If it were possible for emotions like fear and grief to seep into the walls of a place, then Auschwitz-Birkenau would be overrun. The site in what was Nazi-annexed Poland is mostly quiet now, expect for the hushed conversations of visitors, or their gasps of disbelief. Still, it’s impossible to look at the empty rooms and sobering collection of artifacts and not hear the sounds of terror and anguish reverberating around one’s head.
These photographs by Tomasz Stefanko offer a glimpse into the current state of the nightmarish concentration camp – deserted and silent. Feelings of unspeakable horror and sadness are triggered by these images – whether it be the ominous looking buildings, or the small, intimate and sometimes very ordinary objects left behind by those who suffered and died here.
Uniforms hang in a row, inviting us to picture the men, women and children who once had nothing but this thin cloth to shield them from the harsh Polish winters. After ‘registration’, prisoners were tattooed, stripped, deloused and shaven, while their clothes were disinfected using Zyklon B. Those who avoided being taken straight to the gas chambers were forced into hard labor.
A slogan above the entrance to Auschwitz reads ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’, or ‘Labor Makes You Free’. The same message was written on the gates at Dachau, another concentration camp in Germany. The grim irony is, of course, that slave labor was a way of life – and death – in the camps. Able-bodied men and women were made to toil under horrific conditions, many of them to their demise. Their captors, on the other hand, made huge returns, with Auschwitz generating a profit equivalent to around $200 million today.
Looking at Auschwitz nowadays, the bare, functional design of the buildings conveys a sense of the methodical approach the Nazis took to sending the hundreds of thousands of prisoners to their deaths, especially as time went by. Designed with ruthless efficiency, the gas chambers and crematoria that came later stand as testament to the systematic way in which vast numbers of people were murdered. Yet even building the camp was deadly. The task initially fell to 10,000 Russian POWs. Six months later, only 200 of those men remained alive.
The piles of personal possessions – which no doubt once belonged to the prisoners and others executed at the camp – are perhaps the most poignant mementos of the horrendous events for which Auschwitz will forever be remembered. Everyday articles like these spectacles are so identifiably human, possibly even more so than biological remains like bones and hair. They make us think of grandfathers, studious cousins, or aunts – ordinary, everyday people, just like the multitudes whose lives were taken.
It is now believed that at least 1.3 million people died in Auschwitz-Birkenau, but since there are no proper records – and the Nazis destroyed a number of them – the figure could easily be higher. Others estimate that the number killed could be between 2.1 and 2.5 million, while some sources say the figure could be as high as 4 million.
Not all the prisoners died in gas chambers. Starvation, disease, exhaustion, individual executions, and subjection to medical experiments were some of the other means by which prisoners were eliminated.
Stacked here are prosthetics and leg braces taken from prisoners before they were murdered. Leg braces were fairly common in the early to mid-20th century, at least partly due to the polio pandemics that hit Europe and other parts of the world during that time. Prisoners in Auschwitz not judged to be fit and able for hard labor – not least those deemed to be lame – were immediately taken away and gassed.
There was no semblance of comfort given to the prisoners. Even during their hours of rest they were crammed together in wooden bunks like these, sometimes four to a bunk. Conditions were so desperate that workers slept in and on their clothes and shoes to stop them from being stolen. They were woken at 4:30 in the morning to begin their 12-hour shifts.
Here, a once-beloved doll has become a symbol of tragedy, just like the shoes that surround it. Children, like women and the elderly, fared particularly badly at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Almost all were sent straight to the gas chambers, with some used in the notorious experiments conducted by the so-called ‘Angel of Death’, Josef Mengele, and other doctors. At one point, 4,000 children whose parents had been deported from France arrived at the camp. Every single one of them was killed.
Nothing seems to have gone unregulated in the concentration camps; even the most basic human functions were recorded. Prisoners were monitored when they went to the toilet, with one inmate checking how long it took them to urinate and defecate. This invasion of privacy and the way that the latrines were lined up (as illustrated in this picture) make it clear that those incarcerated were not afforded even the smallest shred of human dignity.
These shoes look so small that they might have been made for feet that only learned to walk a short time ago. If there is any one object that represents the evil of those who ran Auschwitz-Birkenau, it’s these child-sized shoes. It’s almost inconceivable that anyone could contemplate killing children, and on such a huge scale, until we’re confronted with such stark material proof.
The Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp didn’t just hold Jews. Others deemed undesirable by the Nazi government were also imprisoned: Soviet POWs, Roma people, Poles and criminals were all sent to Auschwitz to languish and die. Nearly 300 wooden barracks were built on the site of camp, many of them made from prefabricated planks meant for use in building stables – as shown by the iron rings some still had attached to them, designed for the tethering of horses.
‘Untersuchungsraum’, read the letters etched into this wall, which translate as ‘examination room’. There could hardly be any more sinister or foreboding words in a concentration camp like Auschwitz. The medical experiments that were carried out on helpless victims here are notorious. German company Bayer, then a subsidiary of chemical industry conglomerate IG Farben, paid for prisoners to be used to test new drugs – yet much worse than this was also done, supposedly in the name of ‘science’.
Here, a cobweb grows in the corner of a room. The site of Auschwitz-Birkenau was mostly a remote rural area – an ironically peaceful country setting for such monstrous genocidal crimes.
These piles of suitcases, which deportees were told to take with them, serve as a symbol of the false hope offered to prisoners arriving at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Those sent to the gas chambers were kept ignorant of their fate until the last moment. “When you’ve had your bath there will be a bowl of soup and coffee or tea for all,” is an example of the kind of empty words prisoners heard just prior to their execution.
Various brushes make up this sad collection of personal care items – and once more we are reminded of the ordinariness of those who were murdered. Their crime was simply to be born into the wrong race or religion. The fact that their captors were able to see these people as less than human underscores the power of hateful indoctrination and unquestioning compliance.
A special SS until known as ‘Wachbattalion’, or ‘Guard Battalion’, patrolled and watched over the boundaries of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Those who did manage to escape generally did so when they were on work camps, outside the barbed wire fences – and nearby residents may have aided the cause of those who got away. “The local population is fanatically Polish and… ready to do anything against the hated camp SS garrison,” wrote one Auschwitz commandant. “Every prisoner who manages to escape can count on all possible help as soon as he reaches the first Polish homestead.”
These harmless looking, rusted tin cans were actually the delivery system of death for most of the people murdered in Auschwitz. Filled with pellets of the deadly gas Zyklon B, the canisters were transported to the camp in ambulances and then emptied into the sealed chambers, which could hold up to 1,200 people at a time. Death could take as long as 20 minutes, with one SS doctor reporting that the “[s]houting and screaming of the victims could be heard through the opening and it was clear that they fought for their lives.”
The most difficult idea to get one’s head around is how people could engage in such wide-scale slaughter of other human beings so similar to themselves. As these snapshots illustrate, the victims were normal folk – people who rode bikes, picnicked with their children, and posed with friends for photographs. It’s impossible not to be struck by the overwhelming tragedy of what took place when confronted with images such as these.
Although mass graves were also dug, most of the victims of Auschwitz-Birkenau ended up here, in the crematorium. Up to 10,000 men, women and children a day were murdered and disposed of at Auschwitz. Some sources even claim that 20,000 could be exterminated in a 24-hour period, and from April to July 1944, 475,000 Hungarian Jews arrived at the camp, which led to so many extra killings that corpses had to be burnt in open pits.
These photographs of Auschwitz-Birkenau are chilling testament to the cruelty and violence that human beings are capable of inflicting on their own kind.