Auschwitz

By Roger  (24 Oct 2013)

While we were in Poland, we took a side trip to the Nazi concentration camp, at Auschwitz.  The day was gray, with an annoying drizzle – appropriate weather for a visit to someplace this dismal. Sometimes, when you're traveling near a famous – or in this case, infamous – location, you just have to go make some photographs. Auschwitz was only 37 kilometers from Krakow, where I spent the majority of my time in Poland.

I had visited other concentration camps while I was living in Bavaria; Dachau was only 45 minutes from our house.  The German approach to these historic sites is, understandably, a little different.  They preserve the site and enough of the buildings to ensure a memorial, but the remaining complex is just a small representation of the original.

Poland, however, has preserved much of the Auschwitz complex, which was actually about 45 different compounds.  The Nazis used these facilities to exterminate more than 1.2 million prisoners (about 90% Jews).  Obviously, this is not a happy place to visit, and, although I knew the history, being on the site was still overwhelmingly oppressive.  I knew I would process the photos in black and white; color just didn't seem appropriate.

The main gate into Auschwitz. 

The main gate into Auschwitz. 

Usually, the image most have a Auschwitz is the main complex, Auschwitz I, where the famous sign “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work will make you free) is above the main entrance gate.  Prisoners arriving here were registered and tattooed.  This was where doctors Carl Clauberg and Josef Mengele did their heinous experiments.  This is the site that draws most of the visitors.  The tour through the barracks and administrative buildings includes photographs of prisoners and their horrible living conditions; the wall where executions were carried out for any rule infraction; and rooms filled with shoes, suitcases, and other personal effects taken from the prisoners. 

An entire room filled with shoes from the victims. 

An entire room filled with shoes from the victims. 

Prisoners were ordered to leave their suitcases as soon as they got off the trains. 

Prisoners were ordered to leave their suitcases as soon as they got off the trains. 

Birkenau, or Auschwitz II, however, was the location of the majority of the killings.  The railroad cars, packed with sick and terrified prisoners, would arrive inside the compound.  The Nazi guards would divide the prisoners into two groups: to the right, and you were registered and became slave labor until you died; to the left, and you were escorted to the gas chambers.  By June 1943, the Nazis were operating four crematoria to burn the victims' remains. 

Prisoners were herded into cattle cars for the trip to Auschwitz; many did not survive this journey. 

Prisoners were herded into cattle cars for the trip to Auschwitz; many did not survive this journey. 

Bodies were cremated to hide the evidence of the exterminations. 

Bodies were cremated to hide the evidence of the exterminations. 

I won't go through the entire history of Auschwitz because it is horrendous, and this is a photography blog.  The visit was a very moving experience, and I will visit it again when I'm near Krakow. If you want to learn more about this despicable chapter in mankind's history, there is a really comprehensive article about Auschwitz on Wikipedia (link). If you're one of those people who feels that studying history is uninteresting, I highly recommend you visit historic sites.  It's hard to have ambiguous feelings about historic facts when you are on the scene for a more personal visit.

Empty canisters of Zyklon, the poison used in the gas chambers.

Empty canisters of Zyklon, the poison used in the gas chambers.

"No Man's Land."  Areas near the walls were guarded by Nazi soldiers who shot any prisoners crossing the line.  

"No Man's Land."  Areas near the walls were guarded by Nazi soldiers who shot any prisoners crossing the line.