History & Overview
Auschwitz-Birkenau is the general term for the network of Nazi concentration and labor camps, established near the Polish city of Oswiecim. Together this complex was the largest of all the Nazi death camps across Europe and could hold upwards of 150,000 inmates at any given time.
The complex, which divided into three main areas, was established by the Nazi's in 1940 and was in use until its Allied liberation in 1945. Historians and analysts estimate the number of people murdered at Auschwitz somewhere between 2.1 million to 4 million, of whom the vast majority were Jews. The majority of prisoners held at Auschwitz were killed in the various gas chambers though many died from starvation, forced labor, disease, shooting squads, and heinous medical experiments.
Today, the word Auschwitz has become synonymous with terror, genocide, and The Holocaust. The site, though partially destroyed by the retreating Nazi's in 1945, has been established as a museum to help future generations understand the atrocities committed within its fences. By 2011, more than 30 million people had visited the camp, and during 2014 a record number of 1.5 million people visitied the Auschwitz complex and museum. Spokespeople for the museum said that from January to April 2015, over 250,000 people visited Auschwitz, marking a 40% increase over the already large numbers from the previous year. Authorities in charge of the site began to urge people to book their visit to Auschwitz online ahead of time to prevent them from having to turn people away.
In June 2016, the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum in the Polish town of Oswiecim re-discovered over 16,000 personal items belonging to victims of Auschwitz-Birkenau that had been lost in 1968. The items were originally discovered in 1967 by archaeologists excavating the concentration camp site, and were placed in 48 cardboard boxes in the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw before being lost due to an anti-Semitic communist regime coming to power in 1968.
- Establishing the Camp
- Expanding Auschwitz
- Begining Stages of the 'Final Solution'
- Camp Reorganization & Worsening Conditions
- Birkenau Becomes Center of Jewish Extermination
- 'Death March' & Allied Liberation
Establishing the Camp
In April 1940, Rudolph Höss,
who become the first commandant of Auschwitz, identified the Silesian town of
Oswiecim in Poland as a possible site for a concentration camp. The function
of the camp initially was planned as an intimidation to Poles to prevent
resistance their to German rule and serve as a prison for those who did resist. It was also perceived as a cornerstone
of the policy to re-colonize Upper Silesia, which had once been a
German region, with "pure Aryans." When the plans for the camp were approved, the Nazi's changed the name of the area to Auschwitz.
On April 27th, 1940, Heinrich Himmler ordered
construction of the camp.
In May 1940, Poles were
evicted from the vicinity of the barracks (most of them were
executed), and a work crew comprising concentration camp prisoners
was sent from Sachsenhausen. 300 Jews from the large Jewish
community of Oswiecim were also pressed into service.
Corpses in a block of
The first transport of prisoners,
almost all Polish civilians, arrived in June 1940 and the SS administration and staff was established. On March 1th, 1941, the
camp population was 10,900. Quite quickly, the camp developed a
reputation for torture and mass shootings.
Expansion of Auschwitz
March 1941, Himmler visited Auschwitz and commanded its enlargement to hold 30,000 prisoners. The location of the camp, practically in the
center of German-occupied Europe, and its convenient transportation
connections and proximity to raillines was the main thinking behind the Nazi plan to enlarge Auschwitz and begin deporting people here from all over Europe.
At this time only the main camp, later known as Auschwitz I, had been established. Himmler ordered the construction of a second camp for 100,000
inmates on the site of the village of Brzezinka,
roughly two miles from the main camp. This second camp, now known as Birkenau or Auschwitz II, was initially intended to
be filled with captured Russian POWs who would provide the slave
labor to build the SS "utopia" in Upper Silesia. Chemical giant I G Farben expressed an interest in utilizing this labor force, and extensive construction work began in October 1941 under
terrible conditions and with massive loss of life. About 10,000
Russian POWs died in this process. The greater part of the apparatus of mass extermination
was eventually built in the Birkenau camp and the majority of the victims were murdered
More than 40 sub-camps, exploiting the prisoners
as slave laborers, were also founded, mainly as various sorts of German
industrial plants and farms, between 1942 and 1944. The largest of
them was called Buna (Monowitz,
with ten thousand prisoners) and was opened by the camp
administration in 1942 on the grounds of the Buna-Werke synthetic
rubber and fuel plant, six kilometers from the Auschwitz camp. The factory was built during the war by the German IG
Farbenindustrie cartel, and the SS supplied prisoner labor. On
November 1943, the Buna sub-camp became the seat of the commandant of
the third part of the camp, Auschwitz III, to which some other Auschwitz sub-camps were subordinated.
Germans isolated all the camps and sub-camps from the outside world
and surrounded them with barbed wire fencing. All contact with the
outside world was forbidden. However, the area administered by the
commandant and patrolled by the SS camp garrison went beyond the
grounds enclosed by barbed wire. It included an additional area of
approximately 40 square kilometers (the so-called "Interessengebiet"
- the interest zone), which lay around the Auschwitz I and Auschwitz
With the additions, the main camp population grew
from 18,000 in December 1942 to more than 30,000 in March 1943.
In March 1942, a women's camp was
established at Auschwitz with 6,000 inmates and in August it
was moved to Birkenau. By January 1944, 27,000 women were living
in Birkenau, in section B1a, in separated quarters.
In February 1943, a section for Gypsies was also established at
Birkenau, called camp BIIe, and in September 1943 an area was set aside for
Czech Jews deported from Theresienstadt,
and was so-called the "Family Camp," or BIIb.
The gas chambers and crematoria at Birkenau were
opened in March 1943.
Begining Stages of the 'Final Solution'
in 1942, Auschwitz began
to function in a way different than its original intent.
By late 1941, Himmler had briefed Commandant Höss about the "Final Solution" and by the following year Auschwitz-Birkenau became the center of the mass
destruction of the European Jews.
Before begining Jewish exterminations, though, the Nazi's used the Soviet POWs at the Auschwitz camp
in trials of the poison gas Zyklon-B, produced by the German company "Degesch" (Deutsche
Gesellschaft zur Schädlingsbekämpfung), which was marked as the best way to kill many people at once. The POWs were gassed
in underground cells in Block 11, the so called "Death Block," and following these trials, one gas chamber
was setup just outside the main camp and two
temporary gas chambers were opened at Birkenau.
The Nazis marked all the Jews
living in Europe for total extermination, regardless of their age,
sex, occupation, citizenship, or political views. They were killed for one reason, and one reason alone -
because they were Jews. At Auschwitz-Birkenau, the 'Final Solution' was put to the ground in Nazi-like efficiency:
Arbeit Macht Frei Labor make you
When a train carrying Jewish prisoners arrived "selections" would be conducted on the
railroad platform, or ramp. Newly arrived persons classified by the
SS physicians as unfit for labor were sent to the gas
chambers: these included the ill, the elderly, pregnant women and children. In most
cases, 70-75% of each transport was sent to immediate death. These
people were not entered in the camp records; that is, they received
no serial numbers and were not registered, and this is why it is possible
only to estimate the total number of victims.
Those deemed fit enough for slave labor were then immediately registered, tattooed with a serial number, undressed,
deloused, had their body hair shaven off, showered while their
clothes were disinfected with Zyklon-B gas, and entered the camp
under the infamous gateway inscribed 'Arbeit Macht Frei' ("Labor
will set you free"). Of approximately 2.5 million people who were deported to
Auschwitz, 405,000 were given prisoner status and serial numbers.
Of these, approximately 50% were Jews and 50% were
Poles and other nationalities.
Camp Reorganization & Worsening Conditions
In Autumn 1943, the camp
administration was reorganized following a corruption scandal. By
the end of 1943, the prisoner population of Auschwitz main camp,
Birkenau, Monowitz and other subcamps was over 80,000: 18,437 in
the main camp, 49,114 in Birkenau, and 13,288 at Monowitz where I
G Farben had its synthetic rubber plant. Up to 50,000 prisoners
were scattered around 51 subcamps such as Rajsko, an experimental
agricultural station, and Gleiwitz, a coal mine (see The
List of the Camps for a complete list of those subcamps).
The situation in the subcamps was
often even worse than in the main camps. In mid-1944, Auschwitz
was designated a SS-run security area of over 40 square miles. By August 1944, the camp population reached 105,168.
The last roll-call on January 18th, 1945, showed 64,000
During its history, the prison
population of Auschwitz changed composition significantly. At
first, its inmates were almost entirely Polish. From April 1940 to
March 1942, on about 27,000 inmates, 30 percent were Poles and 57
percent were Jews. From March 1942 to March 1943 of 162,000
inmates, 60 percent were Jews.
Birkenau Becomes Center of Jewish Extermination
Gas Chamber door at Birkenau -
"Lebensgefhar" (danger of death)
A parallel system to the main camp in Auschwitz began to operate at the Birkenau camp by 1942. The exception, though, was that the majority of
"showers" used to delouse the incoming prisoners proved to be gas chambers. At Birkenau, only about 10 percent of
Jewish transports were registered, disinfected, shaven and
showered in the "central sauna" before being assigned barracks as opposed to being sent directly to the death chambers.
In the spring of 1942, two
provisional gas chambers at Birkenau were constructed out of
peasant huts, known as the "bunkers."
The first "bunker", with two
sealed rooms, operated from January 1942 to the end of that year.
The second, with four air tight rooms, became redundant in the
spring of 1943, but remained standing and was used again in the
autumn of 1944 when extra "capacity" was needed for the murder of
Hungarian Jews and the liquidation of the ghettos. The second
measured about 1.134 square feet. The victims murdered in the
"bunkers" were first obliged to undress in temporary wooden
barracks erected nearby. Their bodies were taken out of the gas
chambers and pushed to pits where they were burned in the open.
Between January 1942 and March 1943, 175,000 Jews were gassed to
death here, of whom 105,000 were killed from January to March
Up to this point, though, Auschwitz-Birkenau accounted for "only" 11 percent
of the victims of the 'Final
Solution.' In August 1942, however,
construction began on four large-scale gassing facilities. It appears from
the plans that the first two gas chambers were adapted from mortuaries
which, with the huge crematoria attached to them, were initially intended
to cope with mortalities amongst the slave labor force in the camp,
now approaching 100,000 and subject to a horrifying death rate. But
from the autumn of 1942, it seems clear that the SS planners and civilian
contractors were intending to build a mass-murder plant.
Main Gate at Birkenau (circa 1945)
The twin pairs of gas
chambers were numbered II and III, and IV and V. The first opened
on March 31, 1943, the last on April 4, 1943. The total area of
the gas chambers was 2,255 square meters; the capacity of these
crematoria was 4,420 people. Those selected to die were undressed
in the undressing room and then pushed into the gas chambers.
only took about 20 minutes for all the people inside to die.
In chambers II and III,
the killings took place in underground rooms, and the corpses were
carried to the five ovens by an electrically operated lift. Before
cremation gold teeth and any other valuables, such as rings, were
removed from the corpses. In IV and V the gas chambers and ovens
were on the same level, but the ovens were so poorly built and the
usage was so great that they repeatedly malfunctioned and had to
be abandoned. The corpses were finally burned outside, in the open,
as in 1943. Jewish sonderkommandos worked the crematoria under SS
Initially the new facilities were "underutilized."
From April 1943 to March 1944, "only" 160,000 Jews were killed
May 1944, a railroad spur line was built right into the camp to accelerate
and simplify the handling of the tens of thousands of Hungarian
and other Jews deported in the spring and summer of 1944. From then to November 1944, when all the other
death camps had been abandoned, Birkenau surpassed all previous records
for mass killing. The Hungarian deportations and the liquidation of
the remaining Polish ghettos, such as Lodz,
resulted in the gassing of 585,000 Jews. This period made Auschwitz-Birkenau into the most notorious killing site of all time.
Liberation of Auschwitz: a hangar containing
hundreds of shoes and clothes
Remarkably, there were instances of individual resistance and
collective efforts at fighting back inside Auschwitz. Poles, Communists
and other national groups established networks in the main camp. A few
Jews escaped from Birkenau, and there were recorded assaults on Nazi
guards even at the entrance to the gas chambers. The "Sonderkommando"
revolt in October 1944 was the extraordinary example of physical resistance.
In October 1944, the
"Sonderkommando" crew at crematoria IV revolted and destroyed the
crematoria. It was never used again.
Death March & Allied Liberation
In November of 1944, in the face of the approaching allied Red Army,
Himmler ordered gassings to stop and for a
"clean-up" operation to be put in place in order to conceal traces of the mass
murder and other crimes that they
had committed. The Nazi's destroyed documents and dismantled, burned down or blew up the vast majority of buildings.
for the final evacuation and liquidation of the camp were issued in
mid-January 1945. The Germans left behind in the main Auschwitz camp, Birkenau and in Monowitz about 7,000 sick or incapacitated who they did not expect
would live for long; the rest, approximately 58,000 people, were evacuated by foot into
the depths of the Third Reich.
Those prisoners capable, began forcibly marching at the moment
when Soviet soldiers were liberating Cracow,
some 60 kilometers from the camp. In marching columns escorted by heavily armed SS
guards, these 58,000 men and women
prisoners were led out of Auschwitz from January 17-21. Many prisoners lost their lives during this tragic
evacuation, known as the "Death
When Soviet troops liberated Auschwitz on January 27, 1945, they found only the few thousand pitiful survivors who had been left behind as
well as 836,525 items of women clothing, 348,820 items of men clothing,
43,525 pairs of shoes and vast numbers of toothbrushes, glasses and
other personal effects. They found also 460 artificial limbs and seven
tons of human hair shaved from Jews before they were murdered. The human
hairs were used by the company "Alex Zink" (located in Bavaria)
for confection of cloth. This company was paying the Nazi's 50
pfennig per kilo of human hair.
Of those who received numbers at Auschwitz-Birkenau,
only 65,000 survived. It is estimated that only about 200,000 people who passed
through the Auschwitz camps survived.
Historians and analysts estimate the number of people murdered at Auschwitz somewhere between 2.1 million to 4 million, of whom the vast majority were Jews.
State Museum of Auschwitz-Birkenau;
Haaretz (April 22, 2015);
Gazeta, Agencja. “Auschwitz museum recovers thousands of long-lost items after 50 years,” Reuters (June 8, 2016)