A Difficult Day

Trip Start Aug 28, 2011
Trip End Sep 19, 2011

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Flag of Poland  , Southern Poland,
Tuesday, September 6, 2011

About 80 kilometers (50 miles) west of Kraków is the Polish city of Oświęcim.  During World War II the Germans declared the entire area a military zone and built several concentration camps here.  Auschwitz I was the first and it was built in 1940 to hold Polish prisoners.  In 1941 near the town of Brzezinka about 3 kilometers away, the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex (Auschwitz II) was built.  In 1942 Auschwitz III was built on the grounds of a German chemical plant.  Between 1942 and 1944 about 40 smaller camps were built, usually in the vicinity of steelworks, mines and factories where prisoners could be exploited as slave labor.

Auschwitz-Birkenau became the primary death camp with four separate buildings used as gas chambers and crematoria.  Although when it became obvious that they could not win the war and the Soviet army was approaching the SS attempted to destroy all evidence of their activities there, Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II (Auschwitz-Birkenau) have been preserved and are open for visitors.

Bruxi and I spent the better part of the day at Auschwitz-Birkenau and the experience simply isn't capable of being captured in words.  Bruxi came as close as anything when he described the place as sinister.  Tears were rarely far from the surface as we explored what's left of the camp and considered what transpired there.

Part of the overwhelming nature of the experience is simply the physical act of moving around in the immensity of the space that was dedicated to the murder of so many.  Auschwitz II covered about 425 acres of ground with over 300 buildings.  It was a small city.  In one of the surviving wooden barracks there was a sign that said the barracks were modeled after German stable built to house 52 horses.  At Auschwitz they held up to 1000 inmates.

It's impossible to know how many were murdered here.  Rudolf Höss, the captured camp commandant testified that 70 - 75% of all arriving people were immediately gassed and cremated without being registered but estimates hover around 1.5 million deaths.  The vast majority of those murdered were Jews but Gypsies (Roma), homosexuals, prisoners of war, political opponents and other "undesirables" were also killed here.

Each of the four crematoria were capable of "processing" up to 2,000 victims at a time.  Told they were being showered people would be herded into a changing room where they undressed before being herded into a 210 square meter (235 square yard) "shower" room, the doors closed and sealed and cyclon B poured into the chamber through openings in the ceiling.  According to Rudolf Höss approximately 5 - 7 kilograms (about 11 - 15.5 lbs) of Cyclon B were required to kill about 1,500 people and in Oświęcim alone approximately 20,000 kilograms (about 20 tons) of Cyclon B was used.

Everybody was dead after 15 - 20 minutes and the bodies were processed.  Rings, earrings, teeth with gold fillings and hair would be removed before the bodies were taken to the incinerators. 

The victims personal property that wouldn't fit on the trainloads
shipped back to Germany was stored in warehouses and, when the
warehouses were full, unsorted luggage was allowed to pile up between
the warehouses. Before the arrival of Soviet troops, the SS, in their attempt to hide the purpose of the camp burned down thirty warehouses full of goods.  However, in addition to thousands of pairs of shoes, glasses, shaving brushes and other personal items, the Soviet army found approximately 7,000 kilograms (7 tons) of human hair that had not yet been sold and sent to factories in Germany.

As well as I knew before I came what occurred here, I cannot walk these grounds, see these buildings, and remember the countless number of men, women and children gassed to death, starved to death, beaten to death, worked to death, shot to death, hanged to death and tortured to death on the very grounds over which I'm walking without feeling totally overwhelmed.

The tears are always at the surface.

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Gene & Kathy on

Oh, Steve...I'm overwhelmed just reading your blog about Auschwitz. I can't even begin to imagine the horrow of that time. One of our neighbors, now deceased, was held in Auschwitz, and had her number tatooed on her arm. She lost her entire family there.
I remember in my 30's reading a book about the Manzanar Japanese camp and being apalled. Later, on one of our trips to the Sierra's, it was suddenly there, on highway 395. I wept. Later on I found out that my dad, who was a bus driver, had actually been one of the drivers who transported Japanese to that camp. Saddened my heart.
We'll be so glad to see you when you get home. Be safe. Keep Jesus close.
Love & prayers, Gene & Kathy

Peggy Neill on

I had just finished re-reading "The Hiding Place" by Corrie Ten Boom two days ago. Her descriptions barely touch the surface of what you are showing on the pictures today. My heart has been heavy with the horror in the book. What a terrible, terrible piece of history. (and I said that I wasn't going to cry anymore) I lied. Your pictures make it all the more real, but thank you so much for sharing them

Alan M. Dower on

Thanks for sharing this, Steve. Sounds like a great trip, but this blog in particular moved me. Perhaps driving home the scale of it all,....I guess we need to share the feelings and remember deeply.

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