Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Extermination Camps

Auschwitz I - main registration building
Day 2 in Krakow:
Up early we had our delicious free breakfast and went to meet up with the tour group heading to Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II - Birkenau. It is hard to know what to say of this tour other than this is something everyone should see. If you cannot see it then read about it and educate yourself. What happened in this part of the world during WWII is uncomprehendable.  Novels like Schindler's Ark may make people out to be heroes when there is always another side, but they also give insight into details that will leave you speechless, and sometimes a little nauseous too. I read Schindler's Ark shortly before this trip and am still trying to make my brain understand some of the things that I learned. I don't want to go into too much detail, I think everyone should find their own way to absorb history but here some things that really stood out for me personally.

Main Gate: Work Brings Freedom
Nazi Germans started their 'purification' on fellow Germans, mostly mentally and physically impaired people. Auschwitz I, where most of the medical experiments were done, housed up to 20, 000 prisoners (about half of my home town's population). When Auschwitz I was liberated they uncovered huge amounts of goods that were taken from the prisoners and stored in warehouses that were often referred to by prisoners as "Canada" because they associated it with a place of plenty (brings tears to my eyes). Among the things that they found removed from prisoners was about 7 tonnes of human hair. They have about 2 tonnes displayed in a room, and this was the one room where I actually gasped and took a step back. I cannot even explain the sensation of seeing this. This amount came from about 30 000 people. Along the walls of the barracks are photos of the prisoners that were registered at the camp. Most have only a number rather than names. With this is their date of arrival and date of death. It was rare to last more than a few months, this was the average for men - women didn't last as long. The longest I saw was just over a year. The shortest was 2 days. The camp commandant actually lived on site with his family. His house can be seen from the building that housed the gas chambers and crematoria.

Auschwitz II - Birkenau was the death camp. When Auschwitz I was deemed not to be efficient enough for extermination, it was expanded here. Birkenau had a capacity of up to 200 000 people.  Most of the barracks here used for prisoners were prefabricated horse stables. These were meant to house 52 horses during war times for armies. Instead they were used to house on average 450 prisoners. Sometimes up to 700. The gas chambers and crematoria at this camp were run by 'special' groups of prisoners. These groups were exterminated every few months and replaced by new prisoners. Probably once they were deemed to know too much.
Auschwitz II - Birkenau
Prisoners were also used to keep watch and run the barracks, they were given special sleeping quarters at the front with more room, rather than sharing a bunk with up to 10 other prisoners. Shortly before the camp was liberated, the Nazis tried to burn and dismantle many buildings, including the crematoria and gas chambers. Apparently they thought that maybe no one would find out what they had been up to. Roll call for prisoners was performed twice a day. Prisoners had to stand until everyone was accounted for. Guards had huts to stand in in case of inclement weather. Prisoners who had tried to escape or shown uprising tendencies were brought to roll call and hanged in front of the others. The longest roll call lasted 20 hours.

Birkenau - Over 175 acres
There is so much more that happened to these innocent people, all of it equally horrifying. As I type, more and more gruesome details are coming to mind. As I said, I truly believe that everyone should educate themselves on this not-so distant history in the hopes that it will never be repeated.

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