Auschwitz concentration camp
- For other uses of the term, see Auschwitz (disambiguation).
Auschwitz is the name loosely used to identify three main Nazi German concentration camps and 45–50 sub-camps. The name is derived from the Germanized form of the nearby Polish town of Oświęcim, situated about 60 km southwest of Krakow. Beginning in 1940, Nazi Germany built several concentration camps and an extermination camp in the area, which at the time had been annexed by Nazi Germany. The camps were a major constituent of the Holocaust.
The three main camps were:
- Auschwitz I, the original concentration camp which served as the administrative centre for the whole complex, and was the site of the deaths of roughly 70,000 Polish intellectuals, gay men and Soviet Prisoners of War
- Auschwitz II (Birkenau), an extermination camp and the site of the deaths of roughly 1 million Jews, 75,000 Poles, gay men and some 19,000 Roma
- Auschwitz III (Monowitz), which served as a labor camp for the IG Farben company
See List of subcamps of Auschwitz for others. The total number of casualties is still under debate, but most modern estimates are around 1–1.5 million.
Like all Nazi concentration camps, the Auschwitz camps were operated by Heinrich Himmler's SS. The commandants of the camp were the SS-Obersturmbannführers Rudolf Höß (sometimes transliterated in English as "Hoess") until Summer 1943, and later Arthur Liebehenschel and Richard Baer. Höß provided a detailed description of the camp's workings during his interrogations after the war and also in his autobiography. He was hanged in 1947 in front of the entrance to the crematorium of Auschwitz I.
About 700 prisoners attempted to escape from the Auschwitz camps during the years of their operation, with about 300 attempts successful. 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.
Table of contents
Auschwitz I served as the administrative center for the whole complex. It was founded on May 20, 1940, on the basis of old Polish brick army barracks. A group of 728 Polish political prisoners from Tarnów became the first residents of Auschwitz on June 14th that year. The camp was initially used for interning Polish intellectuals and resistance movement members, then also for Soviet Prisoners of War. Common German criminals, "anti-social elements" and homosexuals were also imprisoned there. Jews were sent to the camp as well, beginning with the very first shipment (from Tarnów). At any time, the camp held between 13 and 16 thousand inmates; in 1942 the number reached 20 thousand.
The entrance to Auschwitz I was (and still is) marked with the cynical sign "Arbeit macht frei", "Work (shall) make (you) free" (or "work liberates"). The camp's prisoners who left the camp during the day for construction or farm labor were made to march through the gate at the sounds of an orchestra. Contrary to what is depicted in several films, however, the majority of the Jews were imprisoned in the Auschwitz II camp, and did not pass under this sign.
The SS selected some prisoners, often German criminals, as specially privileged supervisors of the other inmates (so-called: kapo). The various classes of prisoners were distinguishable by special marks on their clothes; Jews were generally treated the worst. All inmates had to work; except in the associated arms factories, Sundays were reserved for cleaning and showering and there were no work assignments.
The harsh work requirements, combined with poor nutrition and hygiene, led to high death rates among the prisoners.
Block 11 of Auschwitz I was the "prison within the prison", where violations of the numerous rules were punished. Some prisoners had to spend several days in tiny cells too small to sit down. Others were executed by shooting, hanging or starving.
In September 1941, the SS conducted tests in block 11, killing 850 Poles and Russians using Zyklon B gas, a pesticide that had previously been used to kill lice. The tests deemed successful, a gas chamber and crematorium were constructed by converting a bunker. This gas chamber operated from 1941 to 1942 and was then converted into an air-raid shelter.
The first women arrived in the camp on March 26, 1942. From April 1943 to May 1944, the gynecologist Prof. Dr. Carl Clauberg conducted sterilization experiments on Jewish women in block 10 of Auschwitz I, with the aim of developing a simple injection method to be used on the Slavic people. Dr Josef Mengele experimented on twins in the same complex. Prisoners in the camp hospital who were not quick to recover were regularly killed by lethal injection employing phenol.
The camp brothel, established in the summer of 1943 on Himmler's order, was located in block 24 and was used to reward privileged prisoners. It was staffed by women specifically selected for the purpose, and by volunteers from the female prisoners.
Auschwitz II (Birkenau)
Auschwitz II (Birkenau) is the camp that most people know simply as "Auschwitz". It was the site of imprisonment of hundreds of thousands, and the murder of over one million people, mainly Jews, Roma and Sinti.
The camp is located in Brzezinka (Birkenau), about 3 kilometers from Auschwitz I. Construction started in 1941 as part of the Endlösung. The camp was about 2.5 kilometers by 2 kilometers large and was divided into several sections, each of which was separated into fields. Fields as well as the camp itself were surrounded with barbed, electrified wire (which was used by some of the inmates to commit suicide). The camp held up to 100,000 prisoners at one time.
The camp's main purpose, however, was not internment with forced labor (as Auschwitz I & III) but rather extermination. For this purpose, the camp was equipped with 4 crematoria with gas chambers; each gas chamber was designed to hold up to 2500 people at one time. Large-scale extermination started in Spring 1942.
Most people arrived at the camp by rail, often after horrifying trips in cattle wagons lasting several days. From 1944 railway tracks extended into the camp itself; before that, arriving prisoners were marched from the Auschwitz railway station to the camp. At times, the whole transport would be sent to its death immediately. At other times, the Nazis would perform "selections", often administered by Josef Mengele, to the end of choosing whom to kill right away and whom to imprison as labor force or use for medical experiments. Young children were taken from their mothers and placed with older women to be gassed, along with the sick, weak and old.
Those arriving prisoners who survived the initial selection would go on to spend some time in quarantine quarters and eventually work on the camp's maintenance or expansion or be sent to one of the surrounding satellite work camps.
One section of the camp was reserved for female prisoners. In another section known as "Canada" (so named because Germans belived that Canada was a land of vast riches), the belongings of the arriving victims were sorted and stored, to be transferred to the German government. Items such as banknotes, coins, jewellery, precious metals and diamonds were removed from "Canada" and shipped off to the Reichsbank.
Those selected for extermination were sent to any of four massive gas chamber/crematorium complexes, all at the edge of the camp. Two of the crematoria (Krema II and Krema III) each had an underground undressing room and the underground gas chamber, capable of holding thousands of people. To avoid mass panic, the victims were told that they were going there for showering; to reinforce this impression, shower heads were fitted in the gas chamber, though never connected to a water supply. The victims were ordered to strip naked and leave their belongings in the undressing room in a location that they could subsequently remember, before being led to the adjacent gas chamber. Once the victims were sealed shut in the chamber, the toxic agent Zyklon B was discharged from openings in the ceiling. Gas chambers in crematoria IV and V were above ground and Zyklon B was poured through the special windows in the walls. An oven room, where selected camp prisoners called Sonderkommandos took out the dead bodies and burned them, was part of the same building.
Germany invaded Hungary in March 1944. Between May and July 1944, about 438,000 Jews from Hungary were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau and the majority were killed there. When the crematoria could not keep up, bodies were burned in open pits.
Many Roma had been imprisoned in a special section of the camp, mostly in family units. They were gassed in July 1944. On October 10, eight hundred Roma children were systematically murdered at Birkenau.
On October 7, 1944, the Jewish Sonderkommandos (those prisoners kept separate from the main camp and involved in the operation of the gas chambers and crematoria) staged an uprising. Female prisoners had smuggled in explosives from a weapons factory, and crematorium IV was partly destroyed by an explosion. The prisoners then attempted a mass escape, but all 250 were killed soon after.
Auschwitz III and satellite camps
The surrounding satellite work camps were closely connected to German industry and were associated with arms factories, foundries and mines. The largest work camp was Auschwitz III Monowitz, starting operations in May 1942. It was associated with the synthetic rubber and liquid fuel plant Buna-Werke owned by IG Farben. In regular intervals, doctors from Auschwitz II would visit the work camps and select the weak and sick for the gas chambers of Birkenau.
Also see List of subcamps of Auschwitz
Women in the camps
In March 1942, the first female prisoners and female overseers arrived from Ravensbrück concentration camp in Germany. Head Aufseherin (overseer) Johanna Langefeld butted heads with then commandant Höß so she was placed back at Ravensbrück. The women's camp was moved to Auschwitz Birkenau in October 1942, and Maria Mandel was brought in as the new head overseer. Over 7,000 SS men and only 200 female supervisors served in Auschwitz I, Auschwitz Birkenau and Auschwitz III Monowitz. Women guards served in a limited capacity in Monowitz, as well as in the Auschwitz subcamps. But, in Auschwitz I and II they were their own masters. A female prisoner commented at the Nuremberg Trials that "they did not see many female guards at Auschwitz Birkenau, but, the ones you did see were worse than the men." We know fifty of these women guards, or Aufseherin by name: Elisabeth Arneth, Erna Bodem, Juana Bormann, Hanna Bormann, Therese Brandl, Luise Brunner, Florentine Cichon, Luise Danz, Margot Dreschel, Charlotte Ebert, Herta Ehlert, Martha Grasse, Irma Grese, Elisabeth Haase (who served as a Rapportführerin and Kommandoführerin and was Maria Mandel's sister), Elisabeth Haselof, Elly Hartmann, Anni Fanny Hausherr, Irmgrad Hausherr, Gertrud Heise, Aloisje Irmler, Johanna Jaeger, Hildegard Lachert, Johanna Langefeld, Maria Mandel, Karla Mayer, Monika Miklas, Elfriede Misch, Maria Mullenders, Alice Orlowski, Ella Pessiner, Rosa Reischl, Elfriede Runge, Elisabeth Kaethe Ruppert, Luise Rust, Hermine Schachtner, Friederike Schneider, Maria Schreiber, Bertha Schurr, Anna Schuster, Elfriede Seidel, Hanne Snurova, Else Sollich, Rose Suess, Marianne Thiel, Erna Tietje, Elisabeth Volkenrath, Gertrud Weniger, Emma Emmi Zimmer, and Gertrud Zlotos and a wardress named Bruno. Women guards were also stationed in several subcamps, mainly those surrounding Birkenau at Budy and the experimental plant growing station at the Rajsko subcamp. Others served at Hindenburg and Lichtenwerden. As the Soviets neared the camps in January 1945, twelve female overseers remained in the complex and helped guard the death marches to Loslau, Poland. Among them was SS Kommandofuhrerin Alice Orlowski.
Knowledge of the Allies
Some information regarding Auschwitz reached the Allies during 1941–4, such as the reports of Witold Pilecki and Jerzy Tabeau, but the claims of mass killings were generally dismissed as exaggerated. This changed with receipt of the very detailed report of two escaped prisoners, Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler, which finally convinced most Allied leaders of the truth about Auschwitz in the middle of 1944.
Detailed air reconnaissance photographs of the camp were taken accidentally during 1944 by aircraft seeking to photograph nearby military-industrial targets, but no effort was made to analyse them. (In fact, it was not until the 1970s that these photographs of Auschwitz were looked at carefully.)
Starting with a plea from the Slovakian rabbi Weissmandl in May 1944, there was a growing campaign to convince the Allies to bomb Auschwitz or the railway lines leading to it. At one point Winston Churchill ordered that such a plan be prepared, but he was told that bombing the camp would most likely kill prisoners without disrupting the killing operation, and that bombing the railway lines was not technically feasible. Later several nearby military targets were bombed. One bomb accidentally fell into the camp and killed some prisoners. The debate over what could have been done, or what should have been attempted even if success was unlikely, has continued heatedly ever since.
Evacuation and liberation
The gas chambers of Birkenau were blown up by the Germans in November 1944 in an attempt to hide their crimes from the advancing Soviet troops. On January 17, 1945 Nazi personnel started to evacuate the facility; most of the prisoners were marched West. Those too weak or sick to walk were left behind; about 7500 prisoners were liberated by the Red Army on January 27, 1945.
'Liberation' was not necessarily the end of the ordeal for many prisoners. Soviet POWs were accused of collaborating with their captors and were either executed or sent to gulags in the Soviet Union. Some female prisoners fared even worse. A female Jewish prisoner has stated that Soviet troops repeatedly raped female inmates, sometimes strangling them afterwards.
- Władysław Bartoszewski, Polish foreign minister 1995–2000.
- Esther Bejarano.
- Tadeusz Borowski, author of This Way to the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen.
- Józef Cyrankiewicz, premier of Communist Poland 1947–1952 and 1954–1970, Polish head of state 1970–1972.
- Charlotte Delbo, French resistance fighter who later wrote Auschwitz and After.
- Anne Frank, imprisoned in Auschwitz-Birkenau from September to October 1944; later moved to the concentration camp in Bergen-Belsen where she died of typhus.
- Viktor Frankl.
- Etty Hillesum.
- Imre Kertész, Hungarian Nobel laureate in Literature, stayed in Auschwitz II for three days in the summer of 1944 before being judged fit to work and transferred to Buchenwald.
- Maksymilian Kolbe, Franciscan friar, imprisoned in Auschwitz I; volunteered for starvation in place of another prisoner and was killed in 1941.
- Adam Kozłowiecki, Polish Cardinal.
- Ruth Neray, author of To Auschwitz and Back: My Personal Journey
- Primo Levi, Italian author, was imprisoned for 10 months in Auschwitz where he had to work for the Buna-Werke. He was freed by the Red Army and later wrote of his experiences
- Witold Pilecki, soldier of the Polish Home Army, volunteered to go to Auschwitz, organised resistance in Auschwitz, informed Western Allies about the atrocities, later took part in the Warsaw Uprising.
- Vladek Spiegelman, father of cartoonist Art Spiegelman.
- Edith Stein, Catholic nun and philosopher of Jewish ancestry, gassed in Auschwitz II.
- Simone Veil, French lawyer and politician.
- Elie Wiesel, survived Auschwitz III Monowitz and later wrote about his experiences.
After the war
After the war, Auschwitz remained in a state of disrepair for several years. The Buna Werke were taken over by the Polish government and became the foundation for the chemical industry of the region.
The Polish government then decided to restore Auschwitz I and turn it into a museum honoring the victims of nazism; Auschwitz II, where buildings were prone to decay, was preserved but not restored. Today, the Auschwitz I museum site combines elements from several periods into a single complex: for example the gas chamber at Auschwitz I (which did not exist by the war's end) was restored and the fence was moved (because of building being done after the war but before the establishment of the museum). However, in most cases the departure from the historical truth is minor, and is mentioned as such.
In 1979, the newly elected Polish Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass on the grounds of Auschwitz II to some 500,000 people. After the pope had announced that Edith Stein would be beatified, some Catholics erected a cross near bunker 2 of Auschwitz II where she had been gassed. A short while later, a Star of David appeared at the site, leading to a proliferation of religious symbols there; eventually they were removed.
Carmelite nuns opened a convent near Auschwitz I in 1984. After some Jewish groups called for the removal of the convent, representatives of the Catholic Church agreed in 1987. One year later the Carmelites erected the 8 m (26 ft) tall cross from the 1979 mass near their site, just outside block 11 and barely visible from within the camp. This led to protests by Jewish groups, who said that mostly Jews were killed at Auschwitz and demanded that religious symbols be kept away from the site. Some Catholics have pointed out that the people killed in Auschwitz I were mainly Polish Catholics. The Catholic Church told the Carmelites to move by 1989, but they stayed on until 1993, leaving the large cross behind. In 1998, after further calls to remove the cross, some 300 smaller crosses were erected by local activists near the large one, leading to further protests and heated exchanges. Following an agreement between the Polish Catholic Church and the Polish government, the smaller crosses were removed in 1999 but the large papal one remains. See Auschwitz cross for more details.
In 1996, Germany made January 27, the day of the liberation of Auschwitz, the official day for the commemoration of the victims of 'National Socialism'.
- "27 January 2005, the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of Nazi Germany's death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau, where a combined total of up to 1.5 million Jews, Roma, Poles, Russians and prisoners of various other nationalities, and homosexuals, were murdered, is not only a major occasion for European citizens to remember and condemn the enormous horror and tragedy of the Holocaust, but also for addressing the disturbing rise in anti-semitism, and especially anti‑semitic incidents, in Europe, and for learning anew the wider lessons about the dangers of victimising people on the basis of race, ethnic origin, religion, social classification, politics or sexual orientation."
Some authors, usually sympathetic to Holocaust denial, have criticised what they claim as historical inaccuracies promoted by the Polish government on the subject of Auschwitz.
They sometimes point out that the communist Polish government used to cite numbers of 4 million murders in Auschwitz, and claim that the numbers have been steadily revised downwards for decades.
Recently the Polish media and the foreign ministry of Poland have voiced objections to the use of the expression "Polish death camp" in relation to Auschwitz, as they feel that phrase might misleadingly suggest that Poles (rather than Germans) perpetrated the Holocaust. Most media outlets now show awareness of the offence this may cause, and try to avoid using such expressions (or issue an apology after using them, see for example the recent note in The Guardian )
From a very different perspective, some authors claim that certain Jewish lobby groups perpetuate these inaccuracies to finance their own political activities, exploiting the Holocaust to obtain large sums of reparation money from German and Austrian governments that never reach the Holocaust survivors. (See Holocaust industry)
- Auschwitz Album – a collection of pictures taken at Auschwitz during its operation.
- List of German concentration camps
- History of Gays during the Holocaust
- Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum Official Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum and Memorial
- Anna Heilman Anna Heilman is the last living survivor of the plot to blow up Crematorium IV at Auschwitz-Birkenau
- The Nazi's testimony, The Guardian, January 10, 2005
- Photos From Auschwitz and Birkenau Detailed Photos From Auschwitz and Birkenau by Alan Jacobs
- Auschwitz, Then and Now Photo/Art ExhibitPaintings by survivor Jan Komski — click and see an actual photo taken in the same place depicted in the painting.
- Auschwitz: The Nazis and the 'Final Solution' A comprehensive BBC documentary about the creation, evolution and aftermath of the Auschwitz camp.
- The Simon Wiesenthal Center An international Jewish human rights organization dedicated to preserving the memory of the Holocaust.