A tour of Auschwitz*


*  It is important to realise that Auschwitz was not the only extermination-camp; Treblinka, Belzec and Sobibor did the same mass-killing.


This description is the result of a guided tour around Auschwitz I went on while on holiday in Poland in 2006.  


The day before I went on this tour, the historian David Irving was sentenced to prison in Austria for denying the Holocaust.   The Holocaust is a sensitive subject, and I apologise if you find my account in any way offensive.  

Also, please note that - given the nature of the place - we were asked not to take photos inside the buildings, a request which I respected.


If you notice any mistakes/ inaccuracies, please email me.




Official Museum site

A virtual tour - fantastic images  

Auschwitz Album - an amazing collection of photos

Then and Now - prisoners' paintings v. surviving remains



1. The enduring image


2. Established

3. Auschwitz-1 camp

4. Arbeit Macht Frei

5. Roll-call and resistance

6. Block 10

7. Block 11

8. The Death Wall

9. Crematorium and gas chamber

10. ...and the rest of the world knew

Auschwitz-2 Birkenau

11. Birkenau

12. Arrival at Birkenau

13. Life in Birkenau





1. The enduring image


Is this the primary image that you have when you think of Auschwitz?


If it is, in fact, you would be mistaken!   This is the main gate of Birkenau camp (Auschwitz-2 camp) and the railway was not built till 1944.


Sections 2-10 below describe the original Auschwitz-1 camp.   Sections 11-13 describe the later Auschwitz-2 Birkenau camp. 







2. Established


Auschwitz-1 was established in 1940, as a concentration camp for Polish political prisoners.


The SS selected a deserted Polish Army barracks near the town of Oświęcim, partly because it was out in the wilds (where no one could know what was going on), and partly because it was near to a railway.



3. Auschwitz-1 camp


Another reason Oświęcim was chosen for the location of the concentration camp was because there was already there a Polish Army barracks which was, of course, no longer needed.   This camp became Auschwitz-1.


Many people are surprised to learn that Auschwitz-1 originally consisted of 20 well-built brick blocks.


The first commandant was Rudolf Höss, who arrived there in April 1940.   The first prisoners - 728 Polish political prisoners - arrived on 14 June 1940.  


During the next two years the camp was extended until it held some 20,000 people.   12,000 Russian prisoners-of-war were sent there  (more than 8000 were put to death).  

21,000 Gypsies were also killed at Auschwitz.


In 1941 - according to Höss - Himmler declared that Auschwitz was to be extended and turned into the exemplar camp of the proposed 'Final Solution' (the genocide of the Jews) saying: 'the existing extermination centres in the east are not sufficient to cope with an operation on such a scale'.  


Auschwitz became the largest centre for the mass imprisonment and extermination of European Jews.





4. Arbeit Macht Frei


It was THIS gate (in the photo on the left) - not the Birkenau gatehouse - which became known as 'the gate of death'.


The motto  - 'Work makes you free' - was a German proverb, and was put over the gates on many concentration camps.   It may have been meant as a mocking joke at the expense of the prisoners returning from their labour - their work certainly did not bring them freedom.   Or it may have referred to a 'spiritual' freedom which the Nazis believed could be attained by hard work for the Fatherland.



As the prisoners arrived, a band would play.   Perhaps this was to calm them and make them easier to manage, although surely it would not have worked that way after months spent in the camp.   One writer suggests that it was to help the prisoners march in time and make them easier to count.   One way to survive in Auschwitz, however, was to be a musician.




5. Roll-call and resistance


Every day, the prisoners mustered for roll-call on this square by the kitchen.   Below is a picture of the booth where the SS guards went during roll-call in bad weather.    

The prisoners - standing in thin clothes in all weathers - had to wait until the list was verified ... however long that took.  If someone had escaped, this could take many hours (the record was 19 hours); it was said that it was quite easy to escape from Auschwitz; but the consequences for the remaining prisoners were such that the moral decision to try to escape was very difficult.  

In all, 144 people escaped from Auschwitz.


Prisoners also organised resistance movements in the camp - smuggling food and medicine in, and information and photographs out.   They held meetings where they recited patriotic poems, and developed a camp 'underground art'.   On 7 October 1944, there was a full-scale revolt.  


On the right is a photo of the gallows by the roll-call booth.   Troublemakers were hanged here publicly in front of the prisoners (e.g. 12 Polish political prisoners were hanged here in July 1943 for making contact with local civilians).






6. Block 10


Blocks 1-10 were, originally, the 'women's camp'.   These two photos are of block 10, which was used to conduct medical experiments.


Here, the SS Doctor Clauberg did tests on Jewish women to try to develop an efficient way of mass-sterilising women.  


Here, too, the evil Dr Josef Mengele experimented on twins and disabled people, trying to increase his knowledge of genetics, and to develop genetic engineering.   He also experimented with skin transplants, and tested the effects of different chemicals on his subjects by rubbing toxic substances into their skin.


Mengele selected his victims as they arrived on the train.   When he had finished with them, he often killed them by lethal injection.







7. Block 11


Block 11 was separated from the rest of the camp.   Wooden shutters were put over the windows of the women's medical Block 10 next door (see photo, right) so nobody would see what was happening in Block 11.



Inside Block 11, the Gestapo Police Court was held.    Prisoners were hauled before these courts for anything from working too slowly, to pulling out a gold tooth and selling it for bread.   In sessions lasting up to 3 hours, the court heard the cases of up to a hundred people, and handed out sentences ranging from flogging to execution by firing squad.


A popular form of punishment was to tie the prisoners' arms behind their backs, then hang them by the wrists, and flog them.

In the cellars of Block 11 were prisoners sentenced to starve to death for helping someone to escape.   Some cells were so small that the prisoners could only stand (90cm square); some went mad, others died of suffocation.

Here, also, in September 1941 the SS did its first experiments gassing people with Zyklon B, on 600 Russian PoWs and 250 sick people from the camp hospital.


Cell 20 was the cell of prisoner 16670, Father Maximilian Kolbe, who in 1941 offered to take the place of one Francis Gajowniczek, a man who had been selected at random to die because a prisoner had escaped.   In 1982, Father Kolbe was made a saint of the Catholic Church.


Before punishment, prisoners were taken to two small rooms half way down the building on the ground floor, and made to undress.   The photo on the left shows the women's room; the men's room was to the left of the door.



8. The Death Wall


Those lucky enough to be sentenced to be shot were taken outside and shot against the 'death wall'.   This was knocked down before 1945, but a reconstruction was built after the war in memory of those who died.



9. Crematorium and gas chamber


In the grounds of Auschwitz-1 camp is a small, low building.  


Originally a munitions bunker, after August 1940 this building was used as a mortuary and crematorium.   In autumn 1941 the morgue-room was converted to a gas chamber, which was its function until July 1943, when the gassing was moved to Auschwitz-2 Birkenau


On the plan (left), you can see:

a. store room

b. room to store the ashes after cremation

c. originally a morgue, later a gas chamber

d. furnaces

e. chimney

f. storage of coke to fuel the furnaces

g. office


Towards the end of the war, the building became an air-raid shelter, which is why - after the war - enough of the two furnaces had survived to be able to rebuild them.   They are clearly marked with the name of the German firm which made them - Topf und Söhne of Erfurt.






To many people, the furnaces at first seem small - perhaps too small to have been able to burn the 1.5 million people who are said to have died at Auschwitz-Birkenau.   Some 'holocaust-deniers' have stated that the numbers of dead must have been overestimated, and even that the furnaces were not crematoria at all, but bread ovens.


However, when they were put on trial for war crimes after the war, the German firm of Topf und Söhne confirmed that - burning two or three corpses at a time, together with four furnaces at Birkenau - the crematoria at Auschwitz had the capacity to burn 4,576 corpses a day (1.7 million a year).   And their defence was not that the furnaces were bread ovens, or even standard a crematorium, but that it was not illegal to burn corpses - only to kill them in the first place.

Also, we know from a remarkable photo which the resistance movement within the camp managed to smuggle out that - when the number of corpses exceeded the capacity of the furnaces, corpses were burned on open pits.

Zyklon B was used to gas the prisoners.   20 tonnes of Zyklon B was supplied by the German firm Degesch in the year 1942-1943, and the camp commandant Rudolf Höss estimated that it took 5-7 kg to kill a room full of 1500 people (ie he bought enough Zyklon B in that year to have killed 5 million people ).   The chemical pellets were dropped down from openings in the roof, and the heat of the bodies of the people in the room activated the chemical reaction which turned the pellets to gas.


The Nazis stripped the corpses of everything useful.   One gruesome exhibit -  7 tons of human hair - shows traces of poison gas, proving that the prisoners' heads were shaved AFTER they had been gassed.

Behind the crematorium is a single gallows.   On 16 April 1947, Rudolf Höss was taken back to Auschwitz and hanged there.


10. ...and the rest of the world knew


This photo shows a bomb shelter in the grounds of the camp.   From photos and information smuggled out, the Allies knew exactly what was happening in Auschwitz.   The RAF took aerial photographs of the camp, and the Nazis expected to be bombed.





Auschwitz-2 Birkenau




11. Birkenau


So many people were being sent to the camps that in autumn 1941 the Nazis began to built a second camp, 3 km to the west of Auschwitz-1, in the village of Brzezinka.   They threw out the Polish inhabitants and used the bricks and wood from their houses to build the new camp.


Auschwitz-2 Birkenau was 10 times as big as Auschwitz-1, and had 100,000 prisoners by August 1944.   (Later Auschwitz-3 Monowitz was also built, to the east of Auschwitz-1, as well as 40 sub-camps.)


After 1942, most of the people who came to Auschwitz were Jews marked for extermination.   Some of them had made a journey of 1500 miles (up to 10 days' travel) crammed into cattle trucks and goods wagons.   When the wagons were opened, many if them were already dead.




*  Please note that only a small proportion of the people who were sent to Auschwitz arrived at this platform (more correctly: 'ramp') inside Birkenau camp.   Until 1944, the trains arrived at Auschwitz station.   After 1944, a spur of track took the prisoners directly to Auschwitz-2 Birkenau, but most prisoners disembarked OUTSIDE the camp.


12. Arrival at Birkenau


Many of the arriving Jews were simply being transferred from other prison camps.   Some of them had actually paid to buy the train tickets or non-existent plots of land.   In the ghettos of eastern Europe, poor Jews had been given bread if they volunteered to go for 'resettlement'.






All of the Jews -even those who suspected the worst - arrived having been told that they were being taken east for resettlement.   They therefore had brought with them everything of value they could carry - not only jewellery and valuables, but also the tools of their trade and personal mementos.


All this was immediately confiscated, stored in warehouses and sent to Germany to be used in the war effort.   At the very end of the war, the SS tried to burn the warehouses where these things were temporarily stored, but huge piles of shoes, glasses, suitcases and artificial limbs have survived; it is heartbreaking to view them.


Pictures supplied by the Wiener Library

As soon as they stepped out of the carriages, the arriving Jews were sorted on the platform into those who could work as slave-labourers in the local factories, and those who were too old, young or weak to work.   The latter were taken straight to the gas-chambers, under the pretence that they were being taken for a shower.

Höss later estimated that some three-quarters of the arriving Jews were taken straight away for extermination in this way.


(after this first sorting-out, without warning, there would be other selections of people for the gas-chamber, perhaps to make way for new arrivals)

For the slave-workers who were not immediately killed, the huge Birkenau camp was built.


The revolt of 7 October 1944 destroyed some of the buildings, including crematorium IV.   Other buildings were burned or dismantled by the SS.  



13. Life in Birkenau


The prisoners lived in buildings which had originally been stables for 52 horses, which had been converted to barracks for 1000 people.   A single oven was built at the end of the barn to provide heat.


These buildings are not the original buildings, which were destroyed, but were reconstructed after the war as exact copies, using the wood from the original sheds.


Picture supplied by the Wiener Library

On the first day of their arrival, the inmates were told that 'the only way to escape is through the crematorium chimney'.   Yet what I found amazing from the hundreds of photographs of prisoners was how few had hatred in their eyes - most of them seemed to have an air of resignation.

The prisoners lived in appalling conditions.   The first prisoners at Birkenau slept on straw on the floor.   Later, wooden bunks (the prisoners slept five to a bed) and straw mattresses were introduced.   They shared a few dirty pieces of blanket.


A typical day's food was:

breakfast - ½ litre of 'coffee', 1 litre of vegetable soup (often made from rotten vegetables).

supper -     300g of black bread (about a third of a modern loaf), 30g (1 oz) of margarine, 20g of sausage (equivalent to a quarter of one modern thick sausage) and some more 'coffee'.

It amounted to perhaps 1500 calories - what we eat when we go on a diet.


Many of the prisoners worked in the nearby IG-Farbenindustrie factory (it made synthetic rubber and petrol).   Some worked in local metalworks, mines and factories.   Others spread onto local fields as fertiliser the ashes of those burned in the camp crematoria.  


For people doing such hard physical labour (expending up to 3000 calories a day), these were starvation rations.   

Few women lived more than 6 months, and few men more than a year in such conditions. When the few remaining prisoners were liberated by the Soviet troops, some of the women weighed only 25kg (less than 4 stone).

These two photos show the toilet block of the women's camp at Birkenau - above, the communal toilets, below the area used for washing.


Hygiene was appalling.   The water was not filtered, so those prisoners who drank it died very quickly from water-borne illnesses and diarrhoea; where possible, they drank rain water or melted snow.   The thin striped uniforms were not meant to keep out the cold, and underwear was changed barely once a month, so many of the prisoners suffered from skin diseases lice and scabies.


In addition, Birkenau was built on a swamp, and many of the prisoners contracted malaria.  


The hospital was situated next to the crematorium, and so few patients returned from it that the prisoners referred to it as 'the anteroom of the crematorium'.


Two rows behind the line of women's huts, however, was the so-called 'Family camp' for certain Jews.   Here, conditions were better - at least so the people stayed alive for 6 months - during which time they were made to write letters home enthusing about their new life in the east.

This kept up the illusion of 'resettlement' amongst the Jewish people yet to be transported east, and it made it very difficult for anyone to claim that the Nazis were systematically exterminating Jews in death camps.

After 6 months, they were sent to the gas chambers like everyone else.