Auschwitz is notorious as a concentration camp for Jews during World War II but it actually began as a holding camp for Poles and political (i.e. anti-Nazi thinking) prisoners.
It was established on a Polish military barracks from 1914 so was almost purpose built in that it contained 90 brick-built three storey barracks in a secluded countryside. From 1942 onwards, as the Nazis stepped up their plan to exterminate the European Jewish population, Auschwitz served as an ‘extermination camp’.
Prisoners were forced to build Auschwitz II, Auschwitz-Birkenau, a massive hastily-constructed wooden camp of more than 140 barracks and 4 purpose-built gas chambers and crematorium (just three kilometres away from the original camp).
More than one and a half million people – Jews, Soviet soldiers, Poles, gypsy, political prisoners and ‘undesirables’ (according to the Nazis being disabled, gay or orphaned) were either murdered in the gas chambers or worked, starved, beaten, tortured and in the case of gypsy women and children, experimented upon to death.
Both camps were far more intact than we had imagined – thinking in some way they would have been destroyed by the fleeing Nazis or blown up by the liberating Russian Red Army.
Instead you can walk in the footsteps of the prisoners as they entered the camp though the original iron gates under the sign with the now infamous lie ‘Arbeit macht frei’ (work makes you free) past the roll call yard, where a prisoner band was made to play German marching tunes, and through all the barracks to the gas chambers.
The camp is surrounded by two layers of electrified barbed wire which is still intact with watch towers, search lights and warning signs.
The barracks were home to thousands of people herded into the huts and onto rough wooden bunks without blankets or heating, and woken every morning at 4am for 12 hours of hard labour – building Birkenau, quarrying stone or working in the nearby chemical factory, Auschwitz III.
Prisoners were given 10 seconds every morning and evening to use communal toilets and wash in dirty water. Women were allowed to keep a hanky, but otherwise everyone was stripped of their clothes and given louse infested striped pyjamas to wear, and had their heads roughly shaved with blunt razors.
The average life expectancy for a prisoner – man, woman or child – was three months.
We spent a whole day in both camps, and returned to Auschwitz proper in the early evening for our own quiet reflection to see a photographic exhibition containing the pictures taken of new arrivals at the camp by the Nazis.
The photographs were in different barracks identified by countries – including Poland, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Germany and France.
I looked in vain for Irene Nemirovsky, a favourite author and French Catholic, sent to Auschwitz because of her Russian Jewish heritage and marriage to the Jewish Banker Michel Epstein.
An asthma sufferer, she died in Auschwitz after one month and her husband, who wrote pleading letters to the local Nazi commander to swap his life for hers, was eventually captured and sent on the wagon to Birkenau where he was immediately gassed to death in the chambers. We walked the ‘ramp’ to the chambers and it took just five minutes.
Thousands of people were herded off the wooden wagons to their death, and the numbers became so large that the administrators simply didn’t bother to record their identities. We will never know how many people were murdered there.
It wasn’t an easy day, but why should it be? A quote written on the walls of the camp struck us both: ‘The man who does not remember history is condemned to live through it again’.