Auschwitz – a place and its harrowing history

Worldwide, Holocaust Memorial Day commemorates the crimes of the Nazis. On 27. January 1945 the Soviet army liberated the prisoners of the Auschwitz concentration camp. What the soldiers found is still incomprehensible to this day.

Watchtowers and barbed wire fence of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in the fog, undated

The watchtowers of the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp

Over 49 million people have visited the memorial site of the former Auschwitz concentration camp in southern Poland since it opened in 1947. Normally, more than two million visitors from all over the world come there every year. In the Corona years the number of visitors was about 500.000 per year. About 50 kilometers west of Krakow, the vast grounds of the entire Nazi camp complex stretched until 1945, just outside the small town of Oświęcim. Today, the site is home to a state museum and memorial site.

In addition to the three main camps, the central Nazi extermination camp included subcamps and satellite camps of varying sizes – an industrial extermination machinery of unimaginable proportions. The museum in the Auschwitz main camp alone and the extensive Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial site, as it can be visited today, cover 191 hectares.

Young woman holding a rose visits the Auschwitz memorial in the summer of 2014

What remains is the memory of mass murder in Europe – and the responsibility for the future

What lies behind the term "Auschwitz"? of historical facts and figures, of history and of responsibility for the future, we have summarized here:

1. The town of Oświęcim (Auschwitz)

Long before the name was made famous by the German concentration camp, Auschwitz (Polish: Oświęcim) was a small town with a checkered history. At one time it belonged to the Austrian dominion, at another to the Kingdom of Bohemia as the Duchy of Auschwitz, at another to Prussia – and later again to the Kingdom of Poland. The town of Oświęcim was first mentioned in documents around the year 1200. 1348 it was incorporated into the Holy Roman Empire, German became the official language.

When Oświęcim became a stopping point for the railroad around 1900, the town’s economy took off. After the end of the First World War, the town became part of Poland again. Housing was needed for the many seasonal and migrant workers in the surrounding industrial areas of Upper Silesia and Bohemia. They were housed in newly built, brick houses and wooden barracks. The buildings would later form the basis of the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz.

Shortly after the start of the war in September 1939, Oświęcim was occupied by the German Wehrmacht and annexed by the German Reich. In 1940, the SS (the so-called Schutzstaffel was the elite and terrorist organization of the National Socialists and provided the entire leadership and camp personnel) under the direction of Heinrich Himmler was able to quickly and without much construction work convert the area into a concentration camp, into the main camp Auschwitz I. Later, the huge area of the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp (Auschwitz II) was added to the list.

Tracks leading to the gate of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, groups of visitors can be seen in the background (dated: summer 2018)

Part of the memorial: The gate at the end of the tracks on the grounds of Auschwitz-Birkenau

2. The Jewish population

Before World War II, more than half of the 12.000 inhabitants of Oświęcim of the Jewish faith. The Jewish community had grown considerably due to immigration, the number of ethnic Germans in the town was insignificantly small. After the invasion of Poland by Hitler’s Wehrmacht on 1. September 1939 and the military occupation of the country, this changed abruptly.

Jews (as well as others persecuted by the Nazi regime) were isolated in ghettos or deported for forced labor. The Polish Jews who remained in Oświęcim initially lived closely packed together and isolated from the rest of the population in the Old City. From 1940 on, many were forced by the SS to expand the planned concentration camp or were transported to work in other parts of the country. The few survivors were murdered in Auschwitz after 1942.

3. The strategic hub

The town of Oświęcim was located at a strategic railroad junction in the east for the Nazis: here the southern rail lines from Prague and Vienna crossed those from Berlin, Warsaw, and the northern industrial areas of Silesia. The planning staffs of the SS leadership and the responsible Reich Security Main Office in Berlin found here all the prerequisites for the planned mass transports from the so-called "Altreich" before, that is, the territories of Germany in the borders of 1937.

The extensive camp system of Auschwitz with the subcamp Monowitz (right)

Adolf Eichmann was responsible for the smooth rail transport of deportees to the extermination camps in the East. He had the files for the infamous Wannsee Conference at the Reich Security Main Office in Berlin On 20. January 1942 prepared.

At the invitation of Reinhard Heydrich, the head of the NSDAP’s security police and secret service, a meeting of senior ministry officials with representatives of the SS and NSDAP took place in the noble villa on the Grober Wannsee lake. The murderous plan of a "final solution of the European Jewish question" was decided. The protocol lists all European countries from which Jews were to be deported by railroad trains.

4. The camp system

Auschwitz was the seventh concentration camp set up by the Nazis, after Dachau (established as the first concentration camp in 1933), Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald, Flossenburg, Mauthausen and the Ravensbruck women’s camp, and Auschwitz was by far the largest concentration camp. The site on the outskirts of the small Polish town of Oświęcim was planned as the location of camps of various sizes: In addition to the main camp (Auschwitz I), the huge Birkenau extermination camp (Auschwitz II), where the crematoria were located, and smaller subcamps, there were also the Buna and Monowitz labor camps.

After the Wannsee Conference, Auschwitz concentration camp was developed into a place of systematic extermination and murder machinery starting in spring 1942. The executor of this inhuman ideology was the SS camp commander Rudolf Hob. He was in charge of the SS guards and the entire camp administration at Auschwitz until his replacement in November 1943.

several canisters of Zyklon B poison gas

Effective murder weapon: one can of Zyklon B was enough to kill more than 1000 people

5. The SS area of influence

Guards as well as leading cadres of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp were provided by the SS. Already in the spring of 1942, 2000 SS guards were deployed in the camp complex. Towards the end of the Second World War, in the late summer of 1944, more than 4000 SS members were on duty there. This also included camp guards, typists, nurses, etc., who were employed by the SS and did not wear rank insignia. Over the entire period, more than 8000 SS members and relatives worked in the Auschwitz camps.

The control of local industrial and craft enterprises, which had settled around Auschwitz as profiteers of the camp construction, was also in the hands of the SS. The so-called "SS settlement", The area where the guards lived with their families developed outside the camp enclosure into a district with many amenities for the residents there.

6. The Death Factory

Mass murders began in 1942. About 80 percent of the new arrivals were not registered as prisoners, but were sent to the gas chambers and to their deaths immediately after their arrival. In the spring of 1943, the construction management in the expanded Auschwitz-Birkenau camp complex put additional ovens into operation in the newly built crematoria. The SS tested its efficiency on a prisoner transport: 1100 men, women and children were burned after an agonizing death in a gas chamber into which Zyklon B was poured. Their ashes were scattered in the surrounding lakes.

Artificial lake in the area of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, near Kremtorium IV

Auschwitz-Birkenau: At the bottom of this lake lie the ashes of tens of thousands of murdered people

The construction manager of the Auschwitz concentration camp, Karl Bischoff, reported to Berlin in the summer of 1943: "From now on, 4,756 corpses can be cremated within 24 hours." In order to speed up the selection process upon arrival of the transports, the three-track railroad ramp was built in Birkenau, which can still be seen in Auschwitz-Birkenau today.

In late autumn 1944, the last transports of Jews from all over Europe arrived at Auschwitz. Among the deportees from the occupied Netherlands was 15-year-old Anne Frank. Her diaries, preserved by chance, have survived the war as a harrowing contemporary document of the persecution of Jews by the National Socialists.

7. The numbers of victims

Numbers of Holocaust victims murdered at Auschwitz fluctuate. Every year, new details are added through discoveries in historical archives and estates. Exact numbers of victims cannot be determined. Scientific estimates put the total number of people deported to the Nazi concentration camp system at over five million. Very few concentration camp prisoners survived.

Selection on the arrival of Hungarian Jews at Auschwitz-Birkenau in the summer of 1944: in the foreground SS personnel, behind them two large groups of women and men, in the background the gate and the railroad tracks from the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp

At the infamous "Judenrampe the SS made the first selections after the arrival of the deportation trains

In December 2019, the results of a research project commissioned by the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial were published. According to this, more than 60 percent of the prisoners registered by the SS camp administration at that time could be identified.

This does not include the more than 900.000 deportees who were never registered, but were murdered immediately after their arrival at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Only those who had passed the selection at the so-called "Judenrampe" were tattooed with a prisoner number had survived the persecution of the Jews by the National Socialists and were destined for work in the SS camp system. The majority of the deportees – the old, the sick, women and small children – were driven directly into the gas chambers by the SS teams without being registered and brutally murdered.

According to the memorial, more than 1.1 million people died in the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp. 90 percent of them were Jews – the majority from Hungary, Poland, Italy, Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Greece, Croatia, the Soviet Union, Austria and Germany. Sinti and Roma, homosexuals, Catholics and followers of Jehovah’s Witnesses, people with disabilities and political opponents also fell victim to the Nazi extermination machinery.

Surviving concentration camp inmates liberated by Soviet troops at the end of January 1945

8. The liberation of concentration camp prisoners

When the Soviet army entered Auschwitz-Birkenau on 27. When the soldiers reached the camp grounds of Auschwitz on January 1945, they were confronted with a gruesome picture: Only about 7000 emaciated, terminally ill concentration camp prisoners had survived, 500 of whom were children. Very few prisoners could stand upright, many lay apathetic on the ground. They had been too weak for the marches that the SS guards had driven tens of thousands of them on through the freezing cold to the west.

The SS had hastily cleared the camp at the end of January and tried to remove the traces of their murder machinery: Files, camp indexes, death certificates, much was quickly burned. Only a few documents and photos have survived. Most of the camp barracks, the gas chambers and crematoria were blown up.

56.000 to 58.000 marching prisoners were sent on foot in groups of 1000 to 2500 each. Hardly any of the emaciated prisoners in the columns had shoes and warm clothing on, most wore only the thin cotton clothing of the concentration camp prisoners on their bodies as the SS crews fled. According to estimates, a total of up to 15 prisoners died during these Auschwitz evacuation transports.000 prisoners: starved to death, frozen, shot.

9. The Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial site

At the beginning of 1946, the Soviet occupation authorities transferred the former camp site to the jurisdiction of the Polish state. In 1947, on the initiative of former prisoners, the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum was founded founded as a memorial – by resolution of the Polish parliament.

The memorial site comprises the preserved facilities, buildings and barracks of the Auschwitz I concentration camp (main camp) and the almost empty grounds of the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp (Auschwitz II), as well as today’s museum area. The first exhibition was created in cooperation with the Israeli memorial Yad Vashem.

Already in the first year of its existence 170.000 visitors. Especially young people and youth groups from all over the world visit the museum and the sites of Nazi crimes today. The Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial has been on the UNESCO World Heritage List since 1979 and must be preserved.

Every year the "March of the Living" takes place from the Auschwitz main camp to Birkenau took place (li: Edward Mosberg)

10. The last eyewitnesses

Every year the 27. January celebrated as a historical day of remembrance – in collective memory of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1945. A solemn hour of remembrance is also held in the German Bundestag on this day.

Moving speeches have been held on this day in the past: by German presidents and European politicians, by Jewish Holocaust witnesses such as Ruth Kluger, now deceased, and Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, now 96 years old. Prominent Jewish writers such as Marcel Reich-Ranicki, who died in 2013, and historian Saul Friedlander also spoke in the German Bundestag. The "Holocaust Memorial Day" has been in existence since 2005 worldwide.

At the annual "March of the Living From the former Auschwitz concentration camp to Birkenau, the last surviving concentration camp inmates march hand in hand with young people from all over the world. 2020 and 2021 there was the march corona-conditionally only in digital form. The hope is that the 2022 march will again take place live in April. The number of contemporary witnesses who survived the Auschwitz concentration camp and can tell about it is becoming smaller and smaller. The children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren – not only of the Jewish families – will soon have to carry on the memories alone.

This is an updated version of an article from January 2020.

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WWW links

Homepage of the Anne Frank Museum

Radio speech of Anita Lasker right after the liberation

Radio address by Anita Lasker on 16.4.1945 directly after their liberation from Bergen-Belsen

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