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Auschwitz is the German name of the Polish town Oswiecim (Polish name Oświęcim) situated in Malopolskie voivodship, about 60 km southwest of Krakow. The town numbers 43,000 inhabitants (1998).

Nazi Germany built here several concentration camps and an extermination camp during World War II. There were three main camps, and thirty-nine subcamps. The three main camps were:

  • Auschwitz I, the original concentration camp which served as the administrative centre for the whole complex, and the site for murder of roughly 70,000 Polish intellectuals and Soviet Prisoners of War
  • Auschwitz II (Birkenau), an extermination camp and the site of the murder of roughly 1 million Jews and Romany
  • Auschwitz III (Monowice), which served as a labour camp for the IG Farben company

About 700 prisoners attempted to escape from the Auschwitz camps during the years of their operation, with about 300 attempts successful. A common punishment for escape attempts was death by starvation; the families of successful escapees were sometimes arrested and interned in Auschwitz and prominently displayed to deter others.

Rudolf Höss[?], who served as first commandant of the camps until summer 1943, 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.

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Auschwitz I

Entrance Auschwitz I
"Arbeit macht frei"
Auschwitz I served as the administrative center for the whole complex. It was founded on May 20, 1940, on the basis of old Polish brick army barracks. It 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 homosexuals were also imprisoned there. Jews were sent to the camp as well, beginning with the very first shipment (from Tarnow). At any time, the camp held between 13 and 16 thousand inmates; in 1942 the number reached 20 thousand.

The entrance to Auschwitz I was (and still is) marked with the cynical sign "Arbeit Macht Frei", "work liberates". It is reported that the camp's prisoners who left the camp during the day for construction or farm labor were made to march through the gate at the sounds of an orchestra. Contrary to what is depicted in several films, however, the majority of the Jews were imprisoned in the Auschwitz II camp, and did not pass under this sign.

The Germans selected some prisoners, often German criminals, as specially privileged supervisors of the other inmates. The various classes of prisoners were distinguishable by special marks on their clothes; Jews were generally treated worst. All inmates had to work; except in the associated arms factories, Sundays were reserved for cleaning and showering and there were no work assignments.

In September 1941, the SS conducted tests in block 10 of Auschwitz I, killing 850 Poles and Russians using Zyklon B gas, a pesticide that had previously been used to kill lice. The tests deemed successful, a gas chamber and crematorium was constructed by converting a bunker. This gas chamber operated from 1941 to 1942 and was then converted into an air-raid shelter.

The first women arrived in the camp on March 26, 1942 and from April 1943 to May 1944, the gynecologist Prof. Dr. Carl Clauberg[?] conducted sterilization experiments on Jewish women in Auschwitz I, with the aim of developing a simple injection method to be used on the Slavic people. Dr. Josef Mengele experimented on twins in the same complex. Prisoners in the camp hospital who were not quick to recover were regularly killed by lethal injection employing phenol.

The camp brothel, established in the summer of 1943 on Himmler's order, was located in block 24 and was used to reward privileged prisoners. It was staffed by women specifically selected for the purpose, and by volunteers from the female prisoners.

Auschwitz II (Birkenau) Auschwitz II (Birkenau) is the camp that most people know simply as "Auschwitz". It was the site of imprisonment of hundreds of thousands, and the murder of over one million people, mainly Jews and Roma and Sinti.

The camp is located in Brzezinka (Birkenau), about 3 kilometers from Auschwitz I. Construction started in 1941. The camp's size was about 2.5 kilometers by 2 kilometers. It was divided into several sections, each of which was separated into fields. Fields as well as the camp itself were surrounded with barbed, electrified wire (which was used by some of the inmates to commit suicide). The camp held up to 100,000 prisoners at one time.

Selection at the Birkenau ramp, 1944
Birkenau main entrance visible in the background
The camp's main purpose, however, was not internment with forced labor (as Auschwitz I&III) but rather extermination. For this purpose, the camp was equipped with 4 gas chambers with crematoria. Large-scale extermination started in Spring 1942.

Most people arrived at the camp by rail (from 1944 railway tracks extended into the camp itself; before that, arriving prisoners were marched from the Auschwitz railway station). Often, the whole transport would be sent to its death immediately. Sometimes, the Nazis would perform "selection", choosing whom to kill right away, and whom to imprison as labor force. The weak, sick or old were killed immediately. Dr. Mengele often participated in these selections.

Those arriving prisoners who survived the initial selection would go on to spend some time in quarantine quarters and eventually work on the camp's maintenance or expansion or be sent to one of the surrounding satellite work camps.

The gas chamber/crematorium complexes were all constructed alike: an underground undressing room holding around 2000 victims, adjacent to the gas chamber with fake shower heads. The toxic agent Zyklon B was discharged from openings in the ceiling. The crematorium was part of the same building. When the crematoria could not keep up, bodies were burned in open pits.

On October 7, 1944, the Jewish Sonderkommando (those prisoners kept separate from the main camp and involved in the operation of the gas chambers and crematoria) staged an uprising. Female prisoners had smuggled in explosives from a weapons factory, and crematorium IV was partly destroyed. The prisoners then attempted a mass escape, but all 250 were killed soon after.

Auschwitz III and satellite camps The surrounding satellite work camps were closely connected to German industry and were associated with arms factories, foundries or mines. The largest work camp was Auschwitz III Monowice, which was associated with the synthetic rubber and liquid fuel plant Buna-Werke by IG Farben. 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 allies were in possession of detailed air photographs of all camps since May 31, 1944. On September 13, 1944, American bombers flew an attack on the Auschwitz III factory camp, partly destroying it.

Evacuation and liberation The gas chambers of Birkenau were blown up by the Nazis in November 1944 in an attempt to hide what they had done from the advancing Soviet troups. On January 17, 1945 Nazi personnel started to evacuate the facility; most of the prisoners were marched West. The camps were liberated by the Red Army on January 27, 1945.

After the war After the war, Auschwitz remained in a state of disrepair for several years; then the Polish government decided to restore Auschwitz I and to preserve but not to restore Auschwitz II (where buildings were prone to decay).

Auschwitz I was made a museum site. As such, it combines elements from several periods into a single complex, for example restoring the gas chamber at Auschwitz I (which did not exist by the war's end), or moving the fence (because of building being done after the war but before the establishment of the museum). The camp was never intended to stand for centuries to come, and because of that, some of its elements are subject to reconstruction. However, in most cases the departure from the historical truth is minor, and is mentioned as such.

Auschwitz II is also open to the public.

The Auschwitz concentration camp is part of the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites.

Criticisms Several authors, sometimes sympathetic to holocaust revisionism, have criticised what they claim to be historical inaccuracies about Auschwitz, perpetrated by the Polish government, Jewish lobby groups, popular literature and Hollywood as part of the holocaust industry.

They sometimes point out that the communist Polish government used to cite numbers of 3-4 million murders in Auschwitz, which later scholarship has corrected to the figures given above.

External links


  • Y. Gutman and M. Berenbaum, eds., Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp, Indiana University Press, 1994

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