Our European Odyssey

This blog covered our month-long trip to Eastern Europe -- specifically the countries of Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic, Austria and Slovakia.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Auschwitz and Birkenau

This morning we took a minibus from Krakow to Auschwitz and Birkenau. Our tour started at Auschwitz, which was a concentration camp until 1943, when it was changed to an extermination camp. The difference is that in a concentration camp, the causes of prisoners' deaths were starvation, overwork and illness, whereas in an extermination camp, deaths came quickly via poisonous gas. About 1.5 million people died at Auschwitz and Birkenau, mostly Jews but also intellectuals, Russian POWs, gypsies, homosexuals and the infirm.

Above the entrance to Auschwitz is the infamous "Arbeit Macht Frei" sign, German for "Work Shall Set You Free." This only gave false hope to the many who perished there. We also saw barracks where prisoners were housed, cells used for punishment (including cells so small that prisoners suffocated) and an execution wall.

One of the barracks housed the most gut-wrenching exhibits. There were rooms full of the prisoners' personal belongings recovered when the camp was liberated in 1945. These items were confiscated from the prisoners when they first arrived at the camp. There were rooms stuffed full of eyeglasses, shoes, pots and pans, crutches and prosthetic limbs. Perhaps the most difficult to view were the children's clothing and toys. There was also a large room (about 10 feet by 25 feet) full of hair that had been shaved from corpses in the gas chambers. The Nazis sold these items, including the hair, to industry and German citizens. The Nazis even went so far as to sell the human ashes from the incinerators as fertilizer.

The second part of our tour took place at Birkenau, which served primarily as an extermination camp. It was built hurriedly because of overcrowding at Auschwitz. Even though Birkenau was 425 acres, conditions were so crowded that 10 people would share a 5-by-10-foot bed. We got an upsetting glimpse into the cramped and filthy conditions the victims were forced to live in.

Birkenau has five gas chambers that were used to kill prisoners with the gas Zyklon B. The chambers were about 2,000 square feet, and as many as 2,000 prisoners would be packed in and gassed at one time. The chambers are in ruins now because the Nazis destroyed them shortly before the camp was liberated in order to remove evidence of the genocide that was taking place.

It wasn't what you would call a fun experience, but we're glad we went. It was a sobering reminder of the evil man is possible of.


At 12:35 AM, May 27, 2006, Anonymous josh said...

Really such a sobering yet essential experience.

And it has to linger that this idea wan't just wiped out after WWII; Iraq 18 years ago, Bosnia 13 or so years ago, Rwanda 12 years ago, Sudan right now (1,500,000+), and current threats from Iran toward Israel as examples. Though all together, not even half as many as the Nazis.

This would definitely be one stop that I would make. It just seems like something everyone should keep in their minds. (Not to play the Don Deichman or anything). Did they end the tour with some piece of central advice?

Keep havin fun ;)


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