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I traveled there from Krakow. I took a bus for 2 hours. I was there alone and I don’t recommend to anybody go alone, because is very hard. Is a place that I think everybody has to go to appreciate better the live and everything that we have.

I traveled there from Krakov. I took a bus for 2 hours. I was there alone and I don´t recommend to anybody go alone, because is very hard. Is a place that I think everybody has to go to apreciate

Located in German-occupied southern Poland, it took its name from the nearby town of Oświęcim (Auschwitz in German), situated about 50 kilometers west of Kraków and 286 kilometers from Warsaw. Following the German occupation of Poland in September 1939, Oświęcim was incorporated into Germany as part of the Katowice District (Regierungsbezirk Kattowitz), or unofficially East Upper Silesia (Ost-Oberschlesien), and renamed Auschwitz. The word Birkenau means 'Birch tree' of which there are many surrounding the Birkenau area of the complex.

The complex consisted of three main camps: Auschwitz I, the administrative center; Auschwitz II (Birkenau), an extermination camp or Vernichtungslager; and Auschwitz III (Monowitz), a work camp. There were also around 40 satellite camps, some of them tens of kilometers from the main camps, with prisoner populations ranging from several dozen to several thousand.

The camp commandant, Rudolf Höss, testified at the Nuremberg Trials that up to 2.5 million people had died at Auschwitz. The Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum revised this figure in 1990, and new calculations now place the figure at 1.1–1.6 million, about 90 percent of them Jews from almost every country in Europe. Most of the dead were killed in gas chambers using Zyklon B; other deaths were caused by systematic starvation, forced labor, lack of disease control, individual executions, and so-called medical experiments.

Beginning in 1940, Nazi Germany built several concentration camps and an extermination camp in the area, which at the time was under German occupation. The Auschwitz camps were a major element in the execution of the Holocaust; about 1.1 million people were killed there, of whom almost 90% were Jews.

The three main camps were:

Auschwitz I, the original concentration camp which served as the administrative center for the whole complex, and was the site of the deaths of roughly 70,000 people, mostly Poles and Soviet prisoners of war.
Auschwitz II (Birkenau), an extermination camp or Vernichtungslager, where at least 960,000 Jews, 75,000 Poles, and some 19,000 Roma (Gypsies) were killed.
Auschwitz III (Monowitz), which served as a labor camp for the Buna-Werke factory of the I.G. Farben concern.

The Auschwitz complex of camps encompassed a large industrial area rich in natural resources. There were 48 camps in all. The three main camps were Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II-Birkenau, and a work camp called Auschwitz III-Monowitz, or the Buna. Auschwitz I served as the administrative center, and was the site of the deaths of roughly 70,000 people, mostly ethnic Poles and Soviet prisoners of war. Auschwitz II was an extermination camp or Vernichtungslager, the site of the deaths of at least 960,000 Jews, 75,000 Poles, and some 19,000 Roma (Gypsies). Auschwitz III-Monowitz served as a labor camp for the Buna-Werke factory of the IG Farben concern. The camps were operated by the Nazi party's paramilitary arm, the Schutzstaffel (SS), and were headed by Obersturmbannführer Rudolf Höss, May 1940–November 1943; Obersturmbannführer Arthur Liebehenschel, November 1943–May 1944; and Sturmbannführer Richard Baer, May 1944–January 1945.

Yisrael Gutman writes that it was in the concentration camps that Hitler's concept of absolute power came to fruition. Primo Levi, who described his year in Auschwitz in If This Is a Man, wrote:

Never has there existed a state that was really "totalitarian." ... Never has some form of reaction, a corrective of the total tyranny, been lacking, not even in the Third Reich or Stalin's Soviet Union: in both cases, public opinion, the magistrature, the foreign press, the churches, the feeling for justice and humanity that ten or twenty years of tyranny were not enough to eradicate, have to a greater or lesser extent acted as a brake. Only in the Lager was the restraint from below non-existent, and the power of these small satraps absolute.

Construction on Auschwitz II-Birkenau, the extermination camp, began in October 1941 to ease congestion at the main camp. It was larger than Auschwitz I, and more people passed through its gates than through Auschwitz I. It was designed to hold several categories of prisoners, and to function as an extermination camp in the context of Heinrich Himmler's preparations for the Final Solution of the Jewish Question, the extermination of the Jews. The first gas chamber at Birkenau was "The Little Red House," a brick cottage converted into a gassing facility by tearing out the inside and bricking up the walls. It was operational by March 1942. A second brick cottage, "The Little White House," was similarly converted some weeks later.

The Nazis had committed themselves to the final solution no later than January 1942, the date of the Wannsee Conference. In his Nuremberg testimony on April 15, 1946, Rudolf Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz, testified that Heinrich Himmler personally ordered him to prepare Auschwitz for that purpose:

In the summer of 1941 I was summoned to Berlin to Reichsfuehrer SS Himmler to receive personal orders. He told me something to the effect—I do not remember the exact words—that the Fuehrer had given the order for a final solution of the Jewish question. We, the SS, must carry out that order. If it is not carried out now then the Jews will later on destroy the German people. He had chosen Auschwitz on account of its easy access by rail and also because the extensive site offered space for measures ensuring isolation.

Laurence Rees writes that Höss may have misremembered the year Himmler said this. Himmler did indeed visit Höss in the summer of 1941, but there is no evidence that the final solution had been planned at this stage. Rees writes that the meeting predates the killings of Jewish men by the Einsatzgruppen in the East and the expansion of the killings in July 1941. It also predates the Wannsee Conference. Rees speculates that the conversation with Himmler was most likely in the summer of 1942. The first gassings, using an industrial gas derived from prussic acid and known by the brand name Zyklon-B, were carried out at Auschwitz in September 1941.

In early 1943, the Nazis decided to increase greatly the gassing capacity of Birkenau. Crematorium II, originally designed as a mortuary, with morgues in the basement and ground-level furnaces, was converted into a killing factory by placing a gas-tight door on the morgues and adding vents for Zyklon B and ventilation equipment to remove the gas. It came online in March. Crematorium III was built using the same design. Crematoria IV and V, designed from the start as gassing centers, were also constructed that spring. By June 1943 all four crematoria were up. Most victims were killed during a period afterwards.

The camp was staffed partly by prisoners, some of whom were selected to be kapos and sonderkommandos. The kapos were responsible for keeping order in the barrack huts; the sonderkommandos prepared new arrivals for gassing (ordering them to remove their clothing and surrender their personal possessions) and transferred corpses from the gas chambers to the furnaces, having first pulled out any gold that the victims might have had in their teeth. Members of these groups were killed periodically. The kapos and sonderkommandos were supervised by members of the SS; altogether 6,000 SS members worked at Auschwitz.

Command of the women's camp, which was separated from the men's area by the incoming railway line, was held in turn by Johanna Langefeld, Maria Mandel, and Elisabeth Volkenrath.

There were 45 smaller satellite camps, some of them tens of kilometers from the main camps, with prisoner populations ranging from several dozen to several thousand. The largest were built at Trzebinia, Blechhammer and Althammer. Women's subcamps were constructed at Budy, Pławy, Zabrze, Gleiwitz I, II, III, Rajsko, and Lichtenwerden (now Světlá). The satellite camps were named Aussenlager (external camp), Nebenlager (extension or subcamp), and Arbeitslager. Danuta Czech of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum writes that most of the satellite camps were pressed into service on behalf of German industry. Inmates of 28 of them worked for the German armaments industry. Nine camps were set up near foundries and other metal works, six near coal mines, six supplied prisoners to work in chemical plants, and three to light industry. One was built next to a plant making construction materials and another near a food processing plant. Apart from the weapons and construction industries, prisoners were also made to work in forestry and farming.

Auschwitz I was the original camp, serving as the administrative center for the whole complex. The site for the camp—16 one-story buildings—had earlier served as an army barracks. It was considered as a concentration camp site by Germany's Inspectorate for Concentration Camps in January 1940, but was deemed unsuitable. SS Captain Rudolf Höss visited the site again in April 1940, and acting on a favourable report from him, Heinrich Himmler, Germany's Minister of the Interior, ordered the camp to be built there, with Höss as its first commandant. Born in the Black Forest in 1900 to a Roman Catholic family, and described as calm and collected—"like a grocery clerk," according to witnesses—Höss spent his time as commandant living with his wife and four children in a house near the crematorium in Auschwitz I. SS-Obersturmführer Josef Kramer was appointed Höss's deputy.

Local residents were evicted, including 1,200 people who lived in shacks around the barracks, creating an empty area of 40 sq kms, which the Germans called the "interest area of the camp." Three hundred Jewish residents of Oświęcim were brought in to lay foundations. The first prisoners—30 German criminal prisoners from the Sachsenhausen camp—arrived in May 1940, and were set up there as the "long arm" of the SS, intended to act as functionaries within the prison system. The first transport of 728 Polish prisoners arrived on June 14, 1940. The inmate population grew quickly, as the camp absorbed Poland's intelligentsia and dissidents, including the Polish underground resistance. By March 1941, 10,900 were imprisoned there, most of them Poles.

The harsh work requirements, combined with poor nutrition and hygiene, led to high death rates among the prisoners. Block 11 of Auschwitz was the "prison within the prison", where violators of the numerous rules were punished. Some prisoners were made to spend the nights in "standing-cells". These cells were about 1.5 m2 (16 sq ft), and four men would be placed in them; they could do nothing but stand, and were forced during the day to work with the other prisoners. In the basement were located the "starvation cells"; prisoners incarcerated here were given neither food nor water until they were dead.

The SS selected some prisoners, often German criminals, as specially privileged supervisors of the other inmates Although involved in numerous atrocities, only two were ever prosecuted for their individual behavior; many were deemed to have had little choice but to act as they did. The various classes of prisoners were distinguishable by special marks on their clothes; Jews and Soviet prisoners of war were generally treated the worst. All inmates had to work in the associated arms factories, except on Sundays, which were reserved for cleaning and showering.

In the basement were the "dark cells"; these cells had only a very tiny window, and a solid door. Prisoners placed in these cells would gradually suffocate as they used up all of the oxygen in the cell; sometimes the SS would light a candle in the cell to use up the oxygen more quickly. Many were subjected to hanging with their hands behind their backs, thus dislocating their shoulder joints for hours, even days.

On September 3, 1941, deputy camp commandant SS-Hauptsturmführer Fritzsch experimented on 600 Russian POWs and 250 Polish inmates by cramming them into the basement of Block 11 and gassing them with Zyklon B, a highly lethal cyanide-based pesticide. This paved the way for the use of Zyklon B as an instrument for extermination at Auschwitz, and a gas chamber and crematorium were constructed by converting a bunker. This gas chamber operated from 1941 to 1942, during which time some 60,000 people were killed therein; it was then converted into an air-raid shelter for the use of the SS. This gas chamber still exists, together with the associated crematorium, which was reconstructed after the war using the original components, which remained on-site.

By July 1942, the SS were conducting the infamous "selections," in which incoming Jews were divided into those deemed able to work, who were sent to the right and admitted into the camp, and those who were sent to the left and immediately gassed. Prisoners were transported from all over German-occupied Europe by rail, arriving in daily convoys. The group selected to die, about three-quarters of the total, included almost all children, women with children, all the elderly, and all those who appeared on brief and superficial inspection by an SS doctor not to be completely fit. Auschwitz II-Birkenau claimed more victims than any other German extermination camp, despite coming into use after all the others.

SS officers told the victims they were to take a shower and undergo delousing. The victims would undress in an outer chamber and walk into the gas chamber, which was disguised as a shower facility, complete with dummy shower heads. After the doors were shut, SS men would dump in the cyanide pellets via holes in the roof or windows on the side. In Auschwitz II-Birkenau, more than 20,000 people could be gassed and cremated each day. The Nazis used a cyanide gas produced from Zyklon B pellets, manufactured by two companies who had acquired licensing rights to the patent held by IG Farben.

Sonderkommandos removed gold teeth from the corpses of gas chamber victims; the gold was melted down and sent back to the Third Reich. The belongings of the arrivals were seized by the SS and sorted in an area of the camp called "Canada," so-called because Canada was seen as a land of plenty. Many of the SS at the camp enriched themselves by pilfering the confiscated property.

The gas chambers worked to their fullest capacity from April-July 1944, during the massacre of Hungary's Jews. Hungary was an ally of Germany during the war, but it had resisted turning over its Jews to the Germans until Germany invaded in March 1944. From April until July 9, 1944, 475,000 Hungarian Jews, half of the pre-war population, were deported to Auschwitz, at a rate of 12,000 a day for a considerable part of that period. The incoming volume was so great that the SS resorted to burning corpses in open-air pits as well as in the crematoria.

November 2006

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