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Auschwitz concentration camp

Concentration camp

The main entrance to extermination camp Auschwitz-Birkenau
Auschwitz concentration camp is located in Poland
Location of Auschwitz in Poland
Coordinates 50–02'09'N 19–10'42'E�»¿ / �»¿50.03583–N 19.17833–E�»¿ / 50.03583; 19.17833Coordinates: 50–02'09'N 19–10'42'E�»¿ / �»¿50.03583–N 19.17833–E�»¿ / 50.03583; 19.17833
Location OÅ�wiä�cim, Polish areas annexed by Nazi Germany
Operated by the German Schutzstaffel (SS), the NKVD (after WWII)
Original use Army barracks
Operational May 1940'January 1945
Inmates mainly Jews, Poles, Roma, Soviet soldiers
Killed 1.1 million (estimated)
Liberated by Soviet Union, January 27, 1945
Notable inmates Viktor Frankl, Primo Levi, Witold Pilecki, Rudolf Vrba, Elie Wiesel, Maximillian Kolbe
Notable books If This is a Man, Night, Man's Search for Meaning
Website Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum

Auschwitz (German: Konzentrationslager Auschwitz [ˈaÊŠÊ�vÉ�ts]  ( listen)) was a network of concentration and extermination camps built and operated in Polish areas annexed by Nazi Germany during the Second World War. It was the largest of the German concentration camps, consisting of Auschwitz I (the Stammlager or base camp); Auschwitz II-Birkenau (the Vernichtungslager or extermination camp); Auschwitz III-Monowitz, also known as Buna-Monowitz (a labor camp); and 45 satellite camps.[1]

Auschwitz is the German name for OÅ�wiä�cim, the town in and around which the camps were located; it was renamed by the Germans after they invaded Poland in September 1939. Birkenau, the German translation of Brzezinka (birch tree), refers to a small Polish village nearby that was mostly destroyed by the Germans to make way for the camp.

Auschwitz II-Birkenau was designated by Heinrich Himmler, who was the Reichsführer and Germany's Minister of the Interior, as the place of the "final solution of the Jewish question in Europe". From spring 1942 until the fall of 1944, transport trains delivered Jews to the camp's gas chambers from all over Nazi-occupied Europe.[2] The camp's first commandant, Rudolf Höss, testified after the war at the Nuremberg Trials that up to three million people had died there (2.5 million exterminated, and 500,000 from disease and starvation),[3] a figure since revised to 1.1 million, around 90 percent of them Jews.[4] Others deported to Auschwitz included 150,000 Poles, 23,000 Roma and Sinti, 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war, and tens of thousands of people of diverse nationalities.[5] Those not killed in the gas chambers died of starvation, forced labor, lack of disease control, individual executions, and medical experiments.[6]

On January 27, 1945, Auschwitz was liberated by Soviet troops, a day commemorated around the world as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. In 1947, Poland founded a museum on the site of Auschwitz I and II, which by 1994 had seen 22 million visitors'700,000 annually'pass through the iron gates crowned with the infamous motto, Arbeit macht frei ("work makes you free").



Main camps

Surveillance photo showing location of three main camps

The Auschwitz complex of camps encompassed a large industrial area rich in natural resources. There were 48 camps in all. The three main camps were Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II-Birkenau, and a work camp called Auschwitz III-Monowitz, or the Buna. Auschwitz I served as the administrative center, and was the site of the deaths of roughly 70,000 people, mostly ethnic Poles and Soviet prisoners of war. Auschwitz II was an extermination camp or Vernichtungslager, the site of the deaths of at least 960,000 Jews, 75,000 Poles, and some 19,000 Roma (Gypsies). Auschwitz III-Monowitz served as a labor camp for the Buna-Werke factory of the IG Farben concern. The SS-Totenkopfverbände (SS-TV) was the SS organization responsible for administering the Nazi concentration camps for the Third Reich. The SS-TV was an independent unit within the SS with its own ranks and command structure. Obersturmbannführer Rudolf Höss was overall commandant of the Auschwitz complex from May 1940'November 1943; Obersturmbannführer Arthur Liebehenschel from November 1943'May 1944; and Sturmbannführer Richard Baer from May 1944'January 1945.

Yisrael Gutman writes that it was in the concentration camps that Hitler's concept of absolute power came to fruition. Primo Levi, who described his year in Auschwitz in If This Is a Man, wrote:

[N]ever has there existed a state that was really "totalitarian." ... Never has some form of reaction, a corrective of the total tyranny, been lacking, not even in the Third Reich or Stalin's Soviet Union: in both cases, public opinion, the magistrature, the foreign press, the churches, the feeling for justice and humanity that ten or twenty years of tyranny were not enough to eradicate, have to a greater or lesser extent acted as a brake. Only in the Lager [camp] was the restraint from below non-existent, and the power of these small satraps absolute.[7]

Auschwitz I

Auschwitz I entrance

Auschwitz I was the original camp, serving as the administrative center for the whole complex. The site for the camp (16 one-story buildings) had earlier served as Polish army artillery barracks. It was first suggested as a site for a concentration camp for Polish prisoners by SS-Oberfuhrer Arpad Wigand, an aide to Higher SS and Police Leader for Silesia, Erich von dem Bach Zelewski. Bach Zeleski had been searching for a site to house prisoners in the Silesia region as the local prisons were filled to capacity. Richard Glucks, head of the Concentration Camps Inspectorate, sent former Sachsenhausen concentration camp commandant, Walter Eisfeld, to inspect the site. Glucks informed SS Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler that a camp would be built on the site on 21 February 1940.[8] Rudolf Höss would oversee the development of the camp and serve as the first commandant, SS-Obersturmführer Josef Kramer was appointed Höss's deputy.[9]

Local residents were evicted, including 1,200 people who lived in shacks around the barracks, creating an empty area of 40 km2, which the Germans called the "interest area of the camp". 300 Jewish residents of OÅ�wiä�cim were brought in to lay foundations. From 1940 to 1941 17 000 Polish and Jewish residents from the western districts of OÅ�wiä�cim town, from places adjacent to Auschwitz Concentration Camp was expelled. Germans ordered also expulsions from the villages of Broszkowice, Babice, Brzezinka, Rajsko, PÅ�awy, Harmä�Å�e, Bór, and Budy.[10] The expulsion of Polish civilians was a step towards establishing the Camp Interest Zone, which was set up to isolate the camp from the outside world and to carry out business activity to meet the needs of the SS. German and Volksdeutsche settlers moved into some buildings whose Jewish population had been deported to the ghetto.

The first prisoners (30 German criminal prisoners from the Sachsenhausen camp) arrived in May 1940, intended to act as functionaries within the prison system. The first transport of 728 Polish prisoners which included 20 Jews arrived on 14 June 1940 from the prison in Tarnow, Poland. They were interned in the former building of the Polish Tobacco Monopoly adjacent to the site, until the camp was ready. The inmate population grew quickly, as the camp absorbed Poland's intelligentsia and dissidents, including the Polish underground resistance. By March 1941, 10,900 were imprisoned there, most of them Poles.[9]

Map of Auschwitz I, shows Polish Tobacco Monopoly building; 1940

The SS selected some prisoners, often German criminals, as specially privileged supervisors of the other inmates (so-called kapos). Although involved in numerous atrocities, only two Kapos were ever prosecuted for their individual behavior; many were deemed to have had little choice but to act as they did.[11] The various classes of prisoners were distinguishable by special marks on their clothes; Jews and Soviet prisoners of war were generally treated the worst. All inmates had to work in the associated arms factories, except on Sundays, which were reserved for cleaning and showering. The harsh work requirements, combined with poor nutrition and hygiene, led to high death rates among the prisoners.

Block 11 of Auschwitz was the "prison within the prison", where violators of the numerous rules were punished. Some prisoners were made to spend the nights in "standing cells". These cells were about 1.5 m2 (16 sq ft), and four men would be placed in them; they could do nothing but stand, and were forced during the day to work with the other prisoners. In the basement were located the "starvation cells"; prisoners incarcerated here were given neither food nor water until they were dead.[12]

Block 11

In the basement were the "dark cells"; these cells had only a very tiny window, and a solid door. Prisoners placed in these cells would gradually suffocate as they used up all of the oxygen in the cell; sometimes the SS would light a candle in the cell to use up the oxygen more quickly. Many were subjected to hanging with their hands behind their backs, thus dislocating their shoulder joints for hours, even days.[13]

On September 3, 1941, deputy camp commandant SS-Hauptsturmführer Fritzsch experimented on 600 Russian POWs and 250 Polish inmates by gathering them in the basement of Block 11 and gassing them with Zyklon B, a highly lethal cyanide-based pesticide.[14] This paved the way for the use of Zyklon B as an instrument for extermination at Auschwitz, and a gas chamber and crematorium were constructed by converting a bunker. This gas chamber operated from 1941 to 1942, during which time some 60,000 people were killed therein; it was then converted into an air-raid shelter for the use of the SS. This gas chamber still exists, together with the associated crematorium, which was reconstructed after the war using the original components, which remained on-site.

Auschwitz II-Birkenau

Auschwitz II-Birkenau

Construction on Auschwitz II-Birkenau, the extermination camp, began in October 1941 to ease congestion at the main camp. It was larger than Auschwitz I, and more people passed through its gates than through Auschwitz I. It was designed to hold several categories of prisoners, and to function as an extermination camp in the context of Heinrich Himmler's preparations for the Final Solution of the Jewish Question, the extermination of the Jews.[15] The first gas chamber at Birkenau was "The Little Red House," a brick cottage converted into a gassing facility by tearing out the inside and bricking up the walls. It was operational by March 1942. A second brick cottage, "The Little White House," was similarly converted some weeks later.[16]

The Nazis had committed themselves to the final solution no later than January 1942, the date of the Wannsee Conference. In his Nuremberg testimony on April 15, 1946, Rudolf Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz, testified that Heinrich Himmler personally ordered him to prepare Auschwitz for that purpose:

In the summer of 1941 I was summoned to Berlin to Reichsführer-SS Himmler to receive personal orders. He told me something to the effect'I do not remember the exact words'that the Fuehrer had given the order for a final solution of the Jewish question. We, the SS, must carry out that order. If it is not carried out now then the Jews will later on destroy the German people. He had chosen Auschwitz on account of its easy access by rail and also because the extensive site offered space for measures ensuring isolation.[17]

Picture of Birkenau taken by an American surveillance plane, August 25, 1944

British historian Laurence Rees writes, that Höss may have misremembered the year Himmler said this. Himmler did indeed visit Höss in the summer of 1941, but there is no evidence that the final solution had been planned at this stage. Rees writes that the meeting predates the killings of Jewish men by the Einsatzgruppen in the East and the expansion of the killings in July 1941. It also predates the Wannsee Conference. Rees speculates that the conversation with Himmler was most likely in the summer of 1942.[18] The first gassings, using an industrial gas derived from prussic acid and known by the brand name Zyklon-B, were carried out at Auschwitz in September 1941.[19]

In early 1943, the Nazis decided to increase greatly the gassing capacity of Birkenau. Crematorium II, originally designed as a mortuary, with morgues in the basement and ground-level furnaces, was converted into a killing factory by placing a gas-tight door on the morgues and adding vents for Zyklon B and ventilation equipment to remove the gas.[20] It went into operation in March. Crematorium III was built using the same design. Crematoria IV and V, designed from the start as gassing centers, were also constructed that spring. By June 1943 all four crematoria were operational. Most of the victims were killed during the period afterwards.[21]

The camp was staffed partly by prisoners, some of whom were selected to be kapos (orderlies, most of whom were convicts) and sonderkommandos (workers at the crematoria). The kapos were responsible for keeping order in the barrack huts; the sonderkommandos prepared new arrivals for gassing (ordering them to remove their clothing and surrender their personal possessions) and transferred corpses from the gas chambers to the furnaces, having first pulled out any gold that the victims might have had in their teeth. Members of these groups were killed periodically. The kapos and sonderkommandos were supervised by members of the SS; altogether 6,000 SS members worked at Auschwitz.

Command of the women's camp, which was separated from the men's area by the incoming railway line, was held in turn by Johanna Langefeld, Maria Mandel, and Elisabeth Volkenrath.

Auschwitz III

Buna-Werke, Monowitz and subcamps

The largest of the Auschwitz work camps was Auschwitz III-Monowitz, named after the Polish village of Monowice, and regarded from the fall of 1943 onwards as an industrial camp. Starting operations in May 1942, it was associated with the synthetic rubber and liquid fuel plant Buna-Werke owned by IG Farben. 11,000 slave laborers worked at Monowitz. Seven thousand inmates worked at various chemical plants. 8,000 worked in mines. Approximately 40,000 prisoners worked in slave labor camps at Auschwitz or nearby, under appalling conditions.[22] In regular intervals, doctors from Auschwitz II would visit the work camps and select the weak and sick for the gas chambers of Birkenau.


Prisoners building airplane parts at Siemens-Schuckert factory at Bobrek sub-camp

There were 45 smaller satellite camps, some of them tens of kilometers from the main camps, with prisoner populations ranging from several dozen to several thousand.[23] The largest were built at Trzebinia, Blechhammer and Althammer. Women's subcamps were constructed at Budy, PÅ�awy, Zabrze, Gleiwitz I, II, III, Rajsko, and Lichtenwerden (now Svä�tl�¡). The satellite camps were named Aussenlager (external camp), Nebenlager (extension or subcamp), and Arbeitslager (labor camp).[23] Danuta Czech of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum writes that most of the satellite camps were pressed into service on behalf of German industry. Inmates of 28 of them worked for the German armaments industry. Nine camps were set up near foundries and other metal works, six near coal mines, six supplied prisoners to work in chemical plants, and three to light industry. One was built next to a plant making construction materials and another near a food processing plant. Apart from the weapons and construction industries, prisoners were also made to work in forestry and farming.[24]

Selection process and genocide

Selection on the Jewish ramp at Auschwitz II-Birkenau, May/June 1944. To be sent to the right meant labor; to the left, the gas chambers.[25]

By July 1942, the SS were conducting the infamous "selections," in which incoming Jews were divided into those deemed able to work, who were sent to the right and admitted into the camp, and those who were sent to the left and immediately gassed.[26] Prisoners were transported from all over German-occupied Europe by rail, arriving in daily convoys. The group selected to die, about three-quarters of the total, included almost all children, women with children, all the elderly, and all those who appeared on brief and superficial inspection by an SS doctor not to be completely fit. Auschwitz II-Birkenau claimed more victims than any other German extermination camp, despite coming into use after all the others.

A Reichsbahn "goods wagon", one of the types used for deportations

SS officers told the victims they were to take a shower and undergo delousing. The victims would undress in an outer chamber and walk into the gas chamber, which was disguised as a shower facility, complete with dummy shower heads. After the doors were shut, SS men would dump in the cyanide pellets via holes in the roof or windows on the side. In Auschwitz II-Birkenau, more than 20,000 people could be gassed and cremated each day. The Nazis used a cyanide gas produced from Zyklon B pellets, manufactured by two companies who had acquired licensing rights to the patent held by IG Farben.

Hungarian Jews on selection ramp, May, 1944

Sonderkommandos removed gold teeth from the corpses of gas chamber victims; the gold was melted down and collected by the SS. The belongings of the arrivals were seized by the SS and sorted in an area of the camp called "Canada," so-called because Canada was seen as a land of plenty. Many of the SS at the camp enriched themselves by pilfering the confiscated property.[27]

The gas chambers worked to their fullest capacity from April'July 1944, during the massacre of Hungary's Jews. Hungary was an ally of Germany during the war, but it had resisted turning over its Jews to the Germans until Germany invaded in March 1944. From April until July 9, 1944, 475,000 Hungarian Jews, half of the pre-war population, were deported to Auschwitz, at a rate of 12,000 a day for a considerable part of that period.[28] The incoming volume was so great that the SS resorted to burning corpses in open-air pits as well as in the crematoria.[29]

Life in the camps

The prisoners' day began at 4:30 a.m. with "reveille" or roll call, with 30 minutes allowed for morning ablutions. After roll call, the Kommando, or work details, would walk to their place of work, five abreast, wearing striped camp fatigues, no underwear, and wooden shoes without socks, most of the time ill-fitting, which caused great pain. An orchestra often played as the workers marched through the gates. Kapos'prisoners who had been promoted to foremen'were responsible for the prisoners' behavior while they worked, as was an SS escort. The working day lasted 12 hours during the summer, and a little less in the winter. No rest periods were allowed. One prisoner would be assigned to the latrines to measure the time the workers took to empty their bladders and bowels.[30]

After work, there was a mandatory evening roll call. If a prisoner was missing, the others had to remain standing in place until he was either found or the reason for his absence discovered, even if it took hours, regardless of the weather conditions. After roll call, there were individual and collective punishments, depending on what had happened during the day, and after these, the prisoners were allowed to retire to their blocks for the night to receive their bread rations and water. Curfew was two or three hours later, the prisoners sleeping in long rows of wooden bunks, lying in and on their clothes and shoes to prevent them from being stolen.[31]

Medical experiments

Block 10, the medical experimentation block

German doctors performed a wide variety of experiments on prisoners at Auschwitz. SS doctors tested the efficacy of X-rays as a sterilization device by administering large doses to female prisoners. Prof. Dr. Carl Clauberg injected chemicals into women's uteruses in an effort to glue them shut. Bayer, then a subsidiary of IG Farben, bought prisoners to use as guinea pigs for testing new drugs.[32]

The most infamous doctor at Auschwitz was Josef Mengele, known as the "Angel of Death". Particularly interested in research on identical twins, Mengele performed cruel experiments on them, such as inducing diseases in one twin and killing the other when the first died to perform comparative autopsies. He also took a special interest in dwarfs, and he deliberately induced gangrene in twins, dwarfs and other prisoners to "study" the effects.[33]

Mengele, at the behest of fellow Nazi physcian Kurt Heissmeyer, was responsible for picking the twenty Jewish children to be used in Heissmeyers' pseudoscientific medical experiments at the Neuengamme concentration camp. These children, at the conclusion of the experiments, were infamously hanged from wall hooks in the basement of the Bullenhuser Damm school in Hamburg.

Jewish skeleton collection

The Jewish skeleton collection was obtained from among a pool of 115 inmates at Auschwitz, chosen for their racial characteristics. Rudolf Brandt and Wolfram Sievers, general manager of the Ahnenerbe, were responsible for collecting the skeletons for the collection of the Anatomy Institute at the Reich University of Strasbourg in the Alsace region of Occupied France. Due to a typhus epidemic, the candidates chosen for the skeleton collection were quarantined in order to prevent them from becoming ill and ruining their value as anatomical specimens; from a letter written by Sievers in June 1943: "Altogether 115 persons were worked on, 79 were Jews, 30 were Jewesses, 2 were Poles, and 4 were Asiatics. At the present time these prisoners are segregated by sex and are under quarantine in the two hospital buildings of Auschwitz."

The collection was sanctioned by Heinrich Himmler and under the direction of August Hirt.

Ultimately 86 of the inmates were shipped to Natzweiler-Struthof. The deaths of these 86 inmates was, in the words of Hirt, "induced" at a jury rigged gassing facility, at Natzweiler-Struthof on July 30, 1943 and their corpses; 57 men and 29 women were sent to Strasbourg. Josef Kramer who would become the last commandant of Bergen Belsen personally carried out the gassing. In 1944 with the approach of the allies, there was concern over the possibility of the corpses being discovered, at this point they had still not been defleshed. The first part of the process for this "collection" was to make anatomical casts of the bodies prior to reducing them to skeletons. In September, 1944 Sievers telegrammed Brandt: "The collection can be defleshed and rendered unrecognizable. This, however, would mean that the whole work had been done for nothing-at least in part-and that this singular collection would be lost to science, since it would be impossible to make plaster casts afterwards."

Brandt and Sievers would be indicted, tried and convicted in the Doctor's Trial in Nuremberg. Hirt committed suicide in Schonenbach, Austria, on June 2, 1945 with a gunshot to the head.[34][35] The names and biographical information of the murder victims were published in the book Die Namen der Nummern (The Names of the Numbers) by German historian Dr. Hans-Joachim Lang.[36]

Escapes, resistance, and the Allies' knowledge of the camps

Auschwitz camp photos of Witold Pilecki, 1941

Information regarding Auschwitz was available to the Allies during the years 1940'43 by the accurate and frequent reports of Polish Army Captain Witold Pilecki. Pilecki was the only known person to volunteer to be imprisoned at Auschwitz concentration camp, spending 945 days there, not only actively gathering evidence of genocide and supplying it to the British in London by Polish resistance movement organization Home Army but also organizing resistance structures at the camp known as ZOW, Zwiä�zek Organizacji Wojskowej.[37] His first report was smuggled to the outside world in November 1940. He eventually escaped on April 27, 1943, but his personal report of mass killings was dismissed as exaggeration by the Allies, as were his previous ones.[38]

Vrba during the war

The attitude of the Allies changed with receipt of the very detailed Vrba-Wetzler report, compiled by two Jewish prisoners, Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler, who escaped on April 7, 1944, and which finally convinced Allied leaders of the truth about Auschwitz. Details from the Vrba-Wetzler report were broadcast on June 15, 1944 by the BBC, and on June 20 by The New York Times, causing the Allies to put pressure on the Hungarian government to stop the mass deportation of Jews to the camp.[39]

Starting with a plea from the Slovakian rabbi Weissmandl in May 1944, there was a growing campaign to persuade the Allies to bomb Auschwitz or the railway lines leading to it. At one point Winston Churchill ordered that such a plan be prepared, but he was told that bombing the camp would most likely kill prisoners without disrupting the killing operation, and that bombing the railway lines was not technically feasible. The debate over what could have been done, or what should have been attempted even if success was unlikely, has continued ever since.

Birkenau revolt

Ruins of Crematorium IV, blown up in the revolt

By 1943, resistance organizations had developed in the camp. These organizations helped a few prisoners escape; these escapees took with them news of exterminations, such as the killing of hundreds of thousands of Jews transported from Hungary between May and July 1944. On October 7, 1944, the Jewish Sonderkommandos (those inmates kept separate from the main camp and put to work in the gas chambers and crematoria) of Birkenau Kommando III staged an uprising. They attacked the SS with makeshift weapons: stones, axes, hammers, other work tools and homemade grenades. They caught the SS guards by surprise, overpowered them and blew up the Crematorium IV, using explosives smuggled in from a weapons factory by female inmates. At this stage they were joined by the Birkenau Kommando I of the Crematorium II, which also overpowered their guards and broke out of the compound. Hundreds of prisoners escaped, but were all soon captured and, along with an additional group who participated in the revolt, executed.[40]

There were also plans for a general uprising in Auschwitz, coordinated with an Allied air raid and a Polish resistance (Armia Krajowa, Home Army) attack from the outside.[38] That plan was authored by Polish resistance fighter, Witold Pilecki, who organized in Auschwitz an underground Union of Military Organization - (Zwiä�zek Organizacji Wojskowej, ZOW). Pilecki and ZOW hoped that the Allies would drop arms or troops into the camp (most likely the Polish 1st Independent Parachute Brigade, based in Britain), and that the Home Army would organize an assault on the camp from outside. By 1943, however, he realized that the Allies had no such plans. Meanwhile, the Gestapo redoubled its efforts to ferret out ZOW members, succeeding in killing many of them. Pilecki decided to break out of the camp, with the hope of personally convincing Home Army leaders that a rescue attempt was a valid option. He escaped on the night of April 26'April 27, 1943, but his plan was not accepted by the Home Army as the Allies considered his reports about the Holocaust exaggerated.[38]

Individual escape attempts

At least 802 prisoners attempted to escape from the Auschwitz camps during the years of their operation, of which 144 were successful. The fates of 331 of the escapees are still unknown.[41] A common punishment for escape attempts was death by starvation; the families of successful escapees were sometimes arrested and interned in Auschwitz and prominently displayed to deter others. If someone did manage to escape, the SS would pick 10 random people from the prisoner's block and starve them to death.[42]

Since the concentration camps were designed to degrade prisoners beneath human dignity, maintaining the will to survive was seen in itself as an act of rebellion. Primo Levi was taught this lesson by his fellow prisoner and friend Steinlauf:

[that] "precisely because the camp was a great machine to reduce us to beasts, we must not become beasts; that even in this place one can survive, and therefore one must want to survive, to tell the story, to bear witness; and that, if we want to survive, then it's important that we strive to preserve at least the skeleton, the scaffolding, the external shape of civilization."[43]

The most spectacular escape from Auschwitz took place on 20 June 1942, when Ukrainian Eugeniusz Bendera and three Poles, Kazimierz Piechowski, StanisÅ�aw Gustaw Jaster and Józef Lempart made a daring escape.[44] The escapees were dressed as members of the SS-Totenkopfverbände, fully armed and in an SS staff car. They drove out the main gate in a stolen automobile, a Steyr 220 belonging to Rudolf Hoss. Jaster carried with him a report about conditions in the camp, written by Witold Pilecki. The Germans never recaptured any of them.[45]

In 1943, the "Kampfgruppe Auschwitz" was organised with the aim to send out as much information about what was happening in Auschwitz as possible. They buried notes in the ground in the hope a liberator would find them and smuggled out photos of the crematoria and gas chambers.[46]

June 24, 1944, Mala Zimetbaum escaped with her Polish boyfriend, Edek Galinski. They also wanted to smuggle out deportation lists Zimetbaum had been able to copy due to her translator job in the office of the "Lagerleitung". They both were arrested on July 6 near the Slovakian frontier and sentenced to be executed on September 15, 1944 in Birkenau; Galinski managed to kill himself before being executed, while Zimetbaum, having failed to commit suicide, died finally after being tortured by the SS.[47]

Evacuation, death marches, and liberation

Death march

The last selection took place on October 30, 1944. The next month, Heinrich Himmler ordered the crematoria destroyed before the Red Army reached the camp. The gas chambers of Birkenau were blown up by the SS in January 1945 in an attempt to hide the German crimes from the advancing Soviet troops.[48] The SS command sent orders on January 17, 1945 calling for the execution of all prisoners remaining in the camp, but in the chaos of the Nazi retreat the order was never carried out. On January 17, 1945, Nazi personnel started to evacuate the facility. Nearly 60,000 prisoners were forced on a death march toward a camp in WodzisÅ�aw Åšlä�ski (German: Loslau). Those too weak or sick to walk were left behind. These remaining 7,500 prisoners were liberated by the 322nd Rifle Division of the Red Army on January 27, 1945. Approximately 20,000 Auschwitz prisoners made it to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany, where they were liberated by the British in April 1945.[49] Among the artifacts of automated murder found by the Russians were 348,820 men's suits and 836,255 women's garments.[22]

Death toll

Children and an old woman on the way to the death barracks of Auschwitz-Birkenau

The exact number of victims at Auschwitz is impossible to fix with certainty. Since the Nazis destroyed a number of records, immediate efforts to count the dead depended on the testimony of witnesses and the defendants on trial at Nuremberg. While under interrogation Rudolf Höss, commandant of Auschwitz concentration camp from 1940 to 1943, said that Adolf Eichmann told him that two and a half million Jews had been killed in gas chambers and about half a million had died "naturally". Later he wrote "I regard two and a half million far too high. Even Auschwitz had limits to its destructive possibilities".[50]

Communist Polish and Soviet authorities maintained a figure "between 2.5 and 4 million",[51] and the Auschwitz State Museum itself displayed a figure of 4 million killed, but "[f]ew (if any) historians ever believed the Museum's four million figure".[52] Raul Hilberg's 1961 work The Destruction of the European Jews estimated the number killed at 1,000,000, and Gerald Reitlinger's 1968 book The Final Solution described the Soviet figures as "ridiculous", and estimated the number killed at "800,000 to 900,000".[53] A larger study started later by Franciszek Piper used timetables of train arrivals combined with deportation records to calculate 960,000 Jewish deaths and 140,000-150,000 ethnic Polish victims, along with 23,000 Roma and Sinti (Gypsies),[54] a figure that has met with significant agreement from other scholars.[55]

After the collapse of the Communist government in 1989, the plaque at Auschwitz State Museum was removed and the official death toll given as 1.1 million. Holocaust deniers have attempted to use this change as propaganda, in the words of the Nizkor Project:

Deniers often use the 'Four Million Variant' as a stepping stone to leap from an apparent contradiction to the idea that the Holocaust was a hoax, again perpetrated by a conspiracy. They hope to discredit historians by making them seem inconsistent. If they can't keep their numbers straight, their reasoning goes, how can we say that their evidence for the Holocaust is credible? One must wonder which historians they speak of, as most have been remarkably consistent in their estimates of a million or so dead... Few (if any) historians ever believed the Museum's four million figure, having arrived at their own estimates independently. The museum's inflated figures were never part of the estimated five to six million Jews killed in the Holocaust, so there is no need to revise this figure.[52]

Timeline of events in Auschwitz

The timeline of events of the Auschwitz concentration camp began in January 1940 when the location was first visited by Arpad Wigand an aid to the Higher SS and Police Leader for Silesia Erich von dem Bach Zelewski. The original intent of the camp was to intern Polish political prisoners. The original uses of the camp were added to and the capacity expanded over the course of the next four years, which reflected the political and economic decisions of the Third Reich, including the implementation of the Final Solution.

After the war

After the war parts of Auschwitz 1 and/or its guards' quarters served first as a hospital for sick liberated prisoners.[73] After that until 1947 parts were used as an NKVD and MBP prison camp. The Buna-Werke were taken over by the Polish government and became the foundation for the region's chemical industry.

At Auschwitz 1 the Gestapo building was demolished and on its site was built a gallows on which Standartenführer SS Rudolf Höss was hanged on 17 April 1947 for many crimes.[74]

Today, at Birkenau the entrance building and some of the southern brick-built barracks survive; but of the almost 300 wooden barracks, only 19 have been reconstructed from authentic materials: 18 near the entrance building and one, on its own, farther away. All that survives of the others are chimneys, remnants of a largely ineffective means of heating. Many of these wooden buildings were constructed from prefabricated sections made by a company that intended them to be used as stables; inside, numerous metal rings for the tethering of horses can still be seen.

Creation of the museum

Ruins at Birkenau, with brick chimneys belonging to wooden barracks being prominent

The Polish government decided to restore Auschwitz I and turn it into a museum honouring the victims of Nazism; Auschwitz II, where buildings (many of which were prefabricated wood structures) were prone to decay, was preserved but not restored. Today, the Auschwitz I museum site combines elements from several periods into a single complex: for example the gas chamber at Auschwitz I (which had been converted into an air-raid shelter for the SS) was restored and the fence was moved (because of building work being done after the war but before the museum was established). However, in most cases the departure from the historical truth is minor, and is clearly labelled. The museum contains many men's, women's and children's shoes taken from their victims; also suitcases, which the deportees were encouraged to bring with them, and many household utensils. One display case, some 30 metres (98 ft) long, is wholly filled with human hair which the Nazis gathered from people before they were sent to labor or before and after they were killed.

Gallows in Auschwitz I where Rudolf Höss was executed on April 16, 1947

Auschwitz II and the remains of the gas chambers there are open to the public. The camp is on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The ashes of the victims were scattered between the huts, and the entire area is regarded as a grave site. Most of the buildings of Auschwitz I are still standing. The public entrance area is outside the perimeter fence in what was the camp admission building, where new prisoners were registered and given their uniforms. At the far end of Birkenau are memorial plaques in many languages, including Romani.

The museum has allowed scenes for three films to be filmed on the site: Pasa�erka (1963) by Polish director Andrzej Munk, Landscape After the Battle (1970) by Polish director Andrzej Wajda, and a television miniseries War and Remembrance (1978). Permission was denied to Steven Spielberg to film scenes for Schindler's List (1993). A "mirror" camp was constructed outside the infamous archway for the scene where the train arrives carrying the women who were saved by Oskar Schindler.

"Arbeit macht frei" sign theft

Arbeit macht frei sign, Auschwitz I

The 5-metre (16 ft), 41-kilogram (90 lb) wrought-iron "Arbeit macht frei" sign over the entrance to Auschwitz I was stolen in the early morning of December 18, 2009. The thieves unscrewed the sign at one end and broke it off its mountings at the other end, then carried the sign 300 metres to a hole in the concrete wall, where they cut four metal bars blocking the opening. After the theft, authorities replaced the stolen sign with a replica, which was originally made to replace the original sign while it was being restored some years earlier.[75] Such was the concern about its theft that Poland declared a state of emergency.[76] Police found the sign, cut into three parts, in northern Poland two days later in the home of one of five men who were arrested. An unnamed overseas buyer is believed to have been involved.[77] Polish police said that the five were common thieves, not neo-Nazis.[78][79] The original sign has been welded back together and put back up after an improved security system is put in place.[80] [81]

The sign was made by Polish workers on Nazi orders after the Auschwitz barracks were converted into a labor camp to house captured Polish resistance fighters in 1940.[82]

The Aftonbladet newspaper reported that the sign had been stolen by Polish thieves paid by and working on behalf of a Swedish right-wing extremist group hoping to use proceeds from the proposed sale of the sign to a collector of Nazi memorabilia, to finance a series of terror attacks aimed at influencing voters in upcoming Swedish parliamentary elections.[83][84] The theft was organised by the Swedish former Nazi, Anders Högström.[85]

On March 18, 2010, a Polish court sentenced three men to prison for stealing the sign. They pleaded guilty. The sentences were from 18 months to 30 months. They were fined –2,300 each.[86] Two of them were granted compassionate leave, but in April the three did not report to the prison to serve their sentences, and police were trying to find them.[87][88][89]


See also


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  2. ^ Gutman 1992, p. 6.
  3. ^ Trials of the Major War Criminals Before the International Military Tribunal, Nuremberg 14 November 1945 - 1 October 1946, Volume 1, Page 251
  4. ^ Piper 1994, pp. 68-70.
  5. ^ Swiebocka, Teresa. Report from Workshop 1 on Remembrance and Representation: Presentation by Teresa Swiebocka, Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust, 2000. Retrieved December 22, 2009.
  6. ^ Piper 1994, p. 62.
  7. ^ Primo Levi quoted in Gutman 1994, p. 5.
  8. ^ Rees 2009, BBC.
  9. ^ a b Gutman 1994, pp. 10, 16.
  10. ^ Article about expulsions from OÅ�wiä�cim in Polish
  11. ^ Wittmann 2003.
  12. ^ "Maximilian Kolbe". Jewishvirtuallibrary.org. http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/biography/Kolbe.html. Retrieved 2010-08-23. 
  13. ^ Rees 2005, p. 26.
  14. ^ (English) Muzeum Auschwitz-Birkenau w OÅ�wiä�cimiu
  15. ^ Gutman 1994, p. 16.
  16. ^ Rees 2005, pp. 96-97, 101.
  17. ^ Testimony of Rudolf Hoess, Commandant of Auschwitz, University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law; Hoess, Rudolf (1900-1947), camp commandant of Auschwitz, Yad Vashem. Retrieved December 22, 2009.
  18. ^ Gustave Gilbert witness statement cited in Dwork and Van Pelt 2002, p. 278, cited in Rees 2005, p. 53.
  19. ^ September 3: First experimental gassings at Auschwitz, Yad Vashem.
  20. ^ Pressac: Auschwitz: Technique and Operation of the Gas Chambers Holocaust-History.org p. 100 reports that the timesheets of a civilian worker from the company building the crematorium furnaces prove that the installed ventilation system for removing the hydrocyan acid gas from Zyklon B application in the morgues worked well.
  21. ^ Rees 2005, pp. 168-169.
  22. ^ a b Dwork and van Pelt, 1997, p. 10.
  23. ^ a b Gutman 1994, p. 17.
  24. ^ Danuta Czech in Gutman 1994, p. 18.
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  26. ^ Rees 2005, p. 100.
  27. ^ Rees 2005, pp. 172-175.
  28. ^ K�¡rný 1994, p. 556.
  29. ^ Dwork and van Pelt 1997, pp. 337-343.
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  39. ^ Karny 1994, p. 556.
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  43. ^ Levi 1947.
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  67. ^ From the history of KL-Auschwitz, Volume 1 - Page 73 Kazimierz Smoleń - History - 1967
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