Auschwitz Birkenau History

About Auschwitz

Today, Auchwitz-Birkenau camp is a symbol and memorial of terrible events which happened during WWII. The common Greek word – Holocaust (in Hebrew: Shoah) – refers to the mass people extermination, genocide which took place in many Nazi camps located in different parts of Poland and other European countries. 
Auschwitz was established in May, 1940, near Krakow. It was the biggest Nazi camp which contained of three camps: Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II (Birkenau), Auschwitz III (Monowitz), and over 40 sub-camps.
Originally, the Auschwitz camp was one more concentration camp, where Polish prisoners were to be held. The first prisoners were transported to KL Auschwitz from Tarnow in June, 1940. It was connected with increasing number of inmates in ‘local’ prisons. In the beginning of 1942, the Auschwitz camp’s function was changed. Since that time, the camp became the death camp where about one million people were murdered. Nine out of ten were Jews, among the rest of prisoners were Poles, Gypsies and other nations.
The Auschwitz complex of camps was isolated from the world and surrounded with electrically charged barbed wire fencing. It was built on the areas of the village of Oswiecim. Local people were evicted in 1940-1941. Their houses were demolished or used by Nazi officers and their families. The zone around the camp was assigned to camp technical support. Special guards watched the prisoners and controlled their lives. It was almost impossible to escape from the camp.
Above the main gate to the camp, there is an inscription: Arbeit macht frei, which means work makes one free. This inscription shows the cynicism of Nazi system in which human life meant nothing. Reification of man reached the extreme point which is unimaginable. Victims were stripped of their individual identities, their dignity and humanity. Prisoners were forced to backbreaking work which ended with their death. Others were killed in gas chambers, used by subjects of ‘medical experiments’, bludgeoned to death. The living conditions were unbearable. Inmates were dying of exhaution, diarrhea, dehydration, hunger and other diseases.
The camp was liberated in January 27, 1945 by the Soviet Army. Only a few thousand prisoners remain in the camp. The rest of them, who survived up to that time, died during evacuation marches called death marches.

Auschwitz I

The first camp in the complex of KL Auschwitz was opened in the summer of 1940. It was a main camp which construction began earlier, in April 1940 on the area of former Polish Army base. Nazi Germans chose the outskirts of industrial town of Oświęcim to create a new concentration camp. They used prewar barracks buildings for first base. In the first year of camp’s existence it was extended to around 40 square km. Prisoners were forced to the labor of clearing the zone.
Initially, the camp was to be an another prison for resistance fighters from Germany, Polish intelligentsia, people who were perceived as enemies of the Nazi regime. The first transports came from Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Germany, Dachau and Tarnow in June 1940. The camp functioned as a concentration camp with terrible, inhuman conditions. It was a place of slow killing. From the first months of 1942, inmates of various nations were being transported to Auschwitz camp. In October 1941, Soviet POW’s come here. In 1942 they were forced to built the new camp – Birkenau. In March 1942 Jewish women from Slovakia arrived at the camp. The function of the camp was changing. It became the biggest extermination camp and worked within the framework of Reinhardt Operation which the aim was to annihilate Jewish population in Europe.
In the camp there were a gas chamber and crematorium. The basement of the prison Block 11 was used as improvised gas chamber initially. Later, there was constructed new gas chamber. Besides that, there was also so-called ‘Black Wall’ where executions took place. Prisoners were used in medical experiments in Block 10 (the hospital).

Auschwitz II – Birkenau

In October 1941, the construction of the new camp of Auschwitz began. The idea about creating a new camp was created by Heinrich Himmler during his first inspection of Auschwitz on March 1, 1941. The camp was to be the concentration camp for Soviet POW’s. The Nazi Germans choose the area of the village Brzezinka which was located in close vicinity to the Auschwitz Camp.
The initial plan assumed the total capacity of 100 – 125 thousands prisoners, but it underwent changes and the number of inmates were 200 thousands eventually. The whole camp covered the area of 175 acres. The name of the new camp was Auschwitz II – Birkenau. The camp was divided into sectors which were surrounded by electrified barbed-wire fences with guard towers. In 1941 mass extermination facilities (gas chambers) were located there. First two improvised gas chambers were placed in farmhouses. The first was used in early 1942, the another – in mid-year. The complex of four gigantic gas chambers and crematoria was built in mid-1942.
The camp was to devided into 4 segments. The fourth never got underway. The rest was built between 1942-1944. The first segment contained 62 residential barracks in the final phase of its existence. There were 10 barracks containing washrooms and toilets, 2 kitchens, 2 bathhouses, and 2 storage barracks. The second segment was divided into 7 sectors of wooden barracks. The third segment was started to build, but due to the approach of Soviet Army in 1944 brought construction to a halt.
The camp Auschwitz-Birkenau has two functions. It was a concentration camp with inhuman living conditions where prisoners died of starving, back-breaking effort, diseases and it was a direct extermination center where inmates were murdered in gas chambers.
In Birkenau camp there were several separate organizational units which came into being between 1942 and 1945. There were the men’s camp, the women’s camp, the Gypsy Family Camp, quarantine camp for men prisoners, a hospital camp for men, family camp for Jews, three transit camps.
That’s here about 1 million prisoners from the whole Auschwitz complex was murdered. The most of them (90%) were Jews.

Auschwitz III – Monovitz

Auschwitz III – Monovitz is the third camp of the Auschwitz camp complex. The decision of creating a new camp was made in December 1940/January 1941. Originally, the camp was one of the first, and also the largest of the sub-camps of Auschwitz. Known as Buna Camp until November 1943, it was changed into the Auschwiz III camp consisting of 28 sub-camps.
The camp III was founded with the initiative of the German chemical concern IG Farben which was attempting to produce synthetic rubber. The company bought the area of the eastern part of Oświęcim and the villages of Dwory and Monowice. Prisoners of Auschwitz camp were forced to built this another camp. They were leveling the ground, digging drainage ditches, laying cables. The first transport of prisoners arrived at the camp in October 1942. In November, there were 2 thousand people. Prisoners were working in heavy conditions. In order to make prisoners’ work more efficent, capos and SS men were beating them. The productivity were not satisfied for concern’s owners. Although, the low efficiency was connected with starvation, the factory management seemed not to notice it. They claimed that the problem could be solved by more corporal punishments and violence. The still-growing number of inmates (over 6 thousands) was the reason of significant mortality in the camp.
In January 1945 the evacuation begun. The majority of the prisoners were evacuated to the Buchenwald and Mauthausen camps.
Among prisoners who survived in the Auschwitz III camp were: the Nobel Peace-Prize winner Elie Wiesel and the prominent Italian writer Primo Levi.

Auschwitz sub-camps

Nazi German sub-camps were being established between 1940-1945. There were over 40 sub camps which original function was to supply the main camp Auschwitz.. Hovewer, it was decided to use them as a source labor for German companies (mines, industrial factories, manufacturing plants) located in occupied Polish territories. Initially, all sub-camps belonged to Auschwitz I camp, but in November 1943 when the new camp administartor was choosen (Oswald Pohl) the camp was divided into 3 main camps: Auschwitz, Birkenau and Monovitz. Agri-culture sub-camps were fallen to Auschwitz II – Birkenau in total number of 6. 28 industrial sub-camps were fallen to Auschwitz III – Monovitz. Functions of the rest of 10 subcamps were various – from working in forests to building barracks.
Among sub-camps at livestock farms were Harmense, Budy, Babitz, Rajsko, Plawy, Birkenau which were used for purposes of KL. Prisoners were working on the fields and raising pigs, cattle, horses, and sheep. They were milking cows, clamping potatoes, spreading manure, and weeding and earthing up vegetables. The male prisoners groomed the horses, plowed, mowed hay, and harvested. To sub-camps at industrial plants belonged  Golleschau, Jawischowitz, Chelmek, Eintrachthütte, Neu-Dachs, Janinagrube, Gleiwitz I, II and III Trzebinia and more. They were exploited by such German companies as IG Farbenindustrie, Berghütte, Siemens-Schuckert, G.A. Buhl und Sohn and others. In Chelmek sub-camp prisoners were working for the Bata shoe factory. In Golleschau they were forced to back-breaking works: laying train tracks, breaking stones, sifting coal, packing cement in sacks, and stoking the kilns for burning lime. The rest subcamps with various functions were e.g. Sosnitz, Altdorf, Sosnowitz (I), Gleiwitz IV and more.
Altdorf was a small sub-camp located in Stara Wieś village. The number of prisoners fluctuated between 15 and 30. Their tasks were to cut down trees and plant tree nurseries in the nearby woods. In Gleiwitz IV sub-camp situated on the outskirts of Gliwice, prisoners were forced to build barbed -wire fences, barracks, work at the river port. Up to evacuation, there were 444 inmates. Prisoners incarcerated in Sosnowitz (I) were uses as a workforce to work in carpentry, masonry, plastering during remodeling the building housing offices of Jewish organization at Targowa street 12.

Life in the camp

First prisoners were living in former Polish army barracks. There were brick two-storey and single-storey buildings. New blocks were built in the next years. 28 two-storey blocks had big rooms upstairs and small rooms downstairs. In one block, there were placed about 700 prisoners. But this number is a starting number of inmates in each block. In reality, all block were always overcrowded. The number of prisoners reach 1200. At the begining they slept on earthern floor, on straw-stuffed mattresses. Later, the three-tiered bunks or beds appeared. Originally, there were no electric lighting, water, sanitary facilities in the blocks. The barracks were not heated. Prisoners took water from a well, and later lavatories with toilets, urinals, washbasins were installed. However, in proportion to the number of prisoners, the capasity of these facilities was not enough. Inmates went around the camp dirty. Epidemics and contagious diseased erupted very often. Rats and louses were the order of the day. In 1943, bathhouses were erected what didn’t improve living conditions because there where limited possibilities for bathing. What’s more, prisoners had to walked to the bathhouses naked regardless of the weather. It caused many deaths.
Prisoners received three meals per day: in the morning, noon and at the evening. The first meal consisted of only half of liter of unsweetened ‘coffee’ or ‘tea’, the second meal – a liter of water with some vegetables, and the third one – 300 grams of black bread, 25 grams of sausage/margarine/ or a tablespoon of cheese/marmalade. The total nutritional value was too low to cover prisoners’ needs so they suffered of starvation. Their organisms were being destructed by lack of nutrition. Inmates who experienced organic deterioration, were called ‘Musselman’ and were sent to gas chambers.
The order of the day in Auschwitz concentration camp was strictly established. Prisoners were woken up by a gong very early. They had time to tidy their quarters, wash, drink coffe or tea and then they ran outside to the roll-call square. After that, they gathered in working groups and marched working places. They worked over 10 hours per day. Some prisoners didn’t survive the heavy labor. They had one ‘lunch’ break at noon. Their work ended on the evening roll-call. Then they had the evening meal and some free time up to 9 pm o’clock. Inmates didn’t work on Sundays and holidays, but they had to tide up their living quarters or clean their clothes.

The SS garrison

The SS garrison was made up of male and female guards. The total number of SS guards were increasing from the 1941. At the begining, in 1941, there were about 2000 overseers, in 1944 – 3300 and in mid-January 1945 – over 4500. Male guards were a considerable majority. The total number of SS male guards during the whole period was about 8000 and women were 200.

The level of education among SS guards were low. 70% of them had elementary education. The majority of them declared the Christian denomination. They had also German citizenship although part of them lived in other countries like Romania, Slovakia and Hungary.

Female guards came to Auschwitz in 1941 when a new women’s camp were established. Their appearance in the camp was also caused by the assignment of SS men to the eastern front. Some of them were working as radio operators.

The head of the Auschwitz Concentration Camp was a commandant. Throughout the entire period of camp existence, there were 3 commandants: SS-Obersturmbannführer Rudolf Höss (May 1940-November 1943), SS-Obersturmbannführer Arthur Liebehenschel (November 1943-May 1944) and SS-Sturmbannführer Richard Baer (May 1944-January 1945). After reorganization of the camp, the head of the new camp Birkenau became SS-Sturmbannführer Friedrich Hartjenstein, replaced by SS-Hauptsturmführer Josef Kramer. In the Auschwitz III, the commandant was SS-Hauptsturmführer Heinrich Schwarz.

The command hierarchy was the following: the camp director, non-commissioned report officers, the SS men responsible for supervising each prisoner block and prisoner labor detail. There were also directors of the sectors in the Birkenau camp and the Monovitz camp, as well as directors of the sub-camps.

SS attitudes towards the prisoners were defined by Theodor Eicke who highlighted the necessity of being ruthless for prisoners – treated as enemies of the Third Reich. The huge impact on inhuman SS guards’ behaviour and treatment of prisoners had indoctrination which was opposite to humanitarianism and respect for human dignity.


The organizational structure of Auschwitz was composed of seven departments:

  • the commandant’s office,
  • the political department,
  • camp administration,
  • prisoner labor,
  • administration-economic,
  • camp SS medical service,
  • SS unit welfare and training.

Camp administration and political department played the major role in the terror and extermination system.

There were also separate administrative units:

  • the Construction Board,
  • the SS unit supply stores,
  • the German Equipment Factory,
  • the German Food Factory,
  • the construction materials plants,
  • the camp farms,
  • the Waffen-SS Hygiene Institute.

In the camp there works the special SS medical service which had two different tasks: treatment of the SS crew and exterminating prisoners for example, by killing them by lethal injection of phenol to the heart.

After the war, 673 people, including 21 women stood trial in Poland. There were several trials in Poland. The most important were: the Warsaw trial of commandant Rudolf Höss and the Cracow trial of the SS garrison. Trials of Auschwitz SS garrison members outside Poland took place in German Federal Republic, Austria, German Democratic Republic and before American, British, and French military tribunals.

Classification of prisoners

Prisoners in the Auschwitz camp were classified in the system hinging on the modified system of triangles, which had been used in German concentration camps before the war. Prisoners were marked with triangles of various colours. Each colour meant the type of prisoners. The red colour were assigned to ‘political prisoners’ (mainly Poles), the green one meant ‘criminal prisoners’ (mainly Germans), the black colour marked ‘asocial prisoners’ – the Romas. There were also purple triangles for the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the pink triangle for homosexual prisoners.
A separate prisoner category was Jews who were most often marked as ‘politicals’. They had an inverted red triangle overlapping a yellow triangle to form a Star of David shape and later, the red triangle overlain with a narrow yellow rectangular stripe.
The Soviet POW’s uniforms were marked with a stripe and a symbol “SU.”
Reeducation prisoners had the letter “E.” and police prisoners, who waited for trial, wore their civilian clothing, with no additional marking.

Jewish Prisoners in the camp

Initially, Jews were not a major group of prisoners. For instance, in the first transports of inmates to Auschwitz, among a thousand Polish prisoners, there were about 21 Jews. Everything was changed in 1942, when the Reinhardt Operation, being a part of Final Solution to the Jewish Question, started to be put into practice in Nazi German camps.
The biggest transports of 430 thousand of Jews were from Hungary. 300 thousand Jews came from Poland, 73 thousand from Bohemia, Moravia and Slovakia. There were also Jews from France, Netherlands, Greece, Yugoslavia, Norway and other European countries.
For Nazi Germans, Jews’ life was the least valuable. From among the rest of prisoners, Jews were treated the most cruelly and ruthlessly. The high percent of Jewish prisoners were sent to a penal company. They suffered the worst mistreatment.
In 1942-1944, the Auschwitz concentration camp became one of the biggest death camps in the world. Along with the implemantation of the Final Solution action, the Jewish prisoners started to be murdered in gas chambers. Most of them were sent directly to gas chambers after arrival to the camp. Among victims often were figures from intellectual elite. Part of Jews were classified as capable of working and sent to the sub-camps or camps in the Third Reich, where they were forced to slave labor.
In 1942, Jews made up a majority of prisoners. Most of them died in Auschwitz or during transport to other camps. Jews went through the selection which was carried out by camp’s doctors. The SS doctors decided who was capable of working and who was not. These Jews who didn’t fit to labor were sent to gas chambers or they were killed by lethal injection of phenol to the heart.
The Nazi German death machine included transit camps where prisoners were held and where they waited for a decision as to their fate: work or a gas chamber. The fate of so-called ‘transit Jews’ were much more worse. They weren’t assigned to any camps.


Holocaust is a Greek word which means ‘sacrifice by fire’ and refers to the systematic persecution of Jews during WWII. Nazi Germans deemed Jews as a ‘inferior race’ which should be annihilated. In Nazi Germans’ opinion, their life was not significant. Other nations such as Roma (Gypsies), the Slavic people, and other disabled people, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses were also a target of mass murder.
Initially, Jews made up a small number of prisoners in Auschwitz camp. Mass transports of Jews began in 1942 along with the implementation of a new project of the Final Solution to the Jewish Question. Its aim was the extermination of the Jews. The plan was to innihilate 11 million European Jews, and Aushwitz camp played a key role in this process. It was a place of extermination. During about 5 years, 1-1.5 million people were murdered, 1-1.35 million were Jews. Auschwitz became a symbol of Nazi genocide.
Before the Jews´ extermination on huge scale began, experiments preparing to mass extermination in gas chambers were carried out on Soviet POWs and sick Poles on 3-5, September, 1941. First structures in Auschwitz camp designated for mass extermination were the provisional gas chambers in specially adapted farmhouses outside the camp. Nearby, there were located barracks for undressing. They were withdrawn in 1943 after that new gas chambers put into use. Four large gas chambers and crematoria operated since march/June 1943. Two of them were situated underground. 2 thousand people could be killed at the same time. It was said that 4,416 inmates per day could be killed in four gas chambers but actually, the number was higher ‘ about 8 thousand.
Before sending prisoners to gas chambers, inmates had to go through selection on children, men, women. Then, they were undressed disrobed in special rooms of crematoria. Prisoners were unaware what awaited them. They were told that they went to disinfection and bathe room. They were killed with Zyklon B in gas chambers. Prisoners´ corpes were burned in pits, mass graves, on pyres or in the crematorium furnaces. Their hair were cut off and dental work and jewelery removed. Bones were ground to powder.
Along with the Soviet Army approaching, liquidation of the evidence of crime started. Crematorium I and gas chamber were withdrawn from use in 1943, crematoria II and III were partially dismantled in 1944 and 1945 dismantled completely. Crematorium IV was destroyed during mutiny in 1944. Crematorium V was blown up January 1945, a day before the camp´s liberation.


In July/August, the Red Army approached to the line of the Vistula-Wisłoka located about 200 km from Oświęcim. Nazi Germans were forced to take evacuation-liquidation steps. Special actions of liquidation of Jewish eyewitnesses to extermination were taken in September, October and November, 1944. They labored in the crematoria and gas chambers. The mass extermination of Jews in the gas chambers ended in November 1944. On October, 1944,  the Sonderkommando mutiny blew up Crematorium IV which was damaged. Rebels were shot during the action or killed after the mutiny. Crematorium IV was completely destroyed in the end of 1944. The pits full of human ashes were liquidated at the end of 1944 as well as records such as files, lists of prisoners, lists of names of Jews sent to Auschwitz. In the middle of January 1945, evacuations started. 65 thousand prisoners were evacuated to industrial plants in the Reich. From January 17 to 21, the Germans decided on so-called death marches of approximately 56 thousand prisoners out of Auschwitz and its sub-camps. Prisoners were formed into columns. They went mostly to the west, through Upper and Lower Silesia. The longest march was 250km, from Jaworzno to Gross-Rosen Concentration Camp. Only healthy prisoners were supposed to go in marches. In fact, many weak and sick inmates volunteered in order not to be killed. During marches, many prisoners who couldn’t go further were killed by SS guards or died of fatigue and gauntness. Many prisoners were murdered in massacres which took place along the evacuation routes. On those routes, many local people helped prisoners giving them water or food. After the war, they were honored with the Israel Righteous among the Nations of the World medal.