Our driver, Richard, was waiting in the lobby for us at promptly 5:00 am. However, Jim mis-read his watch thought it was 4:20 am, got up, was almost dressed when we were like, “What are you doing, it is 1:20 am. That would prove to be our only mishap of the day. Cindy was extremely nervous about this tour…it was expensive, it was 16 hours long, and we would be in a private passenger car. Richard was a retired school teacher who is now a Tourist driver. He only drives you to your tour location. However, he gave us very good information about the Czech Republic as we drove to Poland. We love how the EU puts the country on their license plates, much like each state in the US.
Richard told us that only 15% of the Czech citizens attend church, of those 10% are Catholic and 5% are Protestant. They are against religion because Hitler used God as his rally cry. The energy in the country is 75% nuclear, 10% hydro, and 15% coal or wind. In Poland, 30% of the citizens still work on farms. Also when we stopped at a convenience store, we had to pay to use the restroom but you get a coupon back, that you can use to buy food.
We knew that this day would be an educational, emotional, and enlightening one. We knew that we needed to go to Auschwitz to finish our World War II history that we had been exploring on this trip. Richard dropped us off at the visitors center, where we joined a local tour led by Miriam. A bit of history…Auschwitz is a German word, Oswiecim is the Polish name. The location of the camp was chosen due to it’s close proximity to the train tracks. Polish citizens were first imprisoned at the camp in the late 1930s. Jews began arriving in June of 1940.
The front gate as a sign that reads, “Work will give you freedom”. As the prisoners walked through the gate, the German Orchestra played to welcome them to the camp.
The camp is surrounded by a fence that had 220 volt wires attached.
prisoners lived in barracks or dormitories. The bricks are different colors. The dormortories started off as one story, but a second story was built using bricks from nearby civilian houses that had been destroyed. Starting in 1943, camp prisoners were taken to work in a nearby chemical plant, 11 hours a day 7 days a week.
Living conditions in the barracks were crowded, with no privacy. Even the camp trustees had sparse rooms. The sinks were a trough system. prisoners were required to write “happy” letters saying how wonderful the camp was. These were then used as propaganda as well as shown to the outside world.It was forbidden to take pictures inside the camp. However, guards would smuggle in cameras. 200 pictures were found after the camp was liberated. This is the only evidence of what life was like in the camp.
When the Jews were rounded up to be taken to the camp, they were told that they were being re-settled and they could bring 25 kg of luggage with them. When they arrived on the trains, they were told to leave their luggage on the train platforms. They would write their name on their luggage so they could get it back later.
They were never given their belongings back. After the camp was liberated, rooms filled with their belongings were found. These are now displayed in glass enclosed rooms.
There were many guard towers as well as an execution area. Prisoner were lined up in front of a wall and shot, with children being shot first. If a prisoner escaped, their family was singled out and were made to stand under a sign all day for other prisoners to see.
All prisoners were officially photographed and recorded.
We saw a small gas chamber and crematory at Auschwitz. The hole in the ceiling is where the poison was poured in.
Those not working or put to death, were subjected to terrible medical experiments by Dr. Josef Mengele. The hospital became known as a waiting room for the crematoria.
We took a short bus ride to Birkenau.
This was a camp occupied near the end of the war. Its buildings were hastily built. Most prisoners arrived by train, with Greek Jews having a 10 day train ride without food or water. When prisioners arrived, they were separated into 2 groups: able-bodied men being one group, women, children, and the elderly being the other group, they were deemed the useless.
75% of the useless were immediately sent to the gas chambers. They were told that they were going to shower before being assigned their barracks. They went into the showers as a group. They undressed, were told to neatly fold their clothes and remember where they left them as they would come back to get them. It was all a ruse. They were then taken into the gas chambers, but to keep everyone calm, it looked like a shower room, complete with “fake” shower heads.
They were poisoned with Zyklon. A single kg would kill 1500 people.
After everyone was dead, workers went in and removed the bodies. Their heads were shaved and their gold fillings in their teeth removed. The bodies were then sent to the crematorium. The smoke from the crematory could be smelled up to 20 miles away. After the camp was liberated 7000 kg of hair was discovered, which is estimated to be only a small portion. 12,000 pairs of glasses as well as artificial legs, crutches, and walkers.
There is not much left of the crematories at Birkenau…
but there was a display at Auschwitz that helped us understand their design.
At Birkenau, those that were deemed able-bodied had terrible barracks to stay in. Some of the buildings are still standing, some only have the chimneys left.
Roll calls could last up to 2 hours. Prisoners tried to stay in the middle of the group so as not to be singled out or chosen. 3-4 people slept on 1 mattress. Inside of barracks were very primitive.
At the back of the camp and at the end of the railroad tracks, there is a memorial to those that died.
90% of the prisoners who died were Jews….1.1 million. There were also 140 Polish, 23 Gypsies, mostly of typhoid, 15 Soviet POWs and 25 other nationalities due to Ethnic cleansing.
It was a long day, an emotional day. We had travelled 950 km to see this place. We learned, we cried, and we will never forget, but so glad we came. It was a day for reflecdtion on the important things of life…love, hope, and freedom.
***Note…it is really hard to take pictures inside of the buildings. The tours are moving so fast, there are many tours, and most of the displays are behind glass.