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Photo Essay: Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps | nicolasdecorte.be

Photo Essay: Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps


22 August 2011

As a follow up of my previous photo essay about the East Side Gallery, I wanted to bring you another piece of Eastern European tragedy.

Year: 1939-1945
Responsible: The German government and army under the leadership of Adolf Hitler
Event: Hitler’s Germany invades successfully huge parts of Europe including Poland, Belgium, France and most of Eastern Europe. He decides that his “Reich” needs to be inhabited by a “pure” race, the Aryan race, and that he needs to get rid of the Jews, Poles, Gypsies and everyone else who doesn’t fit in his programme.
So he sends all of them to concentration camps, with the sole purpose of torture and extermination.

If you want to know more about concentration camps, I suggest you consult Google and Wiki because there is way too much to tell about them.
I will keep to the images of two of the most infamous and horrible  camps: Auschwitz and Birkenau (Auschwitz II).
Both camps are located about three kilometers from each other and about 70 kilometers from Krakow (one of the nicest cities in Poland). The Auschwitz camp is a former military base which has been taken by the Germans around 1940 and transformed into a concentration camp. The residents were mostly Polish political prisoners, but also homosexuals, Jews and other minorities.
In March 1942 the second camp, Auschwitz II - Birkenau, opened to ease the congestion of the main camp. The main purpose of this camp was extermination by gas. There were train tracks inside of the camp on which prisoners could be imported and a huge number of wooden barracks for those who were not killed immediately but could still be used as workers.
Historians estimate that more than 1 million people were killed in the Auschwitz-Birkenau camps.



Important tip
Everybody knows Auschwitz, but very few have ever heard about Birkenau. That’s not a coincidence, Auschwitz is everywhere: in the history books, on the Internet, in novels and most important in the movie Schindler’s List.
This is why you pay a small fortune to visit the Auschwitz camp and the equivalent of a nice meal for parking space. And you might be disappointed when you leave, because you won’t have had the shock that you expected.
You see, Auschwitz has been turned into a museum, everything is clean, the walls are covered with old photos, pieces of newspaper and documents and nice little spotlights have been attached to the sealing.
Yes there are remnants of the rooms and the cells, and the room filled with all the shoes that were found will make you turn mute for a minute or two, but - at least for me - it was difficult to connect.
Once outside, you read from a lot of visitor’s faces; “what a rip-off, let’s get back to the car/hotel/bar/restaurant/kids...”
Don’t be like that, go to Birkenau instead. Even though you’ve probably never heard from it before, this is the actual Auschwitz you’ve read about and you’ve seen on TV. Here are the wooden barracks and the gas chambers, here is where the prisoners were brought in by train. And here is where you realize what the f*ck has happened. Except from the demolished buildings everything remained untouched, you can almost feel the chaos, fear and tragedy of what happened more than half a decade ago.
And not to forget, Birkenau is totally free - even the parking - and has a lot less visitors than Auschwitz.
Does this mean you should skip Auschwitz and go directly to Birkenau? Certainly not! Just remember that Auschwitz the museum, it’s there to teach you something. Birkenau is there you make you feel something.


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Joe Pritchard's picture

Hard to say 'great post' about such subject matter, but it is. We've been umming and ahhing for several years about the right time to take our children to visit Auschwitz and the other camps. We want them to be old enough to understand what happened with some context. Not any easy trip to make but essential, I think, if you want any understanding of modern European History.

You comments about Auschwitz / Birkenau being preserved in different ways to serve different purposes are particularly insightful - thanks for posting.

Nicolas's picture

Thanks for the comment Joe!

I also think that a trip to Auschwitz is necessary for understanding a part of European history. And not only history, some current problems in the world like what is happening in Israel and Palestina is still a left over from World War II.

Of course you can only read about it and watch the National Geographic documentaries but (at least to me) that doesn't have the same effect. The war ended more than 35 years before I was born, so the stories didn't touch that much. But being there, on that same place made me feel very small.

Siddhartha Joshi's picture

Your pictures are good and do justice to the place. The history is much too painful to read about, even to see in the movies...

I hope too to visit these camps to pay my respect to all those who lost their lives...

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