The concentration camp of Auschwitz (in German , “Konzentrationslager Auschwitz”) was a complex formed by diverse concentration and extermination camps of the Nazi Germany located in the Polish territories occupied during the Second World War . I comprised Auschwitz I -the original- camp, Auschwitz II-Birkenau – of concentration and extermination, Auschwitz III-Monowitz -Campo work for IG Farben – and 45 more satellite camps.

Located in Oświęcim about 43 km west of Krakow , it was the largest extermination center in the history of Nazism , where it is estimated that about one million three hundred thousand people were sent, of which one million one hundred thousand died, the great majority of them Jewish (90%, about one million), but must also be counted prisoners of war , the regime dissidents, etc. 1

At the entrance to one of the various camps that made up the complex (Auschwitz I) one can read the motto in German Arbeit macht frei (“(Free Labor”)), with which the deportees received the forces of the SS who were in charge of the center during its period of operation, since its opening on 20 of maypole of 1940 to the 27 of January of 1945 , when he was released by the army Soviet .

Under the supervision of Heinrich Himmler , he was led by SS Obersturmbannführer Rudolf Höss until the summer of 1943, later replaced by Arthur Liebehenschel and Richard Baer . Höss, captured by the Allies, would testify at the Nuremberg Trials before he was tried and sentenced to death by hanging in 1947 in front of the crematorium of Auschwitz I. Liebehenschel was also tried by a Polish court and executed in 1948. Baer managed to escape And live under a false identity in Hamburg , until he was recognized and arrested. He killed himself in prison shortly before beginning its process in 1963.

In 1947 in Oświęcim was founded Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum . Museum is a monument of German war crimes in Poland occupied and includes two concentration camps Auschwitz I and Auschwitz-Birkenau. The Unesco declared it a World Heritage Site in 1979 as one of the places of greatest symbolism of the Holocaust or Shoah .


Aerial view.

There were three main fields and 39 subaltern fields.

The three main fields were:

  • Auschwitz I, the original concentration camp that served as administrative center for the whole complex. In this field they killed nearly 70,000 Polish intellectuals and prisoners of war Soviets.
  • Auschwitz II (Birkenau), an extermination camp and the place where most of the more than one million rural victims died. In this section the women were located.
  • Auschwitz III ( Buna – Monowitz ), used as field work slave for the company IG Farben .


See also: Occupation of Poland (1939-1945) and General Plan of the East .
The concentration camp in 2003.

The Nazi Germany constructed from 1940 several concentration camps and extermination camp at Auschwitz which, like all other concentration camps were run by the SS , under the command of Heinrich Himmler . The camp commanders were Rudolf Höss until the summer of 1943, followed by Arthur Liebehenschel and Richard Baer .

Auschwitz was a town near Katowice , at the confluence of the rivers Vistula and Sola , in Upper Silesia , a region that had been ceded to Poland in the Treaty of Versailles and in 1940 was about 1400 people, half of them Jews . Upper Silesia was one of the regions that were to be annexed to the Reich after the German invasion of Poland in 1939 , but being highly industrialized was not largely adequate for Germanization by settler farmers who had planned the Nazi authorities For the new territories. As a result, Auschwitz was conceived, in the first instance, as a transit camp to subdue the Polish population which was to be used as a semi-secret labor force. 2 3

On April 27, 1940, Himmler decided to create the camp, and on the 30th appointed his first commander, SS-Obersturmbannführer Rudolf Höss. Hoss took over the command from May 4, to and their first task was the construction of facilities from a barracks of the Polish Army, on land dedicated to horse training. 4 The first inmates of Auschwitz were 30 German criminals from Sachsenhausen in order to become the first kapos enclosure, and 728 Polish political prisoners arrived on June 14 from Tarnów . 2 5 Both the system kapos as the famous slogan Arbeit macht frei ( “Work will set you free”) were imported by Hoess from his experience in Dachau , his first assignment in the system of Nazi camps. 6

The first transport of prisoners to Auschwitz station Tarnów .
(June 14, 1940)

The first major change in the functions for which the field was intended occurred in September 1940 when Oswald Pohl made an inspection visit to the new field. Pohl was head of the Central Office of Management and Economics SS (SS-WVHA, by the acronym in German for SS-Wirtschafts-Verwaltungshauptamt ) and was interested in the exploitation of nearby quarries , gravel and sand, so ordered Höss to increase the capacity of the field by adding a floor to the existing barracks. 7 8 Shortly thereafter, in November 1940, Himmler and Höss decided to launch research and agricultural projects. Both were interested in agronomy and planned, among other things, the construction of laboratories, the drainage of marshes and cattle breeding. However, the site of Auschwitz, at the confluence of two rivers, made it unpromising for such purposes and very prone to flooding, despite which this activity was never abandoned and thousands of prisoners died trying to open channels Or channeling rivers. Referring to Fig.

About 6,500 SS members served at Auschwitz performing small or large tasks with the aim of achieving the so-called final solution to the “Jewish problem” or “Jewish question”. Most of them survived the war. With the first prisoners, also they came the first vigilantes to the field in March 1942 moved from the camp Ravensbrück in Germany. The female camp was moved to Auschwitz Birkenau in October 1942, and Maria Mandel was appointed head of surveillance. Nearly a total of 1000 men and 200 women of the SS served as vigilantes throughout the complex of Auschwitz. Of all the officials, only 750 were brought to trial, almost all in relation to crimes against the Polish population. Höß gave a detailed description of the operation of the camp during his interrogation at the Nuremberg Trials , details he complemented in his autobiography. Höss was executed in 1947 in front of the entrance to the crematorium of Auschwitz I.

From 1940, Witold Pilecki , a soldier of the Armia Krajowa (Polish resistance organization to the Nazi occupation) volunteered to be taken prisoner to Auschwitz and obtained a considerable amount of information which was taken to Warsaw and from there to London . On the other hand, the allies had detailed aerial information of the fields from May of 1944 . Two escaped prisoners (Rudolph Vrba and Alfred Wetzler) had gathered precise descriptions and maps which reached the allies during the summer of 1944. On September 13, 1944, bombers of the United States attacked factory Werke Buna associated with Auschwitz III, Destroying it partially.

On January 17, 1945, before the imminent arrival of the Soviets , staff Nazi initiated the evacuation of Auschwitz westbound of Loslau . Most of the prisoners had to march westward. Those too weak to walk were left behind. About 7600 prisoners were released by the Red Army on January 27, 1945.

During the years of operation of the camp, about 700 prisoners attempted to escape from it, of which only 300 succeeded. The penalty imposed for attempted escape was generally death by starvation , and their families were arrested and interned at Auschwitz to be displayed as a warning to other prisoners. The total number of deaths at Auschwitz is still under debate, but it is estimated that between one million and one million five hundred thousand people were exterminated there.

In January 1945, Soviet troops entered Auschwitz and released the remaining prisoners, largely those who were confined in the infirmary and those who no longer had the physical faculties to be involved in the death marches .

Auschwitz I

Auschwitz, wire fences.
Benedict XVI visiting Auschwitz when he was pope in office.

Auschwitz I was the administrative center of the whole complex. It began to be constructed in May of 1940, from brick barracks of the Polish army. The first prisoners of the camp were 728 Polish political prisoners of Tarnów . The camp was initially used to intern members of Polish resistance and intellectuals; later they were taken there also POWs Soviet , German criminal prisoners, “antisocial” elements and homosexuals . From the first moment Jewish prisoners also arrived. The camp generally housed between 13,000 and 16,000 prisoners, up from 20,000 in 1942.

The entry of Auschwitz I had the words Arbeit macht frei , “work makes free”. This inscription was stolen by five strangers on Friday, December 18, 2009 and recovered by the police just four days later. 10 The prisoners of the camp went out to work during the day for the buildings or the field, with music of march played by an orchestra.
The SS generally selected prisoners, called kapos , to supervise the rest. All the prisoners of the field did work, and except in the factories of arms, the Sunday was reserved for cleaning, showers, and no work was assigned. Severe working conditions, coupled with malnutrition and poor hygiene, made the death rate among prisoners very high.

Block 11 of Auschwitz I was “prison in prison”; There punishments were applied. Some of them consisted of confinement for several days in a cell too small to sit, there are 4 cells of a square meter which were occupied by up to five prisoners at a time. Others were executed, hung or starved.

In September 1941, the SS conducted in block 11 tests the gas Zyklon B in which 850 Polish and Russian prisoners died. The tests were considered successful and consequently a gas chamber and a crematorium were built. This gas chamber was used between 1941 and 1942, after which it was converted into an antiaircraft refuge.

The first woman arrived in the field on March 26, 1942 [ citation needed ] . Between April 1943 and May 1944 sterilization experiments were carried out on Jewish women in block 10 of Auschwitz I. The aim was to develop a simple method that would work with a simple injection to be used with the slave population. Dr. Josef Mengele experimented with twins in this same complex. When a prisoner was not recovered quickly, it was usually executed by applying a lethal injection of phenol .

The brothel field was created in the summer of 1943 by orders of Himmler. It was located in block 29, called Frauenblock , and was used to reward privileged prisoners. The guards selected Polish prisoners for this camp, but they could accept “volunteers” attracted by the best food conditions.

Auschwitz II (Birkenau)

The ruins of Birkenau.

Auschwitz II (Birkenau) is the field that most people know as Auschwitz. There he locked himself hundreds of thousands of Jews and there are also executed more than one million deportees and tens of thousands of Gypsies .

The camp is located in Birkenau, about 3 km from Auschwitz I. Construction began in 1941 as part of the Endlösung ( final solution ). The field was 2.5 km by 2 km and was divided into several sections, each separated into fields. The fields, like the entire complex, were fenced and surrounded by barbed wire and electrified fences (some prisoners used electrified fences to commit suicide). The camp housed up to 100,000 prisoners at any given time.

The main objective of the camp was not to keep prisoners as a labor force (as was the case of Auschwitz I and III), but its extermination. To meet this goal, the camp was equipped with 4 crematoria with gas chambers . Each gas chamber could receive up to 2500 prisoners per shift. Large-scale extermination began in the spring of 1942 as a result of the acceleration of the final solution dealt with at the Wannsee Conference .

Most of the prisoners arrived in the field by train, often after a terrible journey in freight cars that lasted several days, during which they were not supplied with food or water. From 1944 the railway line was extended to enter directly into the field. Sometimes, when the train arrived, the prisoners were passed directly to the gas chambers . On other occasions, the Nazis selected prisoners, often under the supervision of the SS Hauptsturmführer Dr. Josef Mengele , to be sent to labor camps or for medical experimentation . In general the children, the elderly and the sick were sent directly to the gas chambers, which were coordinated by SS Hauptscharführer Otto Moll .

Entrance of Auschwitz II (Birkenau).

When a prisoner surpassed the initial selection, it was sent to spend a period of quarantine and then assigned a task or was sent to one of the fields adjoining work.

Those who were selected for extermination were transferred to one of the large complexes of gas / crematorium chambers towards the ends of the field. Two of the crematoria (Krema II and Krema III) had underground facilities, a dressing room and a gas chamber with capacity for thousands. To avoid panic, victims were informed that they would receive a shower and a disinfectant treatment. The gas chamber even had plumbing for showers, although they were never connected to the water service. The victims were ordered to undress and leave their belongings in the dressing room, where they were supposed to be able to recover them at the end of treatment, so they had to remember the location number of their belongings. Once the entrance was sealed, the toxic agent Zyklon B was discharged through the openings in the ceiling. The gas chambers in crematoria IV and V had facilities on the surface and Zyklon B was introduced by special windows on the walls. Once the Zyklon B had been thrown, it was expected to be about 25 minutes and the absence of activity was observed in a window, the room was evacuated and ventilated and the bodies were removed to a sector for a final review. In this review, gold false teeth, rings, earrings, or other objects were removed and body orifices were searched for jewelry. Once checked, the bodies were taken to a furnace room or crematoria annexed by selected prisoners, called Sonderkommandos , where they were burned. A high chimney expelled gases into the atmosphere.

A grandmother and her grandchildren march unbeknownst to the gas chamber during the arrival of the Jewish Hungarians to Auschwitz between May and June of 1944 .

The Germans occupied Hungary in March 1944; Between May and July 1944, about 438,000 Jews from Hungary were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau and most were executed there. There were days when the furnaces could not provide and the bodies had to be burned in open fires.

Entire families of gypsies were locked up in a special section of the camp. They passed by the gas chambers in July 1944, and on October 10 of that year the remaining Gypsy children were exterminated in Birkenau.

The 7 of October of 1944 , the Sonderkommando Jews (those prisoners kept separate from the rest and working in the gas chambers and crematoria) staged an uprising. The prisoners had been able to extract explosives from an arms factory and used them to partially destroy the IV crematorium and try to escape in the confusion. The 250 prisoners were captured and immediately executed. On the other hand, all members of the Sonderkommandos were periodically executed and replaced by new ones.

The Birkenau gas chambers were destroyed by the SS on November 24, 1944 in an attempt to hide the camp activities from the Soviet troops.

Auschwitz III (Monowitz)

The sub-working camps installed in the Auschwitz complex were closely related to German industry, mainly in the military, metallurgical and mining areas. The field work was larger Auschwitz III Monowitz, which began operations in May 1942. This field was associated with the plant Buna-Werke company IG Farben and produced liquid fuels and synthetic rubber. At regular intervals, medical examinations were carried out by the medical staff of Auschwitz II, in order to send the sick and weak to the Birkenau gas chambers.

Subaltern Fields

  • Auschwitz I (Oświęcim)
  • Auschwitz II (Birkenau – Brzezinka)
  • Auschwitz III (Monowitz – Monowice)
  • Babice (Babitz)
  • Bieruń – Beruń
  • Blechhammer (Blachownia Śląska)
  • Bobrek
  • Brno (Brünn)
  • Bruntal (Braunau)
  • Budy
  • Chełmek (Chełmek)
  • Chorzów (Bismarckshütte Arbeitslager)
  • Chrzanów
  • Czechowice
  • Czernica
  • Dziedzice
  • Freudenthal (Jesenik)
  • Friedenshütte
  • Gliwice (Gleiwitz)
  • Goleszów (Golleschau)
  • Hajduki I-II
  • Harmeze (Harmensee)
  • Zabrze (Hindenburg)
  • Jawiszowice (Jawischowitz)
  • Jaworzno
  • Kobiór (Kobior)
  • Lędziny (Arbeitslager Günthergrube)
  • Lesslau
  • Libiaz Maty (Janinagrube)
  • Łagiewniki Ślskskie (Hohenlinde, Hubertushütte)
  • Łagisza Cmentarna (Lagischa)
  • Monowice (Monowitz)
  • Prudnik (Neustadt)
  • Pyskowice (Peiskretscham)
  • Pławy (Plawy)
  • Pszczyna (Pleβ)
  • Radostowice
  • Rajsko
  • Rydułtowy (Arbeitslager Charlottegrube)
  • Sachsenhausen [ citation needed ]
  • Siemianowice (Laurahütte)
  • Sosnowiec (Sosnowitz)
  • Stara Kuźnia (Althammer)
  • Stara Wieś
  • Świetochłowice (Arbeitslager Eintrachtshütte)
  • Trzebinia
  • Wesoła ( Fürstengrube )
  • Zittau
  • Żywiec

Calculations on the number of victims

Prosthetics of prisoners exposed in the museum.
Personal objects that were withdrawn from prisoners.

Today it is estimated that in Auschwitz a total of 1.3 million people were hospitalized, of which 1.1 million died, 90% of them, about one million, Jews . According to figures from Franciszek Piper, 14 the largest group of Jews moved to the field corresponds to that from the deportations of 1944 from Hungary (438,000). It is followed by Poland (300 000), France (69,114), the Netherlands (60 085), Greece (55 000), Czechoslovakia (46099), Slovakia (26 661), Belgium (24,906), Germany and Austria (23 000 ), Yugoslavia (10 000), and Italy (7 422). In Auschwitz some 70,000 Polish political prisoners, more than 20,000 were also killed Gypsies , 10,000 prisoners of war Soviets , around 1,200 Spanish Republicans, plus hundreds of Jehovah ‘s Witnesses and dozens of boarding schools because of homosexuality . 1 matching estimates are the historian Peter Hayes, 15 according to the study of which only 125,000 of 200,000 survivors were alive at the fall of the Third Reich , about 10% of persons staying in the countryside between May 1940 and January 1945 . 16

The heads of Auschwitz followed different selection strategies depending on the origin of the inmates; So the Jews not selected to work were sent to the gas chambers , almost always following their arrival. In 1942, 140 146 of them were sent to the cameras of Auschwitz I, until in February 1943 took over the Birkenau complex. Among the largest contingents, 327,000 of the 438,000 Hungarian Jews and 200,000 of the 300,000 Poles were gassed, and most of the rest were killed or killed in hunger and disease. The Gypsies also suffered the same fate, but not usually the political prisoners and the Soviet soldiers, who were only victims of the gas in the stage of the initial experiments, later used to perish assassinated or because of the conditions of forced labor. 17

Prisoners more known

Yellow badge . Introduced in occupied Poland from 1939, with white background and inscriptions in blue, from 1941 was mandatory for German and Austrian wear a yellow star with the inscription Jews Jude ( “Jew” in German ) expressed in characters pseudo- Hebrew .
  • Józef cyrankiewicz , he presided over the government of the People ‘s Republic of Poland between 1947 and 1952, and between 1954 and 1970. He was also president between 1970 and 1972.
  • Anne Frank was admitted to Auschwitz-Birkenau between September and October 1944; Then transferred to Bergen-Belsen , where she died of typhus .
  • Maximilian Kolbe , holy Polish prisoner at Auschwitz was I. volunteered to starve rather than the prisoner Franciszek Gajowniczek in 1941.
  • Witold Pilecki , a Polish soldier from Armia Krajowa, a volunteer to go to Auschwitz, organized the resistance in Auschwitz (Związek Organizacji Wojskowych, ZOW) and informed the Allies of the atrocities that occurred there. Then it was part of the Warsaw Uprising.
  • Edith Stein , a nun Catholic and German santa of Jewish origin who died in the gas chambers of Auschwitz II.
  • Charlotte Delbo , writer and activist of the French resistance, sent with 229 other non-Jewish women to the field.
  • Elie Wiesel survived his imprisonment at Auschwitz III Monowitz and wrote about his experiences.
  • Petr Ginz (1928-1944), young editor of Vedem , known for the diary written before his deportation, discovered only recently, and edited by his sister Chava Pressburger .
  • August L. Mayer , art historian of Jewish origin, expert in Spanish painting, arrested in Paris in February 1944, deported on 7 March to Auschwitz where he died on 12 March.
  • Primo Levi , Italian writer of Jewish origin. Captured and deported to Auschwitz in the winter of 1944, he survived and wrote If this is a man , a shattering account of the daily life of the countryside and the cruel struggle for survival.
  • Władysław Bartoszewski , historian and politician of Polish origin.
  • Olga Lengyel inhabited the women’s camp in Auschwitz-Birkenau, collaborated in the resistance, in which one of the crematorium ovens of that camp was destroyed and she wrote the famous book The Furnaces of Hitler .
  • Regina Jonas , was the first female ordained rabbi in the world. Due to his refusal to seek asylum in the United States and to form part of the resistance, he ended his days in the concentration camp.
  • Viktor Frankl , a psychiatrist, was detained in the Theresienstadt camp, which he entered in 1942. In 1944 he was transferred to Auschwitz and then assigned to two Dachau sub-camps. In his seclusion he proposed a psychiatric therapy called logotherapy . He relates his experience in Man in search of meaning .
  • Violeta Friedman , at the age of 14, entered Auschwitz with her sister. Violeta Friedman survived the German national team because she felt safe in the field and decided not to leave him, escaping day after day when she was chosen to die because of her inability to perform forced labor. She was then transferred to the Bergen-Belsen camp. They emphasize his memories.
  • Imre Kertész , Hungarian writer, Nobel Prize for literature. He was deported in 1944 to Auschwitz and to Buchenwald with 15 years of age. His novel No destiny is located in the concentration camp.
  • Vladek Spiegelman, although by itself did not reach the fame, is one of the protagonists of the graphic novel Maus , work of its son Art Spiegelman and that is the unique comic winner of a Pulitzer prize .
  • Dunia Wasserstrom, of Russian origin, worked as interpreter of the field from 1943 until the liberation of the field in 1945. He wrote the book titled Never Never … , where it narrates his experiences in the concentration camps. It was part of the resistance. He lived in Mexico.
  • Gisella Perl , a doctor of Hungarian-Jewish origin, who faced an ethical dilemma by aborting more than 1000 babies so that the mothers were not killed and did not experiment with their children. She was also working in the nursery of the section of Hungarian women in the countryside, from where she helped many of her companions. His memoirs, I Was a Doctor in Auschwitz , were made in 2003 with the title Out of the Ashes . Dr. Pearl testified at the trial of Irma Grese , the supervisor of her section, infamous for the brutality with which she treated the prisoners and for her perverse sexual behaviors.
  • Erich Salomon , German photographer pioneer of modern photo journalism.
  • Otto Frank , father of Anne Frank, who stayed in this field when his daughters were sent to Bergen Belsen . He survived and in 1947 published his daughter’s diary.
  • Irène Némirovsky , a novelist of Ukrainian origin who lived in France and wrote in French. She was deported under racial laws for her Jewish origin to Auschwitz where she died in 1942.

Processes to the perpetrators after the war

After the war, the Russians detained some of the Auschwitz concentration camp staff . These were tried by the Russian authorities or handed over to the Polish courts.

The primary responsibility for field operations, SS Obersturmbannführer Rudolf Hoess , was captured by the British and sent to Poland , where he was tried for his crimes against humanity , but not before being defense witness against Ernst Kaltenbrunner in Nuremberg Trial . Hoess was sentenced to death and hanged on 16 of April of 1947 at the facilities of Auschwitz. Between November 24 and December 22, 1947, 40 former SS officers and soldiers who had served in the camp were tried in a first Auschwitz trial in Krakow . Several were sentenced to death and the others to long prison terms.

Overall, out of a total of some 6,500 SS members serving in Auschwitz, only about 750 were convicted, most of which went to the Polish courts, which took 673 out of a total of 789 Members of the field staff under its jurisdiction. Between December 1963 and August 1965, another “Auschwitz trial” was held, this time in the city of Frankfurt am Main , where 22 of the defendants were convicted, of whom 17 were sentenced, six of them sentenced to life imprisonment. 18 At the end of the 1970s, a third and brief trial was held against two SS guards responsible for the deaths of prisoners in a satellite camp.


Since the end of World War II there have been attempts to revise history. It has been stated that it would be impossible to burn such a number of bodies or that the facilities that can be visited today were rebuilt after the war to be in accordance with what has been said about Auschwitz since the end of the conflict. This reconstruction 19 refers to the gas chamber shown to tourists at Auschwitz I as a homicidal gas chamber the original.

The plaque which had marked Auschwitz as the “place of martyrdom of four million victims killed in the Nazi genocide” since the end of the war was eliminated after the Communist system was replaced and replaced in 1992 with another that places the number of victims at “around A million and a half men, women and children, mainly Jews. twenty