A concentration camp is where prisoners of war, enemy aliens, and
political prisoners are detained and confined, typically under harsh
conditions, or place or situation characterized by extremely harsh
conditions. The first concentration camps were established in 1933 for
confinement of opponents of the Nazi Party. The supposed opposition soon
included all Jews, Gypsies, and certain other groups. By 1939 there were six
camps: Dachau, Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald, Mauthausen, Flossenburg, and
Auschwitz, or Auschwitz-Birkenau, is the best-known of all Nazi death
camps, though Auschwitz was just one of six extermination camps. It was also
a labor concentration camp, extracting prisoners’ value from them, in the
form of hard labor, for weeks or months. Auschwitz was the end of the line
for millions of Jews, gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other innocents.
Some spend almost two years in this most infamous of concentration camps. The
average prisoner only survived eight weeks in Auschwitz. Some learned the ins
and outs of survival in Auschwitz. Auschwitz was the largest concentration
and extermination camp constructed in the Third Reich. Located 37 miles west
of Krakow, Poland, Auschwitz was home to both the greatest number of forced
laborers and deaths.
The history of the camp began on April 27, 1940 when Heinrich Himmler,
the head of the SS and Gestapo, ordered the construction of the camp in
northeast Silesia, a region captured by the Nazis in September 1939. The camp
was built by three-hundred Jewish prisoners from the local town of Oswiecim
and its surrounding area. In June of 1940 the camp opened for Polish
political prisoners. By 1941 there were about 11,000 prisoners, most of whom
were Polish. From May 1940 to the end of 1943, Rudolf Hess was head
commander of Auschwitz. Under his leadership, Auschwitz quickly became known
as the harshest prison camp in the Nazi regime. Polish prisoners were forced
to stand at attention for roll call for hours on end naked in the cold, snowy
tundra of Polish winter. Following its first year of existence, Heinrich
Himmler visited Auschwitz and told Hess that its labor resource was to be
expanded to 100,000 prisoners, making it one of the largest of the
concentration camps. In order to accommodate this many people, a second, much
larger, section of Auschwitz (Auschwitz II) would have to be constructed.
Auschwitz II was built just two miles west of Auschwitz I and would be
called Birkenau. Prisoners were packed so tightly into the railroad cars that
they couldn’t even squat to sit, much less lie down to sleep. They rode for
two days with no food, no water, no toilet facilities–with only dirty straw
on the floor. They finally arrived at their destination, glad to finally be
breathing fresh air when the cattle car doors were pulled open. Instead they
are greeted with shouts of anger, with guns and bayonets pointed at them, and
with guards holding back police dogs ready to tear them apart. A stench fills
the air. They are at Birkenau, the second part of the Auschwitz complex,
called by some “the mother of all concentration camps. The manpower to build
the camp came from 200,000 Russian prisoners of war who were forced to march
from Russia to a camp at Lamsdord without any food. During these early days
the Russians received more abuse than the Polish prisoners because they were
more feared for their military might. They were looked upon by Hess as
expendable labor due to their inferior abilities and physical weakness. Of
the 12,000 prisoners who were sent to Birkenau in 1941, only 150 survived to
the following summer.Some prisoners were assigned to the most gruesome
task — that of the Sonderkommando. These prisoners were forced to work in
the crematoria, burning the Jews who had just been gassed. All prisoners who
were selected for forced labor were tattooed with numbers on their left arms.
Any slip, outburst, or failure to comply with the guards resulted in
immediate death. Because executions by gunfire were inefficient, expensive,
and potentially identifiable, intoxication by poison gas–a method used by
the Germans to kill over 50,000 mental patients since 1939–was agreed on as
the method of choice. Zyclon was originally brought to Auschwitz as a
disinfectant and vermin killer. On September 3, 1941, Fritzsch experimented
with Zyclon B. on 600 Russian prisoners of war and 250 tubercular patients.
He was amazed at the number of people who could be killed at once. On October
15, 1941, a plan for the future camp of Birkenau, designed by one of the
prisoners, was approved. The layout was meant to house 100,000 prisoners.
Before construction began, however, the SS instructed that Birkenau should be
built for double that amount. The first transports of Jews into the camp
began on March 26, 1942 with the arrival of 999 Slovakian women. Since the
crematoriums had not yet been built, women were housed in a newly established
women’s section in Auschwitz I, placed to work, and beaten daily at roll
call. By the end of March there were 6,000 women prisoners in Auschwitz I. A
third section of the camp, called Auschwitz III or Buna-Monowitz, was
established to provide forced labor for the German industries that had plants
at Auschwitz. The victims who were lucky enough to escape the fate of the
gas chambers were taken to the “quarantine” where they were taken to a bath
or “sauna.” Their clothing was taken, hair shaven, and they were given
striped prisoner garb. Most people only survived a few weeks in the
quarantine and a few months in the labor camp itself. Every morning these
prisoners had to endure roll call whereby they would stand for hours at
attention outdoors in the cold, wind, and rain or snow. Anyone who fell was
gassed. By the time the Auschwitz was destroyed and liberated in the summer
of 1944 , over 1.5 million Jews and 4 million people in total were murdered
at Auschwitz. Hess was arrested and tried at Nuremberg where he was convicted
and summarily hanged in 1947.
This is a version of the now famous story of the Polish dancer named
Horowitz, who bravely attacks an SS guard named Schillinger while he is
trying to force her to undress in the gas chamber, disguised as a shower. She
kills Schillinger with his own gun and wounds another guard before she is
machine-gunned to her own death. Roza Robota, who is hanged with three other
women for her role in the Birkenau Sonderkommando Uprising, just weeks before
all three Auschwitz camps are evacuated.
A list of some of the first camps and facts concerning them are shown on the
following pages. Many of these camps would later become death camps (Dachau,
Buchenwald most notably).
Created on July 15, 1937. First Commandant: Karl Koch. 86,000 inmates at its
peak. 240,000 people passed through its camps and sub-camps. Separate camps
for Poles, children, Gypsies, etc. Used for mass murder of Soviet POW’s.
Total death estimate: 50,000-60,000.
Created on February 22, 1933. First commandant: Theodore Eicke. 160,000
inmates at peak. Contained gas chamber and crematoria. Total death estimate:
Created on May 3, 1928. First commandant: Jacob Weiseborn. 180,000 inmates at
peak. Contained political prisoners, criminals, Soviet POW’s, Jews. Mass
murder by phenol injections. Industrial enterprises included armaments and
aircraft factories. Total death estimate: 10,000.
Created on August 8, 1938. First commandant: Albert Sauer. 120,000 inmates at
peak. 200,000 passed through camp in its lifetime. Was officially called a
“Strafalger,” or punishment camp. Center of Mass Murder operations with gas
chambers built in nearby Hartheim castle. Forced labor in SS Stone Works and
Messerschmidt aircraft factory. 120,000 people killed.
Created on May 15, 1939. First Commandant: Max Koegel. 70,000 inmates at
peak. 107,000 inmates passed through. Used for killing sick prisoners and for
medical experiments on Jewish women, especially sterilization. Forced labor
for Siemens corporation.
Created on April 23, 1936. First Commandant: Herman Baranowski. 35,000
inmates at peak. 135,000 people passed through camp. Separate sub-camps for
Jews, political prisoners, homosexuals, draft evaders, etc. Contained gas
chamber and crematorium. Used for mass murder of 11,000 Soviet POW’s. Forced
labor for Heinkel aircraft works. 30-35,000 total deaths.
Functioned as a homicidal gas chamber and incineration installation from 15th
March 1943, before its officially coming into service on March 31st, to
November 27th, 1944, annihilating a total of approximately 400,000 people.
Most of them Jewish women, children and old men.
Was used in similar fashion from June 25th 1943 to November 27th ,1944,
killing about 350,000 victims.