The train slowed as it approached its destination. Outside, I could see a bleak landscape of dead trees, soggy fields of gray, covered with a haze of fog. We were in Oświęcim, Poland, about an hour’s train ride from Krakow. It was a cold February day in 2020, and we had arrived to visit Auschwitz.
The walk from the station to the former concentration camp was brief. Beside the road, the remains of the old railroad tracks used to transport prisoners were preserved. After showing our tickets at the entrance (it is strongly recommended to book them in advance), we were ushered inside and, within minutes, our tour of the complex had commenced.
The tour guide was a young Polish man who spoke excellent English. From his somber tone, it was immediately clear what kind of tour this was: a visit to the site of a historical atrocity. Still, I could not resist taking a photograph of the infamous “Arbeit Macht Frei” gate. Though this slogan—German for “Work sets you free”—seems to be a kind of sick joke, according to historian Laurence Rees, it was placed there without any sense of irony by the camp commandant, Rudolf Höss, who had himself spent four years in prison. In any case, as you undoubtedly know, it was very far from the truth.
As the guide informed us, what is often thought of as “Auschwitz” was actually two camps, Auschwitz and the newer, larger Birkenau. We were now in the older, original camp. It consisted of tall brick buildings arranged in neat rows. Our guide spoke rapidly, giving us some idea of the history of the camp. It had been opened in 1940, originally to house Polish prisoners of war. Even at this early stage, however, the camp was a sadistically cruel place, where many inmates quickly died. By 1941, mass execution via gassing had commenced; and from 1942 to 1944, the camp became the site of mass death for Jews who were transported from all over Europe. In all, over one million inmates died at the camp. The day of its liberation by the Red Army, on January 27, 1945, is commemorated as International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
But this tour was not primarily educational. It was designed to make us feel the horrors that went on in that place. To that end, many of the buildings in Auschwitz have been converted into exhibition spaces. It is viscerally disturbing. We saw the discarded glasses, shoes, luggage, pans, pots, canes, crutches, artificial limbs, and walking sticks of the victims. Most nauseating, there was a large mound of the victim’s hair, shaved from women’s bodies after gassing, and examples of clothes that were woven from such hair. Inmates with dental experience were also employed to remove any gold teeth from victims. All of these remnants form a powerful summary of how the Nazis dehumanized their victims. It was not enough to kill their ‘enemies.’ The bodies had to be turned, as much as possible, into sources of profit, or industrial products.
This attitude is just as apparent in the so-called ‘experiments’ that the Nazis subjected some of their victims to. The guide only touched on this aspect briefly, but the details are chilling. The company IG Farben, for example, paid the camp for 150 female inmates, in order to test an anesthetic. A letter regarding the test still survives; it reads: “The transport of 150 women arrived in good condition. However, we were unable to determine conclusive results because they died during the experiments.” The letter ends with a request for more inmates. And, of course, there was Dr. Mengele, who performed savage experiments on identical twins before killing and dissecting them. This ‘experimentation’ took place in block 10.
Nextdoor, in the closed space between blocks 10 and 11, executions were performed—usually on prisoners of war. Thousands died this way: forced to kneel, and then shot in the back of the head with a small-caliber pistol. The neighboring building, Block 11, was used for brutal punishments, such as being hung from the ceiling by one’s wrists, or being forced to stand in a cell for days on end. In 1941, a group of prisoners were deliberately starved to death in the small, dark, windowless cells in the lower level, as retribution for other prisoners who had managed to escape.
After this, the guide took us to the first gas chamber in the camp, Crematorium I. Here is where the Nazis who ran the camp perfected their method of mass-execution. Prisoners were told they were going to take a shower or to be de-loused. This kept people calm and allowed the camp to preserve a facade of order. After removing their clothes, they were herded into the chamber, and the door locked behind them. Then, pellets of Zyklon B were dropped into the chamber from the ceiling, releasing hydrogen cyanide gas that would kill everyone inside within minutes. The bodies were then burned. All this was explained to us as we stood outside the structure—which looks like a concrete bunker—and then we were briefly led inside. The structure that stands now is a reconstruction (the Nazis tried to hide the evidence of their crimes). Still, if it is faithful to the original, then it is chilling that such a nondescript place could the site of mass murder.
Right next to this crematorium—on the spot where the Gestapo headquarters used to be—was where Rudolf Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz, was executed. Höss unsuccessfully tried to go into hiding after the war by pretending to be a low-ranking soldier. But he was arrested in 1946, tried by the Polish Supreme National Tribunal in 1947, and hanged on a specially made gallows shortly thereafter. According to Laurence Rees, the execution had to be postponed for several days because the crowd—which included camp survivors—became unruly and aggressive (understandably). Yet as our guide informed us, it is hard to say that justice was done, as less than 15% of those who worked at Auschwitz were ever tried. As a case in point, the horrid Josef Mengele died of natural causes in Brazil.
After this, our group boarded a small bus that drove us to the second camp, known as Auschwitz II-Birkenau. This camp, built in 1941 on Himmler’s orders, has a very different look from the original Auschwitz. It is much larger, built on a wide, open field. The surviving structures are also shorter and less substantial. This is the camp that was specifically built for mass killing and large-scale slave labor. The guide showed us the train tracks that brought the prisoners in through the front gate. Here, Mengele (among others) would make his “selections,” choosing who would be forced to work, who would be used for experiments, and who would be immediately sent to the gas chambers. (Auschwitz is unique for having been both a concentration camp—where prisoners are forced to work—and an execution camp. Usually a camp was one or the other.)
Our guide then took us to the site of the two main crematoria. They are little more than piles of broken concrete now, as the Nazis destroyed them before they abandoned the camp. Still, it is deeply unsettling to see the remains of a building made especially for mass killing. The victims would be led to an underground room, where they undressed in preparation for “disinfection,” leaving their clothes on numbered pegs. Then, after walking down a hallway, they entered the gas chamber, where Zyklon B was dropped inside. (From the outside these looked like bricked-up cottages; one was called the “little red house,” and the other the “little white house.”) As soon as it was safe to enter, the bodies were taken to the adjoining crematorium and burned. An efficient factory of death.
It was here that the guide left us. My final image of Auschwitz was walking through one of the old barracks for prisoners. It was a simple, one-story structure with brick walls. With its poor insolation and large windows (I am not sure if they originally had glass in them), it must have offered little warmth in the cold months. Prisoners slept on wooden bunks, often with more than one prisoner crammed into each bunk. The abysmal living conditions—a scanty diet, insufficient clothing, poor sanitation—meant that many prisoners died without the use of gas chambers, simply through malnutrition, disease, cold, or overwork.
I have given the briefest description of Auschwitz. There is infinitely more that could be said; and there are many captivating books on the subject. There are also, I am sure, many lessons and morals that can be drawn from this atrocity. What struck me was how perfectly designed the camp was to strip inmates of their humanity. The entire process—from transport, to uniforms and tattoos, to the living quarters, to the gas chambers, to the use of prisoners for experiments and their bodies for raw materials—was designed to turn individual human beings into something entirely disposable, like cattle. This allowed men like Höss and his subordinates to perpetuate one of history’s greatest crimes with hardly a second thought.
Later, we were on the train, heading back to Krakow. I did not feel sad, or angry, or even somber—just a kind of emptiness. If a place like Auschwitz is possible, what does that tell us about being human in the first place?