In 1940, the Nazi regime established the first concentration camp at Oswiecim, Poland. Oswiecim was renamed Auschwitz, a name now synonymous with the Holocaust. 

The Auschwitz camp complex was vast, becoming the largest in the Nazi camp system. It developed to carry out the functions of a Concentration Camp and Killing Centre on an industrial scale.

By the end of its operations the complex had multiple sub-camps servicing three main camps; Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II (Auschwitz-Birkenau), and Auschwitz III (Auschwitz-Monowitz).

Over one million people were murdered in the Auschwitz camp complex. Most of these people were Jewish.

Establishment and Auschwitz I

On the establishment of Auschwiz I in 1940, Polish residents around the area were evicted, and local industrial facilities were taken over by the Nazis. Other buildings were used as barracks for administration of the camp and the area directly around the site was used for workshops, storage and offices of the SS. 

In 1941, Heinrich Himmler visited Auschwitz and ordered its expansion to hold up to 30,000 prisoners, and creation of another concentration camp nearby for Soviet Prisoners of War. In September 1941, the first people including Soviet Prisoners of War are gassed in Auschwitz I. They were murdered in makeshift gas chambers, using Zyklon B, an insecticide manufactured by I G Farben. These experiments to optimise the killing process led to the adoption of Zyklon B as the agent of mass murder in the gas chambers of Auschwitz II.

 Auschwitz I was originally used to create a stream of slave labour for companies owned by the SS, and to hold enemies of the Nazi regime, particularly those who opposed Nazi activities in Poland. It had a gas chamber and crematorium on the site.In December 1942 due to the creation of Auschwitz II, the gas chamber at Auschwitz I became unused. The crematorium continued to function until the liberation of the camp.

 The site included the commandants living quarters, administration offices, prisoner’s kitchen, infirmary, and gallows. There was a ‘death block’ which had torture cells, and people would be tried unfairly before being sentenced to death. The firing wall was attached to this block, where people would be lined up and shot.

 A hospital barrack was also on the site, and was the location of unethical and barbaric medical experiments carried out by SS doctors including Josef Mengele. The experiments were initiated by Heinrich Himmler, Ernst Grawtiz, chief physician of the SS, and Wolfram Sievers, director of the SS Military-Scientific Research Institute. Individuals subjected to the experiments were selected from the camp population and experienced immense suffering. Particular focus was on issues of concern for the army, and future population planning. This meant much cruelty was inflicted on people for experiments concerning sterilization and reactions to extreme cold, with twins and people with dwarfism often being selected.

Auschwitz II (Auschwitz-Birkenau)

Auschwitz II was the largest Killing Centre constructed by the Nazi regime. It functioned as part of the Nazi plan to exterminate the entire Jewish population. Most of the people murdered at Auschwitz, over one million people, were murdered in Auschwitz II. Of these people, the overwhelming majority were Jewish.

The Killing Centre was created at Brzezinka, a village which had its population removed by Nazi officials by the end of 1941. It was situated within the 25 mile ‘zone of interest’ around the camps, and built using forced labour. It was the largest operation within the Auschwitz complex. Barracks, washrooms, kitchens, gas chambers, crematoria, and stores were built, followed by two more sections between 1942 and 1943. Ultimately it contained around 300 buildings, there were plans for a fourth section which would have included more gas chambers, but these were never completed due to the Second World War.

Gas chambers were constructed in 1942 in two adapted buildings adjacent to the site of Auschwitz Birkenau. By mid-1942, four large gas chambers were completed to enable the systematic mass murder perpetrated at the site. These had the capacity to gas up to 2,000 people at a time. Although the gas chambers were the main method of murder, starvation, disease and exhaustion also claimed many lives. The first chamber to have been built was demolished in 1943. Two of the gas chambers at Auschwitz II were dismantled in 1944 in an attempt to hide the atrocities committed by the Nazi regime.

The SS Death’s Head unit was responsible for guarding Auschwitz. Some people held in the camp as prisoners, known as Kapos, would oversee the barracks or forced labour for privileges such as better food or treatment. There were also electrified fences surrounding Auschwitz II, which were charged with a deadly level of electricity. Some people threw themselves on the fences in order to commit suicide after imprisonment in the camp became too much.

"Our life in Auschwitz was a rapid disintigration of mind and body. They de-humanised us completly."

Arek Hersh

Holocaust Survivor

On arriving, people who survived the journey were unloaded onto platforms. They would be lined up, men and women would be separated. The people were assessed by the SS, most people including elderly people, pregnant women, people considered too ill to work, and most children would be immediately sent to their death. People selected for forced labour had their belongings removed from them and had their head shaved. They were given a uniform and most had an identifying number tattooed onto their wrist.People arriving in Auschwitz came from all areas of Nazi occupied Europe. Soviet Prisoners of War were brought to the complex, as were people from Germany, Greece, France, Poland and other Eastern European states. The regime used the phrase ‘resettlement’ in order to hide their intentions. Most people were transported to Auschwitz on trains having been loaded into overcrowded cattle wagons, and travelled without food and water for days. There were no sanitary facilities in the cattle cars, beyond a bucket. Many people did not survive to reach the destination. Each train was guarded and any individual who attempted to escape was shot.

It was not only Jewish prisoners that arrived at Auschwitz but Romano Gypsies, homosexuals and other members of the European population that the Nazi regime believed to be inferior.

“As the wagon doors opened, a feeling of panic was added to our shock and disorientation. There were SS men and barking dogs everywhere, and a pandemonium of blazing loudspeakers issuing incomprehensible orders assailed our senses.”

Ibi Ginsburg

Holocaust Survivor; Quote from Survival 

In 1942, a women’s camp was created in Auschwitz II, receiving over 10,000 women throughout its operation.  A ‘Gypsy camp’ was created in 1943, within which families were not broken up and could wear their own clothes. However in August 1944, the Gypsy camp was liquidated, murdering all the people who remained in this part of the camp. A family camp for Jewish individuals was also created in September 1943; most of the individuals who imprisoned came from Theresienstadt.

Auschwitz III (Auschwitz-Monowitz)

Auschwitz III was situated on the site of the destroyed village of Monowitz. It was the site of IG Farben’s Buna synthetic rubber factory, and used forced labourers from Auschwitz I and II.

I.G Farben established the Buna factory to make synthetic rubber and fuels for the Third Reich in 1941, with the construction of Auschwitz III following in 1942. People forced to work in the factory now lived on site, rather than being marched or transported by train to the factory every day. The location was chosen due to its proximity to Auschwitz I and II, and salt and lime sources in nearby Upper Silesia. Residents of the nearby villages of Dwory and Monowice were evicted and rehoused elsewhere in Poland, the foremen of the factory then lived in their houses.

Auschwitz III came under the control of a separate administrative unit in 1943, also taking over the administration for all sub camps within the Auschwitz complex. Around 10,000 people were selected to work in the Buna factory on arrival. Any prisoner not deemed to be keeping up with their work by the foremen of the factory, were punished by SS guards, mostly with severe beatings. The majority of individuals forced to work within the factory were Jewish, most people were worked until they were physically unable to carry on, at which point they were sent to be murdered in the gas chambers.

Sub camps

Around 44 sub camps served the Auschwitz camp complex, mostly coordinated by the Commandant of Auschwitz III. They performed a range of tasks, focusing on production of food for the Third Reich, and industrial goods such as armaments for the Nazi war effort. One sub-camp created in 1943, ‘Kanada II’, was used as a storage facility for belongings of Jewish people who had been murdered in the gas chambers. 

The sub-camps were isolated from the outside world, and surrounded by barbed wire to prevent escape. Most were located in the ‘development zones’ of Upper Silesia and Moravia. Following selection in Auschwitz I, people were transported to these sub-camps and used as forced labour until they were deemed no longer suitable. At this point they were transferred to Auschwitz II and murdered in the gas chambers.

Camp Life

People held in Auschwitz wore grey and blue striped uniforms, which were ill fitting and provided little protection from the harsh winters. This combined with the poor living conditions meant exposure claimed many lives. As most people’s shoes were taken from them on arrival, people also wore the camp issued wooden clogs, which were also ill fitting and did not protect feet from the elements or the work people were required to do; forced labour was common within the camp complex, and many were worked to death. Shoes also became a matter of life and death within the camps as getting blistered or injured feet and not being able to keep up, could mean severe beatings or execution. 

The barracks were very overcrowded and the stacked bunks held multiple people each. The sanitary conditions were poor and lice and vermin infested the barracks. Diseases such as cholera and typhus spread around the camp. Roll calls also formed part of the daily routine, this process meant the SS required people to stand outside silently in all weather for many hours. Those who could not stand for the duration were often taken to their death.

Food at Auschwitz was very limited. It consisted of watery soup, small amounts of bread and sometimes margarine, and a watery drink similar to coffee. Bowls were vital as without them, people would not be able to receive their meagre serving of food. The deliberately meagre rations combined with long hours of forced labour, meant that many individuals were murdered by starvation, and exhaustion.

Resistance

There was organised resistance within Auschwitz, and instances of rebellion. In October 1944 a group of Sonderkommando rebelled. They were being forced to work in Auschwitz II’s Crematorium IV and decided to attempt to destroy the machinery of mass murder, and lead an uprising. Young women, held in the complex because they were Jewish, including Ester Wajcblum, Ella Gärtner, and Regina Safirsztain, assisted the rebels.

The women were working with the resistance movement, smuggling small amounts of gunpowder from a munitions factory within the Auschwitz complex. Róza Robota had been selected for forced labour within Auschwitz II, and once she had received gunpowder from the others, passed it on to the Sonderkommando. The intention was to blow up the Crematoria and gas chambers. Having heard that they were going to be murdered, the men of Crematorium IV revolted on October 7, 1944.

Over 200 people died in the struggle, but the Nazis crushed the uprising. A further 200 people were shot afterwards, and the Nazis identified and hanged five women who had assisted.

Liberation

As Soviet forces approached the Auschwitz complex, the Nazis began to remove people from the camps. This included moving thousands of people on ‘death marches’ which were fatal for many of the individuals who started them. Around 7,650 people were left behind in the camp complex as they were unable to be removed.

The death marches went to one of two locations; Gliwice, 55 kilometres north-west of the Auschwitz complex, or to Wodzislaw, 63 kilometres to the west of the complex. Any individual who could not keep walking was shot by SS guards, with as many as 3,000 people murdered on route to Gliwice. From these destinations they were deported to concentration camps in Germany. The train journeys also claimed many lives through the dire conditions.

The Auschwitz Camp Complex was liberated by Soviet troops on 27, January 1945. The Soviets entered all three main camps on that day. They found most people who remained there close to death.

Perpetrators

In March 1942, Auschwitz was placed under control of Rudolf Höss, who was responsible for the entire camp system until November 1943. From this point the complex was split into three main camps, with each having its own commandant. 

image from the NHCM's collection

Auschwitz I came under the command of Arthur Liebehenschel until May 1944, when Richard Baer became Commandant. Auschwitz II came under the command of Fritz Hartjenstein, followed by Josef Kramer until November 1944 (image from the NHCM's collection), at which point the camp was reunited with Auschwitz I under Baer. Auschwitz III was commanded by Heinrich Schwarz from November 1943 until January 1945.

In an attempt to hide the crimes committed, Crematorium V, the last operating crematorium at Auschwitz, was blown up on January 26th 1945, the day before the camp was liberated.

Richard Baer fled Germany but was captured in 1960. Rudolf Höss was captured after fleeing, and returned to Auschwitz where he was executed by hanging in 1947. Arthur Liebehenschel was sentenced to death for his crimes, as was Maria Mandel who oversaw the women’s camp. Josef Kramer became the commandant at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and was sentenced him to death. 

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