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    Introduction: What Is Auschwitz-Birkenau?

    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 which drew their slave labor from Auschwitz-Birkenau.[1]

    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 to July 1944.[2]

    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.[3]

    Additional buildings, walls and electrical fencing were built or renovated. The Main Camp, at its height, contained 30,000 political prisoners or persons deemed to be criminals in need of punishment and re-education.[4] 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.[5]

    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 which were to be Soviet prisoners-of-war.[6] They were to provide slave labor for the entire region, which was envisioned to become an utopian agricultural estate where ethnic Germans were to be resettled.[7]

    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 gypsies and Jews deported from the Theresienstadt ghetto.[8] Birkenau is where the iconic brick gate with the railroad line running in through the arch is located.[9]

    Originally, when Birkenau was envisaged as a giant slave labor camp, it was equipped with two large crematoria buildings with morgue rooms to handle the many anticipated deaths in the prisoner population. The two large morgue rooms were underground and the crematoria ovens were built at ground level.

    The ramp area, where the selections took place as each transport arrived, is just inside the brick gate to Birkenau. Originally, the arrivals got off the transports at the freight railway station one mile outside of the town of Auschwitz and were marched or trucked to the camp. However, in anticipation of the arrival of 8,000 to 10,000 Hungarian Jews each day, a railroad spur was built that led directly into Birkenau through the brick gate. Thereafter the victims were unloaded and sorted inside the camp itself.[10]

    Auschwitz III, or Buna-Monowitz

    Buna-Monowitz is about four miles from the Main Camp. Until Buna-Monowitz was built in October 1942 the inmates were marched several miles every day to work at the nearby factories. However, the daily march to work was deemed to be wasteful of time, reduced the productivity of the slave laborers, and presented a security risk. Therefore, Buna-Monowitz was built to house about 20,000 prisoners who worked in the factories that produced chemicals, artificial rubber and many other products needed for the German war machine.[11]

    The cremas/gas chambers in Auschwitz-Birkenau.

    Precisely how and when the Final Solution—the murder of all the Jews under German control—was decided is a matter of ongoing debate among scholars of the Holocaust. However, the process of turning Auschwitz-Birkenau into a killing machine to exterminate the Jews was begun in 1941 and proceeded through several stages. In late 1941, the morgue room in the Main Camp was converted into a small gas chamber by sealing the doors and creating holes in the roof through which the Zyklon-B was poured.[12] 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).[13] The use of the crema/gas chamber building in the Main Camp was experimental and was discontinued in fall 1942 when the killing activities were shifted to temporary facilities at Birkenau.[14]

    By the end of 1942, the two large crematoria/morgue buildings (Cremas/Gas Chambers 2 and 3) in Birkenau had started to be converted into gas chambers. They were already mostly constructed in anticipation of a large influx of Soviet prisoners-of-war, which ultimately never materialized. The buildings are identical in design and in both of them one of the morgue rooms was adapted into a gas chamber by cutting holes in the roofs through which the Zyklon-B was poured. The other underground room became the undressing room. The bodies of the Jews who were murdered in these gas chambers were lifted by an elevator to ground level for cremation.[15]

    At the same time as the first two existing buildings were being adapted to mass murder, two additional cremas/gas chambers buildings (Cremas/Gas Chambers 4 and 5) started construction. These two buildings were simpler in design, with both the gas chambers and cremation ovens built above ground. The Zyklon-B was introduced into these gas chamber rooms through a window-sized opening sealed with a gas-tight shutter on the outside.[16]

    All four buildings were at the very back of Birkenau and were isolated from the rest of the camp by fences and shrubbery that acted as a screen for their activities.

    While the work to adapt and build gas chambers continued in Birkenau, two peasant cottages at the back of Birkenau were modified into temporary gas chambers and began to be used in March 1942.[17] The Zyklon-B was introduced 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 the Jews were burned immediately after they were murdered and those that had already been buried were removed from the graves and cremated.[18]

    Between March and June 1943 the four buildings dedicated to use as gas chambers in Birkenau were completed and use of the peasant cottages at the back of Birkenau was discontinued. Temporarily, during the Hungarian Action from May to June 1944, when 8,000 to 10,000 Hungarian Jews per day were sent to Auschwitz where most of them were murdered immediately, one of the peasant cottages was re-opened and used again as a gas chamber.

    When the number of bodies to be cremated exceeded the daily capacity of the ovens in Birkenau (theoretically 4,756 bodies but in practice more), open-air burnings pits near Crema/Gas Chamber 5 and one the peasant cottages turned gas chamber were dug and the bodies were cremated in them.[19]

    In November 1944 the transports were stopped as the Soviet army neared the camp. In January 1945 the four cremas/gas chambers buildings were dismantled and blown up.

     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.[20] Some, who were deemed to be able to work, were selected and the remainder (including all the elderly, sick, and children, usually with their mothers) were marched or driven to the gas chambers, where they were told they needed to be disinfected before they could be transported on to their final destination. In the undressing room they were told to leave their clothing and possessions for later retrieval. Then they were pushed into the gas chambers, the door were shut and sealed, and the Zyklon-B was dropped in through the holes in the roofs or through the window openings.[21]

    Prisoners also worked in an area of Birkenau called ‘Canada,’ where the possessions and valuables stolen from their murdered owners were sorted to be sent back to Germany. A large number of women worked in this area, which was directly at the end of the ramp and between Cremas/Gas Chambers 2 and 3 and Cremas/Gas Chambers 4 and 5.[22]

    Photo Credit: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Yad Vashem (Public Domain)
    Photo Credit: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Yad  Vashem  (Public Domain)

    How the cremas/gas chambers facilities are referred to 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; 500,000 in Crema/Gas Chamber 2 alone.[23]

    The liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

    Anticipating the imminent arrival of Soviet troops, tens of thousands of Auschwitz-Birkenau inmates were forced to march westward on foot. Those prisoners who could not walk were abandoned and left to die. They were not shot because there was no time. Many of those marched out of Auschwitz-Birkenau died along the way, but some ended up in various camps in Germany, where they were abandoned.

    The central complex of Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated on January 27, 1945, by Soviet soldiers. Those who survived the march from Auschwitz-Birkenau were liberated by the British and Americans in various parts of Europe in April and May 1945.

    Auschwitz-Birkenau today.

    Today the Main Camp is the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. Birkenau is a memorial site although it is not 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.[24] There is a memorial on the site at the end of the ramp.[25]

    Buna-Monowitz is not a memorial site. The buildings have been returned to industrial functions. There is a small memorial nearby.

    Cremas/Gas Chambers 2 and 3 are today crumpled heaps of concrete and brick. The underground undressing chamber and gas chambers resemble large, rectangular, concrete pools filled with rubble.[26] The twisted metal remains of the ovens, which were at ground level, still exist but are buried under piles of concrete rubble.[27]

    Cremas/Gas Chambers 4 and 5 are evidenced only by the concrete floors and some twisted metal that was part of the ovens. Some bricks have been returned to the area of the former walls to recreate the floor plan of the building.[28]

    The peasant cottages were dismantled. The only evidence they existed are scant traces of their foundations on the ground. The mass grave nearby is a memorial site.[29]

    Entrance to Crematorium III Auschwitz II (Birkenau)

    By Pimke (Own work) [ CC BY-SA 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

    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.

    NOTES

    [1] Yisrael Gutman, “Auschwitz—An Overview” in Yisrael Gutman and Michael Berenbaum, editors, Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp (Indiana University Press and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 1994), p. 18.

    [2] Aleksander Lasik, “Rudolf Höss: Manager of Crime” in Yisrael Gutman and Michael Berenbaum, editors, Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp (Indiana University Press and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 1994), p. 295.

    [3] You may see an image of the camp and gate at http://www.scrapbookpages.com/AuschwitzScrapbook/Photos/Gallery1/index.html.

    [4] Yisrael Gutman, “Auschwitz-An Overview,” p. 16.

    [5] You may see an image of the crematoria ovens at http://www.scrapbookpages.com/AuschwitzScrapbook/Photos/Gallery2/index.html.

    [6] 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 Yisrael Gutman and Michael Berenbaum, editors, Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp (Indiana University Press and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 1994), p. 148.

    [7] Deborah Dwork and Robert Jan van Pelt, Auschwitz: 1270 to the Present (W.W. Norton & Company, 1996), pp. 127-159.

    [8] You may see an image of the camp area at http://www.scrapbookpages.com/AuschwitzScrapbook/Photos/Gallery12/index.html.

    [9] You can see the image of the gate at http://www.scrapbookpages.com/AuschwitzScrapbook/Photos/Gallery4/index.html.

    [10] 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.

    [11] You may see an image of Buna-Monowitz at http://collections.yadvashem.org/photosarchive/en-us/25757.html.

    [12] You may see the reconstructed gas chamber in the Main Camp at http://www.scrapbookpages.com/AuschwitzScrapbook/Photos/Gallery2/index.html.

    [13] Franciszek Piper, “Gas Chambers and Crematoria” in Eric Katz, editor, Death by Design: Science, Technology, and Engineering in Nazi Germany (Pearson Longman, 2005), p. 13.

    [14] Franciszek Piper, “Gas Chambers and Crematoria” in Eric Katz, editor, Death by Design: Science, Technology, and Engineering in Nazi Germany (Pearson Longman, 2005), p. 12.

    [15] Crema/Gas Chamber 3 as it looked during the life of the camp can be seen at http://en.auschwitz.org/m/index.php?option=com_ponygallery&func=detail&id=441&Itemid=3.

    [16] 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.

    [17] Franciszek Piper, “Gas Chambers and Crematoria” in Eric Katz, editor, Death by Design: Science, Technology, and Engineering in Nazi Germany (Pearson Longman, 2005), p. 13.

    [18] Franciszek Piper, “Gas Chambers and Crematoria” in Eric Katz, editor, Death by Design: Science, Technology, and Engineering in Nazi Germany (Pearson Longman, 2005), p. 16.

    [19] 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 Franciszek Piper, “Gas Chambers and Crematoria” in Eric Katz, editor, Death by Design: Science, Technology, and Engineering in Nazi Germany (Pearson Longman, 2005), pp. 18, 23 and Robert Jan van Pelt, The Case for Auschwitz: Evidence from the Irving Trial (Indiana University Press, 2002), p. 343.

    [20] You may see an image of this station at http://en.auschwitz.org/m/index.php?option=com_ponygallery&Itemid=3&func=detail&id=418#ponyimg.

    [21] You may see one of the clandestine images of the Sonderkommandos burning bodies at the back of Crema/Gas Chamber 5 at http://en.auschwitz.org/m/index.php?option=com_ponygallery&func=detail&id=733&Itemid=3.

    [22] You may see an image of Canada at http://collections.yadvashem.org/photosarchive/en-us/97836_31593.html.

    [23] Franciszek Piper, “The Number of Victims” in Yisrael Gutman and Michael Berenbaum, editors, Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp (Indiana University Press and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 1994), p. 71.

    [24] You may see images of what the camp looks like today at http://www.scrapbookpages.com/AuschwitzScrapbook/Photos/Gallery12/index.html.

    [25] You may see images of the memorial in Birkenau at http://www.scrapbookpages.com/AuschwitzScrapbook/Photos/Gallery6/index.html.

    [26] 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.

    [27] 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.

    [28] You may see the ruins of Cremas/Gas Chamber 4 and 5 at http://www.scrapbookpages.com/AuschwitzScrapbook/Photos/Gallery9/index.html

    [29] The remains of the cottages (Bunkers 1 and 2) in Birkenau can be seen at http://www.scrapbookpages.com/AuschwitzScrapbook/Photos/Gallery13/index.html.