For the majority of us, work equals independence. It is our way to have control over our lives. Work mainly provides us with well-earned pride, satisfaction and confidence. It unveils our innate abilities, urges us to learn more about ourselves and the world, and allows us to do meaningful things.
In a way, work becomes a great means to eliminate emotional constraints and false personal beliefs. Besides enabling us to pay our bills, move out to a better flat or neighbourhood, or go on that summer vacation we have always dreamt of, work eventually becomes a tool to change what we do not like about ourselves and our lives.
For many people, work may, pretty much, equal freedom, metaphorically speaking.
Going a little over 75 years back in time, amidst the havoc of World War II, this metaphor was pure reality. Work was the only way for millions to stay alive and regain their freedom. Or that was another Nazi lie.
Arbeit macht frei.
This motto, written in German, is found on the gate to the world’s most notorious site, the Auschwitz Concentration Camp in German-occupied Poland. Meaning “Work makes you free”, it was what welcomed thousands of prisoners who arrived at the camp by rail every single day in the 1940s. It gave them a false idea about what they had to do to stay alive and earn their freedom back.
How hard could that be?
Little did they know, crossing that gate was literally slipping into a whole new insane and inhumane world where they, the prisoners, were forced to do all kinds of harsh physical labour for up to 11 hours a day. Some of that was pure punishment, and other was to help implement the Nazi economic plans. Many prisoners, kids included, turned into laboratory mice on whom Nazi doctors performed cruel medical experimentations that sometimes, if not often, ended with death.
Work was never to make prisoners free, for there seemed to be no end to their misery. In Auschwitz, they were completely isolated with no idea whatsoever about what was happening outside of the wire fence lines, whether Nazi Germany was still taking the lead in the war or a twist in destiny had put the Allies upfront.
Agonising despair must have been the only thing those poor prisoners felt.
When the Soviets entered Auschwitz on 27 January 1945, they were utterly shocked by what they saw. It was nothing like what they had encountered so far and probably not like what they themselves would later do to the Germans when they entered Berlin. Even though they had heard about the Nazis’ cruelty, they did not imagine it could ever reach such a savage level.
Upon crossing the gate, the Soviets were welcomed by starving prisoners, basically walking skeletons. They, the prisoners, apparently could not make sense of what had just happened. It must have been so hard to believe someone finally came to their rescue.
What was inside the buildings horrified the Soviets even more.
Although the Nazis tried badly to evacuate the camp before they cowardly escaped, they, amidst the chaos, could not get rid of everything that incriminated them. Large buildings, from floor to ceiling, were stuffed with hundreds of thousands of shoes, eyeglasses, wedding rings, kitchen tools, suitcases, clothing, prosthetic limbs, tons of human hair, and, sadly, corpses.
Auschwitz was a death camp.
After the war, there were some talks about demolishing Auschwitz. Yet, the survivors requested otherwise. How could the only evidence of the crimes they were subjected to be destroyed as it had never been there?
Only two years after the war, in July 1947, while divided Europe and the rest of the world were still demented and suffering from the post-war consequences; the Polish Parliament agreed to turn Auschwitz into a museum. From a death camp, it turned into a state memorial to the 1.1 million people who died in it and a standing proof of the brutal and barbaric crimes the Nazis committed against humanity.
In 1979, UNESCO listed Auschwitz as a World Heritage Site. Such sites typically have outstanding international values. Listing this very site as one is the best way to understand that ‘outstanding’ does not necessarily mean a positive thing but rather something of a great matter. However, this happens to be.
While the world is undoubtedly full of bizarre museums, many of which are unpleasant and disturbing to visit, Auschwitz is nothing like any other site. It is the birthplace of terror and a witness of the nastiest practices. It is loaded with heavy emotions, untold stories, confined screams, and silent prayers.
Despite that, it seems like it has captivated so many people.
So far, over 25 million people from every corner of the globe have visited the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. In 2019 alone, more than 2.3 million visitors, most of whom were Europeans, toured the museum. The number dropped significantly in the year that followed because of the pandemic. But in 2021, a little over half a million could make it to the museum, and the number rose to 1.184 million in 2022.
No matter what, Auschwitz is still a part of our history, something we are ethically required to explore and learn about. In the coming part of the article, we will tell the whole story of this deplorable site, explore where it is, what it is like from the inside and outside, what it witnessed, and why millions of people flock to this death camp every year.
So, hold on tight and read on.
Auschwitz, the concentration camp
To get a correct view of the current Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, we first need to go over the original structure of the Auschwitz Concentration Camp and learn a little about its history.
Basically, the Auschwitz Concentration Camp was a complex of more than 40 concentration and extermination camps located near one another. It is by far the largest that Nazi Germany ever established, as well as the most notorious.
Auschwitz mainly consisted of three main camps and numerous sub-ones. The main and the first to establish was Auschwitz I. It was located in Oświęcim, a town in southern Poland, around 50 kilometres southwest of Kraków.
Shortly after Auschwitz I was in operation, the need for a new camp emerged. So Auschwitz II was constructed in the town of Birkenau, three km away from Oświęcim. The third camp was Auschwitz III-Monowitz which was also located in Oświęcim.
Although they shared the same objective of dehumanising prisoners, each of these main camps was established in different circumstances.
What later became the darkest place on Earth was essentially a Polish military base; not known when exactly it was established.
In September 1939, when Poland was invaded by Germany and was partially annexed, a consequence of which both France and Britain declared war on Germany, the Schutzstaffel (do not try to pronounce it) or SS, the Nazi Reich elite Protection Squad, wanted to construct a prison for political detainees from Poland.
The Nazis found this military base in quite a remote area. Right away, they evacuated the entire town. Factories were forcibly taken from their owners, homes were demolished, and residents were kicked out of town. After a few months, the site was converted into a prison and called Auschwitz, a probably German proper noun no one knows what it means other than referring to that horrific place.
Auschwitz had an area of 1,000 metres by 400 metres and comprised 22 buildings. At first, around 14 of these had only one floor, while the rest had two floors. Most of the buildings were used for the daily residence of prisoners. One building was dedicated to the hospital, not to cure the prisoners, of course, but to perform medical experiments on them. Another was the administration base, the workspace for the Nazi officers who ran the camp.
As we mentioned, the camp was primarily established for Polish politicians and anti-Nazism activists. Yet, when Hitler approved the Final Solution to the Jewish Question in 1941, in which he approved killing all Jews within reach, Auschwitz was upgraded from a prison to a death camp.
That said, Jews and Polish politicians were not the only prisoners of Auschwitz. The camp was expanded to include Roma, Russians, and gipsies, as well as disabled, weak, and sick people of whichever nationality.
Detainees were arrested from every corner of Europe and sent to Auschwitz by rail on a daily basis. They were never told what awaited them. That is why most of them arrived with their belongings. They thought it was probably a short stay, during which they would just work and then be released after a while.
In August 1941, the construction of the first crematorium in the camp ended, and it was ready for use. This crematorium was mainly intended to cremate the executed prisoners and those who died for other reasons, such as starvation, diseases, or overwork. It stayed in use until July 1943 and then was converted to a gas chamber.
As the number of detainees increased, the need for expansion arose. So in October 1941, the construction work of another concentration camp started.
Auschwitz II was not established in the same area but three kilometres from Auschwitz, which then became Auschwitz I, in a village called Birkenau. That is why the new camp was called Auschwitz II-Birkenau.
With a capacity of 125,000 prisoners, Auschwitz II-Birkenau consisted of 174 barracks, precisely like those built for military personnel. Each barrack was 35.4 metres by 11 metres, divided into 62 bays, or rooms, each with an area of only four square metres. Every four prisoners stayed in one room, just like stuffed sardines in tiny jars.
As prisoners were subjected to all kinds of harsh physical labour, they were the ones who established Auschwitz II-Birkenau, primarily as an extermination camp and partially as a concentration camp. This means prisoners were either directly subjected to death or exposed to slave work to feed the Nazi killing machine.
For the very purpose of exterminating prisoners, Auschwitz II-Birkenau included units of dressing rooms and gas chambers. The latter looked pretty much like bathrooms with showers hanging from the ceiling. Yet, those showers did not release water but instead Zyklon B. This was the German-invented poisonous gas the Nazis used to kill the prisoners.
In addition, Auschwitz II-Birkenau had four crematoriums.
In early 1941, Germany was progressing in the war, defeating one army after another, annexing more and more countries, and taking over their industrial forces and production. At the time, the Nazis were manufacturing everything needed to support their armies scattered in Europe and North Africa.
One of the things they needed to manufacture was synthetic rubber, Buna-N, so the German chemical company responsible for manufacturing it chose a site in the village of Monowitz. This was around seven km east of Auschwitz I, so they used prisoners from there to build the factory.
Construction work started in April 1941, and prisoners, most notably Poles, had to rise at 3:00 am every day to walk all the way to the site, work all day long, finish their work and then walk back to Auschwitz I.
In July, trains were available to take the prisoners back and forth between the factory and the camp. But soon after, many problems emerged. So the company decided to build another concentration camp on the same site, which they named Auschwitz III-Monowitz. This was the first privately funded concentration camp.
With an area of 132,300 square metres, Auschwitz III-Monowitz had 60 barracks, each with an area of 140 square metres and divided into two rooms, one of which was for sleeping. Every sleeping room had 56 three-tiered bunks.
A total of 35,000 prisoners worked in this factory, and 23,000 of them died from malnutrition, disease or workload.
Auschwitz, the museum
In July 1947, Auschwitz was turned into a museum by some of its former prisoners. Directed by the Ministry of Culture and Art in Poland, the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum occupies around 200,000 square metres of Auschwitz I and 1.71 square kilometres of Auschwitz II-Birkenau.
Everything begins with the gate to Auschwitz I above, which is the famous Arbeit Macht Frei motto. The first thing visitors come across is the red barracks, very neatly placed beside one another, separated by small areas and facing a vast space known as the Roll Call Square. This is where prisoners used to gather twice a day for counting.
Most of the barracks with their wooden and concrete bunk beds were left as is after the war. The hospital, administrative buildings, and the only gas chamber the Nazis did not destroy are among the places open for visit. The jail, which comprised numerous standing cells where prisoners were individually locked, is also open.
Some halls were prepared to display exhibitions and inform the visitors of what it was like to be a prisoner there.
Estimated to be 80,000 items, the exhibitions are the prisoners’ belongings which the Soviets found when they liberated the camp. Many of them are classified based on the nationalities of the prisoners, and others are kept in super large display windows extending from ground to ceiling.
Behind these glass windows, visitors can see piles of shoes of all styles, sizes, and colours, as well as leather suitcases, each bearing the name of its owner. One window shows 40 kilogrammes of eyeglasses that belonged to the prisoners. Another contains seven tons of human hair—when prisoners arrived at the camp; the Nazis used to shave their heads—as well as the kitchen tools the prisoners brought with them.
One room shows photographs of the prisoners with their names, nationalities, and birth and death dates written on them. The Nazi guards used to take pictures of the newcomers. But as the number of prisoners grew, they apparently could not keep up with this routine.
After finishing the tour of Auschwitz I, visitors can either walk to Auschwitz II-Birkenau, a distance of three km or take a van for free to get there.
There are not as many exhibitions in Auschwitz II-Birkenau, and visitors usually have more freedom to roam the camp and move from one building to another. The barracks of Auschwitz II-Birkenau contained bunks made of bricks and wood.
The rural areas around both concentration camps might not be very clear from the black-and-white photographs and films. But in reality, they are so beautiful that roaming around them can make the whole visit less heavy.
There are guided tours at the museum that take about three hours. Organised tours are a good idea, for the guides coming along are usually knowledgeable about the site’s historical value. For some, hearing about the place is better than reading the labels.
Without a guided tour, visitors can only enter and explore the museum from 4:00 to 6:00 pm.
Visiting Auschwitz might not be on everyone’s bucket list. It is not at all an easy experience, yet definitely an essential one for anybody capable of having it. It is why the survivors of this horrible, terrifying place kept it alive. We must know what happened inside it and pay tribute to those who died confined between its fences. Moreover, we must never forget how far the Nazis had gone in torturing and dehumanising innocent people and doing our best to stop these crimes from happening again.