Visiting Auschwitz - Part III - Birkenau
When people think of Auschwitz, they think of the building you see below. This is the infamous gate into what is known as Auschwitz II or Birkenau.
This part of the camp is located 3 kilometers outside of town and away from the camp that I have talked about in my previous posts. Once we completed our guided tour at the Auschwitz I location, we took a short bus ride out to Birkenau. The bus drops off just outside the gate building, and the guided tour continues from there. It was a cold, snowy, windy day that day so I couldn't really see much out of the foggy bus windows as we arrived here. When I got off the bus, I stood there, absolutely stunned, looking at the gate and the seemingly endless fences. I've read a lot about Auschwitz and viewed many videos, but nothing prepared me for the sheer scale of what I was seeing at that moment. This place is absolutely huge. You can't imagine the size of it as it just goes on forever. I remember looking left and right down the fence lines thinking, "I can't even see the last guard tower or the end of the fence." The following pictures were snapped while I was standing outside the gate. The images below are me looking right, then left and then down the center line fence of the camp. As you can tell, the ends of these fences cannot be seen. The scale of this place is incredible.
Our tour then made it inside the gate, at the head of the infamous rail line. We are now standing on the ground as seen in the "selection" photos from my previous post. I kept thinking of those exhibits while I was walking along these tracks. The trains and what must have been a chaotic scene every time one rolled in, unloaded, conducted the selection, and then what had to be the silence that existed afterwards. It's hard to comprehend. As you can see in the photo below, you can't see the end of the rail at the back of the camp. It's that far away.
The tour continued to some of the few barracks buildings that are standing. You can see them in the third photo below. Notice how you can’t hardly see the last one as it’s pretty far away. Also, think about how all of us in the tour group are dressed. It was very cold that day and all of us are in heavy jackets, boots, gloves. The people that were held here didn’t have any of that. Their uniforms were in no way adequate for these types of conditions.
The barracks buildings were modeled after horse barns. Some of these buildings housed prisoners in racks of bunks where they slept 4 or more per bunk. Some of the buildings were latrines. Our tour guide told us that those who were assigned to latrine house duty were considered lucky as they were protected from the elements outside. Looking at the long row of seats in the latrine house pictures below, how “lucky” would you feel if assigned here. Can you imagine what this place must have been like?? In the last two pictures below, you’ll see a long concrete bench or chute that runs down the middle of the building. This was for heat. There was a fireplace and chimney at each end of the barracks, with this long chute running between them. There were nine rows of these buildings at this camp to house the nearly 90000 people that were held here.
After leaving the barracks building, we started to walk the grounds. The thing that hit me hard was the endless view of chimneys. Chimneys dotted the landscape as far as you can see, representing building after building after building. It’s mind boggling. I just kept thinking “they go on forever”. You can see for yourself in the photos below. One row of barracks buildings, but then just endless chimneys.
One thing I tried to do was give a perspective of the size of this place as we moved through the tour. In the photos below, we are about a third of the way into the camp. Look at how far away that gate building is now, and as I pan left to right, the expanse of the camp goes on and on. The back of the camp is at that the tree line you see in the distance of the third and fourth pictures below.
Roughly halfway down the rail line, one rail car sits to give you an idea of the conditions people arrived here in. Can you imagine riding in this car, crammed full of people for a destination that you have no idea of? I can’t imagine the absolute fear these people must have felt. Then, hurried off the train, separated from loved ones, and for many, death. I have said many times that the evil at this place was absolute and total. The rail car is just another example.
The tour continued on to the back of the camp where the two gas chamber / crematorium buildings were located. In the first picture below, there would have been two of those buildings, one on each side of the rail line. As the war was ending, and Allied armies closing in, the Germans blew up the buildings in an attempt to hide what had been done here. All that is left today are the ruins, and in the winter they are hard to see. The long, brick lined trench in the ground was a gas chamber. It was underground and the bodies then moved to the crematorium ovens. You can see the model of this in my second post on the exhibits.
There are memorials from all over the world, to the people that were murdered here. They are just past the remnants of the gas chambers and crematoriums.
After viewing the memorials, I turned to start heading back to the front of the camp. Despite my being bundled up, I was very cold and ready to get back to the warmth of the bus. As I stood between the areas of the two gas chambers, I found it fitting that I was standing “at the end of the line” in a very literal sense. The rail line stops here. Right between where those buildings once stood. I couldn’t help but notice just how far away that gate building looked from here. I always tell people that they can’t fathom the size of this place. Looking back at the gate building from here, made the scale very clear