Overview of the Concentration Camp
The Holocaust was one of the most horrifying crimes against humanity. “Hitler, in an attempt to establish the pure Aryan race, decided that Jews, Poles, Soviet prisoners of war, Roma (Gypsies), and homosexuals amongst others were to be eliminated from the German population. One of his main methods of exterminating these “undesirables” was through the use of concentration and death camps. In January of 1941, Adolf Hitler and his top officials decided to make their “final solution” a reality. Their goal was to eliminate the Jews and the “impure” from the entire German population. Auschwitz was not only the largest concentration camp that carried out Hitler’s “final solution,” but it was also the most extensive. It was comprised of three separate camps that encompassed approximately 25 square miles. Although millions of people came to Auschwitz, it is doubted that more than 120,000-150,000 ever lived there at any one time. (Encyclopedia of the Holocaust)
On April 27, 1940, the head of the SS and German police, Heinrich Himmler, ordered that a new concentration camp be established near the town of Oswiecim. A short while later the building of the camp in Zasole, the suburb of Oswiecim, was started. The camp was to be called Auschwitz. The first laborers forced to work on the construction of the camp were three hundred Jews from Oswiecim and its vicinity. (Encyclopedia of the Holocaust) After the completion it covered two square kilometers
and took approximately one and a half hours to walk around its perimeter. (Feig, 340) On the gate of Auschwitz was a sign in German that read, “Arbeit macht frei,” which translates into English as “work makes one free.” (Feig, 334) This was one of the many lies which the Nazis told their prisoners. The first Jews in Auschwitz believed that they were just being taken there to work for the Nazis. As more and more people died word leaked to the outside world about what was really happening at Auschwitz.
The Jews and other undesirables were forced by S.S. soldiers to leave their homes and nearly all of their possessions behind to board crowded trains to Auschwitz. Ironically most of the time they had to pay for the train rides that eventually led to their death.
The train rides to Auschwitz were an introduction to the treatment that the deportees were to receive at the camp. Confidential orders to the mayor of cities in Carpathian-Ruthenia and northern Transylvania were: “The persons to be transported are to be supplied with bread for two days. The two days’ supply per person is 400 grams. Taking along of additional food is prohibited..The mayor will also see to it that each car is provided with a covered bucket (for sanitary purposes) and with a can suitable for drinking water If necessary, as many as 100 may be put in a car and those who cannot take it will perish.” (Hellman) The train rides on average lasted 4 to 5 days and depending on the season was usually blisteringly cold or extremely hot.
The daily meals in Auschwitz consisted of Eratz coffee in the morning, soup at noon, bread with margarine or sugar-beet jam and, on occasion, a bit of sausage in the evening. (Hellman 124) Everyone in the camp was so malnourished that if a drop of soup spilled, prisoners would rush from all sides to see if they could get some of the soup. (Nyiszli, 31) Because of the bad sanitary conditions, an inadequate diet, and the hard labor conditions in Auschwitz, most people died after a few months of living there. (Feig, 342) The few people who managed to stay alive for longer were the ones that had been assigned better jobs such as the clearing out box cars that often times contained scraps of food, and the sorting of possessions striped from prisoners where worn out shoes and cloths could be replaced with new ones.
Twice a day, in the morning and at night before they went to sleep, prisoners had to stand outside for hours in the dead of winter and heat of summer for “appell” or role call. Often prisoners were beaten and punished at this time. They slept on three shelves of wooden slabs with six of these units to each tier. Three to five prisoners would sleep in a bed built for one person. Many people thought that the reason hundreds of people got sick was because when it rained, they slept freezing cold in their wet clothes. (Nyiszli, 112)
Prisoners who got extremely sick were sent to hospital blocks that were there primarily there to isolate the ill “patients” rather than make them well. Patients were crowded in one another’s filth. The discharges from those on upper bunks dripped on to the lower, rags were used for bandages, and medicine was hard to come by. “A prison doctor once tied an aspirin to a string and instructed those patients with a lower fever to “lick it once” and those with a high fever “twice.” (Hellman 112)
The first two huts in each camp section were washrooms and toilets. In place of toilets, there were wooden boards with round holes and underneath them concrete troughs. Prisoners had only a standard 30 seconds on the toilet and risked being beaten for taking too long or sneaking back. The smells were horrible because there wasn’t enough water to clean the latrine. One prisoner said, “The smell of death and excrement was everywhere. Diarrhea was so rampant that people were dying left and right.” (Nyiszli, 113) In March 1941, Himmler ordered that a second, much larger section of the camp be built. Three months later in October 1941, 1.9 miles from Auschwitz I, the construction of Auschwitz II, or Birkenau began. Because of this, the original Auschwitz camp became know as the “Stammlager” meaning “main camp.” (Encyclopedia of the Holocaust)
Electrically charged barbed-wire fences 12 feet high were built around both Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II. Also the complexes of both camps were enclosed by a chain of guard posts that were two-thirds of a mile beyond the system of electric fences. (Encyclopedia of the Holocaust) In addition, Auschwitz II was surrounded by a network of canals that totaled 8 miles in length.
Most of the people sent to Auschwitz entered at the Birkenau arrival platform, commonly known as the “ramp.” Upon arrival the passengers were cramped dazed and hungry. They were told to leave their larger pieces of luggage behind and they would be delivered directly to their new quarters. This was obviously another lie the SS told to the deportees who believed they were all there for work. Prisoners of a section of the camp called “Canada,” wore striped suits and were assigned to clear the boxcars of luggage and debris, amongst other operational tasks. This was a much sought after job because workers sometimes found scraps of food in the box cars, however the workers were searched by guards after every shift.
Under the direction of the SS, prisoners formed columns of five across, men on one side, women and children on the other. This is where the process known by the German word “selecktion” meaning selection took place. The selection team consisted mostly of doctors and was headed by the now infamous Dr. Josef Mengele, the “Angel of Death.” Those sent to the left were marched to the gas chambers and crematoria, generally mothers with small children, the elderly, or sick people. On the other hand those send to the right had passed inspection, and were fit for work. Little did they know about the long traitorous journey they had ahead of them. Other random selections took place inside the camp; this was usually to get rid of prisoners called “musselmann,” which is the term for a prisoner emancipated to the point of mere death.
After the selection process women were marched to the women’s part of the camp and men to the men’s. Each group went through a delousing process where the prisoners were stripped completely naked and were thoroughly searched for any remaining possessions. Their hair was cut and their bodies were shaven before they entered the sauna for disinfection. After disinfection they received uniforms and were ready for work.
There were five crematoria/gas chambers at Birkenau; however II, III, IV, and V were primarily used because I was a small provisional test chamber. Crematoria IV and V were built on the surface of the ground and were much smaller than II and III that had subterranean gas chambers and reception areas with the most advanced design anywhere in the world. They were about 102 meters long by 51 meters across. Victims were forced to climb down the steps into the basement. Those who could not walk were pushed down a concrete slide in to the dressing room or reception center with numbered clothing pegs driven into the walls. The SS ordered the victims to undress and to remember which number peg their clothes were hanging on. This was yet another deceitful statement made by the SS who told the victims they were being disinfected. The SS then drove the victims through the corridor to the heated gas chamber that was necessary for the evaporation of the gas, not for the comfort to the prisoners. The gas squads packed around 2,000 victims into the about 225 square foot room with imitation shower heads on the ceiling to further deceive the victims. The doors were closed and the crystallized form of Cyclone B, or hydrogen cyanide was poured in through the roof. Hydrogen cyanide is a very poisonous gas that causes death by internal suffocation. In sufficient concentrations, it causes death almost immediately. But because of leaks in the ventilation and the fact that the SS did not bother to calculate the proper quantities, death took anywhere from three to twenty minutes.
Following the execution, members of a specific group of prisoners, called sonderkommando, assigned to emptying the gas chambers and burning the bodies, were ordered to remove the bodies from the gas chamber and take them to the crematoria. Crematoria II and III both had 46 retorts that each held 3-5 bodies. It took approximately half an hour to cremate the contents of one, and one hour per day to empty them. This became the bottleneck of the extermination process and in late 1944 led to “pit burning.”
Six huge pits were dug beside Crematorium V and gassed prisoners were thrown in the pits and set on fire. To keep the pits burning the stokers poured oil, alcohol, and boiling human fat into them. “Blisters which had formed on their skin burst one by one. Almost every corpse was covered with black scorch marks and glistening as if it had been greased. The searing heat had burst open their bellies and there was the violent hissing and sputtering of frying in great heat. Boiling fat flowed into the pans on either side of the pit. Fanned by the wind, the flames, dark-red before, now took on a fiery white hue. The corpses burned so fiercely that they were consumed by their own heat.” (Muller) The process of incineration took five to six hours and what was left filled a third of the pit. To finish the job the ashes were cooled with water and shoveled out into marshes or the Solo River.
The SS set up a gold-melting room inside Crematorium II and III. There two dental technicians soaked gold teeth they extracted from prisoners for hours in acid to remove bone and flesh, and used a blowtorch to melt the gold into molds. From that, they produced as much as 5 to 10 kilos a day. (Encyclopedia of the Holocaust)
Dr. Josef Mengele preformed sadistic experiments on the prisoners. Experiments which consisted of the dissection of live infants and the castration of male prisoners were primarily performed on twins. Experiments trying to change the eye color of twins and injecting them with infectious agents to see how long it would take for them to succumb to various diseases were quite common, as well as the removal of organs and limbs in macabre surgical procedures. Nearly all his experiments were performed without the use of an anesthetic. (Lynott)
Eventually, in Monowitz, a third camp was built, Auschwitz III (Buna-Monowitz). The name was derived from I.G. Farben’s “Buna Works,” a synthetic-rubber factory that the prisoners were forced to work in. Other sub camps affiliated with Monowitz were setup and they too were included as part of Auschwitz III. The sub camps included the newly constructed factories such as the German Armaments Works and the German Earth and Stone Works. (Encyclopedia of the Holocaust)
Auschwitz was the largest graveyard in human history. The number of Jews murdered in the gas chambers of Birkenau is estimated at up to one and a half million people: men, women, and children. Almost one-quarter of the Jews killed during World War II were murdered in Auschwitz. Of the 405,000 registered prisoners who received Auschwitz numbers, only a part survived; and of the 16,000 Soviet prisoners of war who were brought there, only 96 survived.
Bauer, Yehuda. A History of the Holocaust. New York: Franklin Watts, 1982.
Feig, Konnilyn G. Hitler’s Death Camps. New York: Holmes ; Meier Publishers, 1979.
Guttman, Isreal, Ed. Encyclopedia of the Holocaust. New York: Macmallin, 1990.
Hellman, Petrt. The Auschwitz Album. New York: Random House, 1981.
Lynott, Douglas Josef Mengele: The Angel of Death
Mller, Filip. Auschwitz: Three Years in the Gas Chambers. New York: Stein and Day, 1979.
Nyiszli, Dr. Miklos Auschwitz: An Eyewitness Account of Mengle’s Infamous Death Camp. New York: Seaver Books, 1960.