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Editor: Dinah L. Shelton
Date: 2005
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Over the last few decades the term Auschwitz has become in common parlance a synecdoche for the Holocaust in general. Such a meaning has often overshadowed the alternate historical significance of the name. The town of Auschwitz, located on the border between Germany and Poland, was established by Germans in the thirteenth century and became a Polish fief known as Oswiecim in the fifteenth century. The Duchy of Auschwitz merged into the Hapsburg patrimony as part of Austrian Galicia in the First Polish Partition (1772). With the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918 Oswiecim become a part of the Polish republic. In 1939, following its Polish campaign, Auschwitz was incorporated within the German Reich in the newly established province of Upper Silesia. After World War II ended in 1945 Oswiecim returned to Polish sovereignty.

Auschwitz's historical significance in the twentieth century relates to the massive concentration/extermination camp that the Germans established in a suburb of the town in the spring of 1940. The camp remained in operation until January 27, 1945, when it was liberated by the Red Army.

The nature and scope of the atrocities that took place at Auschwitz justify its identification as the symbolic center of the Holocaust. It was the site where the single largest group of Jews was murdered: over one Page 97  |  Top of Article
Beyond a front gate ironically proclaiming Work Shall Set You Free stood the elaborate death camp at Auschwitz, preserved as a monument to Nazi depravity and the victims of the Holocaust. [CORBIS]

Beyond a front gate ironically proclaiming "Work Shall Set You Free" stood the elaborate death camp at Auschwitz, preserved as a monument to Nazi depravity and the victims of the Holocaust. [CORBIS]
million men, women, and children (or more than 90% of the 1.1 million Jews deported to the camp). Furthermore, Jewish citizens from at least twelve European countries were deported to Auschwitz, and as such, its history testifies to the pan-European character of the Holocaust. In addition, Auschwitz was a place where the Germans killed more than 100,000 non-Jews: 75,000 Poles (or some 50% of the 150,000 Poles deported to the camp), 21,000 Sinti and Romani (or more than 80% of the 23,000 Sinti and Romani registered at Auschwitz), 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war (almost all who were deported to the camp), and some 15,000 others (or 60% of that group). Auschwitz thus testifies to a historical circumstance too easily forgotten: The Holocaust of the Jews was part of a larger German fantasy about a new world order that also called for the genocide of other undesirable groups (select Slavic populations, undesirable Sinti and Romani, and the mentally ill, to name but a few).

Auschwitz is also worth focusing on because in its technology and organization it was thoroughly modern and a model of Nazi efficiency. Given its central location within the European railway infrastructure, its business relationship with many larger and smaller industries that relied on the slave labor provided by the camp, its medical experiments conducted by highly qualified physicians in collaboration with distinguished research institutions, and its large and efficient crematoria—equipped with logically designed killing installations, including rooms for undressing and gas chambers, for those who were deemed "unfit for labor" on arrival—Auschwitz stands for industrial civilization. Auschwitz has also become the focus of moral and philosophical reflection because it created two new variations of the human species: the Sonderkommando, the slave laborer who kept the factory of death running, and the Muselmann, the living dead.

Establishing the German New Order in Poland

In light of the scale of the atrocities at Auschwitz, it is easy to overlook the complex historical evolution of the camp. When the Nazis annexed the town of Auschwitz to the Reich in 1939, they designated the region with the highest priority for political, social, and economic redevelopment. For the Germans Auschwitz signified a return to the pristine, lost past of medieval German Page 98  |  Top of Article
The main entrance at Birkenau. In the former Polish town of Oswiecim, the Nazis built Auschwitz I, the original concentration camp; Auschwitz II (Birkenau), an extermination center; and Auschwitz III (Monowice), essentially a labor camp for IG

The main entrance at Birkenau. In the former Polish town of Oswiecim, the Nazis built Auschwitz I, the original concentration camp; Auschwitz II (Birkenau), an extermination center; and Auschwitz III (Monowice), essentially a labor camp for IG Farben. [(C) RAYMOND DEPARDON/MAGNUM PHOTOS]
achievement and represented opportunity and promise to new generations. As Reich Commissioner for the Consolidation of the German Nation, SS chief Heinrich Himmler oversaw its redevelopment; he soon initiated a policy of ethnic cleansing by deporting Poles and Jews, and organizing the immigration of Germans into the area. This formula was not without its problems in Auschwitz, however. Some of the local Polish population could not be deported as they were employed in industry, and there were few skilled ethnic German workers to replace them. Himmler's response to this circumstance was to claim a former Polish military base located in the suburbs of Zasole as a concentration camp to terrorize the local population. In order to provide practical support to the new arrivals in establishing economically viable farms, Himmler made the concentration camp the center of a huge agricultural experiment, a scientific farm. The camp, headed by SS Sturmbannführer (Major) Rudolf Höss, claimed increasingly larger territories for this new function, and Himmler began to see that its future might be different from what he had originally envisioned: As a concentration camp Auschwitz was assumed to be a temporary facility; as an agricultural estate, it would claim permanence.

Originally a small compound surrounded by a double barbed wire fence, the camp had grown by the beginning of 1941 into a 15-square-mile so-called zone of interests, an area that was under direct control of the SS and which was legally a municipality with all the rights that came with it. A huge influx of money and building materials was needed to develop this zone. Therefore, Himmler sought to generate income by attracting a major chemical manufacturer, IG Farben, to Auschwitz. The terms of the bargain were simple: The camp would supply the labor to construct Farben's synthetic rubber plant; and a new satellite camp, Birkenau, that was to be populated by Soviet prisoners of war, would provide labor to transform the town of Auschwitz into a place worthy of a Farben enterprise. In return, Farben agreed to finance and supply the building materials required for Himmler's Germanization project in the area, which included the expansion of the concentration camp and construction of an idyllic village for SS guards.

The SS expected many deaths due to endemic and epidemic disease in the Auschwitz camp, which was intended to house 125,000 Soviet prisoners of war in Birkenau and 30,000 Polish prisoners in the main camp at Zasole. The existing crematorium, constructed in 1940 in a former ammunition depot and equipped with three double-muffle ovens with the ability to process 340 corpses per day, was deemed too small. Thus, the SS commissioned in the fall of 1941 the design of a very large, state-of-the-art crematorium with the capacity to incinerate 1,440 corpses per day. Remarkably enough, this seemingly excessive capacity was considered appropriate to cope with the anticipated mortality of the 155,000 slave laborers to be worked to death in Auschwitz. The crematorium was not meant to provide execution facilities: Nothing in the original conceptual sketches of the crematorium, or in the blueprints dating from January 1942, suggests the presence of gas chambers, or their use in the Final Solution.

Auschwitz as a Center of the Holocaust

When the large-scale mass murder of Jews began in the summer and fall of 1941 in the wake of Operation Barbarossa, the SS in Auschwitz was still fully committed to Himmler's project to develop the town and region. However, the camp at Auschwitz soon became a center of genocide, with the SS sending to the camp not only Soviet prisoners of war (POWs) for forced labor, but also those considered officials of the Soviet Communist Party for execution. Initially, these men were executed Page 99  |  Top of Article by rifle and machine-gun fire. In August 1941 camp officials conducted a few experiments to determine if a more efficient and less psychologically jarring method of execution could be devised. Hydrogen cyanide, marketed under the brand name Zyklon (Cyclone) and sold in versions A, B, and C, was available in the camp in large quantities for delousing purposes. Zyklon B also proved effective in killing the Soviet prisoners.

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A key innovation that distinguishes the Holocaust from other genocides is the widespread use of gas chambers. Of the 5 to 6.5 million Jewish victims, about half were killed in stationary gas chambers. The use of these gas chambers reveals the deliberate nature of the German genocide of the Jews. Gas chambers are designed and built to kill non-combatants. They allow for the anonymous execution of many people simultaneously. The victims can be killed out of sight by the simple opening of a valve, or by emptying a canister full of pellets through a trapdoor. A gas chamber can be operated with a total diffusion of responsibility.

The idea of using gas chambers originated in the British and American eugenics movements. In the two decades that preceded World War I, many people advocated the use of "lethal chambers" where degenerates, the mentally ill, and the physically handicapped could be killed "humanely." In the belief that gassing caused a quick and merciful death, the state of Nevada installed a gas chamber in 1924 to execute convicted criminals. By the end of the 1930s, eight states had followed Nevada's example. Gas chamber executions were popular with prison authorities because they were effective and above all clean.

In the Third Reich, official death sentences were executed by means of guillotines. In the autumn of 1939, German officials began to construct gas chambers in selected asylums, first to kill groups of mentally ill and handicapped patients (T-4 program) and, from 1941 on, to kill groups of selected concentration camp inmates (14f13 program). The gas used was bottled carbon monoxide. Apart from the secrecy and clearly illegal character of the operation, the T-4 program, which killed over 70,000 people, realized many of the policies advocated by the earlier eugenic theorists.

In late 1941, when German soldiers, the SS, and the police faced increasing stress from conducting mass executions of Jewish civilians in the East, the SS introduced the first mobile gas chambers ("gas vans") as a preferred, anonymous, and "clean" means of killing in occupied Russia. Later, in occupied Poland, stationary gas chambers were installed in specially built extermination camps. The gas vans on the Russian front and in Chelmno, and the stationary gas chambers of Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka, used diesel engine exhaust which, when modified to run with a less efficient fuel-air ratio, produced an asphyxiating and toxic mix of carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide. In these gas chambers, some two million victims died a slow and agonizing death.

In 1941 the Auschwitz SS began to experiment with using Zyklon B as a killing agent. A commercially available delousing agent, Zyklon B consisted of small diatomite pellets soaked with cyanide and sealed in metal cans. Upon opening, the contents would "degas," expelling a lethal toxin for a continuous 24 hours. This was important in delousing or killing other vermin, which can last as much as 14 hours in a highly toxic environment. Zyklon B had proven its wider use in 1938, when the city of Vienna adopted it to kill pigeons. Three years later, in Auschwitz, Zyklon B was used on people. After the war, Auschwitz Kommandant Rudolf Höss claimed that he had adopted Zyklon B because it ensured a quick and easy death for the victims—a claim not supported by the evidence.

Höss first installed a gas chamber in the morgue of crematorium 1, and in early 1942 transformed two peasant cottages into gas chambers. These makeshift installations proved reliable and efficient, and in the summer and fall of 1942, SS architects modified the designs of four new crematoria to include sophisticated cyanide gas chambers, creating true factories of death. In the case of crematoria 2 and 3, which could hold up to 2,000 victims at one time, the large underground chambers were equipped with hollowed-out, wire-mesh columns, which allowed for an easy introduction of Zyklon pellets in the crowded room and the quick removal of the still degassing pellets after twenty minutes, when all the victims had died. With the pellets removed and the ventilators turned on, the cyanide gas could be removed from the room in half an hour, allowing corpse cremation to begin without delay in the chamber's fifteen large ovens. Thus, a consignment of victims could be killed and cremated within a 24 hour period, allowing for a regular daily schedule of arrivals, selections, and killings. In operation until the end of October 1944, the Auschwitz gas chambers killed 1.1 million people. For further reading, see Eugen Kogon, Hermann Langbein, and Adelbert Rückerl, eds. (1994). Nazi Mass Murder: A Documentary History of the Use of Poison Gas. New Haven, Conn., and London: Yale University Press. ROBERT JAN VAN PELT

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In January 1942 Hermann Göring ordered the transfer of Soviet POWs from Auschwitz to German armament factories; it was at this point that Himmler began to consider the so-called Auschwitz Project as part of a systematic plan or Final Solution to address the Jewish question. This did not mean that Himmler wanted to solely use the camp as a site for the continuous mass murder of Jews. In early 1942 he remained intent on making Auschwitz the centerpiece of his racial utopia. Only now this would not be accomplished on the backs of Soviet POWs: Jewish slave laborers were to take their place. The Wannsee Conference gave Himmler (through Reinhard Heydrich) the power to negotiate with German and foreign civilian authorities for the transfer of Jews to his SS empire. The first transports carrying Jews fit for labor departed from Slovakia for Auschwitz-Birkenau soon thereafter.

When the Slovak government asked Himmler to also take Jews unfit for labor in exchange for a cash payment, he dispatched SS construction chief Hans Kammler to Auschwitz. Kammler toured the site and ordered the transformation of a cottage there into a Zyklon gas chamber. Two months later, on July 4, 1942, the first transports of Jews from Slovakia were submitted to selection. Those who could work were admitted to the camp; those who could not were killed in the cottage, known as Bunker I. The murder of select Jews at Auschwitz changed from an incidental practice to a continual one, although it had not yet become official Nazi policy. Bunker I and a second cottage outfitted with four gas chambers, Bunker II, were an outgrowth of Slovak unwillingness to provide for old and very young Jews, and German greed. The main purpose of Auschwitz at this time remained the creation of a city and a region, and not the annihilation of Jews.

In mid-July 1942 Himmler assumed responsibility for a German settlement in Russia—a position that he had coveted for more than a year. His view of Auschwitz and his plans for it changed rapidly and dramatically. The Auschwitz Project was no longer of interest to him. The camp could be used for the systematic killing of Jews. Practice became policy. In August camp architects received the order to construct a large crematorium in Birkenau, to be known as crematorium 2. The plan also called for the design and creation of a third crematorium and two smaller crematoria, each with an incineration capacity of 768 corpses per day and equipped from the outset with gas chambers. When under construction crematoria 2 and 3 were retroactively fitted with gas chambers. SS architect Walter Dejaco revised the design of each building's basement, changing one of the two underground morgues into a room for undressing and the other into a gas chamber.

As work crews busily constructed these factories of death, daily transports arrived in Auschwitz. In May 1942 regular transports from Poland began to arrive, in June transports from France, in July transports from Holland, and in August transports from Belgium and Yugoslavia. On average some one thousand deportees arrived every day at the Judenrampe located between the main camp and Birkenau; in a quick selection process most were declared to be unfit for work, loaded on trucks, and transported to Bunkers I and II, where they were forced to undress and then killed. Initially, their bodies were buried nearby, but in the late summer the SS changed this practice, instead incinerating the bodies on large pyres. Primitive as the method of corpse disposal may have been, it did not limit the rate of murder: In 1942 some 200,000 Jews were killed in Auschwitz.

In the late winter and early spring of 1943, with the killing continuing at the rate of eight hundred people per day, the first of the new crematoria in Birkenau came into operation. In their final form all the crematoria offered a relatively discrete method of murder and corpse disposal. People calmly entered the buildings, in many instances not suspecting their fate; their ashes either exited through the chimneys or were dumped in waterholes, or "lakes," that are still visible in Birkenau. The larger of these lakes is said to contain the ashes of 600,000 victims. Between entrance and exit the crematoria constructed by the Germans followed a well-conceived plan, which included ample rooms for undressing, gas chambers of different sizes, other rooms where workers could quickly shear off the hair of female victims for industrial use and extract golden crowns from their mouths, and fuel-efficient ovens that allowed for the high-rate incineration of multiple corpses. Thirty adjacent storehouses, nicknamed Canada because of the wealth they contained, provided an efficient sorting and storage facility for the deportees' belongings. Anything that was deemed usable was shipped back to the Reich as charity for the use of less fortunate Germans. Most importantly, the new crematoria offered the SS the opportunity to kill anonymously. The SS doctors selecting victims could justify their actions by claiming that because all Jews who arrived at Auschwitz were a priori condemned, they actually saved the lives of those whom they chose as slave laborers. Moreover, the SS medics who fed Zyklon B into the gas chambers crowded with those deemed unfit for labor never saw their victims. In the case of crematoria 2 and 3 they just opened vents at ground level, emptied a can of Zyklon into those openings, and then closed the vents. The killing below became invisible to them and everyone else. As for cleaning the gas chambers afterward Page 101  |  Top of Article and incinerating the corpses: Jewish Sonderkommandos were forced to do this job.

Oddly enough, on their completion, the crematoria seemed superfluous. By the summer of 1943, when the SS had all four crematoria at their disposal, the Holocaust itself had peaked. The genocide had begun in 1941, with the Germans killing some 1.1 million Jews that year. In 1942 they murdered another 2.7 million Jews, of whom less than 10 percent died in Auschwitz. The year the crematoria of Auschwitz came into operation the number of victims dropped to 500,000, half of whom were killed in Auschwitz. Most of the Jews whom the Germans had been able to catch had already been successfully eliminated. In June and July 1943 average daily transports brought only 275 Jews to the camp. The crematoria ran on a mere 5 percent of their total capacity. This lull gave the Germans an opportunity to liquidate in August the nearby Sosnowiec ghetto—the place where, two years earlier, the Oswiecim Jewish community had been imprisoned to make room for German settlers and Farben personnel. The Jews from Sosnowiec, some 24,000 in number, were the bulk of the deportees in August. In the fall and winter the number of arrivals decreased again to 250 people per day.

At this time the major interest of the SS at Auschwitz was an increasingly lucrative collaboration between German industry in Upper Silesia and the camp. In 1942 three satellite camps providing slave labor to the Farben synthetic rubber and fuel plant in Monowitz, the coal mines in nearby Jawischowitz, and German industry in Chelmek were established; in 1943 five more satellite camps followed, and in 1944 another nineteen. In 1942, 4,600 prisoners (out of 24,000) worked for outside firms; in 1943 that number had increased to 15,000 (out of 88,000), and in 1944 some 37,000 (out of 105,000). When the camp was evacuated in early 1945, more than half its prisoners provided slave labor outside of the camp. The rest worked on the construction and maintenance of the camp and the 15-square-mile estate surrounding it, and for SS-owned companies. Working for outside firms or the SS, whether slaving in mines, factories, the camp, or the fields, all was lethal: Prisoners labored for long hours on starvation diets, with insufficient clothing in the winter, without adequate protection or shelter, and subject to the brutal treatment meted out by supervisors and guards. Regular selections ensured that any prisoner not able to work would be sent to the gas chambers.

By the end of 1943 the Germans closed the death camps built specifically to exterminate Jews: Kulmhof, Sobibor, Belzec, and Treblinka. Auschwitz remained to kill off the remnants of Jewish communities from Poland, Italy, France, the Netherlands, and the rest of occupied Europe. In 1944 another 600,000 Jews would be killed in Auschwitz, most of them Hungarians. In the months of May and June almost 7,000 Hungarian Jews arrived in Auschwitz everyday, and most were killed on arrival. The crematoria could not keep up; Bunker II was brought back into operation, and once again many corpses were disposed of on large pyres. When the Hungarian transports stopped arriving in July, the Lodz ghetto provided in August another 65,000 victims, the last major group to arrive and succumb in Auschwitz. In October Himmler ordered the gas chambers to be closed, and their killing infrastructure was dismantled. The incinerators, with the rest of the crematoria, were blown up in January 1945, just before the arrival of the Red Army.

With more than 1.1 million victims, of whom 1 million were Jews, Auschwitz had become by the end of the war the most lethal death camp of all. But Auschwitz was also the camp with the greatest number of survivors because not all the victims deported to Auschwitz were killed on arrival; many more survived than any of the other death camps. Only a few people survived Belzec, and several hundred survived the hell of Sobibor and Treblinka. Of the 1.1 million Jews shipped to Auschwitz, some 100,000 Jews left the camp alive. Many of these survivors perished, however, during the death march to the West, or in 1945 in other concentration camps such as Buchenwald and Bergen-Belsen. Yet tens of thousands lived to see liberation and testify about their ordeal after the war. Of the 100,000 Gentile survivors of Auschwitz, with the Poles, at 75,000, being the largest group, all who could did bear witness to the use of the camp as an extermination center for Jews. This ensured that Auschwitz would figure forever prominently in the memory of the Holocaust. In addition, the survival of significant parts of the camp became another important witness to its importance. In Treblinka, Belzec, and Sobibor, which together hosted the murder of 1.5 million Jews, little of the original camps may be observed. In Auschwitz the SS dismantled the gas chambers and blew up the crematoria, but other sections of the camp remain largely intact. In 1947 the Polish parliament adopted a law titled Commemorating the Martyrdom of the Polish Nation and Other Nations in Oswiecim, and the minister of culture included both the main camp in Zasole and Birkenau in the new state museum at Auschwitz-Birkenau. But it was only until the early 1980s that the site mentioned the murder of Jews at Auschwitz.


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Robert Jan van Pelt

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3434600044