Haunting Photographs of Auschwitz Memorial Camp

Haunting Photographs of Auschwitz Memorial Camp - WW-II Holocaust - Barbed Wire Fence
A visitor’s homage…

These Haunting Photographs of Auschwitz Memorial Camp are my humble homage to the people of various nationalities who were murdered in cold blood by Nazis during the World War-II Holocaust all around Eastern Europe.

A variation of this story appeared in Conde Nast Traveller as ‘In Pictures: The Horrors of Auschwitz‘, in Huffington Post India as ‘Auschwitz: Memories of Horror in Photographs‘, and as ‘Auschwitz: visite de l’horreur en photos’ in Huffington Post Quebec.

Haunting Photographs of Auschwitz Memorial Camp Security Guard Cabin Barbed Wire Fence WW-II Holocaust
Guard Tower outside the electrified fence of the camp

What drew me to Auschwitz

I have grown up seeing movies woven around this theme – Warsaw Story, The Pianist, Schindler’s List, Odessa file, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and more. I have read about the Holocaust extensively, both in magazines as well as in novels. As a photographer, I have also been through thousands of images of the Holocaust and its sites. As a result, somewhere deep down, I had a desire to document the worst affected WW-II holocaust site through the haunting photographs of Auschwitz Memorial Camp.

Last month, this desire was finally fulfilled. I visited Poland on a photography trip and besides visiting Warsaw and Krakow, I specially made time to visit Auschwitz. Unlike my other photo-trips, this time I stayed away from any preparation or specific study, as I wanted my psyche to confront an unprejudiced experience. It is almost like not reading the review of an eagerly awaited movie because of fear that the review might expose the plot.

Haunting Photographs of Auschwitz Memorial Camp German Warning Sign High Voltage Warning - WW-II Holocaust
Caution: High Voltage

My Journey to Auschwitz to Click Haunting Photographs of Auschwitz Memorial Camp

I drove from Krakow to Auschwitz, a neat little town with a population of just over 40,000. I chose a country road and avoided the Expressway. The distance of about 65 kilometres gave me more than a glimpse of the Polish countryside, which was as beautiful as in most of Europe.

Upon reaching Auschwitz, I realised that it is no longer referred to as a concentration camp, but is now a well-maintained memorial and museum. Another fact I learned was that Auschwitz consists of not just one concentration camp, but three – Auschwitz-I (Auschwitz), Auschwitz-II (Birkenau) and Auschwitz-III (Monowitz) – each approximately 3 – 4 kilometres from the other. As surprising as it may sound, this 10 sq. km. area accounted for the slaughter of anything from 1.5 to 5 million human beings, 85% of those being Jews.

Haunting Photographs of Auschwitz Memorial Camp Jews Paying Homage - Remembering the WW-II Holocaust
For Jews, a visit to Auschwitz is akin to a pilgrimage where they pay homage to their ancestors who were the victims of this holocaust; and they visit Auschwitz in formal mourning attire!

Auschwitz – First Brush

I reached Auschwitz-I at 8.30 A.M. This gave me 2 advantages – no entry fee (from 8 A.M. to 10 A.M. people are allowed in for free) and no queue (upon returning to Krakow, I heard horror stories of people being in the entry queue for over 2 hours). From a photography perspective, it also meant that I was able to get shots without too many tourists in them.

Not knowing what to expect, I just started following a few people with guides. The entire place was extremely organised, with a solitary entry gate that led me into a complex with rows of warehouse-like buildings – approximately 25 of them. The entry gate arch displayed 3 words in German – ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ – which ironically translates to ‘Work means Freedom’. For an instant, the images of how ‘free’ the inmates of this concentration camp were, danced in front of my eyes.

Haunting Photographs of Auschwitz Memorial Camp Entry Gate Work Means Freedom in German - WW-II Holocaust
Work means Freedom – How much more ironic could the Nazis be?

It was pure chance that the first building I ended up in was the Gas Chamber. Thousands of prisoners were gassed to death here. The building had 2 incinerators, which were used to mass-burn the dead bodies. All of a sudden, I found that my mood had turned sombre.

Click here if you may want to check out the official Auschwitz-Birkenau site

Haunting Photographs of Auschwitz Memorial Camp Architect Model of Gas Chamber Crematorium - WW-II Holocaust
An architect’s model of the Gas Chamber-cum-Crematorium
Haunting Photographs of Auschwitz Memorial Camp Body Loading Trolley Gas Chamber Crematorium - WW-II Holocaust
Incinerators and the corpse-loading trolleys in the Gas Chamber
Haunting Photographs of Auschwitz Memorial Camp Zyklon B Poison Gas Empty Cans - WW-II Holocaust
Used cans of Zyklon B – the killer gas invented by a Jewish scientist, Fritz Haber. It accounted for the murder of 1.1mn Jews. In German, Gift Gas means Poison Gas; but in English, in a tragic irony, the brand name of this gas reads ‘GIFTGAS’.

Walking around, I started reading the fact boards in the premises. Let me share the essence of one such board – ‘The plunder of human beings was complete. Healthy ones were chosen for a slow death through overwork, exhaustion and starvation; while the others were straightaway shot or gassed, but not before their hair was shaven off for using as yarn for woollens; their gold teeth were extracted and their valuables stripped.’

Haunting Photographs of Auschwitz Memorial Camp Prisoner Uniform - WW-II Holocaust
An Auschwitz Prisoner’s uniform exhibited at the Memorial
Haunting Photographs of Auschwitz Memorial Camp Tangled Prisoner Spectacles - WW-II Holocaust
A heap of tangled spectacles of the prisoners

As if in a daze, I moved from one building to another. In each, some reminder of the ghastly Holocaust faced me. And its scale and magnitude were evident in the exhibits I witnessed. Each building had 3 floors; each floor had a narrow aisle in the middle and the sides had glass-encased remembrances. There was a building full of victims’ hair; another full of their clothes and even more buildings with suitcases, artificial limbs, spectacles, hair-brushes, toothbrushes, shoes, toys and other belongings.

Haunting Photographs of Auschwitz Memorial Camp Prothesis Artificial Limbs - WW-II Holocaust
Heap of artificial limbs plundered from the prisoners before they were brutally murdered

Here is the Auschwitz Wikipedia Write-Up

There were thematic photo-exhibitions on the murder of Jews, Poles, Romas, Simtis, etc. There were also touching descriptions under the images like ‘This woman weighed 64 kilograms when brought to Auschwitz; weighed a mere 25 kilograms when this image was shot’. There were terrible stories of one Dr. Mengele – a psychotic man who conducted half-baked and brutal medical experiments on children, in particular, twins.

Haunting Photographs of Auschwitz Memorial Camp Prisoner's suitcases - WW-II Holocaust
A screaming, yet mute testimony, that many murdered here were in their teens or early twenties!
Haunting Photographs of Auschwitz Memorial Camp Thousands of Shoes Prisoner's Shoes - WW-II Holocaust
A mountain of prisoners’ shoes

When I couldn’t take it anymore, I decided to step out. One thing I wanted to see was the rail track that used to bring the prisoners to Auschwitz. Upon enquiring, I found that it was in Auschwitz-II (Birkenau), and promptly made my way there.

Haunting Photographs of Auschwitz Memorial Camp Birkenau Hell's Gate Gate of Death Railway Tracks Prisoners - WW-II Holocaust
Hell’s Gate or Gate of Death at Auschwitz-II (Birkenau)

Hell’s Gate or Gate of Death

Here was the notorious ‘Hell’s Gate’ or ‘Gate of Death’. The entrance had an arch through which the train would enter the camp. When the prisoners disembarked, they would get sorted as either healthy or weak. The healthy ones were taken to the barracks (akin to horse stables) while the weak (women, children, elderly people) would either be shot on the spot or taken to one of the 6 gas chambers built to murder and then incinerate them.

Haunting Photographs of Auschwitz Memorial Camp Prisoner Barracks - WW-II Holocaust
Prisoners were stacked in three tiers in the barracks!

The paucity of time didn’t allow me to visit Monowitz. But I had seen enough. In both – Auschwitz, as well as Birkenau – I saw a lot of Jews. I could understand that for them, it was almost a pilgrimage. They were there in hordes, to pay homage to their ancestors who had faced the worst.

Haunting Photographs of Auschwitz Memorial Camp Guard Tower Barbed Wire Fence - WW-II Holocaust
Birkenau – A Guard Tower in the distance, looming ominously over the electrical fence

If you ever get a chance, do visit this solemn place. It has the power of bringing you face-to-face with the barbarism of humans against humans.

Part-3 of a Trilogy comprising Warsaw, Krakow and Auschwitz. ‘Smart Photography’. October 2014 issue.

Haunting Photographs of Auschwitz Memorial Camp

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Comments

comments

42 COMMENTS

  1. Your photos bring alive the horrors of the holocaust, I can almost hear and feel the pain and agony of the countless people who were subjected to the worst genocide in history.

  2. A great blog post of a chilling reminder from history. I once had the opportunity to hear an Italian survivor recount for my students his incredible experiences of this camp and I will never forget his testimony.
    The black and white photography adds meaning to your writing because the message for us all is stark.

    • Absolutely, Elizabeth! While they say “History repeats itself!”, my humble endeavour in capturing the essence of this colossus inhumanity is to do my two-bit so such dark chapters of history DO NOT get repeated!

  3. Thank you for great pictures and an interesting text. Few corrections.
    You wrote:

    1

    ‘As surprising as it may sound, this 10 sq. km. area accounted for the slaughter of anything from 1.5 to 5 million human beings, 85% of those being Jews.’

    Approximately 1,3 million people were deported to Auschwitz – about 1,1 million were murdered (90% of them were Jews)

    2

    ‘I reached Auschwitz-I at 8.30 A.M. This gave me 2 advantages – no entry fee ‘

    There is no entry fee all the time. However from April to October between 10am and 3pm we limit the entrance to the Auschwitz I site for individual visitors. They can start with Birkenau, or join a group with a guide.

    3

    ‘approximately 25 of them’

    In the fenced area of Auschwitz I there are 28 numbered blocks, the building of the camp kitchen and camp laundry.

    4.

    ‘others were straightaway shot or gassed, but not before their hair was shaven off for using as yarn for woollens’

    In Auschwitz hair was cut after people were gassed.

    5.

    ‘Each building had 3 floors; each floor had a narrow aisle in the middle and the sides had glass-encased remembrances. There was a building full of victims’ hair; another full of their clothes and even more buildings with suitcases, artificial limbs, spectacles, hair-brushes, tooth-brushes, shoes, toys and other belongings.’

    Suitcases, artificial limbs, spectackes, brushes, shoes – are all in one building, Block 5. Hair is presented in one room of Block 4. There is actually one place where you can see victims clothes, but really few.

    6.

    ‘ the weak (women, children, elderly people) would either be shot on the spot, or taken to one of the 3 gas chambers built to murder, and then incinerate them.’

    People were rarely shot on the spot. Those selected to be murdered were sent immediately to gas chambers. In Birkenau there were all-together 6 gas chambers created.

    Pawel Sawicki
    Auschwitz Memorial

    • Thanks Pawel, for factual corrections. You’d appreciate that as a one-time visitor, I may have made some factual errors, but the intent was neither to mislead nor malafide. My intent of writing this travelogue was to pay a homage to the victims of holocaust who were murdered by Nazis at Auschwitz (and Birkenau). Am glad you liked the images and the write-up otherwise. Thanks for your time and attention.

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