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September 5th, 2010 | Europe

Birkenau…

The trains transporting prisoners arrived through the open jaws of the Admin Block at Birkenau...

It was raining as we started our walk around the massive Birkenau Concentration Camp…

Running directly down its centre, through the mouth of the administration block, was the railway line that brought Jews and other prisoners from the four corners of Europe, The vast majority, to their eventual deaths…

At times, over 100 000 prisoners were housed here…

The wooden stables that the inmates were housed in...

Long lines of wooden stables, originally designed to house 52 horses of the German Army, were erected here, and in each, over 400 prisoners were kept…

They slept on three-tiered wooden bunks, crowded together… Women were kept in a separate section of the camp to that of the men…

The barracks had fireplaces, but there was hardly ever anything to burn, and many prisoners froze to death on their wooden bunk beds… Temperatures here can reach up to -20° Celsius in winter…

Birkenau in Winter... This photo was taken in 2005...

They slept in three-tier wooden bunks... They were not provided with blankets, and used anything they could find to keep warm...

We were shown into one of the wooden buildings, and there tried to imagine the difficult living conditions forced upon those strong enough to work in the armaments factories in the surrounding area…

Those that were too weak to work, or too sick, were sent directly to the chambers at the end of the camp…

The concrete latrines...and a red rose...

At one end of the building was a long line of concrete latrines, and on the end, somebody had placed a red rose… Prisoners had vied for the task of cleaning these latrines, as the smell from them so impregnated their clothing, that the guards stayed well clear of them…

This meant that the latrine cleaners were not beaten and subjected to other forms of ill-treatment as often as the other inmates were…

We left the wooden barracks, heading towards the area where the trains arrived to offload the prisoners… Some of the tourists were fortunate enough to have brought umbrellas, while others, like myself walked uncaring of the soft rain that fell…

I thought about the weather we were experiencing and it struck me that a grey and overcast sky should always hang above this place… I think a warm sunny day will not properly convey the misery that people experienced here…

A dark cloud should hang over Auschwitz and Birkenau forever…

All that remains of many of the wooden barracks, are their brick chimneys...

Our guide explains how the prisoners arrived and went through the selection process...

On the walk along the railway line, I noticed that one of our group, and elderly lady from Manhattan, had lagged far behind us… I left the group, having had my fill of the horror stories our guide was describing to the rest of them, and walked back to escort Estelle…

We chatted about what we had seen earlier at Auschwitz, and agreed that it was one of the most difficult things we had endured… She was an artist and sculptor, and when I asked her if she had come here to find material for her artwork, she said,

“No, my dear… I couldn’t do anything on this… It would be too difficult…”

I knew what she meant… I was dreading the thought of having to dredge up what I had seen and experienced, and then write about it…

We walked to the halfway mark where a box car was standing… It had been found in Germany and restored to its original condition, then shipped here… It was difficult to believe that over a hundred people were crammed into just one of these carriages…

Many of the occupants were dead on arrival, having suffocated en route to Birkenau… Some survived by finding a crack in the wooden floor and breathing through that…

Trains arrive at Birkenau, carrying thousands of Jews and other deportees from all parts of Europe...

This very same carriage, designed for cattle, probably delivered human cargo here as well...

When the incinerators could not cope with the volumes of bodies to be burnt, they were packed into trucks and buried in mass graves... Over 40 000 bodies were thrown into pits on the Birkenau site...

Survivors were marched over to a doctor, and if he detected any weakness in them, they were sent to the gas chambers immediately… Imagine what it must have been like to survive a long and brutal journey in a crowded carriage, only to be selected for immediate execution on your arrival…

Most of the children, too young to work, had to bypass the “inspection” and were sent to their deaths with a wave from the officers in charge… There were times when there were no doctors or officers to inspect the arrivals, which meant every living soul on the train, went directly to the gas chambers…

Women and children wait to be taken into the gas chambers at Birkenau...

The four massive gas chambers were built to process up to 2000 people at a time, and huge incinerators were built adjacent to them, to speed up the disposal of the bodies… In the few months between April and July of 1944, records show that over 437 000 Jews arrived at Birkenau to be gassed and incinerated…

The Germans had demolished the four chambers before they retreated, leaving just piles of rubble and caved in roofs to show where they had once stood… Blueprints for one of the chambers were discovered among the documents that were intended for the incinerators, allowing investigators to understand the workings of these chambers…

The roof has fallen in on the pit where once up to 2000 people at a time were murdered...

My mind had been numbed by what I had seen at Auschwitz, and here at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the horror I had felt returned… The group I was with seemed to splinter… Couples and individuals drifted apart to be alone with their thoughts…

Blank faces stared out over the ruins of the chambers, trying to imagine the terrible last moments of thousands of men, woman and children…

Or perhaps some were trying to “block out” what had taken place here…

On the walk back to the entrance of the camp, I thought about the words written by George Santayana that I had seen on a plaque at Auschwitz earlier that day,

“The one who does not remember history, is bound to live through it again…”

But history has repeated itself… In 1982, Robert Mugabe gave the order that saw over 20 000 Matabele massacred in Zimbabwe… In 1988, Saddam Hussein launched a poison gas attack on the Kurds, killing 5000 of them and injuring more than twice that number… In Kosovo, in the former Yugoslavia, ethnic cleansing took place in 1992… In 1994, over 800 000 Rwandan Tutsi’s, almost 20% of the country’s population, lost their lives in just 100 days of genocidal madness… The list goes on and on… As I write this, thousands of women and children are being raped, tortured and murdered in the Congo…

This plaque at the Birkenau Memorial makes yet another plea to mankind...

As a species, we have not learnt from history such as Auschwitz… We remain deaf and blind to the warnings from our past…

The end of the line...

I slept on the bus back to the hotel, mentally exhausted and drained by what I had experienced… I awoke when the bus stopped to drop off the other passengers at their hotel, and then sat quietly while I was being shuttled back to mine…

There, I stood leaning against the Big Fella for a long time, taking comfort from something I could touch and understand… During the last few hours I had felt as though I had been cut off from reality, and needed to get my “equilibrium” back again…

Being back with my bike allowed me to refocus… Slowly taking my mind off the horror of the death camps…

A call from Wojciech, and an invitation to meet his family, completed the task of dragging my mind back to the present…

GBWT 2010

4 comments to Birkenau…

  • Khalid KAAB

    You are right Ronnie, we have’nt learnt anything from the past, and history will repeat itself again and again.
    Despite we can go to the moon or to mars…, we are not yet human.
    till we can spend billions of billions of dollars to fight each other instead of building our humanity, our sad past will remain our future.
    Thanks a lot for sharing and take care freind.
    Sorry for my frenglish.

  • Mark Behr

    As hard as it may have been for you to write this post Ronnie, thank you for sharing it with us. If it is only read by one person who decides to stand up against history repeating itself in their lifetime, then it has served its purpose.
    Thank you !

  • Charmz

    Ditto Mark…..

    You will soon move on to more pleasant surroundings!

    Love and miss you,

  • Kim

    What can we say…..”evil” is the only word that comes to mind!!!!
    Thank you for sharing it with us…I think.
    Hope you had a better evening, with great people!!!
    BIG kisses
    K

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