Auschwitz Concentration and Death Camp

View of Auschwitz's barbed wire fence.
View of the Auschwitz's double, electrified, barbed wire fence and barracks. (Photo courtesy USHMM)

Built by the Nazis as both a concentration and death camp, Auschwitz was the largest of the Nazi's camps and the most streamlined mass killing center ever created. It was at Auschwitz that 1.1 million people were murdered, mostly Jews. Auschwitz has become a symbol of death, the Holocaust, and the destruction of European Jewry.

Dates: May 1940 - January 27, 1945

Camp Commandants: Rudolf Höss, Arthur Liebehenschel, Richard Baer

Auschwitz Established

On April 27, 1940, Heinrich Himmler ordered the construction of a new camp near Oswiecim, Poland (about 37 miles or 60 km west of Krakow). The Auschwitz Concentration Camp ("Auschwitz" is the German spelling of "Oswiecim") quickly became the largest Nazi concentration and death camp. By the time of its liberation, Auschwitz had grown to include three large camps and 45 sub-camps.​

Auschwitz I (or "the Main Camp") was the original camp. This camp housed prisoners, was the location of medical experiments, and the site of Block 11 (a place of severe torture) and the Black Wall (a place of execution). At the entrance of ​Auschwitz, I stood the infamous sign that stated "Arbeit Macht Frei" ("work makes one free"). Auschwitz I also housed the Nazi staff that ran the entire camp complex.

Auschwitz II (or "Birkenau") was completed in early 1942. Birkenau was built approximately 1.9 miles (3 km) away from Auschwitz I and was the real killing center of the Auschwitz death camp.

It was in Birkenau where the dreaded selections were carried out on the ramp and where the sophisticated and camouflaged gas chambers laid in waiting. Birkenau, much larger than Auschwitz I, housed the most prisoners and included areas for women and Gypsies.

Auschwitz III (or "Buna-Monowitz") was built last as "housing" for the forced laborers at the Buna synthetic rubber factory in Monowitz.

The 45 other sub-camps also housed prisoners that were used for forced labor.

Arrival and Selection

Jews, Gypsies (Roma), homosexuals, asocials, criminals, and prisoners of war were gathered, stuffed into cattle cars on trains, and sent to Auschwitz. When the trains stopped at Auschwitz II: Birkenau, the newly arrived were told to leave all their belongings on board and were then forced to disembark from the train and gather upon the railway platform, known as "the ramp."

Families, who had disembarked together, were quickly and brutally split up as an SS officer, usually a Nazi doctor, ordered each individual into one of two lines. Most women, children, older men, and those that looked unfit or unhealthy were sent to the left; while most young men and others that looked strong enough to do hard labor were sent to the right.

Unbeknownst to the people in the two lines, the left line meant immediate death at the gas chambers and the right meant that they would become a prisoner of the camp. (Most of the prisoners would later die from starvation, exposure, forced labor, and/or torture.)

Once the selections had been concluded, a select group of Auschwitz prisoners (part of "Kanada") gathered up all the belongings that had been left on the train and sorted them into huge piles, which were then stored in warehouses.

These items (including clothing, eye glasses, medicine, shoes, books, pictures, jewelry, and prayer shawls) would periodically be bundled and shipped back to Germany.

Gas Chambers and Crematoria at Auschwitz

The people who were sent to the left, which was the majority of those who arrived at Auschwitz, were never told that they had been chosen for death. The entire mass murder system depended on keeping this secret from its victims. If the victims had known they were headed to their death, they would most definitely have fought back.

But they didn't know, so the victims latched onto the hope that the Nazis wanted them to believe. Having been told that they were going to be sent to work, the masses of victims believed it when they were told they first needed to be disinfected and have showers.

The victims were ushered into an ante-room, where they were told to remove all their clothing. Completely naked, these men, women, and children were then ushered into a large room that looked like a big shower room (there were even fake shower heads on the walls).

When the doors shut, a Nazi would pour Zyklon-B pellets into an opening (in the roof or through a window). The pellets turned into poison gas once it contacted air.

The gas killed quickly, but it was not instantaneous. Victims, finally realizing that this was not a shower room, clambered over each other, trying to find a pocket of breathable air. Others would claw at the doors until their fingers bled.

Once everyone in the room was dead, special prisoners assigned this horrible task (Sonderkommandos) would air out the room and then remove the bodies. The bodies would be searched for gold and then placed into the crematoria.

Although Auschwitz I did have a gas chamber, the majority of the mass murdering occurred in Auschwitz II: Birkenau's four main gas chambers, each of which had its own crematorium. Each of these gas chambers could murder about 6,000 people a day.

Life in the Auschwitz Concentration Camp

Those that had been sent to the right during the selection process on the ramp went through a dehumanizing process that turned them into camp prisoners.

All of their clothes and any remaining personal belongings were taken from them and their hair was shorn completely off. They were given striped prison outfits and a pair of shoes, all of which were usually the wrong size. They were then registered, had their arms tattooed with a number, and transferred to one of Auschwitz's camps for forced labor.

The new arrivals were then thrown into the cruel, hard, unfair, horrific world of camp life. Within their first week at Auschwitz, most new prisoners had discovered the fate of their loved ones that had been sent to the left. Some of the new prisoners never recovered from this news.

In the barracks, prisoners slept cramped together with three prisoners per wooden bunk.

Toilets in the barracks consisted of a bucket, which had usually overflowed by morning.

In the morning, all prisoners would be assembled outside for roll call (Appell). Standing outside for hours at roll call, whether in intense heat or below freezing temperatures, was itself a torture.

After roll call, the prisoners would be marched to the place where they were to work for the day. While some prisoners worked inside factories, others worked outside doing hard labor. After hours of hard work, the prisoners would be marched back to camp for another roll call.

Food was scarce and usually consisted of a bowl of soup and some bread. The limited amount of food and extremely hard labor was intentionally meant to work and starve the prisoners to death.

Medical Experiments

Also on the ramp, Nazi doctors would search among the new arrivals for anyone they might want to experiment upon. Their favorite choices were twins and dwarves, but also anyone who in any way looked physically unique, such as having different colored eyes, would be pulled from the line for experiments.

At Auschwitz, there was a team of Nazi doctors who conducted experiments, but the two most notorious were Dr. Carl Clauberg and Dr. Josef Mengele. Dr. Clauberg focused his attention on finding ways to sterilize women, by such unorthodox methods as X-rays and injections of various substances into their uteruses. Dr. Mengele experimented on identical twins, hoping to find a secret to cloning what Nazis considered the perfect Aryan.

Liberation

When the Nazis realized that the Russians were successfully pushing their way toward Germany in late 1944, they decided to start destroying evidence of their atrocities at Auschwitz. Himmler ordered the destruction of the crematoria and the human ashes were buried in huge pits and covered with grass. Many of the warehouses were emptied, with their contents shipped back to Germany.

In the middle of January 1945, the Nazis removed the last 58,000 prisoners from Auschwitz and sent them on death marches. The Nazis planned on marching these exhausted prisoners all the way to camps closer or within Germany.

On January 27, 1945, the Russians reached Auschwitz. When the Russians entered the camp, they found the 7,650 prisoners who had been left behind. The camp was liberated; these prisoners were now free.