Auschwitz concentration camp (German: Konzentrationslager Auschwitz [ˈaʊʃvɪts] ) was a network of concentration and extermination camps built and operated by the Third Reich in Polish areas annexed by Nazi Germany during World War II. It consisted of Auschwitz I (the base camp); Auschwitz II–Birkenau (the extermination camp); Auschwitz III–Monowitz (a labor camp to staff an IG Farben factory), and 45 satellite camps.
Auschwitz I was first constructed to hold Polish political prisoners, who began to arrive in May 1940. The first extermination of prisoners took place in September 1941, and Auschwitz II–Birkenau went on to become a major site of the Nazi “Final Solution to the Jewish question”. From early 1942 until late 1944, transport trains delivered Jews to the camp’s gas chambers from all over German-occupied Europe, where they were killed with the pesticide Zyklon B. At least 1.1 million prisoners died at Auschwitz, around 90 per cent of them Jewish; approximately 1 in 6 Jews killed in the Holocaust died at the camp. Others deported to Auschwitz included 150,000 Poles, 23,000 Roma and Sinti, 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war, 400 Jehovah’s Witnesses, and tens of thousands of people of diverse nationalities. Living conditions were brutal, and many of those not killed in the gas chambers died of starvation, forced labor, infectious diseases, individual executions, and medical experiments.
In the course of the war, the camp was staffed by 6,500 to 7,000 members of the German Schutzstaffel (SS), approximately 15 per cent of whom were later convicted of war crimes. Some, including camp commandant Rudolf Höss, were executed. The Allied Powers refused to believe early reports of the atrocities at the camp, and their failure to bomb the camp or its railways remains controversial. 144 prisoners are known to have successfully escaped Auschwitz, and on October 7, 1944, two Sonderkommando units—prisoners assigned to staff the gas chambers—launched a brief, unsuccessful uprising.
As Soviet troops approached Auschwitz in January 1945, most of its population was evacuated and sent on a death march. The prisoners remaining at the camp were liberated on January 27, 1945, a day now commemorated as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. In the following decades, survivors such as Primo Levi, Viktor Frankl, and Elie Wiesel wrote memoirs of their experiences in Auschwitz, and the camp became a dominant symbol of the Holocaust. In 1947, Poland founded a museum on the site of Auschwitz I and II, and in 1979, it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Discrimination against Jews began immediately after the Nazi seizure of power in Germany on January 30, 1933. The Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service, passed on April 7 of that year, excluded most Jews from the legal profession and the civil service. Similar legislation soon deprived Jewish members of other professions of the right to practise. Violence and economic pressure were used by the regime to encourage Jews to voluntarily leave the country. Jewish businesses were denied access to markets, forbidden to advertise in newspapers, and deprived of access to government contracts. Citizens were harassed and subjected to violent attacks and boycotts of their businesses.
In September 1935 the Nuremberg Laws were enacted. These laws prohibited marriages between Jews and people of Germanic extraction, extramarital relations between Jews and Germans, and the employment of German women under the age of 45 as domestic servants in Jewish households. The Reich Citizenship Law stated that only those of Germanic or related blood were defined as citizens. Thus Jews and other minority groups were stripped of their German citizenship. By the start of World War II in 1939, around 250,000 of Germany’s 437,000 Jews emigrated to the United States, Palestine, Great Britain, and other countries.
The ideology of Nazism brought together elements of antisemitism, racial hygiene, and eugenics, and combined them with pan-Germanism and territorial expansionism with the goal of obtaining more Lebensraum (living space) for the Germanic people. Nazi Germany attempted to obtain this new territory by attacking Poland and the Soviet Union, intending to deport or kill the Jews and Slavs living there, who were viewed as being inferior to the Aryan master race. After the invasion of Poland in September 1939, German dictator Adolf Hitler ordered that the Polish leadership and intelligentsia should be destroyed. Approximately 65,000 civilians were killed by the end of 1939. In addition to leaders of Polish society, the Nazis killed Jews, prostitutes, Roma, and the mentally ill. SS-Obergruppenführer (Senior Group Leader) Reinhard Heydrich, then head of the Gestapo, ordered on September 21 that Jews should be rounded up and concentrated into cities with good rail links. Initially the intention was to deport the Jews to points further east, or possibly to Madagascar.
Oświęcim (Auschwitz), located in Regierungsbezirk Kattowitz, Province of Upper Silesia, was first suggested as a site for a concentration camp for Polish prisoners by SS-Oberführer Arpad Wigand, an aide to Higher SS and Police Leader for Silesia, Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski. Bach-Zelewski had been searching for a site to house prisoners in the Silesia region, as the local prisons were filled to capacity. Richard Glücks, head of the Concentration Camps Inspectorate, sent former Sachsenhausen concentration camp commandant Walter Eisfeld to inspect the site, which already held sixteen dilapidated one-story buildings that had once served as an army barracks and a camp for transient workers. Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler, head of the Schutzstaffel (SS), approved the site in April 1940, intending to use the facility to house political prisoners. SS-Obersturmbannführer (lieutenant colonel) Rudolf Höss oversaw the development of the camp and served as the first commandant. SS-Obersturmführer (senior lieutenant) Josef Kramer was appointed Höss’s deputy. Auschwitz I, the original camp, became the administrative center for the whole complex.
Local residents were evicted, including 1,200 people who lived in shacks around the barracks. Around 300 Jewish residents of Oświęcim were brought in to lay foundations. From 1940 to 1941, 17,000 Polish and Jewish residents of the western districts of Oświęcim were expelled from places adjacent to the camp. The Germans also ordered expulsions from the villages of Broszkowice, Babice, Brzezinka, Rajsko, Pławy, Harmęże, Bór, and Budy. German citizens were offered tax concessions and other benefits if they would relocate to the area. By October 1943, over 6,000 Reich Germans had arrived. The Nazis planned to build a model modern residential area for incoming Germans, including schools, playing fields, and other amenities. Some of the plans went forward, including the construction of several hundred apartments, but many of the plans were never fully implemented. Basic amenities like water and sewage disposal were inadequate, and water-borne illnesses were commonplace.
The first prisoners (30 German criminal prisoners from the Sachsenhausen camp) arrived in May 1940, intended to act as functionaries within the prison system. The first transport of 728 Polish prisoners, which included 20 Jews, arrived on June 14, 1940, from the prison in Tarnów, Poland. They were interned in the former building of the Polish Tobacco Monopoly, adjacent to the site, until the camp was ready. The inmate population grew quickly as the camp absorbed Poland’s intelligentsia and dissidents, including the Polish underground resistance. By March 1941, 10,900 were imprisoned there, most of them Poles. By the end of 1940, the SS had confiscated land in the surrounding area to create a “zone of interest” about 40 square kilometres (15 sq mi) in area surrounded by a double ring of electrified barbed wire fences and watchtowers. Like other Nazi concentration camps, the gates to Auschwitz I displayed the motto Arbeit macht frei (“Work brings freedom”).
Construction on Auschwitz II-Birkenau began in October 1941 to ease congestion at the main camp. Himmler intended the camp to house 50,000 prisoners of war, who would be interned as forced laborers. Plans called for the expansion of the camp first to house 150,000 and eventually as many as 200,000 inmates. An initial contingent of 10,000 Soviet soldiers arrived at Auschwitz I in October 1941, but by March 1942 only 945 were still alive, and these were transferred to Birkenau, where most of them died from disease or starvation by May. By this time Hitler had decided that the Jews of Europe were to be exterminated, so Birkenau was repurposed as a combination labor camp / extermination camp.
The first gas chamber at Birkenau was the “red house” (called Bunker 1 by SS staff), a brick cottage converted into a gassing facility by tearing out the inside and bricking up the walls. It was operational by March 1942. A second brick cottage, the “white house” or Bunker 2, was converted some weeks later. These structures were in use for mass killings until early 1943. Himmler visited the camp in person on July 17 and 18, 1942. He was given a demonstration of a mass killing using the gas chamber in Bunker 2 and toured the building site of the new IG Farben plant being constructed at the nearly town of Monowitz.
In early 1943, the Nazis decided to increase greatly the gassing capacity of Birkenau. Crematorium II, originally designed as a mortuary, with morgues in the basement and ground-level incinerators, was converted into a killing factory by installing gas-tight doors, vents for the Zyklon B (a highly lethal cyanide-based pesticide) to be dropped into the chamber, and ventilation equipment to later remove the gas. It went into operation in March. Crematorium III was built using the same design. Crematoria IV and V, designed from the start as gassing centers, were also constructed that spring. By June 1943, all four crematoria were operational. Most of the victims were killed using these four structures.
The Gypsy Camp
On December 10, 1942, Himmler issued an order to send all Sinti and Roma (Gypsies) to concentration camps, including Auschwitz. A separate camp for Roma was set up at Auschwitz II-Birkenau known as the Zigeunerfamilienlager (Gypsy Family Camp). The first transport of German Gypsies arrived on February 26, 1943, and was housed in Section B-IIe of Auschwitz II. Approximately 23,000 Gypsies had been brought to Auschwitz by 1944, 20,000 of whom died there. One transport of 1,700 Polish Sinti and Roma was killed upon arrival, as they were suspected to be ill with spotted fever.
Gypsy prisoners were used primarily for construction work. Thousands died of typhus and noma due to overcrowding, poor sanitary conditions, and malnutrition. Anywhere from 1,400 to 3,000 prisoners were transferred to other concentration camps before the murder of the remaining population.
On August 2, 1944, the SS cleared the Gypsy camp. A witness in another part of the camp later told of the Gypsies unsuccessfully battling the SS with improvised weapons before being loaded into trucks. The surviving population of 2,897 was then killed en masse in the gas chambers. The murder of the Romani people by the Nazis during World War II is known in the Romani language as the Porajmos (devouring).
After examining several sites for a new plant to manufacture buna, a type of synthetic rubber essential to the war effort, chemicals manufacturer IG Farben chose a site near the towns of Dwory and Monowice (Monowitz in German), about 7 kilometres (4.3 mi) east of Auschwitz I and 3 kilometres (1.9 mi) east of the town of Oświęcim. Financial support in the form of tax exemptions was available to corporations prepared to develop industries in the frontier regions under the Eastern Fiscal Assistance Law, passed in December 1940. In addition to its proximity to the concentration camp, which could be used as a source of cheap labor, the site had good railway connections and access to raw materials. In February 1941 Himmler ordered the Jewish population of Oświęcim should be expelled to make way for skilled laborers that would be brought in to work at the plant. All Poles able to work were to remain in the town and were forced to work building the factory. Himmler visited in person in March and decreed an immediate expansion of the parent camp to house 30,000 persons. Development of the camp at Birkenau began about six months later. Construction of IG Auschwitz began in April, with an initial force of 1,000 workers from Auschwitz I assigned to work on the construction. This number increased to 7,000 in 1943 and 11,000 in 1944. Over the course of its history, about 35,000 inmates in total worked at the plant; 25,000 died as a result of malnutrition, disease, and the physically impossible workload. In addition to the concentration camp inmates, who comprised a third of the work force, IG Auschwitz employed slave laborers from all over Europe.
Initially the laborers would walk the seven kilometers from Auschwitz I to the plant each day, but as this meant they had to rise at 3:00 am, many arrived exhausted and unable to work. The camp at Monowitz (also called Monowitz-Buna or Auschwitz III) was constructed and began housing inmates on October 30, 1942, the first concentration camp to be financed and built by private industry. In January 1943 the ArbeitsausbildungLager (labor education camp) was moved from the parent camp to Monowitz. These prisoners were also forced to work on the building site. The SS charged IG Farben three Reichsmarks per hour for unskilled workers, four for skilled workers. Although the camp administrators expected the prisoners to work at 75 per cent of the capacity of a free worker, the inmates were only able to perform 20 to 50 per cent as well. Site managers constantly threatened inmates with transportation to Birkenau for death in the gas chambers as a way to try to increase productivity. Deaths and transfers to the gas chambers at Birkenau reduced the prisoner population of Monowitz by nearly a fifth each month; numbers were made up with new arrivals. Life expectancy of inmates at Monowitz averaged about three months. Though the factory was initially expected to begin production in 1943, shortages of labor and raw materials meant start-up had to be repeatedly postponed. The plant was almost ready to commence production when it was overrun by Soviet troops in 1945.
Various other German industrial enterprises, such as Krupp and Siemens-Schuckert, built factories with their own subcamps. There were 45 such satellite camps, 28 of which served corporations involved in the armanents industry. Prisoner populations ranged from several dozen to several thousand. Subcamps were built at Blechhammer, Jawiszowice, Jaworzno, Lagisze, Mysłowice, Trzebinia, and other centers as far afield as the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. Satellite camps were designated as Aussenlager (external camp), Nebenlager (extension or subcamp), or Arbeitslager (labor camp). Industries with satellite camps included coal mines, foundries and other metal works, chemical plants, and other industries. Prisoners were also made to work in forestry and farming.
Evacuation, Death Marches, and Liberation
In November 1944, with the Soviet Red Army approaching through Poland, Himmler ordered gassing operations to cease across the Reich. Crematoria II, III, and IV were dismantled, while Crematorium I was transformed into an air raid shelter. The Sonderkommando were ordered to remove other evidence of the killings, including the mass graves. The SS destroyed written records, and in the final week before the camp’s liberation, burned or detonated many of its buildings.
Himmler ordered the evacuation of all camps in January 1945, charging camp commanders with “making sure that not a single prisoner from the concentration camps falls alive into the hands of the enemy.” On January 17, 58,000 Auschwitz detainees were evacuated under guard, largely on foot; thousands of them died in the subsequent death march west. Approximately 20,000 Auschwitz prisoners made it to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany, where they were liberated by the British in April 1945.
Those too weak or sick to walk—around 7,500 prisoners—were left behind. 600 of these died or were murdered before the 322nd Rifle Division of the Red Army liberated the camp on January 27. Among the items found by the Russians were 370,000 men’s suits, 837,000 women’s garments, and 7.7 tonnes (8.5 short tons) of human hair.
The camp’s liberation received little press attention at the time. Rees attributes this to three factors: the previous discovery of similar crimes at Majdanek concentration camp, competing news from the Allied summit at Yalta, and the Soviet Union’s interest, for propaganda purposes, in minimizing attention to Jewish suffering.
After The War
After liberation, parts of Auschwitz I served first as a hospital for liberated prisoners. Soviet and Polish investigators worked in the initial months to document the war crimes of the SS. In the two years that followed, the Soviets dismantled and exported the IG Farben factories, and the Birkenau barracks were looted by Polish civilians. Area residents sifted the mass graves and ashes for gold. Until 1947, some of the facilities were used as a prison camp of the Soviet NKVD.
After the site became a museum in 1947, exhumation work lasted for more than a decade. Antoni Dobrowolski, the oldest known survivor of Auschwitz, died aged 108 on October 21, 2012, in Dębno, Poland.
Camp commandant Rudolf Höss was pursued by the British Intelligence Corps, who arrested him at a farm near Flensburg, Germany, on March 11, 1946. Höss confessed to his role in the mass killings at Auschwitz in his memoirs and in his trial in Warsaw, Poland. He was hanged at the camp on April 16, 1947.
Around 15 per cent of Auschwitz’s 6,500 staff were eventually convicted of war crimes. Poland was more active than other nations in investigating war crimes, prosecuting 673 of the total 789 Auschwitz staff ever brought to trial. On November 25, 1947, the Auschwitz Trial began in Kraków, when Poland’s Supreme National Tribunal brought to court 40 former Auschwitz staff. The trial’s defendants included commandant Arthur Liebehenschel, women’s camp leader Maria Mandel, and camp leader Hans Aumeier. The trials ended on December 22, 1947, with 23 death sentences, 7 life sentences, and 9 prison sentences ranging from three to fifteen years. Hans Münch, an SS doctor who had several former prisoners testify on his behalf, was the only person to be acquitted.
Other former staff were hanged for war crimes in the Dachau Trials and the Belsen Trial, including camp leaders Josef Kramer, Franz Hössler, and Vinzenz Schöttl; doctor Friedrich Entress; and guards Irma Grese and Elisabeth Volkenrath. The Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials, held in Germany from December 20, 1963 to August 20, 1965, convicted 17 of 22 defendants, giving them prison sentences ranging from life to three years and three months. The owner and the chief executive officer of the firm Tesch & Stabenow, one of the suppliers of Zyklon B, were executed for knowingly supplying the chemical for use on humans.
Command & Control
Around 6,500 to 7,000 SS personnel in total were posted to Auschwitz during the war. Of these, 4 per cent were officers and 26 per cent were non-commissioned officers, while the remainder were rank-and-file members. Approximately three in four SS personnel worked in security. Others worked in the medical or political departments, in the camp headquarters, or in the economic administration, which was responsible for the property of dead prisoners. SS personnel at the camp included 200 women, who worked as guards, nurses, or messengers. The overall command authority for the entire camp was Department D (the Concentration Camps Inspectorate) of the SS-Wirtschafts-Verwaltungshauptamt (SS Economics Main Office; SS-WVHA).
Auschwitz was considered a comfortable posting by many SS members, due to many amenities and the abundance of slave labor. Of the various prisoner groups, SS officers preferred Jehovah’s Witnesses for household slaves because of their nonviolent behavior. Höss lived with his wife and children in a villa just outside the camp grounds. Other SS personnel were also initially allowed to bring fiancees, wives, and children to live at the camp, but when the SS camp grew more crowded, Höss restricted further arrivals. Facilities for the SS personnel and their families included a library, swimming pool, coffee house, and a theater that hosted regular performances.
One prisoner in each work detail or prisoner block – usually an Aryan – was appointed as a Kapo (“head” or “overseer”). The Kapos received better rations and lodging and wielded tremendous power over other prisoners, whom they often abused. Very few Kapos were prosecuted after the war, however, due to the difficulty in determining which Kapo atrocities had been performed under SS orders and which had been individual actions.
About 120 SS personnel were assigned to the gas chambers and lived on site at the crematoria. Several SS personnel oversaw the killings at each gas chamber, while the bulk of the work was done by the mostly Jewish prisoners known as Sonderkommando (special squad). Sonderkommando responsibilities included guiding victims to the gas chambers and removing, looting, and cremating the corpses.
The Sonderkommado were housed separately from other prisoners, in somewhat better conditions. Their quality of life was further improved by access to the goods taken from murdered prisoners, which Sonderkommando were sometimes able to steal for themselves and to trade on Auschwitz’s black market. The Sonderkommando numbered around 860 prisoners at any given time, peaking at 1,000 men when the Hungarian Jews were killed in 1944. Many Sonderkommando committed suicide due to the horrors of their work; those who did not generally were shot by the SS in a matter of weeks, and new Sonderkommando units were then formed from incoming transports. Almost none of the 2,000 prisoners placed in these units survived to the camp’s liberation.
Life In The Camps
The prisoners’ day began at 4:30 am (an hour later in winter) with morning roll call. Dr. Miklos Nyiszli describes roll call as beginning 3:00 am and lasting four hours. The weather was cold in Auschwitz at that time of day, even in summer. The prisoners were ordered to line up outdoors in rows of five and had to stay there until 7:00 am, when the SS officers arrived. Meanwhile the guards would force the prisoners to squat for an hour with their hands above their heads or levy punishments such as beatings or detention for infractions such as having a missing button or an improperly cleaned food bowl. The inmates were counted and re-counted. Nyiszli describes how even the dead had to be present at roll call, standing supported by their fellow inmates until the ordeal was over. When he was a prisoner in 1944–45, five to ten men would be found dead in the barracks each night. The prisoners assigned to Mengele’s staff slept in a separate barracks and were awoken at 7:00 am for a roll call that only took a few minutes.
After roll call, the Kommando, or work details, would walk to their place of work, five abreast, wearing striped camp fatigues, no underwear, and ill-fitting wooden shoes without socks. A prisoner’s orchestra (such as the Women’s Orchestra of Auschwitz) was forced to play cheerful music as the workers left the camp. Kapos were responsible for the prisoners’ behavior while they worked, as was an SS escort. The working day lasted 12 hours during the summer and a little less in the winter. Much of the work took place outdoors at construction sites, gravel pits, and lumber yards. No rest periods were allowed. One prisoner would be assigned to the latrines to measure the time the workers took to empty their bladders and bowels. Sunday was not a work day, but the prisoners did not rest; they were required to clean the barracks and take their weekly shower. Prisoners were allowed to write (in German) to their families on Sundays. Inmates who did not speak German would trade some of their bread to another inmate for help composing their letters. Members of the SS censored the outgoing mail.
A second mandatory roll call took place in the evening. If a prisoner was missing, the others had to remain standing in place until he was either found or the reason for his absence discovered, regardless of the weather conditions, even if it took hours. After roll call, individual and collective punishments were meted out, depending on what had happened during the day, and after these, the prisoners were allowed to retire to their blocks for the night and receive their bread rations and water. Curfew was two or three hours later. The prisoners slept in long rows of wooden bunks, lying in and on their clothes and shoes to prevent them from being stolen.
According to Nyiszli, “Eight hundred to a thousand people were crammed into the superimposed compartments of each barracks. Unable to stretch out completely, they slept there both lengthwise and crosswise, with one man’s feet on another’s head, neck, or chest. Stripped of all human dignity, they pushed and shoved and bit and kicked each other in an effort to get a few more inches’ space on which to sleep a little more comfortably. For they did not have long to sleep”.
The types of prisoners were distinguishable by triangular pieces of cloth, called Winkel, sewn onto on their jackets below their prisoner number. Political prisoners had a red triangle, Jehovah’s Witnesses had purple, criminals had green, and so on. The nationality of the inmate was indicated by a letter stitched onto the Winkel. Jews had a yellow triangle, overlaid by a second Winkel if they also fit into a second category. Uniquely at Auschwitz, prisoners were tattooed with their prisoner number, on the chest for Soviet prisoners of war and on the left arm for civilians.
Prisoners received a hot drink in the morning, but no breakfast, and a thin meatless vegetable soup at noon. In the evening they received a small ration of moldy bread. Most prisoners saved some of the bread for the following morning. Nyiszli notes the daily intake did not exceed 700 calories, except for prisoners being subjected to live medical experimentation, who were better fed and clothed. Sanitary arrangements were poor, with inadequate latrines and a lack of fresh water. In Auschwitz II-Birkenau, latrines were not installed until 1943, two years after camp construction began. The camps were infested with vermin such as disease-carrying lice, and the inmates suffered and died in epidemics of typhus and other diseases. Noma, a bacterial infection occurring among the malnourished, was a common cause of death among children in the Gypsy camp.
Block 11 of Auschwitz I was the prison within the prison, where violators of the numerous rules were punished. Some prisoners were made to spend the nights in standing cells. These cells were about 1.5 m2 (16 sq ft), and four men would be placed in them; they could do nothing but stand, and were forced during the day to work with the other prisoners. Prisoners sentenced to death for attempting to escape were confined in a dark cell and given neither food nor water until they were dead.
In the basement were the “dark cells”; these cells had only a very tiny window and a solid door. Prisoners placed in these cells would gradually suffocate as they used up all of the oxygen in the cell; sometimes the SS would light a candle in the cell to use up the oxygen more quickly. Many were subjected to hanging with their hands behind their backs for hours, even days, thus dislocating their shoulder joints.
Selection & Etermination Process
On July 31, 1941, Hermann Göring gave written authorization to Heydrich, Chief of the Reich Main Security Office (RSHA), to prepare and submit a plan for Die Endlösung der Judenfrage (the Final Solution of the Jewish question) in territories under German control and to coordinate the participation of all involved government organizations. The resulting Generalplan Ost (General Plan for the East) called for deporting the population of occupied Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union to Siberia, for use as slave labour or to be murdered. In addition to eliminating Jews, the Nazis also planned to reduce the population of the conquered territories by 30 million people through starvation in an action called the Hunger Plan. Food supplies would be diverted to the German army and German civilians. Cities would be razed and the land allowed to return to forest or resettled by German colonists.
Somewhere around the time of the failed offensive against Moscow in December 1941, Hitler resolved that the Jews of Europe were to be exterminated immediately. Plans for the total eradication of the Jewish population of Europe—eleven million people—were formalized at the Wannsee Conference on January 20, 1942. Some would be worked to death and the rest would be killed. Initially the victims were killed with gas vans or by Einsatzgruppen firing squads, but these methods proved impracticable for an operation of this scale. By 1941, killing centers at Auschwitz, Sobibor, Treblinka, and other Nazi extermination camps replaced Einsatzgruppen as the primary method of mass killing.
The first mass exterminations at Auschwitz took place in early September 1941, when 900 inmates were killed by gathering them in the basement of Block 11 and gassing them with Zyklon B. This building proved unsuitable for mass gassings, so the site of the killings was moved to the crematorium at Auschwitz I (Crematorium I, which operated until July 1942). There, over 700 victims could be killed at once. In order to keep the victims calm, they were told they were to undergo disinfection and de-lousing. They were ordered to undress outside and then were locked in the building and gassed. After its decommissioning as a gas chamber, the building was converted to a storage facility and later served as an air raid shelter for the SS. The gas chamber and crematorium were reconstructed after the war using the original components, which remained on site. Some 60,000 people were killed at Crematorium I.
Mass exterminations were moved to two provisional gas chambers (Bunkers 1 and 2), where the killings continued while the larger Crematoria II, III, IV, and V were under construction. Bunker 2 was temporarily reactivated from May to November 1944, when large numbers of Hungarian Jews were exterminated. In summer 1944 the capacity of the crematoria and outdoor incineration pits was 20,000 bodies per day. A planned sixth facility – Crematorium VI – was never built.
Prisoners were transported from all over German-occupied Europe by rail, arriving in daily convoys. By July 1942, the SS were conducting “selections”. Incoming Jews were segregated: those deemed able to work were sent to the right and admitted into the camp, and those deemed unfit for labor were sent to the left and immediately gassed. The group selected to die, about three-quarters of the total, included almost all children, women with small children, all the elderly, and all those who appeared on brief and superficial inspection by an SS doctor not to be completely fit. After the selection process was complete, those too ill or too young to walk to the crematoria were transported there on trucks or killed on the spot with a bullet to the head. The belongings of the arrivals were seized by the SS and sorted in an area of the camp called “Canada”, so called because Canada was seen as a land of plenty. Many of the SS at the camp enriched themselves by pilfering the confiscated property.
SS officers told the victims they were to take a shower and undergo delousing. The victims would undress in an outer chamber and walk into the gas chamber, which was disguised as a shower facility. Some were even issued soap and a towel. The Zyklon B was delivered by ambulance to the crematoria by a special SS bureau known as the Hygienic Institute. The actual delivery of the gas to the victims was always handled by the SS, on the order of the supervising SS doctor. After the doors were shut, SS men would dump in the Zyklon B pellets through vents in the roof or holes in the side of the chamber. The victims were dead within 20 minutes. Despite the thick concrete walls, screaming and moaning from within could be heard outside. In one failed attempt to muffle the noise, two motorcycle engines were revved up to full throttle nearby, but the sound of yelling could still be heard over the engines.
Sonderkommando wearing gas masks then dragged the bodies from the chamber. The victims’ glasses, artificial limbs, jewelry, and hair were removed, and any dental work was extracted so the gold could be melted down. The corpses were burned in the nearby incinerators, and the ashes were buried, thrown in the river, or used as fertilizer.
The gas chambers worked to their fullest capacity from April–July 1944, during the massacre of Hungary’s Jews. Hungary was an ally of Germany during the war, but it had resisted turning over its Jews until Germany invaded that March. A rail spur leading directly into Birkenau was completed that May to deliver the victims closer to the gas chambers. From 14 May until early July 1944, 437,000 Hungarian Jews, half of the pre-war population, were deported to Auschwitz, at a rate of 12,000 a day for a considerable part of that period. The incoming volume was so great that the SS resorted to burning corpses in open-air pits as well as in the crematoria. The last selection took place on October 30, 1944.
German doctors performed a wide variety of experiments on prisoners at Auschwitz. SS doctors tested the efficacy of X-rays as a sterilization device by administering large doses to female prisoners. Prof. Dr. Carl Clauberg injected chemicals into women’s uteruses in an effort to glue them shut. Bayer, then a subsidiary of IG Farben, bought prisoners to use as research subjects for testing new drugs. Prisoners were also deliberately infected with spotted fever for vaccination research and exposed to toxic substances to study the effects.
The most infamous doctor at Auschwitz was Josef Mengele, known as the “Angel of Death”. Particularly interested in research on identical twins, Mengele performed cruel experiments on them, such as inducing diseases in one twin and killing the other when the first died to perform comparative autopsies. He also took a special interest in dwarfs, and he deliberately induced noma in twins, dwarfs, and other prisoners to study the effects.
Kurt Heissmeyer took twenty Jewish children from Auschwitz to use in pseudoscientific medical experiments at the Neuengamme concentration camp. In April 1945, the children were killed by hanging to conceal the project.
A skeleton collection was obtained from among a pool of 115 Jewish Auschwitz inmates, chosen for their perceived stereotypical racial characteristics. Rudolf Brandt and Wolfram Sievers, general manager of the Ahnenerbe (a Nazi research institute), were responsible for delivering the skeletons to the collection of the Anatomy Institute at the Reich University of Strasbourg in the Alsace region of Occupied France. The collection was sanctioned by Himmler and under the direction of August Hirt. Ultimately 87 of the inmates were shipped to Natzweiler-Struthof and killed in August 1943. Brandt and Sievers were later convicted in the Doctors’ Trial in Nuremberg.
The exact number of victims at Auschwitz is difficult to fix with certainty, as many prisoners were never registered and much evidence was destroyed by the SS in the final days of the war. As early as 1942, Himmler visited the camp and ordered that “all mass graves were to be opened and the corpses burned. In addition the ashes were to be disposed of in such a way that it would be impossible at some future time to calculate the number of corpses burned.”
Shortly following the camp’s liberation, the Soviet government stated that four million people had been killed on the site, a figure now regarded as greatly exaggerated. While under interrogation, Höss said that Adolf Eichmann told him that two and a half million Jews had been killed in gas chambers and about half a million had died of other causes. Later he wrote, “I regard two and a half million far too high. Even Auschwitz had limits to its destructive possibilities”. Raul Hilberg’s 1961 work The Destruction of the European Jews estimated the number killed at a maximum of 1,000,000 Jewish victims, and Gerald Reitlinger’s 1968 book The Final Solution estimated the number killed at 800,000 to 900,000.
In 1983, French scholar George Wellers was one of the first to use German data on deportations to estimate the number killed at Auschwitz, arriving at a figure of 1,471,595 dead, including 1.35 million Jews and 86,675 Poles. A larger study started by Franciszek Piper used timetables of train arrivals combined with deportation records to calculate at least 960,000 Jewish deaths and at least 1.1 million total deaths, a figure adopted as official by the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in the 1990s. Piper also stated that a figure of as many as 1.5 total million deaths was possible.
By nation, the greatest number of Auschwitz’s Jewish victims were from Hungary, accounting for 438,000 deaths, followed by Polish Jews (300,000 deaths), French (69,000), Dutch (60,000), and Greek (55,000). Fewer than one per cent of Soviet Jews murdered in the Holocaust were killed in Auschwitz, as German forces had already been driven from Russia when the killing at Auschwitz reached its peak in 1944. Approximately 1 in 6 Jews killed in the Holocaust died at the camp.
The next largest group of victims were non-Jewish Poles, who accounted for 70,000 to 75,000 deaths. 21,000 Roma and Sinti were killed, along with 15,000 Soviet POWs and 10,000 to 15,000 peoples of other nations. Around 400 Jehovah’s Witnesses were imprisoned at Auschwitz, at least 152 of whom died.
Escapes, Resistance, and the Allies’ knowledge of the camps
Inmates were at times able to distribute information from the camp via messages and shortwave radio transmissions. The Polish government-in-exile in London first reported the gassing of prisoners on July 21, 1942. However, these reports were for a long time discarded as exaggerated or unreliable by the Allied Powers, Germany’s opponents.
Information regarding Auschwitz was also available to the Allies during the years 1940–43 by the accurate and frequent reports of Polish Home Army (Armia Krajowa) Captain Witold Pilecki. Pilecki was the only known person to volunteer to be imprisoned at Auschwitz concentration camp, spending 945 days there. He gathered evidence of genocide and organized resistance structures known as Związek Organizacji Wojskowej (ZOW) at the camp. His first report was smuggled to the outside world in November 1940, through an inmate who was released from the camp. He eventually escaped on April 27, 1943, but his personal report of mass killings was dismissed as exaggeration by the Allies, as were his previous ones.
In 1943, the Kampfgruppe Auschwitz (Combat Group Auschwitz) was organized with the aim of sending out information about what was happening. Sonderkommandos buried notes in the ground, hoping they would be found by the camp’s liberators. The group also took and smuggled out photographs of corpses and preparations for mass killings in mid-1944.
The attitude of the Allies changed with receipt of the detailed, 32-page Vrba–Wetzler report, compiled by two Jewish prisoners, Rudolf Vrba and Alfréd Wetzler, who escaped on April 7, 1944. This report finally convinced Allied leaders that mass killings were taking place in Auschwitz.
Details from the Vrba-Wetzler report were released to the Swiss press and printed on June 6 by The New York Times.
Starting with a plea from the Slovakian rabbi Chaim Michael Dov Weissmandl in May 1944, there was a growing campaign by Jewish organizations to persuade the Allies to bomb Auschwitz or the railway lines leading to it. At one point British Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered that such a plan be prepared, but he was told that precision bombing the camp to free the prisoners or disrupt the railway was not technically feasible.
In 1978, historian David S. Wyman published an essay titled “Why Auschwitz Was Never Bombed”, arguing that the US Air Force had the capability to attack Auschwitz and should have done so; books by Bernard Wasserstein and Martin Gilbert raised similar questions about British inaction. Since the 1990s, other historians have argued that Allied bombing accuracy was not sufficient for Wyman’s proposed attack, and that counterfactual history is an inherently problematic endeavor. The controversy over this decision has lasted to the present day in both countries.
Individual Escape Attempts
At least 802 prisoners attempted to escape from the Auschwitz camps, mostly Polish or Soviet prisoners fleeing from work sites outside the camp. 144 were successful. The fates of 331 of the escapees are unknown. A common punishment for escape attempts was death by starvation; the families of successful escapees were sometimes arrested and interned in Auschwitz and prominently displayed to deter others. If someone did manage to escape, the SS would pick ten people at random from the prisoner’s block and starve them to death.
One daring escape from Auschwitz was staged by Ukrainian Eugeniusz Bendera and three Poles, Kazimierz Piechowski, Stanisław Gustaw Jaster, and Józef Lempart, on June 20, 1942. After breaking into a warehouse, the four dressed as members of the SS-Totenkopfverbände (the SS units responsible for concentration camps), armed themselves, and stole an SS staff car, which they then drove unchallenged through the main gate.
On June 24, 1944, a Belgian Jewish woman, Mala Zimetbaum, escaped with her Polish boyfriend, Edek Galinski, also in stolen SS uniforms. They were later recaptured, tortured, and executed by the SS.
The Sonderkommando units were aware that as witnesses to the killings, they themselves would eventually be killed to hide Nazi crimes. Though they knew that it would mean their deaths, the Sonderkommando of Birkenau Kommando III staged an uprising on October 7, 1944, following an announcement that some of them would be selected to be “transferred to another camp”—a common Nazi ruse for the murder of prisoners. The Sonderkommando attacked the SS guards with stones, axes, and makeshift hand grenades. As the SS set up machine guns to attack the prisoners in Crematorium IV, the Sonderkommando in Crematorium II also revolted, some of them managing to escape the compound. The rebellion was suppressed by nightfall.
Ultimately, three SS guards were killed—one of whom was burned alive by the prisoners in the oven of Crematorium II—and 250 Sonderkommando were killed. Hundreds of prisoners escaped, but were all soon captured and executed, along with an additional group who participated in the revolt. Crematorium IV was destroyed in the fighting, and a group of prisoners in the gas chamber of Crematorium V was spared in the chaos.
In the decades since its liberation, Auschwitz has become a primary symbol of the Holocaust. Historian Timothy D. Snyder attributes this to the camp’s high death toll as well as its “unusual combination of an industrial camp complex and a killing facility”, which left behind far more witnesses than single-purpose killing facilities such as Chełmno or Treblinka. The United Nations General Assembly has designated January 27, the date of the camp’s liberation, as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. In a speech on the fiftieth anniversary of the liberation, German chancellor Helmut Kohl described Auschwitz as the “darkest and most horrific chapter of German history”.
Notable memoirists of the camp include Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel, and Tadeusz Borowski. In If This Is a Man, Levi wrote that the concentration camps represented the epitome of the totalitarian system:
Never has there existed a state that was really “totalitarian.” … Never has some form of reaction, a corrective of the total tyranny, been lacking, not even in the Third Reich or Stalin’s Soviet Union: in both cases, public opinion, the magistrature, the foreign press, the churches, the feeling for justice and humanity that ten or twenty years of tyranny were not enough to eradicate, have to a greater or lesser extent acted as a brake. Only in the Lager [camp] was the restraint from below non-existent, and the power of these small satraps absolute.
Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl drew on his imprisonment at Auschwitz in composing Man’s Search for Meaning (1946), one of the most widely read works about the camp. An existentialist work, the book argues that individuals can find purpose even among great suffering, and that this sense of purpose sustains them. Wiesel wrote about his own imprisonment at Auschwitz in Night (1960) and other works, and became a prominent spokesman against ethnic violence. In 1986, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Camp survivor Simone Veil was later elected President of the European Parliament, serving from 1979–82. Two Auschwitz victims—Maximilian Kolbe, a priest who volunteered to die by starvation in place of a stranger, and Edith Stein, a Jewish convert to Catholicism—were later named saints of the Roman Catholic Church.
Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
On July 2, 1947, the Polish government passed a law establishing a state memorial to the victims of Nazism on the site of the camp. In 1955, an exhibition opened displaying prisoner mug shots; hair, suitcases, and shoes taken from murdered prisoners; canisters of Zyklon B pellets; and other objects related to the killings. UNESCO added the camp to its list of World Heritage Sites in 1979. In 2011, the museum drew 1,400,000 visitors.
Pope John Paul II performed mass over train tracks leading to the camp on June 7, 1979. In the decades following his visit, controversies erupted over a group of Carmelite nuns founding a convent on the site and erecting a large cross originally used in the pope’s mass. Protesters objected to what they saw as Christianization of the site, while others argued that the cross’s presence effectively recognized the camp’s Catholic victims.
The 5-metre (16 ft), 41-kilogram (90 lb) wrought-iron “Arbeit macht frei” sign over the entrance to Auschwitz I was stolen on December 18, 2009. Authorities temporarily replaced the stolen sign with a replica. Police found the sign, cut into three parts, in northern Poland two days later. Aftonbladet reported that the sign had been stolen by Polish thieves on behalf of a Swedish right-wing extremist group hoping to use proceeds from the proposed sale of the sign to a collector of Nazi memorabilia, to finance a series of terror attacks aimed at influencing voters in upcoming Swedish parliamentary elections. Three men pled guilty to the theft, but arrest warrants had to be issued when they failed to return from compassionate leave.
On September 4, 2003, three Israeli Air Force F-15 Eagles performed a fly-over of Auschwitz-Birkenau during a ceremony at the camp below. The flight was led by Major-General Amir Eshel, the son of Holocaust survivors.