So I went to Auschwitz and I was interested to see what it left me with. It is hard to describe it as there are so many angles to the experience. The following is just a brain dump and not necessarily what I think tomorrow - just a moment in time.

It is split into 'Facts I learned', 'Auschwitz numbers', 'Total numbers', 'My thoughts' and then some photos from both Auschwitz and Birkenau.

Facts I learned

Poland, during the World War II, was invaded with 2/3rds being taken by the Germans and 1/3rd being taken by Russia.

Auschwitz originally was conceived as a detention centre for the many Polish citizens arrested after Germany annexed the country in 1939. These detainees included anti-Nazi activists, politicians, resistance members and luminaries from the cultural and scientific communities. Their punishment was to be taken from society and be used as slave labour.

It was established in June 1940 at a Polish Army Barracks in Oswiecim and took the German name of Auschwitz. Upon entry to the camp, you pass through a gate with the words “Arbeit macht frei” atop which translates as “Work will set you free”. It was here where they were kept, but they worked outside the camp at factories – the Germans received a fee for providing labour.

The Nazis believed that Germans were superior to all other races. They detested Jews, democracy, communists, Gypsies, Jehovah Witnesses, homosexuals and other groups too. As their power grew, they started cleansing their world of these enemies of the Nazi state and used camps like Auschwitz for that purpose. It changed from being a detention camp to being an extermination or death camp.

However, not all those arriving at Auschwitz were immediately exterminated. Those deemed fit to work were employed as slave labour in the production of munitions, synthetic rubber and other products considered essential to Germany’s efforts in World War II.

The conditions were cramped and prisoners were dying from over working, starvation, heat, cold, unsanitary conditions, lack of protection against the elements and sickness. Some prisoners were also subjected to barbaric medical experiments led by Josef Mengele.

But the numbers were too big for the camp to manage, even though 75% of those that were sent were immediately executed e.g. children, pregnant women, sick, disabled, old, unfit. The remaining 25% became the slave labour.

The days started at 4:30 in summer and 5:30 in winter. There would be a role call where they were forced to stand - sometimes for hours - and have those that had died there to account for the numbers. Once all was accounted for, the dead were removed for burial and the sick were removed and executed. There were beatings and hangings.

Amongst this, there were Nazi processes that were followed. They would hold trials for prisoners and when they were found guilty (as was almost always the case), they were taken outside and shot. The only reason for the trial was for process. They had a hospital wing, but as they had no inclination to help or provide assistance, it was another place where people died. When the hospital wing was full, anyone sent there received a lethal injection instead of any ‘treatment’. In both cases, the trials and the hospital were pointless and didn’t change the destiny of the inmates as they would be dying one way or another anyway.

As the camps changed purpose, the method of murder evolved and once they had learned to kill efficiently with gas, they expanded the camp and created new ones.

In Autumn 1941, on the order of Heinrich Himmler (commander of the SS), at the town called Brzezinka (2 miles from Auschwitz), Birkenau was built to carry out the Nazi’s ”final solution”. It covered 432 acres, had 300 buildings (mainly wooden barracks) had undressing rooms, 4 functioning gas chambers, and crematoriums.

This location was chosen as it was situated near the centre of all German-occupied countries on the European continent. For another, it was in close proximity to the string of rail lines used to transport detainees to the network of Nazi camps.

Trains carrying over 500,000 arrived here and the majority of those onboard were murdered on the day they arrived if they were deemed as being unfit for labour.

It was purpose built to be a killing machine and thousands upon thousands arrived by train. They were told that they were going to be fed but they first needed to be disinfected after their journey. As they got off the train they were selected into two lines, one for workers and one for others. The others were led one way and taken into changing areas where they undressed to go for a shower leaving their possessions on the benches and were even told to remember their locker number. As they moved into the ‘shower blocks’ they began to realise that something was wrong as more and more of them were getting in there and it was a mixture of men, women and children. As panic would start, the doors were locked. Above the room, Zyklon B granules were dropped in and when it met the oppressed heat of the room, it formed the gas that would kill all those within the room - those closest to where the granules were, died first. It took about 15 minutes for all to die. Then fans would be switched on to remove the fumes. The bodies would then be dragged into the next room – where they were cremated. The cremation process struggled to keep up with the gassing, but it became a conveyer belt of death.

Possessions were plundered by the SS and what was left was given to the German people.

The majority of Auschwitz victims died at Birkenau. More than 40 smaller facilities, called subcamps, dotted the landscape and served as slave-labour camps. The largest of these subcamps, Monowitz, also known as Auschwitz III, began operating in 1942 and housed some 10,000 prisoners.

The Auschwitz-Birkenau camps could hold 90,000 people and was staffed by approximately 7,000 German SS.

Auschwitz numbers

At least 1,300,000 were murdered here, of which:

  • 1,100,000 were Jews
  • 140,000 were Poles
  • 23,000 were Gypsies
  • 15,000 were Russians
  • 25,000 were other ethnic groups

900,000 were murdered immediately upon arrival.


To help get an understanding of how many people 1,300,000 is:

  • Australia: picture the MCG full of people. Now picture 13 MCGs full of people. That’s it.

  • UK: picture Wembley Stadium full of people. Now picture 14.5 Wembleys full of people. That’s it.


Out of 232,000 children registered, only 700 lived to see freedom i.e. 0.3%

5000 people were executed by shooting at the death wall.

Total numbers

There were more than 11 million men, women, and children murdered in the Holocaust. It is estimated that 6 million were Jewish. Of those one in six was killed at Auschwitz.

To help get a feel for how many people 11 million is:

  • 110 MCGs full of people

  • 122 Wembley Stadiums full of people

My thoughts

Humans are animals like any other animal group. The fact that we have a different level of intelligence has led us to advance in incredible ways – we have capabilities to greatness and have adapted our surroundings with fantastic and sophisticated achievements. But despite our intelligence, we are still as flawed in personality as our emotions and drives haven’t developed in the same way. We are still often driven by insecurities, fears and desires. There are still people who crave power, who intimidate others and who are aggressive. The world we have created allows people to exploit others on a large scale.

If we look at how animals behave in packs, there is a leader who rules and there are followers. The leader can be challenged and will either win and stay in power, or be usurped. There is always a leader and there is always a challenger. There are many ways for a leader to protect a position of power, but the bottom line is that they need to defeat the challengers.

Packs work independently rather than together. We have a world where all the packs know of each other and try and work together. Though intellectually we know this, we don’t work as one. We are competitive and we need to convince ourselves that our pack is the best and makes the best decisions and that we are in control.

Those who crave power do so mainly by force – as with all animals, that is how it works. It is hard to convince others that they are wrong and that they should follow us. If we look through history – the way this manifests itself is through wars, bullying and domination. This is from all levels of society from Country leaders through to family dynamics to school yard behaviour. It is the level of our maturity.

This isn’t all of life, but the part that relates to what I thought about when at Auschwitz.

People who want power have a very basic proven technique that they can use – create a common enemy - somebody to blame for the bad. Their power then comes from removing the cause of people’s concern - despite the cause having been made up by you. It happens in all levels of society. People bond through having a common enemy.

Hitler and the Nazi’s did this well and you see the same process happening today as it has always happened.

So the Nazis chose mainly the Jews as their scapegoat - as many had done previously and since. Hitler rallied the people behind him. He found what made people unhappy and blamed the Jews for those concerns - and then set about ridding the world of them. Labelling them as inferior as a race makes no sense, but that is how it happened.

All the people in these camps were people with no crimes - innocent people who were victimised by labels applied to them rather than who they were. Most people are born into a religion or a belief system – it isn’t a choice. Grouping a race together based upon being a Jew or Gypsy or Black or Jehovah Witness or whatever, seems nebulous. Treating people as a group rather than individuals is easy, but is also lazy.

There were victims on all sides and who were touched by this. That includes Germans who were swept along and ended up doing things that were abhorrent. Can we be sure that we wouldn’t have been better? We’d like to think so, but do we know the answer? What were their alternatives once enlisted?

There is a quote up at Auschwitz that says:
“Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.
Well, it had happened before and it is happening again. We are limited by our weaknesses.

It has made me think of who our leaders have become – it is those with the loudest voices rather than the wisest words. To understand what motivates a leader can be scary. These are people who are doing what protects them rather than looking at the best for society. What is their calling? What values do they uphold? Are they allowed to represent the desires of their constituents?

Emotionally, I was disturbed by walking around an area where so much suffering was inflicted. To be where such fear, humiliation, defeat, spirit crushing, dignity removal, violence and murder created a heavy weight on me. The words written and spoken and the images shown seemed more real than they had seemed previously. A lot of my thoughts about the war come from watching movies and it was this visit that removed Hollywood from it and made it a more real. I walked around and tried to imagine what it must have been like - my imagination couldn't even get close, but it pointed me towards it.

Current thinking

Auschwitz represents the lowest a people can become. It is a disgrace that it was allowed to get to where it got to. It was a place where people were capable of losing their humanity, losing respect of others, not valuing others as being the same as them and of not caring. It is hatred and it is barbaric and it unacceptable.

Have we learned from history?

Remember, it didn't start with gas chambers.
It started with politicians dividing the people with "us v them".
It started with intolerance and hate speech.
It started with denying basic rights.
It started when people stopped caring, became desensitised and turned a blind eye to the events unfolding around them.

Have we learned?

I fear not.