No other place in the world stands more as a synonym for the atrocities of the Nazi regime and for the extermination of the Jews than Auschwitz-Birkenau. Being in Cracow, a visit to this place, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, is a must – a tough one though.
In the very beginning, Auschwitz was a concentration camp for political opponents and prisoners of war. In 1942 the site was extended by the Nazis to create the biggest and especially the most “efficient” of all extermination camps, Auschwitz II Birkenau, a place only dedicated to the mass-murder of Jews from all over Europe. It was also in Auschwitz that SS Officers first tested Zyklon B, the poisonous gas used in the “final solution”, after an “efficiency test” on a several hundred Russian POWs.
About 1.5 million Jews, the vast majority from Poland and Hungary, were murdered immediately after their arrival or worked to death. After a sometimes day-long trip in horrible conditions through Europe in cattle trains, the victims arrived on the famous “ramp” in Birkenau. There, the SS used a process that became known as “selection”. Young, healthy men and women were separated from their family, their children and elderly parents.
The old, the sick, children & pregnant women were immediately sent to the gas chambers. Those considered fit to work were used as forced labour workers in the numerous industries surrounding the camp, like IG Farben. Very few survived the excessive forced labour practices, the hunger, the illnesses, the criminal medical experiments, the terror of the guards, the punishment and torture.
When the Red Army closed in on Crakow at the end of January 1944, the camp was evacuated. Those prisoners capable of walking were moved deeper into the Third Reich. The majority died on these death marches. Only 7.000 people were found in the camp when it was liberated by the Red Army.
There are numerous excellent books and films about the Shoa and Auschwitz. We would recommend the BBC documentary “Auschwitz: the Nazis and the Final Solution”. The DVD provides outstanding information and incredible footage.
We decided to hire a personal guide just for the two of us, since we could not imagine visiting this place in a group. We wanted to have enough time and have the possibility to ask questions whenever we had some. Our guide happened to be a young woman with an immense knowledge and devotion for the cause.
This was a very challenging day. No matter how much you may know or have read about this place, it is a very strong emotion to be confronted with what remains of this nightmare. Nevertheless, such a visit should be on anyone’s agenda!
Comments are closed.