Sunday, November 20, 2016

The Heart of Darkness: Auschwitz Concentration Camp, Poland

A visit to the Auschwitz and Birkenau Memorial Museum is profoundly disturbing. The former Nazi concentration and extermination camps demonstrate the incredible hatred and cruelty that men can bestow on their fellow humans under state-sponsored and state-rewarded social and political conditions. At these camps, the industrial-scale killing machine resulted in the deaths of more than a million Jews, as well as hundreds of thousands of Poles, Roma (gypsies), and Russian prisoners of war. Readers interested in the history should study the educational and historical material at the official auschwitz.org web page.

The camps are in the small town of Oświęcim, Poland, about 20 miles west of Krakow. My wife and I visited in August of 2016. The site is crowded, and you need to reserve your visit time online weeks in advance, although there are usually openings available early morning for drop-ins. Tours are given in many languages.
Originally, the first concentration camp was established in 1940 in the town of Auschwitz (the German name in the 1930s). Initially, this was a work camp, where slave labor toiled at industries set up near the perimeter by German companies. The site had been a Polish army base built in the early 20th century, and the sturdy brick barracks were already suitable to house prisoners. Today, most of the buildings still stand and house exhibits. The tour initially takes you through the site in about an hour. The site looks deceptively peaceful today.
Each building or block housed hundreds of prisoners. These were all young-middle age men, as far as I know. Women, children, and older men were weeded out at the railroad reception area and killed quickly.
The barracks are grim inside. The men were worked with minimal food, inadequate clothing, minimal heat, and no medical care. As they died, they were replaced with more men from the never-ending trains. According to auschwitz.org:
The blocks were designed to hold about 700 prisoners each after the second stories were added, but in practice they housed up to 1,200. 
During the first several months, the prisoners’ rooms had neither beds nor any other furniture. Prisoners slept on straw-stuffed mattresses laid on the floor. After reveille in the morning, they piled the mattresses in a corner of the room. The rooms were so overcrowded that prisoners could sleep only on their sides, in three rows. Three-tiered bunks began appearing gradually in the rooms from February 1941. Theoretically designed for three prisoners, they in fact accommodated more. Aside from the beds, the furniture in each block included a dozen or more wooden wardrobes, several tables, and several score stools. Coal-fired tile stoves provided the heating.
The concrete fence posts with electrified barbed wire and guard towers are a constant reminder that this was a brutal prison facility. The tour next takes you by bus to the second, and much larger camp, also known as Birkenau. I will show photographs in the next article.

The square photographs were taken with Kodak Tri-X 400 black and white film in a Rolleiflex 3.5E twin lens reflex camera. Film development: Kodak HC-110 dilution "B", 4:45 at 68° F. I cleaned spots and lint with Pixelmator software on a Mac Mini and resized to 2400 pixels for this blog. Click any picture to enlarge it. One photograph, that of the hallway, is digital from a Fuji X-E1 camera.

1 comment:

  1. Very cool post! Love reading about people having trips to Poland! :)

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