When I was 16, I became deeply intrigued by the Holocaust. I was both horrified by the immense cruelty in that chapter of human history and, at the same time, fascinated by the heroic stories of people who defied that growing oppresion, often risking and losing their lives. I believe that in times of war and despair, people are tempted by the worst in them — our survival instincts work in mysterious ways —, and that's something I'm lucky to never have experienced. Nonetheless, I profoundly admire that under the same circumstances, some people reveal their very best self.
Because of that, I became eager to visit Auschwitz. This is the photographic record of my trip there.
On one of the blocks, a long corridor holds pictures of dozens of prisoners that passed through the concentration camp: women on the left, men on the right.
When prisoners arrived at Auschwitz, if they weren't selected to die immediately, they were registered. After being shaved and stripped from their clothes, three pictures were taken from different angles, a number was assigned to them, and the "type" of prisoner identified in their clothing (using colored triangles to distinguish whether they were POWs, political prisoners, criminals, homosexuals, etc., and using two triangles for jews). At a certain point, they decided to stop taking the pictures as it was too expensive.
On the bottom line of the frames below, you can see two dates: the date of arrival at the camp and date of death. Almost nobody survived more than a couple of months, most of them being dead within a few days.
Several blocks were converted to host exhibitions with different Auschwitz-related subjects, one of them hosting a collection of belongings prisoners took with them to the camp.
As we walked through endless piles of shoes, glasses, shaving kits and hairbrushes, prostheses and canes, makeup, etc., our tour guide asks "Would you pack pans and pots if you knew you were coming here to die?". In order to ensure cooperation, people were told they were going to Auschwitz to start a new life. They were sold properties that didn't exist and work contracts just as fake.
Nazi soldiers told deported prisoners to identify their suitcases so that they could return their belongings later. This, of course, was never meant to happen. All precious belongings were sent to Germany or stolen by the soldiers.
This block also contains one of the two places in which photography is not allowed — a room filled with human hair. Everyone at Auschwitz-Birkenau had their heads shaved upon arrival. The hair was later sold to different industries — to produce fabric, seat cushions… More than anything else, it was a way of dehumanizing the victims, stripping them of any dignity that might have remained, making it hard for even family members to recognize one another, and thus making everyone feel isolated.
This exhibition is quite unsettling by itself, but I can say that what disturbed me, even more, was seeing people making "funny" poses and taking smiley selfies with these piles as background. From young girls to full grown men, I felt a huge lack of empathy for the victims.
The other place in which pictures are not allowed is the basement of Block 11 — the prison within the prison. On this building, prisoners were interrogated, judged, and sentenced to torture and death. Punishments were usually connected with escape attempts or aid to escapees, but often victims were randomly selected to be punished for escapes performed by other inmates to deter further attempts.
The basement had rooms for different types of horrendous tortures. There were starvation cells, standing cells and suffocation cells, every single one of them designed to ensure maximum suffering. I can't describe this place well enough, the pain that was inflicted there is far beyond anything I could even begin to imagine. And the scariest part is that it was all envisioned and carried by human beings.
There are records that 10 prisoners were once sentenced to die in a starvation cell after the disappearing of other inmates. One of them begged and begged to be released, appealing to the soldiers that he had a wife and kids. Another prisoner volunteered to take his place, which for some unknown reason the guards allowed. Miraculously, after two weeks of starvation and dehydration, he was still alive. He was then given a lethal injection, as the guards wanted the bunker emptied.
Most gas chambers were destroyed by the Nazis in the last months of WWII, as the Soviet troops gained ground, in order to cover their actions. In Auschwitz, one of them was reconstructed after the war, alongside two crematorium ovens.
People selected to die were taken to the entrance of these chambers, were told to undress so they could take a shower, and guided to underground rooms. Once locked inside, Nazi soldiers dropped Zyklon B through openings in the ceiling. Zyklon B is a pesticide that was previously used to disinfest clothing, ships, warehouses, and trains. In Auschwitz-Birkenau, it was used to kill around one million men, women, and children. All of them died in extreme amounts of pain.
The use of Zyklon B became popular because it allowed Nazis to kill thousands of people in just one day. The first experiment with this gas was run in Auschwitz, in the basement of Block 11. A group of Soviet prisoners of war and ill Polish prisoners removed from the camp "hospital" were taken to the block and left there to die. The following day, the SS soldiers realised some prisoners were still alive and increased the dosage.
However, carrying the bodies from Block 11 proved to be a difficult task, and the mass killings were hard to keep in secret. This led the Nazis to build the gas chambers and crematoriums underground, and in houses hidden in the woods. Gas chambers were also operated by prisoners of the camps, who were in charge of carrying and burning the bodies; however, the Zyklon B was always thrown in by SS soldiers.
After the construction of the chambers, the pace of the killings stopped being a problem, as 700 victims could be murdered in just 20 agonizing minutes. Getting rid of the dead was the new challenge, and the only thing stopping them from killing faster.
After entering the gas chamber of Auschwitz, the tour continued to Birkenau. Although Auschwitz was initially built to serve as a concentration camp, Birkenau was always envisioned as a death camp. Most people who arrived there were immediately selected to die, based on whether they looked able to work or not. After days enclosed on a train wagon with barely no air to breathe, no space to sit, and a bucket to serve as a toilet, almost no one seemed fit for work. The elderly and children had no chances of surviving, and their mothers were sent with them, using the established excuse of showering, to make sure everyone would cooperate to go in as clueless and peaceful as possible.
Most blocks are now dismantled, leaving only the brick chimneys intact. Although every barrack had a fireplace in the middle, this was just for show and never used.
When we arrived at Birkenau, the sky started clearing up and, underneath a warming sun, the vast fields of Birkenau almost seemed a pleasant place. As our tour guide pointed out, visiting death camps during the spring when the fields are teeming with flowers, misrepresents all the horror lived there. The best time to visit it is during the winter (even considering now the winters are way less severe).
The barracks at Birkenau were far worse than the blocks in Auschwitz. They were entirely built from wood, which provided very little shelter from the harsh Polish winters. In Germany, blocks like these were built as stables for around 50 horses. In Birkenau, they housed a minimum of 400 people at all times.
Three meals were available:
- Breakfast: herbal tea or coffee, no sugar.
- Lunch: soup usually made with rotten vegetables.
- Dinner: a small slice of bread with margarine.
Working 12+ hours of intense physical labor each day, it was biologically impossible for any human being to survive more than 6 months under this diet. This, if they survived the cold and hygiene conditions.
"Bathroom" facilities were to be used only twice a day and cleaned by the prisoners with their own bare hands. As one of the symptoms of starvation is diarrhea, this was far from enough. As such, the top bunk bed was considered the best one to sleep in — it allowed people to take a little advantage of the rising heat while avoiding being covered in feces.
As I've mentioned before, lots of evidence related to the Holocaust was destroyed — from dismantled gas chambers to burned reports, to people who were never even registered at the camps, there's a lot we'll never know. I believe we need to be educated about this piece of our human history, which didn't take place that long ago. More than knowing the horrifying facts, I wish we could understand what motivated and allowed for such events to take place and only be stopped after millions were dead. I can't possibly understand the urge to hurt another living being, let alone torture and murder entire families; but somehow this involved thousands of men and women that sometimes even took pleasure in such acts.
I wish I had learned more about this in school because I know most people will never realise the dimensions of WWII, as not everyone will "stumble" upon the subject as I did. I've had people saying "I don't want to know that, it bugs me", and, in my opinion, that's exactly why there has to be awareness for it. It should bug you. It should bug you so much that you would never even look at someone the way Jewish people were looked at. It should bug you so much that you'd do everything in your power to stop something like this from happening again.
I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.
Elie Wiesel – Acceptance Speech. NobelPrize.org. Nobel Prize Outreach AB 2024. Sat. 10 Feb 2024.