Note: The following travelogue contains facts and details about my visit to the State Museum in Oświęcim -- the concentration camps in Auschwitz-Birkenau -- that some may find disturbing. Reader discretion is advised.
There have been many instances of crimes against humanity throughout history, from the ancients to current situations in the former Yugoslavia and Africa. But there are few atrocities that burn in recent memory like the concentration and extermination camps of Auschwitz during World War II, when millions of Jews, gypsies, political prisoners, and others were murdered in systematic, genocidal fashion. The aftermath of these events continue to shape world opinion in present-day events.
To preserve these memories and hopefully prevent its recurrence, Poland has turned the camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau into State Museums. These museums handle thousands of visitors daily, but this is no watered down tour... you are told the facts and shown the pictures and evidence, very graphically, by knowledgable guides. I highly recommend a visit for those who can make it.
I will only provide some minor highlights of the tour here, and will post a separate section with some of the more telling photographs.
There were three large camps -- Auschwitz, Birkenau, and Morowitz -- and forty other smaller camps dotted around the city of Oświęcim. Auschwitz was primarily a prison and labor camp (whose gate, shown above, says ironically "Arbeit Macht Frei", which means "Work Brings Freedom). Morowitz was likewise. Birkenau, described later, was an extermination camp, whose sole purpose was the mass murder of refugees.
The camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau (what's left after the Nazis tried and failed to destroy it when the Russians captured the city in 1945) comprise the museum. Visitors are brought through a sequence of displays that show the appalling conditions within the prison and the various methods of torture and abuse available to the SS guards. One building is dedicated to the 'Evidence of War Crimes' which contain massive displays of materials confiscated from the holocaust victims -- including personal effects such as clothing, and human hair cut from females to be used in Nazi textiles.
In the prison building (Building 11, the "Death Block"), visitors are able to see the cell in which Father Maximilian Kolbe was held before his execution. Kolbe became famous, and later canonized by the Roman Catholic Church, for sacrificing himself to save another prisoner condemned to death.
Visitors will also be brought around to the Crematorium, part of which is shown below, where holocaust victims at Auschwitz were cremated.
The tour also includes exhibits depicting the mass migration of Jews from lands conquered by the Nazis to Auschwitz-Birkenau for extermination, photo exhibits of several hundred of the prisoners held in Auschwitz with their recorded personal histories, and the gallows where the SS commander, Rudolf Höss, was hanged for his crimes after World War II.
The end of the tour involves a three-kilometer trip to the camp at Birkenau. Only some of the buildings survived the Nazis' attempts to destroy it, but a casual visit to a couple of the buildings is plenty sufficient to gain a sense of the inhumane conditions. We were shown a building that was converted from a stable for 50 houses to a barracks for one thousand prisoners (mainly Jews), sleeping on bare wood or a thin layer of straw.
Visitors are also shown the train tracks where trainloads of expatriated Jews were deposited, where those not fit enough for work were immediately (and unknowingly) sent to the gas chambers.
It is difficult to leave Auschwitz without feelings of horror or distress, but that is precisely the point. This is shock treatment -- a painful and direct reminder that the terrible things that whole societies of people can do under the right conditions. My visit there was an experience that I will not soon forget, and I strongly recommend it for those with the means to visit southern Poland.
Trip taken 31 August 2001 -- Page last updated 01 September 2006 -- (C) 2001 Tom Galvin