Wake up time was a little earlier since we’d be driving south for about two and a half hours to Częstochówa, where the Black Madonna resides at Jasna Góra, a monastery founded in the 14th century. Our guide was a funny little priest named Father Simon. He was quite the comedian, as he made funny references and jokes, navigating us through this Catholic fortress. The collection of shiny objects and talismans contained within its walls was truly plethoric. The Adoration Chapel alone was blinding. This is the chapel where the Black Madonna is displayed. From there we walked into the Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Founding of the Holy Cross. That is really its name. Really. But it’s seriously one of the more beautiful basilicas I can recall seeing. It seems ostentatious, as many cathedrals do, but the deeper green and red kind of subdue it. Everything somehow incorporates gold leaf, and the marble used in the columns is a deep red, offset by a green marble used in the altar. And of course the virgin white ceiling is inlayed with various artistic Biblical depictions. We were taken to the Treasury next, which is not a room filled floor to ceiling with gold, but yet another room filled with more shiny trinkets collected from other churches and famous estates.
After this short stop, we were back on the road heading for a lunch stop en route to Auschwitz-Birkenau. It was midday by the time we arrived, so a lot of tours had already arrived ahead of us. But they do a good job running tours on a schedule that keeps the grounds from getting too crowded. I have to say this was the single part of the trip I anticipated the most. Everything about WWII fascinates me to no end, I will never have read enough about it. That goes for history in general, but WWII is head and shoulders above the rest for me as a history lover. I am quite fortunate to have a living grandfather who fought in some of the biggest campaigns of that war, and to hear his stories is something I can’t possibly do justice with any words. I don’t believe in miracles, so I guess I’d have to say it’s incredible, unreal, maybe extraordinary that he and many other men and women made it through that hell.
Disclaimer: The remainder of this post discusses, in some graphic detail, the horrors of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Subject matter is likely to be disturbing to all readers. Actually, it should be. Consider yourself advised.
So we met our guide, Magda, who would stay with us for both camps, and started our tour from the administration building. After only a short 100 yard walk, we were passing through the Arbeit Macht Frei (“Work Makes You Free”) gate that so many prisoners entered through, most never making the exit a mere 70 some years ago. The Germans had previously employed this phrase and tactic with success at Dachau, the first camp set up earlier in the ’30s to accommodate the massive influx of prisoners resulting from the Nazi regime’s policies on various peoples not to their liking. Not coincidentally, Auschwitz’s commandant was stationed at Dachau prior to his appointment at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Upon passing through this gate, we were inside the main camp – the original camp of A-B, and former Polish army barracks, that Rudolph Höss came to be commandant of in the Polish town of Oświęcim. Block 24 immediately appears on the left. In 1943 this block was used for something most of us never hear in the modern Auschwitz narrative. Höss made this building into a brothel for some select male prisoners. About 100 received vouchers, which they could use to pay for time with the women, who were also prisoners of the camp. This was seen by SS high command as a way to incentivize their key prisoners to behave one way or another, or perhaps fend off a revolt. Surprisingly, Himmler approved of this. And also surprising was the fact that when Höss did this, the camp was being investigated for corruption, something that would result in Höss’ temporary replacement (he was just moved to another camp until the investigation was over). Unfortunately, this building is not part of the tour, as it’s now a clerical building for camp administration, but at least I could say that it exists and I saw it.
We would get to enter several blocks, including 10 and 11, which are probably the most notorious and disturbing in the camp. But the first we entered was Block 4. Most blocks were used for housing prisoners, and in a few the sleeping, common areas, wash rooms, and offices have been preserved. For the most part, though, the rooms are open to allow for the flow of tourists. I was perhaps a bit surprised but definitely happy to see the number of people visiting the camps. It’s absolutely something that everyone should see and experience. Along the walls in the open rooms are display cases full of surviving camp documents, and they contain things like prisoners’ personal information cards, lists of prisoners executed on any given day, and counts of Soviet POWs in the camp. Other rooms have glass cases built into the walls housing certain items that were confiscated from prisoners upon arrival, which were found after the camp was liberated; things like suitcases, shoes, dolls, clothes, shaving kits, you name it
Another room has a huge case full of human hair. Prisoners had their heads shaved, and the hair would then be used to make mattresses. Or there’s a case full of Zyklon B canisters, which contrary to some accounts, was actually used to gas prisoners to death. It was initially used for delousing purposes, but the Germans found out that the pellets could be used en masse to gas people to death via an “experiment” by an SS Captain in Block 11. Blocks 10 and 11 are famous for the torture and experiments the Nazis were fond of performing on the Soviet and Jewish prisoners. Block 11 proved inefficient for gassing people to death because of the basement layout. It was difficult to air out after use, which prompted the Germans to start constructing new buildings to more efficiently kill the prisoners; things like the crematoria, the Little Red House, and the Little White House, all of which were destroyed either by the Germans or by the bombing. Aside from Zyklon B, a very common approach to gassing people en masse was to fill the back of a moving van or a large room with people and route the exhaust from engines into the room, which would suffocate and kill the inhabitants within about 15 minutes or so. Truly horrifying.
In the basement of blocks 10 and 11 are some of the most disturbing sights anyone should ever see, and I cannot imagine the horrors carried out and experienced there by countless innocents. As if the extremely tight quarters of narrow hallways and low ceilings isn’t enough, there are rooms down here constructed specifically to torture and / or kill people in some of the most miserable ways imaginable. One wall is lined with cubic rooms, in which people were crammed until they literally could not move, the door closed, and they were left for as long as it took for the last one to die. The only air they had was what could come through a small hole in the wall, adjacent to the ceiling, perhaps four inches square. At the end of that hallway is a very narrow room, and what at first glance appear to be perhaps coal- or wood-fed furnace rooms behind bricked up facades, each with a large square steel door at the bottom. There are four of these “furnaces” along the southeast wall, and from left to right (NE to SW), they degrade in preservation so that you can peer further inside and see what lies behind the brick facade. These were yet more torture rooms where prisoners were forced to crawl through the small steel door entrance and stand inside with no light or air until they suffocated or starved to death. Or another method would be to restrict the height of the ceiling of the interior room to only a few feet, so the prisoner could never fully stand up, but only crouch or lie down. Regardless, it is not hard to imagine how this kind of treatment could quickly drive an already suffering person insane. Whenever escapees were discovered, their families and some members of their block would be rounded up and taken down to one of these rooms, where they were locked away and forgotten. There were stories of some eating their own shoes to fend off the starvation.
Other methods of torture were experimented with on the two floors above as well. And in the only walled off inter-building yard in the camp, that between blocks 10 and 11, prisoners were lined up against the southeast wall and shot, or maybe burned, or sometimes they were lucky enough to live. But still standing are two wooden 4×4 posts with small hooks at the top. The prisoners who were lucky enough to live may have had their hands chained behind their back, been instructed to stand on a stool, the chain would be looped around the hook, and the stool would then be kicked out from under them. The entire weight of the body would be placed on the shoulder joints, usually ripping them out of socket, landing the prisoner in the infirmary, or “the crematorium waiting room,” as it came to be referred to by prisoners. There were survivors, but not many.
A short walk down the street is the camp gallows. There was no attempt to hide anything from the prisoners. They all knew what happened in the camp, and if they didn’t see it, they certainly heard it. Everyone knew their chances of survival. Lining the hallway in one block are rows of photos of prisoners with their names, numbers, dates of entry, and dates of death. Many range from a week to a month, but I noted one of only one day. The overwhelming sadness and disgust you feel when standing in this place is indescribably surreal.
At the opposite end of the street is yet another small gallows, between the crematorium, which is discretely built into an earthen mound, and the camp commandant’s (Höss) house. Imagine being the opposite of a prisoner here – one of Höss’ family; his wife or children. What is going through your head as you live literally across the street from a camp where people are brutally and senselessly murdered, while the living live in fear of the worst kind every day of their lives, and you are kin to the asshole carrying out the will and orders of the state. We didn’t get to visit the house, but we did walk through the crematorium. It’s a simple building.
Entering an open room, you pass through the doorway to the right, which is a long, narrow open concrete room with vents in the ceiling, through which canisters of Zyklon B were emptied, and the doors sealed until the screaming stopped. A team of prisoners responsible for getting rid of the evidence (Sonderkommando) came in and carried the bodies into the adjacent room, in which the ovens were located. And the ovens are still there to see. The openings are just large enough to load a few bodies at a time. Believe it or not, this was not the most efficient way the Nazis thought of to exterminate Jews and Soviets.
We all boarded the bus and made a short drive down the road to Brzezinka (Birkenau). The famous “Gate of Death” entrance via railroad is still used as the visitor entrance today, and the road that intersects the tracks is named Ofiar Faszyzmu (Victims of Fascism). Fortunately, our stop does not end at the platforms. Walking up to the top level of the tower, you’re provided with a view of the whole camp, which stretches about a half mile to the west and maybe three quarters of a mile north-south. Nearly all of it is barracks, or the remains of barracks from when the camp was burned. And they are shoddy barracks quickly constructed to hold as many people as possible with no concern for health or well-being. On the south side of the tracks is the women’s and children’s camp, and on the north – the others. At the western end of the track used to be Crematoria 1 and 2 (there were 5 in total). The camp was built with the intent to hold 100,000 Soviet POWs, who would also be forced to build the camp. The Nazis took over five million Soviets prisoner, and over three million of those died in captivity.
We entered one of the barracks in the northern camp. To objective eyes it may appear to have been constructed to hold livestock. In the first half was the “living / sleeping area,” and in the back half were the latrines – rows of concrete blocks with holes systematically cut every foot or so. There are surviving documents which reportedly show that SS high command planned for each barrack to hold 550 prisoners, which was subsequently increased to 744. Magda, our guide, told me it was more like 4-600 but that some survivors have reported 800-1000. This is in a building maybe 120 feet long by 30ish wide. No matter the figure, it’s a horrific mental image, and none of us can imagine living it. The conditions in this camp were absolutely appalling. The Germans essentially took no measures to provide adequate food or water to the prisoners. The average life expectancy after entering the camp was two weeks. Water was fetid and filled with feces and death. There were instances of cannibalism, where Nazis reported having found corpses with the guts ripped opened and livers removed. Prisoners would beat each other to death over food, and perhaps even for food. But enough on that somber subject.
We boarded the bus and took Magda back to the main camp, then began the last hour leg of the day’s journey to Krakow. Just before arriving in Krakow, high up on a hill left of the road, with the Vistula on the right, is a Benedictine monastery – the Camaldolese Priory of Bielany. Just around the bend from there, also high up on the same hill is a large construction of the Nazis, which we were told was originally intended to be their headquarters in Krakow. It is now a bed and breakfast. Wanna stay there?
The dinner that evening was pretty solid (think we had salmon and rice, with something chocolate for dessert), and we were all showing signs of wear and tear. That was one of the better dinners of the trip. Good conversation and laughs with some great company. I had a few Żywiec Bocks, and I was ready for some serious shutass.