The largest and best known of the Nazi concentration camps was Auschwitz in southern Poland. Today, 75 years after its liberation, the name Auschwitz transcends language barriers to provoke images of death, suffering and misery. At Auschwitz, human beings revealed both their brutality and their genocidal efficiency.
The ‘factory of death’
Auschwitz was little more than a factory of death. Hundreds of thousands of Jews, other racial minorities and political prisoners passed through its gates, never to return.
As they entered, they travelled under a metal banner bearing the cynical promise ‘Arbeit Macht Frei‘ (‘Work makes freedom’). The chilling reality was that work and time only moved inmates closer to death, either by starvation, disease or in the camp’s grotesquely efficient gas chambers.
Even today, historians debate and dispute the death toll at Auschwitz, with figures ranging from 1.1 million to more than three million. The only concrete fact is that Auschwitz was a place of absolute murder.
Auschwitz is the Germanised name for Oswiecim, a town in southern Poland located approximately 20 miles to the west of Krakow.
Construction of a concentration camp in Oswiecim started in May 1940, the first phase involving the conversion of abandoned Polish military barracks. Schutzstaffel (SS) troops cleared the area of Polish civilians and commandeered several hundred Jewish workers to construct new buildings and adapt existing buildings for military use.
The officer appointed to command this new facility was Rudolf Hoess. A 38-year-old Obersturmbannfuhrer (lieutenant-colonel) who joined the SS in 1934, Hoess had previous experience as an adjutant at Sachsenhausen concentration camp in north-east Germany.
For a year, Hoess oversaw the establishment and growth of Auschwitz, from 16 single-storey barracks to a complex concentration camp network.
Auschwitz was initially intended to house career criminals from Germany and Polish political prisoners. But in June 1941, Hoess received new orders, as he later testified at the Nuremberg trials:
“In the summer of 1941, I was summoned to Berlin to Reichsfuhrer SS Himmler to receive personal orders. He told me something, I do not remember the exact words, that the Fuhrer had given the order for a final solution of the Jewish question. We, the SS, were to carry out that order. If it is not carried out now then the Jews will later on destroy the German people. He had chosen Auschwitz on account of its easy access by rail and also because the extensive site offered space for measures ensuring isolation … He told me that I was not even allowed to say anything about it to my immediate superior Gruppenfuhrer Glucks. This conference concerned the two of us only and I was to observe the strictest secrecy.”
A network of camps
Auschwitz was not one single camp but a network of labour and extermination camps. There were three primary camps – Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II-Birkenau and Auschwitz III-Monowitz – along with 45 smaller satellite camps. The three main camps each fulfilled different roles:
Auschwitz I was the main administration centre or ‘headquarters’. At 60 square kilometres, it was the smallest in area of the three main camps. It was the location where SS doctors like Josef Mengele conducted medical experimentation on inmates, particularly infants, twins and dwarves.
Auschwitz II-Birkenau was the main extermination facility of the Auschwitz complex. Its construction began in October 1941 and it was complete by mid-1942. Auschwitz II was the first camp to have a gas chamber and crematorium installed. Crematoria II was constructed in early 1943 and Crematoria III, IV and V were all in operation by June. The majority of victims at Auschwitz II-Birkenau were killed after mid-1943.
Auschwitz III-Monowitz, the largest of the three main camps, was constructed in October 1942. It originally housed slave labourers who worked at a nearby rubber factory. Up to 40,000 inmates lived at Monowitz in horrific conditions. Nazi physicians frequently attended Auschwitz III to conduct ‘selections’, or mass inspections of inmates for health, strength and mobility. Those fit were work were retained, others were transferred to Auschwitz II-Birkenau for extermination.
Transportation to Auschwitz
Prisoners were transported to Auschwitz from almost every country occupied by Nazi Germany. They came from all corners of Europe in cattle cars, with no toilet provisions and no access to food or water.
As these train wagons arrived at Birkenau and passed under the distinctive archway, prisoners were subjected to ‘selections’ by Nazi doctors. These medical examinations were not rigorous and were usually based on age, appearances and perceived strength and fitness.
The majority of first arrivals were sent away for extermination, a path the Nazis euphemistically dubbed ‘evacuation’ or ‘special treatment’. Children and elderly people were almost invariably exterminated on arrival because the SS considered them incapable of work. Only the fittest adults were retained for labour.
The process of murder
Arrivals and inmates selected for extermination were usually told to prepare for showering and de-lousing. They were ordered to remove all clothing and leave any belongings, including spectacles and shoes, for collection at a later time. Their heads were then quickly shaved, their hair retained for military uses.
After this, inmates were ushered into specially designed vaults, the walls lined with concrete, the doors and windows with airtight seals. There was a single vent for the distribution of poisonous gas and a small window for inspection.
The deadly gas used at Auschwitz was Zyklon B (German for ‘Cyclone B’), a cyanide-based pesticide manufactured by the German company IG Farben. When this was in short supply, prisoners were suffocated with carbon monoxide by filling the chambers with truck exhaust fumes.
Most gassings took between 20 and 30 minutes. Once the victims were observed to be dead, they were checked for and stripped of gold teeth. The bodies were hauled into nearby crematoria for burning. The work of moving, lifting and loading bodies into the crematoria was carried out by Kapos or trustee prisoners. The Kapos carried out this sinister work for a few extra food rations or to ensure their own survival.
Inmates selected for work at Auschwitz were tattooed with a prisoner number, usually on the inside of their forearm. They were no longer addressed by name but by this number.
Work details lasted twelve hours with no breaks. There were strict punishments for taking breaks, stalling or working slowly. Kapos were posted in toilet areas to ensure no prisoner spent too much time away from work.
Prisoners at Auschwitz wore light-blue striped clothing without underwear. On their feet, they wore poorly-fitting wooden clogs, without socks or stockings. Roll calls were conducted at least twice, before and after work details. If a prisoner was missing, other prisoners were forced to stand in formation until the person was found, regardless of weather conditions.
Upon returning to their barracks, the prisoners received rations of bread and water. After months spent as a labourer at Auschwitz, many inmates became what the German guards called Muselmann. Fatigued and starved, they moved silently like zombies, apparently barely conscious of their surroundings.
Prisoner uprisings were not common at Auschwitz. Reports suggest almost 800 individual prisoners made escape attempts, of which only 144 were successful. The SS executed those caught escaping – and to deter future attempts, they often punished family members or inmates sharing the same barracks.
Many Jews selected to work believed the best way to sabotage the German war effort was to avoid death and survive. Primo Levi, a survivor of Auschwitz and a prominent author, wrote of his Holocaust experience:
Because the camp was a great machine to reduce us to beasts; we must not become beasts; that even in this place one can survive, therefore one must want to survive, to tell the story, to bear witness; and that, if we want to survive, then it’s important, that we strive to persevere at least the skeleton, the external shape of civilisation.
Liberation of Auschwitz
Towards the end of 1944, with the Soviet Red Army rapidly approaching, the SS officers at Auschwitz received orders to murder the remaining inmates and destroy all evidence of its activities. There was inadequate time for this, however, so it was decided to evacuate 60,000 prisoners to Bergen-Belsen, another camp further west and closer to the German border.
Of the inmates who left Auschwitz on January 17th 1945 on this forced march to Bergen-Belsen, only 20,000 made it. The rest died along the way from disease, malnutrition or occasional mass killings. Approximately 7,500 were too weak to march and were left behind at Auschwitz. Those that survived were freed by the Soviets on January 27th 1945.
The Soviet soldiers who liberated Auschwitz found enormous stacks of personal artefacts confiscated from murdered prisoners. One storeroom contained almost 350,000 men’s suits. Another was filled to head height with shoes, spectacles and human hair. Other rooms were filled with stolen photographs, personal papers and jewellery.
More horrifically, there were dozens of piles of human corpses in various states of decomposition or cremation. The grounds and forest around Auschwitz were ankle-deep with ash, deposited like rain by the giant brick chimneys of the crematoria. Gullies, ditches and ponds, used as dumping grounds for crematoria waste, were clogged thick with ash and bone fragments.
Even the men of the Soviet Red Army, hardened by war and accustomed to death and suffering in their own country, were moved to tears by what they found at Auschwitz.
“Auschwitz does not lend itself easily to a historical perspective. For most, the camp will forever be what it became: the largest and most important of the Nazi concentration camps, the most destructive and sophisticated killing machine ever developed, the place where the greatest number of Jews – close to one million – were killed, the largest cemetery in the world.”
Jonathan Frankel, historian
1. Auschwitz, located near Krakow in southern Poland, was the largest and deadliest concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Europe.
2. Selected for its centrality in location to European rail networks, the Auschwitz compound received prisoners from almost every country.
3. Auschwitz was actually comprised of three main camps and 45 sub-camps. Auschwitz II-Birkenau, with its gas chambers and crematoria, was by far the deadliest of these.
4. Inmates arriving at Auschwitz were ‘selected’ for either work or immediate extermination, based on cursory assessments of their age, health and fitness.
5. Auschwitz was evacuated by the SS on January 17th 1945 and liberated by Soviet Russian soldiers 10 days later. Only a few thousand sickly inmates remained there.