KL Auschwitz-Birkenau History

An oral command to get the Jewish community killed was probably directly delivered by Adolf Hitler. The respective documents were signed-up by Hermann Göring and Heinrich Himmler, and were due to be received by Reinhard Heydrich, and later, by Ernst Kaltenbrunner. In the practical sense, the extermination programme was responsibility of the Gestapo, and personally, of Adolf Eichmann, chief of Jewish affairs for the Reich Central Security Office. The anti-Jewish policies of the Third Reich were nearing their climax. The launch of extermination camps was namely preceded by legal and economic persecutions of 1930s, the idea that Jews be forcefully resettled into Madagascar, and the mass murders committed in the East, after the war against the USSR started, by the so-called Einsatzgruppen [‘deployment groups’] des Sicherheitsdienstes und der Sicherheitspolizei. It is assumed that the initial point of implementing the Endlösung project was the mass executions in Vilnius and Riga, as well as the start-up of extermination camps at Chełmno and Belzec (in late 1941/early 1942). In January 1942 at the Wannsee Conference, the Endlösung der Judenfrage – i.e. the ‘final solution to the Jewish question’ – was regarded to be the Third Reich’s strategic goal. The first stage of its implementation was the so-called Reinhard Action, aimed at killing the Jewish community within the General Gouvernement. At a later date, extermination of Jews from the territories of Europe then under the German occupation was effectuated. Finally, at the then last operating camp, Auschwitz II-Birkenau, a total of 434,351 Hungarian Jews were gassed in summer 1944. After suppressing a rebellion of an Auschwitz-based Sonderkommando(whose all participants, totalling eighty, were killed), the Reichsführer of the SS Heinrich Himmler ordered that the “Endlösung” programme be finished (on October 7, 1944); gas chambers and crematories were then destroyed in order to cover all the tracks.

Rudolf Höss on how Birkenau was built (from his “Memories”):“The thing is [i.e. was] that it [=the camp] be situated aside, far from any human environment, or in any case, it has to be separated from the old camp. It was still before the German-Russian war broke out, and therefore we did not understand for what sort of captives that camp was supposed to be constructed.”

However, as early as in April 1940, Himmler ordered that in the locality of Oświęcim, a concentration camp be built for 10,000 prisoners. The man who was tasked with organising, and subsequently managing, the camp was Rudolf Franz Ferdinand Höss. Forced labourers, three-hundred local Jews, were employed to build the camp. The subsequent camp commanders were Arthur Liebehenschel (November 1943 – May 1944) and Richard Baer (June 1944 – January 1945).

Initially, the camp was devised for Polish prisoners. It was built in the quarter of Zasole, in the bricked section of Baraki housing estate which before the war housed the barracks of 73rd Infantry Regiment and the Bielsko-based Battalion of the 21st Light Artillery Regiment. The location was selected because of its situation. Merged administratively with the Third Reich, the town of Oświęcim was an important transportation junction, with convenient railway, not far from the General Gouvernement. In parallel, the muddy area of the fork of the Vistula and Soła rivers was naturally ‘fortified’. The first batch of a total of political prisoners was transported into the camp from Tarnów on June 14, 1940. Somewhat earlier, criminals serving time at KL Sachsenhausen camp had been brought, as they were intended to form an ‘officer’ staff there. The chief supervisors were to be a hundred of SS officers.

The Auschwitz I area had twenty bricked buildings, including fourteen bungalow-type and six storied ones. Gradually, the lower buildings were made taller and new ones were developed. The entire area was fenced by a double row of high-voltage wires; in the east and south-west, a concrete-slab wall was installed. SS outposts were installed in the watching towers. The whole development was completed by air-raid bunkers open toward the camp’s interior.

Among the twenty-eight buildings in the camp area, the block No. 11 draws one’s attention where places of torture and deaths cells were located (in one such room, Father Maksymilian-Maria Kolbe, the Franciscan, was killed with a phenol injection). It was there that first experiments with Zyklon-B were made, the gas which soon afterwards was to be used on a large scale in the Birkenau gas chambers. Between the blocks No. 11 and 10, the execution wall is situated, against which some 20,000 prisoners were executed by a firing squad. A crematory was launched in as early as 1940 within the Stammlager Auschwitz I area. Initially, two stoves were installed there, made by the Erfurt-based J.A. Topf und Söhne company, but it soon appeared that yet another one had to be built. The stoves’ joint ‘capacity’ was 350 burned corpses per day. The total number of people gassed there was 70,000. No far from there, at the muster yard, between the blocks No. 16 and 17, the Germans erected (on July 19, 1943) a gallows for twelve. Another gallows was built after the war in the place where the camps commander’s office and administrative offices had been located. On April 16, 1947, Rudolf Höss, former Auschwitz camp organiser and commander, was hanged there, as he was sentenced to death by the Supreme National Tribunal on April 2, 1947.

In July 1941, following Himmler’s command (delivered to Höss orally in spring 1941, before the German-Russian war started), in Brzezinka, a village three kilometres off Auschwitz, a new ‘international’ camp started being built, by 1942 to become the place where most of the European Jews were killed. The first stage of the Birkenau camp constriction project was displacement of inhabitants of the nearby villages: Babice, Broszkowice, Brzezinka, Rajsk, Pławy, Harmęże, and Brzeszcze-Budy. The ‘camp-related interests area’ encompassed a total of forty square kilometres. Materials with which the first camp barracks were constructed originated from demolished village houses. The barracks were built by Russian war prisoners. Initially, some 200,000 Russian prisoners were intended to inhabit the camp. Soon, however, the German offensive in the East got collapsed, so that only 14,000 Russian captives were brought into Auschwitz. Only 174 of those were to survive the war.


Rudolf Höss on crematories (from “Memories”): “Each of them had five three-retort stoves where a total of two-thousand corpses could be burned within twenty-four hours. Crematories No. 1 and 2 had underground undressing rooms and gas chambers to and from which the air could be supplied or taken away. The corpses were transported by lift to stoves installed higher up there. The gas chambers could have three-thousand people in them at a time, but such a number has never been achieved, since individual transports never occurred to be that large.”

On September 3, 1941, the camp was visited by Adolf Eichmann. It was most probably at that time that a decision was made that Birkenau was to be the venue where the grand action to exterminate the Jews should commence, the killing method being a poisonous gas. From March 1942 onwards, the rail ramp at Birkenau started being regularly frequented by cargo trains filled with Jews. There, a selection was held (being a unique procedure as regards extermination camps), during which SS physicians split the arriving humans into a group of ‘fit for work’, who could still enjoy a few weeks’ life, and another one formed by those who were directly taken to gas chambers (each of the five chambers could be used to murder some 6,000 humans a day). Those incapable of making their way any more were killed on the spot, by shooting on their napes.

The tight-closed rooms where humans waited were filled with Zyklon-B. After thirty minutes, the chambers were opened and the corpses thrown into specially dug trenches (before then, gold teeth were drawn out and hair cut off). From summer 1942 on, the killed humans’ bodies were burned in crematories or at stakes (numbering ca. 8,000 per 24 hours). At that time, the corpses which had been buried in trenches were exhumed and also burned. The force tasked will all that was the so-called Sonderkommando, formed of Jewish prisoners called ‘haitzers’ in the camp jargon. After a few weeks’ ‘service’, the Sonderkommando members were liquidated and replaced by new ones. The property of the killed which was left on the ramp was then sorted by prisoners in barracks nicknamed ‘Canada’ by them, and subsequently, exported to Germany.

Is the place where 1.5 million European Jews were eventually killed, which accounts for 25% of all the Holocaust victims. Added to this number should be 20,000 Roma people and a few hundred political prisoners.

Concentration camps encouraged Nazi entrepreneurs to invest in their nearby areas. In January 1941, the board of Interessen Gemeinschaft Farbenindustrie (“Syndicate of Dyestuff-Industry Corporations”), the grand German concern, also abbreviated as IG Farben, decided that Auschwitz was an excellent place where to open a large chemical factory where carbide, methanol, and synthetic rubber might be produced. And so, dwellers of the localities of Broszkowice, Dwory, Monowice, and Poręba-Wielka were uprooted. In April 1941, the camp prisoners started constructing the plant, and the construction was completed by 1942. In the following year, methanol production was started, the synthetic rubber line being launched a year later. The factory was subsequently bombed by both Western states (in July, October, and November 1944) and Russian air-crafts (in December 1944).

In Monowice area, an Auschwitz I subsidiary camp was set-up, called Buna – initially intended for eight-hundred prisoners. In November 1943, it was singled-out as a separate Auschwitz III concentration camp, to become known as Konzentrationslager Monowitz a year later. In late 1944, 10,000 prisoners were kept there, including Russian, English, French, or Italian war prisoners, then working for IG Farben. But not only did the concern use the prisoners’ slavish labour: Gegesch factory, being its member, manufactured Zyklon-B which was used to exterminate prisoners with.
Today, one can find but some scattered traces of Monowitz camp: details of reinforced-concrete fencing posts, gates, wooden huts … After the war, a new Monowice was built there, and the village hosts a monument commemorating the killed prisoners.

In July 1944, as the Red Army moved in Poland, the Germans started evacuating their Auschwitz and Birkenau prisoners into other camps. As of January 17, 1945, 66,000 individuals were still kept there. In the night of 18th/19th, a ‘death march’ started – via Rajsko, Budy, Brzeszcze and Jawiszowice into Wodzisław-Śląski, from which place the Germans distributed part of the prisoners into camps located in the Reich’s interior. During that evacuation, at least 400 prisoners perished. The Russians entered the camp on January 27, 1945.

The recent studies have shown that in Auschwitz camps, at least 1.1 million Jews (incl. 300,000 Polish Jews) were kept prisoners, along with 150,000 Poles, 23,000 Roma, 15,000 Russian war prisoners, and 25,000 individuals from other countries.