On January 27th, 1945, the 322nd Division of the Russian army arrived at the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz. The camp was a series of building built by the Nazi Army in captured Polish areas near the city of Krakow, Poland (70 Kilometers away). The camp was used by the Nazi government as a major part of the so-called “Final Solution to the Jewish Question”—the extermination of all Jews from the human race. Of the over 1.1 million people who met their death at Auschwitz at the hands of the SS guards or the camp’s gas chambers, 90% were Jewish. Though the camp’s liberation received little recognition in the press at the time, the name Auschwitz soon became synonymous with the evils of the Nazi party and the horrors of World War II. Today, Auschwitz stands as a museum and memorial to the people who suffered and died there.
In 1947, the Polish government remade Auschwitz into a memorial and museum which opened to the public in 1955. The Auschwitz Museum and Memorial became a UNESCO world heritage site in 1979. Each year, almost 1.5 million people visit the museum. In 2011, while on a brief visit to Krakow, my wife and I made the short drive to visit the Auschwitz. The experience left a deep impression upon both of us.
The museum tour was split into two sites—the work camp Auschwitz I and the death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau. As we entered Auschwitz I, we were immediately met by its iconic black, metal gates with the infamous Nazi camp slogan Arbeit Mact Frei (“Work makes you free”). Inside the camp, ten foot tall electrified fences loomed over compact concrete and wood buildings. Inside the buildings, the Nazis housed Jews, Gypsies, Soviets, and German political prisoners as the forced labor of the Nazi army. The prisoners were kept on a near starvation diet and forced to spend long hours doing brutal labor. The purpose at Auschwitz I was to literally work the prisoners to death.
Several of the buildings of Auschwitz I house the museum exhibits about the history of the camp and the material remains of the prisoners. The story of Auschwitz and its victims are told through brief films and displays of these items. Though the story is enough to shake a museum visitor to their very core, the exhibit on the remains of the prisoners is nothing short of shocking. Inside a small, unassuming building, we were met with mounds of baby shoes, mass tangles of eyeglasses, mountains of old luggage, and over two tons of human hair. These collections, separated by a thin layer of glass, were the belongings of people who lost their lives at Auschwitz. Hoping to utilize all the possessions of their prisoners, the Nazi army would strip each prisoner of all of their effects upon entering the camp—even their hair which the Nazis hoped to utilize in the war effort. Needless to say, staring at two tons of human hair that was violently taken from the murdered bodies of Nazi victims leaves quite an unsettling feeling.
If the prisoners didn’t die due to the harsh conditions of Auschwitz I or were deemed unfit to work, they were sent to the second part of the Auschwitz camp—Auschwitz-Birkenau. Auschwitz-Birkenau is the section of the camp most associated with the Nazi concentration camp system. It is the most notorious of all the extermination camps. Today Auschwitz-Birkenau is almost exactly as the Nazi’s left it in 1945 when they fled the approaching Red Army. Split down the middle by a railroad track which brought train load after train load of doomed passengers during World War II, Auschwitz-Birkenau is separated into two sections. The male and female dormitories and the Gypsy barracks make up the front of the camp while the remains of the five crematoriums lay in the back of the camp. A visitor to the camp can see how prisoners of the camp lived in extreme misery and humiliation. They can lie on the hard wooden beds and feel the cold that prisoners were unable to escape. They can feel the terror of the guard posts which housed Nazi guards ready to shoot any prisoner at a moment’s notice. They can begin to feel the hopelessness which the camps bleak grounds were meant to evoke in its residents.
At the back of the camp lay the exploded remains of the camps five crematoriums. When the Nazis fled the approaching Red Army (about 120 SS personnel lived at Auschwitz and ran the camp), they blew up the five crematoriums hoping to hide the buildings’ purposes, mass extermination and disposal of the victims. Today, mounds of brick rubble surround simple basement structures as the only remains of the crematoriums. Yet, no visitor could mistake the fact that over a million people met their death inside of these buildings. Mounds of flowers, pictures, and candles surround these structures—memorials left by visitors to the museum—and several bronze plaques pay homage to those who died inside them.
After leaving the Auschwitz Museum and Memorial, my wife and I were both emotionally drained. It was hard to understand how such a place could exist in the world. How could anyone, much less an entire country, build something so horrific? As we boarded the bus, our guide reminded us of the true purpose of the museum. It wasn’t to provide a tourist destination for those interested in ghoulish history, but as a reminder of the horrors that people can inflict on others and a resolution that it should never happen again.
Arbeit Macht Frei The Camp Fence
View from Guard Tower (Auschwitz-Birkenau) Camp Barracks