Poland, during the World War II, was invaded with 2/3rds being taken by the Germans and 1/3rd being taken by Russia.
Auschwitz originally was conceived as a detention centre for the many Polish citizens arrested after Germany annexed the country in 1939. These detainees included anti-Nazi activists, politicians, resistance members and luminaries from the cultural and scientific communities. Their punishment was to be taken from society and be used as slave labour.
It was established in June 1940 at a Polish Army Barracks in Oswiecim and took the German name of Auschwitz. Upon entry to the camp, you pass through a gate with the words “Arbeit macht frei” atop which translates as “Work will set you free”. It was here where they were kept, but they worked outside the camp at factories – the Germans received a fee for providing labour.
The Nazis believed that Germans were superior to all other races. They detested Jews, democracy, communists, Gypsies, Jehovah Witnesses, homosexuals and other groups too. As their power grew, they started cleansing their world of these enemies of the Nazi state and used camps like Auschwitz for that purpose. It changed from being a detention camp to being an extermination or death camp.
However, not all those arriving at Auschwitz were immediately exterminated. Those deemed fit to work were employed as slave labour in the production of munitions, synthetic rubber and other products considered essential to Germany’s efforts in World War II.
The conditions were cramped and prisoners were dying from over working, starvation, heat, cold, unsanitary conditions, lack of protection against the elements and sickness. Some prisoners were also subjected to barbaric medical experiments led by Josef Mengele.
But the numbers were too big for the camp to manage, even though 75% of those that were sent were immediately executed e.g. children, pregnant women, sick, disabled, old, unfit. The remaining 25% became the slave labour.
The days started at 4:30 in summer and 5:30 in winter. There would be a role call where they were forced to stand - sometimes for hours - and have those that had died there to account for the numbers. Once all was accounted for, the dead were removed for burial and the sick were removed and executed. There were beatings and hangings.
Amongst this, there were Nazi processes that were followed. They would hold trials for prisoners and when they were found guilty (as was almost always the case), they were taken outside and shot. The only reason for the trial was for process. They had a hospital wing, but as they had no inclination to help or provide assistance, it was another place where people died. When the hospital wing was full, anyone sent there received a lethal injection instead of any ‘treatment’. In both cases, the trials and the hospital were pointless and didn’t change the destiny of the inmates as they would be dying one way or another anyway.
As the camps changed purpose, the method of murder evolved and once they had learned to kill efficiently with gas, they expanded the camp and created new ones.
In Autumn 1941, on the order of Heinrich Himmler (commander of the SS), at the town called Brzezinka (2 miles from Auschwitz), Birkenau was built to carry out the Nazi’s ”final solution”. It covered 432 acres, had 300 buildings (mainly wooden barracks) had undressing rooms, 4 functioning gas chambers, and crematoriums.
This location was chosen as it was situated near the centre of all German-occupied countries on the European continent. For another, it was in close proximity to the string of rail lines used to transport detainees to the network of Nazi camps.
Trains carrying over 500,000 arrived here and the majority of those onboard were murdered on the day they arrived if they were deemed as being unfit for labour.
It was purpose built to be a killing machine and thousands upon thousands arrived by train. They were told that they were going to be fed but they first needed to be disinfected after their journey. As they got off the train they were selected into two lines, one for workers and one for others. The others were led one way and taken into changing areas where they undressed to go for a shower leaving their possessions on the benches and were even told to remember their locker number. As they moved into the ‘shower blocks’ they began to realise that something was wrong as more and more of them were getting in there and it was a mixture of men, women and children. As panic would start, the doors were locked. Above the room, Zyklon B granules were dropped in and when it met the oppressed heat of the room, it formed the gas that would kill all those within the room - those closest to where the granules were, died first. It took about 15 minutes for all to die. Then fans would be switched on to remove the fumes. The bodies would then be dragged into the next room – where they were cremated. The cremation process struggled to keep up with the gassing, but it became a conveyer belt of death.
Possessions were plundered by the SS and what was left was given to the German people.
The majority of Auschwitz victims died at Birkenau. More than 40 smaller facilities, called subcamps, dotted the landscape and served as slave-labour camps. The largest of these subcamps, Monowitz, also known as Auschwitz III, began operating in 1942 and housed some 10,000 prisoners.
The Auschwitz-Birkenau camps could hold 90,000 people and was staffed by approximately 7,000 German SS.