A Week in Poland, Part 3 : Auschwitz II (Birkenau)

The main Auschwitz I camp (I blogged about earlier) gets all the attention. It has most of the iconic imagery everyone associates with the Holocaust, most notably the “Arbeit Macht Frei” gate (“Work Sets You Free”). While horrific things definitely happened there, and in fact nobody that entered was able to exchange work for their freedom (perhaps only delayed their death by some number of days or weeks), it was a much smaller place than I expected. A few rows of buildings, some of which we went inside, some of which we skipped only to avoid more mental exhaustion.

Head over to Auschwitz II (Birkenau), only a couple of kilometers away, and a sledge hammer hits you over the head with the phenomenal scale of the operation. This was a large work death camp that was obviously the result of a very intricate plan.


After you walk through the gate, it is immediately obvious how big the place is.



So big that you don’t even consider walking to the far corners a feasible option.



Again, like Auschwitz I, there is just no way to put into words how overwhelming it is to think about the things that happened here and how many people must have been here to require this many buildings – some with 1,000 people crammed into them.


All of the wooden barracks had been destroyed after the camp was liberated, but they have restored a dozen or so along the front row (this was essentially the sick bay during the camp’s operation). Beyond the first row, all that remains are the chimneys. And at the right viewing angle (not this one, unfortunately), the chimneys go on for acres and acres and acres…



The worst part was at the back of the camp, where they had the ruins of the gas chambers, crematoria, and the man-made ponds where they dumped all the ashes. I’m not going to share any pictures of this; it was depressing enough just seeing it up close.