Auschwitz Birkenau Concentration Camp

Thursday, June 23, 2011

While it wasn't pleasant, we spent several hours outside of Krakow at two Nazi death camps, Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau. This network of concentration camps was the largest the Nazi Germans operated. Auschwitz I was the base camp and administrative center (though Jews were still murdered here) and Birkenau was the extermination camp. There was also a third camp that was a work camp and 45 satellite camps. The official death toll for these camps is 1.1 million people. One famous inmate at Auschwitz was the Polish saint, Maximilian Kolbe, who traded his life for another inmate's. Below you can see a picture of the starvation cell where Maximilian Kolbe spent the last two weeks of his life and where the Nazis murdered him when they found him alive at the end of the two weeks.

In February I visited Sachsenhausen, another Nazi concentration camp, while I was in Berlin. I think because I had already been through the horror of a concentration camp once I was somewhat numb to what I saw at Auschwitz. You hear terrible stories and see the very place these things happened, but somewhere there is a disconnect between the two, at least for me. However, at Birkenau when I saw a room full of two tons of human hair from murdered Jews I thought I was going to throw up. The Nazis valued the hair of their prisoners more than their lives. Seeing the hair that used to be attached to living, breathing Jews, Roma, ethnic Poles, and other prisoners finally cemented the reality of what happened in these camps because I did not have to imagine them, I had the hair shaved from their bodies, sometimes still in BRAIDS, sitting right in front of me. The Nazis were so sick they even made fabric and rugs out of the hair. No pictures were allowed, and I wouldn't want to subject any of you to looking at that on my blog, but there are pictures online if you are curious.

Also, I'd just like to note that the largest group of Jews deported to Auschwitz were Hungarian Jews - 430,000 of them. The Dohány Street Synagogue in Budapest (just down the street from where I lived!) is the largest synagogue in Europe and second largest in the world. In 1920, 23% of Budapest's population was Jewish. As of 2001 the Jewish population was down to 0.5%. 

Going to Auschwitz was a necessary experience, but I wouldn't ever go back.

"Arbeit Macht Frei" - infamous and ironic gates to Auschwitz I

Hungarian Jews
Crutches and prosthetics from disabled Jews
Luggage with the owner's names & addresses

Room full of shoes (the room with hair was this big too)
Thousands and thousands of shoes


Death block - prisoners were lined up and shot against the wall.
Note the blacked out windows so no one could see (Jews or Nazis)

Cell where St. Maximilian Kolbe was murdered

Crematoriums in the gas chambers 
Remains of barracks, hastily destroyed by the Nazis
Where trains carrying Jews entered Birkenau and
went to the selection platform: "life" or death.
The Memorial plaques were in every language that was
spoken by prisoners. This one is in Hungarian.
May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.
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