Auschwitz-Birkenau was originally created as a camp for Polish prisoners in 1940. By the end of 1941 it had expanded into an enormous labour camp, mainly for the utilisation of Soviet prisoners. In the late summer of 1941 Rudolf Hoess, the camp commandant, was told by
Himmler that Auschwitz was to be a principal centre for killing Jews.
Hoess had no moral qualms. A fanatical nationalist and member of
the SS from 1934, he had worked his way up the career ladder in
Dachau and Sachsenhausen concentration camps. Proud to have
been singled out by Himmler, he was determined to carry out his
orders to the best of his ability. Fretting about the practical mechanics
of mass extermination, he hit upon the idea of using Zyklon B,
consisting of small pellets of prussic acid crystals, as the gassing agent.
First tested on Soviet prisoners, it proved deadly poisonous, killing in
half the time required by carbon monoxide.
Given that the Auschwitz site was somewhat exposed, Hoess determined to shift the gassing to a new, more secluded camp, some three kilometres from the main site. This camp, known as Birkenau, was built around two old cottages. The windows of these were blocked up
and airtight walls and doors added. Bunker 1 (the first cottage) began
operations in early 1942. With good railway connections, Auschwitz-Birkenau was a convenient place to send Jews from most of Europe and quickly grew into the largest of the Nazi labour/extermination camps. It consisted ultimately of three main compounds: Auschwitz I,
the original camp: Auschwitz II at Birkenau, the extermination camp;
and Auschwitz III, the industrial centre at Monowitz. There were also
dozens of satellite camps sprawling over a huge area.
The process of killing was slick and stream-lined. The transports
arrived at a rail platform, located half way between Auschwitz I and
Auschwitz II. (In April 1944 a direct rail spur was built to Birkenau.)
An SS doctor, with a simple wave of the hand, decided who was fit and
unfit. The fit were sentenced to hard labour in Auschwitz I or III. The
unfit - the old, sick, children and mothers with young children - were
condemned to immediate death in the gas chambers. The numbers of
fit and unfit fluctuated,'depending more on labour requirements
than on physical health. But on average only about 30 per cent of
each transport was seen as fit for work.
The victims were marched, or taken by truck, to Birkenau. The
killing apparatus at Birkenau changed somewhat over time. The two
gas chambers in Bunker I could accommodate 800 people at one go.
Bunker 2, which contained three gas chambers holding 1,200 people,
began operations in the summer of 1942. That summer Himmler also
gave Hoess permission to build a new complex with four killing
centres, containing a total of six gas chambers and 14 ovens, for
cremating up to 8,000 corpses a day.
On reaching Birkenau, the victims were usually addressed in a
friendly way and asked to undress quickly so they could take a bath.
After undressing, they were herded into a gas chamber into which gas
pellets were emptied through vents in the ceiling. The young and old
usually died first as the gas saturated the lower part of the chamber.
Stronger victims often struggled upward to better air, climbing over
layers of bodies. But within 20 minutes all were dead. The SS doctor
(who watched events through a peephole in the steel door) then gave
the signal to switch on the ventilators that pumped the gas from the
chamber and the Sonderkommando went in to clear the bodies.
Those prisoners pronounced fit for work were taken to Auschwitz I
or III. While Jews formed a significant percentage of the population,
the majority of the labour camps' inmates were non-Jews. By 1944
there were some 40 branch camps to which Jews might be sent. These
camps supplied labour for some of the most famous German firms,
including Krupp and Siemens-Schuckert. The largest industrial plant
was a synthetic fuel and rubber complex, established by I.G.Farben,
the petro-chemical combine, at Monowitz. Other work camps
were run directly by profit-making SS agencies. For purposes of
identification, prisoners (as in all other camps) were forced to
display markings of different colours on their uniforms. This
consisted of a number and a coloured triangle. A red triangle
denoted a political prisoner, green a criminal, purple a Jehovah's
Witness, black a 'shiftless element', pink a homosexual, and brown
a Gypsy. Jews displayed a Star of David.
As in labour/concentration camps throughout German-occupied
Europe, inmates of Auschwitz and its associated camps were stripped
of their individuality and shorn of self-respect. Fed on watery soup
and an ounce or two of bread, they endured primitive sanitary facilities and had practically no medicines, despite epidemics of typhus
and other diseases. Prisoners were awakened at dawn and had to
report for a roll call which might last for hours. They were then
marched out to work. Most had to do hard manual labour at a
murderous tempo and were subject to brutal punishment for the
slightest breach of regulations or simply at the whim of the guards.
Most of the managers of the German firms adopted SS methods and
mentality. Given the conditions, few prisoners survived for more than
a few months.
Some Auschwitz inmates were selected to serve as human guinea
pigs for medical experiments. In 1942 Himmler, eager to find a
method of mass sterilisation, sent Dr Carl Clauberg, a leading gynaecologist, to direct a research programme at Auschwitz. Clauberg's
experiments involved injecting various chemicals into the ovaries of
Jewish women. Other doctors subjected both men and women to
massive doses of radiation which produced burns and effective sterilisation. Research papers, detailing the experiments which inflicted
maiming or death on hundreds of prisoners, were then presented at
medical meetings in Germany. The most infamous Auschwitz doctor
was Josef Mengele - the 'Angel of Death'. Mengele was aged 32 when
he arrived at the camp in 1943. He volunteered for duty at Auschwitz
in order to pursue his research interest - the biology of racial differences. Selecting for study about 1,500 sets of identical twins, he used
one of the twins for control while the other was used for experimen-
tation purposes - as a laboratory researcher might use rats. Fewer than
200 twins survived his 'research'. (Similar experiments were
conducted in other concentration camps. At Dachau, for example,
prisoners were dumped into icy water, some naked and others
dressed, to observe how their bodies would react and to see what
might be done to revive them.)
The End of Auschwitz
By 1944 most Jews in German-occupied Europe had been killed. Only
the Hungarian Jews had so far escaped the Holocaust. However, in the
spring of 1944 Eichmann and his staff arrived in Budapest and mass
deportations to Auschwitz began in May 1944. In less than a month
some 289,000 Hungarian Jews were transported. Most (up to 12,000 a
day) were killed immediately on arrival. In these circumstances, there
were soon problems with the disposal of the corpses and the maintenance of secrecy. Hoess recalled:
In bad weather or a strong wind the smell of burning spread over
several kilometres and caused the whole population of the surrounding
area to start talking about the burning of Jews.... Furthermore, the air
defence authorities complained about the fire at night, which could
clearly be seen from the air. However, we had to keep cremating at night
in order not to have to halt the incoming transports.
In the summer and autumn of 1944, Himmler, working under the
threat of imminent defeat, intensified German efforts to make
Europe Jew-free. He combed some of the districts and camps previously overlooked, including Theresienstadt, the model concentration camp near Prague, which housed some 140,000 'privileged' Jews, among whom were prominent artists, intellectuals, and First World
War veterans. By 1945 only 17,320 Jews remained at Theresienstadt:
the rest had been sent to Auschwitz. Throughout October 1944 some
1,000 died each day in Auschwitz's gas chambers. Then on 2 November Himmler issued an order forbidding the further annihilation of Jews. Exactly why this order was issued remains uncertain. It may be that Germany was so short of labour that even Jewish workers
were needed. Although the gassings stopped, the dying continued as
the Germans squeezed the last ounce of productivity from the camp
inmates. Meanwhile the Nazis tried to hide all traces of the killings,
blowing up the gas chambers in the process.
On 17 January 1945 the last roll call at Auschwitz was held. The
Germans counted 67,012 prisoners - less than half the total in August
1944. With the Russian army closing in, the Germans ordered the
evacuation of all but about 6,000 inmates who were too young or
infirm to move. The journey west for most of the 60,000 or so evacuees was dreadful. Those on foot received little food and were shot by the guards if unable to keep up. One march lasted 16 weeks and claimed the lives of all but 280 of the 3,000 who began it. Hundreds of
those left behind in Auschwitz - without food or fuel - also died. When
the Russians finally entered the camp on 27 January 1945 only 2,800
people remained alive. Many were so emaciated they died soon after
After the war, Hoess estimated the numbers of Jews killed at
Auschwitz as follows: from Upper Silesia and the General
Government - 250,000; from Germany - 100,000; from Holland -
95,000; from Belgium - 20,000; from France - 110,000; from Greece -
65,000; from Hungary - 400,000; and from Slovakia - 90,000.
The Jews were by no means the only group to suffer at the hands of
the Germans. The Nazis planned to rid Germany and the occupied
territories of all racial undesirables. In December 1942 Himmler
signed an order by which all German Gypsies were to be deported to
Auschwitz. Here they had their own special camp which soon had a
population of over 10,000. The Gypsies initially fared better than the
Jews. Few were immediately gassed and families were allowed to live
together. However, in 1944 thousands of Gypsies were sent as
labourers to other camps. In August 1944 the remaining 3,000
Gypsies at Auschwitz were gassed. Altogether some 200,000 Gypsies
across Europe are thought to have been murdered during the war.
6,000 Jehovah's Witnesses, regarded as agents of a foreign power, were killed. So were large numbers of habitual criminals who were seen as being genetically preconditioned to a life of crime. (As many as 40,000 'criminals' may have been killed between 1939 and 1945.)
The Nazis were also responsible for the deaths of colossal numbers of
ordinary Poles and Russians. At least 10 million non-Jewish Russian
civilians (and possibly as many as 25 million) died. Some of these
deaths resulted from bombing and other military operations. But
many died as a direct result of German occupation, reprisal and
deportation policies. Of the 5.7 million Soviet prisoners captured in
the war some 3.3 million died in German custody.