Birkenau Gates to Hell

Auschwitz & Birkenau

Auschwitz is a place that has long been on my list of places to visit. It was a place discussed during history lessons at school and a place that has long since fascinated me. Fascinated in the sense that I cannot comprehend what happened, why it happened.

I posted some pictures on our Twitter feed and it was a tweet back from the Auschwitz Museum that hit me. “created by people for other people which is an important warning”. I have gone through my life just thinking of these criminals as monsters, not human, just satans soldiers. But these really were people, people with their own families, yet people that inflicted such pain and suffering to so many people. That one statement just confuses me, confuses me in that if these were people, how can they commit such terror?

Gallows Rudolph Hoss
The gallows where Rudolph Hoss, the camps first commandant, was hanged in 1947. The chimney of the crematoria and gas chambers in the background.

On our way to Auschwitz (which is about an hours drive from Krakow), our guide played a video. The video was original footage of the liberation accompanied by interviews with the Soviet cameraman who filmed it. This is the video that you can watch when first entering Auschwitz. The footage was just horrific. There was moments that I had to turn away and look out the window to gather my thoughts. It was the most difficult thing I have ever had to watch.

On arriving in Auschwitz the silence was awkward. I have never seen so many visitors in one place be so quiet. It was surreal, an awakening I suppose to what we was about to experience.

Auschwitz is a museum and to an extent somewhat sanitised but I understand why. You will wonder around from block to block seeing some truly disturbing things. The experience keeping you just at arms length but close enough for emotions to run high. It was a disturbing experience, one filled with dread and anticipation, disappointment and horror.

Victims
The faces of prisoners hung on the walls of all blocks. The haunting eyes staring right through you.
Barbed Perimeter
Barbed wire surrounding the facility. Its only job, to keep the prisoners in.
Halt
Warning signs line the electrified perimeter of Auschwitz, where prisoners would attempt to throw themselves against it to escape their misery.

After a couple of hours in Auschwitz we decided to move on to Birkenau. It is only a few minutes drive down the road. We parked up and you are confronted with the main gate to Birkenau. As we walked through, my pace slowed and eyes wide open as I witnessed and understood for the first time the sheer scale of this place.

Birkenau Gates to Hell
The main gate to Birkenau. Where trains would enter carrying thousands of prisoners. Often taken direct from the train carriage to the gas chambers.

Birkenau was enormous. 425 acres capable of holding approximately one hundred thousand people at any one time. Our guide explained that the Nazis had in fact plans to expand the facility to hold upwards of a quarter of a million people. These numbers are just too huge to comprehend.

Many of the buildings had been destroyed by the Nazis. They did this shortly before the liberation in an attempt to hide their crimes. Many of the buildings however have survived. As we walked around, I found it difficult to contemplate my surroundings. We walked in to some of the buildings where people were held. It was just disgusting. You imagine the hundreds of people bundled in to each building where there is one burner (but prisoners had to forage for their own fuel; twigs etc) that would barely heat its immediate surroundings. Imagine that in a wooden building, no insulation in the depths of winter…

Block
Inside one of the blocks where hundreds of people huddled for survival.
These stables were converted to house upwards of 400 people
These stables were converted to house upwards of 400 people.
Line after line with hundreds of people per building.
Line after line with hundreds of people per building.

At the far end of Birkenau is the memorial. An obvious Soviet creation back in the sixties. The most poignant part for me is the cobbles. Supposedly one cobble for each of the 1.5 million people who died here.

1967 Auschwitz Birkenau memorial. Surrounded by 1.5 million cobbles.
1967 Auschwitz Birkenau memorial. Surrounded by 1.5 million cobbles.

I could write pages and pages and share many more photos. For me, this is enough, but I’m happy to try and answers any questions you may have.

I encourage everyone to visit this place.

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