Created on: 03 Feb 2012 | Last modified: 19 Feb 2018
We pass into one of the former blocks that was used to house inmates. The exhibits show how cramped the conditions were for prisoners, with dozens of makeshift straw beds crammed in to cupboard-sized cells.
The most striking exhibit in this part of the museum lines the walls of the long central corridor – hundreds upon hundreds of head and shoulders photographs of former inmates, taken for their personal files by their captors. All wear the same standard issue fatigues, and all have had their heads shaved.
They all share another characteristic too – a distant, vacant look in their eyes that can only hint at the horrific experiences they have already endured. While they were physically alive when these pictures were taken, you can tell that they have given up hope, that they have already died inside.
So many different faces, but each telling the same story. The dates of their arrival at Auschwitz and of their death are listed beneath their names on each picture – usually there is not a lot of time between the two dates. Some of the men manage to hold out for as long as a year, the women tend to be dead within a matter of months. The average life expectancy from arrival in Auschwitz 1 to death through disease, malnutrition, mistreatment or murder is approximately four months.
Descending now into the claustrophobic cellars beneath the main prisoner block, we see the dark isolation cells where inmates selected for special forms of mistreatment would be taken. Many were tortured or beaten to death here for coming to the attention of their captors for such misdemeanours as talking or smoking.
Others were locked up in the block’s starvation cells and left in fear for nature to take its toll in the form of a lingering and lonely death. We see the coffin-like suffocation cells, airtight stone cubes where prisoners would be locked to await death as their oxygen slowly ran out.
In another part of the cellar we see the inhuman "standing cells” which are just as they sound – tiny rooms just over a foot wide, leaving those poor souls – as many as four to a cell - confined there with just barely enough room to stand, never to sit or to lie down. The pain and the terror that they must have felt is impossible to imagine.
It was in here in Prison Block 11 that the Nazis first experimented with the use of deadly Zyklon B gas, a cyanide-based pesticide. The camp Commandant, Fritzsch, gathered 250 Polish inmates along with 600 Russian POWs in the cellar and had his men drop canisters of the deadly chemical in from above.
Such was the success of his trial, that Auschwitz I moved quickly to larger, temporary gas chambers in former farm buildings and then to a large, custom built gas chamber which had a much higher capacity and was much more efficient for carrying out mass exterminations.
Standing in the cramped basement with just a few dozen others is a profoundly unpleasant experience, as you begin to try to imagine how it must have felt for the hundreds of people crammed in here as the choking, burning gas fumes filled the confined space. Today, none of us can bear to linger long here, and we quickly ascend the steps and hurry out into the fresh air of the mild autumn afternoon.
Outside the prison block, we see the bullet-ridden execution wall, where prisoners were shot as a warning to others. There are also hooks attached to surrounding walls, from which prisoners would be left hanging with their hands tied behind their backs.
Elsewhere in the camp, we see the giant gallows where numerous prisoners could be hung at the same time.