Majdanek and Auschwitz-Birkenau

I wasn’t sure exactly what to write about our visits to each of these places, and in the end have decided to stick to a brief overview with mostly just facts for two reasons:  one, there is already a great deal of information available for anyone who wishes to delve further into the subject, information that is far more comprehensive than anything I could ever write, and two, a visit to a concentration camp can elicit very personal feelings that aren’t necessarily pertinent to anyone else (although likely very typical to what most people experience).  No matter what you read or study from home or school, no matter what you may see in a documentary or movie, nothing can really prepare you for what the reality is like when you are standing on the very soil where part of the Holocaust took place.

Majdanek

Majdanek Monument to Struggle and Martyrdom

Majdanek Monument to Struggle and Martyrdom

We arrived at Majdanek via trolleybus #156 (#158 or bus #23 will work, too) and the stop let us off very close to the Visitor Information Center, where we stopped in and purchased an English language guide for 3zl/$1.  The guide is not meant to be comprehensive; it is mainly a site map that helps the visitor follow a route and navigate the immense site.  It suggested starting the self-guided tour at the Monument to Struggle and Martyrdom, which is a huge monument “whose shape refers to the symbolic Hell’s Gate from Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’” (quote from the guide).  Along the entire route are signboards with more in-depth information that explains what you are looking at and/or what events took place there; the signboards are written in Polish, English, and Hebrew.  Additionally, many sites have separate signboards that each recounts a first-hand memory from a Majdanek survivor.  Following the route of the guide our visit took about 3 hours and the walking length is 5 kilometers.

View down a camp road from the Monument, ending at the Mausoleum

View down a camp road from the Monument, ending at the Mausoleum

While on our tour we noticed the absence of two things:  one was graffiti or defacement of any kind, and this was in spite of the fact the site has no exterior barriers that would preclude anyone from coming in at any time, day or night.  It was encouraging.  We also did not encounter any crowds; in fact there were only a handful of other visitors to the site during the time we were there.  This allowed us to really take our time to read almost all of the signboards, and it provided a quiet atmosphere in which to process and contemplate what it was we were seeing.  Auschwitz-Birkenau, on the other hand, was quite the opposite.

Guardhouses

Guardhouses

Two important things to note about Majdanek are its size and condition.  The current State Museum at Majdanek, as it is now called, occupies 90 hectares (222 acres) of the 270 hectares (667 acres) the entire camp used to span.  The photos attached to this post do not nearly capture the enormity of the Museum, and even if they did, the actual camp was 3 times larger than what we saw on our visit.  The condition of the camp makes it one of the best-preserved Nazi concentration camps, in that the Soviet liberation of Majdanek on July 23, 1944, came unexpectedly and took the Nazis by surprise (Majdanek was the first major concentration camp to be liberated).  As such, they were unable to destroy the evidence of their horrific crimes before they fled, particularly the crematoria, something they were largely able to accomplish at other concentration camps (including Auschwitz-Birkenau).

The current site extends all the way to the tree line in the distance

The current site extends all the way to the tree line in the distance

It was Heinrich Himmler’s decision to build Majdanek, and it initially was to be a labor camp designed to hold upward of 50,000 inmates.  Plans were continuously modified and soon the designs called for a camp that would house 150,000 inmates and prisoners of war, but these plans were never fully realized due to an economic downturn.  Eventually, the site was turned into a concentration/death camp that held mostly Jews from across Europe, and both Russian and Polish POWs.  At its peak in May 1943, 25,000 people were imprisoned there and it is estimated that 150,000 people total were either imprisoned and/or transited through there during the years the camp was operational (October 1941 to July 1944)

Row upon row of barracks

Row upon row of barracks

From Majdanek’s inception it was intended for men only, but in October 1942 a camp for women was established and from March 1943 children were held there, as well.  Majdanek was considered to be one of the toughest camps due to the deplorable living conditions (although other camps certainly weren’t that much better).  The living barracks had been flimsily erected, they were constantly overcrowded, and there was a complete lack of basic sanitation, which led to widespread diseases.  Food, water, and clothing were in constant short supply.  Winters were brutally cold, summers were scorching hot.  Many were forced into hard labor for long hours each and every day, literally being worked to the bone, and all were in constant fear for their lives, which could be taken at any moment on the whim of an SS officer.  It was not uncommon for an officer to execute someone on the spot if they deemed them too weak to work any longer.  Most prisoners did not spend any length of time at Majdanek, as they generally died from the conditions or were murdered within 6 months of arrival.

Inside the barracks (it's dark & I didn't use flash, but the rows of wooden, 3-leveled beds run the length of the building

Inside the barracks (it’s dark & I didn’t use flash, but the rows of wooden, 3-tiered beds run the length of the building

While the exact number of deaths at this camp will likely never be known, extensive studies have estimated the number to be near 80,000, of which about 60,000 were Jewish.  Prisoners came from almost 30 countries and mainly died either by being gassed, worked to death, disease, starvation, or firing squad.  The worst of the worst days occurred on November 3, 1943, when the German police and SS squads lined up over 18,000 Jewish prisoners and executed them by firing squad, meanwhile playing loud music over the loudspeakers in an attempt to drown out the noise.  It amounted to the largest single-day, single-location killing during the Holocaust.  The Germans called is Erntefest, or “Harvest Festival.”

The Mausoleum

The Mausoleum

I will wrap up this section on Majdanek at the same spot where the self-guided tour ends.  Now erected near the execution ditches where the “Harvest Festival” took place is a large, domed Mausoleum.  Under the dome are the ashes of the murdered victims, and there is an ominous inscription in Polish carved into the front that translates to, “Let our fate be a warning to you.”

Auschwitz-Birkenau

Prisoner entry to Auschwitz I

Prisoner entry to Auschwitz I

I had visited Auschwitz-Birkenau during my time spent in Krakow in March 2005, but Jim had not been with me.  Both visits were equally poignant and meaningful, although it was significantly less crowded in 2005, which led to a much more peaceful and contemplative visit.

We took a full-sized bus from Krakow’s main bus station (adjacent to the train station) to the site of Auschwitz-Birkenau.  The ride took about an hour and 45 minutes and cost 14zl ($4.30) per person each way.  It dropped us off right in the main parking lot at Auschwitz I in front of the Visitor’s Center, and we were able to get tickets on the 10:30 English language guided tour (40zl each/$12.30).  Between April 1st and October 31st, a guided tour of Auschwitz I is compulsory during the hours of 10:00-15:00.  There are no such restrictions to visit Birkenau (Auschwitz II).

P1080572Our tour group was oversized (about 70 people), so we were split into 3 groups.  Additionally, there were many, many other guided tours being conducted simultaneously in either other languages or as private tours, and therefore the Auschwitz I site was very crowded.  Because of this, you are provided with a headset in which you listen directly to your assigned guide, which helps a great deal.  However… it appeared all the guides took the same route through the Auschwitz I complex, which is comprised mostly of original brick buildings in which permanent exhibits are now held.  The route takes you inside many of the buildings, up and down stairs within, and back and forth along narrow corridors while the guide explains the exhibits or purpose of the building/site.  Due to the large number of groups, oftentimes inside each building was a sea of people (along with a sea of noise), each jostling this way or that, or a large group going up the stairs or down a corridor while another group was going in the opposite direction.  While it is truly wonderful that this many people are making the effort to visit and learn (our guide said they had 1.4 million visitors last year), the current lack of crowd control makes for a somewhat chaotic visit and it’s almost impossible to try to collect your thoughts, process, or contemplate anything while being swept up in the fray.  It was also rather difficult to see all of the exhibits or read many of the inscriptions of the displayed pieces, but before 10:00 and after 15:00 the Auschwitz I site is free to enter without a guide, at which time you may take more time to visit at your own pace.

Cell Block 15

Cell Block 15, indicative of what much of Auschwitz I looks like

Auschwitz-Birkenau was comprised of three main camps:  Auschwitz I, Birkenau (Auschwitz II), and Monowitz (Auschwitz III), the latter of which was a forced labor camp and not visited on the tour.  The entire Auschwitz complex was the largest of its kind established by the Nazis, encompassing about 40 square kilometers (15.50 square miles) at its peak in summer 1944.  Today, the site of Auschwitz I is about 20 hectares (50 acres) and Birkenau is about 171 hectares (422 acres).

Site of Hoess home, in full view from inside prison walls

Site of Hoess home, in full view from inside prison walls

The tour commences by passing under the infamous German sign at Auschwitz I that reads “Arbeit Macht Frei,” which roughly translates to Work Will Set You Free.  Auschwitz I was the first camp of the complex to be established (in May 1940), originally consisting of 22 prewar brick barracks buildings.  Its original purpose was to serve as a prison and forced labor camp for perceived “enemies of state,” criminal offenders, and political prisoners.  This site also had a gas chamber, crematorium, and execution wall.

Along the tour route we passed a house just outside the prison walls.  This house was lived in by Rudolf Hoess, his wife, and five children.  From early 1940 to late 1943, Hoess oversaw the entire Auschwitz complex, and it was under his watch that the use of Zyklon B gas was developed and used to mass murder Jews.  His children played nearby.  As an aside, Hoess was tried and convicted at the Nuremberg Trials after the war.  He was sentenced to death and hanged on the grounds of Auschwitz I – in view of his former villa – on April 16, 1947.

Guardhouse at Auschwitz I

Guardhouse at Auschwitz I

Many of the brick barracks now house exhibits of personal effects, informational signboards and maps, and photographs taken by either the Nazis themselves when the camp was fully operational or by the Soviets from right after the camp was liberated.  In addition, some interior spots have been preserved as they were when the camp was operational, such as former Nazi officers’ offices and prison cells that had names like The Starvation Cell, Standing Cell, and Dark Cell, places in which you can surmise what took place.

P1080607

Stone memorial

Jewish families taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau were told they were being relocated, and, as such, they needed to pack up as many belongings as they could carry.  Upon arrival to the camp, these items were immediately confiscated by the Nazis, including all cash and valuables, which were then used to fund their reign of terror.  Items were organized and stored by Nazis in massive warehouses onsite (similar warehouses were found at other concentration/death camps, as well).  Now many of these personal effects are on display throughout the barracks, including tens of thousands of shoes (displayed in a chilling pile), 3,800 suitcases (most with family names on them), over 12,000 kitchen utensils, thousands of pairs of eyeglasses, 470 prostheses and orthotics, hair brushes and shaving brushes, camp garments, and religious artifacts.  While all of these enormous displays are powerful and sobering, I felt the most overwhelming and poignant exhibit was the large room filled along one side with human hair, most of which is now gray due to the passage of time.  It was standard protocol for Nazis to shave the heads of new arrivals and/or newly dead from being gassed, and this hair was later used to make things like pillows or be woven into textiles.  For perspective, upon liberation of the camp, the Soviets found a warehouse filled with over 7,000 kilograms (15,400 pounds) of human hair from the victims, and this doesn’t even come close to representing all of the human hair the Nazis shaved off their victims and stored in bales throughout the entire network of camps.  For me (and I’m sure most others), this display elicited the most visceral reaction of all (both on this day and on my visit in 2005), as I felt like someone had punched me in the stomach and literally took my breath away.

Auschwitz I

Auschwitz I

The tour of Auschwitz I also walks past the outside of the infamous Block 10, the barrack where SS doctors conducted an atrocity of medical experiments on human subjects, including many children.  Among the experiments were those trying to establish an effective means of mass sterilization.  Not far from Block 10, and in between two of the barracks buildings, is what was known as the Wall of Death yard.  In the early years, before the widespread use of Zyklon B and the gas chambers, the Nazis executed thousands of prisoners by firing squad there.  While the barracks windows that faced the yard were blackened out so prisoners could not see what was going on, it was commonly known around the camp what took place there.

View of main guardhouse, under which trains would pass

View of main Birkenau guardhouse, under which trains would pass

This part of the tour concluded after about 2 hours, where we had a 15 minute break before boarding the Museum shuttle to the site of Birkenau (Auschwitz II).  This second part of the tour lasted about one hour.

Birkenau could hold up to 100,000 people and looks vastly different from Auschwitz I, which held an average of 14,000 at one time (it was also discovered the Nazis had intended to increase Birkenau’s size to hold over 200,000 people).  It is a much more open space and was built because the Nazis realized they needed more room to carry out their “Final Solution,” and the vast majority of mass extermination occurred at Birkenau (not Auschwitz I).  While the Nazis managed to destroy a lot of it (including the remaining crematoriums) right before they fled in January 1945 as the Soviet Army approached, the Museum has reconstructed some of the wooden barracks using photographs and original materials left behind.  Some of what you see is original, however, including the brick structures and guardhouse.

Photo taken from Selection Ramp site facing far end of camp away from guardhouse

Photo taken from Selection Ramp site facing far end of camp away from guardhouse

Jews were brought to Birkenau from all over Europe via rail cars, which were overcrowded with people and their belongings (remember, they thought they were being relocated), and the ride could last upwards of 10 days with little to no food or water and no bathroom facilities.  Birkenau was built so the trains could be pulled past the guardhouse and into the camp directly to the spot of the Selection Ramp.  It was here a German doctor would immediately size up each person and either point them to the left or the right, oftentimes tearing families apart forever.  One direction would lead the prisoners directly into the gas chambers, the other would lead directly into the camp, where they would be forced into hard labor and brutal living conditions very similar to Majdanek, above.  Only about 20% of the total numbers of Jews on the Selection Ramp were chosen for labor, meaning 80% were immediately gassed.  The selection criteria was mostly dependent on your age, and most forced into labor did not survive long under camp conditions that included overcrowding, brutal weather in winter and summer, widespread disease, and shortages of food and water.

One of the most despicable jobs an SS officer could assign a forced laborer was that of Sonderkommand.  These were Jewish inmates forced to work at the crematoriums, and, along with burning the bodies, they were tasked with removing gold teeth (to be melted and cashed in by the Nazi party) and shaving off any remaining hair a corpse might still have.  It was not unusual for these workers to have to process the body of a family member or friend.  The turnover rate for this job was high, as at the end of a two-month shift the Nazis would execute them.  Some of these workers, almost mercifully, were able to commit suicide first.

Photo taken from site of Selection Ramp, beyond which used to be dozens of barracks (burned down by Nazis)

Photo taken from site of Selection Ramp, beyond which used to be dozens of barracks (burned down by Nazis)

Today, at the end of the railroad tracks on the far side of the camp near the former gas chambers and crematoriums, sits a monument built in 1967 that represents gravestones and the chimney of a crematorium.  There are also plaques written in each of the languages spoken by the camp’s victims (including English), that read, “For ever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity, where the Nazis murdered about one and a half million men, women, and children, mainly Jews from various countries of Europe.”

While, like Majdanek, the exact number of victims will likely never be known, it is estimated that 1,100,000 human beings died at Auschwitz, of which approximately 90% were Jewish.  All we are left with now is remembrance.

Final Comments on Visitors’ Behavior

A visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau (or any concentration camp) is a sobering and somber experience, and should be treated as such.  We witnessed some abhorrent actions during our visit, and I cannot help but publicly rebuke your behavior now and implore others not to follow in the same footsteps.

To the French couple who brought your loud, fussy, squirmy, crying, noisy 3-year old child and was part of our tour of Auschwitz I:  the Museum strongly recommends children under the age of 14 not visit, and that rule is, in part, because of your child.  Her antics and noise level were highly distracting to the guide and tour participants, and inadvertently disrespectful.  While she obviously could not have known any better, you should have and I am still not quite sure what you were trying to get out of the tour, as you both spent the majority of your time with your headphones off, cooing at your child.

To the multitude of people who used the flash on your cameras inside the buildings in spite of the numerous Museum signs prohibiting you from doing so, no, it is not okay that you “just take a quick little picture over there with your flash.”  Not even “just one.”

To the astonishing number of people who would run up to a site (such as, shockingly, the Wall of Death, where thousands of people were brutally executed) to smile and pose for a picture as if you were in front of the Eiffel Tower, words cannot convey how utterly atrocious and distasteful that was.

And, finally, to the American college student who, upon realizing she did not have a seat and was one of about a dozen people who had to stand in the aisle of the bus for the journey back to Krakow, whined and complained a good portion of the way, it is hard to imagine you had visited the same Auschwitz-Birkenau we did, where we learned hundreds of thousands of Jews were transported to the camp by way of overcrowded rail cars with no food, water, or bathroom facilities for upwards of 10 days.  I think you will be just fine on the hour and 45 minute ride back to Krakow on an air-conditioned bus.

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