Auschwitza concentration, forced labor and extermination camp, it was the largest camp established by the Germans. It has been called the largest graveyard in human history and has become a symbol for the Holocaust itself.
The Auschwitz complex consisted of Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II (also known as Auschwitz-Birkenau or Birkenau), Auschwitz III (Monowitz) and forty-five sub-camps.
Auschwitz I began as penal camp. The "Arbeit Macht Frei" (Work Leads to Freedom) sign was above the entrance to Auschwitz I. It was the site of the infamous Block 11, the punishment block, and the site where the depraved "Medical experiments" were carried out.
Auschwitz II or Auschwitz-Birkenau was a forced labor and extermination camp. Of vast dimensions, it played a central role in the plan to exterminate the Jews of Europe, the so-called "Final Solution."
Trains arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau daily with Jews from almost every German occupied country in Europe. The new arrivals underwent a process of selection. The majority, including all of the old people, the young and mothers with children, were sent directly to the gas chambers. Those who were chosen for forced labor were tattooed with their camp numbers on their left arms.
In April 1944, two young Jews, Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler, escaped from the camp and wrote a detailed report which was smuggled to the free world. It exhorted the Allies to bomb the camp. Although industrial areas near the camp were bombed, the gas chambers and the deportation railways never were.
In October 1944, Crematorium IV was destroyed in an uprising by the inmates who tended the extermination installations (Sonderkommando). Auschwitz III or Monowitz was primarily a labor camp built to produce Buna or synthetic rubber. For most of its existence Auschwitz was commanded by Rudolf Hoss. After his trial in 1947, he wrote his memoirs while awaiting execution.
The SS began evacuating Auschwitz on January 18, 1945 as the Soviet army began approaching. Almost 60,000 prisoners were forced on death marches to their eventual evacuation to Germany. The Soviet army reached the camp on January 27, 1945, freeing 7,650 prisoners who had not been evacuated. In the warehouses the Soviets found 7.7 tons (7,000 kg) of human hair, which had been packed for shipping.
It is estimated that 1,600,000 people were murdered at Birkenau, over 90 percent of them Jews. The Jews and Roma (Gypsies) were the only people targeted for extinction, although large numbers of Poles and Soviet prisoners-of-war and people of other various nationalities died there as well.
When the Germans abandoned Auschwitz to the Soviet Army in January 1945, they destroyed what seemed to them to be the most damning evidence of their crimes-the crematoria were blown up along with most of the records of the camp. What they failed to destroy when they burned the records of the camp Kommandantur were the documents of the construction office located 300 yards away.
The archives of the Zentralbauleitung der Waffen SS und Polizei, Auschwitz O/S (Central Building Authority of the Waffen SS and the Police, Auschwitz in Upper Silesia) contained hundreds of site plans, maps, building and guard tower designs and revisions to the plans. These tell the story of Auschwitz through the intentions of the planners.
The story they tell, like most stories in history, looks haphazard when viewed from a contemporary perspective time. Auschwitz was not planned as an death camp from its earliest beginnings, but evolved into one as Nazi policy toward the Jews changed and became less concerned with exploitation and more and more concerned with immediate extermination. Over the period of Nazi domination from 1939 to 1945, the prime function of Auschwitz shifted from penal colony, to agricultural station, to industrial site and finally to extermination center.
The plans for the crematoria show this unsteady evolution. Crematorium I in Auschwitz I was located in a converted ammunition bunker. Originally it was intended to dispose of the bodies of the prisoners who had died at the camp. Later it assumed a second function as an execution site for the Gestapo. Prisoners who had been tried in courts elsewhere were brought to crematorium I to be executed. They were shot in a room which had been designated as a morgue and which adjoined the room containing the ovens. In the morgue a drain in the floor collected the blood. Because the odor became foul and unbearable to the SS, a powerful ventilation system was installed.
Went the Nazi masters saw the need for efficient mass extermination, crematorium I with its powerful ventilation system was at hand. The fans would extract the poison gas. The lethal agent, Zyklon B, was being used elsewhere in the camp to exterminate lice; its properties were well known. All that remained to convert crematorium I into a gas chamber was to hermetically seal the doors and to cut several rectangular holes in the flat roof to drop the gas in.
The plans for crematorium II, designated for Auschwitz I, but later changed to the larger site of Auschwitz-Birkenau, originally included a chute to slide the bodies down into the cellar where there were 2 morgues. When the goal of camp became the mass extermination of deportees, the slide was removed leaving a wider stairway. Live victims would walk, not slide, down to the morgues, which now became a gas chamber and an undressing room.
The archives of the Building Authority implicate German civilians in the mass murders. While the Nazi doctors, the SS guards and the Capos exemplified depravity and physical cruelty astounding in its departure from civilized norms, the behavior of civilian businessman, architects and engineers exhibited a parallel descent into barbarity. For the plans clearly indicate that there was a knowing participation in mass murder and in the exploitation of a slave labor so arduous as to destroy its victims within days or, at most, weeks.
A few examples follow of how civilian firms were implicated in the crime: The Topf and Sons firm designed the ovens for crematorium II; they had the enormous capacity of 1440 bodies per day. The imprimatur of Topf can be seen today in raised letters on the machinery of the ovens.
The firm AEG, contractor for the electrical system in crematorium II, warned that the capacity of the system would not allow for simultaneous "special treatment" and "incineration." (Sure enough, in March 1943 the electrical system of crematorium II caught fire and both the ventilation system that extracted the Zyklon B gas from the gas chamber and the forced-draft system that fanned the incinerator flames were damaged.)
The chemical giant IG Farben was the largest corporation in Europe, and after General Motors, US Steel and Standard Oil of NJ, the fourth largest corporation in the world. It chose a site near Auschwitz camp to establish a monumental project that would produce Buna or synthetic rubber. There was coal and lime there, abundant water, access to rail and cheap labor. The SS would supply unlimited manual labor to IG Farben for 3 marks per person per day. The Auschwitz survivor Rudolf Vrba describes how IG Farben engineers stood with yellow folding rules in their hands while ruthless guards beat prisoners to death literally under their faces.
The enormity of the crime at the Auschwitz camps justifies its role as one of the foremost symbols of the Holocaust. In the post-war years the symbol of Auschwitz became the focus of various political, religious, nationalistic, Holocaust denial and other groups. The Communists had a use for Auschwitz in their hagiography of anti-Nazi resistance, as did the Polish nationalists, for many of their heroes perished there.
For a time the Jewish presence was erased from the story of the camp as told by the signs erected there and in the booklets about the camp published in Poland. Catholics appropriated the symbol of Auschwitz for their martyrs, and crosses erected on the site offended Jewish memory. The human hair collected there became the focus of those who wanted to honor the victims by burying it and those who felt that the hair was a telling historical artifact and should be displayed. Holocaust deniers visited the site and came away with pseudo-scientific reasons to disbelieve that the Holocaust actually happened.
In 1959 a jury chaired by the distinguished sculptor Henry Moore met to chose a chief monument to erect on the site. The design that was chosen was a collaboration that was ultimately deemed not suitable, and simple memorial tablets and a monolith were chosen instead. Auschwitz is today a Polish State Museum and Historical Archive and a popular tourist destination for hundreds of thousands of tourists each year.
Sources: Pelt & Dwork, Auschwitz 1270 to the Present; Encyclopedia of the Holocaust; Young, The Texture of Memory; Historical Atlas of the Holocaust