(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”.

into this

(content warning: this post relates to the Holocaust)

“It is said that science will dehumanise people and turn them into numbers. That is false, tragically false. Look for yourself. This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance. It was done by dogma. It was done by ignorance. When people believe they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave.” Jacob Bronowski 1973

Jacob Bronowski was a mathematician, poet and philosopher who fronted a television series called The Ascent of Man documenting the development of scientific thought. I watched this when I was 12 and it profoundly influenced what became my identity as a clinician-scientist. Episode 11 included the sequence filmed by the gas chambers and crematoria at the far end of the huge Birkenau concentration and death camp complex. In my late teens, I wrote out his words and drew his face over them.

His voice saying these words have played and replayed in my mind for 48 years. As he speaks, he walks out, in his best shoes and suit, into the water, stoops and takes a handful of the mud. “We have to touch people” he says.

My journey last week to the Polish town of Oświęcim (German version, Auschwitz) was, I suppose, a kind of pilgrimage. I stood and drew, with my evening shadow stretched out across those waters that had been made the final resting place for a murdered population. I had come to honour the dead.