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The Story Of… Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland

Exclusive Interview by Karen Beishuizen
Photos courtesy of Auschwitz-Birkenau

The Auschwitz camp became a symbol of terror and genocide. It was created by the Germans in mid-1940s, incorporated by the Nazis into the Third Reich. At least 1.1 million people died in Auschwitz, the vast majority of whom were Jewish. The word Holocaust is universally used in the world to define the persecution and extermination of European Jews by the Nazis and its allies during the Second World War. Auschwitz lies at the very heart of the European experience. It is the biggest Extermination site, a symbol of its monstrous entirety.

At least 1.1 million people died in Auschwitz: Anne Frank was one of them. A visit to the museum, site and memorial will open your eyes and is an education for life. What happened here should never be forgotten.

KB: Tell me how the Auschwitz Museum was founded.

The Nazi German Auschwitz concentration camp was liberated by Red Army soldiers on 27 January 1945. Just a few months after the end of the war a group of Polish survivors started publicly propagating the concept of commemorating the victims of Auschwitz. As soon as it was possible, some of them came to the former camp to protect its buildings and ruins. Their efforts resulted in setting up the so-called Permanent Former Auschwitz Camp Security and took care of thousands of people who started arriving in large numbers to search for traces of their relatives and to pay tribute to the victims.

Even before the Museum was officially established, former prisoners prepared the first exhibition on the camp site, opened on 14 June 1947. The opening ceremony was attended by approximately 50 thousand people. In July 1947 the Polish Parliament called into being the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum.

KB: How many people were killed in the Auschwitz Birkenau concentration camp during WW2?

In the years 1940–45 approximately 1.3 million people were deported to Auschwitz. The largest group were the Jews (1,1 million), next were the Poles (140,000–150,000), the Roma (23,000) and Soviet prisoners of war (15,000). Other nationalities were represented by approx. 25,000 people, ranging from several thousand (Czechs, Belarusians, the French, Germans and Russians) to several hundred (Yugoslavs and Ukrainians) or just dozens. At least 1.1 million people died in Auschwitz, the vast majority of whom were Jews (1 million), next the Poles (70,000–75,000), the Roma (21,000) and Soviet prisoners of war (14,000). Some 10,000–15,000 of the victims had other nationalities.

KB: For people who don’t know: explain the word Holocaust.

Currently, the term that is universally used in the world to define the persecution and extermination of European Jews by the German Third Reich and its allies during the Second World War is the word ‘Holocaust’. It originates from the Greek word holokaustikós, which means complete burning—an offering completely burnt on an altar by ancient peoples (including Greeks and Jews). Because of its religious context, this word has been rejected by many Jewish theologians and scholars using the Hebrew word Shoah instead, meaning total annihilation.

KB: Tell me how people lived in the camps.

Auschwitz Concentration Camp opened in former Polish army barracks in June 1940. Twenty brick buildings were adapted, of which 6 were two-storeys and 14 were single-story. At the end of 1940, prisoners began adding second stories to the single-storey blocks. The following spring, they started erecting 8 new blocks. This work reached completion in the first half of 1942. The result was a complex of 28 two-storeys blocks, the overwhelming majority of which were used to house prisoners. As a rule, there were two large rooms upstairs and a number of smaller rooms downstairs. The blocks were designed to hold about 700 prisoners each after the second stories were added, but in practice they housed up to 1,200. During the first several months, the prisoners’ rooms had neither beds nor any other furniture. Prisoners slept on straw-stuffed mattresses laid on the floor. After reveille in the morning, they piled the mattresses in a corner of the room. The rooms were so overcrowded that prisoners could sleep only on their sides, in three rows.

Three-tiered bunks began appearing gradually in the rooms from February 1941. Theoretically designed for three prisoners, they in fact accommodated more. Aside from the beds, the furniture in each block included a dozen or more wooden wardrobes, several tables, and several score stools. In the first months, the prisoners drew water from two wells and relieved themselves in a provisional outdoor latrine. After the rebuilding of the camp, each building had lavatories, usually on the ground floor, containing 22 toilets, urinals, and washbasins with trough-type drains and 42 spigots installed above them. The fact that prisoners from the upstairs and downstairs had to use a single lavatory meant that access was strictly limited. Two types of barracks, brick and wooden, housed prisoners in the second part of the camp, Birkenau. The brick barracks stood in the oldest part of the camp, known as sector BI, where construction began in the fall of 1941.

Inside each of them were 60 brick partitions with three tiers, making a total of 180 sleeping places, referred to as “buks,” designed to accommodate 4 prisoners. The SS therefore envisioned a capacity of over 700 prisoners per block. At first, the buildings had earthen floors. Over time, these were covered with a layer of bricks lying flat, or with a thin layer of poured concrete. The barracks were unheated in the winter. Two iron stoves were indeed installed, but these were insufficient to heat the entire space. Nor were there any sanitary facilities in the barracks. Only in 1944 were sinks and toilets installed in a small area inside each block. Nor was there any electric lighting at the beginning.

Wooden stable-type barracks were installed in segment BI, and above all in segments BII and BIII. These barracks had no windows. Instead, there was a row of skylights on either side at the top. A chimney duct, which heated the interior in the winter, ran almost the entire length of the barracks. The interior was divided into 18 stalls, intended originally for 52 horses. The two stalls nearest the door were reserved for prisoner functionaries, and containers for excrement stood in the two stalls at the far end. Three-tier wooden beds or three-tier wooden bunks intended for 15 prisoners to sleep in were installed in the other stalls, for a total capacity of more than 400 prisoners per barracks.

KB: What is on display and shown at the museum?

Visitors to the museum can see a wide range of exhibitions and artifacts that help to tell the story of Auschwitz and the experiences of the prisoners who were in the camp. Some of the items on display include: personal belongings of the deported people, such as shoes, eyeglasses or suitcases, photographs and documents relating to the history of the camp and the lives of the prisoners. There are also exhibitions showing the living conditions of the prisoners as well as many national exhibitions dedicated to the fate of people of several countries. There are also exhibitions dedicated to the history of Jews and the Holocaust as well as Roma and Sinti people. Visitors walk through historical site, they can see buildings, fences, ruins of gas chambers and crematoria, unloading platform, site of executions by shooting and hanging and many more. Overall, the museum seeks to educate visitors about the horrors of the history of Auschwitz and to honour the memory of those who suffered and were murdered at Auschwitz.

KB: Tell me about the Auschwitz memorial.

The former German Nazi concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz is the most recognizable symbol and place of genocide in the world. The Memorial Site covers two preserved parts of the camp: Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau, in a total area of 191 hectares (472 acres), including 20 hectares (49 acres) of the Auschwitz I camp and 171 hectares of the Auschwitz II-Birkenau camp. Its uniqueness is proved by the original terrain and objects, ruins and traces of the Holocaust and genocide committed there. At the site, one will find: areas with human ashes, ruins of gas chambers and crematoria, places where SS doctors carried out selections, roads along which people were driven to the gas chambers, places where families awaited their death, places where prisoners rebelled and were executed.

One of the most terrifying pieces of evidence of the crimes is also exhibited in the former Auschwitz I concentration camp: almost two tons of female hair cut from the victims. The Auschwitz Memorial is more than extensive grounds and original camp blocks, barracks, and guard towers. It is also tens of thousands of objects of a special nature, special meaning, and special symbolism. Above all, it is the personal possessions brought by deportees and found at the site after liberation. They make up a unique collection of items connected with the suffering of the people deported to Auschwitz to be killed immediately, and with those forced into slave labour by the Germans. It is also the objects connected with the life of prisoners in the camp, which bear testimony not only to the primitive living and hygienic conditions and starvation, but also with attempts to preserve humanity behind the barbed wire of Auschwitz.

Conservation: More than 100 thousand objects and archival items, 150 preserved buildings, and approximately 300 ruins, including the remains of four gas chambers and crematoria in Birkenau, over 13 km of fence with 3.6 thousand concrete posts and many other elements are under the care of highly-qualified conservators having one of the most modern specialist laboratories in the world at their disposal. The International Center for Education about Auschwitz and the Holocaust: One can teach about Auschwitz and the Holocaust anywhere. Only at the Auschwitz Memorial is it possible, however, not only to get to know the history of the camp operation and gain direct access to the first-hand accounts of witnesses, but also to see the evidence of the Extermination with our own eyes: the ruins of the gas chambers, crematoria and other leftover camp remains.

The Museum’s educational mission is realized by the International Center for Education about Auschwitz and the Holocaust set up by the Polish government on the initiative of the survivors. The Memorial is visited annually by some two million people from all over the world. Most of them are accompanied by qualified guides-educators trained at the Centre. ICEAH also organizes post-graduate studies, seminars, conferences, stays and study trips, and workshops for teachers and students from all over the world. The Museum’s collection of art connected with the Auschwitz camp is unique and the largest of its kind in the world. Its great historical and emotional value makes the camp art exceptionally valuable, with a universal message that everyone who sees it can understand. The archive collection includes tens of thousands of camp documents, approximately 39 thousand negatives of photographs of newly registered prisoners as well as almost 2.5 thousand family photos of Jews deported to Auschwitz for extermination.

KB: Tell me about your education programs you offer.

Our International Centre for education about Auschwitz and the Holocaust has prepared a series of proposals for school and university students. As part of the visit to the Auschwitz Memorial Site, they can take advantage of a variety of educational forms, such as study visits and extended thematic seminars, including educational activities: lectures, workshops, multimedia presentations or video lectures conducted by experts from specific fields. The subject of the seminar can be tailored to the interests of students. In preparation for a visit to the memorial site and Auschwitz Museum, students can take advantage of online lessons prepared by The International Centre for Education about Auschwitz on specific issues from the history of Auschwitz. Numerous publications and print items of the Museum may be helpful in this respect. The Museum library also features a multilingual collection of books, about 30 thousand volumes and more than 2.5 thousand magazines devoted to the history of World War II.

Students are also assisted by employees of the Archive, Research Centre, Educational Projects and Collections in writing scientific and research papers. The Auschwitz Museum is also a place where you can perform volunteer work and internship. This form of cooperation with the Museum enjoys great popularity, especially among students who acquire experience in the preparation and implementation of projects in areas of interest to them, among others restoration, education or publishing. One can also be a volunteer “remotely”, cooperating with the Museum via online contact.

KB: There are still people out there who think the holocaust never happened. What would you like to say to them?

Holocaust denial is a mendacious conspiracy theory. Although it is factually similar to flat Earth claims, it is, in fact, a dangerous & hideous carrier of antisemitism & hatred. Deniers hate. They reject, manipulate & ignore facts. They harass & insult the memory of the victims. Therefore, we do not really discuss anything with Holocaust deniers.

KB: Why should people visit the museum?

Auschwitz lies at the very heart of the European experience. It is the biggest Extermination site, a symbol of its monstrous entirety. It is a constant point of reference in the post-war history of the Old Continent, fully justifying all the efforts aimed at creating a unified, different, new, more humane and sensitive Europe. Taking care of the site is not only an obligation towards the past generations, victims and survivors; to a great extent, it is also an obligation towards the generations to come. It will be their responsibility to carry on our post-war endeavors for a better, united, sensible, supporting and safe world. It is our children and grandchildren who will build the future of our civilization. We owe them the truth about Auschwitz.

Check out Auschwitz-Birkenau’s website: HERE
Find The Auschwitz Memorial on Facebook: HERE
Find The Auschwitz Museum on Twitter: HERE

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