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December 7, 2010

“The People Who Walked On” at Auschwitz-Birkenau

Filed under: Holocaust — Tags: , , , — furtherglory @ 12:28 pm

“The People Who Walked On” is the title of a short story, written by Polish writer Tadeusz Borowski, which is included in a collection of short stories in a book entitled This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, published by Penguin Books.  Borowski was a prisoner himself at Birkenau, so he was a witness to what happened there.  But what does it mean — “the people who walked on”?  What’s he talking about?    Maybe it would be easier to understand if his original Polish words were translated as “the people who walked on by.”

Women and young children walking past Krema III at Birkena

The photo above clearly illustrates “the people who walked on.”  This group of women and children are looking toward Krema II as they pass Krema III which is in the background.  They are headed to the intersection of the main camp road and the road to the Sauna, where they will turn right and go to the shower room in the Sauna.  The intersection no longer exists because it is currently covered by the International Monument.

International monument at Birkenau is located between ruins of Krema II and Krema III

In the photo above, the International Monument is on the left.  The fence posts for the fence around Krema III can be seen in the background. The monument covers the first part of the road that leads to the Sauna. Krema II and Krema III were blown up on Jan. 20, 1945 after the prisoners were marched out of the camp on Jan. 18, 1945.

In his short story “The People Who Walked On,”  Borowski famously wrote:

Between two throw-ins in a soccer game, right behind my back, three thousand people had been put to death.

He was referring to 3,000 Hungarian Jews who had been put to death in the four gas chambers in the crematoria at Birkenau in 1944.  “The People who walked on” were Jews who walked past the gas chambers and went on to the Sauna where they took a shower.

Here is a quote from Borowski’s short story, which explains why the people walked on by Krema III:

In the following months, the procession to the little wood moved along two roads: one leading straight from the ramp, the other past the hospital wall.  Both led to the crematoria, but some of the people had the good fortune to walk beyond them, all the way to the Zauna, and this meant more than just a bath and a delousing, a barber’s shop and a new prison suit.  It meant staying alive.  […]

Each day, as I got up in the morning to scrub the hospital floors, the people were walking — along both roads.  Women, men, children.

They carried their bundles.

The road that went “past the hospital wall” was the main camp road.  The location of the hospital was just east of Krema III; it is shown on the map below.  (Click on the photo to enlarge)

Map of Birkenau. The top of the map is west, not north

Famous photo of a woman and her children walking down the road “leading straight from the ramp” at Birkenau, carrying their bundles

Men walking on the north-south road “leading straight from the ramp”

Women and children walking on the same north-south road leading straight from the ramp, carrying bundles

Men selected for labor walking on the same road as the women and children

The “ramp” where the Jews got off the trains inside the Birkenau camp in 1944

In May 1944, the train tracks were extended inside the Birkenau camp so that the trains could be brought right up to the gas chambers in Krema II and Krema III.   The Jews who got off the train on the track on the right hand side would walk down the north-south road that went through the middle of the camp.  The Jews who got off the trains on the other side would walk down the main camp road, which led to the Krema II and Krema III gas chambers. Before the International Monument was built, the main camp road intersected an east-west road that led to the Sauna, where incoming prisoners took a shower. On the other side of the road were Krema IV and Krema V, which had gas chambers, disguised as shower rooms.

Men in one column and women and children in another

Hungarian Jews, who have just arrived on a train, form two lines before marching down the main camp road at Birkenau, shown on the right side of the photo above.  Notice the complete lack of guns, dogs or even guard towers.  Dr. Mengele is the man standing in front of the column on the right, holding a cigarette at chest height. The “gate of death” is shown in the background.  Both columns will march to the end of the main camp road, passing Krema II and Krema III, then turn right and continue down the road to the Sauna and to the fake showers in Krema IV and Krema V.

The north-south road that leads to the Sauna

Shower room in the Sauna building

North-South road through the middle of the Birkenau camp

The photo above was taken in 2005; it shows the road that goes from the women’s camp on the south side of the Birkenau camp, all the way to the new section, called Mexico, on the north side.  This is the start of Lagerstrasse A, the road “leading straight from the ramp.”  When the prisoners reached Lagerstrasse B, at the mid-point of this road, they turned left and continued on to the western end of the camp where the Sauna was located.  Krema IV and Krema V were also located at the western end of the camp, across the road from the Sauna.

Survivors of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp talk about the selection process in which those who could work were waved to the right and those who were destined to be gassed were sent to the left.  Forget that.  There was no right and left.  Both groups walked down the same two roads, according to Borowski, and both roads led to the crematoria, as well as to the shower room in the Sauna.  Some of the incoming prisoners were taken to the crematoria while others walked on by and went to the Sauna.

The incoming prisoners, shown in the photo below, are waiting in the “little wood” for their turn to go into the Sauna, or maybe for the gas chambers, disguised as shower rooms, in Krema IV and Krema V.

Incoming prisoners waiting in the little wood

“The little wood” at Birkenau, 2005 photo

Borowski was not a Jew.  But that didn’t matter at Birkenau.  According to Borowski, even “Aryans” were sent to the gas chamber.

This quote is from page 113 of his book of short stories:

Why is it that nobody cries out, nobody spits in their faces, nobody jumps at their throats? We doff our caps to the S.S. men returning from the little wood; if our name is called we obediently go with them to die, and — we do nothing. […] Our only strength is our great number — the gas chambers cannot accommodate all of us. […] Do you know the last time the ‘Aryans’ were selected for the gas chamber?  April 4th.  And do you remember when we arrived in the camp? April 29th.  Do you realize what would have happened — and you with pneumonia — if we had arrived just a few weeks earlier?

After dropping this bombshell on page 113, Borowski goes on to write about the boxing matches at Birkenau — on the same page! Soccer and boxing matches at Birkenau?  Life was good, until your turn came to walk down one of the two roads to the crematoria.  Hopefully, you would be one of the fortunate ones who walked right on by.

On page 116, Borowski writes about the labor Kommandos which used to march in formation back to the main camp. “The band played and the passing columns kept step with its beat.”  Then one day, there were 10 thousand men marching back to the camp and they “were ordered to stop and stood waiting at the gate. At that moment several trucks full of naked women rolled in from the F.K.L. (women’s camp at Birkenau)  The women stretched out their arms and pleaded:  ‘Save us!  We are going to the gas chambers!  Save us!’ ”

This was happening in 1943.  The problem with this story is that the gas chamber in the main camp was not being used in 1943. The gassing of the prisoners took place in the “little red house” and “the little white house,” starting in 1942.  The two little houses were called Bunker No. 1 and Bunker No. 2.  By 1943, four new crematoria were in operation in the Birkenau camp: Krema II, Krema III, Krema IV and Krema V.

So why were women from the women’s camp at Birkenau brought in trucks to the main camp, two miles away, to be gassed?  The worst part is that Borowski wrote that the ten thousand men waiting at the gate did nothing to help the women.  Borowski wrote:  “Not one of us made a move, not one of us lifted a hand.”

Several women who survived Auschwitz-Birkenau have said that they survived because they manged to jump off the truck that was taking them to the gas chamber.  Borowski’s story confirms that women were, in fact, transported on trucks to the gas chamber.

The photo below shows the ruins of Krema III; the field of grass in the background is the location of the soccer field where Borowski was playing while 3,000 Hungarian Jews were being gassed.  How terribly insensitive of the Germans to gas people so close to the soccer field!  This also shows that they never expected someone to survive and write about the gassing, so they didn’t keep the gassing operation a secret.

Ruins of Krema III with the location of the soccer field in the background


  1. I don’t remember hearing any of this when I was in school. History said ,the Hun were murdering,heartless bastards and I went along with it. I read all the postings here. This is a foundation for all the information I try to find on this subject. Pretty much get the straight skinny on what I’m looking for. If I feel the need to expound on something,I know which direction to go in for further study. All the answers are certainly not here,but with the foundation from these postings I know which way to go. Soccer games and boxing. If your knocking on deaths door,where the hell are you gonna find energy to box or play soccer? This idiot speaks of “10,000 men” waiting at the gate. WTF! 10,000 men ? How many “Screws” worked at that place? That many prisoners,why didn’t somebody think,”let’s make a break”. Yeah a lot will get wasted,but there’s gonna be a lot that make it to freedom. Throw the naked women begging for help cause they know they gonna get gassed and this is gonna make for a helluva Greek Tragedy. I’m shocked he didn’t say he met a couple of those 10,000 and they told him,” every night I go to sleep and I see the faces of the naked women haunting me”.if a person was a guard there,why would they tell the women ,”hey. We’re getting ready to bump your ass off” . You’d end up with mass hysteria. More complications to deal with. The biscuit with mold made a nice dramatic touch. If the Krauts didn’t give a damn about these people,why did they allow the Hebs to have recreational time? I don’t know. The author of this book probably thinks everyone is gonna blindly fall in line with what this book says

    Comment by Tim — April 29, 2015 @ 8:05 pm

  2. […] Very early in my blogging career, five years ago, I blogged about how some of the incoming Jews were marched to the gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau, while others were marched to the showers: […]

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  3. […] where there was a shower room.  The closest gas chambers were behind them. I previously blogged here about the Jews walking, on the same road, to the gas chambers and to the […]

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  4. […] I read this essay, I was reminded of the writing style of Tadeusz Borowski, whose collected essays were published in a book entitled This Way for the Gas, Ladies and […]

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  5. […] In the above quote, Borowski was referring to a transport of 3,000 Hungarian Jews who had been put to death in the gas chambers at Birkenau in 1944.  “The People who walked on” were Jews who walked past the gas chambers and went on to the Sauna where they took a shower. I previously blogged about this here. […]

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  7. Yes there are several pictures in the album that show people going to the gas chambers and men and woman that have been in the sauna already. And true on the south north road they would have all taken that path regardless if they were going to the sauna or krema 4 or 5.But it is a well known fact that old men, mothers with small children were directly marked for gassing.And why were the pictures of small children walking towards krema 5 not put on trucks? Its about the same distance bettween the ramp to the white house and krema 5

    Comment by jj evans — January 5, 2011 @ 5:22 pm

    • If you take a close look at the aerial photos the little white house is right where it is now.Complete with ditches and undressing barracks. Back in 1944 they would not take the route that tourist do.And if a tourist wants today to go the white house today they can

      Comment by jj evans — January 5, 2011 @ 5:31 pm

    • Thank you for pulling up that photo.There is a enlargement of that photo somewhere on the web that is a magnafied version of it that you can acually see pits next to the house.Sorry my skills on the computer is not so advanced. As far as the russian liberation photos are concerned, I do not put much stock in the propoganda show they made out of this event.I beleive after the order was given to stop the gassings at the end of october 1944,all people regardless of age or sex were admitted to the camp. Thanks again for pulling up the photo.

      Comment by jj evans — January 5, 2011 @ 10:25 pm

  8. True.But if you look at aerial photos there is a path that starts at the southwest corner of krema 3 that leads directly to the east side of the undressing barracks for the little white house.Irrelivent I suppose.

    Comment by jj evans — January 5, 2011 @ 4:29 pm

    • Except they are walking west and are in front of krema 3.If they were walking north they would not be going to that road but would be going to the little white house because both the path I metioned before and the road outside the main fence leads directly to the little white house. I shouldve been more elaborative on my previous post.

      Comment by jj evans — January 5, 2011 @ 4:37 pm

      • You must be referring to the first photo on my blog post. I thought you were talking about the famous photo of one woman and three children who are walking down the north-south road through the center of the camp. There is a copy of this photo on a poster at the start of this road. I put up a photo of that poster at the entrance to the road.

        The International Monument now sits on top of the intersection of the main camp road that goes west and another north-south road that goes to the Sauna. The “path” was created because the intersection is no longer there. The “path” leads directly to the ruins of the little white house TODAY but that path was probably not there when the Hungarian Jews arrived in 1944. The “path” was created for tourists. All of the books that I have read about Auschwitz-Birkenau said that the Jews were taken by truck to the little white house. There are many stories of survivors who jumped off the truck.

        The guy who wrote about the people who walked on by was playing soccer when he saw the people walking past Krema III and going to the Sauna.

        Comment by furtherglory — January 5, 2011 @ 4:53 pm

        • Yes i was reffering to a different photo but i am familler with the one you are talking about. But yes the path is clearly visable on the U.S.A.F. aerial reconiscence photo taken on May 31 1944

          Comment by jj evans — January 5, 2011 @ 5:02 pm

          • Of course there was a road to the little white house, but that road is not marked now. Tourists have to leave the main road, before they get to the Sauna, and go around behind the Sauna, in order to see the ruins of the little white house. For some reason, the Auschwitz Museum does not promote the little white house. The first time that I visited Auschwitz-Birkenau, the tour guide told me that the location of the house was unknown. The ruins are a reconstruction and tour groups do not go there.

            Comment by furtherglory — January 5, 2011 @ 5:17 pm

      • Also the jews were taken by trucks to the white and red houses fom the old judenramp that was located outside of the camp.That changed when the new ramp was completed in May 1944 and brought convoys directly into birkenau itsself.This picture was taken in May 1944 and is part of the auschwitz album.

        Comment by jj evans — January 5, 2011 @ 4:58 pm

        • Yes, I know the Jews were taken by truck from the Judenrampe to the two old houses; it was too far for the old people and the children to walk. I wrote about the Judenrampe on my web site When the railroad tracks were extended into the camp in May 1944, there was no ramp. The Judenrampe was a raised wooden structure, which is no longer in existence. The place where the Jews got off the train in 1944 is referred to as a “ramp” but it was just a wide place on the ground next to the tracks. I know that both of the photos were part of the Auschwitz Album. It is strange that the SS men would take photos of the Jews walking to the gas chambers. All of the photos on my blog post were from the Auschwitz Album and they show that the men who were chosen to work were walking on the same road as the women and children. This seems to be evidence that the old women and the children were not gassed, instead of evidence that they were gassed.

          Comment by furtherglory — January 5, 2011 @ 5:11 pm

  9. The old women and children in the picture were not headed to the sauna for a bath, but rather to the little white house to be gassed. Anybody knows that old women and mothers with small children were gassed without exception.

    Comment by jj evans — January 4, 2011 @ 11:07 pm

    • They were on the road that goes north and south through the middle of the Birkenau camp. They are walking north toward the new section, called Mexico, which was under construction. Halfway down this road, there was an intersection with a road that goes west toward the Sauna. The little white house is farther west and is behind the Sauna. The Sauna is located on another road at the western end of the camp This road goes east and west; on this road are Krema IV and Krema V, both of which had gas chambers disguised as showers. The women and children could have been going to the showers or to any one of three gas chambers. Many of the survivors said that the prisoners, who were taken to the little white house to be gassed, were taken in trucks.

      Comment by furtherglory — February 23, 2011 @ 7:57 am

    • The Soviet Union made a film of the survivors after the camp was liberated. The photos showed old women in the barracks, and babies being carried out of the camp. Also young children marching out of the camp. There were plenty of old people and young children who were not sent to the gas chamber. The photos showed both adults and children who looked like they were well fed. They were not starving. How do you account for these photos?

      Comment by furtherglory — February 23, 2011 @ 8:00 am

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