I have always been interested in all things military and in 2018 went with my family on an excellent coach trip to the battlefields of northern France and Germany. On the strength of that, I suggested we visit Auschwitz, something I had never previously plucked up the courage to do. My wife Moi couldn’t face it, but my daughter Rachel agreed it was something people should do if they could, and so we duly booked a flight to Krakow in November 2019. It was a very different trip to Poland from my first.
Krakow: a beautiful city with dark history
Krakow is one of the oldest cities in Poland and widely regarded as one of Europe’s most beautiful.
It has many fascinating buildings and museums reflecting its long and distinguished history. But one of these brings visitors face-to-face with the darker period of Poland’s history we had come to explore: Oskar Schindler’s enamel factory on the outskirts of the city.
Schindler, as many will know from the 1993 film Schindler’s List, was a German industrialist. He acquired the factory in 1939 and employed many skilled Jewish workers, on whom his business depended. In his official capacity as a loyal Nazi party member, and showing a considerable amount of bravery, he persuaded and bribed the local authorities to allow him to continue employing a Jewish workforce throughout the war and, as a result, hundreds were saved from a fate that six million other Jews were not.
The factory is now a museum, much of which is dedicated to Krakow under Nazi occupation.
This photo is a reconstructed section in the museum of the Krakow Jewish ghetto perimeter wall. The photo above is of a notice issued in December 1941, offering a reward for ‘denouncing a Jew wandering unauthorised around the district’. The reward was equivalent to a couple of bottles of vodka, or a few packs of cigarettes.
Many, if not most of the Jews in the Krakow ghetto, eventually found themselves in Auschwitz-Birkenau. This brings us to the reason we had come to Krakow.
Even if it’s difficult to convey in words the full horror of a visit to Auschwitz, what follows will be a tough read.
Auschwitz-Birkenau is in fact several camps, dedicated to different functions. When the Germans invaded Poland in 1939, they set up a political prison camp in what was an old WW1 army barracks and changed the name to Auschwitz. A name that evokes a chill in the human soul.
Following the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, it was then used as a prisoner of war camp and is where the first gassing of Soviet prisoners was carried out.
Most of the buildings in the Auschwitz camp, built by the prisoners, were of a substantial two-storey brick construction. There were over 30 blocks in total, some used as barracks for the SS (Schutzstaffel) guards and for housing the local Gestapo headquarters and camp administrators. Other blocks served as prison, hospital, gas chambers, crematorium, and a brothel.
The gas chambers in Auschwitz were among the first. Hundreds of prisoners were packed in by the SS guards, and deadly Zyklon B pesticide gas was dropped through the ceiling. It is also where the first ovens were used to dispose of the bodies.
Block 11: the ‘death block’
The notorious Block 11, dubbed the ‘death block’, was mainly used as a place of punishment for prisoners from the camps. People from the surrounding villages who were accused of helping the prisoners were also brought here. As a punishment, being shot by the Wall of Death in the courtyard was not necessarily the worst outcome.
The sentences of the less fortunate could include various forms of torture, for example being starved to death, being hung by the arms behind their backs, experimentation on how long it took them to die by the injection of different chemicals, or incarceration in a two-foot square brick box not quite big enough to stand up in, in complete darkness until they went mad and died. Experiments with Zyklon B were also carried out on people, in preparation for the much larger extermination system at Birkenau.
In an area where death was everywhere, Block 11, has a place of its own.
Another notorious block was the so-called hospital. This was indeed occasionally used to treat the sick or injured, although if it was one of the prisoners, they had to recover fully and quickly, or their usefulness was ended.
But the ‘hospital’ was also used for experiments on Jewish women, for example experiments on different forms of sterilisation, carried out by doctors Carl Clauberg and Horst Schumann. Many women died as a result and if they didn’t, they were likely to be killed anyway so that a post-mortem could be carried out. The infamous doctor Josef Mengele also worked here, carrying out cruel experiments, famously on twin siblings.
Clauberg, Schumann and Mengele all survived the war. In fact, many of the scientists and doctors who had previously worked for the Nazis and the SS were employed by the allies after the war so they could pass on their vast knowledge of death.
Chances to survive
One of the blocks just inside the main gate was a brothel. For those given a choice or forced into it, working there was one of the activities that gave a fair chance of survival, at least for a while. The women were fed comparatively well, had regular medical checks, and could also wear normal clothing. The main reason for their survival was the fact that they were working indoors.
This is one of the toilet blocks. They could only be used at certain times of the day. Ironically, the cleaning out of the toilets was another of the desirable jobs because it was also a survivable indoor task.
Another chance was to be chosen as a ‘Kapo’, the name given to the men assigned from within the prisoners by the SS to keep order and allocate jobs. These Kapos were often hated more than the SS guards, and sometimes killed by the other prisoners. Another function given to prisoners was that of a Sonderkommando. These were special units employed to burn the bodies, in either the crematoriums or in the open air. They were not allocated to do any killing; that was the job of the SS.
The most favourable job within the camp was in Kanada, the name given to the 30 sheds allocated to sorting the belongings of all the new arrivals. Workers here could wear their own clothing or take better clothing from the luggage they were sorting. There was also plenty of food to be found amongst the luggage. All valuables were meant for shipping to Germany, although some found their way into a pocket along the way.
For most – a tragic fate
This is the section of railway that took people from Auschwitz to Birkenau, where 372 wooden buildings each housed 300 or more triple bunk beds for the thousands of people who would be worked to death on hard labour duties outside.
This is a rare photo of new arrivals. All their possessions would by processed in Kanada, and all these people would also be processed for their usefulness, after which most, if not all, would have gone straight to their deaths. The Birkenau gas chambers were working from June 1943 to November 1944. From late summer of 1944, every train load, similar to the photograph, above went straight to the gas chambers.
This is what is left of the gas chamber and crematorium of Birkenau three (from a total of four). Just before the Soviets arrived to liberate Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Germans tried to destroy all the evidence that this was a mass extermination camp. They set fire to all the timber buildings in Birkenau, leaving just hundreds of brick chimney stacks as eerie reminders of their past.
Liberation and vengeance
As the Soviet army approached, any prisoners able to walk were force marched west towards Germany, leaving a small contingent of guards ordered to shoot the ones too ill to leave, but the guards thought better of it and left before the Soviets arrived. Many of us will have seen the heart-rending films of concentration camp victims finally being liberated.
It was a time for vengeance.
Even as the Soviets were liberating the camps and Poland as a whole, they were engaging in murder and rape across the country and on people making their way back home from forced labour in Germany.
This is the site where the longest-serving commandant of the camp, SS-Obersturmbannfuhrer (Lieutenant Colonel) Rudolf Höss, was tried by the Polish courts and hanged in April 1947. The spot is within sight of the palatial house in the grounds of the camp that he apparently happily shared with his wife Hedwig and their five children.
Jewish Kapos were another target of revenge. In immediate danger of beatings by fellow inmates, many were also tried in Israel as co-perpetrators of Nazi atrocities. It took many years for a change in perception to occur – that Kapos had also been victims of the Nazi terror.
Reflecting on this visit
The visit made us ask ourselves questions as to how we ourselves would act in similar circumstances.
Would we do anything to survive? Would we fight back and if we were about to die at least try to take a guard with us? Would we do as millions did – capitulate and surrender to our inevitable fate? Or would we take the choice of many others and commit suicide? What about if we had been a regular German soldier, assigned to duty in a concentration camp?
The visit was also a lesson in the workings of authoritarianism. In the camps, ethnic divisions between Polish, German and Soviet Jews were fuelled by the SS guards, as a means to divide and control. Keeping prisoners busy with conflicts amongst themselves meant that remarkably few armed guards were needed. It was also a reminder of the need to recognise the danger in time. Hitler’s pursuit of the creation of a master race began in the 1930s by targeting the weak and vulnerable, those with few allies. By the time he came for political opponents and ordinary people going about their lives, it was too late to stop him.
We feel we live in a country where we are not likely to be put to such tests or find ourselves at the mercy of a malign authority.
The most frightening lesson of all? So did most Germans.