Today we took a trip to Auschwitz. The first challenge was to get a local bus to the gate which turned out  to be surprisingly easy and then to book ourselves onto a walking tour to try and learn a bit more than just strolling around the buildings. It would be hard to summarise every we saw in just a few paragraphs but it struck me just how chillingly calculated the entire operation had been, every aspect had been thought through in detail and optimised for maximal efficiency and human life reduced to nothing more than a commodity to exploit. The latter point was particularly driven home when we learnt that the hair of the victims was harvested and sent to a cloth factory to be spun into material used in German uniforms, gold teeth and jewelry were melted down  and even the ashes after cremation was used as fertilizer on farms. It seems that nothing was wasted, even the belongings that people arrived with was segregated and sent back to Germany for re-use. Another horrifying aspect were the medical experiments performed on this unwilling supply of people, some of which required them to be killed and an autopsy to verify the results.  These were mostly aimed at trying to sterilise women, presumably so that this could be inflicted on a wider audience if the 'final solution' proved to be too much of a logistical challenge. Without superb efficiency the scale of the operation just would not have been possible and the evidence shows some glimpses into this. The location had been selected partly on it's logistical attractions, it was at the center of a web of rail networks which covered much of the German occupied areas. To help build and expand the camp the initial prisoners were used as slave labour, indeed the gate of the first camp has the famously deceitful sign 'work will set you free'. With a ready supply of labour a second camp was built,  Auschwitz II, which was more focused on extermination. Even so those considered fit to work were retained for a while to continue working. With such a large influx of people even the identification system used de-humanised the occupants, each person was labeled with just a number on arrival and had a badge to identify the type of prisoner; Jew, German criminal, gypsy etc. This efficient handling of such a large number of people enabled the camps to function.

The conditions for those who had to work and survive at the camp were brutal and it seems explicit that if people died then this was considered a plus. For 3000 people there was a single toilet block of 66 toilets which they were allowed to visit two a day for only 40 seconds each time. The wooden huts which they slept in crammed 800 people into wooden sheds and they were given only a bucket of coal a night to survive winter evenings of -25 degrees. Food was restricted to a diet of only 1300 calories a day which in combination with heavy labour ensured a subdued population. Obviously many died but even those who were alive were periodically culled to ensure the overall population had the capacity for hard work.  One SS officer would wait by the gates for the prisoners to return with a rope and those that could not, after a hard days work, little food and a 10km walk, jump over the rope were sent to be exterminated. With such horrifying conditions it is a wonder that there was not more unrest or escapes but this went hand in hand with a vicious punishment system. This was often run by inmates who were former German criminals and punishments were handed out for any small transgression including just not understanding German enough to obey orders quickly. There were short mock trials and the majority result of which was to be shot against a wall, after being asked to undress. Lesser punishments included being forced to stand all night in a group of four in a 90cm square room with no chance of sitting down and then to continue work the next day. Often people suffocated in those conditions and the length of this punishment could run to a week. Finally if anyone made an attempt to escape 20 of their colleagues would be sent to the starvation rooms, locked up with no food and water until they died, to discourage any thoughts of freedom.

But the element that struck me as being particularly necessary and crucial for the scheme to succeed was the thought given to the propaganda. To be efficient, or work at all, it was essential to keep those who were destined for the gas chamber as ignorant and compliant as possible, otherwise the task would have been an order of magnitude harder. Already being persecuted and singled out where they lived the trip to
Auschwitz was supposed to just be a 'relocation in the east'. How could they be fooled? For starters a 40km zone around Auschwitz was declared a no go zone for locals and the punishments detailed above along with tight security meant almost no one escaped to tell the tale of the atrocities occurring. However the campaign only started there. Prisoners were allowed to write home once a month, but only if they said that they were fine and well. Children were made to write post dated letters to friends to be sent after they themselves had been killed. All photos inside the camp were banned and indeed only very few taken in secret survive today. But the camp had a band which played once a week and attracted a good crowd so official photos were taken and distributed to paint a different picture of life 'in the east'. By no means did people volunteer for relocation but the mixture of coercion and propaganda proved very powerful indeed. The journeys themselves were harsh, with train transport carriages packed to capacity for the duration; the longest reported being 27 days in which time most people did not survive.

The duplicity did not stop on arrival. Each person was assessed for potential for work and two groups made. Almost all the women and children were considered unfit. This process often split up families so to avoid too much discord the unlucky group were told they were being taken to the showers before being admitted to the camp. Once in the 'shower' building they were asked to hang up their clothes on hooks, which had numbers, and asked to remember the number as if they would be coming back. I assume that undressing corpses was considered too much effort if they could be persuaded to undress beforehand. Finally in the gas chamber itself, it had false shower heads to complete the deception, granules were dropped in through holes in the roof which released a poisonous gas. After some trials the quantity to kill a room full of 2000 people in 15 minutes had been refined. The bodies were then incinerated and the ash harvested for further use.

In terms of numbers 1,300,000 people went to Auschwitz and of those 1,100,000 people perished. For me these are unimaginable numbers. If we lined them all up, each with a hand loosely on the shoulder in front the queue would be about 350 miles long, a queue which would take almost 5 hours of driving at motorway speeds to get to the end of. Some of the personal effects that had been taken from the victims were still being stored when the camp was liberated and piles of these are on display and it helps give a glimpse of the magnitude to see the endless piles of sorted belongings that had been recovered, especially for me the endless pile of false legs when such a small percentage of the population would have had these.

Our visit was a glimpse into something genuinely horrific and I find it hard to reconcile the meticulous planning and obvious intelligence that had been brought to the task with being able to imagine those same people being persuaded that this was morally right and indeed a good thing.

After our tour, having just missed the bus back to Krakow, we had an hour in the sunshine with our books to relax. By the time we got back there was only time for a stroll to the square, food and then off to bed.