill 700 people at a time. Being the first of its kind, this gas chamber didn't have a change room, and the prisoners had to undress outside before entering the building. The building was created before the Nazis placed fake showerheads and lanterns inside the gas chambers, so it felt like entering a cave with slits in the ceiling. Knowing that people died by the thousands right where I stood was incredibly unnerving, but the next room, the crematorium, was even more so. This crematorium held two small furnaces. As the "Final Solution" picked up, it was discovered this gas chamber was much too small, and a much more effective one needed to be built.
Auschwitz II (Birkenau) was then created by the prisoners, and was made as the primary entrance for trains into the camp. By the time Birkenau was created, Auschwitz had become a fully functional death camp. Polish citizens, gypsies, Soviet prisoners of war and homosexuals were separated into two groups: the able bodied men were sent to work and the women, children and elderly were sent to the gas chambers. Jews were treated slightly different as they all went directly to the gas chambers, regardless of their sex and ability to work.
We walked fifteen minutes from Birkenau's train platform, down the tracks to the ruins of the larger gas chambers. The road was covered in sharp jagged rocks that would have stabbed the feet of the prisoners. Once they arrived at the chamber they were led down a slope with high walls, and into a change room. After undressing they were then led into the shower room where they would be "disinfected". Afterwards the guards would shave the bodies, take any jewelry they could find and begin the cremation process. Once complete, another load of prisoners would arrive. Each chamber could hold up to 2,000 people, and there were four gas chambers in Birkenau.
As the Red Army approached near the end of the war, one of the gas chambers was deconstructed by the prisoners, and the rest were blown up. Bombings by the Russians destroyed much of Birkenau, as well as fires set by the soldiers. Today, parts of the camp are still in ruins.
Our tour ended in the barracks, where prisoners stayed while room was made for them in the gas chambers. So many people were being brought into the camp that sections were set up for overflow while the gas chambers were cleaned out. In the barracks women laid on bunkbeds, seven feet wide and seven feet long, meant for seven people. Everybody who stayed in the barracks was executed; not a single prisoner survived.
The walls of the barracks are covered in scratches, ones made not by the victims but by the visitors. Some of these are designs, some are names and some are prayers.
Auschwitz is the most powerful place I have ever visited. While the weather soaked my camera and the influx of people removed the ability to really immerse myself into the camp, and to really understand what the victims went through, I think that may have been for the better. The camp showed the horrors humanity has inflicted upon itself, and the strength humanity has to persevere. While over a million people never left the Auschwitz, others did. Many faced the evil of mankind and survived it, and they left it as proof that life, against all odds, can somehow still go on.
Editor's Note: Originally this article said that both Anne, Margot and Otto Frank survived their time in the camp, and this caused some confusion with my readers. All three would survive this camp, but Anne and Margot would later die of typhus in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. They were survivors of Auschwitz, but not of the war. I have since edited the article. Sorry about that confusion!
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And, as always, a big thank you to my sweetheart Jessica Nuttall for proof reading a countless number of my articles. I couldn't do any of this without you. I love you.
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