Lessons from Auschwitz

We went to Auschwitz yesterday. The feeling of going there, particularly before we actually arrived, was, for lack of a better word, surreal, in that as the kilometers click away, and you get closer and closer to the place, the pictures and movies you have seen add weight to the place, and you feel that weight upon you, kilometer upon kilometer, the closer you get.

The entrance to Auschwitz I is to the right of the guard tower on the left side of the photo

Unfortunately, the countryside does not feel the weight of the place. Seven kilometers out, from the direction we were heading, we ran across a beautiful restaurant with an old pre WWII airplane outside as a decoration.  The plane looked like it could easily still fly, and I would have been interested in stopping, had we not been so close to Auschwitz.

Two kilometers out, and we were in the Polish city of Oswicim, which the Germans renamed ‘Auschwitz’ upon occupation (the Poles still call it Oswicim). The camp was then named after the city.  We passed a large shopping mall and I was confronted with the fact that people live here, in beautiful houses and apartments, not oblivious to the fact that at least 1.3 million people died nearby, but not feeling the weight of those deaths either.  To those who live and work in and around Oswicim, the place is simply home.

We turned the corner onto the street Auschwitz is on. Auschwitz II – Birkenau needed another turn to the right, while the main museum at Auschwitz I, was straight ahead.

I should probably stop here and give a little history. Auschwitz was not just one camp, but a large complex of camps including three main camps, and 45 satellites.  The original Auschwitz was a work camp, built in 1940 to house Polish political prisoners (I saw the sight where the first 750 political prisoners were shipped out, from nearby Tarnow, just the previous day).  But Auschwitz was perfectly located in the center of the German Eastern holdings, making it an ideal location for the ‘final solution’ once the ‘final solution’ was put in place.  This required building new camps, and particularly Auschwitz II – Birkenau.

The original Auschwitz was built at an old Polish military base, and the buildings were designed to house soldiers.

The infamous ‘Work will set you Free’ sign hangs at the original Auschwitz. I don’t believe the Germans had any intent on letting any of the people who went through that gate survive, but certainly they were told that if they worked hard, and accepted the Nazi occupation, they could one day return home.

A closer view of the entrance to Auschwitz I

Auschwitz II – Birkenau is a separate camp, but it is only a three kilometer walk from Auschwitz I, designed to hold 90,000 people at a time (it held as many as 250,000), absolutely dwarfing the original Auschwitz. It is this camp people generally think of when they think of the holocaust, and rightfully so – more people died at Auschwitz II – Birkenau than at any other Nazi site.

We drove past the short road leading to Auschwitz II – Birkenau, and headed toward the main museum, at the original camp. Across the street from the original camp, there were restaurants and hotels, which makes sense, considering the millions of people who visit Auschwitz every year.  But it does not gel with the feeling one has when driving to Auschwitz.  Right across the street are two hotels, a pizza parlor, a burger bar, and an ‘art deco’ restaurant.  It makes no sense.  It’s like being outside Disney’s Magic Kingdom.  And yet, as out of place as it feels, there it is, and it is quite practical when considering the millions of people who visit every year.  Auschwitz is like a Disney park in terms of the number of visitors – it just is not like a Disney park in terms of content.  It’s like a theme park whose theme is death.

It feels like a theme park when buying tickets too. We waited in line for over two hours.

Ironically, once we got to the ticket booth and got tickets, our tour started fifteen minutes later. It’s almost like they wanted us to stand in line for two hours before buying a ticket – as if they did not want us to buy a ticket and relax for two hours before going in.  It is almost as if they wanted us to be tired, and though they can never make someone as tired as the 1.3 million people who arrived at Auschwitz by train (some of whom were crammed like cattle into box cars for up to ten days), they are damn well going to try.  You enter the museum wishing badly to sit down.

You do not sit down.

Our tour group, about to enter the camp

I read this to my wife after getting to ‘you do not sit down,’ and she had two comments. The first was that you do not go to the bathroom either.  There are no bathrooms outside of the entrance.  I had to use the restroom about an hour in to our wait, and I ended up going to the burger restaurant across the street.  Problem solved.

My wife’s second comment was that she does not blame the city around Auschwitz for having a mall, restaurants, and everything else a city would normally have. And of course my wife is right – right on two counts.

First she is right because cities do hold all of those things, and with millions upon millions of people visiting Auschwitz every year, businesses will crop up to support those visitors. Businesses will also crop up to support the people who live around Auschwitz.  It may feel weird to the visitor, but it feels normal to the people who live around it.

Second, she is right because what happened at Auschwitz was not the fault of the Polish people. The first people who were sent (and died) there were not Jewish, but were Polish political prisoners – basically anyone from Poland who had any political clout.  Some people act today like the Germans asked to come in, and needed Poland’s permission to build Auschwitz, but the Germans took over Poland very much against Poland’s will.  Poland fought invasion harder than did France, and Germany’s plans for Poland after the war was to exterminate the Polish people by forcing them to farm the land, while taking everything they produced, gradually replacing the Polish people (who would starve) with Germans.  The Nazis liked the people in Poland who were ethnic Germans, but Germany wanted to exterminate Poland of all people who were not German, such that Germans could take over the land.

Understanding German plans for Poland requires understanding two German words. The first is ‘volk,’ which means ‘the German people,’ and by ‘German people,’ it does not mean people living or born in Germany, but all ethnic Germans everywhere in the world.  The other word is ‘fuhrer,’ which is generally translated into ‘leader,’ but which really means ‘living embodiment of the German volk’.  Germany looked at Poland as libenstraum (‘living space’) for the volk, and the Fuhrer, as the living embodiment of that volk, felt not only justified, but compelled to kill off all blood that was not German.  Poland is on what is primarily an open plain between the Germanic and the Slavic peoples, and are ethnically a mixture of Germanic and Slavic peoples.  Hitler wanted all but pure Germanic Poles dead.

The famous gateway into Auschwitz I – ‘Work Will Set You Free’

Parts of Poland were ethnically German, and those parts of Poland supported Germany – giving two full divisions to the SS before the end of the war., but those ethnic Germans were acting for Germany rather than for Poland, and were concentrated in small parts of Poland that had, for 150 years prior to WWI, been part of Germany.  The vast majority of the Polish people were from parts of Poland that had for 150 years been a part of Russia, and were considered sub-human by the Germans.  These people were in no way complicit in German atrocities.

Israel seems to think Poland should apologize, as Germany has, for the holocaust, but Poland was a victim. Conservative estimates say that between 130,000 and 140,000 non-Jewish Poles were sent to Auschwitz (along with over 200,000 Jewish Poles), and it is incredibly insulting to ask the Polish people to apologize for atrocities that were committed against them rather than by them.

Israel and Poland are both victims of German aggression. Israel should embrace Poland.  The Poles no more owe an apology to the Jewish people than the Jewish people owe an apology to themselves.

Poland was also a victim of the Gulag Archipelago, having fallen under Soviet rule after the war, with at least 1.8 million Poles sent to Siberian gulags by Stalin alone.

My wife’s second point then was well taken. The Polish people have been persecuted by Germany and Russia, for hundreds of years.

Still, when one is going into Auschwitz, it feels like there should be a zone around the place where nothing happens, like there is around Chernobyl, where the land is too radiated to live. Seeing abundant life around Auschwitz – well..   It just struck me as emotionally odd.  I’ll leave it at that.

Another thing to dispel is the idea that the German concentration camps were somehow unique to German occupied lands. The fact that the Germans targeted a specific religion (and specific ethnicities) was unique to Germany, and the German people, generally being excellent engineers, were very efficient at killing, but while Hitler killed roughly 12 million people (6 million of whom were Jewish), Stalin killed 20 million Russians, and Stalin was but one of many Soviet Premiers, all of whom ran a gulag system that would have made Hitler envious.

In Stalin’s case, the 20 million number does not include 14 million Ukrainians who were systemically starved to death in the 1930s, nor the 1.3 million Poles sent to Gulags.  Chairman Mao, in China, killed over 100 million of his own people.

The building on the right was an administration building, and the buildings to it’s left were barracks.

Let me be absolutely clear on something that is historically incontrovertible: everywhere communism has been tried, it has lead to genocide. Stalin and Mao were only the worst offenders in terms of raw numbers – largely because they ran the largest communist countries, by population.  Other communist leaders were even bloodier in terms of percentages.  Pol Pot, Castro – they all committed genocide.

Communism does not work, and attempts to make it work mean genocide, always.

That last sentence will be controversial. So be it.  If you are a communist, or you have a tee-shirt with a picture of Che Guevara in your wardrobe, you support a political ideology that was at least as bad as was Nazi Germany, and Auschwitz exists to warn the world about you.

Auschwitz is not just about Nazi atrocities, but about every instance of mass, organized death, and the world has seen that many times. There is a plaque in the main entrance to the museum that reads, ‘Those who fail to learn from history are bound to repeat it,’ which makes this case very clear.  Auschwitz exists to remind each and every one of us that we have the capacity to commit such acts of horror – that good and evil are choices, and are choices human beings often make poorly.  Papa Doc and Baby Doc Duvalier made the wrong choice in Haiti.  Radovan Karadzic made the wrong choice in Bosnia.

To consign Auschwitz to the past is to ignore the cases of genocide occurring right now, today, such as in Myanmar, where the Rohingyaare being exterminated; Sudan, where the Nuer (as well as other ethnic minorities) are being exterminated; Iraq and Syria, where the Christians and Yazidis are being exterminated; the Central African Republic, where Christians and Muslims are being exterminated; and Sudan, where the Darfuris are being exterminated.  How can we as a people pretend that we have learned from Auschwitz when similar atrocities are occurring right now, even as I type this, in at least five nations, and where hundreds of millions have been killed in death camps after Auschwitz was liberated, in many cases by the same Soviet Union that liberated Auschwitz?  It is a little known fact that some of the 7,000 people liberated at Auschwitz later died in gulags in Siberia.  We have a plaque commemorating the liberation of Auschwitz, but where is the plaque calling out the Soviets for killing some of the survivors?

The front of the administration building

We have learned nothing, which is why genocide is occurring right now, and we do nothing, and why large numbers of American youth commemorate communists.

We have learned nothing, which is why Auschwitz makes me angry more so than sad. I am sad, obviously, because of what happened there, but I am also angry, and unspeakably so, because, as I saw the vastness of the complex at Auschwitz II – Birkenau, I could not only envision the faces of the people who died there, but also the faces of the people who have died since, and who will die today, because you and I have collectively learned nothing.

As you move through the museum, you see not only photographs of the brutality inflicted on the people at Auschwitz and other concentration camps, but also piles of shoes, eyeglasses, prosthetic limbs, suitcases, cook wares, etc., piled up in quantities that speak to the 12 million people the Nazis killed.  One of the worst sights was of hair.

The kitchen at Auschwitz I

Every woman who went through the gas chambers of Auschwitz was shaved, after being gassed. The hair was used to make pillows, rain coats, and various other cloth-based items, for military use.  Several long braids of hair are shown on top of a roll of material made from human hair.  This was not enough to drive the point fully home though, as after seeing the material made from hair, we were walked past a pile of human hair with braids from around ten thousand women.  It was a pile that turns the stomach, and yet it was a pile of hair that was in a warehouse at Auschwitz, found when the camp was liberated.

We were not allowed to take photos of the hair, and I did not want to take photos of some of the other piles, but my wife instructed me to take some, and you’ll see those in this article. I took more care in photographing the every-day living conditions of the Auschwitz I inmates, and of the punishment facilities for inmates who were punished without simply being shot on sight.  Even at Auschwitz I (a work rather than a death camp), the brutality was all around us.

Conditions changed between 1941 and 1944, as more and more people were sent to Auschwitz (thanks largely to its centralized location within Nazi-dominated Europe). Auschwitz I, at one time, housed 20,000 people – around four times what it was designed to hold.  Prisoners worked around 10 hours a day, and held two roll calls, in which everyone had to be counted, including the dead – which means that if someone died during the day, others had to carry that body around until evening roll call.

Roll calls were often used to punish the camp, with one roll call lasting 19 hours. If you want to know what that would be like, try standing at attention for two hours, and then, as the pain starts to grow, imagine how bad it must have been seventeen hours further in.

Auschwitz I appeared capable of adequately feeding the number of people it was designed to hold, but there was no way it could have adequately fed 20,000 people, even had the Germans wanted to adequately feed them, and, of course, working them until they died was one of the main points of the place.

The SS made a camp band play a march every morning and evening, as prisoners came and went to and from work details

Next to the jail (where inmates were punished) was Joseph Mengele’s ‘hospital’, where the infamous doctor conducted sickening experiments on inmates, and particularly on twins. The inside of this building was not a part of the tour, and thankfully the tour did not go into detail over everything Dr. Mengele did (though if you go to Dachau you’ll see quite a bit on that).

Finally, we walked through the primary gas chamber of Auschwitz I, and got a feel for its layout. This was important, as the Germans did what they could to destroy Auschwitz II – Birkenau, before they retreated from it.  The gas chambers and furnaces of Auschwitz II – Birkenau were destroyed.  The gas chamber and furnace of Auschwitz I was, at the end, used as a bomb shelter for the SS troops stationed at Auschwitz (the SS barracks being next to it), and as such the structure survived.

This ended our tour of Auschwitz I.

We were pretty spent after standing in line for two hours, and then walking around on the tour for between two and three hours. I left feeling sad and bewildered.  We rested in the grass outside the compound for about 20 minutes, waiting for a bus to take us to Auschwitz II – Birkenau.

Auschwitz II – Birkenau is a much more basic structure, but also much larger, designed to hold 90,000 people (it held as many as 250,000), and there is nothing I can do, including sharing photos, that could possibly prepare you for the vastness of the site.

Auschwitz I was built in the suburbs of Oswiecim, Poland, and though some Poles were kicked out of their homes to make room, the camp was centered on an existing Army base, so relocations were limited. Auschwitz II – Birkenau was centered in the center of Birkenau, Poland, and the city was torn down to make room.  Bricks and other building supplies from the city were re-used to build the first half of the camp.

The Polish people who were kicked out of their homes were not compensated in any way. They were simply told to leave, and if they resisted, they were shot.

You can’t really tell it from the photos, but when you are standing near the railroad tracks, photographing to the left or right, each side is only half the camp. From the center, where trains were generally unloaded, the site seems to go on forever.

Rudolf Hoss designed Auschwitz II – Birkenau, and he discussed the design, in detail (with the detachment of an engineer) at the Nurnberg War Trials. He said that he expected the unloading of the trains, and the sorting of people into workers and non-workers, to be the bottleneck determining how many people could be killed.  Initially there was only one set of train tracks going into the camp, and they went all the way through to the back, where the gas chambers were located.

A view from the entrance to Auschwitz I

Over time, as the camp became busier (and the second half was built – entirely out of wood), the single track coming into the camp was split into three, such that though only one train could go through the gate at a time, three could be unloaded. Hoss designed the gas chambers and the furnaces around the notion that the camp would hold around 90,000 people, and that half of the people who entered would be assigned to work details (the other half being immediately gassed).  The camp then, once full, would kill twice as many people as necessary to keep 90,000 workers.

What Hoss did not take into account was that the Germans would periodically send workers through inspections, and kill large numbers of those who had previously been spared for work. Workers already in the camp were literally competing against those just arriving, with only the 90,000 strongest available being allowed to live, and Hoss underestimated the rate at which workers already in the camp would be sent to the gas chambers.

Hoss also did not foresee the camp holding as many as 250,000 people.

Hoss testified in Nuremburg that had he known that the furnaces, rather than the trains, would be the bottleneck, he would have designed the camp differently, and believed he could have made the camp between three and four times as efficient – meaning that he could have killed Jews three to four times as fast.

As you walk from the sorting area (where Jews were separated into those who would work, and those who would immediately be gassed), to the gas chambers, you walk down the exact road that the 1.3 million people estimated to have been gassed at Auschwitz II – Birkenau marched to their deaths.

A typical barracks at Auschwitz I

At the end of the road are two blown-up gas chambers / crematoriums. Prisoners were marched to the back of the buildings, and told to go through doors into the basement.  The first room had numbered hooks on the walls, and the prisoners were told to undress and head to the ‘showers’, remembering their numbers so that they could collect their belongings after having showered.  The prisoners, then naked, were sent into what they were told were showers.  Some were even given soap and shampoo.

Once all of the prisoners were in the showers (the shower could hold about 700 people), cyanide crystals were poured in from the roof, and the vents were sealed. It took about twenty minutes for everyone inside to die.

After about 20 minutes, the doors were opened, and the bodies were carried upstairs to the furnaces, where they were cremated. Their ashes were used as fertilizer for farming, and were also dumped in rivers and ponds throughout the area.

Between the two large gas chamber / furnace buildings stands a memorial to those killed.

After seeing the gas chamber ruins, our tour walked back up to the front of the complex, where we saw the living conditions, which can only be said to have been horrific. Workers were not fed enough to survive, and as they died they were simply replaced by more workers.  The entire compound of Auschwitz II – Birkenau was designed to kill as many people as quickly as possible, and the fact that the designer said he would have liked to have had the chance to make another camp three to four times more efficient should make one’s blood curdle.

There was a guard tower at the end of every street, just beyond the barbed wire

What made my sadness turn to anger was not the living conditions, nor even the gas chambers. It was the sheer size of the site, with barracks that seemed to go on forever, all around me.  I could imagine Jewish people marching to the gas chambers, not knowing they were about to die, and I could imagine the workers, every day knowing what had happened to the people they loved, and also knowing that as soon as they were no longer stronger than new people just entering the camp, they too would be killed.

The size of the place angered me. It angered me because there are people today who would be only too happy to read up on Rudolph Hoss, and design something three to four times more efficient.  It angered me today because, in spite of the fact that we have learned nothing, our ability to kill continues to grow.

Auschwitz, today, really is almost a theme park to our species’ special ability to kill our fellow mankind. People say that we must never let anything like that happen again, and yet it is happening, even as I write this, today.

If we fail to learn from history, and start to prevent these kinds of atrocities from occurring (and stop them where they are currently occurring), our fear should not just be that we will repeat history and see these things again. We must fear more than that.  Rudolph Hoss did learn from history, but rather than learning that killing is wrong, he learned that he could kill far more efficiently than he did at Auschwitz II – Birkenau.  You may have noticed the hangman’s platform next to the gas chamber in my photos of Auschwitz I.  That was built after the war, specifically to hang Rudolph Hoss, and unlike so many other German war criminals, Rudolph Hoss died right next to where he had killed his victims, within a couple hundred meters of the house he lived in, while commandant of Auschwitz.

Who will hang the people committing such atrocities today? Who will teach the people waving Soviet flags, and wearing Che Guevara shirts, that they are asking for the same atrocities tomorrow?  Who will force us to learn from history such that we do not continue to repeat it?

The museum is inside two of the barracks

I fear no one will. There are still too many communists, and they are unwilling to see the parallels between Auschwitz, and similar facilities everywhere communism has been tried.

There are still too many people who are unwilling to learn, and as a result, Auschwitz will be repeated.


A map showing all of the locations prisoners came from
A fair amount of the Nazi official paperwork documenting the holocaust is on display
A guard tower at Auschwitz I
This is a depiction of one of the train cars Jewish people were transported in – up to 80 people in one car
Auschwitz had three main camps (shown) and 45 satellite camps
A depiction of the gas chamber and crematorium. The underground part is the gas chamber, and the building is the crematorium.
Some of the actual gas canisters of Zyklon B (Hydrogen Cyanide)
Hydrogen Cyanide (Zyklon B) granules – Body heat inside the cramped gas chambers turned these granules to gas.
Suitcases from some of the last victims of Auschwitz
Shoes from some of the last victims of Auschwitz – every two shoes represents one person killed
Typical bedding at Auschwitz I when it first opened
Sometimes the straw bedding was put into crude mattresses
Bathrooms at Auschwitz I – Prisoners were allowed to use these only twice a day
Washing room at Auschwitz I
Block Elder’s Room
As the camp filled, racks were installed to allow more prisoners to be housed in each room
Joseph Mengela’s ‘Hospital’, where he conducted unspeakable experiments – he was known as Dr. Death
The prison building, where inmates were punished, was next to Joseph Mengela’s ‘hospital’, separated by a courtyard
Inmates convicted of infractions were often made to strip in this room, prior to being shot outside
The wall in the courtyard between the ‘hospital’ and the prison building where inmates were shot
The wall inmates were shot against was a mixture of straw and cement – designed to catch bullets
Roll call was performed twice a day, and to punish the prisoners, roll call sometimes lasted hours. The guards had a small shelter in the assembly square where they were protected from the elements.
This is outside one of the side gates. The officer’s barracks are on the right, and behind the trees you can just make out the commandant’s house
Rudolf Hoss (the commandant of Auschwitz) was hung at this site, right next to the Auschwitz I gas chamber, and about 500 feet from his former house
The Auschwitz I gas chamber
Another view of the Auschwitz I gas chamber – you can see the chimney from the crematorium
The internal layout of the Auschwitz I gas chamber
Entering the gas chamber at Auschwitz I
This is one of the vents Zyklon B (Hydrogen Cyanide) was poured into
Inside the gas chamber. The gas chamber at Auschwitz I was not used once Auschwitz II – Birkenau was built. It became a bomb shelter for the German SS, and as a result it survived the war.
Crematorium ovens
Crematorium ovens with the loading carts still attached
A view of the fencing around Auschwitz I
Another view of the fencing around Auschwitz I – note the two rows of barbed wire. This wire was electrified.
Auschwitz II – Birkenau – a view from just off the bus
The vastness of Auschwitz II – Birkenau was its most unsettling characteristic. By the time Auschwitz was liberated this camp had been expanded to hold up to 250,000 people.
The rail line split into three once it entered the camp gate, such that two cars could be unloaded while a third was coming in. The tracks went all the way back to the gas chambers.
This was the original side of Auschwitz II – Birkenau. These are brick buildings made out of building materials collected by dismantling the town of Birkenau (which had been on the same site).
Another view of the oldest part of Auschwitz II – Birkenau
The front gate of Auschwitz II – Birkenau, from inside the camp
One of the actual rail cars used to bring Jewish people into the camp
Another view of the rail car. Over 80 people would be cramped into a single car, and kept there, supplied with only water, for up to ten days
Trains were unloaded, and prisoners sorted into two groups (those who could work and those to be immediately gassed) at this location
Another view of the unloading area
This is the road 1.3 million people, 1.1 million of whom were Jewish, were forced to take their last walk. At the end of the road are the two main gas chambers of Auschwitz II – Birkenau.
A view of one of the main gas chambers of Auschwitz II – Birkenau. The Germans blew the gas chambers up before abandoning the camp.
A memorial that sits between the main gas chambers of Auschwitz II – Birkenau
This plaque is shown in about 20 languages at the memorial
A wide-angled view of the camp. In many of the pictures, I wanted to try and capture the vastness of the place. The sheer size was imposing.
A closer view of one of the main gas chambers’ ruins
The ruins of one of the main gas chambers in Auschwitz II – Birkenau
Most of the barracks were burned down, leaving only the foundations and chimneys
Inside a rebuilt barracks wash room
Toilets inside the washroom. Prisoners were only allowed to use these as they entered the camp in the evening, and as they left in the morning, on work details.
Inside a rebuilt barracks – a view of the heating stove. Inmates said that they rarely had wood to heat the buildings.
Over 400 prisoners were held in each barracks.
The front gate, from the outside
A plaque outlining how the Polish people living on the site of the camps were simply kicked out of their homes and businesses