Learning About the Holocaust: A Student’s Guide. Editor: Ronald M Smelser. Volume 1, Macmillan Reference USA, 2001.

Auschwitz (in Polish, Oświe cim), was the largest Nazi concentration camp and extermination camp. Located 37 miles (60 kilometers) west of Kraków, Auschwitz was both the most extensive of some two thousand Nazi concentration and forced-labor camps, and the largest camp at which Jews were exterminated by means of poison gas..

On April 27, 1940, the head of the SS and German police, Heinrich Himmler, ordered the establishment of a large new concentration camp near the town of Oświe cim in Polish Eastern Upper Silesia, which had been annexed to the Third Reich after the German defeat of Poland in September 1939. The building of the camp in Zasole, the suburb of Oświe cim, was started a short while later. The first laborers forced to work on the construction of the camp were three hundred Jews from Oświe cim and its vicinity. Beginning in June 1940, the Nazis brought transports of prisoners into the camp. During the first period, most of them were Polish political prisoners. On March 1, 1941, the prison population was 10,900, most of it still Polish.

Very soon Auschwitz became known as the harshest of the Nazi concentration camps. The Nazi system of torturing prisoners was implemented here in its most cruel form. In one of the camp’s buildings, the so-called Block 11, a special bunker was built for the severest punishments. In front of that building stood the “Black Wall,” where the regular execution of prisoners took place. Ironically, above the main gate of the camp was a large inscription that declared: “Arbeit macht frei” (Work leads to freedom).

In March 1941, Himmler ordered the construction of a second, much larger section of the camp, which was located at a distance of 1.9 miles (3 kilometers) from the original camp. This was called Auschwitz II, or Birkenau. The original camp became known as Auschwitz I—the main camp (Stammlager). About two thousand Poles from the nearby villages were expelled from their homes, which were destroyed in order to build these two parts of the Auschwitz camp. A large expanse of about 15.5 square miles (40 square kilometers) was declared a prohibited area.

In October 1941, the construction of barracks and other camp installations began in Auschwitz II. In the final stage, Auschwitz II was composed of nine subunits, which were isolated from one another by electrically charged barbed-wire fences. These components were designated as camps BIa, BIb, BIIa, BIIb, BIIc, BIId, BIIe, BIIf, and BIII.

In March 1942 a women’s section was established in the main camp, Auschwitz I, but this was moved on August 16, 1942, to a section of Birkenau. The first groups of women to be imprisoned in the section in Auschwitz I were 999 German women from the Ravensbrück camp, and an equal number of Jewish women from Poprad, Slovakia. By the end of March more than 6,000 women prisoners were being held in the new section. In nearby Monowitz a third camp was built, which was called Auschwitz III (Buna-Monowitz). The name Buna derived from the Buna synthetic-rubber works in Monowitz. Other subcamps affiliated with Monowitz were set up, and they too were included as part of Auschwitz III. In the course of time, another forty-five subcamps were built. Auschwitz II (Birkenau), which was the most populated camp of the Auschwitz complex, also had the most cruel and inhuman conditions. The prisoners of the Birkenau camps were mostly Jews, Poles, and Germans. For a time, the Gypsy family camp and the family camp of the Czech Jews were located there, as well.

The gas chambers and the crematoria of the Auschwitz killing center operated in Birkenau. Auschwitz III (Buna-Monowitz and the other forty-five subcamps) were mainly forced-labor camps; the most important were Budy, Czechowitz, Gleiwitz, Rajsko, and Fürstengrube. The inmates, chiefly Jews, were worked to the point of total exhaustion for German business including I.G. Farben, Oberschlesische Hydriewerke, Deutsche Gasrusswerke, and Erdöl Raffinerie.

The Process

As the trains stopped at the rampa (railway platform) in Birkenau, the occupants were brutally and rapidly forced to leave the cars. They had to leave behind all their personal belongings and were made to form two lines, men and women separately. These lines had to move quickly to the place where SS officers were conducting the Selektion, directing the people either to one side for the gas chambers (the majority were sent there), or to the other, which meant designation for forced labor. Those who were sent to the gas chambers were killed that same day and their corpses were burned in the crematoria, or, if there were too many for the crematoria to process, they were burned in an open space. The belongings left in the cars by the incoming victims were gathered by a forced-labor detachment ironically called “Kanada” (so termed because Canada was a symbol of wealth to the prisoners). Under the strict supervision of the SS, those prisoners had to store the property in specially built warehouses, to be shipped later to Germany.

Victims not sent to the gas chambers were sent to a part of the camp called the “quarantine.” But first they were taken to the camp’s bath, the “sauna.” There their clothes and every last personal belonging were taken from them, their hair was shaved off—men and women alike—and they were given striped prisoners’ garb. A prisoner in the quarantine, if not soon transferred to slave labor, could survive only for a few weeks. In the forced-labor camps the average life expectancy was extended to a few months. After that time, many of the prisoners became what was called in the camp jargon a muselmann, a person so emaciated and weak that he could hardly move or react to his surroundings. It was no wonder that every prisoner tried to get out of quarantine as soon as possible.

Most of the prisoners were sent to Auschwitz subcamps or other concentration camps; some were directed to different work in Auschwitz I or III. One of the most dreaded institutions in Auschwitz was the roll call (Appell), which occurred early in the morning and in the late afternoon after the inmates had returned from their places of work, but sometimes also in the middle of the night. The inmates were made to stand at attention, motionless, usually sparsely dressed, for many hours in the cold, in rain and snow. Whoever stumbled or fell was sent to be gassed. One of the most terrible tasks was that of the prisoners assigned to a special working group called the special commando (Sonderkommando). They were forced to work in the crematoria, burning the corpses of the victims who had been killed in the gas chambers on that day.

Upon leaving the quarantine in Birkenau for forced labor in Auschwitz or in one of the subcamps, prisoners were registered and received numbers tattooed on their left arm. The same procedure applied to those prisoners who were directed straight to Auschwitz I; 405,000 prisoners of different nationalities were registered in this way. The vast majority of the Auschwitz victims, those who, upon arrival in Auschwitz II, were led to the gas chambers and killed there immediately, were not registered or accounted for in any way. Also not included in the registration were prisoners who were sent to work in other concentration camps not belonging to the Auschwitz system, such as gross-rosen or stutthof. Still another group of unregistered prisoners were those who were designated for execution after a short stay in the camp. That group consisted mainly of hostages, Soviet army officers, and partisans.

A day in the life of a prisoner, as many authors of concentration camp memoirs have so aptly described, was divided into a lengthy series of duties and commands. Some were dictated by camp routine, whereas others were unforeseen, a result of an order from above or an arbitrary outburst of violence on the part of the camp commandant. Some were directed against all the prisoners; others were aimed at an individual prisoner or a particular group of prisoners. All of the inmate’s physical and mental capacities were taxed in an effort to get through the torturous stages that constituted an ordinary day: waking at dawn, straightening one’s pallet, standing for morning roll call, traveling to work, hours of hard labor, standing in line for a meal, returning to camp, block inspection, and evening roll call. Any aberration or slip on the part of the prisoner—as a result of an incident in the work battalions or in the block, or a personal weakness or disease—very often meant death.

Besides those who were selected for forced labor upon arrival at Birkenau, there was another, much smaller, group that was spared for the time being and not sent to the gas chambers. These were the people who were selected for pseudo-medical experiments. Many of these “experiments” were carried out on young Greek Jewish men and women. They underwent unbelievable suffering and torture. In July 1942, Himmler proposed instituting sterilization of Jewish women in Auschwitz. A German physician, Professor Carl clauberg, an SS officer who had initiated such experiments with Himmler’s permission at Ravensbrück, was given the task of establishing a similar experimental station for sterilizing women and for other criminal pseudo-medical experiments in Block 10 of Auschwitz I. Among the victims selected for these experiments were groups of twins (including children) and dwarfs. Clauberg was assisted by a group of Nazi physicians who also usually conducted the Selektionen on the railway platform in Birkenau. The best known of this group was Josef mengele, who earned the notorious nickname “the Angel of Death” in the camp. His own barbarous experiments were mainly carried out on infants and young twins and on dwarfs.

On January 20, 1944, the total number of prisoners in Auschwitz was 80,839:18,437 in Auschwitz I; 49,114 in Auschwitz II (22,061 in the men’s section and 27,053 in the women’s section); and 13,288 in Auschwitz III (of whom 6,571 were in Monowitz). By July 12, 1944, 92,208 prisoners were being held, and by August 22, that number had risen to 105,168. In addition, 50,000 other Jewish prisoners were held in the satellite camps. The total number of prisoners in that period was 155,000. The prison population was constantly growing, despite the periodic changes resulting from mass deaths, and despite the high mortality rate caused by starvation, hard labor, contagious diseases, and the total exhaustion of the prisoners.

From Concentration Camp to Death Camp

In his memoirs, Rudolf Höss explained how Auschwitz was established as a killing center:

In the summer of 1941, I cannot remember the exact date, I was suddenly summoned to the Reichsführer-SS, directly by his adjutant’s office. Contrary to his usual custom, Himmler received me without his adjutant being present and said, in effect:

“The Führer has ordered that the Jewish question be solved once and for all and that we, the SS, are to implement that order.”

“The existing extermination centers in the east are not in a position to carry out the large actions that are anticipated. I have therefore designated Auschwitz for this purpose, both because of its good position as regards communications and because the area can easily be isolated and camouflaged.”

We discussed the ways and means of effecting the extermination. This could only be done by gassing, since it would have been absolutely impossible to dispose by shooting of the large numbers of people that were expected, and it would have placed too heavy a burden on the SS men who had to carry it out, especially because of the women and children among the victims. (Höss, pp. 183-184)

Building the Gas Chambers

The first, relatively small gas chamber was built in Auschwitz I. Here the experimental gassing using zyklonb gas first took place, on September 3, 1941. The victims were 600 Soviet prisoners of war and 250 other prisoners chosen from among the sick. After that experiment, the firm J. A. Topf and Sons received a contract to build much larger, permanent gas chambers connected with very large crematoria in Auschwitz-Birkenau, where the mass exterminations were mainly carried out. Altogether four such installations—II, III, IV, and V—were built in Birkenau. Each had the potential to kill 6,000 persons daily.

Electrically charged barbed-wire fences 13 feet (4 meters) in height were erected around both Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II. They were guarded by SS men, who staffed the many watchtowers and were equipped with machine guns and automatic rifles. In addition, Auschwitz II was surrounded by a network of canals 8 miles (13 kilometers) in length. The whole complex of Auschwitz I and II was, moreover, enclosed by a chain of guard posts, two-thirds of a mile (1 kilometer) out from the system of barbed-wire fences. The chain, called the cordon (Postenkette), was guarded by SS men with dogs; this unit was known as the dog battalion (Hundestaffel).

Staffing the Camps

Auschwitz I, II, and III and the forty-five subcamps were overseen by one staff residing at the main camp, Auschwitz I. The commandants of the camp were, in turn, Rudolf Höss, Arthur Liebehenschel, Richard Baer, and again Rudolf Höss. They had the rank of SS-Obersturmbannführer (Lieutenant Colonel). The most important division, noted for the cruelty of its command, was the Political Division. The whole system was guarded by a specially organized regiment of the SS-death’s head units, an SS Death’s Head battalion consisting of twelve guard companies, numbering at different times betweem 2,500 and 6,000 SS men.

The Nazi staff of the camp was aided by a number of privileged prisoners who were offered better food and conditions and more chances to survive, provided they helped to enforce the regime of terror on their fellow prisoners. These prisoners were kapos (prisoner orderlies), Blockälteste (block elders, responsible for a certain block of prisoners’ barracks), and Vorarbeiter (foremen, responsible for a group of prisoner workers).

Mass Extermination

As of March 1942, special trains organized by the Reich Security Main Office (Reichssicherheitshauptamt; RSHA) began arriving in Auschwitz-Birkenau almost daily, containing Jews from the occupied countries in Europe. Sometimes several, usually freight trains, arrived on the same day. In each of these trains, betwee one thousand and several thousand Jewish victims were forcibly brought in by the Nazis from the liquidated ghettos in Poland and other eastern European countries, as well as from countries in the west and south.

The first victims of the mass murder in Birkenau were Jews from Silesia. At the end of March 1942, transports of Jews started arriving from Slovakia and France; in July, from the Netherlands; and in August, from Belgium and Yugoslavia. In October, transports from the Theresienstadt ghetto began arriving; in November, transports from Greece and from the Ciechanów and Bialystok regions of Poland followed. The first transport from Berlin arrived in January 1943. Throughout 1943, transports continued to arrive from various countries under Nazi rule. One transport, of September 8, 1943, contained over 5,000 inmates from the Theresienstadt ghetto who, surprisingly, arrived as entire families; they were not led to the gas chambers but were interned in a section of Birkenau that came to be known as the Theresienstadt family camp. After a stay of six months in this camp the inmates were suddenly driven out to the gas chambers and killed. On May 2, 1944, the first transport of Jews from Nazi-invaded Hungary arrived, presaging the large wave that would begin arriving on May 16 and would continue until the second week of July. The transports from Hungary were followed by transports from Łódzś, the last ghetto to be liquidated in Poland, which came to Birkenau throughout August 1944.

Not only Jews but also about 20,000 gypsies were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau by the RSHA’s order of January 29, 1943. The vast majority of them were killed in the gas chambers. A few hundred Polish political prisoners were also murdered in the gas chambers.


Despite the severe conditions, the prisoners offered constant resistance to their oppressors. It took various forms, the most common being mutual help. However, there were also instances of physical resistance and sabotage. One unidentified Jewish woman, on arriving on October 23, 1943, in a transport from Bergen -Belsen together with women who were led to the gas chambers, pulled a pistol out of the hands of an SS man and shot two others. The other women also resisted; all of them were killed by the SS reinforcement that arrived immediately. A very common form of resistance was escape; 667 prisoners, most of them Poles, Russians, and Jews, escaped under the most difficult conditions. However, 270 of the escapees were caught not far from the camp and afterward executed.

Two young Jews, Alfred Wetzler and Walter Rosenberg (Rudolf Vrba), escaped on April 7, 1944. The two managed to reach Bratislava and contact some of the Jewish leaders still remaining there. They wrote a very detailed report on Auschwitz that was smuggled out to the free world.

In 1943 a multinational resistance organization, called the Auschwitz Fighting Group, was formed by a group of Austrian prisoners. This group operated in the main camp and in Birkenau; Monowitz had a group of its own, and the two were in contact with each other. The resistance movement in the camp was active in many spheres: helping the prisoners with medicines and food; documenting the Nazi crimes against the prisoners; organizing escapes, sabotage, and political action; seeking to place political prisoners in positions of responsibility; and preparing for an uprising in the camp.

The prisoners that were part of the Special Commando (Sonderkommando) organized an uprising that took place on October 7, 1944, and destroyed at least one of the gas chambers. All the participants of that uprising died in battle. After the uprising, the SS discovered that a group of young Jewish women from the Monowitz camp, led by Roza Robota, had smuggled out and supplied to the Special Commando the gunpowder that had been used in the uprising. Four of these women, including Robota, were executed on January 6, 1945.

Prior to the uprising, the prisoners of the Special Commando accomplished another very important act of resistance: some of them managed to keep diaries, in which they described in detail the events at Auschwitz. These diaries were hidden in the ground. Discovered after the war, they provide the most significant, terrible, and authentic documents on Nazi barbarity in Auschwitz. The most important of these diaries are those of Zalman Gradowski and Zalman Levental.

Last Months

Immediately after the Special Commando uprising ended in the fall of 1944, the killing in the gas chambers came to a halt, and Himmler gave orders to demolish the crematoria. During November and December 1944, the technical installations of the gas chambers and crematoria I and II were dismantled, so that they could be transferred to the Gross-Rosen camp. Groups of Special Commandos, male and female prisoners alike, were assigned to clean up the crematoria pits. They were ordered to fill the pits with the human ashes from the crematoria, cover them with earth, and plant grass. Some of the warehouses containing the goods stolen from the Jews were hastily emptied. The valuable items were sent to Germany by train, and the rest was destroyed. Between December 1, 1944, and January 15, 1945, at least 514,843 items of men’s, women’s, and children’s clothing and underwear were shipped from the camp.

In mid-January 1945, the Soviet army began to move toward Kraków and Auschwitz. The Nazis began a hasty withdrawal. The 58,000 prisoners, most of them Jewish, were driven out of the Auschwitz camps and put on death marches. Most of them were killed during these marches; others were murdered even before the camps were evacuated.

On the afternoon of January 27, Soviet soldiers entered Auschwitz. In Birkenau they found the bodies of 600 prisoners who had been killed by the Nazis hours before the camp was liberated. However, 7,650 sick and exhausted prisoners were saved: 1,200 in Auschwitz I, 5,800 in Auschwitz II—Birkenau, and 650 in Auschwitz III—Buna-Monowitz. The Germans had to withdraw so hastily that they could not force these last prisoners on the death marches. Their hurried retreat also prevented them from emptying the rest of the warehouses of the victims’ plundered property.


Auschwitz was the largest graveyard in human history. The number of Jews murdered in the gas chambers of Birkenau is estimated at up to 1.5 million people: men, women, and children. Almost one-quarter of the Jews killed during World War II were murdered in Auschwitz. Of the 405,000 registered prisoners who received Auschwitz numbers, only about 65,000 survived. Of the 16,000 Soviet prisoners of war brought there, only 96 survived. According to various estimates, at least 1.6 million people were murdered in the killing center at Birkenau.

After the war, several of the Nazis who had committed crimes in Auschwitz were put on trial in Poland and West Germany. The former camp commandant, Rudolf Höss, was tried in March 1947 in Auschwitz before a Polish court and sentenced to death on April 2, 1947. While in the Polish prison, Höss wrote his memoirs, which were published in Poland in 1956; they appeared in English in 1959. In November and December 1947, another trial took place in Kraków before a Polish court. Of the forty Nazis from Auschwitz indicted, twenty-three were sentenced to death and sixteen were sent to prison. Between 1963 and 1966 the so-called Auschwitz Trials I, II, and III took place in Frankfurt am Main before a court of the German Federal Republic. These ended with prison sentences for the twenty-two defendants accused of committing crimes in Auschwitz. Nine were sentenced to life imprisonment, and the others to terms ranging from three to nine years.

The horrors of Auschwitz have become legendary, and the name itself has passed into international usage as a byword for all that is the worst in humankind.