Property 31 – Auschwitz-Birkenau: German Nazi Concentration and Extermination Camp 1940-1945
It seems somehow profane that the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp is included on the World Heritage register. I’ve spent my time on this site writing about beautiful works of architecture and magical natural places. These are positive places that make the world better and seem to improve the lives of all who visit them. Why then are we including the site of the murder of over a million people, killed in the name of an insane ideology of racial purity? It seems blasphemous.
I understand the logic though. We can’t always be living in a world of kittens and ice cream. The World Heritage list can’t just include places that are beautiful – it also has to include places where the worst evils were committed. Life isn’t simply the good bits, the supercut. There are dark moments and dark places. As the UNESCO site notes, the reason that Auschwitz-Birkenau was inscribed was as a monument to the human spirit and as a sacred place of memory for those who were murdered.
My visit was in summer 2002, and part of me imagined that the lovely sunny weather I’d had in Krakow and Warsaw would vanish, to be replaced with iron-grey skies and sleet. It didn’t happen. The warmth and sun were incongruous in such a place. That said, my logical mind reminded me that 25 degrees celsius is about as warm as it gets in Southern Poland, and that the winters endured by the prisoners must have been savage.
The site began life as a barracks for Austrian soldiers, but was converted into a prison by the Nazi occupiers. These original brick buildings are the ones most commonly seen in photographs because they’re relatively photogenic compared to the industrial structures elsewhere. The famous gate with the inscription arbeit macht frei (“work sets you free”) seems to leak evil. The buildings beyond, although cleaned up and presented museum-style, have a certain something in the brick work. I don’t know whether it’s because I’ve seen the historical photos or whether there is some kind of lingering psychic miasma, but it’s deeply disturbing.
There is a museum on site which houses relics from the era. Most confronting for me were the huge piles of shoes, eyeglasses and suitcases, secured behind plexiglass. They had been brought along by the internees for the journey, presumably because they had been instructed to pack for a long stay.
The first mass transports to Auschwitz began in 1940. Initially the prisoners were mostly members of the anti-Nazi resistance groups, but by the end of 1941 large numbers of Soviet prisoners were being interned. Early 1942 saw the camp repurposed again as a killing factory, largely directed against the Jews of Europe, and this necessitated a massive expansion of camp facilities in Auschwitz II (Birkenau).
I didn’t get the opportunity to visit Birkenau as I was on foot and it is some distance away. In a way I’m glad. Birkenau is where most of the “industrialised” murder went on. It’s in this larger, more distant part that the railway pulled right up into the camp and the internees were unloaded directly into the gas chamber. Part of me is very glad that I didn’t see that.
The site was liberated by Soviet troops in January 1945. Prior to departing the scene the Nazi officers had been ordered to destroy as much of the evidence of their crimes as possible. Possibly this was done in order to minimise later recriminations, but it seems like a very laborious thing to do (also quite ineffective). The hopeful part of me wants to see that order as a recognition that terribly wrong things had been done here, and they needed to be covered up. Perhaps if the officers had truly believed that what they were doing was right, they wouldn’t have felt the need to hide it?
Auschwitz-Birkenau is a confronting but very necessary World Heritage site. Although most of the victims were Jews, this is not a Jewish memorial site per se. Rather, it is a place which commemorates one of the worst acts in human history in a calm, factual manner. This is European, and indeed human history, at its most horrifying and I urge you to visit it.