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Auschwitz-Birkenau

Auschwitz (in Polish, Oswiecim) was the largest Nazi concentration and extermination camp located in the Polish town of Oswiecim, 37 miles west of Cracow. One-sixth of all Jews murdered by the Nazis were gassed at Auschwitz. In April 1940 SS chief Heinrich Himmler ordered the establishment of a new concentration camp in Oswiecim, a town situated within the part of Poland that was annexed to Germany at the beginning of World War II. The first Polish political prisoners arrived in Auschwitz in June 1940. By March 1941 there were 10,900 prisoners, still mostly Polish. Auschwitz soon became known as the most brutal of the Nazi concentration camps.

In March 1941 Himmler ordered that a second, much larger section of the camp be built 1.9 miles from the original camp. This site was to be used as an extermination camp. It was named Birkenau, or Auschwitz II. Eventually, Birkenau held the most prisoners in the Auschwitz complex, including Jews, Poles, Germans, and gypsies. It also had the worst, most inhuman conditions and contained the complex of gas chambers and crematoria.

A third section, Auschwitz III, was constructed in nearby Monowitz, and consisted of a forced labor camp called Buna-Monowitz and 45 other forced labor subcamps. The name Buna was based on the Buna synthetic rubber factory on site, owned by I.G. Farben, Germany's largest chemical company. The mainly Jewish inmates who worked at that factory and others owned by German firms were pushed to the point of total exhaustion, at which time they were replaced by new laborers. Auschwitz was first run by camp commandant Rudolf Hoess, and was guarded by a cruel regiment of the SS death head unit. The staff was assisted by several privileged prisoners who were given better food, better conditions, and an opportunity to survive if they agreed to enforce the brutal order of the camp.

Auschwitz I and II were surrounded by electrically-charged four-meter high barbed wire fences, which were guarded by SS men armed with machine guns and rifles. The two camps were further closed in by a series of guard posts located two-thirds of a mile beyond the fences. In March 1942 trains carrying Jews began arriving daily. Sometimes several trains would arrive on the same day, each carrying one thousand or more victims coming from the ghettos of Eastern Europe, as well as from Western and Southern European countries. During 1942 transports arrived from Poland, Slovakia, the Netherlands, Belgium, Yugoslavia, and Theresienstadt. Jews continued to arrive throughout 1943, as did Gypsies. Hungarian Jews were brought to Auschwitz in 1944, as were Jews from the last Polish ghettos to be liquidated.

By August 1944 there were 105,168 prisoners in Auschwitz. Another 50,000 Jewish prisoners lived in Auschwitz's satellite camps. The camp's population constantly grew, in spite of the high mortality rate caused by exterminations, starvation, hard labor and contagious diseases.

When Jews arrived at the platform in Birkenau, they were thrown out of the train cars without their belongings and forced to make two lines, men and women separately. SS officers, including the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele, would conduct selections among these lines, sending most victims to one side, condemning them to death in the gas chambers. A minority was sent to the other side destined for forced labor. Those who were sent to their deaths were killed that same day and their corpses were burnt in the crematoria. Those not sent to the gas chambers were taken to quarantine where their hair was shaved, they were given striped prison uniforms, and were registered as prisoners. Their registration numbers were tattooed on their left arms. Most prisoners were then sent to perform forced labor in Auschwitz I, III, subcamps, or other concentration camps, where their life expectancy usually was a few months. Prisoners who stayed in quarantine had a life expectancy of a few weeks.

The prisoners' camp routine consisted of many duties to perform. The daily schedule included waking at dawn, straightening one's cot, morning roll call, the trip to work, long hours of hard labor, standing in line for a pitiful meal, the return to camp, block inspection, and evening roll call. During roll call, prisoners were made to stand completely motionless and quiet for hours, in the thinnest of clothing, no matter what the weather. Whoever fell or even stumbled was sent to die. Each prisoner, in his own way, had to focus all his energy on just getting through the day's tortures.

The gas chambers in the Auschwitz complex constituted the largest and most efficient extermination method used by the Nazis. Four chambers were in use at Birkenau, each with the potential to kill 6,000 people every day. They were built to look like shower rooms in order to confuse the victims: new arrivals at Birkenau were told that they were being sent to work, but first needed to shower and be disinfected. They would be led into the shower-like chambers, where they were quickly gassed to death with the highly poisonous Zyklon-b gas.

Some prisoners at Auschwitz, including twins and dwarfs, were used as the subjects of torturous pseudo-medical experiments. They were tested for endurance under terrible conditions such as heat and cold, or sterilized.

Despite the horrible conditions, prisoners in Auschwitz managed to resist the Nazis, including some instances of escape and armed resistance. In October 1944, members of the Sonderkommando, who worked in the crematoria, succeeded in killing several SS men and destroying one gas chamber. All of the rebels died, leaving behind diaries that provided authentic documentation of the atrocities committed at Auschwitz.

By January 1945 Soviet troops were advancing towards Auschwitz. The Nazis, desperate to withdraw, sent most of the 58,000 remaining prisoners on a death march. Most prisoners were killed en route to Germany. The Soviet army liberated Auschwitz on January 27; soldiers found just 7,650 barely living prisoners throughout the entire camp complex. In all, some one million Jews had been murdered there.

From the Facts On File Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, prepared by Yad Vashem and the Jerusalem Publishing House, edited by Dr. Robert Rozett and Dr. Shmuel Spector.

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