Auschwitz concentration camp

Nazi concentration and extermination camp (1940–1945)
Auschwitz I - Birkenau, Oświęcim, Polonia - panoramio (20).jpg
Main entrance to Auschwitz II (Birkenau)
Auschwitz is located in Poland
Location in Poland
Coordinates50°02′09″N 19°10′42″E / 50°02′09″N 19°10′42″E / 50.03583; 19.17833)); also KZ Auschwitz or KL Auschwitz
Other namesBirkenau
Known forThe Holocaust
LocationAuschwitz, German-occupied Poland
Operated byNazi Germany and the Schutzstaffel
Original useArmy barracks
OperationalMay 1940 – January 1945
InmatesMainly Jews, Poles, Romani, Soviet prisoners of war
Killed1.1 million (estimated)
Liberated bySoviet Union, 27 January 1945
Notable inmatesAdolf Burger, Anne Frank, Otto Frank, Imre Kertész, Maximilian Kolbe, Primo Levi, Irène Némirovsky, Witold Pilecki, Edith Stein, Simone Veil, Rudolf Vrba, Elie Wiesel, Fritz Löhner-Beda, Else Ury
Notable books
Official nameAuschwitz Birkenau, German Nazi Concentration and Extermination Camp (1940–1945)
Designated1979 (3rd 31
RegionEurope and North America

Auschwitz concentration camp was a network of concentration and extermination camps built and operated by Nazi Germany in occupied Poland during World War II. It consisted of Auschwitz I (the original concentration camp), Auschwitz II–Birkenau (a combined concentration/extermination camp), Auschwitz III–Monowitz (a labor camp to staff an IG Farben factory), and 45 satellite camps.

Auschwitz I was first constructed to hold Polish political prisoners, who began to arrive in May 1940. The first extermination of prisoners took place in September 1941. Auschwitz II–Birkenau went on to become a major site of the Nazis' Final Solution to the Jewish Question during the Holocaust. From early 1942 until late 1944, transport trains delivered Jews to the camp's gas chambers from all over German-occupied Europe, where they were killed en masse with the cyanide-based poison Zyklon B, originally developed to be used as a pesticide. An estimated 1.3 million people were sent to the camp, of whom at least 1.1 million died. Around 90 percent of those were Jews; approximately one in six Jews killed in the Holocaust died at the camp.[1][2] Others deported to Auschwitz included 150,000 Poles, 23,000 Romani and Sinti, 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war, 400 Jehovah's Witnesses, and tens of thousands of others of diverse nationalities, including an unknown number of homosexuals.[3] Many of those not killed in the gas chambers died of starvation, forced labor, infectious diseases, individual executions, and medical experiments.

In the course of the war, the camp was staffed by 7,000 members of the German Schutzstaffel (SS), approximately 12 percent of whom were later convicted of war crimes. Some, including camp commandant Rudolf Höss, were executed. The Allied Powers did not act on early reports of atrocities at the camp, and their failure to bomb the camp or its railways remains controversial. At least 802 prisoners attempted to escape from Auschwitz, 144 successfully, and on 7 October 1944 two Sonderkommando units, consisting of prisoners assigned to staff the gas chambers, launched a brief, unsuccessful uprising.

As Soviet troops approached Auschwitz in January 1945, most of its population was sent west on a death march. The prisoners remaining at the camp were liberated on 27 January 1945, a day now commemorated as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. In the following decades, survivors such as Primo Levi, Viktor Frankl, and Elie Wiesel wrote memoirs of their experiences in Auschwitz, and the camp became a dominant symbol of the Holocaust. In 1947 Poland founded the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum on the site of Auschwitz I and II, and in 1979 it was named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.



The ideology of Nazism brought together elements of antisemitism, racial hygiene, and eugenics, and combined them with pan-Germanism and territorial expansionism with the goal of obtaining more Lebensraum (living space) for the Germanic people.[4] Immediately after the Nazi seizure of power in Germany, acts of violence perpetrated against Jews became ubiquitous.[5] The Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service, passed on 7 April 1933 excluded most Jews from the legal profession and the civil service. Similar legislation soon deprived Jewish members of other professions of the right to practise.[6] Harassment and economic pressure were used by the regime to encourage Jews to leave the country voluntarily.[7] Their businesses were denied access to markets, forbidden to advertise in newspapers, and deprived of government contracts. German Jews were subjected to violent attacks and boycotts.[8]

In September 1935, the Nuremberg Laws were enacted. These laws prohibited marriages between Jews and people of Germanic extraction, extramarital relations between Jews and Germans, and the employment of German women under the age of 45 as domestic servants in Jewish households.[9] The Reich Citizenship Law stated that only those of Germanic or related blood were defined as citizens. Thus Jews and other minority groups were stripped of their German citizenship.[10] The laws were expanded on 26 November 1935 to include Romani people and Afro-Germans. This supplementary decree defined Gypsies as "enemies of the race-based state", the same category as Jews.[11] By the start of World War II in 1939, around 250,000 of Germany's 437,000 Jews had emigrated to the United States, Palestine, the United Kingdom, and other countries.[12][13]

Nazi Germany invaded Poland in September 1939. German dictator Adolf Hitler ordered that the Polish leadership and intelligentsia be destroyed.[14] Approximately 65,000 civilians, who were viewed as being inferior to the Aryan master race, were killed by the end of 1939. In addition to leaders of Polish society, the Nazis killed Jews, prostitutes, Romani, and the mentally ill.[15][16] SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich, then head of the Gestapo, ordered on 21 September that Polish Jews should be rounded up and concentrated into cities with good rail links. Initially the intention was to deport the Jews to points further east, or possibly to Madagascar.[17] Two years later, in an attempt to obtain new territory, Hitler invaded the Soviet Union,[4] intending to deport or kill the Jews and Slavs living there.[18]

Auschwitz I

Map showing the location of the three main camps (1944). Prisoners: yellow; facilities: blue-gray

After this part of Poland was annexed by Nazi Germany, Oświęcim (Auschwitz) was located administratively in Germany, Province of Upper Silesia, Regierungsbezirk Kattowitz, Landkreis Bielitz. It was first suggested as a site for a concentration camp for Polish prisoners by SS-Oberführer Arpad Wigand, an aide to Higher SS and Police Leader for Silesia, Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski. Bach-Zelewski had been searching for a site to house prisoners in the Silesia region, as the local prisons were filled to capacity. Richard Glücks, head of the Concentration Camps Inspectorate, sent former Sachsenhausen concentration camp commandant Walter Eisfeld to inspect the site, which already held sixteen dilapidated one-story buildings that had once served as an Austrian and later Polish Army barracks and a camp for transient workers.[19] Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler, head of the Schutzstaffel (SS), approved the site in April 1940, intending to use the facility to house political prisoners. SS-Obersturmbannführer (lieutenant colonel) Rudolf Höss oversaw the development of the camp and served as the first commandant. SS-Obersturmführer (senior lieutenant) Josef Kramer was appointed Höss's deputy. Auschwitz I, the original camp, became the administrative center for the whole complex.[20][21]

Local residents were evicted, including 1,200 people who lived in shacks around the barracks. Around 300 Jewish residents of Oświęcim were brought in to lay foundations. From 1940 to 1941, 17,000 Polish and Jewish residents of the western districts of Oświęcim were expelled from places adjacent to the camp. The Germans also ordered expulsions of Poles from the villages of Broszkowice, Babice, Brzezinka, Rajsko, Pławy, Harmęże, Bór, and Budy to the General Government.[22] German citizens were offered tax concessions and other benefits if they would relocate to the area.[23] By October 1943, more than 6,000 Reich Germans had arrived.[24] The Nazis planned to build a model modern residential area for incoming Germans, including schools, playing fields, and other amenities. Some of the plans went forward, including the construction of several hundred apartments, but many were never fully implemented.[25] Basic amenities such as water and sewage disposal were inadequate, and water-borne illnesses were commonplace.[26]

The first prisoners (30 German criminal prisoners from the Sachsenhausen concentration camp) arrived in May 1940, intended to act as functionaries within the prison system. The first mass transport to Auschwitz concentration camp, which included Catholic prisoners, suspected members of the resistance, and 20 Jews, arrived from the prison in Tarnów, Poland, on 14 June 1940. They were interned in the former building of the Polish Tobacco Monopoly, adjacent to the site, until the camp was ready.[20][27]

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.[20] By the end of 1940, the SS had confiscated land in the surrounding area to create a 40-square-kilometre (15 sq mi) "zone of interest" surrounded by a double ring of electrified barbed wire fences and watchtowers.[28] Like other Nazi concentration camps, the gates to Auschwitz I displayed the motto Arbeit macht frei ("Work brings freedom").[29]

Auschwitz II-Birkenau

American surveillance photo of Birkenau (1944). South is at the top in this photo.
Eyeglasses of victims

The victories of Operation Barbarossa in the summer and fall of 1941 against Hitler's new enemy, the Soviet Union, led to dramatic changes in Nazi anti-Jewish ideology and the profile of prisoners brought to Auschwitz.[30] Construction on Auschwitz II-Birkenau began in October 1941 to ease congestion at the main camp. Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler, head of the Schutzstaffel (SS), intended the camp to house 50,000 prisoners of war, who would be interned as forced laborers. Plans called for the expansion of the camp first to house 150,000 and eventually as many as 200,000 inmates.[31] An initial contingent of 10,000 Soviet prisoners of war arrived at Auschwitz I in October 1941, but by March 1942 only 945 were still alive, and these were transferred to Birkenau, where most of them died from disease or starvation by May.[32] By this time the Nazis had decided to annihilate the Jewish people,[33] so Birkenau was changed to a labor camp–extermination camp.[32][34] The Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum estimates that 1.3 million people, 1.1 million of them Jewish, were sent to the camp during its existence.[35]

The chief of construction of Auschwitz II-Birkenau was Karl Bischoff. Unlike his predecessor, he was a competent and dynamic bureaucrat who, in spite of the ongoing war, carried out the construction deemed necessary. The Birkenau camp, the four crematoria, a new reception building, and hundreds of other buildings were planned and constructed. Bischoff's plans called for each barrack to have an occupancy of 550 prisoners (one-third of the space allotted in other Nazi concentration camps). He later changed this to 744 prisoners per barrack. The SS designed the barracks not so much to house people as to destroy them.[36]

The first gas chamber at Birkenau was the "red house" (called Bunker 1 by SS staff), a brick cottage converted into a gassing facility by tearing out the inside and bricking up the windows. It was operational by March 1942.[37] A second brick cottage, the "white house" or Bunker 2, was converted some weeks later.[38][39] These structures were in use for mass killings until early 1943.[40] Himmler visited the camp in person on 17 and 18 July 1942. He was given a demonstration of a mass killing using the gas chamber in Bunker 2 and toured the building site of the new IG Farben plant being constructed at the nearby town of Monowitz.[41]

In early 1943, the Nazis decided to greatly increase the gassing capacity of Birkenau. Crematorium II, which had been designed as a mortuary with morgues in the basement and ground-level incinerators, was converted into a killing factory by installing gas-tight doors, vents for the Zyklon B (a highly lethal cyanide-based poison) to be dropped into the chamber, and ventilation equipment to remove the gas thereafter.[42] 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 using these four structures.[43]

Family camps

A separate camp for Roma known as the Zigeunerfamilienlager (Gypsy Family Camp) was set up at Auschwitz II-Birkenau; unlike other arrivals, the Romani prisoners were not subject to selection and families were allowed to remain together. The first transport of German Gypsies arrived on 26 February 1943, and was housed in Section B-IIe of Auschwitz II. Approximately 23,000 Gypsies had been brought to Auschwitz by 1944, 20,000 of whom died there.[44] One transport of 1,700 Polish Sinti and Roma were killed in the gas chambers upon arrival, as they were suspected to be ill with spotted fever.[45] Gypsy prisoners were used primarily for construction work.[45] Thousands died of typhus and noma due to overcrowding, poor sanitary conditions, and malnutrition.[44] Between 1,400[46] and 3,000[47] prisoners were transferred to other concentration camps. On 2 August 1944, the SS cleared the Gypsy camp; the surviving population (estimated at 2,897 to 5,600) was then killed en masse in the gas chambers.[46][48]

The Theresienstadt family camp, which existed between September 1943 and July 1944, served a different purpose. The SS deported 17,500 Jews from Theresienstadt concentration camp to Auschwitz, but allowed them to remain alive temporarily and send letters to friends and relatives to cast doubt on reports of the Final Solution, both at Theresienstadt and in the wider world. On 8 March 1944, the remaining Jews from the first two transports in September were murdered; this was the largest massacre of Czechoslovak citizens in history. News of the liquidation reached the Czechoslovak government-in-exile which initiated diplomatic manoeuvers to save the remaining Jews. However, after the Red Cross visited Theresienstadt in June 1944 and concluded that no Jews were deported from Theresienstadt, about 3,500 Jews were removed from the family camp to other sections of Auschwitz. The remaining 6,500 were murdered in the gas chambers between 10 and 12 July 1944.[49][50][51]

Auschwitz III

Detailed map of Buna Werke, Monowitz, and nearby subcamps

After examining several sites for a new plant to manufacture buna, a type of synthetic rubber essential to the war effort, chemicals manufacturer IG Farben chose a site near the towns of Dwory and Monowice (Monowitz in German), about 7 kilometres (4.3 mi) east of Auschwitz I and 3 kilometres (1.9 mi) east of the town of Oświęcim.[52] Financial support in the form of tax exemptions was available to corporations prepared to develop industries in the frontier regions under the Eastern Fiscal Assistance Law, passed in December 1940. In addition to its proximity to the concentration camp, which could be used as a source of cheap labor, the site had good railway connections and access to raw materials.[53] In February 1941, Himmler ordered that the Jewish population of Oświęcim should be expelled to make way for skilled laborers that would be brought in to work at the plant. All Poles able to work were to remain in the town and were forced to work building the factory.[54] Himmler visited in person in March and decreed an immediate expansion of the parent camp to house 30,000 persons. Development of the camp at Birkenau began about six months later.[55] Construction of IG Auschwitz began in April, with an initial force of 1,000 workers from Auschwitz I assigned to work on the construction. This number increased to 7,000 in 1943 and 11,000 in 1944.[56] Over the course of its history, about 35,000 inmates in total worked at the plant; 25,000 died as a result of malnutrition, disease, and the physically impossible workload.[57] In addition to the concentration camp inmates, who comprised a third of the work force, IG Auschwitz employed slave laborers from all over Europe.[58]

At first, the laborers walked the seven kilometers from Auschwitz I to the plant each day, but as this meant they had to rise at 03:00, many arrived exhausted and unable to work. The camp at Monowitz (also called Monowitz-Buna or Auschwitz III) was constructed and began housing inmates on 30 October 1942, the first concentration camp to be financed and built by private industry.[59] In January 1943 the ArbeitsausbildungLager (labor education camp) was moved from the parent camp to Monowitz. These prisoners were also forced to work on the building site.[59] The SS charged IG Farben three Reichsmarks per hour for unskilled workers, four for skilled workers.[60] Although the camp administrators expected the prisoners to work at 75 percent of the capacity of a free worker, the inmates were only able to perform 20 to 50 percent as well.[59] Site managers constantly threatened inmates with transportation to Birkenau for death in the gas chambers as a way to try to increase productivity.[61] Deaths and transfers to the gas chambers at Birkenau reduced the prisoner population of Monowitz by nearly a fifth each month; numbers were made up with new arrivals.[62] Life expectancy of inmates at Monowitz averaged about three months. Though the factory had been expected to begin production in 1943, shortages of labor and raw materials meant start-up had to be postponed repeatedly.[63] The plant was almost ready to commence production when it was overrun by Soviet troops in 1945.[64]


Various other German industrial enterprises, such as Krupp and Siemens-Schuckert, built factories with their own subcamps.[60] There were 45 such satellite camps, 28 of which served corporations involved in the armaments industry. Prisoner populations ranged from several dozen to several thousand.[65] Subcamps were built at Blechhammer, Jawiszowice, Jaworzno, Lagisze, Mysłowice, Trzebinia, and other centers as far afield as the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia.[66][67][68] Satellite camps were designated as Aussenlager (external camp), Nebenlager (extension or subcamp), or Arbeitslager (labor camp).[69] Industries with satellite camps included coal mines, foundries and other metal works, chemical plants, and other industries.[66]

Prisoners were also made to work in forestry and farming.[66] Budy was a farming subcamp where prisoners worked 12-hour days, often in the fields, but sometimes tending animals, cleaning ponds, digging ditches, and making compost. Human ashes from the crematorium were mixed with sod and manure to make the compost. The prisoner barracks at Budy also housed workers from nearby work sites, like the fish farm in Plawy. Meals at the worksite included herbal tea and a piece of bread with margarine or jam. The evening meal was a soup of rutabaga, rye, and nettles.[70] Incidents of sabotage to decrease production took place in some subcamps, including Charlottengrube, Gleiwitz II, and Rajsko.[71]

Evacuation and death marches

Young survivors at the camp, liberated by the Red Army in January 1945

In mid-1944, about 130,000 prisoners were present in Auschwitz when the SS started to move about half of them to other concentration camps.[72] In November 1944, with the Soviet Red Army approaching through Poland, Himmler ordered gassing operations to cease across the Reich. The crematorium IV building was dismantled,[73] and the Sonderkommando were ordered to begin removing evidence of the killings, including the mass graves.[74] The SS destroyed written records, and in the final week before the camp's liberation, burned or demolished many of its buildings.[75] The plundered goods from the 'Canada' barracks at Birkenau together with building supplies were transported to the German interior.[73] On 20 January, the overflowing warehouses were set ablaze. On the same day, the gas chambers as well as crematoria II and III at Birkenau were blown up.[73] The raging fires lasted for several days. On 26 January 1945, the last crematorium V at Birkenau was demolished with explosives just one day ahead of the Soviet attack.[73]

Himmler ordered the evacuation of all camps in January 1945, charging camp commanders with "making sure that not a single prisoner from the concentration camps falls alive into the hands of the enemy."[76] On 17 January, 56,000–58,000 Auschwitz detainees, of whom two-thirds were Jews, were evacuated under guard, largely on foot, in severe winter conditions.[77] Thousands of them died in the subsequent death march west towards Wodzisław Śląski.[78] The guards shot all prisoners who were unable to march at the imposed pace. Peter Longerich estimates that a quarter of the detainees were thus killed.[72] A column of inmates reached Gross-Rosen concentration camp complex. Throughout February, the terribly overcrowded main camp at Gross-Rosen was cleared, and all 44,000 inmates were moved further west. An unknown number died in this last journey.[79] In March 1945, Himmler ordered that no more prisoners should be killed, as he hoped to use them as hostages in negotiations with the Allies.[80] Approximately 20,000 Auschwitz prisoners made it to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany, where they were liberated by the British in April 1945.[81]


When Auschwitz was liberated on 27 January 1945 by the 322nd Rifle Division of the Red Army, the soldiers found 7,500 prisoners alive and over 600 corpses. Among items found by the Soviet soldiers were 370,000 men's suits, 837,000 women's garments, and 7.7 tonnes (8.5 short tons) of human hair.[82][83] The camp's liberation received little press attention at the time. In historian Laurence Rees' opinion, this was due to three factors: the previous discovery of similar crimes at Majdanek concentration camp, competing news from the Allied summit at Yalta, and the Soviet Union's interest, for propaganda purposes, in minimizing attention to Jewish suffering.[84] Due to the vast extent of the camp area, at least four divisions took part in liberating the camp: 100th Rifle Division (established in Vologda, Russia), 322nd Rifle Division (Gorky, Russia), 286th Rifle Division (Leningrad), and 107th Motor Rifle Division (Tambov, Russia).[85]

Ruins of barracks at Birkenau. Stoves and chimneys are all that remains of most of them

Auschwitz II-Birkenau was liberated by the Red Army at around 3:30 p.m. on 27 January 1945, and the main camp (Auschwitz I) two hours later. Military trucks loaded with bread arrived the next day.[86] Volunteers began to offer first aid and improvised assistance the following week.[86] In early February, the Polish Red Cross hospital opened in blocks 14, 21, and 22 at Auschwitz I, headed by Dr. Józef Bellert and staffed by 30 volunteer doctors and nurses from Kraków, along with around 90 former inmates.[87] The critically injured patients – estimated at several thousands – were relocated from Birkenau and Monowitz to the main camp. Some orphaned children were immediately adopted by Oświęcim residents, while others were transferred to Kraków, where a number of them were adopted by Polish families. Others were placed in an orphanage at Harbutowice.[87]

The hospital cared for more than 4,500 patients (most of them Jews) from 20 countries, suffering from starvation, alimentary dystrophy, gangrene, necrosis, internal haemorrhaging, and typhoid fever.[87] At least 500 patients died. Assistance was provided by volunteers from Oświęcim and Brzeszcze, who donated money and food, cleaned hospital rooms, delivered water, washed patients, cooked meals, buried the dead, and transported the sick in horse-drawn carts between locations.[87] Securing enough food for thousands of former prisoners was a constant challenge. The hospital director personally went from village to village to collect milk.[87]

In June 1945 the Soviet authorities took over Auschwitz I and converted it to a POW camp for German prisoners. The hospital had to move beyond the camp perimeter into former administrative buildings, where it functioned until October 1945.[87]

Early on, many barracks at Birkenau were taken apart by civilians who used the materials to rebuild their own homes, levelled out in the construction of Auschwitz II. The poorest residents sifted the crematoria ashes in search of nuggets from melted gold, before the warning shots were fired.[88] The POW camp for the German prisoners of war was used by the Soviet NKVD until 1947.[89] In the two years, the Soviets dismantled and exported the IG Farben factories to the USSR.[90][91] Meanwhile, Soviet and Polish investigators worked to document the war crimes of the SS.[92] After the site became a museum in 1947, exhumation work lasted for more than a decade.[93] Antoni Dobrowolski, the oldest known survivor of Auschwitz, died aged 108 on 21 October 2012, in Dębno, Poland.[94]

Trials of war criminals

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

Camp commandant Rudolf Höss was pursued by the British Intelligence Corps, who arrested him at a farm near Flensburg, Germany, on 11 March 1946. Höss confessed to his role in the mass killings at Auschwitz in his memoirs and in his trial before the Supreme National Tribunal in Warsaw, Poland. He was convicted of murder, returned to Auschwitz and hanged at the site of his crimes on 16 April 1947.[95][96]

Around 12 percent of Auschwitz's 6,500 staff who survived the war were eventually brought to trial. Poland was more active than other nations in investigating war crimes, prosecuting 673 of the total 789 Auschwitz staff brought to trial.[97] On 25 November 1947, the Auschwitz Trial began in Kraków, when Poland's Supreme National Tribunal brought to court 40 former Auschwitz staff. The trial's defendants included commandant Arthur Liebehenschel, women's camp leader Maria Mandel, and camp leader Hans Aumeier. The trials ended on 22 December 1947, with 23 death sentences, 7 life sentences, and 9 prison sentences ranging from three to fifteen years. Hans Münch, an SS doctor who had several former prisoners testify on his behalf, was the only person to be acquitted.[98]

Other former staff were hanged for war crimes in the Dachau Trials and the Belsen Trial, including camp leaders Josef Kramer, Franz Hössler, and Vinzenz Schöttl; doctor Friedrich Entress; and guards Irma Grese and Elisabeth Volkenrath.[99] The Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials, held in West Germany from 20 December 1963 to 20 August 1965, convicted 17 of 22 defendants, giving them prison sentences ranging from life to three years and three months.[100] Bruno Tesch and Karl Weinbacher, the owner and the chief executive officer of the firm Tesch & Stabenow, one of the suppliers of Zyklon B, were executed for knowingly supplying the chemical for use on humans.[101]

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