June 13, 2006
While just a bit over one week ago I went to a place that memorialized the Holocaust, today I went to a place that was the
Holocaust. Well, at least a great deal of the Holocaust.
Where the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem was really emotional for me, Auschwitz-Birkenau was extremely sobering. This
was more about trying to grasp, even just a little bit, what took place in the buildings I was standing in and the land I was
standing on. Of course, it’s impossible to understand what people here had to endure. Just to imagine that all of the inhumane
pictures and video footage that I have seen in the past depicting the Holocaust happening right there. Over 1.5 million people
were killed there. Amongst those, about one million Jews. The exact number is not known since in 1943 they stopped keeping
track of the Jews that were transported in. Instead of taking their pictures and checking them in, almost all of them were
sent instantly to the gas chambers.
After Polish soldiers were defeated in 1939, the Germans invaded the town of Oswiecim. The Germans renamed this town a
name that we would come to know well - Auschwitz. This town was chosen for several reasons: it was isolated, they could
easily expand it if they needed to and because of the railway that went through the town. It wasn’t long before they would
need to expand beyond this first concentration camp. By 1944, there were three main parts to Auschwitz: Auschwitz I,
Auschwitz II- Birkenau and Auschwitz III – Monowitz (in addition to at least forty other smaller parts). We visited two of
these – Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II – Birkenau. Each one served its own horrible purpose…
The original purpose of Auschwitz I was to serve as a concentration camp for Polish political prisoners. On June 14, 1940, 728
Poles would be dispatched here. Their deaths would be slow and would be a result of hunger, exhausting work, criminal
experiments or a quick death by either individual or mass execution. It wouldn’t be long before Soviet POWs, Gypsies and
people of other nationalities would be sent here as well. Upon entering this camp, there is a sign that says ‘Arbeit macht frei’
– this translates to ‘Work brings freedom’.
Auschwitz I now serves as a museum. Inside the blocks that once use to house the prisoners, there are now items that were
collected from the premises. Amongst the items in the museum are:
- Suitcases from the Jews. They were deceived into thinking that they were relocating to somewhere else in Eastern
Europe and that they could bring a suitcase with them. Of course they brought their nicest things. All of these items
were looted from them by the Nazis. Viewing these suitcases is chilling because each one has a name on it. These all
represent victims by names.
- Victims’ hair. There was almost 2000 kg. that was going to be used in the textile industry by the Nazis. This hair was
collected after the victims were killed in the gas chambers.
- Combs, brushes, toothbrushes, make-up brushes, etc. They literally looted just about everything that the Jews brought
- Considering the majority were sent immediately to the gas chambers and then the crematoria (only to have the ashes
be used as fertilizer later), there were a handful of ashes collected from the camp and they have been put into an urn to
commemorate the dead.
- The Nazis kept at least one million articles of clothing of the victims. In addition, shoes were also collected. There are
43,000 pairs in the museum at Auschwitz I.
- Photographs that some of the individuals brought with them when they had packed their suitcases.
I found myself getting teary eyed when viewing the big photograph of the Hungarian Jews being transported. I think it would
be difficult to not get teary eyed considering I have both Hungarian and Jewish heritage.
Some prisoners were there so that they could perform cruel experiments. Amongst these were sterilizing Jewish women,
genetic research on twins and handicapped people, testing out chemical preparations (by rubbing toxic substances into the
skin of prisoners) and skin transplants. These experiments led to severe health damage, physical disabilities and death.
We visited several different ‘blocks’ in Auschwitz I. One that stood out the most was Block 11 – ‘The Death Block’. A number
of incomprehensible things took place here: the ‘experimentation’ of Cyclone B on 600 Soviet POWs and 250 sick people
(obviously killing all of these people), the executions of thousands of people (mostly Poles) at the ‘Wall of Death’ right outside
of the building (the windows to Block 10 were boarded up to prevent observation by others), the hanging of prisoners, death
by starvation, the suffocation of prisoners and the standing cells (where four people would have to stand in a space that was
about 1 sq. yard sometimes for up to a week).
We stood in the gas chamber in Auschwitz I and were face-to-face with the crematorium. We saw the openings where the
Cyclone B would escape. The crematoria could burn approximately 350 bodies a day. This was not nearly enough for their
plans of exterminating the Jewish population.
Auschwitz II – Birkenau
In Brzezinka (3 km away from Auschwitz I) a second camp was constructed. This would be known as ‘Auschwitz II –
Birkenau’. This was built to handle the mass extermination that was going to take place.
When the Jews would arrive, they would go to the selection platform. This is where the SS would deem if they were capable
of work. If they weren’t, they were sent immediately to the gas chamber. Of course they didn’t know this. They were told to
take off there clothes as they were assured that they were going to be given a bath. When two thousand of them would go
into the chamber with shower heads expecting a shower, it would be Cyclone B coming out of special openings instead of
water coming out of shower heads. Within approximately 20 minutes, they were dead. Before going to the crematoria, gold
fillings from teeth were removed as was hair, jewelry and watches.
As for the Jewish transports that they considered able-bodied enough to work, they would be tattooed upon arrival.
Auschwitz was the only Nazi camp where inmates were labeled in such a way.
Prisoners were also given different colored triangles on their uniforms. They were different depending on whether you were a
Jewish prisoner, political prisoner, a Gypsy, homosexual, antisocial, Jehovas’ Witness, etc. Each prisoner was given one
uniform. This was only washed once a month and their underwear was only washed once every few weeks (sometimes up to
a month). They were only allowed to use the bathroom for one minute in the morning and one minute in the evening. They
would have bouts of diarrhea because of the food and living conditions and would only have the option to go in their uniforms.
The same uniforms that were only washed monthly. Outbreaks of diseases such as typhus, typhoid fever and scabies would
When it was realized that the war was close to being over, the SS tried to get rid of any evidence of their crimes. There are
only remnants of the crematoria and the gas chambers from the SS trying to destroy them. They tried to burn everything
but there was way too much to accomplish this.
Upon liberation, only five hundred of the hundreds of thousands of children would still be around. These children were
orphans who had lost all sense of their identity. All they knew was the number that would forever be tattooed on their arm.
As I said in the beginning, this was a very sobering experience.
Just yesterday I visited a synagogue in the Jewish Quarter in Krakow that showed photographs of Jewish people on the
streets of Krakow. These people were friends smiling and walking arm-in-arm with one another dressed to the nines. These
photographs were all taken in 1939. How on earth could anybody have thought what would be just around the corner? It still
In Auschwitz II – Birkenau there is now green grass that exists. It’s necessary to look beyond this grass and realize that this
was the ground where the lifeless bodies were being bulldozed - visuals I saw just one week prior at the Holocaust Memorial.
This is where thousands of people were being led to their deaths daily upon arrival. This was recent enough for these people
to be our grandparents or, in my case, even our parents (as my parents were born in 1927 and 1937).
The entrance to Auschwitz.
The train tracks going through Birkenau.