Auschwitz-Birkenau: From Memory To History

Suitcases collected from inmates at Auschwitz

Today marks the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, one the planet’s largest cemeteries.

Some 300 survivors from Nazi Germany’s most notorious death camp gathered today in Oświęcim, the southern Polish city that served as the sprawling camp network’s setting, for a commemorative ceremony to honor the 1.5 million people, most of them Jews, who were systematically slaughtered there from 1941-45.

As Auschwitz and The Holocaust drift rapidly from memory to history, today’s will be the last milestone anniversary gathering for which a substantial number of former prisoners will be able to attend.

There’s no shortage of stories related to today’s anniversary, nor is there a dearth of first person traveler accounts. I posted briefly about my visit there last June and won’t add to the noise with any banal platitudes now – other have spoken and written about their experiences, analyzed the ‘lessons learned’ and implored ‘never again’ with far more eloquence than I’ll ever be capable of.

Just one example from today’s ceremony, via The Guardian:

In an eloquent address, 86-year-old Polish writer Halina Birenbaum, who was led to the podium by her grandson, described Auschwitz as a “bottomless pit of hell that I couldn’t get out of”, recalling her impressions as an 11 year old of the “grey bone faces with legs like sticks wearing muddy clogs, nothing reminding you of anything remotely human”.

She said that even if she could have, trying to forget her experience had never been an option, because “it’s only in my memory that can I be next to my loved ones”.

As I walked aimlessly across parts of the grassy 440 acre Birkenau complex last June, my thoughts weren’t with the dead, but mostly with those who survived, like Halina, or my grandfather Anton who lived to tell me tales of the two-and-a-half years he spent in Dachau.

I wondered about the fortitude needed to merely survive when so much of mankind’s barbaric cruelty is stacked so heavily against you. Maybe that that sort of fortitude and desire to live can be found is the only real lesson here.

Here are 23 photos taken in June 2014, my humble attempt at keeping one of the planet’s most heinous crimes on that cusp that separates memory from history for just a bit longer. Most are taken at the museum at Auschwitz I, the original camp, and some at Auschwitz II, or Birkenau, which was engineered specifically for extermination.

According to a recent poll, 20 percent of Germans under the age of 30 have never heard of Auschwitz.

 

Barbed wire fence at Auschwitz
Barbed wire fence at Auschwitz

Barbed wire fence, Auschwitz

Barbed wire fences between block houses at Auschwitz
Barbed wire fences between block houses at Auschwitz
Train car at Birkenau, Auchwitz
Train car at Birkenau, Auschwitz
Train car at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp
Train car at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp
Auschwitz memorial plaque, English
Auschwitz memorial plaque, English
Auschwitz memorial plaque, Slovene
Auschwitz memorial plaque, Slovene
Portraits of prisoners at Auschwitz
Portraits of prisoners at Auschwitz
Portraits of prisoners, Auschwitz.
Portraits of prisoners, Auschwitz.
Teenaged prisoner, Auschwitz
Teenaged prisoner, Auschwitz
Zyklon B cannisters at Auschwitz
Zyklon B cannisters at Auschwitz
Shoes collected from inmates at Auschwitz
Shoes collected from inmates at Auschwitz
Artificial limbs collected from inmates at Auschwitz
Artificial limbs collected from inmates at Auschwitz

Auschwitz 11

Communal bath
Communal bath
Execution wall, Auschwitz
Execution wall, Auschwitz
Fence at Birkenau, Auschwitz
Fence at Birkenau, Auschwitz
Guard tower at Auschwitz
Guard tower at Auschwitz

Auschwitz 20 Auschwitz 13  Auschwitz 14

An Israeli soldier visiting Auschwitz
An Israeli soldier visiting Auschwitz

 

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  1. Savi of Bruised Passports says

    Your photos are stunning Bob .Auschwitz was a bit of a revelation for me – I never knew I could be so affected by a place!! I was definitely dumbfounded and still struggle to articulate the experience!

    1. Bob R says

      Thanks – It is an exhausting place to visit, both physically and mentally.

  2. Nancie says

    The photos of the prisoners and the shoes make me weep. Honestly, I don’t think I could go here. When I was in Cambodia I visited the prison, which is now a museum and the Killing Fields. I felt like a piece of me died that day. I will never stop questioning why humans are capable of such atrocities.

    1. Bob R says

      There’s another display where photos are not allowed, one of just piles and piles of human hair. That’s where I lost it.

  3. budget jan says

    I visited one of the extermination centres when I was just twenty years old (now 59) and found it unbelievable and sad. Your photos do it justice.

    1. Bob R says

      Thanks, Jan. I wonder what your experience would be like now if you were to revisit.

  4. Jarek says

    People to people gave this fate…

  5. Ed Lehming Photography says

    You’ve captured the ‘feel’ of this place very well, with quiet dignity.

  6. emilievardaman says

    I would not have survived.

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