The Gate House at Birkenau

The gate house taken from inside the Birkenau camp

The photo above shows the gate house which is the main entrance into Birkenau, also known as the Auschwitz II concentration camp. Beginning around the middle of May 1944, freight trains that were 40 to 50 cars long rolled through this gate, day and night, bringing thousands of Hungarian Jews to be gassed at the four Birkenau gas chambers. The prisoners called it the "Gate of Death."

The Gate of Death

The gate house was built in 1943, long after the Birkenau camp was first opened. The first inmates, who were Soviet Prisoners of War, arrived at Birkenau on October 7, 1941. At first, the gate shown in the photo above was for trucks and pedestrians. Railroad tracks were not laid through the gate until the Spring of 1944, just before transports of Hungarian Jews began to arrive. According to the Auschwitz Museum, 434,351 of these Hungarian Jews were not registered at Birkenau; instead, they were gassed immediately upon arrival. At the height of the deportation of the Hungarian Jews, during a 10 week period, up to 12,000 Jews were gassed and burned each day.

The gate house was remodeled with additions on each side including a new pedestrian gate. The photo below, taken outside the camp, shows the pedestrian gate which is on the left-hand side, as you face the gate house.

View of the Birkenau gate house outside the camp

The photo above shows a cornfield to the right in the foreground. New houses have been built very close to the former camp and Polish farmers have made use of the fields right in front of the gate house. Note that the corn is ready to be harvested, but it did not grow to be "as high as an elephant's eye."

The sign outside the gatehouse says that the villages of Brzezinka, Babice, Broszkowice, Rajsk, Plawy, Harmeze, and Brzeszcze-Budy were torn down to provide space for the 425-acre Birkenau camp.

The photo below shows modern houses built very recently just outside the former death camp, the place where over a million Jews were murdered and their ashes thrown into several small ponds.

The gate house with modern houses on the left

In the photo above, students are gathered in front of the four wide doors into the restrooms. There is also a display board at this spot which tells the basic history of Birkenau.

Both sides of the gate house are identical. When Stephen Spielberg made the movie, Schindler's List, he filmed scenes of actors exiting from a train which was outside the camp, but it looked like the train was inside the camp.

The photo below shows the railroad siding inside the camp, called the ramp, where the Jews exited from the trains and the selection process took place. Those who were fit for work were allowed to live for a few months, until they inevitably died of disease or overwork. The others were sent immediately to one of the four gas chambers at the far end of the camp. The gas chambers in Krema II and Krema III were at the end of the main camp road, which is shown on the left in the photo below. The railroad tracks extend about a mile into the camp, all the way to the gas chambers II and III; some of the Hungarian Jews were immediately gassed without going through a selection process, even though the Nazis were desperately in need of workers for their munitions factories. This photo was taken in the early morning, looking west from the gate house tower.

Ramp where Jews went through selection process

The gate house at Birkeanu is located three kilometers, or about two miles, from the main Auschwitz camp, known as Auschwitz I. To get to the Birkenau camp from the main camp, turn right after exiting from the parking lot. The road curves to the left and goes over the railroad overpass where Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler stood on March 1, 1941 when he selected the village of Birkenau to be the location of a new addition to the Auschwitz camp. At that time, the invasion of the Soviet Union and the plan to exterminate all the Jews in Europe was only months away.

From the overpass, the road leads directly to the Gate of Death. The railroad spur line that goes through the gate house begins on the left side of the gate, about a quarter of a mile away, and curves around until it forms a straight line in front of the gate. Trains coming from the west entered the Birkenau camp from tracks on the left side of the gate, as you are facing it, and did not pass the railroad station in the town of Auschwitz. Trains coming from the opposite direction passed the train station in Auschwitz and then entered the camp on the spur line. The train tracks end only a few yards from two of the gas chambers inside the Birkenau camp.

The town of Auschwitz was a major railroad hub, with many train tracks coming into it, and a large marshaling yard near the Auschwitz station. Standing on the railroad overpass in 1941, Himmler realized that Birkenau was an ideal location for transporting people by rail from all over Europe, although the plans for exterminating the Jews were not finalized until the Nazis were confident that they would win their war against the Soviet Union.

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