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Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Auschwitz - Birkenau

We reached Auschwitz 15mins before opening time which was 8am. The place was deserted, I had expected it to be very crowded. I guess with some help from the train schedule we had managed to 'beat the crowd' here. There were two more groups other than ours, which were mainly student groups. The entry to both Auschwitz and Birkenau is without any fees and there is a free shuttle from one camp to another, every 15mins. The English tours start at 9:30am, which are paid. We had purchased a guide book from there, to see the camp ourselves as there was no tour available at that time. There was no audio guide tour either. But as we started to go about we realized that we would miss half the things without guidance. Shaleen had read on the website that they arranged for guides for private tours, so he went to find out if we could get one. The lady at the desk had to ring up a few people to see if any one was available, and to our luck we did find one. We found a guide by the name of Sussana. Arranging for a private tour put us back by 25minutes.
Above the main gate at Auschwitz, ironically written in German "Arbeit macht frei" (work brings freedom), while the work was designed to kill in the concentration camps.
For five long years the name of Auschwitz aroused fear among the Nazi -occupied territories. After the defeat of the September Campaign of 1939, the Polish town of Oswiecim and the surrounding areas were incorporated within the Third Reich. At the same time it's name was changed to Auschwitz. 
Auschwitz was a sombre place and most of the exhibits were quite shocking, the brutality with which the concentration camps had functioned was unbelievable. In the initial phase it functioned as a concentration camp where in, not only Jews, but many Polish politicians, intelligentsia, academicians etc were rounded up and made to do hard labour here. Many times summarily executed also, for frivolous crimes such as 'listening to BBC' or 'possessing a radio'. The life expectancy in the camp was 3-6 months from the time of entry for the inmates. 
In the second phase, since 1942 it became the biggest centre for the mass extermination of European Jews. Majority of the Jews deported there were led to the gas chambers as soon as they arrived, and those who escaped initially met there death due to starvation, unhygienic conditions, cold and hard labour. We were so shocked on seeing the exhibits that we even forgot to take snaps, or maybe we did not, out of respect for those killed so mercilessly. There were individual rooms filled with human hair, (which had been shaved off before herding them into gas chambers), a room full of spectacles, another one with shoes, then one with household utensils.  The worst were exhibits such as a cigarette case made of human skin, cloth made of human hair. The Jews had been told that they were going to be relocated and hence were asked to gather their most valuable stuff and board the train, instead of relocation they met with death. There was a crematorium and gas chamber also, which had been preserved, parts of it were also reconstructed. 
Around 10am we had finished the tour of Auschwitz. The parking was full of buses, when we left. Around six to seven thousand tourists visit this place every day during the summers.
We took some sandwiches from the cafe in the parking and proceeded in our car to Birkenau. Our guide came in the shuttle bus and met us at the gate.
Inhuman conditions of living, designed to kill. The inmates got only one piece of bread a day, other than a bowl of soup, despite doing rigorous labour. Just a set of blue striped shirt and pajamas, no other cloth, even in winters. No bathing facilities and no toilet facilities.
As the number of inmates increased in Auschwitz, the area covered by the camp also grew, until it was transformed into a gigantic and horrific factory of death. The monstrosity in Oswiecim - KL Auschwitz I - became the parent to a whole new generation of camps. In 1941 the construction of a second camp, later called Auschwitz II - Birkenau, was commenced 3 km away. 
Birkenau was a much bigger place and is the place where there were four huge gas chambers in the past, whose remnants can still be seen, they had been destroyed by the fleeing Germans.This camp was built by inmates from Auschwitz. The buildings were built on the design of horse stables. The gas chambers and crematoria have all been destroyed here, but we saw the one in Auschwitz. 
Birkenau was the concentration camp where the train entered through the central gate and sealed rail goods wagons full of Jews were offloaded here, already half dead from the journey. Here they were cursorily sorted out and their fate decided at the whims and fancies of the Nazis in charge there.
The parking in Birkenau was a little way away, we had to walk to and fro to it, and quite a bit of walking in the camp, we must have walked around 3-4 km during the full tour.
While we were planning this trip. I tried to prepare the children for a visit to this camp. We watched the movie 'Life is beautiful' (trailer) together, that's the only movie I could think of, to introduce my younger one to this gory past in human history.

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