Unlocking the Gates of Auschwitz 70 Years Later: History of Auschwitz

History of Auschwitz

Auschwitz is perhaps the most notorious concentration camp and has become synonymous with the Holocaust. Its name conjures images of despair, inhumanity, cruelty and death. Over 1.3 million prisoners were deported to Auschwitz, most of whom were Jews. 1.1 million perished inside the camp and thousands of others were forced on a death march as Soviet troops approached the camp. When the camp was liberated by Soviet troops on January 27, 1945, only 7,000 prisoners remained in the camp.

Auschwitz was located in the town of Oświęcim, Poland, whose residents were expelled as the Nazis began work on the complex that would come to be known simply as Auschwitz. The complex consisted of nearly 30 sub camps spread over fifty miles. The camp began operation as early as 1940 as Polish political prisoners began to arrive along with Soviet prisoners of war. Transport trains began to deliver Jews in early 1942 as part of the Nazi extermination plan.

Prisoners arrived at Auschwitz in cramped rail cars without adequate food, shelter or facilities. Upon arrival, they went through a selection process where they were either deemed fit for work and admitted into the camp or were deemed unfit for work and sent immediately to one of four gas chambers where they were killed using Zyklon B, a pesticide. Those selected for extermination were primarily children, women with small children, sick or elderly. Their bodies were removed from the gas chambers by the sonderkommando, groups of Jews forced to dispose of the corpses on threat of their own deaths.

Those prisoners who avoided the gas chambers were forced to work manufacturing buna, a type of synthetic rubber essential to the war effort. Businesses like IG Farben profited from this slave labor while the prisoners forced to work at a feverish pace while malnourished often died as a result. In an effort to cripple Nazi war production, Allied bombers attacked the factory on four occasions. Each time the prisoners forced to work there were left without shelter from the attacks. Other prisoners within the camp were forced to make items such as children’s shoes which were sent back to Germany.

Prisoners were stripped of their identity, their names replaced by a number tattooed on their left forearm. They wore ill-fitting clothing and wooden shoes without socks and subsisted on meager amounts of food and water. Disease was rampant in the camp, a result of inadequate facilities, cramped quarters, lack of fresh water and poor personal hygiene. Natural causes resulting from unnatural cruelty caused the deaths of thousands. Unimaginable medical experimentation by Nazi doctors killed hundreds more.

As Soviet troops approached through Poland in November 1944, gassing operations were ordered to cease at all camps and many of the crematoriums were dismantled to cover up the evidence of the Nazis’ atrocities. Mass graves were removed, written records were destroyed and many of the buildings were demolished. 58,000 prisoners were evacuated on foot in January 1945, forced on a death march of over 30 miles before ultimately arriving at the Bergen-Belsen camp in Germany.

When the Soviets finally liberated Auschwitz on January 27, 1945, only 7,000 survivors remained. It would be another three months before Bergen-Belsen was liberated on April 15 by British and Canadian troops.