(content warning – this post is about the Holocaust)
The remnants of the former Nazi concentration and death camp at Oświęcim, Poland are now preserved as a museum. The history, layout and functioning are described on this link. Last week, I joined a six hour study tour of the Auschwitz I and II (Birkenau) sites. There was no time to draw as we walked (the hurried sketch below was the only one during that tour). I returned without a guide at the end of that day and the next to get a few drawings.
I had thought it would be hard to walk this site without tears, but the reality was a surreal dissociation. The sheer scale of the camp defies emotional connection. We were not seeing the people here, but the remnants of the infrastructure designed and built on the orders of the Nazis (though on reflection, here are the remnants of the work of the inmates).
As for the site itself, these were my impressions. The scale is immense, as large as a town, Birkenau itself divided in to long strips of semi-autonomous camps . Its functioning was complex, with different categories of prisoners. None the less, the overall purpose was death. Slow death for slave workers over weeks or months in the concentration camp, deprived of the essentials for survival, above all nutrition and protection from the cold. Immediate death for those selected as unfit for work: the unknowing walk from the train to the purpose built units comprising a room to undress, gas chamber and crematorium. The rate limiting step was the disposal of the bodies. Death as punishment including at the infamous Block 11.
The other purpose was the ruthless expropriation of value from prisoners: belongings, gold teeth, hair, labour. A huge warehouse complex at one end of Birkenau, called Kanada, housed plundered goods to be sorted and sent to the Reich. This was already on fire when the camp was liberated. Each year archaeological work turns up more remnants of the items taken from prisoners. The Auschwitz complex supplied slave labour to the I.G. Farbenindustrie chemical industrial plants. Four Jewish women were murdered by hanging for stealing explosive material from the Union-Werke armaments factory where they worked. We were told they carried the material bit by bit under their finger nails. The Sonderkommando, who operated the crematoria, mutinied on October 7 1944, destroying one crematorium, breaking out, killing three SS men. Around 250 Jews were killed in a knowingly futile fight without weapons, their hoped for reward, we were told, “three lines in the history books”.