Part VII: Back To Birkenau

On the night before, my only objective was to replace the pictures I thought I might have lost. But, in the event, I changed my mind, in part because I felt I had not lost as much as I first thought. Instead of retracing my steps, I went after a few critical scenes to document what I believed to be the rebirth of the big lie as it was being played out in preservation activity. And I decided to ferret out as much more of the real Birkenau as I could find.

My second driver was equally pleasant and helpful as the first. He had been a Phys Ed teacher before, but found he could make a better living driving a taxi for tourists. We talked about that and sports and life in Poland and more. I explained to him that I was going back to Birkenau to get insurance shots.

As we neared Birkenau, he pointed out an abandoned railway station about halfway betweenMYImage1 Auschwitz and Birkenau and explained that it had been the original point of debarkation for refugees and was used until the Birkenau spur had been built. When we got to Birkenau, he asked if I wanted to ride down to the camp administration building, which had been converted to a church. I told him I might later. He also asked if I wanted a guide while in the camp. I again declined. I knew what I wanted to do and where I wanted to go.

My first stop, of course, was the guard tower, mostly because the angle of the sun would let me get shots both to the right and to the left, which I did. I then went back into the Quarantine block to record its reconstruction. I took pictures there of the one original block, a foundation being laid, MYImage3and the newly completed block I had previously not entered. This time, I opened its back door and took a picture in the available light, which was ample and contrasted sharply with the other blocks. Also in marked contrast was the quality of the construction.

The new block had been erected over a well-poured concrete slab MYImage2floor with a brick collar on which rested the outer support timbers. Brick footings laid on the concrete floor bore the inner supports. All the sheathing appeared to be new wood and many framing timbers were clearly from salvaged original materials, some still bearing white paint. But, there were no bunks, no chimney and flue, no capos’ rooms, no slogans. It was also wider and ringed by a gravel-filled drainage ditch.

It didn’t take long to get the shots I wanted to insure plus a couple of MYImage4shots of the admin building-cum-church. So, I took the time to try to cover what I’d passed up before.

I decided to start the next leg by taking a look at the low and dark wooden Block 15in the forward area of the Women’s Camp.

I got the impression it was rarely visited because there was only a slight and overgrown trail leading to it from a gap in the fence along the Lagerstrasse where I was standing.  It was a good short-cut since the gate of the Womens’ camp was about a hundred yards further down.

Google Street View Block 15 – April 17 2014.
Google Earth Aerial View Block 15 – April 17 2014






I got the impression it was rarely visited because there was only a slight and overgrown trail leading to it from a gap in the fence along the Lagerstrasse where I was standing.  It was a good short-cut since the gate of the Womens’ camp was about a hundred yards further down.

I shouldn’t have done it. I wasn’t ready for it.

There are not words for the emotional blow I took. That block was special, of course. I knew that. It had been the site of some of the most terrifying and evil medical practice imaginable and more. I knew that, too. But I still wasn’t ready for what I saw. I’m not sure I’m even ready to recount it here. My whole body shakes when I remember. Thinking through what I wanted to write about the trip, I nearly forgot about it, but it’s an indelible scene.

It was an empty building. No furnishings, no fixtures, no slogans, no bunks. Nothing. But it was very, very different and very, very familiar. I’d been in places like it before, for treatment, in another life, in my youngest memory. Peering through a window a one end, what I remembered in an instant was the paneling – tan, tongue and groove hardwood beadboard. I’ve been in examining rooms and surgeries made that way. It was atypical military style. Also typical was the layout. Larger (waiting?) room on one side, smaller (examining and surgery?) rooms on the other.

As I went to my right around to the side of the block, checking every window on the way, pieced the layout together. At the far end was a paneled, floor-to-ceiling, island cabinet where supplies and instruments would have been kept. It effectively subdivided the area at that end, leaving only enough room to work. Its shelves were not visible through any window from any angle. But I knew it for what it was. I could sense what it had once held and how it had been used. I could sense too much really.

My mind was flooded by imaginings of activity within, the atmosphere, the movement of business, the common smells of alcohol and ether and blood and formaldehyde. I could see white porcelain clad appliances, the devices and instruments of art, the tables, the gauze and the swabs and the linen, smocks and aprons and containers and books and ledgers. I could see the man working and his assistants in waiting. I could feel the poking and prodding and puncturing and the thin scrape of scalpel against skin and the long tunneling fall into shock and death. But, mostly, I felt the abject terror of being inside and unable to get out, the absolute need not to be there, to be anywhere but there. My thoughts were storming and screaming. How could they do this thing? By what right? By what right?

For lifetimes, I was stopped at a window, rooted by fear until anger released me and my terror turned on itself and I wanted to get in. I wanted badly to get in and I hurried further around until I found the outer door. It was padlocked and sturdy and I could barely keep myself from forcing it. I really wanted in, through the door or through a window. What if I broke a window? Glass is cheap and easy to replace. It didn’t matter. I wanted in. I wanted to walk around inside and to just stand in the middle of the floor. I stepped away from the door to the nearest window, still trying to find an easy way in. That’s when I saw the floor.

The floor! It was sand!  Washed sand!  Clean, uniform, medium, washed sand!  Disposable and endlessly renewable.

I was literally knocked backward by horror and rage. Reeling away from the sight, I understood, I saw that rivers of blood could flow, had flowed, onto and into the floor. Gallons of it, along with bits and chunks of bone and flesh could simply be dumped on the floor to be raked over or shoveled into a wheelbarrow and discarded without a trace. Sanitation was not an issue in that place, not even at the level of afield butchery. There was no need for running water, sinks, or drains. Staff could have a new floor at will. Daily, even hourly, if they wished. Only minutes would have been needed. The cold-blooded simplicity of it repelled and terrified me.

We have no word for the work that was done in that block where Horst Schumann had practiced sterilization when not doing the same in Auschwitz I block 30.  No one does.  It was unparalleled, unspeakable, and nameless. In this as in other respects, Birkenau was a factory with a constant and ready supply of materials. Jewish skeletons were produced on demand and in bulk. Whole and partial cadavers and organ specimens were created to fill orders from German universities and individual researchers. Experiments in sterilization were conducted. There was vivisection. There was simple torture. Karl Clauberg did butchery there, as did Karl Gebhardt, and the arch-eugenicist Josef Mengele. And there were others both known and unknown to us today.

I left the scene feeling shocky, trembling and scared.

I pulled myself together as much as I could as I went on with my tour. The walk to the next buildings took a while, which helped.

Among the buildings I next visited in the Womens’ Camp were the Death Blocks, which served as anMYImage5 internal prison for flagrant violators of camp order, a few standard blocks, and the camp kitchen. High weeds kept me from entering the Death Blocks, which were joined by a short wall and so shared a semi-private courtyard. Other blocks well off the recommended route were as revealing as their counterparts in Auschwitz. One in particular had no skylights and still had bars in the window openings instead of glass. It was pitch black inside that block and it was locked up for whatever reason.

The Camp Kitchen was huge and had, as you might expect, several chimneys. It was open and, on entering, I came upon a man and a woman doing what I took to be restoration work. With gestures and inquiring expressions, I got their permission to enter and take pictures and wander around.

I can’t be sure of anything about the kitchen except that it held large MYImage6lots of materials such as timber framing and served as a workshop. It bore little resemblance to a kitchen, probably because it had been gutted and pillaged by looters and curators. I couldn’t tell how the cooking was done or where or with what. There were pools of something oily and black which had also been smeared on walls, chimneys, etc. It may have been creosote or tar, although I recall no odor. Several large vats that I saw may have been used for cooking.



Not much was left for me to explore in the Womens’ Camps after I left the kitchen. So, I moved quickly past the area I’d already visited and returned to the memorial. I went around it to the left and took some pictures of guard houses and the fence line behind it. Then I went around to the front, took a couple more pictures of the memorial and headed on beyond Crematorium III off to the right of it. For a while, I walked along a narrow (service?) road which took me to and around to the left of the site of large, round, brick fermentation vats which had been used to extract methane from camp waste and which were being restored.

A little further along, the road split. A sign with a left arrow pointed the way to mass grave sites outside Birkenau.MYImage10 I went off to the right and soon passed four large pits partially filled with water and algae. They had once been sedimentation tanks used in sewage treatment. In each were eight to twelve pillars which had served as supports for service catwalks. Little more of the system, which never worked right, remained.

A few yards beyond those pits I came upon a run of interior fence and an open gate. Beyond was a brick building marked as the Sauna on the tour map.MYImage27 Crematoria IV and V had been beyond that and the main security fence ran parallel to me through the birch wood a few yards beyond that. There were no structures apart from the Sauna, just across the recently mowed field. So there seemed to be little more to see, so I turned back and headed for the car. I had gotten my insurance pictures and then some and I was tired of walking.

Of course, my driver was waiting. He politely asked if I’d gotten the pictures I needed and whether there was something else I’d like to see. I told him I’d like to see the train stationed passed and asked if it was possible. He said we certainly could and off we went. We had to leave the paved road and drive down some ruts through some chest-high and thistly weeds to get close to the station. When we came to a small, more-or-less cleared area, I got out to take some pictures just as a train rolled to a stop nearby. I have no idea why the train stopped, since the drab, gray concrete station, which was across the tracks from us, was obviously abandoned, but it did. In fact, it was still there when we left.

On our side of the tracks were two other and obviously occupied concrete buildings. My driver told me they had originally been SS offices and that selection for work or death had taken place on the ground where we stood up to the time the Birkenau spur was opened. After that, the transport trains ran right into the compound a kilometer or so away. He went on to say that every two years thousands of people from all over the world, mostly Jews, gather there in April for a memorial service which includes a march into Birkenau. I found myself wanting to be there next time. As we were leaving, I asked him who was using the buildings now and why. He couldn’t say. My guess is that someone was living there.

We left the dead train station early in the afternoon. Since I had no further plans, I was glad for and readily agreed to my driver’s suggestion that we visit a nearby historical site. It was an 18th-century village which had been relocated from its original site on the Vistula and it was beautiful. For a small fee, we got a guided tour with running commentary which my driver translated. Outdoor picture-taking was free. Indoor photography privileges cost 20,000 zlotys per building.

The buildings were all made of logs or timber-framed and furnished with everyday things of the period. MYImage11Most had thatch roofs and one was being re-thatched whence arrived. It was fascinating to watch.

Among the buildings were ordinary dwellings, lean-tos, outbuildings, the mayor’s house, MYImage12

an exquisite village church and MYImage13watchtower, and a restaurant that was still used as a gathering place by area residents.

Had it been open  for business, we’d haveMYImage14 eaten there.

Our side-trip only lasted for an hour or so, but when we were leaving we ran into a roadblock of lightly-armed Polish soldiers. I damn near freaked out!

Was I, were we, about to be detained? Had war broken out? Or civil unrest? My driver asked our village tour guide what was up and MYImage15came over to say “It’s the bicycle.” I had no idea what he meant. What bicycles? There wasn’t a bike in sight! Had some been stolen?

It turned out to be a race – the Tour de Pologne. We waited and waited and eventually they flew past us. I could get only two shots, one coming and one going. I had never seen professionals at work and never dreamed of bicycles moving so fast! It was impressive! My driver had some idea of where else we might go, but the race ate up the time we needed. But, there was still time to do something. I opted to return to the synagogue and I’m glad I did.

Without the old witch of an ORBIS guide, I learned a lot. With a yarmulka atop, I wandered freely through the cemetery,MYImage16 with my driver filling me in about its history. It had been bulldozed by the Germans and later rebuilt, with headstones from other cemeteries being brought in. In the late 1950s, an archaeological dig revealed hundreds of whole and broken tombstones dating back tithe 1500s. Many were re-erected. Hundreds of headstone fragments had also been used to create a dramatic mosaic wall whichMYImage18 in itself was a memorial. Knowing about the dig, I could understand why the cemetery, which ran behind and to one side of the synagogue, resembled a shallow quarry pit.

Standing in the center of the cemetery, I got some good pictures of the back of a building damaged during WWII MYImage16and never restored or reoccupied, but also never sold or condemned despite community antisemitic grumbling.

Shadows were lengthening and that was it, I thought. Nothing to do but get some sunset shots and wrap it up. I would be leaving the next day. But, I was wrong. Not about leaving, but about whether there was something else I needed to see. That night, I took a long look at the map of Birkenau and knew I had to go back. I had not seen it all and I had not seen what I knew was there to be seen. And now I had a guide who had proven honest and knowledgeable and forthcoming. If I didn’t go back one more time, I’d be leaving without finishing, without finding what I sought.

I had not seen every corner of the camps at Birkenau as I had Auschwitz. “Canada”, crematorium IV, the Sauna, the mass burial sites and burning pits, and more remained to be seen. “Canada” was the part of the camp nearest crematoria IV and V and was the site of the hospital blocks and storehouse, all of which are now gone. I also had not seen some things I knew lay outside the fence. There were piles of ash and pieces of bone to be found. I had come to see it – the direct proof of Nazi butchery – for myself. All it would take would take was a walk around. The PBS film Kitty had made that much clear to me before I came.

I sorted out my things and packed what I would not need for the trip home. With that done, I could retrieve my bags and checkout in a matter of minutes. I counted on my driver being there since we’d talked briefly about whether I’d be doing more sightseeing. I had said I might, but was unsure where I might go.

At about 8:00 the next morning, my driver and I left the hotel and headed back to Birkenau. I had until 2:00 that afternoon to check out. My train didn’t leave until 6:00 that evening. I had a whole day to resolve the trip.