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New Europe

Day One Hundred and Four: Oswiecim

Auschwitz I 
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The red-brick walls of the Polish barracks which the Nazi SS turned into the concentration camp, Auschwitz I.
Michael Palin - New EuropeIt's a little before six o'clock on an autumn morning and a church bell is tolling in the town as I walk in through the surprisingly narrow gate of what was the first Auschwitz concentration camp. Another was built later at Birkenau, just outside the town, where the Nazis committed murder on an industrial scale.

This camp was originally a Polish army barracks. The SS officers who, in 1940, were charged with the task of expanding it into a slave-labour camp for Polish
political prisoners wrote in some disgust of the conditions they found here;
how smelly and insanitary and dirty it was.

They set about building eight new blocks and adding an extra storey to the twenty that already existed, all in carefully matching red brick. They planted trees, poplars and oaks and silver birches, now tall and mature. They surrounded the camp with double fences of electrified and barbed wire, dug walls 6 feet below the ground to prevent tunnelling, and above the gate they raised a sign with black letters inside an almost jaunty ribbon of ironwork, spelling out the words 'Arbeit Macht Frei'. Work Brings Freedom. Leaving this ghoulish, apparently un-ironic motto behind me, I walk in among the long, low blocks. There is nothing about the buildings themselves that is particularly menacing. They could be workshops in the Midlands.

We had buildings like this at my public school. The green grass is well kept and the trees majestic. The only way to comprehend what happened here is through the imagination. I stop not far from the gate and close my eyes and try to think myself into the mind of someone else standing here, not that long ago, perhaps a year or so before I was born. I can turn round and leave whenever I want, walk back through the gates and have a cup of coffee. The same me, sixty-five years ago would find those gates closed, rifles trained on me by those who despised me and orders barked out by those who knew they could send me to my death without any compunction.

Because the camp is now a museum, there are signs which help the act of imagination: 'The camp orchestra had to assemble here to play marches while the prisoners filed past. This would keep the prisoners in step and help to count them as they went to and from work.' And a little further on, 'If a Polish prisoner escaped, the family members were arrested and sent to Auschwitz. They were made to stand under a sign announcing the reason for their arrest.' In case this sounds brutal but bearable, the next sign by the pathway is uncompromising. 'Within five months of the opening of this camp, some nine thousand had died. Most of them of hunger, hard work and brutality.'
Auschwitz I 
click to enlarge 
file size
The red-brick walls of the Polish barracks which the Nazi SS turned into the concentration camp, Auschwitz I.
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  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day One Hundred and Four: Oswiecim
  • Country/sea: Poland
  • Place: Oświęcim
  • Book page no: 244

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