The Nazi camp of Auschwitz, located thirty miles west of Krakow, was the largest, most deadly camp used during World War II (Friedrich 2). Built in 1940, it was the first camp located beyond the frontiers of the Third Reich (Friedrich 4). “According to various estimates, 1,600,000 people were murdered in the killing center?” (Yahil 372). Ninety percent of those who were murdered in Auschwitz were Jewish (Yahil 372).
Originally an Austrian artillery barracks, Auschwitz was to be supposed to be built at the intersection of the Sola River and the Vistula. Heinrich Himmler, commander of the Schutzstaffel (the Fuher’s private guard), was to lead the building of the camp. Himmler placed SS major Rudolph Hoess in charge of the construction (Friedrich 5).
The first people who worked to build the camp of Auschwitz were thirty German criminals, brought there on May 20,1940, by an SS officer named Gerhard Pallitzsch (Friedrich 7). The town council of Oswiecim cooperated with Hoess’s orders of rounding up, and enslaving over two hundred Jews to help work on the construction (Friedrich 7). Already, Hoess was receiving letters of when the camp would be ready to accept prisoners. Before he even had time to respond, the first trainload of 728 Polish political prisoners arrived on June 14, 1940. On July 6, a prisoner by the name of Tadeusz Wiejowski escaped. The SS and other various German groups searched for him for three days, but he was never found. This angered Hoess, causing him to declare that six villages that surrounded the area were now property of Auschwitz (Friedrich 7-8).
Heinrich Himmler, who wanted Auschwitz to be the agricultural center of the new Reich, was still dissatisfied (Friedrich 8). In March 1941, he ordered the erection of Auschwitz II, a second much larger section of the camp, which was located about three kilometers from the original camp (Gutman 107). Meanwhile, on June 22, Hitler’s panzer division began to plow across the Russian borders (Friedrich 8). Soon after, thousands of Russians were sent to build the second Auschwitz, known as Birkenau (Friedrich 9).
In early October, the first snow fell in the area (Adelsberger 49). No one, not the prisoners, nor those in charge of the camps were prepared for the harsh winter (Adelsberger 49). The majority of the prisoners had shoes (Adelsberger 50). There were no windows in the barracks, and barely any had heat (Adelsberger 50). That winter, thousands were either shot, or died of starvation (Adelsberger 50). They were buried in a mass grave that was approximately one-hundred-fifty feet wide, two-hundred feet long and fifteen feet deep (Friedrich 11). Of the twelve thousand Russians sent to Auschwitz, only a hundred and fifty were still alive by the next summer (Friedrich 11).
Local fisheries complained of fish dying due to the contamination of the soil around the area. The decomposition of the bodies of the prisoners was beginning to poison the earth. Hoess had to find another way to dispose of the bodies. Heinrich Himmler heard of the problem and sent Adolf Eichmann to help Hoess find a solution. What they found was a gas called Zyklon B that had the potential to kill up too eight hundred prisoners within minutes. Soon after, plans for the construction of four crematoria were approved, and the ability for the mass destruction of humans was reached (Friedrich 16-17).
The leaders and doctors of the camp would line up on the railway and wave the new prisoners into line. A wave to the left meant a straight trip to the gas chamber. Most woman and children were waved to the left along with the old and sick. Also everyone that wanted to remain with his or her families was waved to the left. A wave to the right meant hard labor in construction gangs, or slave labor (Gutman 109).
May 12 brought a turning point in the history of Auschwitz. The fifteen hundred Jews on the train from Sosnowiek that arrived that day were the first to go directly to the gas chambers. There was no selection on the ramp, and no wave to the right. Auschwitz finally became what it was originally planned to be: a Vermichtungslager- an extermination camp. The root word Vernichtung: “To make something into nothing. Total annihilation.” (Friedrich 19-30).
The summer of 1942 brought trainloads of Jews and other prisoners from France, Belgium, Holland, and Croatia. In November came those from Norway. In March 1943, the four crematoria were all up and running in Birkenau, and the camps began getting prisoners from Greece. In the spring, Polish prisoners from the ghettos arrived and were gassed. In October, Jews from Athens were shipped to Auschwitz (Friedrich 34).
The destination of the newcomers to Auschwitz was Bunker number 1, the gas chambers. SS First Lieutenant Kurt Gerstein witnessed the mass extermination of the Jews. He recalls:
. . . The procession started to move. . . .They all walked along the path, all naked,
men, women, and children. . . . The sturdy SS man stood in the corner and told the
wretched people in a clerical voice: “Nothing at all is going to happen to you!
You must deep breath in the chambers. That expands the lungs. . . .” The
squad opened the wooden doors from the other side. . . . The dead were standing
upright like basalt pillars, pressed together in the chambers. There would have not
have been room to fall or even bend over. One could see the families even in
tear them apart (Meltzer 128-129).
Those who were not sent to the gas chambers were sent to the part of the camp called the “quarantine.” But first they were taken to the camps bath, the “sauna.” There their cloths and every last personal belonging were taken from them, their hair was shorn-men and women alike-and they were given striped prisoners garb (Gutman 109). One survivor said “. . . they confiscated the very last of our belongings; nothing remained, none of our cloths or underwear, no soap, no towel, no needle, and no utensils, not even a spoon.” (Adelsberger 30).
The daily schedule started off with the roll call, the exercise performed in order to keep continuous records of the precise number of prisoners. It could last anywhere from one to forty-eight hours standing at attention in the broiling sun, in pouring rain, and even in frigid, subzero weather with howling winds (Adelsberger 48). Following the roll call, the prisoners were forced to do labor know as “sport.” “Sport” in Auschwitz consisted of jogging in place until the Kapos instructed them to hop like a frog, until they were told to run again. After that there was a fifteen-minute lunch break, then some form of class. For example, sometimes the Jewish prisoners were made to sing anti-Semitic songs. Following that was another time block for “sport”, and then the roll call completed the day (Gutman 111).
The prisoners slept in three-tiered wooden bunks with half a dozen men to each bunk. There were no mattresses or pillows. There was also no heat or ventilation at all. There was no segregation of those with diseases, so sometimes whole barracks would become infected. If someone died during the night, the rats would usually devour the corpse before morning. The dead prisoner would still be expected at roll call the next morning, so the remaining prisoners would be responsible for dragging the corpse out of the bed and to the line (Friedrich 40-41).
Of all the different blocks, block 11 was the harshest. One form of torture inflicted on the prisoners was where the SS would slowly pull out the prisoners’ fingernails with a pair of pliers. Another was the Boger swing. It was a steel bar, which the prisoner’s wrists and ankles were tied to. Gestapo Deputy Boger, who invented the device, would then run at the prisoners with a club, usually aiming for the genitals, who spun head over heals. There were also standing cells that the prisoners were sentenced to. They were three-foot by three-foot vertical tubes where the prisoner got no food, no water, and could not lie down (Friedrich 54-56).
Block 10 was even worse. Here, thousands of prisoners underwent pseudo-medical experiments. Doctor Josef Mengele, known as “the Angel of Death”, was most known for his experiments practiced on twins, women, and dwarfs (Gutman 111-112).
As the Germans began to lose the war, they sped up the extermination process. With such a large amount of prisoners being killed each day, and the crematoriums not doing the job fast enough, Hoess ordered nine gigantic pits dug on a slant. The bodies were thrown into the pits and burned so the fat of the corpses would run down the slopes of the pits and could be used again to help burn the next set of prisoners (Friedrich 73).
On January 12, 1945, the Soviet Armies, which had been stationed just outside the camp for more than a week, launched a full attack on Auschwitz. On January 18, the Germans ordered a full evacuation and everything burned. The prisoners were made to get into columns of five outside the camp. The prisoners, Kapos, and SS began their march through Silesia. Even as they tried to escape, the Russians opened fire on the Germans (Friedrich 74).
At the beginning of the march, over 60,000 prisoners started to head toward Gross-Rosen cap, which was a hundred and fifty miles to the west. Soon, they were made to run. Any prisoner who fumbled or fell was shot. One third of the prisoners died along the way (Friedrich 75).
Auschwitz was the largest graveyard in human history. The number of Jews killed in the gas chambers at Birkenau is estimated to be over one and a half million men, woman, and children. Best said by Isreal Gutman, “The horrors of Auschwitz have become legendary, and the name itself has passed into international usage as a byword for all that is bestial in humankind.” (Gutman 117).
Adelsberger, Lucie. Auschwitz: A Doctor’s Story. Boston: N.U.P., 1995.
Friedrich, Otto. The Kingdom of Auschwitz. New York: HarperCollins, 1994.
Gilbert, Martin. Auschwitz and Allies. New York: Holt Rinehart Winston, 1981.
Gutman, Isreal. Encyclopedia of the Holocaust. New York: Macmillan, 1990.