One of the most well-known German concentration camps was the Auschwitz-Birkenau facility, located in the town of Owiecium in upper Silesia, Poland. Auschwitz was, in fact, a complex of camps which combined the functions of labor, internment, and the extermination. There were three main components of Auschwitz: Auschwitz I, the conventional concentration center, Auschwitz II, or Birkenau, what became the Holocaust's most infamous death camp, and Buna, Auschwitz III, was a large slave labor camp which served the German war economy. According to Landau (1992), it was here that over 1.25 million people were killed within the confines of Auschwitz, 90% of which were Jews. Hitler had found what he termed "the final solution to the Jewish question."(p. 118)
Auschwitz was not the first Nazi concentration camp, but it was without doubt the most infamous. Preparations for Auschwitz began as early as the summer of 1940, under the supervision of Rudoplh Hoess. He would later become the commandant of the camp. Although the concentration camp system had been in operation for seven years when Auschwitz opened its doors on June 14, 1940, Auschwitz has come to symbolize the atrocities of the Nazi regime due to the masses who were murdered there. Life in Auschwitz was somewhat of an oxymoron. People were shipped from all parts of occupied Europe by trains that were usually used to carry freight or cattle. The majority suffered from dehydration and malnourishment and were put to death almost immediately upon arrival or given a fate almost worse than death in the labor camps.
Because prisons had become overcrowded, the original plan for the Auschwitz concentration camp was to be a place of punishment for Polish political prisoners. It slowly came to be a death camp for the races who were persecuted by the Nazis, though Jews were the most hated race. Most of the prisoners sent to Auschwitz went directly to the Birkenau facility. A few managed to avoid the gas chambers because they could be workers in the labor camp. Those who remained in Auschwitz I were given striped prisoner clothing and a number was tattooed on their arm. A color coded triangle attached to their clothing indicated the type of prisoner. Rogasky (1988) states that the political prisoners wore red, asocials black, homosexuals pink, Jehovah's Witnesses purple, and green indicated habitual prisoners.
Those who managed to escape the fate of Birkenau were then forced to do slave labor. The prisoners at Auschwitz I were housed in brick barracks, thousands with packed into each one. According to Swiebocka (1993), a typical day for a prisoner started at 4:30a.m. with the sound of the morning gong. Prisoners were beaten awake and received a half-liter of "coffee" for breakfast, which was just a lukewarm substance. Prisoners worked in factories, mines, farming operations, and construction, usually without equipment for even the hardest work. Anybody who tried to rest was sent to a special penal unit where they were tortured so harshly that it was unlikely they would survive. Swiebocka also said that the return trip from a day of work was terrible because the bodies of those who had died that day had to be brought back for the evening roll-call, which was taken at the end of each day. Roll-calls were dragged out sometimes for hours to torture the prisoners, especially on days of poor weather. When roll-call was finally finished, prisoners received a tiny amount of pork. Sleep was almost impossible due to overcrowding and lice in the beds. The prisoners were dying a slow, painful death.
According to Swiebocka (1993), the main execution site of Auschwitz I was Block 11 and its courtyard, also known as the "block of death." (p. 20) Shooting was the punishment for prisoners suspected of involvement in resistance activities or when the cells in Block 11 were particularly overcrowded. There were also hangings during roll-call on portable gallows. Some prisoners were subject to die of starvation. This was collective punishment for another prisoner's attempt to escape. Every few days, the S.S. checked for bodies and removed them until all of the prisoners had perished.
When Auschwitz was extended into Auschwitz II-Birkenau and Auschwitz III, many prisoners were sent to these facilities for execution. In order to successfully conduct these mass murders in an orderly maner, Rudolph Hoess, commander of Auschwitz, came up with the idea to create gas chambers and crematoriums. According to Swiebocka (1993), shooting had been ruled out because of the sheer numbers of people and the psychological burden it would place on the S.S. who had to carry it out. The S.S. men were a branch of Hitler's private army, chosen to run the concetration camps and ghettos. In September of 1941 the initial experiments were conducted. Zyclon B, a hydrogen cyanide gas, was the gas that became the instrument of murder. Two hundred and fifty Polish prisoners and six hundred Russian prisioners of war were asphyxiated in the trial of the gas. By introducing Zyclon B into underground chambers made for mass killings, about 1500 people could be "disposed of" at one time. This required between 5 and 7 kilograms of Zyclon B. Records show that about 20 tons of the material was delivered to Auschwitz in 1942 and 1943.
According to Swiebocka (1993),a gas chamber was a technological facility used for mass murder. Auschwitz had gas chambers of different sizes; in the largest of these, as many as 2,000 people could be murdered in 10 to 20 minutes. The first gas chamber was in Auschwitz I, and it was much smaller than the others being built in Auschwitz II-Birkenau. At Birkenau, the main part of Auschwitz used for murder, two small farmhouses operated as improvised gas chambers: the "white house" and the "red house." Later, four custom-built chambers were constructed in Birkenau (Gas Chambers II, III, IV, and V). Two were underground and two above ground.
Mass killings of this magnitude presented the S.S. with the problem of disposing of the bodies. Each of the four custom-built gas chambers in Auschwitz II-Birkenau had its own crematorium, giving a combined theoretical capacity of reducing 4,416 bodies to ashes every twenty-four hours, as described by Swiebocka (1993). The S.S. soon realized that more then 8,000 bodies could be disposed of if the incinerators were emptied before the bodies were fully reduced to ashes and any remaining bones were crushed separately. Since the number of people murdered was far greater than the number of corpses that could be burned in the incinerators, a solution was adopted to pile up the remaining bodies and burn them in the open air. However, before the bodies were burned the victims' hair was cut off and fillings and false teeth were removed. The hair was used to manufacture hair cloth, and the metals were melted into bars and sent to Berlin.
The mass extermination of Jews at Auschwitz began in the summer of 1942, states Levin (1968). The majority of those killed at Auschwitz perished in the gas chambers. According to Landau (1992), the gas chambers were disguised as showers. Victims were told to undress and were herded into the chambers with whips and gunfire. The chamber would be locked up, and Zyclon B slowly escaped out of the imposter shower heads. Those standing under the shower heads were killed instantly. As soon as the victims felt the gas, they would crowd together away from the menacing columns and stampede toward the huge metal door where they piled up in what Levin (1968) describes as "a blue clammy blood-spatered pyramid." (p. 316) Twenty or thirty minutes later, electric pumps removed the poisonous air and the hair and teeth were removed from the bodies. The bodies were then sent to the crematoriums for disposal.
The gas chamber was not the only form of murder used in Auschwitz. In the infirmaries, S.S. doctors conducted lethal medical experiments on the prisoners. They murdered the sick and the weak by injecting phenol, a toxic substance, into the heart. Professor Carl Clauberg conducted experiments on Jewish women in Block 10 of Auschwitz I to devise a rapid method for mass sterilization. According to Swiebocka (1993), the intention was to use it for the biological genocide of the Slavs. Landau (1992) states that these experiments were performed under the rationalization of the advancement of medical science. These doctors would engage in such activities as sterilization, castration, removal of living fetuses at different stages of development, transplanting of human organs, and seeing how long a man could survive in freezing water.
In the third section of the Auschwitz complex, Buna, existed labor camps and factories in which Jews were forced to endure harsh working conditions in order to serve the war economy. According to Landau (1992), those who were not gassed immediately were subject to all maners of torture. Those who were judged as being physically capable were forced into back breaking labor, in which, as Nazi official Adolf Eichman described, " a large proportion dropped out through natural reduction." (Landau, p. 175) Buna, or Auschwitz III, was opened on May 31, 1942, as a series of forced labor camps where synthetic oil and rubber were produced. According to Rogasky (1988), Aushwitz also had fish-breeding and experimental plant-growing facilities, along with an S.S. armaments factory. Concentration camps such as Auschwitz were designed to be completely self-sufficant for the prisoners.
As Gilbet (1985) states, although these camps were the sites of inhumane working conditions and inhumane labor demands, the Buna works did offer some Jews a method in which to survive the mass killings of the Holocaust. Survival was possible because of the need of un paid labor workers in the camps. Therefore, a healthy worker had a greater chance of survival than an elderly person. Gilbert explains this survival:
If these Jews could survive the harsh conditions of work, the starvation, and the brutality, they could hope to survive the war, and several thousand did so, unlike the hundreds of thousands of adults sent to Chelmno, Sobibor, and Belzec, where all, whether "able-bodied" or not, were gassed. (p. 354-355)
But while Buna did give the Jews imprisoned in Auschwitz an opportunity for survival unlike the Jews in other concentration camps, survival still remained highly unlikely. Of the "several thousand" who survived the labor camps, tens of thousands of the workforce, including women and children, died due to the backbreaking work coupled with malnutrition. Additionally, according to Gilbrt (1985), those who became too weak to work were sent to Birkenau to be gassed.
By 1944, it became clear to the German officals that the end of the war was near. On October 7, 1944, several inmates blew up one of the four crematoria located at Auschwitz. In January of 1945, the Auschwitz survivors were freed by the Russian Red Army. Officals tried to cover up the evidence of the genocide that occured at Auschwitz. Some prisoners of the camp were deported to camps inside Germany. Many Jews died as a result of these long marches which became known as "death marches." The conditions of remaining concentration camps declined along with the German war effort.
The Holocaust is by far one of the most horrible tragedies in human history. More than six million people died as a result of this massacre, many of them in the Auschwitz complex. It is often hard to believe that such a terrible thing could have happened just a short time ago, but remnants of this infamous camp still remain serving as a reminder of the reality of the tragic end of so many lives.
This page was created by D.D., L.D., N.P., and A.R., 5/22/97,
for History and Thought of Western Man, Rich East High School.
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