Auschwitz: Genesis of death camps
After the beginning of World War II, Adolf Hitler implemented a policy known as the “Final Solution.” Hitler was adamant to not only isolate the Jews in Germany and countries seized by the Nazis, and to subject them to dehumanizing rules and random acts of violence. Rather, he became convinced that his “Jewish problem” could only be solved by the elimination of every Jew in his territories, along with educators, artists, communists, Gypsies, homosexuals, the physically and mentally handicapped and others deemed unfit for survival in Nazi Germany.
To achieve his mission, Hitler ordered the construction of death camps. Dissimilar to concentration camps, which had been in Germany since 1933 and were used as detention centres for Jews, perceived enemies of the Nazi state, including political prisoners, death camps existed for the lone purpose of murdering Jews and other “undesirables,” in what became known as the Holocaust.
The largest of the death camps
Auschwitz, the largest and debatably the most notorious of all the Nazi death camps, opened in the spring of 1940. Rudolf Hoss was its first commandant who had previously assisted in the running of the concentration camp Sachsenhausen in Oranienburg, Germany. Auschwitz was situated on a former military base near a town in southern Poland located near Krakow. During construction of the camp, factories nearby were appropriated and all those living in the surrounding area were forcibly removed from their homes, which were bulldozed by the Nazis.
Originally, Auschwitz was meant to be a concentration camp, to be used as a detention centre for Polish citizens who were arrested after Germany seized Poland in 1939. However, once Hitler’s Final Solution became official Nazi policy, Auschwitz was selected as an ideal death camp. Firstly, it was located near the centre of all countries occupied by Germany on the European continent. Secondly, it was close to the string of railway lines used in the transport of detainees to the network of Nazi camps.
Yet, not all those who were taken to Auschwitz were immediately exterminated. Those seen as fit to work were used in slave labour in the production of synthetic rubber, munitions and other products considered vital to Germany’s attempts in World War II.
Auschwitz and its subdivisions
At its height of operation, Auschwitz consisted of many divisions. Auschwitz I – the original camp – housed between 15,000 and 20,000 political prisoners. Those coming in through its main gate were greeted with an ironic and infamous inscription: “Arbeit Macht Frei,” meaning “Work Makes You Free.”
Located in the village of Birkenau, or Brzezinka, Auschwitz II was built in 1941 on the order of Heinrich Himmler, commander of the SS, which operated all Nazi death and concentration camps. The biggest of the Auschwitz facilities was Birkenau, and it could house 90,000 prisoners. It had a group of bathhouses were innumerable numbers of people were gassed to death, and crematory ovens where bodies were burned. Most of the Auschwitz victims died at Birkenau. Over 40 smaller subcamps were scattered around the landscape and were used as slave-labour camps. Monowitz, or Auschwitz III, was the largest of these subcamps, and started operating in 1942 and held about 10,000 prisoners.
Life and death in Auschwitz
By the middle of 1942, most of those being sent to Auschwitz by the Nazis were Jews. When they arrived at the camp, prisoners were examined by Nazi doctors. Those deemed unfit for work, including the elderly, young children, the infirm and pregnant women, were immediately forced to take showers. However, the bathhouses to which they were sent were disguised gas chambers. The prisoners, once inside, were exposed to Zyklon-B poison gas. Those deemed unfit for work were never officially registered as Auschwitz prisoners. Consequently, it is impossible to calculate the number of lives lost at Auschwitz.
For those detainees who initially escaped the gas chambers, an unknown number died for disease, overwork, insufficient nutrition or the daily struggle in savage living conditions. Torture, arbitrary executions and retribution happened every day, in front of the other prisoners.
Some Auschwitz detainees were subjected to inhumane medical experimentation. Josef Mengele was the chief perpetrator of this barbaric research and was a German physician who started working at Auschwitz in 1943. Mengele, or the “Angel of Death,” performed a variety of experiments on prisoners. For instance, in an attempt to study eye colour, Mengele injected serum into children’s eyeballs, causing them excruciating pain. Chloroform was also injected into the hearts of twins in order to determine if both siblings would die in the same manner and at the same time.
Liberation of Auschwitz
As 1944 came to an end and the defeat of Nazi Germany by the Allied forces seemed inevitable, the Auschwitz commandants started destroying evidence of the horror that had occurred there. Buildings were blown up, torn down or set on fire, and records were destroyed.
As the Soviet army entered Krakow in January 1945, the Germans ordered the abandoning of Auschwitz. Before the end of January, in what came to be known as the Auschwitz death marches, about 60,000 prisoners, accompanied by Nazi guards, left the camp and were forced to march to Gliwice or Wodzislaw in Poland, about 30 miles away. Numerous detainees died during this process, and those who survived the journey were sent to concentration camps in Germany on trains.
On January 27, when the Soviet army entered Auschwitz, they found about 7,600 emaciated or sick prisoners who had been left behind. The liberators also found mounds of corpses, hundreds of thousands of items of clothing and pairs of shoes, as well as seven tons of human hair that had been shaved from prisoners before their liquidation. Between 1.1 million and 1.5 million people, majority of them Jews, died at Auschwitz during the years of its operation, according to some estimates. An estimated 80,000 Poles died at the camp, along with about 20,000 Gypsies and smaller numbers of other individuals, including Soviet prisoners of war.