Editor’s Note: A group of local teachers is visiting Auschwitz, Poland, this week to mark the 75th anniversary of the camp’s liberation. The week-long trip is being led by Terre Haute-based CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center, which was founded by Holocaust survivor Eva Kor, who died in July 2019. The educators are sharing their experiences with Journal Review readers. This is the fourth installment in a six-part series.
There is only one word that can describe today visit to Birkenau — death. Birkenau is in its entirety a death camp, and you can witness this in every aspect. Walking up to the ruins of the gas chambers, you can see their diabolical killing machine. There is only one stairway in; no one is walking out. Simply death.
We walked to the back of the camp and saw two more gas chambers, each of them able to kill 2,000 innocent people in 20 minutes. Looking behind the gas chambers you see a forest. Our guide tells us that they were made to wait in the forest until it was their time to enter the chamber. The thought of waiting for your imminent death is absolutely sobering. Again, death is everywhere in this camp.
As we walked around the barracks we noticed two chimneys for heat. Our guide informed us of their purpose, yet there was nothing to burn in them. Imagine, a camp surrounded by five coal mines, yet nothing to use for heat. She told us they were not allowed to heat them, it was just another form of Nazi cruelty. The average life of a prisoner was two to three months and when they were gone, they were simply replaced. Again, death.
It is truly unbelievable the vastness of this place. Four hundred acres and up until late 1944, were continuing to expand. On average there were between 75,000-80,000 prisoners and this only accounted for 30% of those who entered the gates; 70% were immediately sent to their death. Death, it was truly in every step and every corner of where we walked today.
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At Auschwitz I-Birkenau, Alex Kor read to the CANDLES group his mother Eva Kor’s recollection of the day she exited the train and never saw her father, mother or older sisters again. The real final destination was Auschwitz II-Birkenau where 90% of people who came to Auschwitz were murdered. This place is also where Dr. Josef Mengle practiced his experiments on Eva and her twin sister, Miriam.
Passengers traveled in a closed train for days to Birkenau. When the cattle car doors opened, passengers were greeted by the selection platform. To the left went those too young, old or disabled to work. They were made to walk to a place where they were told they would get a chance to shower. The first part of the process was to undress. Many had sewn their valuables into their clothing for safe keeping; the Nazis took those clothes.
Next was waiting. When the showers were empty, the prisoners were led in. The doors locked behind them and soon poisonous gas filled the room. The bodies were then removed, their heads were shaved, and gold was removed from any dental work. The bodies were transported to the crematoriums, which could burn 4,500 bodies in 24 hours.
When the Allies started to invade, the Nazis tried to destroy evidence of the mass killings by destroying the five crematoriums. They were not completely successful, as portions still remain. Over 6.1 million Jews were executed. Some of the world knew what was happening and did nothing. At the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz on Monday, a survivor spoke the words of his friend who said that there should be an addition to the Ten Commandments. The 11th commandment should be “Thou shalt not be indifferent.”
The CANDLES group lit candles and placed a wreath at the memorial for those who died here.