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The electrified perimeter fence at Auschwitz II - Birkenau

Auschwitz is a name that has come to symbolise the holocaust of the Second World War. In this place an estimated 1.5 million people of various races, but mostly Jews, were murdered by Nazi Germany. When the Germans retreated in 1945, they tried to conceal the incriminating evidence of their crimes but the advance of the allies was so rapid and Auschwitz so massive that they simply did not have time to finish their work. When camp survivors started to tell of life inside Auschwitz, their stories were of crimes of such depravity and on such a scale that it was far beyond human comprehension.

As a permanent sign of respect to the people who suffered in Auschwitz, the Polish Parliament declared it a National Monument and Museum - a grim reminder to all of us of what humans are capable of doing to one another. The photographs in the galleries, taken during a two day visit in April 2002, show a little of what can be seen and try to capture some of the atmosphere. Auschwitz is a place that each of us should visit once in our life; indeed, some 2,000 people do just that every day and, since 1945, some twenty million visitors have walked around Auschwitz, mostly in silence. It is shocking and deeply moving, yet humans as a race do not seem to have learned or advanced much as a result. Since Auschwitz there have been more cases of genocide in the Balkans; in Cambodia; and in Rwanda. Humans thrive on aggression and in the context of war we lose control. We all know this, yet we spend precious resources and waste valuable talent developing weapons that can inflict destruction, suffering and death on our neighbours. We continue to fight senseless wars, squabbling over meaningless international borders; for greed; for power; in the name of racist hatred; or religion.

Auschwitz was the place where the Nazis perfected the machinery of extermination, starting off as quite a small camp but rapidly expanding to form other camps as they had to cope with increasing numbers of victims transported in by trains from all over Europe. Most of the victims, some 75% according to Rudolf Hoss the camp commandant, were gassed immediately on arrival: in the first camp the gas chamber could despatch 700 people at a time, with three ovens to burn the corpses. In the second camp there were eventually four gas chambers and crematoria, each of which could despatch 2,000 people. Even so the killing exceeded the capacity of the ovens and thousands of bodies were burned out in the open, or buried in mass graves.

Those who were spared the initial threat of gassing, because they were deemed fit for slave labour or were interesting specimens for medical experimentation, died within a few months of exhaustion, disease, starvation, or were shot, tortured, hanged, or injected with phenol into the heart. The labour often required the prisoners to deal with the corpses of those who were gassed.

It was not just the killing, but the process of dehumanisation and humiliation of the victims who were separated from their spouses and children; and then forced to undress before execution. Their heads were shaved, their personal belongings were taken away. Gold teeth were removed from the dead and melted down into gold bars for the Hitler's Reich. The hair was sold and made into clothing to keep U-boat crews warm. Any personal belongings of value were transported out to be sold.


Auschwitz I was established in the Polish Army barracks in Oswiecim in April 1940. Initially the camp comprised twenty buildings, fourteen with a single storey and six with two storeys. Between 1941 and 1942 new storeys were added, and eight new buildings were constructed, using prisoners as slave labour. The number of prisoners held in the camp rose to 20,000 in 1942.

Above the Main Gate, a cynical; sign: "ARBEIT MACHT FREI" means "WORK BRINGS FREEDOM". Each day, prisoners were marched to and from their places of slave labour through this gateway.

Guard watch tower and searchlight.

Halt! sign deterring prisoners from venturing near the 6,000 volt perimeter fence.

The accommodation blocks at Auschwitz I.

Part of a huge room filled with shoes of victims which convey the sheer numbers of people murdered.

SS guard post by the central area where roll-calls were held. The structure on the right was used, on 19th July 1943, to publicly execute, by hanging, twelve Polish prisoners for assisting in the escape of three fellow prisoners.

Entrance to Block 10 where medical experiments were carried out by Dr. Joseph Mengele and Professor Carl Clauberg.

Prison cells in the basement of the infamous "death" block 11. In September 1941 the first experiment of mass killing using the gas Zyklon-B was carried out here when 600 Soviet Prisoners of War and 250 of the sick from the camp hospital were murdered. Later the cells were used for special categories of prisoners undergoing interrogation, punishment, awaiting execution by shooting, or facing death by starvation.

The "Wall of Death" where prisoners from Block 11, and others, were brought to be shot.

The Door to the Gas Chamber in which thousands of people were killed. An tiny inspection window allowed SS men to check if all the inmates had died.

The Gas Chamber, where 700 people could be killed at a time, used mainly for Polish Jews and Soviet Prisoners of War. Victims were told to undress in an anteroom before washing. In the gas chamber itself, shower heads were fitted to the ceiling but never connected to the water supply.

Ghostly Reminder : a Jewish gathering in the Gas Chamber in commemoration of the victims murdered exactly sixty years earlier.

One of the openings in the roof of the Gas Chamber through which the canisters of Zyklon-B crystals were emptied. On contact with air, the crystals produced hydrogen cyanide gas, killing the victims in 15 - 20 minutes. Zyklon-B gas was produced by the company Degesch who made huge profits from sale of the gas to the SS. In the year 1942 - 1943 about 20,000 kilograms of Zyklon-B was used. Just 5 - 7 kilograms of the poison was enough to kill 1,500 people.

One of the three furnaces which together could burn 350 bodies daily. In each oven 2 - 3 corpses could be burned at a time.

The Chimney of the Crematorium, next to the Gas Chamber.

One of the three furnaces which together could burn 350 bodies daily. In each oven 2 - 3 corpses could be burned at a time.

The Gallows used to hang the first commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Hoss, on 16th April 1947, outside the camp Gas Chamber and Crematorium, on the site where the Gestapo building stood.


Auschwitz II - Birkenau was a gigantic and horrific factory of death, built for the purpose of extermination on the site of the evacuated village of Brzezinka. With 300 buildings, many of them wooden, housing 100,000 prisoners. The living conditions here were terrible, with plagues of rats, lice and fleas; with inadequate water supplies and sanitary conditions. Prisoners arrived in freight trains directly into the camp on railway lines extended by the Nazis to within a short distance of the gas chambers. At the height of the genocide, many thousands of people were murdered every day and there are areas in Birkenau where the ground is composed of deep layers of human ashes.

Aerial view of Auschwitz II - Birkenau and the railway lines taken by the Royal Air Force, 1944.

The railway line just outside Birkenau camp in 2002.

The main entrance to Auschwitz - Birkenau through which the freight trains from all over Europe would arrive carrying thousands of new victims for extermination.

The railway sidings, overlooked by SS watch towers, inside Birkenau where the selections of arriving prisoners took place. Some 75% were sent directly to the Gas Chambers for immediate execution.

The End of the Line: Just a short distance from the four separate Gas Chamber complexes at Birkenau.

Part of the ruins of Crematorium II at Auschwitz - Birkenau: the Germans used dynamite to destroy this and other buildings in an attempt to cover up the truth of what had really happened here.

Auschwitz II - Birkenau: Guard watch tower overlooking road leading from the railway sidings to accommodation areas which were separated from one another by barbed wire fences.

Watch towers along the electrified perimeter fence of Auschwitz II - Birkenau.

Auschwitz II - Birkenau : Latrine complex.

Auschwitz II - Birkenau : Wooden accommodation block, constructed from an original German design for stables for 52 horses. 1,000 prisoners were crammed into each of these buildings for which heating was inadequate and inmates slept on straw. Infestations of lice and fleas were out of control.

Auschwitz II - Birkenau : Many of the wooden accommodation blocks were burned down; all that remains are the brick hearths for heating and chimney flues.

Auschwitz II - Birkenau : Brick built accommodation block. Six prisoners slept in each compartment lying on a bed of straw. Infestations of lice and fleas were out of control.

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