BIRKENAU:  IMAGE NOTES

"ARRIVAL"

Europe's rail system was used as the principle method of transporting deportees from their home countries to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

This photograph was taken to suggest a glimpse of the "Gate of Death" arriving deportees might have had as they approached the Main Guard House at Birkenau.

 

 

"VAST"

Unlike the closely spaced brick buildings of Auschwitz, Birkenau was built on a vast scale.  

 

During the time of its operation, Birkenau housed tens of thousands of prisoners, principally in scores of wooden barracks.  In addition, there were multiple crematoria to murder newly arrived deportees who had been determined to be unfit to serve as forced laborers.  These prisoners, mostly women, children, the elderly, and the infirmed, were sent to gas chambers shortly after their arrival at the camp. 

"PRESENT, PAST"

The Main Guard House served as the main entryway to Birkenau.

Two portals in the Main Guard House allowed access to the camp.  One portal was for pedestrian and vehicular access to the camp.  The second portal was for rail transports carrying deportees into the camp.

 

Construction of the railroad spur into the camp facilitated the disembarkation of deportees, the theft of their property, and the selection of those to be gassed in nearby crematoria.

"VIEW FROM THE TOWER"

View of the interior of Birkenau from the Main Guard House tower.

At the end of the railroad spur were Crematoria II and III, factory-scale facilities designed to murder and cremate prisoners in prodigious numbers.

 

"FIRST SWITCH"

After passing through the "Gate of Death"', the railroad spur split into three parts.

This is a photograph of the first switch inside Birkenau.

 

 

"PERIMETER FENCE"

A perimeter fence, including guard towers, ground level machine gun placements, electrified barbed wire, and, in certain locations, deep drainage ditches, surrounded portions of the camp.

"MEN'S BARRACK"

Scores of wooden barracks were constructed at Birkenau to house prisoners. Most of the barracks were destroyed prior to liberation of the camp by the Red Army or after liberation by local citizens looking for materials to rebuild their lives.

"MEN'S TOILET"

 

Use of the toilets was highly regimented.  Often, prisoners were not able to access toilets to accommodate their needs.

 

 

"PERIMETER FENCE"

Birkenau was subdivided into many sections, each separated by barbed wire fencing and other installations to assure that prisoners remained within their assigned areas.

 

 

"PRISON WITHIN A PRISON"

Internal barbed wire fencing that was used to create sub-camps within the larger camp.  

 

 

"COLOSSUS"

Birkenau's perimeter fence was constructed of long lines of concrete pillars and electrified barbed wire.

Secondary lines of  barbed wire, pill boxes, guard houses, and other measures were constructed to create an impenetrable wall between prisoners and the outside world.

This pillar is one of the electrified, corner pillars located adjacent to the Main Guard House.

For prisoners wanting to escape the hardships of the camp, suicide was possible by throwing one's self on the electrified fence.

"BARREN"

 

Four trees standing inside the enclosure of Crematorium III.

 

 

"WOMEN'S BARRACK WITH LADDER"

Women were forced to sleep on the ground or on two levels of wooden platforms.  

 

For those who slept on the upper platform, ladders were provided to provide access.

 

 

"THE RETURN:  WEAKENED BY HUNGER, BY ABUSE, AND

    BY DESPAIR"

For the most part, deportees who survived their selections lived on as forced laborers.  Inadequately fed, poorly clothed, separated from family, and often sick or in failing health, each day became an effort to survive.  

"QUICKLY BUILT"

View of the sleeping platforms in one of the women's barracks.

Inspection of the brickwork reveals the rudimentary construction techniques used to prepare the camp for the arrival of thousands of female prisoners.

"GHOSTS OF THE PAST"

In my view, removal of the wooden sleeping platforms in one of the women's barracks revealed a haunting pattern.

 

 

"WHERE WOMEN SLEPT"

Shadows created by light passing through a sleeping platform in one of the women's barracks.

 

 

"WHERE TWINS ONCE LIVED"

During the time that Dr. Josef Mengele was the chief medical officer, twins were pulled from the prisoner population to become the subjects of "medical experiments".

In this photograph, a few bricks remain on the concrete floor of the barrack where the subjects of Dr. Mengele's experiments once lived.

"AUTOCLAVES"

Later in the war, industrial scale autoclaves were installed to kill parasites, such as lice, that infested prisoners' uniforms.  

 

This effort was undertaken to diminish disease outbreak and to assist in maintaining a pool of forced laborers to work in near-by German industries.

 

 

"REMNANT"

Photograph of the remains of a latrine barrack.

Numerous buildings, including barracks, remain.  

Maintaining these structures and protecting the camp's expansive collection of artifacts is an enormous task that requires considerable expenditures of time, effort, and financial resources.

"TO THE LEFT, TO THE RIGHT"

Photograph of the stone edge of Hauptstrasse (High Street), the main road in Birkenau. 

Hauptstrasse extended from the main entrance of the camp to Crematoria II and III and ran parallel to the railroad spur.

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After arrival at the camp, deportees were forced from the boxcars that had carried them to the camp.  They were then ordered to form two lines, one for women, children, the elderly, and the infirm and a second for men.

The newly arrived prisoners were then subjected to their first selection.  Prisoners directed to the left were sent to the gas chambers.  Prisoners directed to the right were inducted into the camp, typically to become forced laborers.

"LAST STEPS"

Crematoria II and III provided factory scale gas chambers and crematoria.

 

In an effort to minimize their size and to mask their purpose, significant parts of both facilities, including the disrobing rooms and gas chambers, were located below ground level.

This is a photograph of the ground leading to the steps that descended to the disrobing room of Crematorium II.

Prisoners to be murdered in the gas chamber of Crematorium II took their last steps on earth in front of these steps. 

 

 

"DESCENT"

Photograph of the steps of Crematorium III leading to the disrobing room.  

The photograph was taken to suggest the pushing, shouting of guards, and terror of prisoners as they tried to stay with family members, to not stumble, and to make their way into the unknown.  

For those who did not know their fate, they were told they were going to have a shower after having survived an arduous journey.  Prisoners were told to remember the location of their clothes, including their shoes, so that they could be found after their shower.

 

All this was a ruse.  None of the prisoners who entered the gas chambers survived to claim their clothes, or their shoes. 

 

 

"ASHES CART"

Due to the astounding numbers of humans beings killed and cremated at Birkenau, a small guage rail line was constructed to transport their ashes from the crematoria to nearby ponds for disposal.

After the war, the ashes cart photographed in this image was found in one of the camp's larger ponds.

Currently, the cart is exhibited in the Sauna Building.

 

"FAMILY"

Reflections of three trees in one of the larger ponds where human ashes were dumped.

 

 

"BELOW QUIET WATERS, THE ASHES OF THOUSANDS"

Early spring at one of the ponds where human ashes were dumped.

 

 

"REFLECTIONS"

Reflections of trees adjacent to one of the ponds into which human ashes were dumped.

 

 

"VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE"

View of the Sola River from the main bridge, Oświeçim.

In addition to dumping human ashes into fields, streams, and ponds, human ashes were dumped into the Sola River.

 

"IN REMEMBRANCE"

Rose placed on the railroad spur just inside the Main Guard House.

 

 

"THE FUTURE:  UNKNOWN"

The future of civil society in Europe, in the United States, and in other parts of the world is unclear.

Recent turns toward authoritarianism suggest that the forces that resulted in construction of Auschwitz-Birkenau can again dominate world affairs.