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Auschwitz was the largest of the German Nazi concentration and extermination camps. Located in southern Poland, it took its name from the nearby town of Oswiecim (Auschwitz in German). It was situated about 50 kilometers west of Krakˇw and 286 kilometers from Warsaw. Following the German occupation of Poland in September 1939, Oswiecim was incorporated into Germany and renamed Auschwitz.
The complex consisted of three main camps: Auschwitz I, the administrative center; Auschwitz II (Birkenau), an extermination camp or Vernichtungslager; and Auschwitz III (Monowitz), a work camp. The first two of them have been on the World Heritage List since 1979. There were also around 40 satellite camps, some of them tens of kilometers from the main camps, with prisoner populations ranging from several dozen to several thousand.
The camp commandant, Rudolf H÷ss, testifed at the Nuremberg Trials that up to 2.5 million people had died at Auschwitz. The Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum revised this figure in 1990, and new calculations now place the figure at 1.1-1.6 million, about 90 percent of them Jews from almost every country in Europe. Most of the dead were killed in gas chambers using Zyklon-B; other deaths were caused by systematic starvation, forced labor, lack of disease control, individual executions, and so-called medical experiments.
Beginning in 1940, Nazi Germany built several concentration camps and an extermination camp in the area, which at the time was under German occupation. The Auschwitz camps were a major element in the perpetration of the Holocaust; at least 1.1 million people were killed there, of whom over 90% were Jews.
The three main camps were:
Like all German concentration camps, the Auschwitz camps were operated by Heinrich Himmler's SS. The commandants of the camp were the SS-Obersturmbannführers Rudolf H÷ß (often written "Hoess") until the summer of 1943, and later Arthur Liebehenschel and Richard Baer. H÷ß provided a detailed description of the camp's workings during his interrogations after the war and also in his autobiography. He was hanged in 1947 in front of the entrance to the crematorium of Auschwitz I. Command of the women's camp, which was separated from the men's area by the incoming railway line was held in turn by Johanna Langefeld, Maria Mandel, and Elisabeth Volkenrath.
Auschwitz I served as the administrative center for the whole complex. It was founded on May 20, 1940, on the basis of an old Polish brick army barracks (originally built by the Austro-Hungarian Empire). A group of 728 Polish political prisoners from Tarnˇw became the first residents of Auschwitz on June 14 that year. The camp was initially used for interning Polish intellectuals and resistance movement members, then also for Soviet Prisoners of War. Common German criminals, "anti-social elements" and 48 German homosexuals were also imprisoned there. Jews were sent to the camp as well, beginning with the very first shipment (from Tarnˇw). At any time, the camp held between 13,000 and 16,000 inmates; in 1942 the number reached 20,000. The entrance to Auschwitz I was - and still is - marked with the ironic sign "Arbeit Macht Frei", or "work makes (one) free." The camp's prisoners who left the camp during the day for construction or farm labor were made to march through the gate to the sounds of an orchestra. Contrary to what is depicted in several films, the majority of the Jews were imprisoned in the Auschwitz II camp, and did not pass under this sign.
The SS selected some prisoners, often German criminals, as specially privileged supervisors of the other inmates (so-called: kapo). The various classes of prisoners were distinguishable by special marks on their clothes; Jews were generally treated the worst. All inmates had to work in the associated arms factories; except Sundays, which were reserved for cleaning and showering and there were no work assignments.
The harsh work requirements, combined with poor nutrition and hygiene, led to high death rates among the prisoners. Block 11 of Auschwitz (the original standing cells and such were block 13) was the "prison within the prison", where violators of the numerous rules were punished. Some prisoners were made to spend the nights in "standing-cells". These cells were about 1.5 metres square, and four men would be placed in them; they could do nothing but stand, and were forced during the day to work with the other prisoners. In the basement were located the "starvation cells"; prisoners incarcerated here were given neither food nor water until they were dead. Also in the basement were the "dark cells"; these cells had only a very tiny window, and a solid door. Prisoners placed in these cells would gradually suffocate as they used up all of the oxygen in the air; sometimes the SS would light a candle in the cell to use up the oxygen more quickly. Many were subjected to hanging with their hands behind their backs, thus dislocating their shoulder joints for hours, even days.
The execution yard is between blocks 10 and 11. In this area, prisoners who were thought to merit individual execution received it. Some were shot, against a reinforced wall which still exists; others suffered a more lingering death by being suspended from hooks set in two wooden posts, which also still exist.
In September 1941, the SS conducted poison gas tests in block 11, killing 850 Poles and Soviets using cyanide. The first experiment took place on 3 September 1941, and killed 600 Soviet POWs. The substance producing the highly lethal cyanide gas was sold under the trade name Zyklon B, originally for use as a pesticide used to kill lice. The tests were deemed successful, and a gas chamber and crematorium were constructed by converting a bunker. This gas chamber operated from 1941 to 1942, during which time some 60,000 people were killed therein; it was then converted into an air-raid shelter for the use of the SS. This gas chamber still exists, together with the associated crematorium, which was reconstructed after the war using the original components, which remained on-site.
The first women arrived in the camp on March 26, 1942. From April 1943 to May 1944, the gynecologist Prof. Dr. Carl Clauberg conducted sterilization experiments on Jewish women in block 10 of Auschwitz I, with the aim of developing a simple injection method to be used on the Slavic people. These experiments consisted largely of determining the effects of the injection of caustic chemicals into the uterus. This was extremely painful and many died during and shortly after. Dr. Josef Mengele, who is well known for his experiments on twins and dwarfs in the same complex, was the camp "doctor". He regularly performed gruesome experiments such as castration without anesthetics. Prisoners in the camp hospital who were not quick to recover were regularly killed by a lethal injection of phenol.
Auschwitz II (Birkenau)
Construction on Auschwitz II (Birkenau) began in October 1941 to ease congestion at the main camp. It was designed to hold several categories of prisoners, and to function as an extermination camp in the context of Himmler's preparations for the Final Solution of the Jewish Question.
Many people know the Birkenau camp simply as "Auschwitz"; it was larger than Auschwitz I, and more people passed through its gates than did those of Auschwitz I. It was the site of imprisonment of hundreds of thousands, and of the killing of over one million people, mainly Jews but also large numbers of Poles, and Gypsies, mostly through gassing.
Birkenau had four gas chambers, designed to resemble showers, and four crematoria, used to incinerate bodies. Approximately 40 more satellite camps were established around Auschwitz. These were forced labor camps and were known collectively as Auschwitz III. The first one was built at Monowitz and held Poles who had been forcibly evacuated from their hometowns by the Nazis. The inmates of Monowitz were forced to work in the chemical works of IG Farben.
Prisoners were transported from all over German-occupied Europe by rail, arriving at Auschwitz-Birkenau in daily convoys. Arrivals at the complex were separated into four groups:
The camp was staffed partly by prisoners, some of whom were selected to be kapos (orderlies) and sonderkommandos (workers at the crematoria). The kapos were responsible for keeping order in the barrack huts; the sonderkommando prepared new arrivals for gassing (ordering them to remove their clothing and surrender their personal possessions) and transferred corpses from the gas chambers to the furnaces, having first pulled out any gold that the victims might have had in their teeth. Members of these groups were killed periodically. The kapos and sonderkommandos were supervised by members of the SS; altogether 6,000 SS members worked at Auschwitz.
By 1943 resistance organizations had developed in the camp. These organizations helped a few prisoners escape; these escapees took with them news of exterminations, such as the killing of hundreds of thousands of Jews transported from Hungary between May and July 1944. In October 1944 a group of sonderkommandos destroyed one of the crematoria at Birkenau. They and their accomplices, a group of women from the Monowitz labor camp, were all put to death. It was also not uncommon if one prisoner escaped, selected persons in the escapee's block were killed.
When the Soviet army liberated Auschwitz on January 27, 1945, they found about 7,600 survivors abandoned there. More than 58,000 prisoners had already been evacuated by the Nazis and sent on a final death march to Germany. In 1947, in remembrance of the victims, Poland founded a museum at the site of the Auschwitz concentration camp. By 1994, some 22 million visitors - 700,000 annually - had passed through the iron gate crowned with the cynical motto, "Arbeit macht frei" ("Work will set you free").
Auschwitz III and satellite camps
The surrounding work camps were closely connected to German industry and were associated with arms factories, foundries and mines. The largest work camp was Auschwitz III Monowitz, named after the Polish village of Monowice. Starting operations in May 1942, it was associated with the synthetic rubber and liquid fuel plant Buna-Werke owned by I. G. Farben. In regular intervals, doctors from Auschwitz II would visit the work camps and select the weak and sick for the gas chambers of Birkenau. The largest subcamps were built at Trzebinia, Blechhammer and Althammer. Female subcamps were constructed at Budy , Plawy, Zabrze, Gleiwitz I, II, III, Rajsko and at Lichtenwerden (now Svetlß).
The whole Auschwitz complex of camps was liberated in early 1945 by the advancing Russian army
Knowledge of the Allies
Some information regarding Auschwitz reached the Allies during 1941-1944, such as the reports of Witold Pilecki and Jerzy Tabeau, but the claims of mass killings were generally dismissed as exaggerations. This changed with receipt of the very detailed report of two escaped prisoners, Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler, which finally convinced most Allied leaders of the truth about Auschwitz in the middle of 1944.
Detailed air reconnaissance photographs of the camp were taken accidentally during 1944 by aircraft seeking to photograph nearby military-industrial targets, but no effort was made to analyse them. (In fact, it was not until the 1970s that these photographs of Auschwitz were looked at carefully.)
Starting with a plea from the Slovakian rabbi Weissmandl in May 1944, there was a growing campaign to convince the Allies to bomb Auschwitz or the railway lines leading to it. At one point Winston Churchill ordered that such a plan be prepared, but he was told that bombing the camp would most likely kill prisoners without disrupting the killing operation, and that bombing the railway lines was not technically feasible. Later several nearby military targets were bombed. One bomb accidentally fell into the camp and killed some prisoners. The debate over what could have been done, or what should have been attempted even if success was unlikely, has continued heatedly ever since.
On October 7, 1944, the Jewish Sonderkommandos (those inmates kept separate from the main camp and put to work in the gas chambers and crematoria) of Birkenau Kommando III staged an uprising. They attacked the SS with makeshift weapons: stones, axes, hammers, other work tools and homemade grenades. They caught the SS guards by surprise, overpowered them and blew up the Crematorium IV, using explosives smuggled in from a weapons factory by female inmates. At this stage they were joined by the Birkenau Kommando I of the Crematorium II, which also overpowered their guards and broke out of the compound. Hundreds of prisoners escaped, but were all soon captured and, along with an additional group who participated in the revolt, executed. The girls from the munitions factory were brutally tortured, but refused to name any of their co-conspirators. Destroyed crematoria were never rebuilt.
There were also international plans for a general uprising in Auschwitz, coordinated with an Allied air raid and a Polish resistance attack from the outside.
Evacuation and liberation
The gas chambers of Birkenau were blown up by the SS in November 1944 in an attempt to hide their crimes from the advancing Soviet troops. On January 17, 1945 Nazi personnel started to evacuate the facility; most of the prisoners were forced on a death march West. Those too weak or sick to walk were left behind; about 7,500 prisoners were liberated by the 322nd Infantry unit of the Red Army on January 27 1945.
The exact number of victims at Auschwitz is impossible to fix with certainty. Since Germans destroyed a number of records, immediate efforts to count the dead depended on the testimony of witnesses and the defendants on trial at Nuremberg. While under interrogation Rudolf H÷ß, commandant of Auschwitz concentration camp from 1940 to 1943, said that two and a half million Jews had been killed. Later he wrote "I regard two and a half million far too high. Even Auschwitz had limits to its destructive possibilities", while Adolf Eichmann gave a figure of 2 million. The Auschwitz Death Book, recently uncovered in Soviet archives, is an example of logged records, but other examples of collected figures are scarce.
Communist Soviet and Polish authorities maintained a figure "between 2.5 and 4 million", which was used on the original Auschwitz memorial.
In 1983 , French scholar George Wellers was one of the first to use German data on deportations to estimate the number killed at Auschwitz, arriving at 1.613 million dead, including 1.44 million Jews and 146,000 Catholic Poles. A larger study started around the same time by Franciszek Piper used time tables of train arrivals combined with deportation records to calculate 1.1 million Jewish deaths and 140,000-150,000 Catholic Polish victims, along with 23,000 Roma & Sinti (Gypsies). This number has met with "significant, though not complete" agreement among scholars.
According to Harmon and Drobnicki, relevant estimates are in range between 800,000 and five million people.
After the war
After the war, the camp served through most of 1945 as an NKVD prison, then for several years remained in a state of disrepair. The Buna Werke were taken over by the Polish government and became the foundation for the region's chemical industry.
The Polish government then decided to restore Auschwitz I and turn it into a museum honouring the victims of Nazism; Auschwitz II, where buildings (many of which were prefabricated wood structures) were prone to decay, was preserved but not restored. Today, the Auschwitz I museum site combines elements from several periods into a single complex: for example the gas chamber at Auschwitz I (which had been converted into an air-raid shelter for the SS) was restored and the fence was moved (because of building being done after the war but before the establishment of the museum). However, in most cases the departure from the historical truth is minor, and is clearly labelled. The museum contains very large numbers of men's, women's and children's shoes taken from their victims; also suitcases, which the deportees were encouraged to bring with them, and many household utensils. One display case, some 30 metres long, is wholly filled with human hair which the Nazis gathered from the people before and after they were killed.
Auschwitz II and the remains of the gas chambers there are also open to the public. The Auschwitz concentration camp is part of the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites. The ashes of the victims of the SS were scattered between the huts, and the entire area is seen as a grave site.
Most of the buildings of Auschwitz I are still standing. Many of them are now used as museums. The public entrance area (with bookshop, etc.) is outside the perimeter fence in what was the camp admission building, where new prisoners were registered and given their uniforms, etc.
Most of the buildings of Birkenau were burnt down by the Germans as the Russians came near, and much of the resulting brick rubble was removed in 1945 by the area's returning Polish population to restore farm buildings before winter. That explains the "missing rubble" cited as evidence by Holocaust deniers. By the site of its gas chambers and incinerators are piles of broken bricks which were thrown aside in the search for fallen re-usable intact bricks. Today, the entrance building remains plus some of the brick-built barracks in the southern part of the site, but of the wooden barracks, some 300 in number, just nineteen are still standing, eighteen of these in a row near the entrance building and one more, on its own, further away. Of most of the others just chimneys remain, two per barrack, one each end with a raised duct linking them, remnants of a largely ineffective means of heating. Many of these wooden buildings were constructed from prefabricated sections made by a company that intended them to be used as stables; inside, numerous metal rings for the tethering of horses can still be seen.
At the far end of Birkenau are memorial plaques in many languages including Romani.
In 1979, the newly elected Polish Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass on the grounds of Auschwitz II to some 500,000 people. After the pope had announced that Edith Stein would be beatified, some Catholics erected a cross near bunker 2 of Auschwitz II where she had been gassed. A short while later, a Star of David appeared at the site, leading to a proliferation of religious symbols there; eventually they were removed.
Carmelite nuns opened a convent near Auschwitz I in 1984. After some Jewish groups called for the removal of the convent, representatives of the Catholic Church agreed in 1987. One year later the Carmelites erected the 8 metre (26 ft) tall cross from the 1979 mass near their site, just outside block 11 and barely visible from within the camp. This led to protests by Jewish groups, who said that mostly Jews were killed at Auschwitz and demanded that religious symbols be kept away from the site. Some Catholics have argued that the people killed in Auschwitz I (as opposed to Auschwitz II) were mainly Polish Catholics (including at least one Catholic saint, Maximilian Kolbe). The Catholic Church told the Carmelites to move by 1989, but they stayed on until 1993, leaving the large cross behind. In 1998, after further calls to remove the cross, some 300 smaller crosses were erected by local activists near the large one, leading to further protests and heated exchanges. Following an agreement between the Polish Catholic Church and the Polish government, the smaller crosses were removed in 1999 but the large papal one remains. See Auschwitz cross for more details.
In 1996, Germany made 27 January, the day of the liberation of Auschwitz, the official day for the commemoration of the victims of 'National Socialism'.
The European Parliament marked the anniversary of the camp's liberation in 2005 with a minute of silence and the passage of this resolution:
The site of Auschwitz-Birkenau has undergone a major change since the fall of the Berlin Wall. During the Communist era, "foreign visitors were often shocked by the presentations", which glorified the role of the Soviet Army, according to the European Jewish Congress.
For many years, a memorial plaque placed at the camp by the Soviet authorities stated that 4 million people had been murdered at Auschwitz. The Polish communist government also supported this figure. In the west, this figure was accepted, but some historians had their doubts.
After the collapse of the Communist government in 1989, the plaque was removed and the official death toll given as 1.1 million. Holocaust deniers have attempted to use this change as propaganda, in the words of Nizkor:
The "Auschwitz Death Book" is used by deniers for the same purpose; since this single source contains an elaborate list of victim names, deniers have come to regard it as conclusive, although this fails to match testimony and the findings of reputable Holocaust historians. However, many witnesses noted that the SS were meticulous in recording the names and numbers of the new arrivals who were selected as able to work; those who were sent immediately to the gas chambers were not recorded.
Recently the Polish media and the foreign ministry of Poland have voiced objections to the use of the expression "Polish death camp" in relation to Auschwitz, as they feel that phrase might misleadingly suggest that Poles (rather than Germans) perpetrated the Holocaust. Most media outlets now show awareness of the offence this may cause, and try to avoid using such expressions (or issue an apology after using them.) On April 1, 2006, a Polish Culture Ministry spokesman said that the government requested that UNESCO change the name from "Auschwitz Concentration Camp" to "Former Nazi German Concentration Camp Auschwitz-Birkenau" to emphasize that the camp was run by German Nazis and not by Poles. On July 12, 2006, UNESCO deferred a decision on Poland's request, pending further consultation. On June 28, 2007 the United Nations World Heritage Committee officially announced that the new name is "Auschwitz Birkenau. German Nazi Concentration and Extermination Camp (1940-1945)".
The Polish film directors Andrzej Munk and Andrzej Wajda were both given permission to film in Auschwitz for the films Pasazerka and Krajobraz Po Bitwie respectively. The TV-miniseries War and Remembrance also shot the Holocaust scenes in Auschwitz. However, permission was denied to Steven Spielberg for Schindler's List. Subsequently, a "mirror" camp was constructed outside the infamous archway for the scene where the train arrives carrying the women Schindler was trying to save.
In February 2006, Poland refused to grant visas to Iranian researchers who were planning to visit Auschwitz. Polish Foreign Minister Stefan Meller said his country should stop Iran from investigating the scale of the Holocaust, which Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has dismissed as false. In Poland, denying the Holocaust by propagating "public and contradicting facts" is a crime punished by a sentence of up to 3 years in prison (article 55, Dz.U. 1998 nr 155 poz. 1016).
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