Oświęcim

(content warning – this post is about the Holocaust)

exterior of the Auschwitz I concentration camp from the bank of the Sota river

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.

Auschwitz I concentration camp – tourists walking the spaces between the blocks that housed horrors

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).

Foundations of multiple barracks at Birkenau (Auschwitz II) concentration and death camp

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 end of the railway in the Birkenau concentration and death camp. On the left is the memorial built by the Polish government. On the right is the rubble from the gas chamber and crematorium destroyed by the retreating SS at the liquidation of the camp.

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”.

11 responses to “Oświęcim

    • Thanks. That is what this is. Witness. Even 77 years since the camp was liberated. There’s more I’m afraid. I think the next set of drawings will be harder to contemplate. They were more emotive to do.

  1. Thank you for sharing your feelings and observations. My mother was an Auschwitz inmate…One cannot begin to understand or comprehend the depth of that trauma…

    • Hi Lilian. Thank you for sharing that. I cannot begin to know what to say. It must have haunted her all her life. I hope she had a long and fulfilled life even so, like Richard Ores did, but I can’t imagine anyone ever leaving this behind.
      This was important to me to go and bear witness. It’s not just “a lesson from history” as people sometimes say, but a present reality. It’s in our actions now that fascism triumphs again or is thwarted once again until next time.

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