Today is Armistice Day. It also happens to be Poland's Independence Day.
This isn't a coincidence: the dissolution of the German, Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires in 1918 simultaneously heralded the rebirth of the historical Poland which had been divided up among those larger powers.
A little over 20 years afterwards, the Second Polish Republic ceased to be when it was invaded by a remilitarised Germany, the Soviet Union, and the Slovak Republic. That action was incipient of the largest, most damaging conflict in the history of the planet, which would leave perhaps 85 million corpses in its wake. Poland's soil was the site of the most infamous depravity, Hell on Earth: its name was Auschwitz.
Although I had booked free tickets in advance, it became clear that for only £12 we could join a group led by an English-speaking tour guide. That proved to be a bargain, as we spent over 3 hours being educated about the horrors inflicted on people who's only crime was to live.
This blog isn't the place to find detailed information about Auschwitz. There are plentiful better sources. I'll just stick to what we saw.
From our starting point, we could see barbed wire and the infamous gates:
The title was, of course, cruelly ironic. Nobody was going to get out of here alive. People were going to be worked to death, assuming they were judged capable of working. Those who weren't were disposed of immediately.
There was no mistaking that this was a prison:
In each of these blocks between 700 and 1000 people were housed:
It was clear that Auschwitz was the end destination for Jews, political prisoners, priests and other undesirables from all over Europe. 1.3 million people were deported by the Nazis to Auschwitz during the five years that it was operational. 1.1 million of them were killed there, 90% of whom were Jews. The original crematorium could incinerate 5000 bodies a day. It became clear that this wasn't enough.
In the first block we entered, there was a monument to the murdered people. The urn contains ashes taken from the crematoria at the death camp, Birkenau:
The mass murders were carried out when the prisoners were herded into showers. Through a vent in the ceiling, pellets of a cyanide-based pesticide called Zyklon B were dropped in. 5 to 7 of them were enough to kill everybody in the room within 20 minutes:
The sheer scale of murder at Auschwitz meant that even though so small a supply was needed for each group killed, the Nazis got through hundreds of canisters of the stuff:
We walked past similar piles of pony tails, shorn from female prisoners, whose hair was used for stuffing in mattresses, bombs, and ropes and cords for ships. Likewise, we saw mountains of suitcases with names painted on them, glasses, and personal effects. I don't think anything could out-shock the site of toddlers' shoes and clothing:
These weren't an isolated few cases:
I don't think most people in our group had heard of Josef Mengele, known as the Angel of Death. He was infamous for experimenting on prisoners, without using anaesthetic. He had a particular fascination with twins. He would regularly inject one twin with a deadly disease, and keep the second alive. Once the infected one was dead, the healthy twin would be murdered so that he could compare their organs.
A photo on a wall shows two of Mengele's twins, Eva and Miriam Mozes. Eva was the one infected but survived the resultant infection, and both twins made it out of Auschwitz alive. Eva visited Auschwitz annually to share her experiences and died in July of this year, aged 85.
We soon exited into a courtyard where prisoners were put up against a wall and shot:
There were also posts featuring hooks from which prisoners would be suspended by their hands, bound together behind them. This was effectively a death sentence, since most prisoners arms would be ruined by the torture, meaning that they ceased to be of use to their captors:
A short distance away was a special set of gallows erected for hanging prisoners in front of other ones:
We soon reached the end of the camp. It's surprisingly small considering the enormity of its infamy:
Around the corner and on the other side of the barbed wire was the villa of Auschwitz's commandant, Rudolf Franz Ferdinand Höss. I can't imagine that anybody shed a tear when he was hanged for his crimes on gallows erected especially for him:
People aren't aware that Auschwitz refers to several sites. The one that most people think of, the one with the infamous gates, is Auschwitz I, the concentration camp. The site of industrialised murder, however, is a short distance away at the death camp, Auschwitz II-Birkenau. We boarded a bus to take us the short distance to it.
It looks bleak from the get-go:
Prisoners would arrive sealed in trains which could hold up to 70 people. At times they were filled with 130:
Exiting the wagons, the prisoners would be directed on which side of a doctor to pass. Those deemed fit for work would be on one side. The elderly, infirm, and young would be placed on another. They wouldn't survive the day.
The Nazis tried to destroy the crematoria as the Russians approached. The ruins still remain:
A monument stands at the end, featuring plaques in those languages most common among the people murdered, including Judeo-Spanish:
Here's the translation:
The one remaining site was the women's accommodation. It was abject:
The buildings were supposed to hold 700 women. With some quick mental arithmetic, we worked out that this meant that 6 people would share each compartment. That includes the bottom one, the floor to which was soil. Rats would scurry about eating the deceased. If they didn't know whether a body was dead, there was an easy way for them to check.
The extreme cramping may actually have been useful to the prisoners. Temperates in this part of Poland can reach minus fifteen in winter. You can imagine that the Nazis weren't interested in providing heating. They were barely interested in providing toilet facilities. The women were herded into a toilet block twice a day, and were given 30-40 seconds before being forced to leave. Clothes were changed every few weeks. Showers were rare but when they did happen, the prisoners would return naked and wet, including in the dead of winter.
All together, our tour lasted an hour and forty minutes at Auschwitz I and a further hour at Auschwitz II-Birkenau, immense value at only £12 each. We chatted with our guide a bit on the return journey to the first camp, and then began the journey to Zakopane, where we'll be spending our final two nights.