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Auschwitz concentration camp

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The main gate of Auschwitz I. The sign reads Arbeit Macht Frei, meaning Work will set you free.[1]
The main entrance to Auschwitz II, the death camp at Auschwitz
Famous photo of Hungarian Jewish children and an elderly woman on the way to the gas chambers of Auschwitz II (1944).

Auschwitz (pronounced "OW-sh-vitz"[2]) was a group of concentration camps run by Nazi Germany during World War II. There were three large camps at Auschwitz, and 48 smaller ones (called subcamps). Auschwitz I was the main camp, which held prisoners from 1940-1945. Auschwitz II (Birkenau) was the largest extermination camp (death camp) run by Nazi Germany during The Holocaust. Auschwitz III (Monovitz) and the subcamps were forced labor camps where prisoners worked as slaves.

The Auschwitz camps were in a town in Poland called Oświęcim. ("Auschwitz" is the German name for "Oświęcim.") In German, Auschwitz was called Konzentrationslager Auschwitz (KZ Auschwitz), which means "Auschwitz concentration camp." It was also called Vernichtungslager Auschwitz (VL Auschwitz), which means "Auschwitz extermination camp."

The Schutzstaffel (SS), led by Heinrich Himmler, ran the death camps and concentration camps in Nazi Germany.[3]

No one knows exactly how many people were sent to Auschwitz, or how many died there. However, historians estimate that between 1940 and 1945, the Nazis sent at least 1.3 million people to Auschwitz.[4] About 1.1 million of these people died or were killed at Auschwitz.[4]

Background[change | change source]

Extermination camps were different than concentration camps. Starting in 1940, the Nazis built about 150 concentration camps and many more subcamps. However, there were only six extermination camps in Nazi Germany, all in eastern Europe:[5]

In extermination camps, almost everyone was killed right after they got to the camps. The Nazis killed about 3.0-3.5 million people in these death camps.[6][7] 90% of them were Jewish people.[8]

Selection[change | change source]

Photo of a selection. People being sent to the left will be killed in the gas chambers. People being sent to the right are being chosen as slave workers[9]

Every day, Nazi authorities brought many prisoners to Auschwitz on trains. The camp's SS doctors separated these prisoners into three groups. This was called "selection." Selection was how the SS decided which of Auschwitz's camps each prisoner would go to.[9]

Death[change | change source]

Most prisoners sent to Auschwitz were selected for death.[9] This means the SS decided they should be killed right away. Usually, the SS put all children, most women, all elderly people, people who looked sick, and people who looked like they could not work in this group.[9][10] SS guards brought these people right to Auschwitz's gas chambers and killed them with poison gas.[10] They used a form of hydrogen cyanide, a type of poison gas called a blood agent.[11] They called this poison gas Zyklon B.[12]

Primo Levi, a prisoner who survived Auschwitz, later wrote about what selections were like:

In less than ten minutes all the fit [healthy] men had been collected together in a group. [I]n [the SS guards'] rapid and summary choice each one of us had been judged capable or not of working usefully for the [Third] Reich.... [W]e know that of our [group] no more than ninety-six men and twenty-nine women entered the [camps], and that of all the others, more than five hundred in number, not one was living two days later…

Thus in an instant, our women, our parents, our children disappeared. We saw them for a short while as an obscure mass at the other end of the platform; then we saw nothing more.[10]

Forced labor[change | change source]

The SS selected some strong, healthy people to be slave workers. They worked at Auschwitz I; at an IG Farben factory at Auschwitz III; and at munitions factories in the subcamps.[9] Records say that between 1940 and 1945, about 405,000 people worked as slave laborers, and about 84% of them (340,000) died.[13]

Oskar Schindler, a German business owner, saved about 1,000 Jews from Poland. He sent them away to his factory, and these Jews lived.[14]

Special jobs[change | change source]

SS officials chose a third group of people they could use for special jobs or medical experiments. For example:

Kapos and Sonderkommandos made it possible for a small number of SS guards to control tens of thousands of prisoners at Auschwitz. Altogether, about 7,000 SS members worked at Auschwitz.[18]p. 40

The camps[change | change source]

Auschwitz I[change | change source]

Auschwitz I was the office for all of the camps in the Auschwitz complex.

The Nazis kept prisoners at Auschwitz from 14 June 1940 until 27 January 1945.[18][19]p. 128

Prisoners[change | change source]

With latrines like these, sanitation was impossible at Auschwitz

The first prisoners at Auschwitz I were 728 people from Poland.[19] One of these prisoners was Kazimierz Albin. He survived Auschwitz. Later, he wrote about how the first day at Auschwitz began:

[W]e had to line up in five rows... [SS guard] Frizsch announced: "This is Auschwitz Concentration Camp... Any resistance or disobedience will be ruthlessly punished. Anyone disobeying superiors, or trying to escape, will be sentenced to death. Young and healthy people don't live longer than three months here. Priests one month, Jews two weeks. There is only one way out — through the crematorium chimneys."[20]

Next were 48 homosexual men from Germany. Then Jews arrived as prisoners.

From 1940-1941, at any time, there were between 13,000 and 16,000 prisoners in Auschwitz I. By 1942, there were 20,000. Most of these prisoners were not Jewish, because most of the Jewish prisoners were sent to Auschwitz II.[9]

At Auschwitz, the prisoners had to put marks on their uniforms to show why they were sent to Auschwitz. For example, Jewish prisoners had to sew two yellow triangles onto their clothes, in the shape of a Star of David.[21] Homosexual people had to sew a pink triangle onto their clothes.[22] The SS also gave each prisoner a serial number and tattooed the number on the prisoners' bodies. The SS never called prisoners by their names, only by their numbers.[23]

The living conditions at Auschwitz I were very bad. Prisoners got very little food. There was no sanitation, which made it easy for diseases to spread. Many prisoners died from diseases, starvation, and freezing to death.[24][25]

On Sundays, the prisoners had to clean their barracks, and were allowed to shower.[25]

Punishments and torture[change | change source]

Block 11 at Auschwitz. Its purpose was to punish and torture prisoners

The SS built many types of rooms meant to punish and torture prisoners. These included:[26]

  • Standing cells: These were rooms that were 1.5 square metres. The SS would keep four people in one of these rooms. The rooms were so small that the prisoners would have to stand all night. Then they would have to work during the day.
  • Starvation cells: The SS would lock prisoners into these rooms, and did not give them any water or food. They would leave the prisoners to die of dehydration or starvation.
  • Suffocation cells: These were rooms with only one small window. The SS would lock many prisoners into these rooms. As the prisoners breathed in the oxygen in the room, there would be less and less oxygen left. Eventually, there would be so little oxygen left in the room that the prisoners would suffocate.

Sometimes, the SS would tie a prisoner's hands behind his back and hang him by his wrists. This would break the person's shoulder joints. The SS would leave prisoners hanging like this for hours or days, sometimes until the prisoners died.[26]

The SS also hung some prisoners by the neck, so they would die a slow and painful death.[26]

Gas chambers[change | change source]

The SS tried killing prisoners with Zyklon B for the first time at Auschwitz I, on 3rd September 1941.[27]

In their first test, the SS used Zyklon B on 600 prisoners of war from the Soviet Union and about 250 Polish people.[18]p. 88[27] When the gas killed these prisoners, the SS realized that they could kill people much more quickly with Zyklon B than they could by shooting them.[27] They built a gas chamber, where they could kill over 700 people at a time.[28]p. 160 They also built a crematorium in block 11 of the camp.[28]p. 160

From 1941 to 1942, the SS killed about 60,000 people in this gas chamber.[29][30] After 1942, they made the gas chamber an air-raid shelter for the SS to hide in if Allied planes were dropping bombs nearby.[18]pp. 123–124

Today, the gas chamber still exists. It has been re-built, using its original parts. Now, it is a part of the museum at Auschwitz.[31]

Women prisoners[change | change source]

On 26th March 1942, the SS sent the first women prisoners to Auschwitz.[32]

From about March 1941 to January 1945, Nazi Dr. Carl Clauberg did medical experiments on many women at Auschwitz. He wanted to find a way to sterilize millions of people as easily and quickly as possible. He tried using X-rays, surgery, and medications to sterilize women prisoners.[33] The Nazis' plan was to get rid of everyone who was not "Aryan." As part of this plan, the Nazis sterilized many people so they could not have children who were not "Aryan."[18]p. 73

In 1943, Heinrich Himmler ordered the SS to create a brothel in Auschwitz. Non-Jewish women prisoners were forced to work in the brothel. Prisoners who were important to the Nazis, like kapos and chefs, were allowed to use the brothel as a reward.[34] Heinrich Himmler also ordered homosexual prisoners to visit the brothel every week. He thought this would 'cure' them of being homosexual.[35]

Johanna Langefeld, Maria Mandel, and Elisabeth Volkenrath were in charge of the women prisoners at Auschwitz.[36]

Dr. Mengele[change | change source]

Jewish twins who were kept alive to be used in Mengele's medical experiments. They were freed from Auschwitz by the Red Army in January 1945

Joseph Mengele did medical experiments many prisoners, especially twins, dwarves, and people with physical disabilities.[15] All of these experiments were very crude and painful. For example, Mengele castrated some prisoners without using any anesthetics. Many women and men died during these experiments.[15]

Mengele was also in charge of Auschwitz's camp "hospital."[15] This was not like a regular hospital. Prisoners who were doctors, like Gisella Perl, worked there. They tried to help prisoners who were sick or hurt, but they had no medications or medical supplies, not even clean bandages or running water.[37] If patients did not get better quickly, Mengele sent them to the gas chambers, or Nazi doctors killed them by injecting them with phenol.[15]

Auschwitz II (Birkenau)[change | change source]

Auschwitz II was Auschwitz's death camp. It was also called Birkenau (pronounced "BEER-kin-now"[2]), which means "the birch wood" (forest).[38] Today, Birkenau is often just called "Auschwitz."

The Nazis began building Auschwitz II in October 1941, because Auschwitz I was getting too crowded. By this time, Adolf Hitler had decided to kill all of the Jewish people.[5][39] The Nazis called this plan the "Final Solution." Soon after it was built, Heinrich Himmler ordered Auschwitz II to be used as a killing center. Its goal would be to kill every prisoner that was sent there.[5]

Auschwitz II had four gas chambers. The Nazis made the gas chambers look like showers. They convinced prisoners that they were going into the gas chambers to shower.[28]p. 160 Then they dropped Zyklon B into the gas chambers and killed everyone inside. The dead bodies were burned to ashes in Auschwitz II's four crematoria.[28]p. 160

Auschwitz II was the largest death camp run by Nazi Germany during The Holocaust.[4] The SS killed more people at Auschwitz than in any of the other Nazi death camps.[4] The SS built Auschwitz II's gas chambers so that 2,000 people could fit inside at once.[39] This meant they were able to kill about 2,000 people every 30 minutes in the gas chambers.[39]

Auschwitz III (Monowitz)[change | change source]

Auschwitz III was also called Monowitz (pronounced "MOW-no-vitz"[2]). At Monowitz and the 48 subcamps around it, prisoners worked as slaves in the IG Farben factory and factories that made weapons for the German Army.[18][40]p. 53

The IG Farben factory at Monowitz opened in 1941. By October 1942, prisoners had been forced to build the Monowitz camp, so slave workers could live there. IG Farben paid for the camp to be built. This made Monowitz the first concentration camp in history to be paid for and built by a private company.[18]p. 53

Between 1941 and 1945, about 35,000 prisoners worked at the IG Farben factory. Seven out of every ten of these prisoners (about 25,000) died from starvation, disease, and being forced to work so hard.[18]pp. 51, 53, 55 The average prisoner lived for only three months after being sent to Monowitz.[18]p. 56

Managers at the IG Farben factory were always trying to make the prisoners work harder. Often they threatened prisoners by saying they would be sent to the gas chambers if they did not work harder.[18]p. 56 Every month, 20% of the slave workers at the factory (one out of every five) died or were sent to the gas chambers.[41]

Commanders[change | change source]

Until the summer of 1943, Rudolf Höss was the commander of Auschwitz.[42]p. 193 After him, Arthur Liebehenschel and Richard Baer became commanders of the camp.[43]

After World War II, Höss wrote an autobiography. He gave many details about Auschwitz's camps.[42] At the Nuremberg Trials, he received the death penalty. He was hanged in front of the crematorium at Auschwitz I.

Resistance[change | change source]

One of the Sonderkommando photos (cropped), showing victims from the gas chamber being burned

By 1943, many resistance groups had formed inside Auschwitz's camps. These were groups who tried to fight back against the Nazis, any way they could.[44]

Resistance groups helped some prisoners to escape from Auschwitz. These people brought information to the world about the killings happening at Auschwitz.[44]

However, if one prisoner escaped, the SS killed many other prisoners. Sometimes, they brought the escaped prisoners' family members to Auschwitz. The SS did these things so that other prisoners would not try to escape. Overall, about 700 prisoners tried to escape from Auschwitz's three different camps. Of these 700, about 300 were able to escape.[44]

Some of the Sonderkommando at Auschwitz fought back against the SS. For example, in 1944, some of the Sonderkommando at Auschwitz blew up one of the camp's crematoria.[44]

Also in 1944, members of the Sonderkommando secretly took pictures inside Auschwitz.[45] These are the only pictures that show the mass murder that was happening at Auschwitz.[46] Members of the Polish resistance helped sneak the photographs out of the camp.[45]

The information[change | change source]

The Allies got some information about Auschwitz's camps between 1941 and 1944. However, they did not believe that so many people were being killed at Auschwitz. Then two people, Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler, escaped from Auschwitz. They wrote reports about what was happening at Auschwitz. From these reports, Allied leaders learned the truth about Auschwitz in the middle of 1944.[47]

During 1944, Allied airplanes had taken some photographs of the area, including Auschwitz.[38] However, no one studied these photographs. The first time anyone looked at these photos carefully was in the 1970s.[38]

At one time, the Allies had planned to bomb the camps. However, they decided not to, because they did not want to kill any prisoners.[48] In fact, some planes dropped bombs at nearby military targets. One bomb fell on the camp. It killed 315 prisoners and hurt 1425 more.[49]

People still argue about what the Allies could have done to save more of the prisoners at Auschwitz.

Freedom[change | change source]

By late 1944, the Red Army was close to Auschwitz. The SS blew up the gas chambers at Birkenau to hide what they had done. They also destroyed many other buildings and records.[18]pp. 125–127 On 17th January 1945, the camps' SS guards started to leave Auschwitz. They forced more than 58,000 prisoners to march west. They left behind only those who could not march. About 38,000 prisoners died on the forced march.[18]pp. 125–127

On 27th January 1945, the soldiers in the Red Army's 322nd Infantry reached Auschwitz. They found and freed about 7,500 prisoners.[18]p. 128

Deaths[change | change source]

Nobody knows exactly how many people died at Auschwitz, or other Nazi camps. The SS kept records, but they destroyed most of them.

Historians have used many different ways of estimating how many people died at Auschwitz. For example, they have studied what witnesses at the Nuremberg Trials said. Some people who survived Auschwitz also helped to estimate how many people died there.

Still, many different people and governments have disagreed about this:

  • The communist governments of the Soviet Union and Poland said that 4 million people died at Auschwitz[18]pp. 132–133
  • Rudolf Höss said that 2.5 million to 3 million people died there[39] Later he wrote that he made a mistake, saying "the figure of two and a half million [is] far too high."[42]
  • Adolf Eichmann said the number of deaths was 2 million[42]
  • In 1983, French scholar George Wellers was one of the first people to use the Nazis' records about deportations to estimate the number killed at Auschwitz. He calculated that 1.613 million died, including 1.42 million Jews and 146,000 Poles.[8]
  • Around the same time, Franciszek Piper used records of train arrivals and deportations to calculate 1.1 million Jewish deaths; 140,000-150,000 Polish deaths; and 23,000 Roma deaths.[8]

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum says that these are "the best estimates of the number of victims" at Auschwitz between 1940 and 1945:[4]

Total Number
Sent to Auschwitz
Number Killed
at Auschwitz
Jews 1,095,000 960,000 88%
Polish people 147,000 74,000 50%
Roma 23,000 21,000 91%
Soviet prisoners of war 15,000 15,000 100%
Other people 25,000 12,000 48%
Totals 1.3 million 1.08 million 83%

After the war[change | change source]

Museum[change | change source]

Eyeglasses of people who were killed at Auschwitz

A few years after World War II ended, the government of Poland decided to rebuild Auschwitz and put a museum there. They repaired some of the camps. Sometimes they made very small changes from the original setup.

The museum has many parts and exhibits. They include:[50]

  • Auschwitz II and the remains of the gas chambers.
  • About 110,000 men's, women's, and children's shoes. The shoes belonged to people who were killed at Auschwitz.
  • About 3,800 suitcases, which people sent to Auschwitz brought with them. When people were sent to Auschwitz, the Nazis told them they were just going to another place to live. So people brought suitcases with many things they thought they would need.
  • Other things that people sent to Auschwitz brought with them. These include over 12,000 kitchen utensils; eyeglasses; clothing; and many other things.
  • Things the SS used to kill prisoners. These include fake shower heads for the gas chambers; cans of Zyklon B; the door of one of the gas chambers; and a crematorium.

In 1947, the museum was opened for the public.[31] Later, people scattered the ashes of Auschwitz's victims between the huts where the prisoners lived. They see the entire area as a gravesite.

Other honors[change | change source]

In 1979, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Association (UNESCO) made Auschwitz a World Heritage Site.[51]

Also in 1979, Polish Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass at Auschwitz II.[52]

In the 1980s, Pope John Paul II made two people who were killed at Auschwitz into Catholic saints:

  • Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish priest. The Nazis sent him to Auschwitz because he helped Jewish refugees. When three men escaped from Auschwitz, the SS chose ten other prisoners to be starved to death as revenge. When one of those prisoners started to cry about his family, Kolbe volunteered to be killed in his place.[53]
  • Edith Stein, a Jewish woman who converted to Catholicism and became a Carmelite nun. The SS killed her in the gas chambers at Auschwitz.[54]

In 2005, the United Nations made 27 January the International Holocaust Remembrance Day. They chose 27 January because it is the day that the Red Army freed Auschwitz.[55]

On 27 January 2005, the European Parliament marked the anniversary of Auschwitz's liberation with a minute of silence. The European Parliament also passed a resolution saying that the murder of about 1.5 million people at Auschwitz's camps was terrible. The Parliament said they passed the resolution partly because of “the disturbing rise in antisemitism, and especially antisemitic incidents, in Europe, and for learning anew the wider lessons about the dangers of victimizing people on the basis of race, ethnic origin, religion, social classification, politics or sexual orientation."[56]

Controversies[change | change source]

After World War II, the communist governments of the Soviet Union and Poland put up a memorial sign at Auschwitz. The sign said 4 million people died at Auschwitz. After the fall of the communist government in Poland in 1989, the sign was changed to say that 1.1 million people died there. People who try to deny the Holocaust use this difference to claim that the Holocaust was propaganda.[57] However, the Holocaust is a fact of history, and the SS killed at least 1.1 million people at Auschwitz.[5][51]

Starting in 1989, the Polish government and media argued that it was not fair to use the name "Polish death camps" to describe the Auschwitz camps.[58] They said this name made it seem like Poland ran the death camps. In fact, Nazi Germany had taken over Poland, and the Nazis ran the death camps.[18]p. 73 In 2006, the Polish government asked UNESCO to change the name of the World Heritage Site at Auschwitz. They wanted UNESCO to change the name from "Auschwitz Concentration Camp" to "Former Nazi German Concentration Camp Auschwitz-Birkenau". The Polish government thought this would avoid misleading the public and would show that Nazi Germany ran the camp, not Poland. In 2007, UNESCO agreed, and changed the site's name to "Auschwitz Birkenau: German Nazi Concentration and Extermination Camp (1940-1945)."[51]

The Polish government had allowed filming at the sites for two movies, and a TV series. However, in some cases, they had did not allow filming inside the camps. In February 2006, Poland refused visas to some researchers from Iran who wanted to visit Auschwitz.[59] They did this because the President of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has denied the Holocaust, and even said that it is "a myth."[60][61]

Religious controversies[change | change source]

In 1984, the Carmelites opened a convent near Auschwitz I. Jewish groups protested, and the Carmelites removed the convent in 1993.[52]

In 1987, after Pope John Paul II beatified Edith Stein, Catholic people put up a cross near the gas chamber. After some time, a Star of David appeared at the site. Many religious symbols appeared. Finally, people removed all of them.[52]

In 1988, the Carmelites put up an 8-metre (26-foot) tall cross outside block 11 at Auschwitz.[52][62] Jewish groups protested, saying that most of the people killed at Auschwitz were Jewish. By 1998, 300 smaller crosses had appeared. Finally, people removed the smaller crosses. However, the larger cross is still there.[52]

Photo gallery[change | change source]

Related pages[change | change source]

References[change | change source]

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  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 "Glossary". A Teacher’s Guide to the Holocaust. College of Education, University of South Florida. Retrieved February 17, 2016.
  3. McNab, Chris (2009). The SS: 1923–1945. London: Amber Books. p. 18. ISBN 978-1-906626-49-5.
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  7. Please note that the numbers given vary widely; Fritjof Meyer says that about 55.000 people were slaughtered, about 365.000 of them in the gas chamber."Die Kontroverse um Fritjof Meyers Artikel in "Osteuropa" (mostly German)". Rudolf Höß talks about 2.5 million victims. (Erklärung Höß vom 24. April 1946, Gustave Gilbert:Nürnberger Tagebuch Seite 448-450,Fischer Taschenbuchverlag,1962,ISBN 3-596-21885-3)
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