Our visit to Oswiecim on December 4, 2001, was the most depressing and moving day of the whole
is the location of the State Museum of
Auschwitz-Birkenau, set on the
site of the largest of the WWII concentration camps. The museum
memorializes the millions of Jews, Gypsies, and "enemies" of
the Nazi regime who died there. The bleak and barren landscape,
the cold weather and a light snowfall all contributed to creating a
very vivid picture of what so many saw when they got off the trains.
An English speaking museum guide took us
through individual dormitory buildings which housed various exhibits. The
central camp of Auschwitz was opened in 1940 and liberated in
1945. Initially it was used for political prisoners then war
prisoners. It became the headquarters of the largest complex of
concentration camps. There were 40 sub-camps with Birkenau the
largest only 3 km. away. The whole complex was 33 square
miles. Auschwitz itself consisted of only 26 buildings on 12
acres for 16,000 prisoners. The original brick buildings started as barracks in the early
1900s and used by Polish-Austrian soldiers in WWI. Birkenau, on
the other hand, was built by Auschwitz prisoners and covered 360 acres
and housed 120,000 prisoners.
As the camp population grew, new
"prisoners" were taken directly to the gas chambers in Birkenau. Mostly Poles were
killed initially, then imported Jews from Holland, Netherlands,
France, Prague and Hungary. We were told that
concentration/labor camps started in Germany in 1933. To get
large numbers of people to "voluntarily" board the trains to
the camps, walled Ghettos were created in cities. The people were
starved and treated as sub-humans, then told of a better life awaiting
them in the "labor"
camps. Many of the prisoners' belongings
that were collected are still on display in some of the buildings.
whole area is preserved as a national monument.
Two members of our group left a large candle on the
cart in front of the furnace in Auschwitz. As the candle was
lit, we all said a prayer.
The highlight of the tour was when an Auschwitz survivor,
Mr. Smalling, spoke with us about his experiences from his arrival in 1940 to his
freedom in 1945. He is 81 years old. Mr. Smalling told us he does not
speak with many groups but was persuaded to by our tour guide. He spoke no English, so the local tour guide needed to
He was one of the first to be brought to Auschwitz on July 7, 1940. He was arrested when as a student
and a member of the Polish Resistance at the university in
Warsaw, he stored explosives and published an underground
newspaper. There was an initial group of 1300 who arrived at
Auschwitz. He started as a laborer, then was one of 15 scribes since
he knew German and could type. His job was to register all
incoming people and issue them a number. Towards the end of the
war he knew something was wrong when he was issuing only 500 numbers
for each 1000 new arrivals. Only later did he realize that many
were sent directly to the gas chamber a few kilometers away at
In the beginning when he worked as a laborer, local
people would leave food in places the prisoners worked. But as
the camps were enlarged, all the local people were evacuated further
away from the camps.
In late April 1945, with the approaching Russians,
most wooden buildings were set on fire. About 4000 prisoners
were marched for 4 days and nights and then another 4 days on ox cart
to Mauthausen Camp. He estimates that about 1000 died on the
road. He was freed by the Americans on May 6, 1945.
Since Mr. Smalling worked as a scribe, he knew a lot
of the guards and those in authority. He kept names of many of
the officers at Auschwitz. With this knowledge
Mr. Smalling testified at the Nuremberg trials, then resumed
his college education to become a lawyer, judge and later director of
the State Museum of Auschwitz-Birkenau from 1955 to 1991. He
told us after the Nuremberg Trials that the camp commander (Rudolph
Hoess) was returned to Auschwitz where he was publicly hanged - the
only Nazi returned to the camp for execution.
For more information about Rudolph Hoess: http://www.auschwitz.dk/hoess.htm
In his memoirs, Mr. Hoess admits to having 2.5 to 3
million people exterminated at the Auschwitz camps.
Other personal accounts of the concentration
A Virtual Tour of
Auschwitz on the world wide web
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