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Auschwitz-Birkenau shim John & Kristie

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travel :: Sunday, August 23, 2009
EUROPEAN VACATION DAY 11 :: OŚWIĘCIM, POLAND :: Among the symbols of the holocaust, the sign above the gate to Auschwitz concentration camp perhaps best encapsulates the evil and deception of the Nazis. The phrase "arbeit macht frei" translates to "work makes you free." Of course this message, in the literal sense, was a cruel lie. It was part of a carefully planned campaign to conceal the systematic extermination of 17 million people from the victims, the Germans, and the entire world.

We walked under this sign to enter Auschwitz I, the first of three camps constructed in the area that included Auschwitz II-Birkenau and Auschwitz III-Monowitz. The buildings at Auschwitz are now a museum, but were originally used to imprison, torture and kill dissidents, intellectuals and enemy soldiers. The tragic experience of the victims is portrayed via haunting photographs and artifacts, including large rooms filled with countless shoes, eyeglasses, suitcases, and human hair. The vile torture devices and cells have been preserved, including starvation rooms, standing rooms and suffocation rooms. These were later used to experiment with Zyklon-B, the cyanide-based pesticide that was first used at Auschwitz and soon used in gas chambers at Birkenau.

Although there were two crematoriums and room for 30,000 prisoners at Auschwitz I, its capacity was soon exceeded. Construction began at nearby Birkenau, the largest concentration camp built by the Nazis, where approximately 1.1 million people would be exterminated. As with most concentration camps, the majority of these victims were Jewish. 960,000 Jews and 140,000 ethnic Poles were killed at Birkenau alone, for no other reason than their ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or a disability.

Trains would unload victims directly in camp, where most of the women, children, elderly and sick were immediately directed to "shower" in the gas chambers. Healthy men were forced to hard labor, 12 hours per day while starving. Their average life expectancy was six months.

Witnessing the immense size of Birkenau had the greatest impact on us. We walked the full kilometer of railroad track that crosses the compound, passing the remnants of 300 barracks used to house over 200,000 prisoners. At the height of its operation, Birkenau could gas and cremate 20,000 people per day.

Although it's deeply depressing, it's absolutely critical that places like Auschwitz-Birkenau are preserved to be experienced by current and future generations. Just as we celebrate the greatest of human achievements, it's equally important to be reminded of our capacity for hate and evil, so that we never allow such abhorrent events to occur again.

Next post: Wieliczka Salt Mine

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