last post: Auschwitz I – Oświęcim, Poland
It’s hard to describe the size of Birkenau. Many people would say it is huge, but it certainly doesn’t take more than ten or fifteen minutes to walk across the whole camp. So it isn’t huge, as in city huge. But it is huge in the sense that there are a lot of parts to this camp – lots of sections and areas. And if it seems so complex when most of it is in ruins, it must have been overwhelming when hundreds more buildings were standing and thousands of people were there.
A railway runs through the camp from front to back. On one side, dozens of buildings remain – many were housing, but this area also included places like the hospital and “experimentation” rooms. On the other side of the tracks, ruins and ruins – with only chimneys remaining. It wasn’t until today that I realized that groups of people were kept in separate areas – so close, yet so far apart. What I mean is that there were enclosed areas, each with about thirty buildings. In each were a kitchen, offices, latrines, and lots of housing…all in a rectangular shape, maybe 500 x 100 feet (just a guess). And this blueprint was repeated side-by-side, about six sections deep. One of those rectangular areas was for men, one for gypsies, one for Hungarian women, etc. There was a strange realization that a prisoner would have been part of one group, confined and isolated in that way, yet that person could see through the barbed wire to the camp just next door.
In the back of the camp were five gas chambers and crematoria, ponds for dumping ashes, the area for processing incoming prisoners and the buildings for sorting belongings, known as “Canada.” As a matter of fact, the Nazis were in the process of increasing the camp’s size… they were building on to one side of the camp with an additional area known as “Mexico.”
As a side note, here is something to ponder – I can get teary pretty easily. Not during movies, but during real life events. This place, with over 1.3 million murders seems like a place where tears flow easily. As I wandered around, alone, and as I sat near one of the gas chambers and reflected, I felt very sad and sickened. But I didn’t cry. I actually thought to myself that I should be crying, but I couldn’t. But the first time I walked into one of the “houses” like the first picture in this post – maybe 100 x 30 feet, with a small fireplace in the middle, a washroom, only a small vent in the center of the roof for air circulation, some small windows, and dozens upon dozens of “beds” like these, I cried. I wonder how many people though that living there was worse than dying.