A few years ago I visited the Auschwitz concentration camp, close to the Polish city of Cracow. This was part of a network of German Nazi concentration camps where Jewish people and other ‘undesirables’ were exterminated.
These extermination camps were built and operated by the Third Reich, outside German territories, like this one in annexed Poland.
The complex consist of three camps: Auschwitz I (the original camp), Auschwitz II–Birkenau and Auschwitz III–Monowitz (a labor camp).
Auschwitz I was constructed to hold Polish political prisoners and was opened in May 1940. The first extermination of prisoners took started in September 1941. The Birkenau camp was built and constructed as the Nazi answer to the “Final Solution to the Jewish question”.
Transport trains delivered Jews to the camp’s gas chambers from all over German-occupied Europe, where they were killed with the pesticide Zyklon B. At least 1.1 million prisoners died at Auschwitz, around 90 percent of them Jewish; approximately 1 in 6 Jews killed in the Holocaust died at the camp. Many of those not killed in the gas chambers died of starvation, forced labor, infectious diseases, individual executions, and medical experiments.
In the course of the war, the camp was staffed by 7,000 members of the German SS, approximately 12 percent of whom were later convicted of war crimes. Some, including camp commandant Rudolf Höss, were executed here.
This was one of the most emotional days in my life. One can still experience a deep emotional sadness in the air. Especially in the burnt down Birkenau camp. It is as if the suffering in the war years saturated the buildings and surrounding landscape.
In 1947, Poland founded a museum on the site of Auschwitz I and II, and in 1979, it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. One can visit rooms full of Jewish possessions confiscated by the SS. Toothbrushes, clothes, baskets, even glasses, shoes and other personal belongings. Worst of all was a chamber filled with hair that was shaved from women’s heads.
How can people be so cruel to one another? And if we look at today’s news we see the same happening again today: People killed and displaced. Will humankind never learn to live in peace?