Scrapbookpages Blog

August 27, 2011

What’s in a name? Auschwitz and Birkenau

Filed under: Holocaust — Tags: , , , — furtherglory @ 8:08 am

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

    —William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

Today, I read this in a travel blog:

Auschwitz and Birkenau had lovey Polish names originally as they were rural villages, when the Germans came they sent most of the Polish inhabitants to work camps away from here or they interred them as they didn’t want word to leak out about what they were doing. They changed the village names to the similar sounding but German language place names of Auschwitz and Birkenau.

The town of Auschwitz, which was more than just a “rural village,” was originally founded by Germans in 1270, according to historian Robert Jan van Pelt; it is now known by its Polish name, Oswiecim. The original name of the town was Auschwitz and it was known by this name when the three Auschwitz camps were in operation; the Germans did not change the name of the town and they did not keep it a secret that they were turning the brick barracks, in a suburb of the town, into a concentration camp for political prisoners.  More than half of the inhabitants of the town of Auschwitz were Jews and the second most prevalent population in the town was the Gypsies.  The Polish inhabitants were not sent away by the Germans and they were not interred, a word which means to bury in a grave.

The town of Auschwitz in 1940

In the photo above, you can see the Duke’s castle on the left and the 17th century Catholic church on the right.  The bridge in the foreground goes over the Sola river. The town was separated from the main Auschwitz camp by this river.

When I visited the Birkenau camp in 2005, a display sign outside the gatehouse said that the villages of Brzezinka, Babice, Broszkowice, Rajsk, Plawy, Harmeze, and Brzeszcze-Budy were torn down to provide space for the Birkenau camp.  Google Translate gives the German translation of Brzezinka as Birkenau but I am not sure if these two words have the same meaning in German and English.

The Germans came up with the name Birkenau, as the name for the camp that they built on the grounds of the seven Polish villages, because of the birch trees at the western end of the camp.

Birch trees at the western end of Birkenau camp

In June 2007, the United Nations officially changed the collective name of the three Auschwitz camps to Auschwitz-Birkenau, German Nazi Concentration and Extermination Camp (1940-1945). This change was made at the request of the government of Poland so that people will know that Poland had nothing to do with setting up the camps or running them.  Now the town, formerly known as Auschwitz, is making a big push to have the town known only by its Polish name.

The Birkenau camp was opened on October 7, 1941 when the first transport of Soviet Prisoners of War, captured during the German invasion of the Soviet Union, arrived. Between October 1941 to February 1942, there were 13,775 POWs brought to Birkenau.

Beginning in February 1942, the Birkenau camp became a death camp for Jews. The camp covers 425 acres and it had 300 buildings before it was abandoned in January 1945. Today there are 45 brick buildings and 22 wooden buildings still standing at Birkenau.

A view of the vast 425-acre site of the former Birkenau camp

One might ask: ” Why so many barracks at Birkenau when it was a death camp where Jews were gassed immediately upon arrival?”  Good question!  I don’t know the answer.

A light on a fence post at the former Birkenau camp

Interior fence around the men’s camp at Birkenau

When the Birkenau camp was liberated by Soviet troops in January 1945, the camp was being expanded with a new section called “Mexico.”  The photo below shows where a building was being built in the Mexico section.

The Mexico section of Birkenau which was never completed

Strangely, the Germans were building additional barracks at Birkenau.  Shouldn’t they have been building more gas chambers?  Birkenau was a death camp, which had no factories in which the prisoners could have worked. Was there such a long wait for the gas chambers that they needed more barracks at Birkenau?