As indicated in part 1, Birkenau didn’t exist prior to the Nazi regime. It was built in 1941 as the largest of 40 sub death camps that made up the Auschwitz complex. It was open for a total of three years, and was the place where more than 90% of the Auschwitz victims were murdered or died, most of which were exterminated in the gas chambers. Although the true amount of victims will forever remain unknown, it is estimated that this number totals over one million.
Auschwitz II- Birkenau
After a short bus ride we arrived at our final stop of our visit: Auschwitz II, Birkenau where we came face with another iconic death camp image: that of the train tracks leading through the gates and straight to the crematoriums.
A lone rail car sits aside the tracks, a monument to the over 400 000 Hungarian Jews deported to the camp between May and August of 1944. It stands about halfway between the gates and the crematoriums; in the spot where the SS doctors would divide the prisoners based on who was able to work, and who would go straight to the gas chambers. The majority of the victims were sent to their death, but that still left thousands to slavery.
As we walked in the dirt beside the train tracks we were able to take in the enormity of the area. Birkenau was the largest of the Auschwitz camps, and could hold more than 900 000 prisoners. The walk seemed to last forever as we passed building after building, or more commonly, fireplace after fireplace as that was all the remained of the majority of the buildings. The poor condition and lack of funding resulted in the demolition of the majority of barracks, but the remaining chimneys stand as a reminder of how immense the death camp actually was.
The barracks that remain are slowly deteriorating as well, but were safe enough for our guide to show us through a couple. We started in a building in which the prisoners would sleep; the floors were cold and hard, and the bunks-shoved up against the walls, towered three levels high.
“How many do you think slept on those bunks?” our guide asked us as we started in dismay at the poor living conditions.
“Six?” an elderly man asked; no doubt assuming that was a generous number, a lot of people to be shoved in the area.
“Double that.” Our guide told us, “and of course the healthy ones got the top, while the sickest had to stay at the bottom. I’m sure you can imagine, in these poor living conditions, how sick these people were in the night. And of course, everything flows down…”
With that image left in our minds she led us outside, and across to the washing building. There was a long trough to be filled with water. Soap dishes lined the sink but our guide explained that they were just for show for inspection; the prisoners were never given any soap. In the adjoining room holes carved into the floor served as toilets, one beside the other with no privacy to be found. We were told that prisoners had five minutes to use both areas; often not allowing time for both washing and use of the toilet with the enormous amount of prisoners.
Now that we had seen where the prisoners lived, it was time to move on and see where they were murdered. Unlike in Auschwitz I, the crematorium here was not intact. Knowing they were discovered the SS managed to bomb the building prior to liberation. The remains, however, are still intact and part of the museum today.
As out tour came to an end we made our way to the back of the camp, to the memorial beside the crematorium. There, in front of a small pond were four gravestones inscribed with the same message in four different languages.
“To the memory of the men, women, and children who fell victim to the Nazi genocide. Here lie their ashes. May their souls rest in peace.”
The pond, our guide told us, was the grave of an innumerable number of victims; their ashes dumped here, with no thought, after being cremated.
Our small group paused here for a moment of silence. Then each of us picked up a small rock or pebble to put on top of one of the stones, a Jewish tradition, promising that we would always remember.
Today, November 11th, is Remembrance Day in Canada. Please take a moment to remember those who lost their lives during the war, and those who fought bravely and sacrificed themselves so that we could have the rights and freedoms that we enjoy today. Lest We Forget.