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What follows is the first of a three-part series, a result of my recent visit to Poland. In Part One, I grapple with visions of Auschwitz. Part Two will be mostly a photographic journey through the grounds of Birkenau. Part Three will be my attempt to make sense of what I’ve seen and thought about.

“Arbeit Macht Frei” Visitors gather solemnly under the sign that has greeted new arrivals to Auschwitz since it opened in 1940.

Surrounded by the ghosts of millions of murdered innocents, several truths bubble uncomfortably to the surface. Human beings are not necessarily humane. Humans can be as vicious and violent as the most vilified predators of the animal kingdom. But even among animals, mass murder within a species is rare, if it exists at all. Not so within the human species. Genocide has been documented through the ages and around the globe. Scholars have examined possible genocide as early as the Neanderthal period, and surely as far back as the Peloponnesian War in 500 BCE. One of the worst genocides in history occurred right here in America when 80-90% of the indigenous population perished from a multitude of physical, emotional, and disease related assaults after the European invasion.

But in terms of speed and calculated efficiency of dispatch, Adolph Hitler’s Holocaust wins the prize. I was born into the blissful calm after Hitler’s storm, however I was raised in complete awareness of the destruction. My mother’s cousins and aunts and uncles had survived Hitler’s reign, thanks to their German bloodlines. But they were marred by the havoc: homes, health, limbs and possessions lost in the mayhem. I’ve read voraciously about the subject. I’ve withstood silent screams at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC. And now I have stood on the grounds of destruction.

Memorial to the lives lost on this consecrated ground.

The largest concentration-extermination camp in the 3rd Reich, Auschwitz-Birkenau was established to implement the final solution for eradicating sub-human, non-Aryans from the Reich. It was a huge complex with two main camps located a few miles from each other.

Auschwitz was the largest of the over 1,200 Nazi German concentration and death camps scattered about Europe between 1933 and 1945. In five years of existence, 1,300,000 humans were deported to this camp.

  • 1,100,000 Jews
  • 140,000 – 150,000 Poles
  • 23,000 Roma
  • 15,000 Soviet POWs
  • 25,000 Miscellaneous ethnic minorities and “deviates”

Ninety percent of the 1,100,000 individuals who died in Auschwitz were Jews and the majority of those were methodically gassed. One highly inclusive figure estimates that 21 million people lost their lives during the Holocaust. (This figure does not include the lives of soldiers who died on the battlefields or later from battle injuries.)

Prisoners were brought to the camps in cattle cars.

The Nazis made a game of death. Before their date with the gas chamber, prisoners provided entertainment as musicians, artists, actors, and sex slaves. Prisoners were used like lab rats for medical experiments. They provided labor, not just in the grinding maintenance and expansion of the camps themselves, but also making weapons, ammunition, field kits for the war, and marching off-site to work on farms, coal mines, and stone quarries. Workers were given one set of cotton clothes upon entry and provided with 1,300-1,700 calories per day. Non-workers existed briefly on 400 calories a day. Most of the laborers died on the job. When they became too weak to work, they were sent to holding pens for the gas chamber. Disobedience resulted in hangings, torture, death by starvation, and mass shootings.

Room where Gestapo held “court” to sentence prisoners to death by torture or firing squad.

Death Wall where prisoners were shot for violating rules.

Torture poles where prisoners were hung from their wrists

Several hundred women at a time were held here for medical experimentation. Sterilizations and pregnancy tests were done without anesthesia or antiseptics.

Bunks which held at least 2 people per bed.

Long before spreadsheets and databases, the Nazis kept impeccable records. These are lists of prisoners and what country they were deported from.

List of clothing confiscated from incoming prisoners.

The mechanics of the camps are widely known. There are few surprises left. How they came to exist should yield important clues on how to prevent such a travesty in the future. The cacophony of troubled souls whose spirits will never rest reminded me repeatedly that, indeed, something like this can happen again.

Without the barbed wire fences, Auschwitz looks like a bucolic campus. The buildings were originally military quarters.

The main and first gas chamber servicing Auschwitz.

Canisters of pesticide Zyclon B used in gas chambers.

List of women gassed on August 21, 1943.

Perk of being the Commandant: work is merely a block away. Downside might be ash pollution night and day.

Part Two of this series will explore sister camp, Birkenau.