Oświęcim is a small town in southern Poland. The Germans named the town Auschwitz, evidently finding Oświęcim unpronouncable. It sounds something like “oshvinchim” in Polish. Starting in 1940 it has been the home of the Auschwitz I concentration camp and its sequels: Auschwitz II: Birkenau and Auschwitz III: Monowitz. Monowitz was briefly the home of noted chemist Primo Levi and of writer Elie Wiesel, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his internment.
To get the full experience of Auschwitz you should travel to Oświęcim via one of the rickety rural trains that run regularly from major Polish cities. The way from the train station to the camp is longish but walkable. There are almost no signs, but you can just follow the trickle of tourists that flows into Auschwitz every day year-round.
“Arbeit macht frei” is a Nazi slogan as well as the title of a seminal jazz fusion album by the Italian band Area. It means “work makes you free” and it is mounted in wrought iron above the entrances to many concentration camps. The sign at Auschwitz I is most famous. A panic occurred in 2009 when it was stolen by neo-Nazis. It was later recovered. Particular about the Auschwitz I sign is the subtly inverted “B” in “ARBEIT”. Some have speculated that the flipping was intentional by the prisoners to warn others of what happened within. If so, it’s an act of communication even more woefully inadequate than the sign itself, but does make one wonder what horrors Dr. G. Raffe was trying to warn us about.
Despite being the largest of concentration camps, the place is strikingly small. It consists mostly of single-storey barracks and office buildings. Several of these are filled with displays telling the history of the camp. Here are some of the few things to see at Auschwitz I:
• The so-called Black Wall between Block 10 and Block 11, used as a wooden backstop for bullets during firing squad executions. They say 20,000 people were shot here, which would be an unrelenting pace for four and a half years. A colorful cornucopia blooms at the base—flowers placed by visitors purchased from stands near the entrance of the camp. The flower business in Oświęcim booms. The wall currently standing there is a replica.
• The gas chamber. Visitors are not allowed to take pictures in here for some reason. It’s small and suffocating and was only used for executions briefly before being reappropirated as a bomb shelter.
• The gallows where Rudolf Höß was hanged in 1947. Höß innovated mass murder techniques as commandant of Auschwitz and evaded capture for a year after the war until his wife turned him in to the British for fear of his capture by the far harsher Soviets. When Polish courts found him responsible for a couple million deaths they shipped him back here to Auschwitz I as a poetic locale for his own execution.
After my visit to Auschwitz I I ate at an adjacent pizza parlor and reflected on what I had seen in the company of local teenagers and a few arcade games. The fish soup was delicious and the restaurant serves as a nice decompression chamber to get back to modern reality after a day spent dwelling on a grim past.