Auschwitz: The Camp of Death
Auschwitz was regarded as the most effective concentration camp established by the Nazi regime in pursuit of the “Final Solution.” Unknown numbers of people of various nationalities perished in the camp. Even today the name holds a cold and somber connotation.
In September 1939, the town of Oswiecim and its surrounding areas in Poland joined to become Auschwitz. During that same year, Gestapo Inspector SS-Oberfuhrer Wiegand initiated the idea of transforming Auschwitz into a major concentration camp. Auschwitz was located at the center crossroads of many Polish cities, and, therefore it was an ideal location for the shipping of incoming prisoners from German occupied Europe.
Rudolf Hoss was promptly named the commandant of the camp. He designated as its main goal the extermination and elimination of all the prisoners admitted to the camp.
The concentration camp at Auschwitz had a total camp area of 40 square kilometers with a surrounding radius of five kilometers for isolation. The 28 two-story buildings which made up the camp were divided into three sections: Auschwitz I (the base camp and central office), Auschwitz II (Birkenau), and Auschwitz III (Monoscwitz with the sub-camp and buna).
When first entering the camp of Auschwitz I, the prisoners saw over the main entrance the words; “Arbeit Macht Frei” (work will give you freedom). These words were to promote the false hope that hard work by the prisoners would result in their freedom: however, the sad truth was that the prisoners were doomed to slave labor and death was the only real escape.
Auschwitz I was the main base and smallest part of the camp. It held the commandant’s office and living quarters, the administration building, the “death block,” the prisoners kitchen and infirmary, the main guard station, the first crematorium and gas chamber, the Gestapo camp, and the group gallows. Auschwitz I was surrounded by double barbed wire electric fences and nine watch towers.
The “death block” housed the criminals in the camp. These barracks held the “court rooms” where the prisoner was tortured into confession, unfairly tried, and sentenced to death. The “firing wall” located at the side of the block was the location for carrying out the sentences by lining the prisoners against the wall and shooting them. Their bodies were placed in gravel pits in and around the main camp.
Auschwitz II, also known as Birkenau, was built in March 1942 to accommodate more prisoners, and, therefore, it was the largest section of Auschwitz. At its peak, up to 200,000 inmates were housed in the Auschwitz II barracks. The 250 barracks located throughout Birkeneau were modeled after horse stables that were meant to house 52 horses.
After the buildings were designed, the Nazis fit approximately 800 to 1,000 people in each barrack. On August 16, 1942, a section of the barracks was designated the women’s camp. It held 15,000 working females. The conditions in Auschwitz II were far worse than those in Auschwitz I. There was no running water or sanitary equipment, resulting in the rapid spread of disease. Vermin and insects infested the living quarters and work sites of the inmates.
Auschwitz II also contained the gas chambers and Crematoria II, III, IV, and V. The presence of the death chambers near the barracks served as a constant reminder to the inmates that at any moment they could be sent in to the showers to be gassed and cremated. The strong scent of charred flesh and burned hair were detected from the living quarters to the work sites.
Auschwitz II held the Birkenau commandant’s office, the kitchen barracks, the “experimental block” for medical experiments conducted on the prisoners, execution barracks mass graves for Soviet prisoners of war an incarceration area, and a storage area for the personal items of the dead and captured prisoners. The entire perimeter of the camp was surrounded by a barbed wire fence and 28 watch towers with armed guards. This made prisoner escapes virtually impossible.
Auschwitz III, also known as Monoschwitz, consisted of a small area that contained the subcamp and the “buna.” The main function of this sector was the production of synthetic fuel and rubber. As a result of expansion of the main Auschwitz camp in October 1942, Auschwitz III also was utilized for holding prisoners.
Scattered throughout the camp in all three sector of Auschwitz were huge pits used as mass graves for thousands of stacked bodies, individual common graves, and large pyres. Typically, the mass graves held about 107,000 corpses and were used extensively after the Nazis discovered the inefficiency of burying the bodies individually. Even in death, the prisoners lost their identity, as they simply became part of a stack containing thousands of bodies.
A Day in the Life of a Typical Auschwitz Prisoner
Before dawn, the prisoners were roused from their overcrowded, unsanitary wooden beds for roll call. The inmates were required to make their beds, each of which consisted of a small thin blanket and a mattress of wooden boards. If the job was not done to the satisfaction of the SS guard, punishment followed.
At roll call, the entire camp stood in their meager rags as the SS guards called out the names of the prisoners. With no protection from bad weather, the inmates stood for up to four hours in the rain and snow. The striped dresses or shirt and pants were not changed for months and were inefficient against the cold and damp. Some of the extremely weak and sick prisoners would die in the lines during the roll call.
The penal roll call was given as a collective punishment for the wrongdoing of one prisoner. “All night long the prisoners remain standing in the courtyard … shivering with cold, tortured hunger, fainting from exhaustion. In such conditions, the human rag has only one hope left….it wants to die.” These roll calls lasted all night and included beatings and shootings.
After the daily roll call, the prisoners received their ration for breakfast. The rations allocated to the prisoners were just barely enough to keep each prisoner alive for the slave labor, but still in the state of malnutrition. They were given 10 ounces of bread with a small piece of salami or one ounce of margarine and brown, tasteless coffee, with no sugar.
Directly after breakfast, another roll call was announced with a siren. The prisoners combined together into their work groups and they were escorted to their sites by SS guards armed with automatic weapons and attack dogs to ensure that no prisoner escaped.
One such site was called “Canada” which was a slang name given because this was the land of plenty. It was a huge, open compound, containing many sheds and covered areas. These buildings held the possessions taken from the incoming prisoners after entering Auschwitz.
The goods were to be sorted for the Nazis. The prisoners were taken into the sheds, given scissors, and told to cut the lining of fur coats to look for items hidden inside. This job was considered to be a privilege, but the workers found it deeply depressing to be sorting out the belongings of the deceased and to be looking at the photographs of broken and ended families. It was a shock to realize that their relatives were lost forever and that they would only be reunited in heaven.
The workers labored about 11 or 12 hours daily. At noon, a soup was given to the prisoners that consisted of a quart of water with a few carrots and rutabagas. The inmates resumed working until dusk when they were escorted back to the camp for the four-hour evening roll call. The final meal was bread with rotten salami or margarine and jam. Sometimes a piece of rotten skim cheese was included.
The camps had no heat or running water and only a few toilets which the inmates could only use for a monitored 10 seconds. After retreating into the barracks, the prisoners lay 10 per bed and each person had to lay sideways to fit.
Insects and vermin also shared the beds. Particular menaces were bed bugs that landed on the prisoner and sucked his or her blood. Lice and rats also plagued prisoners. The prisoners slept on their possessions, such as a bowl, a cup, or a cap to prevent them from being stolen by other inmates. Many times a prisoner woke up to find his or her bed-mate dead.
The entire function of the Auschwitz camp was the extermination of the prisoners within its fences. Every part of the camp functioned to that end. Everyone from the SS guard separating the workers from the doomed, to the kitchen workers serving unhealthy, rotten food worked to that end. The prisoners were tattooed with a number and afterwards their identity was lost.
The inmates were treated more like animals than humans by the Nazis. The worst atrocities were revealed within Auschwitz, and this was illustrated when the Nazis tried to hide their actions by destroying a crematorium. However, the Nazis were eventually defeated, and the few survivors were rescued. The memory of those who perished in the death camp live on.
A Russian internee in the infamous Buchenwald Concentration camp confronts one of his tormentors in this photo take after the camp’s liberation by elements of the U.S. 3rd Armored Division.
from the collection of the Virginia War Museum Newport News, Virginia