Auschwitz was a concentration camp complex built and used by the Nazis during World War II. The complex was located in a region of present-day Poland known as Silesia, which had been annexed by Germany in 1939. It was made up of three separate camps: Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II or Auschwitz-Birkenau, and Auschwitz III or Auschwitz-Monowitz. Activities at the camps were directed under the authority of the Inspectorate of Concentration Camps, an office of the Schutzstaffel or SS, a Nazi paramilitary unit under the command of Adolf Hitler. In addition to serving as a forced labor and prison center, the Auschwitz camps were also the scene of mass executions and human experimentation.
The Origins and History of the Auschwitz Camps
On April 27, 1940, SS commander Heinrich Himmler decreed that an abandoned artillery barracks complex near the Polish city of Auschwitz be converted into a concentration camp. SS Lieutenant Colonel Rudolf Höss was named the commanding officer of the camp, a position he would hold until November of 1943. Himmler’s original intention was to establish a camp to house Polish captives. The first prisoners—728 people, primarily of Polish descent, detained by German authorities for political subversion—arrived at the camp on June 14, 1940.
In April of 1941 the German chemical company IG Farben made a major construction investment at the Auschwitz camp and was planning to use prisoners as slave laborers for its new rubber manufacturing facilities. German authorities soon extended the mandate of the Auschwitz camp beyond serving as a prison and forced labor center, and in September of 1941 the first gas chamber executions were carried out at Auschwitz I as part of a Nazi experiment with a deadly fume known as Zyklon B. The victims were mostly Russian prisoners of war.
By October, construction of the Auschwitz-Birkenau expansion began. The Nazis used slave labor, supplied mainly by Soviet prisoners of war, to build the Auschwitz II facility. It was separated into barracks, each of which was segregated from the others with electric and barbed-wire fences; during the height of its operational period, Auschwitz-Birkenau housed the largest prisoner population of any of the three camps in the complex. The Auschwitz-Birkenau facility also included two large gas chambers that were built from converted farmhouses.
Nazi officials recognized Auschwitz-Birkenau’s potential to serve as a mass extermination facility, in accordance with the so-called Final Solution that had been discussed at the Wannsee Conference of Nazi officials in January of 1942. The program called for the genocide of European Jews and the Romani people. By February of that year, the first mass executions were being carried out in the Auschwitz-Birkenau gas chambers using Zyklon B. The two converted farmhouses were deemed unsatisfactory for the scale of the exterminations the Nazis envisioned, however. Thus, between March and June of 1943, the Auschwitz-Birkenau facilities were expanded to include four new crematoria. Each crematorium was separated into three sections: a room where condemned prisoners were ordered to disrobe, a large gas chamber, and a room filled with ovens for cremating deceased prisoners. Mass executions continued at Auschwitz-Birkenau until November of 1944. In some cases, people who were not killed by the toxic fumes were burned outside instead; prisoners would also occasionally be tossed in the crematorium ovens while they were still alive.
Captives were transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau on trains, which were routed to the complex from virtually every country in Europe allied with or occupied by Nazi Germany. In most cases prisoners traveled for days with nothing to eat or drink and without any toilet facilities; many died on the journey. Between 1942 and 1944, approximately 1.1 million Jewish people arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau by train, in addition to about 23,000 Romani people and about 190,000 civilians and prisoners of war. Hundreds of thousands of these detainees were sent straight to the gas chambers. Given that the Nazis did not keep prisoner records for those who were dispatched for execution immediately upon arrival, it is impossible to accurately tally up the total number of people who died.
The third main camp in the complex, the Auschwitz-Monowitz camp, was completed in October of 1942 and housed the prisoners who worked as slave laborers in IG Farben’s nearby rubber manufacturing plant. This facility also included what the Nazis called a Labor Education Camp, where non-Jewish prisoners who were deemed to have violated the Nazis’ labor expectations were punished. In addition to the three main facilities 39 sub-camps were built between 1942 and 1944, primarily serving as slave labor centers. Any laborer at one of these sub-camps who was deemed unfit to work for health reasons was sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau to be killed.
Conditions in the Auschwitz complex were, by any measure, horrendous. Hundreds of prisoners were crammed into tiny horse stables, which were overrun with vermin. Toilets and washing facilities were inadequate and prisoners were given very little time to use them. Laborers were fed with small rations providing about 1,300 calories a day for prisoners and 1,700 calories a day for laborers. The prisoners and laborers in the camps were subject to arbitrary punishment at the whim of the SS guards at all times and could be tortured or executed without notice and for any reason.
In addition to detainment facilities, living quarters for slave laborers, and mass execution chambers, the Auschwitz complex was also used for human experiments carried out by Nazi doctors. Of these, Dr. Josef Mengele is perhaps the best known. Under his direction a wide range of horrific experiments were carried out on live, unwilling subjects. The Auschwitz experiments were aimed at generating scientific evidence to support Nazi ideology and included experiments on twins, sterilization experiments, pressure chamber tests, and subjection to various infectious diseases, injuries, and traumas.
Evacuation and Abandonment
In January of 1945 the SS began to evacuate the Auschwitz camps as Soviet forces closed in. Thousands of prisoners died during forced marches to other camps. Many who were too weak or too slow were shot and left where they died.
Though the Nazis had time to destroy most of their other camps and gas chambers, they had to abandon Auschwitz quickly. On January 27, 1945, the Soviet army reached the Auschwitz complex, liberating the approximately seven thousand prisoners still alive. Germany surrendered on May 7, 1945.
In 1947 the Auschwitz camps once again became the property of the Polish government and the site was converted into a museum and Holocaust memorial. The property was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1979 and attracts millions of visitors from all around the world every year. Many of the original buildings have been preserved. The museum is separated into several sections, including each of the three main Auschwitz camps as well as the railway platform where the prisoners disembarked from the trains. The museum’s mandate is to preserve proof of the Nazi atrocities that took place at the site, to uphold the memory of those who died there, and to support Holocaust research.
On January 27, 2015, a special ceremony was held at the Auschwitz site to commemorate the seventieth anniversary of the camp’s liberation. About 300 Auschwitz survivors attended the ceremony. Joining them were an array of world leaders and other dignitaries, including Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski, French President Francois Hollande, Dutch King Willem Alexander, and American filmmaker Steven Spielberg. During the ceremony, several survivors spoke about their experiences at Auschwitz, prayers were said, and candles were lit in memory of the camp’s victims.