The Auschwitz camp is located on the suburbs of the city Oświęcim (which in German means Auschwitz). It has a surface of 20 ha and is located around 70 km from Krakow. Birkenau – German name for the village Brzezinka – was established as a branch of an existing camp. It is located around 3,5 km from Auschwitz and has a surface of 171 ha. Monowitz, the third camp, was established as a subcamp, but soon became an independent unit gathering prisoners doing exploitative, slave labor for the needs of the IG-Farben concern.
Concentration camp Auschwitz- Birkenau at first was meant to be a place of exile of political prisoners and opposition. The idea of said camp belonged to Arpad Wigand, worker of the SS and police office in Wroclaw and was a result of overflow of prisons in Silesia. First transport to Auschwitz happened 14th June 1940 and it consisted of a group of 728 political prisoners, mostly Polish. Since 1942 it was not only a concentration camp, but a center of a mass extermination of Jews as well. Birkenau was established in June of 1942 and Monowitz – also called Auschwitz III – in October of 1942.
During almost 5 years of the existence of the camps, German Nazis deported there more than 1,3 million of people of more than 20 nationalities. Out of such a huge number, most were sent right to the gas chambers; only 400 000 were registered as workers, and only less than 200 000 survived to the end of war. Among the nationalities of the prisoners, definitely the Jews were the biggest number – around 85% of all the deported and 90% of all killed. 430 000 of them were Hungarian and 300 000 Polish. The other biggest group was Polish (140 000). Deportation of a large group of Roma people (more than 23 ooo) contributed to the significant extermination of this nationality. What is particularly heartbreaking, during the II World War many people outside of Poland didn’t believe what was happening in the Auschwitz-Birkenau, even though the reports have been coming in since 1942. People couldn’t believe that such bestiality could happen in the modern world. The only attempted visitation by an inspector of Swiss Red Cross dr Maurice Rossel happened on 27th September 1944, but camp staff – understandably – didn’t let him see the inside.
The tragedy of war was described by many Auschwitz-Birkenau survivors, such as Seweryna Szmaglewska (“Smoke over Birkenau”), Krystyna Żywulska (“I survived Auschwitz”) and Tadeusz Borowski (collection of novels). It is important to listen to a voice of the ones that survived the nightmare, and, hopefully, not only give them respect, but learn from the monstrosity of the war so we could prevent it from happening again.
Although concentration camps existed during the I World War and even before that, they were never a place of mass extermination. At first – at least officially – it wasn’t a plan for Auschwitz-Birkenau as well. Huge overflow of political prisoners and the need of a free working force were the main reasons for founding camps in the first place.
Everyday life in the camps was filled with fear, death, work and the rare attempts of having a substitute for a normal life. Early morning wake-ups, long appeals, 11 hours or more of mostly tough, physical labour were a normality for prisoners. They worked mostly in the quarries, factories, ironworks and mines. The day started with a liquid said to be tea or coffee, for lunch there was a watery soup, and for dinner – 300 grams of black bread which was supposed to be enough for breakfast as well. It was small and didn’t contain enough calories and nutrients for a grown up person, especially doing the physical work. It was calculated by the Nazis that with such rations people could survive only three months. Prisoners never had enough water to wash oneself and everyone had to sleep on wooden bunks without any kind of mattress. Rats and insects were a huge problem in the barracks. With no possibility of maintaining hygiene, infectious diseases erupted frequently and many of the prisoners were too weak to recover. Situation improved in 1943, when baths and disinfection facilities were put into use.
A person cannot live in constant fear, so the prisoners managed to provide a bit of entertainment. One of the most popular people in the camp were “living books” – the ones who could tell stories, plots of the books they’ve read before imprisonment. The other way of providing some oblivion were “artistic shows”, where singers perform melodies known from the past, artists and poets reciting and doing sketches. There even was a tiny library hidden in the family block. It consisted of approx. 8/9 books and existed for 6 months.
Even though it might seem unlikely, resistance movement in the camp was founded in 1940 by Witold Pilecki. He was a polish officer who got himself caught during the round-up to investigate the camp. Three years later he managed to run away. Pilecki wasn’t the only one who escaped though. In total 700 prisoners were trying to do so, and 300 were successful in it. Until 1943 escapes were heavily punished with the death of other prisoners and sometimes even families of the ones that got away.
Turn of 1944 and 1945 was a time filled with rushed, nervous decisions made by the camp authorities. They knew that the allied front was coming closer every day and they tried to destroy evidence of a mass homicide. Beginning of February 1945 was a time of “death marches” – camp prisoners had to march out to locations many kilometers away from Auschwitz. It was a very cold and snowy winter and prisoners had to sleep under the open sky, so many of them died during the march. Many of them were murdered as well.
27th of January 1945 Auschwitz III was liberated by the 60th Army of the 1st Ukrainian Front. Soon other blocks were liberated and people that were in them – a small part of the mass that was deported during the years of existence – received the first help. The local Polish joined Soviet doctors and military paramedics and they together managed to save malnourished, oftentimes injured people.
Temporary places of stay for German prisoners of war were established on the grounds of former camps. One of the first and most important trials happened in Krakow and it began on 24th November 1947. It tried 41 former camp staff. The Nuremberg trials, happening from 20th November 1945 to 14th April 1949, made a total of 185 war criminals indicted. Despite those and many other trials in the 50s and the 60s most of the torturers were never punished; some of them weren’t even found, as they ran away mostly to North and South America. It’s estimated that only 1700 out of 70 000 war criminals were detained – which gives approx. 2,5% effectiveness.
Museum was officially opened 14th June 1947. It wasn’t completely ready at the time, because they had to deal with an extremely delicate issue- how to make an institution out of a location that just 2 years ago was a place where so many people were tortured and lost their lives? What is worth noticing, the museum was established thanks to the efforts of former prisoners. By the end of the 70s the whole area of Auschwitz-Birkenau had been marked with a protection zone, which ensured preservation, maintenance and appropriate development of the surrounding area. In 1979 the former camps Auschwitz-Birkenau entered into the UNESCO international register of world heritage properties as the only such place in the history of the list and symbol of all the camps. In the same year pope John Paul II visited Auschwitz and celebrated Mass in memory of the victims. Nowadays Auschwitz-Birkenau museum is one of the most often visited institutions in Poland with approx. 2 million visitors per year.
The camps are 3,5 km away from each other. The visit starts in the Auschwitz camp and after a two-hour tour the trip moves to Birkenau. The entire tour takes about 4-5 hours. In Auschwitz there are gates similar to the ones at the airports, but the queue usually goes fast. On the surface of the museum there are barracks, post-camp facilities, ruins of gas chambers and crematoria. Kilometers of wired fences limit the terrain just as they did years ago. Main exhibition was established in 1955 and stayed practically unchanged until today. It’s laid out in five blocks at the Auschwitz I and is one of the most characteristic parts of the whole museum There are also railroad tracks and a railway ramp in Birkenau. In addition to the main exhibition there are other permanent displays as well. They are called “national”, because every exhibition was created by a different country. The first one was Czechoslovakian, opened in 1960. Each has a specific topic: “Tragedy of Slovakian Jews”, “Extermination of European Roma”, “Betrayed citizen. In the memory of the victims of Holocaust in Hungary” and many more. They all are a moving testimony to a shared tragedy of Europe.
If visiting the museum is not possible for you at the moment, there are also online exhibitions available. You can enter them here: http://auschwitz.org/en/visiting/on-line-exhibitions/