One of the remaining brick buildings at Auschwitz II, also known as Birkenau, is called “the Sauna.” I walked past this building on my first trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1998 and I wondered why the building was closed. The Sauna had been closed to tourists during all the years since the camp was liberated by the Soviet Union on January 27, 1945.
My tour guide told me that this beautiful brick building was where the Jews, who had been selected to work, took a shower and were given uniforms. The building seemed too big for just a shower room, and I wondered why it was called “the Sauna.” I assumed that the name was a Nazi joke, and it was coined because the water in the shower was so hot that it created steam, like in a steam room, which we call a Sauna.
The Nazis had named this building “die zentrale Sauna.” (the central Sauna) The CENTRAL Sauna? How many Saunas did they have? The Nazis were always making cruel, insensitive jokes — like putting up a sign that read “Arbeit Macht Frei” over the gate into a death camp where the only way out was “through the chimney.”
When I visited Auschwitz-Birkenau again in 2005, the Sauna building was open to tourists and I finally learned why the building was called “die zentrale Sauna.” This was the largest building where the clothing of the prisoners was disinfected in steam chambers; there were other smaller disinfection buildings, which also used steam and hot air chambers, as well as Zyklon-B poison gas to disinfect the clothing.
The Sauna building is shaped like the capital letter I and the two sides of it are mirror images. The center part of the Sauna building has two long hallways. Steam chambers are located against the wall that divides the hallways; on each side of the wall are doors into the chambers. The clothing was put in on one side, and after it was steamed, it was taken out on the other side.
The steam chambers were manufactured by the Topf company, which also provided the crematory ovens at Birkenau and other Nazi concentration camps. At the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, the Soviet Union charged the Nazi war criminals with killing Jews with steam at the Treblinka death camp. The clothing at the Theresienstadt ghetto was de-loused with steam.
The central Sauna at Birkenau is located directly across the road from where a group of wooden warehouse buildings used to stand. The prisoners called the warehouse section “Canada” because of all the riches that could be found there. This was where the clothing of the Jews was sorted and packed for shipment to Germany. During World War II, factories in Germany concentrated on making uniforms for the soldiers and civilian clothing was in short supply.
Back in the old days, when people used to go to a health spa, there was no steam room or Sauna. Instead, people sat inside a steam chamber (sauna) with their head sticking out of the top of the chamber, which resembled those in the photo above, except they were square and made out of heavy cloth.
The shower room, shown in the photo below, is located in the part of the building that is closest to the road. The prisoners were not given towels after their shower; they had to stand in the shower room, which had floor-to-ceiling windows, until they were dry. Notice that the shower heads have been removed from the shower room.
Visitors must walk on a glass floor that has been installed in the Sauna building, so as to preserve the original concrete floors. A railing, which can be seen on the right-hand side in the photo above, prevents visitors from walking on the floor of the shower room. The photo on the wall in the background shows a group of women prisoners in the shower room. The shower room is surprisingly small, considering that this is such a huge building.
After their shower, the incoming women prisoners would be given clothing that had been taken from the victims who had arrived on a previous transport. This clothing had been deloused in the steam chambers in the building and most of the dresses had suffered damage from the hot steam. As a result, the women prisoners were typically dressed in tattered clothing. Only a few of the women prisoners were given a uniform to wear.
The two photos below show original signs on the wall which can still be seen in the Sauna building. The first sign says “Desinfizierte Wäsche.” Before their shower, the prisoners had to first be submerged into a tub of disinfectant to kill any germs or lice on their bodies. The second sign says “Brausen” which means Showers in English. The yellow and black stripes alert visitors that the doorway is very low.
The incoming prisoners entered the Sauna building through a door located at the northern end of the building, the same door that tourists now enter. Inside this door is a huge waiting room where the new prisoners were first registered and then told to undress. Then they were herded naked down the long hallway in the center of the building, where you can see the steam chambers on each side. There are also a few hot air chambers.
At the end of the hallway was a small room where the women had all their body hair shaved off by male barbers while the SS men assigned to this building watched. This was an effort to control lice which hides in body hair. The barbers also shaved the men’s hair in this room, according to a sign in the building.
After having all their hair cut off, the prisoners proceeded into the next room, called the Untersuchungsraum. This was where they had to undergo a humiliating search of all their body cavities by an SS man. The search was for hidden diamonds or gold which some of the victims tried to smuggle into the camp, thinking that they could buy more favorable treatment. From this room, the prisoners proceeded to the disinfection tubs which were right next to the shower room.
After their shower, the victims then entered another hallway that was on the other side of the hallway where they had entered. At the end of this hallway was another large waiting room. On the north side of the waiting room was a little room where the women were given their prisoner clothing. On the south side of the waiting room was the room where the men received their new clothing. The prisoners then exited the building through two doors which were on the east side of the south wing of the building.
According to Elizabeth Mann, an Auschwitz survivor who spoke to visitors at the Museum of Tolerance in the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, when I visited, the female prisoners at Birkenau were given a shower periodically in the Sauna, but they never knew whether gas or water would come out. According to Ms. Mann, prisoners were sometimes gassed in the shower room of the Sauna.
The Sauna building now has a display of photos that were found in the suitcases of the incoming prisoners and saved by the Nazis.
In the photo above, the photos on the display board and the windows on the right hand side, are reflected in the glass floor of the building.
All the photos in this post are copyrighted by scrapbookpages.com and are not in the public domain.