Introduction: What is Auschwitz-Birkenau?
Auschwitz-Birkenau was both a concentration camp and an extermination camp. The central complex consisted of Auschwitz I, or the Main Camp; Auschwitz II, or Birkenau; and Auschwitz III, or Buna-Monowitz. There were also a number of satellite camps located near mines, foundries, and other industrial enterprises. These satellite camps drew their slave labor from Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Auschwitz-Birkenau is located near the small Polish town of Oscwiecim (or in German, Auschwitz) and is about 35 miles from Krakow. Rudolf Höss was the commandant of the camp until November, 1943, when he was promoted. Höss briefly returned to Auschwitz-Birkenau to supervise the murder of the Hungarian Jews, from May 1944 to July 1944.
Auschwitz I (the Main Camp):
Auschwitz I, established in May 1940, was the original camp and had been a Polish army barracks before the war. As the Auschwitz camp system expanded, it served as the administrative center for the whole complex. This is where the famous “Arbeit macht frei” (“Work makes you free”) gate is located.
The Nazis built or renovated additional buildings, walls, and electrical fences. The Main Camp, at its height, contained 30,000 political prisoners or persons who the Nazis defined as criminals in need of punishment and re-education. The Main Camp contained a small morgue and two crematoria ovens (later three) to dispose of the bodies of prisoners who died from maltreatment, starvation, and disease.
Auschwitz II, or Birkenau:
Construction of Birkenau was begun in October 1941. It was originally planned to house as many as 125,000 prisoners, most of whom were to be Soviet prisoners-of-war. The Nazis intended these prisoners to provide slave labor for the entire region, which they envisioned as an utopian agricultural estate where ethnic Germans would resettle.
Birkenau is about two and a half miles from the Main Camp. It covered a large area and was surrounded by barbed wire fences and guard towers. The camp was eventually divided into sections for men and women, with additional areas set aside for Roma and Jews deported from the Theresienstadt ghetto. The iconic brick entrance, with its railroad tracks and its arch, is located at Birkenau.
Originally, when the Nazis envisioned Birkenau as a giant slave labor camp, it was equipped with two large crematoria buildings that also had morgue rooms. These features were used to handle the many anticipated deaths of the prisoner population. The two large morgue rooms were underground and the crematoria ovens were built at ground level.
At first, arrivals got off the transports at the freight railway station, one mile outside of the town of Auschwitz and were then marched to the camp or transported by truck. However, in anticipation of the arrival of 8,000 to 10,000 Hungarian Jews each day, the Nazis built a railroad spur leading directly into Birkenau through its brick gate. Thereafter, the victims were unloaded and sorted inside the camp itself. The ramp area, where the selections took place as each transport arrived, is just inside Birkenau’s brick gate.
Auschwitz III, or Buna-Monowitz:
Buna-Monowitz is about four miles from the Main Camp. The Nazis built Buna-Monowitz in October 1942. Before October 1942, inmates were marched several miles every day to work at nearby factories. However, the camp administration eventually considered this daily march a waste of time that reduced the productivity of the slave laborers and presented a security risk. Therefore, they built Buna-Monowitz to house about 20,000 prisoners who worked in the factories. These factories produced chemicals, artificial rubber, and many other products needed for the German war machine.
The cremas/gas chambers in Auschwitz-Birkenau:
Precisely how and when the Final Solution—the murder of all the Jews under Nazi control—was decided is a matter of ongoing debate among scholars of the Holocaust. However, the process of turning Auschwitz-Birkenau into a systematic killing machine is well known. This process began in 1941 and proceeded through several stages. In late 1941, the morgue room in the Main Camp was converted into a small gas chamber. This was achieved by sealing the doors and creating holes in the roof, through which Zyklon-B was poured. The small gas chamber in the Main Camp was used to murder the first Jews sent to Auschwitz from Upper Silesia, Slovakia, France, Holland, Yugoslavia, and the ghettos of Theresienstadt (ex-Czech lands), Ciechanow (Poland), and Grodno (then Poland, now Belarus). The use of the crema/gas chamber building in the Main Camp was experimental. The Nazis discontinued use of this structure in fall 1942, when they shifted the killing activities to temporary facilities at Birkenau.
By the end of 1942, the camp administration started converting Birkenau’s two large crematoria/morgue buildings (Cremas/Gas Chambers 2 and 3) into gas chambers. The Nazis undertook these adjustments to the crematoria in anticipation of a large influx of Soviet prisoners-of-war, which ultimately never materialized. The buildings are identical in design. In both, one morgue room was transformed into a gas chamber by cutting holes in the roof, through which Zyklon-B was poured. The other underground room became the undressing room. An elevator was used to move the bodies of victims to ground level for cremation.
As the first two existing buildings were being adapted for mass murder, the Nazis started construction on two additional cremas/gas chambers buildings (Cremas/Gas Chambers 4 and 5). These two buildings were simpler in design. Both the gas chambers and cremation ovens were built above ground. Zyklon-B was poured into these gas chambers through a window-sized opening, which was sealed with a gas-tight shutter on the outside.
All four of these buildings were located at the very back of the Birkenau camp. They were also isolated from the rest of the camp by fences and shrubbery, which the Nazis intended to act as a screen for their activities.
While gas chamber construction was ongoing, the camp administration modified two peasant cottages at the back of Birkenau to act as temporary gas chambers. They began using these temporary gas chambers in March 1942. Zyklon-B was poured into the cottages through the windows, which had gas-tight shutters on the outside. The bodies of the victims were buried in mass graves nearby. Later, starting in September 1942, the bodies of Nazi victims were burned immediately after gassing. Those that had already been buried were exhumed from the graves and cremated.
Between March 1943 and June 1943, Birkenau’s four new or remodeled gas chamber buildings were completed. Use of the peasant cottages was discontinued. During the Hungarian Action from May 1944 to June 1944, when 8,000 to 10,000 Hungarian Jews per day were sent to Auschwitz and murdered immediately, one of the peasant cottages was temporarily re-opened and used again as a gas chamber.
On occasion, the number of bodies needing cremation exceeded the daily capacity of the ovens in Birkenau (theoretically 4,756 bodies but in practice more). In such cases, the Nazis dug open-air burnings pits near Crema/Gas Chamber 5 and one the peasant cottages .
In November 1944, the Nazis ceased transportations to Auschwitz because the Soviet army was nearing the camp. In January 1945, the Nazis dismantled and blew up the four crema/gas chamber buildings.
The Sonderkommandos and the process of murder:
Upon arrival at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Jews on the transports were unloaded at the freight station or on the ramp inside Birkenau. Some who were deemed capable of work were selected for labor. The Nazis marched the remainder (including all the elderly, sick, and children, usually with their mothers) to the gas chamber. They were told they needed to be disinfected before they could be transported to their final destination. In the undressing room, the Nazis told them to leave their clothing and possessions for later retrieval. Then, they were pushed into the gas chambers, the door were sealed, and Zyklon-B was dropped in through holes in the roof or through window openings.
Prisoners also worked in an area of Birkenau called ‘Canada.’ Canada is where possessions and valuables, stolen from their murdered owners, were sorted in order to be sent back to Germany. A large number of women worked in this area. It was directly at the end of the ramp and between Cremas/Gas Chambers 2 and 3 and Cremas/Gas Chambers 4 and 5.
Photo Credit: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Yad Vashem (Public Domain)
Referencing the cremas/gas chambers today:
Today, the cremas/gas chamber buildings are referred to as follows:
- Crema/Gas Chamber 1 is the gas chamber in the Main Camp.
- Cremas/Gas Chambers 2 and 3 are the two existing crematoria/morgue buildings in Birkenau that were adapted into gas chambers. They are situated at the back of Birkenau to the left of the ramp and the current memorial
- Cremas/Gas Chambers 4 and 5, the two additional buildings that were built to be extermination facilities from the start, are situated at the back of Birkenau to the right of the ramp and the current memorial.
- Bunkers 1 and 2 are the two peasant cottages that were used as temporary gas chambers and are located in the far right hand back corner of the camp in a wooded area.
The number of people murdered in the cremas/gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau:
According to the best statistics now available, about 900,000 Jews were murdered in the gas chambers of the Auschwitz complex; 500,000 in Crema/Gas Chamber 2 alone.
The liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau:
Anticipating the imminent arrival of Soviet troops, the Nazis forced tens of thousands of Auschwitz-Birkenau inmates to march westward on foot. Prisoners unable to walk were abandoned and left to die. Most were not shot because there was no time. Many of those marched from Auschwitz-Birkenau died along the way. Some, however, ended up in various camps in Germany, where they were abandoned.
Soviet soldiers liberated the central complex of Auschwitz-Birkenau on January 27, 1945. British troops and American troops, in various parts of Europe, encountered and liberated those who survived the march from Auschwitz-Birkenau. Most of these survivors were liberated by April 1945 and May 1945.
Today, the Main Camp is known as the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. Birkenau is really more of a memorial site than a formal museum. Some barracks, a few administrative buildings, the gate into the camp, the ramp area, and the ruins of the gas chambers and crematoria still exist. There is a large memorial at the end of the ramp.
Buna-Monowitz, however, is not a memorial site. The buildings eventually returned to industrial functions. Still, a small memorial has been erected near this part of the historic camp complex.
Cremas/Gas Chambers 2 and 3 are presently crumpled heaps of concrete and brick. The underground undressing chamber and gas chambers resemble large, rectangular, concrete pools filled with rubble. The twisted metal remains of the ovens, which were at ground level, still exist, but they are buried under piles of concrete rubble.
Cremas/Gas Chambers 4 and 5 are evidenced only by their concrete floors and some twisted metal that was part of the ovens. To recreate the floor plan of the building, some bricks have been returned to the area of the former walls.
The peasant cottages were dismantled. The only evidence they offer are scant traces of their foundations.
The mass grave nearby is a memorial site.
Crema/Gas Chamber 1 has been faithfully restored to its appearance when it was a gas chamber. It is meant to be a memorial space and represent all the other gas chambers, including those at Birkenau.
 Yisrael Gutman, “Auschwitz—An Overview” in Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp, Yisrael Gutman and Michael Berenbaum, editors (Indiana University Press and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 1994), p. 18.
 Aleksander Lasik, “Rudolf Höss: Manager of Crime” in Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp, Yisrael Gutman and Michael Berenbaum, editors (Indiana University Press and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 1994), p. 295.
 You may see an image of the camp and gate at http://www.scrapbookpages.com/AuschwitzScrapbook/Photos/Gallery1/index.html.
 Yisrael Gutman, “Auschwitz-An Overview,” p. 16.
 You may see an image of the crematoria ovens at http://www.scrapbookpages.com/AuschwitzScrapbook/Photos/Gallery2/index.html.
 In reality these Soviet prisoners-of-war never arrived as, according to an order dated January 8, 1942, they were redirected to armaments industries elsewhere. See Robert Jan van Pelt, “A Site in Search of a Mission” in Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp, Yisrael Gutman and Michael Berenbaum, editors (Indiana University Press and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 1994), p. 148.
 Deborah Dwork and Robert Jan van Pelt, Auschwitz: 1270 to the Present (W.W. Norton & Company, 1996), pp. 127-159.
 You may see an image of the camp area at http://www.scrapbookpages.com/AuschwitzScrapbook/Photos/Gallery12/index.html.
 You can see the image of the gate at http://www.scrapbookpages.com/AuschwitzScrapbook/Photos/Gallery4/index.html.
 You can see an image of the ramp during the Hungarian Action in May-June 1944 at http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/media_ph.php?MediaId=4215. You may see an image of what the camp looks like today at http://www.scrapbookpages.com/AuschwitzScrapbook/Photos/Gallery11/index.html.
 You can see images of Auschwitz, including Buna-Monowitz at http://www.yadvashem.org/yv/en/exhibitions/through-the-lens/auschwitz-aerial-photos.asp.
 You may see the reconstructed gas chamber in the Main Camp at http://www.scrapbookpages.com/AuschwitzScrapbook/Photos/Gallery2/index.html.
 Franciszek Piper, “Gas Chambers and Crematoria” in Death by Design: Science, Technology, and Engineering in Nazi Germany, Eric Katz, editor (Pearson Longman, 2005), p. 13.
 Piper, “Gas Chambers and Crematoria,” p. 12.
 Pictures of Crema/Gas Chamber 3, and other pictures of Auschwitz, can be seen at http://auschwitz.org/en/gallery/historical-pictures-and-documents/extermination,11.html
 An image of Crema/Gas Chamber 4 as it was during the life of the camp can be seen at http://en.auschwitz.org/m/index.php?option=com_ponygallery&Itemid=3&func=detail&id=720#ponyimg.
 Piper, “Gas Chambers and Crematoria,” p. 13.
 Piper, “Gas Chambers and Crematoria,” p. 16.
 In reality, this capacity would be nearly doubled by introducing multiple bodies into the ovens at the same time. It took about twenty minutes to cremate three bodies in this way. Due to this overloading the furnaces experienced frequent breakdowns. See Piper, “Gas Chambers and Crematoria,” pp. 18, 23; and Robert Jan van Pelt, The Case for Auschwitz: Evidence from the Irving Trial (Indiana University Press, 2002), p. 343.
 Photos of the camp can be seen at http://auschwitz.org/en/gallery/historical-pictures-and-documents/
 Extermination photos can be seen at http://auschwitz.org/en/gallery/historical-pictures-and-documents/extermination,11.html
 Camp photos can be seen at http://auschwitz.org/en/gallery/historical-pictures-and-documents/
 Franciszek Piper, “The Number of Victims,” in Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp, Yisrael Gutman and Michael Berenbaum, editors (Indiana University Press and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 1994), p. 71.
 You may see images of what the camp looks like today at http://www.scrapbookpages.com/AuschwitzScrapbook/Photos/Gallery12/index.html.
 You may see images of the memorial in Birkenau at http://www.scrapbookpages.com/AuschwitzScrapbook/Photos/Gallery6/index.html.
 You may see an image of one of the underground undressing room at http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Entrance_to_Crematorium_III_in_Auschwitz_II_(Birkenau).jpg.
 You may see images of the ruins of Cremas/Gas Chambers 2 and 3 at http://www.scrapbookpages.com/AuschwitzScrapbook/Photos/Gallery7/index.html and http://www.scrapbookpages.com/AuschwitzScrapbook/Photos/Gallery8/index.html.
 You may see the ruins of Cremas/Gas Chamber 4 and 5 at http://www.scrapbookpages.com/AuschwitzScrapbook/Photos/Gallery9/index.html
 The remains of the cottages (Bunkers 1 and 2) in Birkenau can be seen at http://www.scrapbookpages.com/AuschwitzScrapbook/Photos/Gallery13/index.html.