Growing up in the United States, we are taught the history of World War II, but we rarely get a chance to experience first hand the locations of that time. One can travel to Pearl Harbor, but beyond that, it requires heading off to Europe or Asia. As a history buff and having a keen interest in World War II, I always vowed to visit sites whenever I could. A few years ago, I was in Poland on a business trip and spent a cold, snowy day in February at Auschwitz. Every time I post just a single picture from this collection, it generates a lot of discussion so I’ve decided to go into details of each part of my trip: visiting Auschwitz I, the Exhibits, and Birkenau. This entry is the first in that series.
I arrived early in the day and was able to walk around the grounds by myself snapping photos with hardly anyone in the pictures. I had a couple hours to wait for the first English language group tour to begin. Stepping outside the main welcome center, I found myself almost overwhelmed at the realization that I was actually seeing this place with my own eyes and not through a book or television or movie screen.
This is view as you prepare to approach the main gate at Auschwitz I.
The “Work Sets You Free” sign hanging over the gate is the first thing that greets you to the camp. Looking at this gate and trying to imagine what must have been going through people’s minds as they approached this for the first is really overwhelming. I can’t imagine the fear they must have felt.
As I passed that gate and looked at the double layers of electrified barb wire, I could honestly feel the imprisonment setting in. I could not imagine being a prisoner led to this place and looking at this gate, fences and guard towers for the first time. Just looking at it, I just kept thinking to myself “there’s no escape from here”. Looking down the gap between the fences, I just thought to myself “they covered everything” to make sure people were properly held in.
This portion of Auschwitz was a former Polish Army base that the Nazis cleared out and took over. At the time, the barracks were only one story, but with the slave labor of the camp, they were made into the neatly ordered rows of two story buildings that now exist. As I walked throughout the grounds, I couldn’t help but notice that no matter where I walked, stopped or stood, I was always under the watchful eye of a guard tower. At least twice a day, roll call was held in the open areas you see in the photos below. All prisoners, no matter what were to be present at this event. It could stretch on to hours in any kind of weather. Imagine standing here, in your thin prisoner uniform, in the winter cold for an unknown amount of time while Nazi guards had you surrounded and penned in. Now imagine doing this day in and day out.
To give you an idea of what roll call would have looked like. I’ve included a picture I took while visiting the Dachau Camp in Germany. The painting was done by a former prisoner at Dachau that endured the roll calls there.
One item that stuck with me throughout the day was the depth of the evil perpetuated here. It was complete, even down to little details (which I’ll highlight in further posts). One example was this place right inside the main gate where they forced prisoners who were musicians to play music as groups of prisoners were marched into or out of the camp for work. I remember standing there shaking my head at this realization. It’s just another form of mental torture.
In the far back corner of the camp, there is a barracks building (11) that was the “prison within the prison”. Windows were bricked over and the basement held cells for solitary confinement, or standing confinement. Think of it as being locked in a dark space where you couldn’t even move to sit. You were locked in to stand until whenever. It didn’t matter. The courtyard between this barracks and the next one was the execution wall. Standing at the gate of this space, I could feel the heavy energy that emanated from it. I believe I was the first person to step into that space that day, and when I did, I felt as if a huge weight was on my shoulders. It was as if I could feel and sense the horrible energy of what happened here.
I did not get right up to that wall, but I approached it and turned around to look out of that courtyard. I wondered how many people held this view as the last thing they saw in their lives. This courtyard, that gate and the guards about shoot them….
I will close this first post with some additional shots from my wandering around the camp. Being there in winter put this place in a new perspective for me. I was bundled up. Wearing multiple layers, a hat, good shoes. The people that were held here, killed here and who simply died here from the conditions were barely clothed. I cannot imagine trying to survive a winter in this place.