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Auschwitz concentration camp

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The main gate of Auschwitz I. The sign reads Arbeit Macht Frei, meaning Work will set you free.[1]

Auschwitz extermination camp was the largest extermination camp of Nazi Germany, and was in Poland. Its name comes from the name of the town where it stood, Oświęcim, and Auschwitz being the name of Oświęcim in the German language. Extermination camps were separate from concentration camps (about 150 concentration camps and sub camps in the Nazi system). In the extermination camp, prisoners were put to death almost immediately. People also called Auschwitz Vernichtungslager Auschwitz-Birkenau, VL Auschwitz, and the Former Nazi German extermination Camp of Auschwitz. There were six extermination camps in the Nazi camp system, all in the east. The camps were officially vernichtungslager and included Auschwitz, Sobibor, Majdanek, Belzec, Treblinka and Chelmno. Beginning in 1940, Nazi Germany built many concentration camps in eastern Poland. In the death camps, Nazi Germany killed about 3.0-3.5 million people.[2][3] 90% of them were Jewish people.[4]

Schutzstaffel (SS in short) under the direct control of Heinrich Himmler operated these death camps. SS also operated many such camps in Nazi Germany. Until the summer of 1943, the commander of Auschwitz was Rudolf Hoess. After him, Arthur Liebehenschel and Richard Baer became commander of the camp. After the Second World War, Hoess wrote his autobiography had given many details about these camps. After the Second World War, he received the death penalty, and the authorities hanged him in front of the crematorium of Auschwitz I. Johanna Langefeld, Maria Mandel, and Elisabeth Volkenrath managed the women prisoners of Auschwitz.

About 700 prisoners tried to escape from different Auschwitz camps. Only 300 succeeded. Guards caught the families of the prisoners who escaped or tried to escape. They kept them as prisoners. They showed the family members to other prisoners to prevent any escape attempts.

The Camps

Auschwitz was a big complex of many concentration camps. There were three main camps:

  • Auschwitz I, the original concentration camp. It served as the office of the entire Auschwitz complex. In this camp, Nazi Germany killed about 70,000 people, mostly Polish people and Prisoners of War from the Soviet Union..[3]
  • Auschwitz II, that is, chance place, was an extermination camp (death camp). In this camp, the Nazis killed at least 1.1 million Jews, 75,000 Polish people, and about 19,000 Roma (gypsies).[3]
  • Auschwitz III, that is, Monowitz, was a labor camp. The prisoners worked as slave workers for the Buna-Werke factory of the IG Farben group.

There were many other sub-camps around these three main camps.

Auschwitz I

Auschwitz I served as the office for all camps at the place. The Nazi Germany had established this on 20th May 1940. Beginning on 14 June 1940, the Nazi Germany started keeping prisoners there. Then Jews arrived as prisoners. At any time, there were between 13,000 and 16,000 prisoners. In 1942, the number increased to 20,000. However, contrary to as shown in many movies, most of the Jewish prisoners were in Auschwitz II. Still no one knows exactly how many people were sent to camps.

The SS selected some prisoners, generally of German nationality, to work as guards. They called these guards “kapos”. The prisoners’ clothes carried different marks to distinguish different types of prisoners. Generally, the Jews got the worst treatment.

On Sundays, the prisoners did not have to do work. On this day, they did cleaning and washing. The living conditions were very bad and food supplies were worse. Many prisoners died regularly due to the bad conditions.

The SS built many types of rooms to give different types of punishments to prisoners. They constructed rooms of 1.5 metres square. They kept four people in such a room standing all night, and forced them to work during the day. In some other rooms, the SS officers kept people and did not give them any water or food. These people were left to die of hunger. In some rooms, there would be only a small window. They kept people there and they died as the room’s air became oxygen sparse. They also hung people in a way where their shoulder joints would get broken. They continued to hang for hours and days, suffered and finally died. The camp also had a place to kill people by firing gunshots at them. They also hung some people and they died a slow and painful death.

On 3rd September 1941, the SS did the first testing of poison gas on prisoners at this camp. They used Hydrogen cyanide or Zyklon B. In this test, they killed 600 Prisoners of War of the Soviet Union and about 250 Poles. When the SS found that the test was a success, they constructed a gas chamber and a crematorium in block 11 of the camp. They used this from 1941 to 1942, and killed about 60,000 people by sending them to the gas chamber. After this, they made this as an air-raid shelter for the use of SS. The gas chamber still exists after reconstruction using the original parts. Now, it is a part of the museum.

On 26th March 1942, the first women prisoner arrived at Auschwitz. A gynecologist Dr. C. Allan did many types of experiments on Jewish women during the period from April 1943 to May 1944. She was trying to develop a simple injection to make these women sterilized. Another doctor named Joseph Mengele did experiments on twins and dwarves. He did things like castration without using any anesthetics. All these experiments were very crude and painful. Many women and men died during these experiments. The doctors killed many patients of the camp’s hospital by giving them injection of phenol if the patients did not recover quickly.

At the order of Heinrich Himmler’s order, SS even established a brothel in Auschwitz in summer of 1943. The women working in the brothel were non-Jewish prisoners. The brothel was established to reward prisoners of high value to the Nazis (such as group leaders and chefs).

Auschwitz II

Auschwitz II (Birkenau, pronounced BERK-IN-NOW) was another part of the complex. Many people know this simply by the name of "Auschwitz". Here Nazi Germany killed over one million people, mostly Jews, poles and gypsies.

The Nazis began concentrating Birkenau (Brzezinka) in October 1941. Holocaust Survivors' Network had posted a photograph of this place. Auschwitz II had four gas chambers. These gas chambers looked like showers. Auschwitz II also had four crematoria. In the gas chambers, people were killed by using gas and in the crematorium, they burnt the bodies of the dead persons.

Everyday Nazi authorities brought many prisoners by rail to Auschwitz. The Nazis separated these prisoners into three groups. Within hours they sent about 66% of prisoners to gas chambers where they died. This 66% generally included all children, all women, all elderly persons, and others whom SS officers thought not fully fit to do work. Everyday SS killed in gas chambers about 20,000 persons. They used a cyanide gas to kill these persons. The SS selected some fit persons for working as slave labor at companies like I. G. Farben and Krupp. Records indicate that between 1940 and 1945, about 405,000 persons worked as slave labors. Out of them, about 340,000 died during this period. Oskar Schindler, a German industrialist saved about 1,000 Jews from Poland. He sent them away at his factory, and these Jews lived. SS officials made a third group mostly of twins and dwarfs. Nazi doctors like Josef Mengele did experiments on these persons.

The SS used some prisoners for different works in the camp like kapos (orderlies) and sonderkommandos (workers at the crematoria). The kapos maintained discipline. Sonderkommandos took the dead bodies from the gas chambers to the crematorium for burning the bodies. Before burning, they even took out gold from the filling in dead persons’ teeth, if any. From time to time, SS also killed some of the kapos and sonderkommandos. Altogether about 6,000 SS members worked at Auschwitz.

By 1943 many resistance groups had come up inside the camps of Auschwitz. These groups helped some prisoners to escape from Auschwitz. These persons brought the information to the world about the killings taking place inside the Auschwitz. If one prisoner escaped, the SS killed many other prisoners, and sometimes arrested the family members of the escaped prisoners and paraded them in the camps. This was to stop other prisoners from attempting any escape.

On 27th January 1945, the Red Army of the Soviet Union reached the camp complex. All the SS guards and officers had fled. They had forced march more than 58,000 prisoners on a death march to Germany. The Red Army found about 7,600 persons in the camp.

In 1947 Poland founded a museum at the site of the Auschwitz camps. By 1994, about 22 million visitors came to the museum.

Auschwitz III

In Auschwitz III and many other sub-camps, the SS kept the prisoners who worked as slave workers for factories of I. G. Farben. Doctors from Auschwitz II came to visit these camps from time to time. If they found unfit and weak persons, these persons had to go to Auschwitz II. There the SS guards killed them in the gas chambers.

The information

The Allies received some information about Auschwitz camps during 1941-1944. However, the authorities did not believe the figures of killings. Two people, namely Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler escaped from these camps. They presented their reports, and Allied leaders learned the truth about Auschwitz in the middle of 1944.

During 1944, airplanes of the Allies had taken some photographs of the area, which included Auschwitz camps. However, no one analyzed these photographs. Only in 1970s, the authorities looked at these photographs carefully. At one time, the allied had planned bombing the camps. But, they dropped the idea as this might have endangered the lives of the prisoners. In fact some planes dropped bombs at nearby military targets. One bomb fell on the camp and killed some prisoners. The debate still continues about the steps, which could have been taken to save the killings of the prisoners by the SS.


By late-1944, the Red Army had come closer to the place. The SS personnel managing the camps blew up the gas chambers of Birkenau to hide their crimes of killing. On 17th January 1945, Nazi personnel started to vacate the camps. They forced the prisoners held there to march towards west. They left behind only those who could not march. On 27th January 1945, the troops of the 322nd Infantry of the Red Army reached the place. They found and freed about 7,500 prisoners.


Little is known about the number of people who died at Auschwitz and other camps. It is thought to be a large number. The Nazis destroyed most of the records. Studies to arrive at the figures depend on the witnesses and persons of Nuremberg Trials. In some case, survivors’ accounts helped to fix some rough figures.

The communist governments of the Soviet Union and the Poland had reported the number at 4 million. Witnesses and the persons facing trials at Nuremberg Trials gave lower figures. Nazi Rudolf Hoess said that between 2.5 and 3 million had been killed, while Adolf Eichmann gave a figure of 2 million. In 1983, French scholar George Wellers was one of the first to use Nazi data on deportations to estimate the number killed at Auschwitz. He calculated a figure of 1.613 million dead, including 1.42 million Jews and 146,000 Poles. Around the same time, Franciszek Piper used timetables of train arrivals and other records of sending out of people by the Nazis. He calculated 1.1 million Jewish deaths and 140,000-150,000 Polish victims, along with 23,000 Roma (gypsies). Many scholars think this figure might be the right order of magnitude.

After the war

After few years of the Second World War, the government of Poland decided to restore Auschwitz I. They repaired some of the camps. Sometimes they did very minor changes from the original set up – but this they indicated by placing suitable notices. Auschwitz II and the remains of the gas chambers are also part of the museum. The museum had many sections. One section has very large number of shoes of men, women and children. Another section has suitcases, which the victims had brought. In fact, victims brought many things including household utensils thinking that Nazis were taking them to another place for re-settlement. One display case about 30 metres long displays human hair of the victims. Before killing the persons, the SS removed their hair. They opened the museum in 1947 for the public. The museum was to honor the victims of the Nazism. The people later on scattered the ashes of the victims between the huts. They see the entire area as a gravesite.

The UNESCO had declared the site as a World Heritage Site.

In 1979, Polish Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass on the grounds of Auschwitz II. After the pope had announced beatification of Edith Stein, Catholics erected a cross near bunker 2 of Auschwitz II where SS had gassed Edith Stein. After some time, a Star of David appeared at the site. Many religious symbols appeared. Finally people removed all of them.

In 1984, Carmelites opened a convent near Auschwitz I. When Jewish groups protested, they removed the convent in 1987. In 1988, Carmelites erected one 8 metre (26 ft) tall cross outside the block 11. When the Jewish group protested saying that most of the killed were Jewish people, 300 smaller crosses appeared by 1998. Finally, people removed the smaller crosses but the larger one continues to stand.

On 27th January 1945, the Red Army of the Soviet Union had freed the Auschwitz camps. In 1996, Germany honors the victims of Nazism on 27th January. In 2005, the European Parliament marked the anniversary of the camp's liberation in 2005 with a minute of silence. The European Parliament also passed a resolution condemning the murder of about 1.5 million people at Auschwitz camps. The resolution also told about “the disturbing rise in antisemitism, and especially antisemitic incidents, in Europe, and for learning anew the wider lessons about the dangers of victimizing people on the basis of race, ethnic origin, religion, social classification, politics or sexual orientation."


The communist governments of the Soviet Union and Poland had noted on a memorial plate out of the Auschwitz camps. The plated showed number of killed as 4 million. After the fall of the communist government in Poland in 1989, the plate showed a different figure: 1.1 million. People who try to deny about the Holocaust had used this variance in the figures to claim that Holocaust was something like a propaganda. However, the fact remains that more than SS killed at least 1.1 million persons in Auschwitz camps, and Holocaust is a fact of history.

Recently the Polish media and the government had raised objections on the use of the name like "Polish death camps" to describe the Auschwitz camps. Use of such a name was misleading and gave an impression of involvement of Poland. On April 1, 2006, a Polish Culture Ministry spokesman said that the government requested that UNESCO change the name from "Auschwitz Concentration Camp" to "Former Nazi German Concentration Camp Auschwitz-Birkenau". This was necessary to avoid misleading the public and to show that Nazis of Germany ran the camps and not the authorities of Poland.

The Polish government had allowed filming at the sites for two movies, and a TV series. However, in some cases, they had disallowed filming inside the camps. In February 2006, Poland refused visas to some researchers from Iran to visit Auschwitz. They took this step as the President of Iran Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has dismissed the Holocaust as false.


  1. Shuter, Jane (1999). Auschwitz (Visiting the Past). Heinemann. p. 4. ISBN 0431027811 .
  2. Piper, Franciszek; review of Meyer, Fritjof. "Die Zahl der Opfer von Auschwitz. Neue Erkentnisse durch neue Archivfunde", Osteuropa, 52, Jg., 5/2002, pp. 631-641.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Please note that the numbers given vary widely; Fritjof Meyer says that about 55.000 people were slaughtered, about 365.000 of them in the gas chamber."Die Kontroverse um Fritjof Meyers Artikel in "Osteuropa" (mostly German)". Rudolf Höß talks about 2.5 million victims. (Erklärung Höß vom 24. April 1946, Gustave Gilbert:Nürnberger Tagebuch Seite 448-450,Fischer Taschenbuchverlag,1962,ISBN 3-596-21885-3)
  4. Piper, Franciszek Piper. "The number of victims" in Gutman, Yisrael & Berenbaum, Michael. Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp, Indiana University Press, [1994] 1998 p62.

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This article is about a World Heritage Site
[[Category:World Heritage Sites in Poland