Those who were given a reprieve at Birkineau were forced to work as slave labor either at one of the nearby factories, or as Sonderkommandos. These were those who were forced to dispose of the dead from the gas chambers and then work the ovens of the crematoria. A grisly job.
Yet, in the fall of 1944, a group revolted. With crudely made tools and smuggled in explosives and grenades, they overpowered several SS and blew up crematoria IV. All however, were apprehended and executed.
The brick barracks where they lived were similar to the wooden ones. But the conditions were still terrible. Brutally cold in the winter and extreme hot in the summer. People died from the elements as well as from other means
Located just 2 miles from Auschwitz, Birkenau is a completely different yet associated camp.
It was here that the Jews of Poland and elsewhere in occupied Europe were sent for extermination. Many of them women and children. And unlike the former which had been converted into a modern museum, here, its left as it was the day the camp was liberated towards the end of the war. A memorial and monument to man's cruelty to his fellow man.
Construction began here in the autumn of 1941 to relieve the congestion at the main camp. Then, there was the infamous conference at Wannsee in Germany in the Spring of 1942. There, the "Final Solution" was adapted and as a direct result, the first of 4 killing factories, Crematoria II was constructed after the onset of 1943. Though a gas chamber had been in use here since March of 1942. It was called "The Little Red Cottage". Today, nothing remains of it other than the assigned location.
In all, there were 4 killing factories is use here, Crematoria II and III and then, IV and V.
Nothing remains of these structures as they were all blown up in an attempt to hide the evidence. But, you still see many of the original wood and brick barracks. There, prisoners were forced to sleep in horrid conditions, on what looks to be nothing more than shelves.
But before people were assigned to a barracks, they first had to deal with the "Selection" upon arrival.
Upon arrival through the train building called, "Gateway to Hell", the people in the transport were separated into 2 groups, men and women with children. Then, an SS officer would determine who would live and who would die. Virtually all women with children, old people and the infirmed would be sent directly to the gas chambers. The victims were told they were going to be disinfected while an orchestra played. They were made to undress and then, forced into the shower room where they were gassed. In the end, the bodies would be transferred to the ovens.
A visit here is not for the squamish. Though the gas chambers and crematoria are now piles of rubble, to realize what happened here can leave many a visitor shaken. For this reason, a sign stating unsuitable for children under 14 is clearly visible.
This was the first of the 2 camps that up the main camps of Auschwitz/Birkenau. Originally a Polish prison camp, the Nazis adapted it and changed the name early in 1940. In the beginning, the camp is where they sent political prisoners. Then, starting the following year, Russian POWS were sent, and then of course Jews.
It was here, on September 3, 1941, that Zyklon B would be tested and used for the first time.
In the form of crystals, these would emit a poisonous gas when released into a moist, oxygen rich environment. Upwards of 60,000 people were killed this way. Many others died from torture, executions, disease and starvation. Yet the gas chamber and adjacent crematoria was used only up until 1942.
Today, the camp is a state museum. Everything you see is original. The brick barracks have been converted into a comprehensive museum. Different buildings focus on a different aspect of the camp, from the first usage to the later deportations, to everyday life to the smallest victims. The museum not only tells the story of Auschwitz, but the companion camp, Auschwitz II or Birkenau (see separate pages).
Some of the barracks buildings are devoted to victims of different countries including Poland and Hungary. One even focuses on the Roma and Sinti, the gypsies. Some of the most harrowing exhibits are the mountains of personal items. Shoes, baggage, eyeglasses, etc. Dreadful knowing all were once the property of a living, breathing person.
And the hair. All women had their hair shaved. And then, the childrens room. Toys, shoes, clothing.
Towards the end of your visit here, you see the original gas chamber and ovens of the first crematoria, reconstructed from materials left as they were. And, a recreation of the gallows used by the Poles to execute Rudolf Hoess, the commandant of the camps. He was of course tried and found guilty of crimes against humanity.
Admission to the camp is free of charge. However, if you choose to go with a guide, the cost will depend on number of people. Or, you can do what I did, buy a guide and go yourself.
There are 2 main sites: -
Auschwitz I - located in the town of Oœwiêcim.
Auschwitz II (Birkenau) - located in the village of Brzezinka.
Ideally, both should be seen together to get a true understanding of the place in general. I'd recommend a full day at least, depending on how much you want to see; a lot of time will be spent just processing everything you experience. Some people argue it can be seen in a few hours, but they are kinda missing the whole point in my opinion...
More info on my travel page: http://members.virtualtourist.com/m/15be8c/757cc/
If you are well aware of what happened under the Nazi regime in the countries invaded by Germany you might opt for an individual visit.
Just buy a small booklet with the maps of the blocks-barracks to visit in Auschwitz I and in Birkenau. The summary description of this 24 pages guide is sufficient and is completed by a large number of signs explaining the most important places, objects, and events. All the signs are in Polish and English.
On my two visits to Auschwitz and Birkenau I made the choice of an individual visit because as a child I "saw" WWII with the occupation of my country. After the war I had for neighbour a woman whose arm was tattooed with her concentration camp number.
For me it was essential to be alone with my thoughts during my visit. For many visitors having lost members of their family during WW II, Auschwitz-Birkenau is first of all a place of remembrance and not a museum.
To commune with the millions of victims becoming individuals when you see their photos or their abandoned suitcase with their name is in my opinion only possible after 15.00 h at Auschwitz I (museum) when the groups are gone. At Birkenau the camp is so large that groups can easily be avoided.
Best is to start your visit around 13 h first with Birkenau and after 15.00 h enter Auschwitz I. (Stays open till 17 h, 18 h and 19 h in June, July and August). Doing so you will avoid the bumping of groups of visitors in blocks 4, 5, 6, 7, and 11.
If you are less aware of WW II German concentration camps then a guided visit is indicated. During the period from April 1 to October 31, visits are exclusively on a guided, group basis from 10.00 h to 15.00 h (for Auschwitz I). It appears that because of a large number of visitors (1.4 million in 2011) guides should be reserved at least two weeks before a planned visit.
For details and prices see the official website http://en.auschwitz.org.pl/z/
From the 28 one store brick buildings five have been transformed in museums with a permanent exhibition with photographs, photocopies of documents, historical exhibits including prisoner garments, bunks and other furnishings from prisoner rooms, and items seized from Jewish deportees such as suitcases, shoes, spectacles, prosthesis, brushes, hair.
The themes of the permanent exhibition at KL Auschwitz I are the following:
Block 4 – Extermination
Block 5 – Physical evidence of crime
Block 6 – The life of the prisoners
Block 7 – Living and sanitary conditions
Block 11 – The death block
The Death Wall (reconstruction)
Crematorium I and the first gas chamber.
These are the blocks visited by the general guided tour. You can imagine that when there are many visitors (summer), groups are waiting after each other to move on (1.4 million visitors in 2011). They leave no time for reflection.
That's why I visited these blocks 4 - 11 well after 15 h on an individual visit when the groups are gone. I prefer to be alone because I can not control my emotion when I see all the shoes of children or that photo of a skeletal Belgian young woman weighing only 35 Kg.
After Auschwitz I the general tour goes to Birkenau (Auschwitz II) to see some residential barracks nearly as they were, the unloading ramp, the ruins of gas chambers and the ruins of crematoria II and III.
This "General Tour" takes 3 1/2 hours.
There are also one-day study tours (6 hours) and two-day study tours (8 hours).
It should be noted that Blocks 13 - 21 at Auschwitz I contain interesting national exhibitions. I will come back on them.
The Auschwitz (Oswiecim) Concentration Camp is definitely one of the most impressive, chilling and thought provoking sites you can imagine.
Auschwitz-1 was a forced-labor concentration camp, where sadistic "medical experiments" in human prisoners were also performed. It is very well preserved.
Auschwitz-2 (Birkenau) was the notorious death camp with a super-"efficient" Nazi extermination machine, which you can follow from the railway tracks bringing the victims to the camp through the "selection" process to the "showers" where the victims were gassed to death.
Aside from the permanent exhibitions there are in blocks 13 - 21 & 27 at KL Auschwitz I permanent displays known as the national exhibitions.
These are from countries occupied by the Germans whose citizens were deported and died in Auschwitz. These exhibitions show the history of invasion and occupation, the fate of the citizens and the story of the resistance movement.
We visited block 20 shared by France (ground floor) and Belgium on the upper floor. It was not without emotion that I saw photos of kids from my age embarked for the deadly trip to Birkenau.
We also visited block 21 with Holland where are shown photos from Anne Franck and her family before the invasion.
Most terrible was block 15 for Poland. From all occupied countries Poland is the one that suffered most from the Nazis who considered the Poles as slaves. Six millions Poles, 18% of the population were killed during WWII ("They lived under the nazis" by Laurence Rees).
What is unbelievable is the fact that the SS took so many photos of their own crimes. I can't forget that photo of a German soldier shooting in the head of a woman keeping a child in her arms.
The exhibition in block 27 on The Martyrdom, Struggle, and Destruction of the Jews, 1933-1945 was installed by Poland.
From the official website:
"Taking pictures on the grounds of the State Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau in Oœwiêcim for own purposes, without use of a flash and stands, is allowed for exceptions of hall with the hairs of Victims (block nr 4) and the basements of block nr 11."
That are the official rules but there are also decency rules.
I was shocked when I saw at the wall of executions between block 10 and 11 at Auschwitz I a woman (about 40) and her daughter asking another visitor to take a photo of them posing and smiling before the Death Wall where thousands prisoners were shot by the SS.
How can some tourists be so stupid to confuse Auschwitz with Disneyland!
All concentration camps in Poland where build and ruled by the Germans so that it came as a shock for Poland (and lead to a international petition* of protest with 230000 signatures) when in the U.S.A. some news media used the historically erroneous terms "Polish concentration camp" and "Polish death camp" !
The official and correct name is "German concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland,"
The first victims of Auschwitz Concentration Camp (Konzentrationslager) were the Poles starting in 1940. Poland had been invaded by the Germans in September 1939. One-sixth of the population of Poland was killed in the war.
In 1941 already, over 26 thousand people were registered in Auschwitz: about 15 thousand Poles, 10 thousand Soviet POWs, and more than 1 thousand Jews. The mass deportation and extermination of the Jews started in 1942.
Historians estimate that between 1 and 1.5 million people perished in Auschwitz during the less than 5 years of its existence. The majority, from 1 to 1.35 million people, were Jews. The second most numerous group, from 70 to 75 thousand, were Poles, and the third most numerous, about 20 thousand, the Gypsies. About 15 thousand Soviet prisoners of war and 10 to 15 thousand prisoners of other ethnic backgrounds also died there.
*For details about this "Petition on German Concentration Camps" see "Kosciuszko Foundation".
At Auschwitz I people died in their thousands, at Auschwitz II Birkenau people died in their millions. Most visitor travel to Auschwitz I unaware that the real horror of the Nazis' final solution took place at Auschwitz II Birkenau, which is located 3km away. This was the largest of the concentration camps covering 425 acres and containing 300 buildings. At it peak the camp housed 100,000 prisoners. Over 1 million people arrived at the camp and were immediately sent to their death in the gas chambers on the pretext that the were to take a shower, the vast majority being Jews.
After the recent changes to the way you are allowed to visit Auschwitz I, unrestricted visiting is still allowed at Auschwitz Birkenau. I could be wrong but there seem to be twice as many parked vehicles as when I last visited. This may have been caused by the changes to individual visits at Auschwitz I, with visitors going to Birkenau first and then going to Auschwitz I later. There were so many vehicles, mainly taxis, indiscriminately parked that the view along the disused railway tracks to the entrance of Birkenau was blocked.
The camp was originally an army barracks consisting of 20 buildings, 14 were a single storey and 6 had a second floor. Between 1941-42, 8 more buildings were constructed and a second storey was added to the single storey buildings. The inmates were used to construct the buildings. The camp normally held between 13,000 & 16,000 inmates though at one stage during 1942 it peaked at 20,000. A change to the way you can visit Auschwitz I will occur between 01 April 2011 and 31 October 2011. Between the hours of 1000 and 1500 hours you will only be allowed in Auschwitz I if you pay to go on an organised tour either as a member of a group or an individual. You will still be able to visit between 0800 and 1000 hours or after 1500 hours till closing time on your own and without paying a fee. This has come about because of the continuing rise in the number of visitors each year and is designed to raise funds.
Auschwitz Museum as it is called, is a very moving place to visit. You go here and think of the horrible tragedies these people endured......it makes you think of the people......and their suffering. The museum is very well organized and really, no tour is needed. I took a Museum tour but realized i didnt need it about 1/3 way through because the signs are all self explanatory on all the buildings and exhibits.
pictured is the auschwitz I admistration building. today it houses the state museum visitor center. here you can arrange a tour of the camp or purchase a guide book for a self guided tour. at the visitor center they also run a movie about the camp. admission to auschwitz-birkenau is free.
pictured is one of twenty eight brick buildings that housed the imates at auschwitz I. twenty of these buildings were originally part of a polish army base. in 1942 over 20,000 inmates were housed in auschwitz I.