A History of Auschwitz

By Tim Lambert

Auschwitz is perhaps the most notorious concentration camp where more than a million innocent people were murdered. During the First World War, a camp for immigrant workers was built by the Polish town of Oswiecim, which was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After the war it Oswiecim became part of the new state of Poland. The old camp was given various uses, including being used by the Polish army. Then in September 1939, it was captured by the Germans. In 1940 the Germans decided to turn it into a death camp.

The first prisoners in Auschwitz were Poles who were sent there in June 1940. However, at first, Auschwitz was only a transit camp. Prisoners were moved on from there to other camps. Soon, however, Auschwitz became a permanent camp. By 1942 it held prisoners from all over Europe. At first, only a small proportion were Jews but the number of Jewish prisoners rapidly increased. At first prisoners in Auschwitz were not systematically killed but many died of disease or malnutrition or both. Prisoners were, of course, treated with appalling cruelty, and beatings and executions were common. Food and clothing were inadequate and prisoners were made to do hard labor (overwork contributed to many deaths).

In 1941 the chemical company IG Farben built a factory at Auschwitz, which used slave labor. By 1943 there were about 7,000 forced laborers working for IG Farben and by 1944 about 11,000. Most of them died. IG Farben was followed by a number of other German companies all of whom used forced labor. Slowly a whole complex of camps was built and eventually there were more than 40 ‘satellite’ camps around the central concentration camp at Auschwitz.

Meanwhile, in early 1942 the Nazis had decided to exterminate the entire Jewish population of Europe. In Auschwitz, the mass murder of Jews began in 1942. They were killed in a camp called Auschwitz II (it was also called Birkenau), which was built near the original camp. The number of Jews in Birkenau varied between 15,000 and 20,000. (Most of the other camps in the complex were slave labor camps with prisoners from Russia, Poland, and other parts of Europe).

The Jews were killed with cyanide gas. Jews arrived at Auschwitz in cattle trucks. They were then divided into two groups. Those who were fit were selected for work. The others were chosen for death. They were told they were to have a shower. Once inside the ‘shower rooms’ airtight doors were closed and the chamber was filled with cyanide gas. Afterward, the ventilators removed the poisonous gas. Prisoners called Sonderkommando removed the bodies. They removed gold teeth from the bodies and cut dead women’s hair. Then the bodies were cremated.

The gold was melted down and hair was used to make felt, mattresses and ropes. Ash from cremated bodies was used to make fertilizer. Clothes and prostheses belonging to dead Jews were also collected and used by the Germans. At intervals, the Sonderkommando were murdered and replaced by new men.

Nazi doctors also carried out medical experiments on prisoners e.g. the notorious doctor Josef Mengele (1911-1979) carried out experiments on dwarfs, twins, and triplets. Many prisoners died as a result of these barbaric ‘experiments’.

Most of the people murdered in Auschwitz were Jewish but not all. With his demented racial theories Hitler also hated Slavs and Gypsies. From February 1943 many Gypsies were sent to Auschwitz. At first many died of disease but from May 1944 the Germans began deliberately killing them by injecting phenol into their hearts.

Late in 1944 when it was obvious they were losing the war the Nazis began to try and hide the evidence of their crimes. In November 1944 the gassing of Jews stopped. The Nazis attempted to destroy the gas chambers and crematoria.

On 17 January 1945, the Germans decided to evacuate the Jewish prisoners of Birkenau before the Russians arrived. Most of the prisoners were forced to march westwards. (A few thousand who were too weak to march were left behind). Anyone who could not keep up or tried to escape was shot. About 15,000 prisoners died during this death march. The Russians captured Auschwitz on 27 January 1945. In 1947 they made it into a memorial.

Nobody knows exactly how many people died in Auschwitz. The figure is at least 1.1 million and possibly much higher.