Part VIII: Pits And Ashes

Image78Our first stop this time was a bunker just off one corner of the camp to the left of the main entrance. I say bunker because it was in that style, with earth pushed up and over a concrete structure. Markings at the closed and padlocked double door entrance showed it to be part of Birkenau but my guide was uncertain as to what its purpose was. I’ve since seen a map that shows it to be one of two potato cellars that had been built for the camp. I could neither enter nor see inside.

We next drove beyond and around behind the camp. There, we found a dirt road that served some farm homes and ran up to the back of the camp and along the back fence line. We had to leave the car and approach the camp on foot because the road was blocked by a pickup truck parked about a hundred meters short of the fence. The road led us to the back of memorial and then left through theorems along the fence line. We followed it as far as we could through the woods, but decided to go back to the car and dieback around to the other side of the camp rather than have to work our way back to the car later. Had we gone on, we’d have left the car on the opposite side of the camp from us.

Driving around the camp, we passed the main entrance and went on to turn left just opposite the admin building. A paved road took us past the family and gypsy camps on the left and “Mexico” on the right. “Mexico” was the name given to a new section of Birkenau that was under construction when the Red Army arrived. At the far end of the road was a padlocked gate. We parked the car and simply ducked under the fence to reenter the camp.

The first feature we came to was a pond which had been used as an Image79ash dump. It was thick with algae and on one side showed signs of the many visitors who had walked right up to the water’s edge. The road we had walked in on made a left turn nearby and then ran past the Sauna andImage81 crematorium IV. On the right of the road opposite the pond were the remains of Crematorium V, which had been razed to the ground during a prisoner revolt and never rebuilt.

I took a picture of the pond and we moved on to see the Sauna, Image62where real delousing of prisoners not doomed to immediate death was done. I took some pictures of the Sauna, both inside and out.


The delousing chambers, or parts of them, were in place. Image73Otherwise, the large building was empty. Outside, I went through the high weeds to the back and took a couple of pictures through the main security fence. The open fields beyond were once the open burning pits and, ostensibly, burial sites for Soviet POWs, among others. Oversized white crucifixes and Stars of David lined both sides of the more distant field.

Beyond the Sauna was the gate I’d reached the day before from the opposite direction. Off to the left about fifty meters, men were working on waste treatment plant restoration. Between the pond and the fence lay “Canada”. It was a large open area where only the outlines of foundations remained and the grass was knee high to me.

It was in Canada that the worldly possessions of transport victims were searched, sorted, packaged and stored before being sent back into Germany for consumption. Shoes, food, clothes, luggage, eyeglasses, family fortunes in gold and diamonds, jewelry, prosthetic limbs, canes, umbrellas, photos, flatware, toys, prams, everything that the doomed had carried with them had been methodically processed in Canada. To Poles, Canada became synonymous with Paradise because you could find anything there that you wanted, even fifty years later. The dead were also processed in Canada. Hair, fillings, dentures, you name it, were retrieved and funneled into commodity markets both near and far. Much of what was found was diverted as camp currency or into the pockets of the overseers at every level.

We moved on throughImage74 the gate to the point where the road forked and then took the right-hand branch. The left-hand branch led back to the main part of the camp. We were headed for the mass graves and burning pits.

On the way, we crossed the campImage75 drainage ditch. A bit beyond that, the path curved away from the camp and into a cool marshy grove. Light trails ran off the road to the right and crisscrossed each other in the marsh grasses and went on to who-knows-where. They were used and noticeable and inviting. But, I decided against exploring them.

It was a pleasant walk for a while, refreshing and lovely, serene and engaging. I couldn’t help but notice the trees and the quiet and the play of light coming through the canopy. But my mood was changed in an instant by the smell of damp ash.

It took a minute to sink in. But there was no mistaking the odor. It was so strong I instinctively looked around for the remains of a bonfire. There were none. Anywhere. I spent a good twenty minutes searching up and down a fifty-meter stretch and poking into the woods neither side of the road. The smell was constant and it was everywhere. It wasn’t borne along by a breeze, either. It rose from the ground on which I stood.

For reasons I’ll never know, I stepped off the road and uprooted a handful of weeds. They came up easily, roots and all. At least eighteen inches of roots slipped out of the ground as though it was water. I stood there and stared at them. What was clinging to those fine threads wasn’t soil but ash.

I felt as though someone had hit me in the chest. I couldn’t catch my breath or control my body. I couldn’t get away from it. I couldn’t move. I could only stand there and stare, knowing that I was standing in an open grave and that everything around me that was green and growing and lovely was thriving on the scattered and decaying remains of thousands of people. The bitter contrast of that wonderful glade and the stench of witness was and is overwhelming.

I’m not sure what brought me back and put me in motion again. I think it was the voice of my driver, who, like the first, was both guide Image76and chaperon. He had gone on, not noticing I had stopped and called back to me to see if I was okay. Before moving on, I took one picture of that dreadful wood.

Like I said before, we were headed for the mass grave sites which Image80were simply open fields studded with Christian and Jewish markers. Soviet prisoners of war and others had been buried before being exhumed and cremated. There, I took pictures I hoped would convey the scale of the sites, which covered several hectares.

In addition to the score or more markers, there was a building foundation. A sign explained that theseWhite cottage were the remains of “The White Cottage” and that it had been a makeshift gas chamber. I believe it also to have been one of several homes that made up the former village at Birkenau commandeered by the Germans.

It’s probably more than a bit disingenuous that the Birkenau site plan and markers all said that it was the site of mass graves. Actually, a lot of corpses were burned in pits there behind the screen of trees separating the area from the camps. There had been a bonfire, alright. Thousands of bodies had been reduced to ash in the clearings where I stood.

When the crematoria couldn’t keep up with work, huge pits had been reopened in the woods just behind the sauna. Bodies were cremated with the help of oil, alcohol, and human fat which was scooped from the pits and poured back over the pyres. So intense was the fire that the piles of corpses were engulfed in white flame.

After the bodies had been burned, sonderkommando teams cooled the ash with water and took it from the pits. The ash was piled up and later pulverized. It was then buried in pits or dumped into the marshy woods or used to fertilize surrounding farmland or to treat roadways and walkways throughout Birkenau. A lot of the ash was thrown into the nearby Vistula and Solo rivers as well. I had walked through and upon that ash to get to the site. In fact, I had been walking on the ashes of the dead since I first entered Birkenau three days before. It was the purposely strewn ash that gave the grounds of the whole place the dark gray cast that contrasted so sharply with the reddish-yellow soil beneath.

Rather than backtrack along the road by which we’d come, we hiked up one side of the field nearest the Sauna. As we walked, my companion scouted for mushrooms that were in season. He gathered and discarded several. I found the prospect bizarre.

We reached the fence just behind the Sauna in a few minutes and moved left through the trees and brush along the fence lineImage83 until we found a break. It wasn’t much of a slog, since we could follow a clear but not worn path. As we made our way through, I noticed a several little hillocks that seemed out of place in the forest. A quick kick to the side of one revealed a pile of darkened ash. It was, I then understood, everywhere, and all life in that place was sustained by death.

We found a break in the fence about halfway between the Sauna and a far corner of the camp. After making our way across the long-unmowed grounds, we reached the road near Crematorium IV and went in that direction. Little was left of the building, of course. Only the concrete floor, part of the corpse conveyer and parts of the red brick walls remained. The site was nearly completely overgrown and seemed to me to have been left as found. I walked the floor from one end to the other and stood on what was left of an end wall to get some height for a photograph of the obscured skeleton.

That part of the camp was the most densely wooded during the war and remained so. The trees had served to screen activity within. Most pictures you might see of prisoners in a woodland setting were taken there. Those headed for crematoria IV or V often disrobed out in the open among the trees and then lined up for their shower. Some were simply shot to death among the trees.

I was nearing the end of my visit and had only a couple of things to do. For one thing, I had resolved to take a piece of Birkenau with me. With that in mind and on the pretense of wanting more pictures of the fence line, I separated from my Polish friend and followed a bare trail that led off toward the side of the camp. I thought I might pick up one of the electrified fence insulators that I had seen lying here and there. I found what I wanted and more.

I had reached the most remote part of the camp. There, anyone could come and go at any time without being seen and I could see that many had done so. The trail I took led me to the bank of the drainage ditch. At the corner a hundred meters or so to my left stood a guard tower that hadn’t been manned for fifty years. Off to the right and a little less distant was the another and unguarded corner of the small panhandle in which I stood. Across from me was a section of fence about twenty feet long that had been thoroughly vandalized.

Broken insulators lay all around. Eight or nine rows of barbed wire were down. Weeds that were waist high to me everywhere else in that corner had been cleared by foot traffic. Beyond the fence were well-worn trails leading off into the most dense stand of trees at that end of the camp. I had stumbled upon the back door.

My driver rejoined me before I could jump the ditch and take a look around. Looking back, I think he must have had a perceived or official duty to keep tabs on those he guided so as to protect the museum’s holdings. He had not let me out of his site for more than a minute or two at a stretch during either of our two visits. There was nothing I could do about souvenirs with him around, so I paced back and forth and scouted the ground a bit while he sat down and took a breather.

On our side of the ditch were signs of activity as cold as that on the other side. Short trails ran along the bank. There were signs of shallow digging along the ridge of the bank and a few feet into the woods. A smallish pit had also been dug into the bank near where my guardian sat. He added to it by idly probing and picking at it with a twig. But he wasn’t flicking dirt for the Hell of it. He was doing some mining and trying to be nonchalant about it. The way he brushed the surface with his fingers spread gave him away.

And I was doing some prospecting myself and I noticed a couple of things as I walked and looked around. First of all, the ground was springy, like tundra in early summer. I saw also that it was gray instead of red like the soil I had seen elsewhere in and outside the camp.

No wonder, then, that I felt like I was walking on a sponge. The ground under me was several inches of ash threaded through and through with roots.

It didn’t dawn on me until much, much later what my driver and I had walked across and what I was standing on.  It was auxiliary crematory pit near to the ruined Crematorium V.

I was walking across and standing on the remains of this horror.


Small mushrooms had sprouted here and there. They seemed the same as those my driver had picked earlier. I plucked one and turned to my driver to ask if it was edible. He didn’t say yes or no. He said, “We don’t eat these.” with a shrug and an expression that made me think that it was not the fruit but the garden that was unpalatable. But it wasn’t the mushroom that concerned me. I had also picked up a bone that lay next to it.

It wasn’t a piece of bone like I’d seen in Kitty, but a whole bone. And I believe it was a human bone. By its size and shape, I guessed it to be a longer bone from a hand or afoot. It was dirty gray and almost invisible where it lay and had green algae growing in its pores. And it was intact until I picked it up. Then, as it rolled from my fingertips to my open palm, it split along its length. When I tossed the mushroom back, I also tossed the bone.

I needed a couple more pictures, so I jumped across the ditch and took some up and down the fence line. Then I said I was ready to go. Having said so, I was able to finesse the driver by stopping to reload my camera as he walked away. That got me the time to pick up two insulator fragments.

It was about 11:00 am when we got back to the car. I took some distance shots of the admin buildingImage82 and had a cigarette before we left. On the way back, we stopped at a popular roadside restaurant for lunch. I asked the driver to order a typical lunch for me and he did. It was a delicious cabbage soup and bread with strong, sweet tea. My companion was surprised that I enjoyed it. He said he thought I’d have wanted a hamburger.

We talked amiably as we drove back to the hotel. I agreed to do some more sightseeing in Cracow before I left. Why not? I had four hours to kill between check-out time and train time. So I picked up my things and checked out. Then we went to the train station and dropped my bags at the luggage master’s office so we wouldn’t have to worry about them when we went into town.

The next stop was a fruit stand where I got cookies, apples, peaches and mineral water to have on the train. Next, we went trinket hunting in city center at the bazaar. I bought two local costume dolls, amber earrings, and a handmade wool ram for N____. At about 4:00 pm, my driver and I parted company after he showed me how to get to the train station on foot. After a tour of the storefronts at city center, I headed out. Near the station, I frittered away the time eating ice cream and watching the natives. The half-dozen peaches I’d bought were gone by the time I boarded the train.

The return train trip was different than the inbound leg. I couldn’t sleep and because it was a few degrees warmer, I didn’t mind opening a window in the corridor or in my compartment. All night long I moved from my bunk to the corridor as the train stopped at station after station. As we slowed, I’d look out a window to see whatever there was to see. Because of my restlessness, I saw what I couldn’t see on the way in – vintage rolling stock and steam locomotive.

Every station had one or more boxcars off on sidings or spurs. They were identical to the ones you’ll see in pictures of the WW II Nazi transports. Some had been left to rot and weeds grew among the ties and up through the trucks. Others seemed to have been converted to tool sheds, storage rooms, or offices. Some had glass in the high windows and light shone from within. I even saw a couple that may have been crew quarters or somebody’s home, judging by the steps leading in at one end and the light coming through the windows. The one locomotive I saw was poised for action and seemed to be in working order, perhaps for hauling freight or as a yard engine.