I don’t think it requires an introduction.
Auschwitz has become synonymous with the worst episodes of inhumanity in modern times. To me, the most terrible thing is the fact that we know so much about the camp, because we know a lot of it from survivors. We know far less about camps like Sobibor or Chelmno, because there were almost no survivors to testify or write books about them. This leads me to the horrific deduction that if, as a Jew, you were caught in the deportation system, ending up at this abomination of a place was one of the “least worst” possible outcome.
It was raining when I visited. I was strangely content about this. As if the slight discomfort was appropriate to reflect on such somber events. And the services on site remain appropriately minimal. It’s hard to describe how out of place I would feel saying: “You must try the borsch at the Auschwitz Cafe; it’s delicious”.
I have no intention of writing a history lesson, but I will give you some travel advice.
The camp is divided in two distinct areas; Auschwitz I and II. Auschwitz I is a series of barracks, most of which have been transformed in independent, “themed” museums. For example, the Polish Government arranged one to portray their history, the Dutch arranged another one to explain what happened to the Jews in the Netherlands, etc. All combined, they make a massive exhibit, a Wikipedia of the Holocaust plastered over the walls of countless rooms. Were you to read everything, you would be there for days.
Some areas display what went on when the camp was in operation, such as this courtyard where people were executed by firing squad. These areas, including barracks with intact detention cells, tend to attract most of the tour groups. Don’t think you can easily get away from this; after 10 am, group tours are mandatory.
The way around this is not to come with a tour bus from Krakow or Katowice, but rather spend the night in nearby Ośwęicim and arrive at 8. This will give you a couple of hours of relative peace before hordes of Italians come off the busses to enjoy their fun day at Auschwitz. If you have the choice, go off season and avoid the people visiting only because it is part of their all inclusive week tour of Poland.
No, the names of the 60,000 Jews deported from the Netherlands.
This giant book lists the 4.2 million victims of the Shoah who are known by name.
But what I found the saddest was this multimedia room in the Shoah exhibit, which for a while would play pre-war footage of Jews from Tunisia to Finland to Greece. Normal people going about their vacation activities, playing sports, getting married, and doing all other festive things one would have wanted to film in the first half of the 20th century. The thought that such an enormous percentage of them had only years, or at most a decade or two to live when all this was filmed left me enormously sad. Being alone in the room, early in the morning, made it much more poignant.
If you were raised in the West, you have at least a basic awareness of the Holocaust, unless you were brought up by a sect in the mountains. But I did learn a few details, and also contemplated once again things I already knew.
For example, this display in the French building speaks of the number of deportees from France and their respective survival rates. About a third of the people deported for resisting the Nazi occupation of France returned alive, but only 3% of the Jews. At the time, France had capitulated and signed an armistice. From the German perspective, the “resistance” who were blowing things up or killing German forces were criminals by any definition, yet they had a 10 fold better chance of surviving Auschwitz than a family of Jewish music teachers.
Going from one national exhibit to another also emphasized how, for the same racially motivated reasons, people under Nazi occupation were treated very differently. The Dutch of French exhibits would speak of Jewish children being pulled out of schools, while the Polish one would speak of education past elementary school being banned for all Poles! Except for the people designated for the Final Solution, Slavs were treated the worst by the Nazi occupiers, and the Poles possibly got the worst of it, as their elites (intellectuals, professionals, military officers), were being mass murdered simultaneously both by the Nazis and the Soviets in an attempt to permanently subjugate the once proud nation.
One thing I had never heard of: in order to build Auschwitz I and II, the SS expelled and destroyed the homes and businesses of all the residents of the Zasole District of Ośwęicim, as well as the villages of Brzezinka, Harmęże, Plawy, Bór, Rajsko, Klucznikowice, Babice and Broszkowice. I won’t lie, comparatively this seems pretty trivial to me, and perhaps that speaks to the scale of the horrors of World War II in general and the Holocaust in particular. I thought I would mention the mostly unknown hardships these people endured.
And I learned a few factoids, such as the fact that tattooing detainees was not characteristic of the Nazi concentration camp system, as I had believed, but exclusive to Auschwitz.
And the buildings where valuables confiscated from the deportees were stored, sorted and shipped to Germany were nicknamed “Canada I” and “Canada II”. Apparently, for the European Jews of the time, Canada was associated with wealth and prosperity. Ironic that Canadian anti-Jewish laws of the time would have barred most of them from exercising their professions. Not that they would have had a “chance” to experience this discrimination, as Jewish immigration was essentially banned.
In fact, at the request of the British Government, 2,300 Jews who had fled the Nazis were detained in Canada, on the basis that they were German citizens! But apart from the obvious deprivation of liberty, Canadian camps were by and large civilized places and most of the Jews stayed in the country afterwards, as did many German POWs. As is typical with such “undesirable immigrants” as European Jews, 2 of them eventually won Nobel Prizes in Chemistry, one became a Quebec Superior Court Judge and several had illustrious careers in the arts and industry. You can read about them here.
Auschwitz II is a very different affair, built later when the complex grew to enormous proportions. Barracks modelled after German Army stables designed for 52 horses were used to house 400 prisoners.
Unlike Auschwitz I, there is not much to learn here, at least not without a guide, but the site is much more impressive, if that is the appropriate word. Intimidating perhaps?
The scale of it is shocking. On this dark and rainy day, it was hard to see the end of it in some directions.
Coming from all corners of Europe, the tracks ended here.
Close to the site of the gas chambers and incinerators, destroyed by the camp authorities before they retreated towards Germany.
“To the memory of the men, women, and children who fell victim to the Nazi genocide. Here lies their ashes. May their souls rest in peace”.