Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Auschwitz Concentration Camp

Poland was home to the world's largest Jewish community for centuries. Before WWII there were 3.5 million Jews in Poland. Between the German invasion in 1939 and the end of the war over 90% perished.

About 50 km (~32 miles) from Kraków is the town of Oświęcim, which the Germans renamed Auschwitz. In 1940 a camp was built to hold Polish political prisoners, followed by Soviet POWs and then prisoners from other countries as well. Within two years it was the most notorious of the six extermination camps in Poland (Auschwitz, Belzec, Chełmno, Majdanek, Sobibór and Treblinka).

There were three primary sections to the concentration camp. Auschwitz was the first and held between 12,000 and 20,000 prisoners. In 1941, Auschwitz II-Birkenau was established 3 km away. Birkenau was the largest section and in 1944 there were over 90,000 prisoners. In 1942, Auschwitz III-Monowitz was established. Today only Auschwitz and Birkenau remain.

By early 1943 there were four crematoria working around the clock at Birkenau. Over 20,000 people were gassed and cremated every day. The exact number of people killed at Auschwitz and Birkenau will never be known but estimates put the number between 1.1 – 1.5 million people from across Europe. There is still one gas chamber at Auschwitz but the gas chambers and crematoria at Birkenau were blown up by the Nazis in 1944 in an attempt to cover up the mass killings.

The Nazis said that Jews would be resettled in the east. Many people actually had to purchase tickets for the trains that took them to their deaths. Auschwitz was the only concentration camp where inmates were tattooed on their arms. However, the vast majority of people were never tattooed because they went directly from arrival to the gas chamber.

I think that it is better to visit the camp in the winter. First of all it is far less crowded. And secondly, because it is a bit easier to appreciate just how bad the conditions must have been. I was thoroughly bundled up from head to toe and after 20 minutes outside I was freezing. I don't know how prisoners were able to stand out in the cold for hours, often without shoes.

Visiting the camp can be very emotional. Approximately 46,000 Jews were sent to Auschwitz from Bohemia and Moravia. I happened to notice that one of the suitcases on display belonged to a victim from Brno.

I think that everyone needs to visit Auschwitz so that nothing like the horrors that occurred here will ever happen again. The camp is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Here is an interesting Rick Steves video I found on YouTube about Auschwitz.

©Rick Steves


  1. Wow. Great post, especially the part wondering how they stood it being outside in the cold without shoes.

  2. Thanks for making this blog. I am currently working on a YouTube video for LGBT History Month (about the gay/transgender people who perished in the camps) and have used some of these pictures. Hope you don't mind.

  3. We are visiting Brno in June and are thinking of taking a side trip to Auschwitz. Thank you for this post. How did you get there from Brno though?

  4. Lisa,
    The easiest way to get to Krakow is to just drive there. I think it takes around 4 hours.
    You can go by train (~7 hours) but there is not a direct link so you have to change trains a couple of times.
    Or you can fly from Vienna to Krakow (via Berlin).
    I'm sure that there is a bus open, probably to Katowice (which is very close) but I haven't explored that option. Enjoy your trip to Brno.

  5. Not the answer I wanted, but thanks! I try to avoid driving in foreign countries. We start in Paris (we have to drive to Normandy from there) I think we'll fly to Krakow and then train to Brno. The student agency bus doesn't go into Poland. Our son is actually living and studying in Brno this year. His Christmas package resembled yours, except we splurged and went to the Dollar Tree and got him Dark Chocolate Reeses. I've been reading your posts to help plan our trip and thank you for all your information. We are actually originally from CA - Walnut Creek, and now live in ATL, which is absolutely gorgeous right now. The dogwoods and wild wisteria are at their peak.
    Thanks again for all your assistance! Lisa

  6. Lisa,
    I'm glad that the info has been helpful. I actually grew up in Chino before I moved to Atlanta. It's a small world. I hope you have a great time visiting your son here.

  7. Thanks for the post. The fact that you travelled there and took photos of your visit in the winter captures the most difficult season that survivors had to endure, at least from a purely physical perspective. There's something experienced by simply being there, in the place where it all happened, that one cannot obtain through other methods: reading memoirs, listening to testimonies, watching films, visiting museums, or even speaking with survivors. If you're interested, you may find reading certain memoirs of Auschwitz survivors to be of interest to you, and now that you've visited Auschwitz, you'll be able to better visualize that setting in which their recollections take place (Primo Levi's "If This Is A Man/Survival At Auschwitz, Elie Wiesel's "Night", or Miklos Nyiszli's "Auschwitz").