Ever since I first heared about the Holocaust, I have wanted to understand how such a thing was ever possible. Therefore, I gathered all information I could get. Eventually I had to go to the place that symbolises it, as the highest number of killings took place in Auschwitz, or Oświęcim, as it is officially called in Polish. Being German, I also feel it to be compulsory for me to visit the darkest spot of my national history.
I first went to Birkenau, which is also known as Auschwitz II. The used to be three main camps, Auschwitz I as the central and first camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau and Auschwitz-Monowitz. The latter was bombed by the Allies because the inmates worked in the adjacent IG Farben factory producing fuel for the German military.
There is no entrance fee, but donations are welcome. Walking along the area you become aware of its great size. It could hold up to 100,000 inmates.
At the end of the railroad tracks, you get to the possibly most unreal place on earth: the ruins of gas chambers and creamatoria II and III (I is in the main camp, there are also IV and V in Birkenau). Being aware of the Red Army approaching, the SS bombed all gas chambers and crematoria in Birkenau. The ruins have remained until today as a memorial of the atrocities.
Between gas chambers and crematoria II and III, a monument was built. When I was there, several Jewish travel groups held ceremonies with speeches, songs and prayers.
Popular estimations claim that about 1.1 million people were murdered in Auschwitz, about 1 million of them Jews. The vast majority died in the gas chambers in Birkenau.
Others died of starvation or from the bad living conditions. The barracks the inmates were kept in were terribly overcrowded. Some of the houses were open to visitors. The Nazis planned to keep four people in one bunk, the number later being raised.
Birkenau is actually not in Auschwitz, but in a village 3km (2mi) west of it. Its Polish name is Brzezinka. Its initial purpose was to hold Soviet POWs and it was built by these first inmates themselves.
After this, I went to the main camp which is located in the city of Auschwitz. There is a free bus that runs between the two camps every ten minutes. As opposed to Birkenau, there was airport-like security control in Auschwitz I. First, I went to gas chamber and creamatorium I, the only one still intact. Here, the Nazis started with this method of mass murder.
This is the most appalling procedure in history: the people were driven into the building. First, they entered a room that looked like a changing room, where they were told to take off their clothes and neatly put them on coat hooks. Alledgedly, a shower awaited them.
After that, they went into the gas chamber waiting for the water to come out of the shower heads. Instead, gas came out killing everyone within minutes.
The doors were opened and Jews themselves who worked there had to take the bodies out of the gas chamber into the crematorium, where they were burned. On some days in the spring of 1944, more than 10.000 were killed that way in Birkenau.
Behind the gas chamber and crematorium in Auschwitz I, there is another custom-made killing device, gallows that were set up after the war. As opposed to the gas chambers, their purpose was but to kill only one man: the camp's first commandant Rudolf Höss.
Finally, I entered the main camp through the gate with the infamous lettering above it:
The main camp is converted into a museum portraiying different aspects of the Holocaust and the history of the camp, each in a different building (here called Block). Walking around, I was approached by a man with an Israelian flag around his neck. He was looking for the famous exhibition of the prisoner's properties. With the help of the guidebook I bought earlier in Birkenau, we were able to find it (it's in Block 5) and went there together. However, I did not take any pictures there.
We started a conversation. He told me he was from Haifa and wanted to know why I, as a German, would come to this place. I explained to him in the same way I did at the beginning of this blog. Before we parted ways, he offered me his hand. Even though I was born too late, that meant so much to me: a German shaking hands with a Jew in Auschwitz.