Auschwitz - the most important German Nazi concentration and death camp, seen after the war as a symbol of the entire Holocaust machine.

Auschwitz was established in mid-1940. Its first commandant (April 1940 - November 1943) was Rudolf Hoess, its second (November 1943 - May 1944) was Liebehenschel, and its last (May 1944 - January 1945) was Richard Baer.

Its oldest part-the main camp-was created in buildings of former military barracks that were adapted by the Germans, using Jewish labor from the Oswiecim (Auschwitz) Jewish Community. This part could hold from 15,000 to 20,000 prisoners. On May 20, 1940, thirty German criminal prisoners were brought from Sachsenhausen to Auschwitz and would serve as camp guards. On June 14, 1940, the first transport of Poles arrived from Tarnów, with 728 people. At first, the camp held Poles who had been taken in the mass arrests, particularly the intelligentsia and members of the resistance. During the first phase, this camp was no different than the numerous other concentration camps that had been founded in the 1930's by the Germans within the Third Reich itself. Auschwitz continued to be a concentration camp as long as it existed, even after 1942, when it also became the largest death camp.

The prisoners who arrived had their personal belongings confiscated, then went through the "sauna" (baths) and were photographed, though it soon turned out their extreme exhaustion made the people's faces unrecognizable. They had numbers tattooed on their forearms, and were issued prison uniforms ("stripes") that had a symbol indicating the prisoner's category. These included political prisoners, Jehovah's Witnesses, priests, émigrés, anti-socials, common criminals and homosexuals. In addition, the Jews also had to wear yellow emblems, the Poles were given an additional letter "P", French had an "F", and separate symbols indicated one's penal company, as well as those who were suspected of having tried to escape, or recidivists. The new arrivals were put in quarantine, which was an introduction to camp's terror. The daily food ration was from 1,300 to 1,700 calories, which, with the hard work and bad conditions, led to quick exhaustion.

The prisoners worked in numerous commandos, some of which were so exhausting that the people assigned to work there had little chance of surviving more than a few months. These commandos worked in the camp services or on the camp's expansion, or servicing the killing machine, sorting the victims' belongings, and as slave labor on farms and in German companies. The camp had about 40 sub-camps, the largest of which (Buna-Monowitz, later known as Auschwitz III) held about 10,000 prisoners.

From late 1941 and early 1942, Auschwitz began functioning as a death camp for Jews, and from 1943 also for Roma. As early as April 1941, the residents of the village of Brzezinka were resettled and the village dismantled. The second part of the camp-Auschwitz-Birkenau-was built on over 140 hectares of land (plans had been made for 170 hectares). About three hundred barracks and other buildings were constructed. This part of the camp was designed for the purpose of extermination, a technical process that began at the ramp and ended in the gas chambers and crematorium.

The prisoners slated for immediate extermination were not put on the camp list. The transports were unloaded onto the ramp, where they were segregated according to sex. Selected individuals who were fit to work were also segregated. The rest were herded to the gas chambers. The wounded and disabled were transported by trucks. They were told that they would be washed and disinfected, and were ordered to undress. The people were sent into the gas chambers, the doors were closed, and the Zyklon B was released. Death occurred in up to twenty minutes, and sometimes after just a few. The victims' glasses were taken, long hair cut, gold and silver teeth removed. In twenty-four hours, the five crematoria at Auschwitz could burn 4,500 corpses.

Despite the extreme conditions and the omnipresent terror, prisoners formed self-help groups within the camp, usually organized according to nationality. There were also various groups of the Polish underground organizations. Witold Pilecki's efforts deserve special attention. In 1940, as a volunteer of the Polish underground, he allowed himself to be caught and sent to Auschwitz, with the aim of setting up cells of the resistance there.

Specific Polish resistance organizations united their structures and activities during the second half of 1941. In 1942, resistance activities spread to Birkenau and Monowitz. These activities were focused on assisting the prisoners and on collecting evidence and documenting German crimes. At least 802 prisoners attempted to escape, of which half were Poles. Of these, it is known that 144 were successful and survived the war. It was thanks to these escapes, among other things, that reports about what was happening in Auschwitz were sent to Warsaw almost from the camp's earliest days. Beginning in 1941, the Home Army Headquarters sent London information about the situation in Auschwitz.

Before the Red Army arrived, the Germans began eliminating the traces of their crimes in 1944. Documents were destroyed, some sites were dismantled, and others were burnt or blown up, such as the gas chambers). In mid-January 1945, orders were issued for the final evacuation and liquidation of the camp. The prisoners able to march were evacuated in late January 1945 in the direction of the Reich. From January 17-21 1945, about 56,000 prisoners were led on foot from Auschwitz and its sub-camps. Many of them perished during the course of that horrendous evacuation, called "the death march". The several thousand left in the camp were liberated by the soldiers of the Red Army on January 27, 1945.

It is difficult to determine the exact number of victims at Auschwitz. Seventy to seventy-five percent of the transports were sent directly to the gas chambers, without being entered into the camp's records. The Nazis destroyed the camp documents. Rudolf Hoess's testimony had to be verified through an arduous process of researching the transports and population loss in various cities and ghettos. Most historians estimate that approximately 1-1.5 million people perished at Auschwitz. The latest research estimates that 1.1 million Jews died at Auschwitz (primarily from Hungary and the prewar Polish territories), over 140,000 Poles, 20,000 Roma, 15,000 prisoners-of-war from the Red Army, and from 10,000 to 20,000 prisoners of other nationalities. Among those included in the camp's records, 50% died from starvation, exhaustion, executions, disease, pseudo-medical experiments, and random acts perpetrated by Germans. Of the 7,000 Nazi camp functionaries, almost 1,000 were tried after the war.

On July 2, 1947, the Polish authorities created a museum at the site of the former camp. Both a memorial and a place of research, it is the largest such institution in the world. The museum is visited by over half a million people each year. Of these, half are Poles-primarily young people. The International Auschwitz Council oversees the museum's activities. The museum's conservation projects, which are becoming increasingly difficult with the passage of time, are supported by many states all over the world. The museum also conducts extensive publishing activities.

Visiting the museum is free of charge, though organized groups are asked to take a guided tour-available in English, Croatian, Czech, French, Spanish, Japanese, Dutch, German, Polish, Russian, Serbian, Slovak, Swedish, Hungarian and Italian. The museum's educational program enables visitors to participate in various kinds of activities, including competitions and workshops. There is a wide variety of training programs designed for teachers, students and school-aged children.

More information about the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum is available


Piotr Cywiński


The text comes from Diapozytyw, formerly owned by Adam Mickiewicz Institute

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