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Last Update 11 July 2006


The origins of the camp can be dated to early 1940, when the SS sent a commission to the Polish town of Oswiecim (German: Auschwitz) to determine whether a set of barracks that had been constructed outside the town during WW1, and that between the wars had been used by the Polish military, could be used as a concentration camp. Although the initial report was negative, a later inspection determined that the change of use would be possible after some construction works. Another commission, headed by SS-Hauptsturmführer Rudolf Höß, visited Auschwitz on 18-19 April 1940. Höß' report seems to have carried the most weight, for on 27 April 1940 Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler ordered the establishment of a concentration camp in Auschwitz and on 4 May appointed Rudolf Höß as its commandant.

The National Origins of Auschwitz Victims

Auschwitz was originally intended to serve as a concentration camp and a place of slow death for Polish political prisoners and other Poles. In later years, it gradually became the main centre for the systematic murder of those the Nazis considered human vermin, namely Jews and Roma. The Nazis' pseudoscientific theories on the superiority of the Aryan race condemned more than one million people to die in this place alone.

Auschwitz I
Auschwitz I *
Auschwitz I and II
Auschwitz I and II
The first prisoners to be sent to Auschwitz, a group of 728 Polish political prisoners (including some Jews), arrived in Auschwitz from Tarnow on 14 June 1940. The first large group sent to Auschwitz from outside Poland was a transport of Czechs. This was in June 1941. Soviet prisoners of war started arriving a month later (immediately after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union), and groups from Yugoslavia in September 1941 - initially men, but by July 1942 women as well. Among the latter were uniformed women partisans who demanded to be treated as prisoners of war and refused to have their heads shaved.
Within a few months of the "Wannsee Conference" in January 1942, where the method by which the Jews of Europe were to be murdered was discussed and agreed ("Final Solution of the Jewish Question"), Auschwitz became one of the main camps to which Jews were to be sent for extermination. The first known transport, composed entirely of Jews, arrived the very next month, and such transports continued to arrive from all over occupied Europe until November 1944.
In September 1942 Rudolf Höß visited Treblinka and Chelmno (Chelmno nad Nerem / German: Kulmhof) to witness the gassing operations, as these differed from those used at Auschwitz. In his memoirs, Höß stated that the methods used at Treblinka and Chelmno were primitive, and in his opinion, inferior to those of his own camp.
In 1943 the Nazis started to murder Romany at Auschwitz, brought there for this purpose, initially from occupied Poland (starting in February 1943) and later from other countries, primarily the Reich and Bohemia and Moravia.

The Auschwitz Complex

Auschwitz III - Monowitz
Auschwitz III - Monowitz *
Expanding Auschwitz's capacity, both to murder Jews and to assist in the Nazis' war effort through the use of slave labour, was of paramount importance.
In 1940 Auschwitz I had 20 buildings. By 1942 there were 28 buildings, all of which had two storeys. Work commenced in 1942 on building Auschwitz-Birkenau, which could accommodate 200,000 people. Birkenau is 2 miles away from Auschwitz I.
An additional satellite camp (Auschwitz III), the first of a series of forced labour camps, was opened as part of the construction of a massive synthetic oil and rubber factory, known as Buna Monowitz.
Thus the three main Auschwitz camps became one huge extermination complex, eventually to encompass not only gas chambers and the camps themselves, but also 45 sub-camps, factories, and mines in Upper Silesia and the Sudetenland.

Arrival at Auschwitz

Auschwitz II (Birkenau). Arrival at the ramp
Auschwitz II (Birkenau). Arrival at the Ramp
Hoess Telex
Höß Telex
People were transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau by trains, from all over Nazi-occupied Europe. They were generally sent in freight cars or cattle trucks. Often they travelled for days without toilet facilities and with nothing to eat or drink.
Originally, the railway cars arrived at the old ramp of Birkenau, 1 km southeast of the entrance gate. From May 1944 they continued into Auschwitz II (Birkenau / Brzezinka) itself, along a specially constructed spur. The majority of the people, sent in these transports, were murdered in gas chambers directly on arrival. Their names never appeared in the camp records, so that it is very difficult to determine precisely how many perished from these transports.
Those the SS deemed fit for work were not murdered immediately but were used as slave labourers. They were given striped prison clothing and a prisoner number. From 1943, most prisoners (though never Germans, unless they were Jewish) were tattooed with their numbers, generally on the left forearm. In all, more than 400,000 people, members of all national and ethnic groups, were allocated numbers. Of these, about one half died. Few lived longer than six months: they died from starvation, disease, the rigours of hard labour, beatings, torture, and summary execution - by shooting, hanging or gassing.

Conditions in Auschwitz

Prisoners in Auschwitz I were initially housed in one-storey brick barracks, formerly used by the Polish Army for stabling horses. When the number of inmates increased, a second storey was added to each barrack. At first the prisoners slept on the floor: later two and three tier bunk beds were installed. Auschwitz I was a concentration camp, with a regime similar to other camps of that kind. Amongst other "privileges", the inmates were allowed to use the camp's postal service.
Auschwitz II (Birkenau) was a hybrid. Principally an extermination camp, it also served as a concentration camp. Here the prisoners were housed in wooden or brick huts. The wooden huts were based on the design for SS stables, and as many as 800 prisoners were sometimes crowded into a space designed for fifty-two horses. Lavatories were extremely primitive and few in number. Prisoners had very limited time to relieve themselves. Washing facilities were likewise, grossly insufficient.
Hungarian Jews on their way to the gas chambers
"Work" meant slave labour in factories, mines, farming operations, and construction. Even the heaviest tasks, such as excavation and earth moving, generally had to be undertaken without equipment. Although prisoners were quite literally starving, they were often forced to carry bricks or push barrows at a run. Any attempt to rest was punished by transfer to special penal units where conditions were so very bad that few who experienced them survived.
Upon return to the camp after work a roll call was held. After the roll call, prisoners received a meal which consisted of a small piece of bread (300 grams), some lard or margarine, and occasionally about 100 grams of salted pork. Prisoners who had missed the noon meal because they had been working outside the camp were given a soup as well, usually turnip or cabbage soup, but as it had been poured out at noon it was a cold and tasteless pulp by the evening.
Prisoners were totally at the mercy of the SS and could be sadistically punished at any time for infringement of the arbitrary camp rules. The usual punishment for infringements of this kind was twenty-five or more lashes with a whip. Prisoners working in the labour camp were always subject to summary execution. The principal sites in Auschwitz I where executions were carried out, were in the cells of Block 11 and the courtyard between Blocks 10 and 11 ("The Death Wall"). Political prisoners of the Gestapo were also sent here from Katowice for execution. Gerhard Palitzsch was the sadistic chief executioner. Maximilian Grabner, director of the Political Department, was another prominent figure in these "clean-ups".
In addition, a portable gallows, which generally stood in the courtyard of Block 11, was carried out to the roll-call square for public executions. Phenol injections to the heart were another common method of execution in Auschwitz.

Gas Chambers

Location of Bunker I and II
Location of Bunker I and II
Bunker I and II
Bunker I and II
The first gassing in Auschwitz took place in the cellars of Block 11 at the end of August 1941, conducted by SS-Hauptsturmführer Karl Fritzsch, who used Zyklon B gas to kill Soviet prisoners of war.
Following this, 600 Soviet POWs and 250 Polish prisoners were gassed on 3 September 1941, in the cellars of Block 11.
In autumn 1941 the mortuary of Auschwitz I was converted into a gas chamber. This first Auschwitz gas chamber was in use until July 1943.
Later two additional gas chambers were put into operation, using converted farmhouses in Birkenau. The first, known as the "Red House" (also "Bunker I"), was so called because of its red brick structure. The first transport to be gassed in "Bunker I" was from Beuthen, murdered on 15 February 1942. The second, known as the "White House" (also "Bunker II"), was another whitewashed farmhouse, hence its name. "Bunker I" was divided into two gas chambers, "Bunker II" into four. Initially buried in mass graves, from September 1942 the corpses of those gassed in these bunkers were exhumed and cremated. By late November 1942 over 100,000 bodies had been burned. "Bunker I" was dismantled in spring 1943. "Bunker II" ceased operating at the same time, but the bunker itself was left intact, to be brought into operation again in May 1944 during the extermination of the Jews of Hungary. It remained operative until November 1944, when all gassing was discontinued.

Crematorium II
Crematorium IV
Crematorium II
Crematorium II
Between March and June 1943, four very large gas chambers with adjacent crematoria were activated at Birkenau (Crematorium "II", "III", "IV" and "V"). Crematoria II and III were identical, with undressing rooms and gas chambers beneath ground level. Crematoria IV and V were also of identical construction, but with undressing, gassing and cremation carried out at ground level. Their principal victims were Jews, transported to Auschwitz from all over Europe. The pace of the murders reached an apogee in the summer of 1944, when more than 400,000 Jews were transported from Hungary, over a period of two months. Most of the deportees (especially the elderly, babies and children) were gassed immediately upon arrival, following selection by doctors, such as Mengele and Thilo.
As mentioned earlier, in order to speed up the killings, a spur from the main railway line was extended directly into the camp, stopping short of crematoria II and III.
The gassing was carried out using Zyklon B (prussic acid) in pellets. In crematoria II and III the gas was poured through vents in the roof directly into the gas chambers, in crematoria IV and V from apertures at the side of the buildings.
Sonderkommando testimonies state that victims with whom the crematoria could not cope, were burned in the open air. Sometimes people were pushed into the flames whilst still alive.


Himmler ordered the immediate dismantling of the gassing facilities after the Sonderkommando revolt in crematorium IV on 7 October 1944. In January 1945, about 58,000 prisoners were forced to begin "death marches" to the west due to the approach of the Red Army. Most of the prisoners died on these marches, which lasted for weeks. Those lagging behind were shot and left at the side of the paths and roads.
On 27 January 1945 soldiers of the Red Army entered Auschwitz and liberated 7,650 prisoners. These had also been earmarked for death, had the SS had more time before evacuating the camp. Due to this "lack of time" the SS could not destroy all buildings and structures as had been done in Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka. Therefore today's visitors at the Auschwitz Memorial can obtain a good impression of the former concentration / extermination camp.
According to Franciszek Piper (Franciszek Piper: Ilu ludzi zginelo w KL Auschwitz? Oswiecim 1992) the total number murdered at Auschwitz I, II and III was approximately 1,100,000. Included among the victims were 1,000,000 Jews, 70-75,000 non-Jewish Poles, 21,000 Sinti and Roma, 15,000 Soviet POWs and 10-15,000 persons from other countries.
Research by Götz Aly and Christian Gerlach suggests that the total number killed was perhaps somewhat lower, with at least approximately 1 million victims, of whom about 900,000 were Jewish.

Höß statement from 16 March 1946.
Auschwitz Perpetrators


Auschwitz: Jewish Quarters 1940
Auschwitz: Jewish Quarters 1940
Auschwitz: Market Square and Well 1940
Auschwitz: Market Square and Well 1940

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