Construction of Auschwitz Birkenau began in October 1941. Similar the the way that the name for Auschwitz derived from the nearby town of Oświęcim, the name Birkenau was named for its proximity to the village of Brzezinka. Himmler order the expansion of the Auschwitz complex with the establishment of Birkenau in light of the impending influx of Soviet POWs. Auschwitz-Birkenau would grow to have the largest prisoner population of the three camps. In addition to serving as a location to concentrate prisoners, Birkenau was a killing center. After the successful testing in Auschwitz I in September 1941, Zyklon B was adopted for use throughout the Auschwitz complex. The Nazis established provisional gas chambers by converting two farm houses close to Birkenau. These two provisional gas chambers were operational from January 1942 until fall of 1944. At this point, these facilities were deemed insufficient for the mass scale of extermination planned. Between March and June 1943, four larger crematoria buildings were constructed on sire. Jews from all over Europe were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Many of them were murdered in the gas chambers. Non–Jewish Poles, Roma/Sinti, Soviet POWs, and civilians from many European nations were also deported to Birkenau.
On Tuesday morning, we met Pawel Sawicki for a tour of Auschwitz-Birkenau. It is one thing to read about Auschwitz-Birkenau; it is another thing to be there. Everywhere I looked, each building, represented the murder of more than a million people. This is an odd sensation to grapple with. Standing before the infamous gate, at the railroad tracks, by the ruins of the crematorium, I tried to take in everything. It was a beautiful, sunny day morning. It was very quiet. We arrived early enough to beat much of the crowd. After dealing with the throngs of people at Auschwitz I the afternoon before, experiencing Birkenau with few other visitors was much different. With so few people, it was easier to take in the massive scale of the camp. Much of Auschwitz-Birkenau remains in ruins as the Nazi SS attempted to destroy the evidence of their crimes The foundations of buildings seem to go on and on. I think the fact the structures are in ruins helps visitors take in the sheer size of Auschwitz-Birkenau, because one’s line of sight is not hindered by the buildings.
Pawel began by taking us to one of the few barracks in the women’s camp. For exhibition purposes, the stone and wood bunks have been left in tact. Between 4-7 people would have slept in each bunk with hundreds of prisoners per barrack. Given the close quarters, it is easy to imagine the chaos of life in the barracks as well as the lack of privacy and the spread of diseases. One gains similar insights when visiting the latrines where dozens of toilets sit side by side in an open room. As we walked through the section of Auschwitz-Birkenau with buildings still in tact, and while we were were in Auschwitz I the previous day, I was reminded of the factory complex we had visited in Łódź a few days earlier. It added a new perspective to the term “death factory.” It is an important reminder that the Holocaust was the result of intentional choices and that humans deliberately created an environment to be most conducive to murder. This thought remained with me throughout our time here.
In a site like Auschwitz-Birkenau, there is a constant push-and-pull between the purposes of conservation and education. Although it is important that people be able to visit the site in order to become more aware of what happened here, this leads to constant wear and tear on the site itself. Unfortunately some visitors expedite this process. For example, there are traces of vandalism all around the barracks where visitors have carved their names and initials into the wooden posts. Even with the expected deterioration after 70 years, the conservationists face a perpetual battle to maintain the integrity of the remaining buildings. Pawel explained that whenever they have to repair/rebuild the structures or various items, they intentionally use different materials. They do this so that it is easy for visitors to know what is original and what is not, rather than blending the two. This struggle between these two initiatives is unending. I am interested to see what the future holds for the museum in these respects.
As we continued our tour, Pawel took us to the Sonderkommando Wall where the remains of the their barrack stands. The Sonderkommando were special prisoner units who were forced to remove corpses from the gas chambers and take them to the crematoria. By far, this was one of the most difficult roles in the entire camp structure. We were making our way towards the back of the camp where the gas chamber and crematoria buildings were located.
Along the way, we stopped in an area surrounded by young trees. Pawel told us that this location was where people waited for their turn to be taken to the gas chamber after arrival. This steps of this incremental process was made famous by the “Auschwitz Album” As we stood here, I could clearly see the specific photographs from this area in my head. Pawel also explained that the ashes of the bodies burned in the crematoria at Auschwitz-Birkenau were scattered in small ponds in the camp. In order to acknowledge those who remains are interred in these locations, the curators have installed memorial headstones at each spot.
When we reached the remains of Crematorium IV, we stopped for what seemed to be a long time. Each of the crematoria were destroyed by the Nazis as they retreated from the advancing Soviet army. Because of the regulations regarding disrupting grave sites in the Jewish tradition and with general concerns of preservation and conservation, these structures remain in ruins. Standing here is hard to describe. It was hard not to be overwhelmed. Staring at a pile of stones forming a massive rectangular foundation, meanwhile knowing that it represents the murder of hundreds of thousands of people. And that it only one of the four crematoria on site. At this point more than any other, I was grateful that our group was alone in this area of the camp. It allowed me the silence that was truly needed to reflect here.
After leaving the site of Crematorium IV, Pawel led us to the Central Sauna where those who were not immediately sent to the gas chambers were sent to be disinfected. This was where the incoming prisoners’ clothing items were exchanged for uniforms, their hair was shaved, tattoos were applied, and they showered before entering the camp. There was also a photograph exhibition that I found to be particularly powerful. The installation featured family photographs belonging to Jews who were deported to Auschwitz. These pictures were found on the grounds when the camp was liberated. On one side, the photographs are not captioned and the victims are unnamed. This reminded me of the attempt of the perpetrators to strip the victims of their identities. On the other side, the photographs were captioned with identification information provided based on extensive research. This was a literal restoration of the names of thousands of victims.
Visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau was a whirl-wind of an experience. It was overwhelming in size and power. It was an incredible culmination of years of study. It was a powerful reminder of why I have chosen to study and to teach about the Holocaust.