Auschwitz-Birkenau was the largest of Nazi Germany's concentration camps. Its remains are located in Poland approximately 50 kilometers west of Kraków and 286 kilometers south from Warsaw. The camp took its name from the nearby town of Oświęcim (Auschwitz in German). Birkenau, the German translation of Brzezinka, refers to the many birch trees surrounding the complex.
The camp commandant, Rudolf Höß, testified at the Nuremberg Trials that up to 3 million people had died at Auschwitz. The Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum has revised this figure to 1.1 million, about 90 percent of whom were Jews from almost every country in Europe. Most victims were killed in Auschwitz II's gas chambers using Zyklon B; other deaths were caused by systematic starvation, forced labor, lack of disease control, individual executions, and purported "medical experiments".
In 1947, in remembrance of the victims, Poland founded a museum at the site of the Auschwitz concentration camp. By 1994, some 22 million visitors — 700,000 annually—had passed through the iron gate crowned with the motto "Arbeit macht frei".
The three main camps were:
There were also around 40 satellite camps, some of them tens of kilometers from the main camps, with prisoner populations ranging from several dozen to several thousand. See list of subcamps of Auschwitz for others.
Like all German concentration camps, the Auschwitz camps were operated by Heinrich Himmler's SS. The commandants of the camp were the SS-Obersturmbannführers Rudolf Höß until the summer of 1943, and later Arthur Liebehenschel and Richard Baer. Höß provided a detailed description of the camp's workings during his interrogations after the war and also in his autobiography. He was hanged in 1947 in front of the entrance to the crematorium of Auschwitz I.
Following the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, Oświęcim was annexed by Nazi Germany and renamed Auschwitz. Auschwitz I was the original camp, and it served as the administrative center for the whole complex. It was founded on May 20, 1940, on the basis of an old Polish brick army barracks (originally built by the Austro-Hungarian Empire). A group of 728 Polish political prisoners from Tarnów became the first residents of Auschwitz on June 14 that year.
The camp was initially used for interning Polish intellectuals and resistance movement members, then also for Soviet Prisoners of War. Common German criminals, "anti-social elements" and 48 German homosexuals were also imprisoned there. Jews were sent to the camp as well, beginning with the very first shipment (from Tarnów). At any time, the camp held between 13,000 and 16,000 inmates; in 1942 the number reached 20,000. The entrance to Auschwitz I was—and still is—marked with the sign “Arbeit Macht Frei”, or “work makes (one) free”. The camp's prisoners who left the camp during the day for construction or farm labor were made to march through the gate to the sounds of an orchestra. Contrary to what is depicted in several films, the majority of the Jews were imprisoned in the Auschwitz II camp, and did not pass under this sign.
The SS selected some prisoners, often German criminals, as specially privileged supervisors of the other inmates (so-called: kapo). The various classes of prisoners were distinguishable by special marks on their clothes; Jews 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 and upon which there were no work assignments.
The harsh work requirements, combined with poor nutrition and hygiene, led to high death rates among the prisoners. Block 11 of Auschwitz (the original standing cells and such were block 13) 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 metres square, 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.
Also 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 air; 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.
The execution yard is between blocks 10 and 11. In this area, prisoners who were thought to merit individual execution received it. Some were shot, against a reinforced wall which still exists; others suffered a more lingering death by being suspended from hooks set in two wooden posts, which also still exist.
On September 3, 1941, deputy camp commandant SS-Hauptsturmführer Fritzsch experimented on 600 Russian POWs and 250 ill Polish inmates by cramming them into the basement of Block 11 and gassing them with Zyklon B, a highly lethal cyanide based pesticide. 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.
Construction on Auschwitz II (Birkenau) began in October 1941 to ease congestion at the main camp. It was designed to hold several categories of prisoners, and to function as an extermination camp in the context of Himmler's preparations for the Final Solution of the Jewish Question, the extermination of the Jews. The Nazis had committed themselves to the Final Solution no later than January 1942, the date of the Wannsee Conference.
The first gas chamber at Birkenau was "The Little Red House", a brick cottage that was 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 Red House", was similarly converted some weeks later. By July of 1942, the SS were conducting the infamous "selections", in which incoming Jews were divided into those deemed able to work, who were then admitted to the camp, and those who weren't, who were immediately gassed.
In early 1943, the Nazis decided to greatly increase the gassing capacity of Birkenau. Crematoria 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. It came online in March. Crematoria 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 up. Most victims were killed during a period afterwards.
The camp was staffed partly by prisoners, some of whom were selected to be kapos (orderlies) and sonderkommandos (workers at the crematoria). The kapos were responsible for keeping order in the barrack huts; the sonderkommando 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.
Many people know the Birkenau camp simply as "Auschwitz"; it was larger than Auschwitz I, and more people passed through its gates than did those of Auschwitz I. It was the site of imprisonment of hundreds of thousands, and of the killing of over one million people, mainly Jews but also large numbers of Poles, and Gypsies, mostly through gassing.
Prisoners were transported from all over German-occupied Europe by rail, arriving at Auschwitz-Birkenau in daily convoys. Arrivals at the complex were separated into two main groups - those marked for immediate extermination, and those to be registered as prisoners. The first group, about three-quarters of the total, went to the gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau within a few hours; they included all children, all women with children, all the elderly, and all those who appeared on brief and superficial inspection by an SS doctor not to be fully fit. SS personnel told the victims that 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 (depending on which crematorium) holes in the roof or windows on the side. In the Auschwitz Birkenau camp more than 20,000 people could be gassed and cremated each day. At Birkenau, the Nazis used a cyanide gas produced from Zyklon B pellets, which were manufactured by two companies who had acquired licensing rights to the patent held by IG Farben. The two companies were Tesch & Stabenow, of Hamburg, who supplied two tons of the crystals each month, and Degesch, of Dessau, who produced three-quarters of a ton. The bills of lading were produced at Nuremberg.
Those deemed fit to work were used as slave labor at industrial factories for such companies as IG Farben and Krupp. At the Auschwitz complex 405,000 prisoners were recorded as slaves between 1940 and 1945. Of these about 340,000 perished through executions, beatings, starvation, and sickness.
Sonderkommandos yanked gold teeth from the corpses of gas chamber victims; the gold was melted down and sent back to the Third Reich. The belongings of the arrivals, both those gassed and those admitted to the camp, were seized by the SS. They were sorted in an area of the camp called "Canada". Many of the SS at the camp enriched themselves by pilfering the confiscated property of the Jews. The name "Canada" was very cynically chosen. In Poland it was used as an expression used when viewing, for example, a valuable and fine gift. The expression came from the time when Polish emigrants were sending gifts home from Canada.
The busiest time for Auschwitz as a murder factory was April through June 1944, when Auschwitz was the center for the massacre of Hungary's Jews. Hungary was an ally of Germany during the war but had resisted turning over its Jews to the Germans until Germany sent troops to occupy Hungary in March 1944. In 56 days From April to the end of June 1944, 436,000 Hungarian Jews, half of the pre-war population, were deported to Auschwitz and to their deaths. Jews continued to arrive from other parts of Nazi Europe as well. The incoming volume was so great that the SS at Auschwitz resorted to burning corpses in open-air pits as well as the crematoria. The total of over 400,000 Jews gassed during the Hungarian Action in the spring of 1944 represented some two-thirds of all the 600,000 Jews exterminated in that year and a third of all the Jews killed at Auschwitz in the 2 1/2 years that it operated as an extermination camp.
The surrounding work camps, of which there were approximately forty, were closely connected to German industry and were associated with arms factories, foundries and mines. The largest work camp was Auschwitz III Monowitz, named after the Polish village of Monowice. Starting operations in May 1942, it was associated with the synthetic rubber and liquid fuel plant Buna-Werke owned by I. G. Farben. 11,000 slave laborers worked at Monowitz. Seven thousand inmated worked at various chemical plants. Eight thousand worked in mines. Approximately 40,000 prisoners worked in slave labor camps at Auschwitz or nearby, under appalling conditions. In regular intervals, doctors from Auschwitz II would visit the work camps and select the weak and sick for the gas chambers of Birkenau. The largest subcamps were built at Trzebinia, Blechhammer and Althammer. Female subcamps were constructed at Budy, Plawy, Zabrze, Gleiwitz I, II, III, Rajsko and at Lichtenwerden (now Světlá).
The most infamous doctor at Auschwitz was Josef Mengele, who was also 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 of a pair and killing the other when the first died to perform comparative autopsies. He also took a special interest in dwarves, injecting twins, dwarves and other prisoners with gangrene to "study" the effects.
Information regarding Auschwitz was available to the Allies during years 1941–1943 by 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 at Auschwitz not only actively gathering evidence of genocide and supplying it to the British in London by Polish resistance movement but also organizing resistance structures at the camp. Pilecki escaped on April 27, 1943, but the claims of mass killings were generally dismissed as exaggerations. This changed with receipt of the very detailed report of two prisoners, Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler who escaped on April 7, 1944 which finally convinced most Allied leaders of the truth about Auschwitz in the middle of 1944.
Detailed air reconnaissance photographs of the camp were taken accidentally during 1944 by aircraft seeking to photograph nearby military-industrial targets, but no effort was made to analyse them. (In fact, it was not until the 1970s that these photographs of Auschwitz were looked at carefully.)
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. Later several nearby military targets were bombed. One bomb accidentally fell into the camp and killed some prisoners. The debate over what could have been done, or what should have been attempted even if success was unlikely, has continued heatedly ever since.
There were also international plans for a general uprising in Auschwitz, coordinated with an Allied air raid and a Polish resistance attack from the outside. Author of this plan was Witold Pilecki who organized in Auschwitz an underground Union of Military Organizations (Związek Organizacji Wojskowych, ZOW). Pilecki hoped that either the Allies would drop arms or troops into the camp, the Home Army would organize an assault on it from outside and airborne landing by the Polish 1st Independent Parachute Brigade, based in Britain. By 1943, however, he realized that no such plans existed. 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 and the Allies did not believe his report about the Holocaust.
Since the Nazi regime was designed to degrade prisoners to the standards of animals, maintaining the will to survive was seen in itself as an act of rebellion. Primo Levi was given this very teaching from 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.
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.
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 two and a half million Jews had been killed in gas chambers and about half a million died "naturally". Later he wrote "I regard two and a half million far too high. Even Auschwitz had limits to its destructive possibilities".
Communist Soviet and Polish authorities maintained a figure "between 2.5 and 4 million". The figure "4,000,000" was used on the original Auschwitz memorial plaques. The plaques did not specify the ethnicities of victims.
In 1983 French scholar George Wellers was one of the first to use German data on deportations to estimate the number killed at Auschwitz, arriving at 1.613 million dead, including 1.44 million Jews and 146,000 Catholic Poles. A larger study started around the same time by Franciszek Piper used timetables of train arrivals combined with deportation records to calculate 1.1 million Jewish deaths and 140,000-150,000 ethnic Polish victims, along with 23,000 Roma and Sinti (Gypsies). This number has met with "significant, though not complete" agreement among scholars.
According to Harmon and Drobnicki, relevant estimates range from 800,000 to five million people. List of estimates in millions: 0.8-0.9, 1, 1-2.5, 1.1 1.1-1.5, 1.13, 1.2-2.5, 1.5-3.5, 1.6, 2, 2.3, 2.5, 2.5-4, 2.8-4, 3 (only Polish victims), over 3, 3.5, 3.5-4.5, 4-5.
The Polish government then 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 being done after the war but before the establishment of the museum). However, in most cases the departure from the historical truth is minor, and is clearly labelled. The museum contains very large numbers of 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 long, is wholly filled with human hair which the Nazis gathered from the people before and after they were killed.
Auschwitz II and the remains of the gas chambers there are also open to the public. The Auschwitz concentration camp is part of the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites. The ashes of the victims of the SS were scattered between the huts, and the entire area is seen as a grave site.
Most of the buildings of Auschwitz I are still standing. Many of them are now used as museums. The public entrance area (with bookshop, etc.) is outside the perimeter fence in what was the camp admission building, where new prisoners were registered and given their uniforms, etc.
Most of the buildings of Birkenau were burnt down by the Germans as the Russians came near, and much of the resulting brick rubble was removed in 1945 by the area's returning Polish population to restore farm buildings before winter. That explains the "missing rubble" cited as evidence by Holocaust deniers. By the site of its gas chambers and incinerators are piles of broken bricks which were thrown aside in the search for fallen re-usable intact bricks. Today, the entrance building remains plus some of the brick-built barracks in the southern part of the site, but of the wooden barracks, some 300 in number, just nineteen are still standing, eighteen of these in a row near the entrance building and one more, on its own, further away. Of most of the others just chimneys remain, two per barrack, one each end with a raised duct linking them, 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.
In 1979, the newly elected Polish Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass on the grounds of Auschwitz II to some 500,000 people. After the pope had announced that Edith Stein would be beatified, some Catholics erected a cross near bunker 2 of Auschwitz II where she had been gassed. A short while later, a Star of David appeared at the site, leading to a proliferation of religious symbols there; eventually they were removed.
Carmelite nuns opened a convent near Auschwitz I in 1984. After some Jewish groups called for the removal of the convent, representatives of the Catholic Church agreed in 1987. One year later the Carmelites erected the 8 metre (26 ft) tall cross from the 1979 mass near their site, just outside block 11 and barely visible from within the camp. This led to protests by Jewish groups, who said that mostly Jews were killed at Auschwitz and demanded that religious symbols be kept away from the site. Some Catholics have argued that the people killed in Auschwitz I (as opposed to Auschwitz II) were mainly Polish Catholics (including at least one Catholic saint, Maximilian Kolbe). The Catholic Church told the Carmelites to move by 1989, but they stayed on until 1993, leaving the large cross behind. In 1998, after further calls to remove the cross, some 300 smaller crosses were erected by local activists near the large one, leading to further protests and heated exchanges. Following an agreement between the Polish Catholic Church and the Polish government, the smaller crosses were removed in 1999 but the large papal one remains. See Auschwitz cross for more details.
In 1999, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien caused controversy in relation to his arrangements to visit Auschwitz. He visited the camp with representatives of Canada's Jewish community, of Polish background and otherwise, but excluded non-Jewish members of a Polish-Canadian group that accompanied him on his visit to Poland. These persons were identified as "leaders of Canada's Polish community". Chretien justified the exclusion by saying that the non-Jewish Polish-Canadians were invited to join his business mission to Poland "because he normally includes ethnic groups on trade missions". The business mission commenced one day after Chretien's visit to Auschwitz. The Canadian Polish Congress, which apparently has no Jewish members, said that it was offended and insulted by the refusal of Prime Minister Chretien to include it in the visit to Auschwitz. Approximately two weeks prior to the Auschwitz visit by the Prime Minister, The Canadian Polish Congress had requested to be included in the visit, after having learned that Chretien was inviting publicly identified "Canadian Jewish leaders", of Polish background and otherwise.
In 1996, Germany made 27 January, the day of the liberation of Auschwitz, the official day for the commemoration of the victims of 'National Socialism'.
The European Parliament marked the anniversary of the camp's liberation in 2005 with a minute of silence and the passage of this resolution:
For many years, a memorial plaque placed at the camp by the Soviet authorities stated that 4 million people had been murdered at Auschwitz. The Polish communist government also supported this figure. In the west, this figure was accepted, but some historians had their doubts.
After the collapse of the Communist government in 1989, the plaque 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 Nizkor:
Recently the Polish media, and the foreign ministry of Poland, have voiced objections to the use of the expression "Polish death camp" in relation to Auschwitz, as they feel that phrase might misleadingly suggest that Poles (rather than Germans) perpetrated the Holocaust. Most media outlets now show awareness of the offence this may cause, and try to avoid using such expressions (or issue an apology after using them). On 1 April 2006, a Polish Culture Ministry spokesman said that the government requested that UNESCO change the name from "Auschwitz Concentration Camp" to "Former Nazi German Concentration Camp Auschwitz-Birkenau" to emphasize that the camp was run by German Nazis and not by Poles. On 12 July 2006, UNESCO deferred a decision on Poland's request, pending further consultation. On 28 June 2007 the United Nations World Heritage Committee officially announced that the new name is Auschwitz Birkenau. German Nazi Concentration and Extermination Camp (1940-1945).
The Polish film directors Andrzej Munk and Andrzej Wajda were both given permission to film in Auschwitz for the films Pasażerka and Krajobraz Po Bitwie respectively. The TV-miniseries War and Remembrance also shot the Holocaust scenes in Auschwitz. However, permission was denied to Steven Spielberg for Schindler's List. Subsequently, a "mirror" camp was constructed outside the infamous archway for the scene where the train arrives carrying the women Schindler was trying to save.
In February 2006, Poland refused to grant visas to Iranian researchers who were planning to visit Auschwitz. Polish Foreign Minister Stefan Meller said his country should stop Iran from investigating the scale of the Holocaust, which Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has dismissed as false. In Poland, denying the Holocaust by propagating "public and contradicting facts" is a crime punished by a sentence of up to 3 years in prison (article 55, Dz.U. 1998 nr 155 poz. 1016).