The Central Sauna

Birkenau Building called "die zentrale Sauna" by the SS

The building that the SS called "die zentrale Sauna" was the location of the shower room. In the photo above, the floor-to-ceiling windows on the far right are on the outside wall of the shower room. The three windows on the left are the windows of the drying-off room. There were no towels provided, and the prisoners had to wait in this room until their bodies were dry after taking a hot shower.

The shower room is shown in the photo below. Note that the 50 shower heads, that were once on the ceiling of this room, have long since been removed.

Shower Room in the Central Sauna

Visitors must walk on a glass floor that has been installed so as to preserve the original concrete floors in this building. 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.

In those days, people dressed up for travel, and many of the female victims arrived at Birkenau wearing fancy silk dresses and high-heeled shoes, that were totally unsuitable as concentration camp attire. A few women were lucky enough to be issued a striped prison uniform which consisted of a skirt and a shirt that resembled a jacket; the uniforms were made out of a coarse material like denim. There were summer and winter uniforms, with the winter version being made of heavier material. The men mostly wore the striped prison uniforms.

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 because people were shorter back in those days.

Sign on the door into the disinfection washroom

Sign over the door into the showers

The incoming prisoners entered the Sauna building through a door located at the northern end of the building; this door faces east. Inside this door is a huge waiting room where the new prisoners were first registered and then told to undress. Now completely naked, they were herded down a long hallway in the center of the building. On the right-hand side of this hallway were iron chambers, or autoclaves, which were used to steam the clothing in order to kill the lice that spreads typhus.

The photo below shows the hallway through the building with steam chambers along the wall on one side. In this photo you can see that the chambers were installed in the wall so that the clothes could be put in on one side and then taken out on the other. This prevented the contamination of the clean side where the deloused clothing was removed. On the other side of the wall shown in the photo below was another identical hallway with doors opening into the steam chambers.

Steam chambers with openings on both sides of a wall

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 being shorn of all their hair, 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 when I visited Los Angeles, 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.

For fifty years, the Central Sauna building was closed to visitors. Now it is being used as museum space, as the two photos below show.

Items taken from female victims on display in the Sauna

Photos found at Birkenau are displayed in the Sauna Building

The photo above shows a display of family photographs found at the Birkenau camp. Behind this wall of photos are more displays of pictures. The floor in this room has been completely covered with green glass so that it gives one the sensation of walking on water. The display is reflected in the glass on the floor, so that it looks like a reflection in water. Walking up to this wall is like walking into a swimming pool, a very disconcerting experience.


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This page was last updated on June 18, 2009