Auschwitz is a word which gives me chills in spite of the fact that I should be more used to this place since I visited it several times as a tour guide. Since I visited it many times I will try to give you a bit more personal description of this horrible place. I will tell you what you should see and what you should know - maybe some of this information is not that obvious in any guidebooks which describe Auschwitz in a very standard way.
There is a reason for talking about Auschwitz right now.
On 27th of January, 2005 - over forty heads of state, among them presidents of Russia - Vladimir Putin, Germany - Horst Koehler and France's - Jacques Chirac, government heads and even high rank of European royalty will gather at the ceremony of 60th anniversary of Auschwitz liberation (January 27, 1945). Even the naughty prince Harry who dressed in a Nazi uniform for fun may be sent to Auschwitz to learn more about this place. Also at least 2,000 of the ex-prisoners would participate in the ceremony. This would be the biggest gathering of the heads of the states since last year ceremony in France commemorating the Invasion in Normandy.
Auschwitz camp was situated near an industrial town Oswiecim, in German: Auschwitz, about 60 km (37 miles) west from Krakow. There are several roads to get to Auschwitz - you can either take a highway or a country road. The country road is especially beautiful since you will see beautiful houses, just like the one showed at the site: Polish Countryside & Cottages in Photography. You can also pay for an organized trip - Orbis and some other travel offices from Krakow organize the trips there. Visiting Auschwitz museum is free, unless you want to take a personal or group guide.
The information in the museum is available in several languages, also in English. Free maps with the schemes of main Auschwitz camp and Birkenau (where the extermination took place) and with some brief information about the camp are available. The museum is equipped with a paid parking, bookstores, restaurants and bathrooms and also with the cinema, where you can watch a terrible documentary from Auschwitz liberation.
Auschwitz was established originally for Poles. On June 14, 1940 the Gestapo dispatched the first political prisoners to KL (concentration camp) Auschwitz, 728 Poles from a nearby town, Tarnow. Since 1942 Auschwitz became the biggest center for the mass extermination of European Jews. The exact number of people who died in Auschwitz would never be known, but it is estimated at 1.1-1.5 millions, people from all over Europe, mainly Jews, but not only, where sent to Auschwitz for almost certain death. Read more about the numbers of people who died there in the next article Auschwitz Concentration Camp - Advice from a Tour Guide.
Eventually Auschwitz consisted of three parts:
- the main camp in Auschwitz (KL Auschwitz I)which consist of brick mainly 2-3 story buildings, served mainly as a concentration camp
- Birkenau (near the village Brzezinka, (KL Auschwitz II) - the biggest camp and extermination place - with the train ramp where the majority of transports were arriving, people were selected, many sent to gas chambers immediately - served mainly as an extermination camp.
- Monovice (KL Auschwitz II)- labor camp near German Chemical Factory
Why Auschwitz was chosen to became the biggest death factory in the world? Many reasons - first of all - it had a convenient location near the industrial town with a good communication and transportation network. The place of the camp was relatively close to other parts of Europe - being situated in the Southwestern part of Poland. The original Auschwitz camp was located in deserted pre-war Polish military barracks. It could easily be isolated and camouflaged from the eyes of public opinion in Western Europe or a free world. As you probably know, Eastern Europeans were treated much worse during the war than the Western Europeans.
Until the very end of the war there was a huge confusion about Auschwitz because of its multiple function - as the concentration and the labor camp and as the extermination camp. Usually the camps were either used solely for extermination or as the labor or concentration camps. Polish resistance movement and its envoy, Jan Karski, were the first to convey the information about the real function of Auschwitz but this was too troubling to be fully believed. Maybe it explains why Auschwitz chambers were never bombed from the air whereas the neighboring industrial facilities did. The simple bombing could prevent so many deaths! The truth is that even the liberating Soviet forces were completely astonished seeing the piles of bodies and dying people (7 thousands) who were left there while the rest 60,000 were forced to march to the West and later taken in the unheated trains to other camps, many of them could not survive this harsh trip in the middle of winter. The gas chambers as well as many documents were already burnt before the liberation since Nazi tried to obliterate as much evidence they could.
I visited Auschwitz many years after the war. My mother visited it shortly after the museum was open. She told me that after seeing the museum she sat exhausted with her friends on the bank - the green grass was growing but something white was shining through the grass. She wanted to know what it is - she bowed on her knee - then she realized - these were the white crushed bone parts. Then the grass did not seem that nice anymore.
This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen (Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics, by Tadeusz Borowski, Barbara Vedder