Sites beyond Auschwitz-Birkenau
SITES BEYOND BIRKENAU
The “common” tourist route to the infamous Auschwitz death camp is generally divided into two semi-equal parts. Visiting the Auschwitz-1 (Main Camp) and the Auschwitz-2 (Birkenau). We should keep in mind that the historical importance of the place extends beyond the camp fence (Plaszow camp in Krakow is another preserved example) and a number of places of this significance can be found on a short distance around the barbed-wire perimeter. While walking and researching along the Birkenau, I noticed the narrow focus of the guided tours, self-restricted in time and objects to visit. Only a minor part of the people, who visit the Auschwitz Birkenau camp, succeed to see the sites beyond the fence and pre-planned multi-people routes. This practice allows millions of people to visit the Memorial complex, and honor the memory of the victims. Therewith, if you have additional 1-2 hours, you can expand your understanding of the Birkenau and I hope my improvised route with photos and a map would help you to manage this idea.
On the same historical principle as the Polish city of OSWIECIM has become infamously worldwide known to give a name to the Auschwitz death camp, a small village of Brzezinka, poorly acknowledged by the tourists, gave a name to Birkenau. ‘Auschwitz’ word reflects the German linguistic equivalent of the Polish ‘Oswiecim’ and ‘Birkenau’ is little more than a German interpretation of ‘Brzezinka’. The “Brzezinka” itself historically originates from the Polish ‘brzoza’, which means ‘birch’. Brzezinka village scratches back to the XIV century and between now and then also was a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and had made its way back to Poland state after the First World War. The first railway station modernized the place back in 1856 and at that time was facing the Brzezinka village.
The present-day Brzezinka village, which is spread out between the Oswiecim railway station and the Auschwitz Birkenau memorial, was largely reconstructed after World War Two. As a means to expand the Auschwitz-2 camp back in the spring of 1941, the Germans decided to dishouse the villagers of Brzezinka. A special commission of occupational bureaucratic origin had taken the decision on February 10, 1941. The mass expulsion of the civilians managed from 7 to 12 April, was followed by the dismantling of almost 500 households. Only six houses at that time were historically determined to avoid the earthmover bulldozers. Construction materials from the demolished houses of Brzezinka were used to raise the brick barracks of the camp. A walking experience along the streets of the village reveals historical banners and the adjacent highway opens the panoramic view over Brzezinka.
This ‘problem’ was about to be solved by the SS at Auschwitz, because a new camp was under construction a mile and a half away from Auschwitz main camp, at a village the Poles called Brzezinka and the Germans Birkenau.
Laurence Rees (The Holocaust: A new history, 2017)
The road which leads us to the Birkenau main gate (infamous “Gates of Death”) constitutes only a small part of the village, spread out along the east side of the camp. The post-war years witnessed the reverse demolish-construction process. The former villagers were now flipping back and did use the ruins of the Birkenau camp, including the bricks from the gas chambers, to rebuild their pre-war households. Whereas Brzezinka was almost completely destroyed, it was not the only village around the Auschwitz Birkenau camp, exposed to the mass expulsion of the population. The villagers of Plawy, Babice, Harmeze, Rajsko, and Broszkowice shared the same tragedy.
THE OLD ‘UNLOADING RAMP’ (ALTE JUDENRAMPE)
Most visitors of Auschwitz Birkenau associate the tragic scenes of the victims ‘unloading’ of the cattle wagons within the ramp beyond the “Gate of Death”. Along with that, approximately every second victim (Apr. 500 000) of the Auschwitz death camp got out of the train within this distanced spot, a half kilometer away from the ‘Main Gate’. The platform historically known as the ALTE JUDENRAMPE (‘The old Jewish ramp’ or “The old ramp for ‘unloading’ Jews) was in use by the Germans from the Spring of 1942 till the mid-may of 1944. The initial wide wooden platform was later replaced with a concrete ramp of 500 meters in length, lamped with powerful projectors to use during the hours of darkness.
During the course of these two years, this very ramp ‘received’ hundreds of thousands of European Jews: people from France, Belgium, Holland, and 48 000 victims from Thessaloniki, Greece. The selection of those, who were capable of work was carried out within the ramp, under the supervision of the SS doctors and the armed guards, the practice which originated as far back as the earliest camps in the Reich, such as the Dachau concentration camp. These able-bodied people were forced to make their way to the camp on foot. The remaining 75% of the people who arrived were ‘loaded’ on the trucks with the false Red Cross sign. Their last way was destined to be finished by means of ‘Sonderbehandlung’ (special treatment), a German euphemism for the mass murder process. Josef Mengele, the infamous SS doctor known as “The Angel of Death”, got started his ‘selection’ service here back in May 1943.
Most of the Jews who died at Auschwitz were gassed upon arrival, never having spent time inside a camp. The journey of Jews from the camp to the gas chambers was a minor part of the history of the Auschwitz complex, and is misleading as a guide to the Holocaust or to mass killing generally.
Timothy Snyder (Bloodlands, 2010)
As a matter of fact that the Brzezinka village was demolished and turned into an empty field, and the Alte Judenrampe had a distance panorama over the ‘Main gate’ back in 1942-1944. The memorial site includes a number of plates with the revealed camp drawings, once depicted this tragic panorama with the “Gate of Death” in its pre-1943 state, still without constructive expansion. Two marble plates honor the memory of 70 000 French Jews, victims of the Holocaust, including 11 000 children. In the days of the Birkenau camp, this ramp was a stone’s throw from the main railway line, connecting the city of Oswiecim with the Poland railroad to the South. The transport junction with a number of lines actually was titled the ‘Bahnhof West’ (Western railway station) and was within touching distance from the Krakow-Vienna line to the West-South. Jews from both Krakow and Vienna were among the victims of the Birkenau complex.
Although Auschwitz was isolated in an area of swamp, rivers and birchwoods, the site had good access to rail communications. This was one of the reasons why the chemical conglomerate IG Farben became interested in establishing a factory there for the production of buna, or synthetic rubber.
Antony Beevor (The Second World War, 2012)
Although the Alte Judenrampe was not preserved after the war, the modern memorial site, graved of granite stones, is in proximity to the actual location, now drowned in the green to the right. The actual railroad tracks were dismantled and the modern-state one is not the same that was used back in the days of the Birkenau camp. The memorial site was erected only in 2005 with sponsorship assistance, a few dozen of meters away from the historical tracks, for the reason of accessibility. At the same time, two cattle wagons are the actual ones, once used in Auschwitz.
The way from the Alte Judenrampe to the camp reveals a shadow profile of the tracks on the grounds. This line is known as the ‘Track of Death”. We should consider the fact that it was lined in 1944 to ‘receive’ trains inside the camp (many know it due to the scene from the ‘Schindler’s List’ movie) and did not exist at the time of the Alte Judenrampe. This shadow trail on the grass now makes its way through the private house holdings ahead to the ‘Main Gate’.
WAREHOUSES FOR VEGETABLES (KARTOFFEL LAGERHALLE)
The winter months of 1942-1943 witnessed the forced construction of storage facilities a short distance from the main camp territory. This complex of warehouses included ten huge premises to preserve vegetables, potatoes in particular. In 1943 these premises were infilled with harvest fruitage from the surroundings farm holdings under the supervision of the SS. This ‘camp gather’ was generally not intended to be spread among the prisoners, who had made it possible. Vegetables were stored to be transported to the Reich.
The ‘Kartoffel Lagerhalle’ (potato warehouse) complex was in fact constructed a stone’s throw from the Alte Judenrampe. In this respect, the prisoners involved in construction and later those who did work there were witnesses of the new ‘arrival’ and mass selection process in Birkenau. The modern-state ruins of the former storage facilities span a quarter of a kilometer. Most of the premises are open-air now, yet some of the warehouses still have preserved wooden doors and even the remains of the electric power system within the walls.
SS HEADQUARTERS (KOMMANDANTUR)
The gradual expansion of the Auschwitz camp constantly demanded the ever-increasing importance of the SS staff. While the Brzezinka village was in the process of being leveled to the ground back in the Spring of 1941, only 700 members of the Schutzstaffel were engaged to work in both camps (Auschwitz-1 and Birkenau). In April 1944, only a month before the first trains from Hungary, Auschwitz had nearly 3000 members of the camp guard. Later on, in the same year, while the number of prisoners reached the value of the tragic 90 000 figure, the camp administration decided to raise the Kommandantur building and a complex of buildings for the SS. These new facilities were constructed beyond the camp fence, just in front of the ‘Quarantine’ section and the never-finished ‘Mexico’ sector.
Similar to the Mauthausen concentration camp near Linz in Austria, the Kommandantur is now the only building of this SS section of the camp, preserved today. Nearly twenty erections behind it, including barracks, relax area and the SS infirmary were demolished after the war before the Museum was founded back in 1947. The former guard section today is a little more than concrete foundations within a grass field, neighboured by the Brzezinka house holdings. Back in the 1980s, the former SS Headquarters building was involved in a scandal, infamously known as the “War of the crosses’’. The conflict between the Jewish community, who tended to honor the memory of hundreds of thousands of people who perished, and the Polish Catholics. At a time when dozens of Christian crosses were erected within Auschwitz-1, a church occupied the former SS Kommandantur. “Holy Mary, Mother of Poland” Roman Catholic Church still uses the building with a cross on the roof.
FORMER BUNKER-1 SITE (‘THE LITTLE RED HOUSE’)
For reason, the first gas chamber, erected in the Auschwitz-1 main camp, caused ‘difficulties’ to the camp administration, in the Winter of 1942 Rudolf Höß, the commandant of the camp, ordered the creation of a new facility for the ”sonderbehandlung” (special treatment). Höß did choose one of the six remaining buildings of the former Brzezinka village. A farm on the skirts of the woods beyond the Birkenau had been in the ownership of the Harmata family before the occupation and the forced expulsion of the Brzezinka villagers a year earlier. Höß had taken notice of this farm back in 1941, during the visit of Adolf Eichmann to the camp. Later on, the bloody-brown color of the bricks would create the tragic “Little Red House” euphemism. The Germans would call it Bunker-1.
The windows of the Harmata’s pre-war house were bricked up with the inner walls were demolished. Therewith, a building 15*6.4 meters in size now had two pre-planned rooms with 80 square meters of total area. Workers among the prisoners were commanded to make holes in the walls. The Auschwitz administration had already stored some amount of Zyklon-B pesticide crystals, supplied by “Tesch & Stabenow” who had a monopoly for the distribution of this disinfection chemical to the East of the river Elba. The first ”sonderbehandlung” (special treatment) action in Bunker-1 became possible not until late March 1942. The fact of the matter was not in the ‘construction’ dates, but rather in the natural spring melting of frozen ground, as the corpses were planned to be buried.
In a remote corner of Birkenau, far away from any other habitation, the SS bricked up the windows of a small cottage – known as the ‘Little Red House’ or ‘Bunker I’ – and converted two rooms inside so that they could be used as gas chambers. High up in the walls of the cottage they fashioned hatches, through which they could throw Zyklon B crystals.
Laurence Rees (The Holocaust: A new history, 2017)
The first victims of the “Little Red House” mass actions were among the new Jewish arrivals on the day before. A small percentage of them were designated to manage the corps. The first ‘fully functional’ sonderkommando unit would be created only three months later. The Bunker-1 was now just steps from the two wooden barracks, previously constructed by the prisoners for undressing the victims of the gas chamber. The “treatment” capacity of Bunker-1 reached the 800 victims figure. The corpses were loaded on improvised trolleys, and transported to the mass burial sites on the skirts of the woods by means of the primitive narrow-gauge railroad.
From March to June 1942 “Little Red House” (Bunker-1) was the only gas chamber in Birkenau in operation. Being elaborated with the “Little White House” in June, the Bunker-1 facility was in use till the end of April or the beginning of May 1943. Over a span of thirteen months, it caused the death of dozens of thousands of victims. The tragic geography of these actions includes people from all over Europe: France, Belgium, Netherlands, Germany and Austria, Poland, and even Norway. In May 1943 the Germans completely demolished the building as well as two wooden barracks, used for undressing. Even bricks of the destructed building were taken away and the site was leveled to a grass field. The modern site includes a historical banner and a complex of three memorials beyond the fence. Black marble honors the inscription “In memory of the men, women, and children, victims of Nazi genocide, who were murdered here” in Polish, English, and Hebrew.
MONUMENT TO THE SOVIET POWS
Marble’s three-part memorial to the former Bunker-1 is within a touching distance from the Monument to the Soviet POWs, which can be seen on the skirts of the woods to the northwest of Birkenau. A scope of historical sources consents on the 15 000 estimated figure of the Soviet prisoners of war, transported to Auschwitz at varying periods. They were forced to work on the most exhaustive assignments within the camp, including the expansion of Birkenau. Soviet POWs had tragically become among the first victims of the mass murder actions of gassing in Auschwitz with only a few hundred who managed to survive the war, generally being transferred to the other concentration camps.
Four slabs of black marble now honor the inscription in Polish, English, Hebrew, and Russian: “To the memory of the Soviets prisoners of war, who fell victim to Nazi brutality. Here lie their ashes. May their souls rest in peace”. The line about the ashes has more than just a symbolic meaning as this very memorial was erected side by side with a big ash burial site.
The fate of some of the Soviet prisoners who were released from camps in the east suggested what was to come for the Jews. At Auschwitz in early September 1941, hundreds of Soviet prisoners were gassed with hydrogen cyanide, a pesticide (trade name Zyklon B) that had been used previously to fumigate the barracks of the Polish prisoners in the camp.
Timothy Snyder (Bloodlands, 2010)
FORMER BUNKER-2 KILLING SITE (‘THE LITTLE WHITE HOUSE’)
June 1942 witnessed the gradually increasing figure of trains arriving at Auschwitz from almost all parts of Europe. Rudolf Höß, the commandant of the Auschwitz death camp, ordered the assembly of a new facility for the “mass treatment” actions beyond the territory of Birkenau. While the so-called “Little Red House” (Bunker-1) owed its euphemistic name to the bloody-brown color of the bricks, the pre-war house of the Polish family Wichaj was covered in stucco. A short time afterward this building had gained the “Little White House” epithet among the prisoners and the Bunker-2 among the German SS guards.
The corpses of the gassed victims were then transported to the mass burial sites a few dozen of meters to the north by means of the narrow-gauge railroad line. The first ‘period in operation’ of Bunker-2 was carried out between June 1942 and May 1943. It was not demolished in May the way that Bunker-1 (Little Red House) was. The “Little White House” was once again put into operation in May 1944 during the initial phase of the Hungarian Jews’ mass deportations. With reference to Höß’s after-war memoirs, the ‘mass treatment’ actions were always carried out at night and the former Polish farmer’s house was accompanied by the twigs of fruit trees brooded above.
Unlike the Bunker-1 facility, Germans did demolish the “Little White House” in the late Autumn of 1944 with the shut-down of the mass murders in Auschwitz. The modern-state condition of the memorial site was recreated by the Auschwitz museum staff in the same way it was carried out within the former Crema IV and V. Notwithstanding that the site correlated with the actual locations of Bunker-2, the Germans had left no ruins after the demolition. By this means, the form lines of the walls now only replicate the former building of 120 square meters (17*8 meters in size).
The recreated ruins of the former Bunker-2 historically indicate four small gas chambers with the once-used holes for the Zyklon-B, as well as the separate premise for the sonderkommando squad. Some construction parts of the former “Little White House” were used by the local villagers to rebuild their pre-war homes in Brzezinka, leveled to the ground back in the Spring of 1941.
ASH BURIAL GROUNDS ON THE FRINGE OF WOODS
By the time Heinrich Himmler made his second visit to Auschwitz on July 17-18 1942, the Bunker-1 facility had been already in operation for four months and the second mass actions site had been brought to work a month before (Bunker-2). At that time in the Summer of 1942, the corpses of the gassed victims were buried in the pits on the skirts of the woods to the northwest of Birkenau, being ‘transported’ by means of two narrow-gauge rail lines, one to a gassing facility. Two separate ‘sonderkommando’ (special squads) units were used to manage the process at the time. Subsequent to the ‘mass treatment’ action of the Jews from Holland, the Reichsführer of the SS was concerned that the Auschwitz camp could manage the growing amount of trains. Himmler ordered Rudolf Höß to ‘improve’ the process of the mass actions. The very same evening, Reichsführer had some wine and a cigarette among his subordinates and left the camp by means of his Mercedes the day after.
On 17 July, Himmler arrived to inspect the growing Auschwitz complex. Afterwards, Himmler, with his entourage, went to the railway siding to watch the unloading of a transport of Dutch Jews, as the camp orchestra played again. Himmler followed the group selected for the gas chambers in Bunker No. 1, and watched through a small window as they died. He then observed the Jews in the work commando dispose of the bodies and told Höss that in future he should burn the corpses instead.
Antony Beevor (The Second World War, 2012)
It took Höß a while to do his best on performing the order of the Reichsfuhrer by increasing the number of ‘sonderkommando’ members and planning the new methodology. Already in August 1942, the selected units of Jews were ordered to excavate the former mass burial sites on the fringe of the forest, 250 meters aside from the Birkenau camp fence to the northwest. From this month of August 1942, all new corpses of the gassed victims had to be burned open-air soon after the ‘treatment’. Up to 2000 bodies were piled in huge pits, mixed up with logs of wood, and covered with fuel to be burned to the complete cremation. The ashes of these actions were meant to be spread or buried nearby.
With reference to Rudolf Höß’s testimonies, 107 000 corpses were cremated in the same manner till the end of 1942 and this practice was carried out until May 1943, when new crematoriums were put into operation within Birkenau. Mass burning actions taken open-air were once again used in May 1944 with the renewal of the Bunker-2 (‘Little White House’) use. The firewood for these mass burning actions was brought to Birkenau from the Kobibor sub-camp, 15 kilometers to the West.
Historical research has revealed a number of burial sites, known as the “ash pits” or “ash burial sites” to the northwest of the former Birkenau death camp territory. These tragic locations include the former pits, where the corps were cremated open-fire, as well as the burial sites for the ash, brought here from the four big crematoriums within the Birkenau complex, starting from April 1943. As early as the summer of the same year, the Nazis would initiate an unprecedented action on the cover-up of the physical evidence of the mass killings throughout Europe, particularly in the East (the notorious Babi Yar in Ukraine was to become a scene for such ‘Aktion’)
Considered the biggest ash dumpsite, around burial location can be found just aside from the Monument to the Soviet POWs. This clearing in the woods is now fenced by tourists. The second big ash burial site is located within a green glade next to the former “Little White House” location. The site is honored with three marble slabs with the inscription: “To the memory of the men, women, and children who fell victim to the Nazi genocide. Here lie their ashes. May their souls rest in peace”. The ashes from Birkenau were also dumped beyond the territory, thrown off to the rivers of Vistula and Sola, and used as fertilizer materials.
THE ‘UNDRESSING’ BARRACKS (WAREHOUSES FOR CLOTH)
Visitors of the Auschwitz Birkenau Museum can also distinguish unobvious historical sites, such as the concrete foundations of two buildings 100 meters next to the “Little White House”. The long-drawn premises were once used as the barracks where the doomed victims had to undress before gassing, as well as the warehouses for cloth, which was then sorted and distributed by the inmates from the “Canada” section of the camp.
In February 1943 alone, 824 rail freight cars departed from Auschwitz for the Old Reich with textiles and leather goods. Most of the loot went to the Economics Ministry for recycling purposes, but over 200 loads of clothing, bedding, household linen and towels were sent to the Nazi Party office for the welfare of ethnic German settlers.
David Cesarani (Final Solution, 2015)
I am very grateful to war archives, museums, libraries, private collections, and writers for the historical photos in this article. To the extent that some author or a copyright owner may not want some of the above black-and-white photos to be used for educational purposes here, please contact me for adding credits or deleting the pictures from the article.