Where is Auschwitz ?
We had always wanted to visit Auschwitz but where is Auschwitz ?. we later found that it is in the south-western end of Poland and 50 km’s west of Krakow. The name changed during the years of occupation and hence altered in pronunciation and spelling. The official name of the area is known today as Oswiecim. The name Auschwitz continues in use today, mainly due to the historical impact and relevance as a German concentration camp.
When visiting Auschwitz I the motto ‘Arbeit macht frei’ is displayed above the first and main gate, the english meaning translates into (“Work brings freedom”). It was known by those who occupied the camp as “The Gate of Death”. There was a prisoner’s orchestra forced to play cheerful music as the workers left the camp and also as they returned. One such orchestra was the Women’s Orchestra of Auschwitz.
Auschwitz I (German concentration camp) was originally set out to house political prisoners of war. The first to occupy the camp were Polish political prisoners and they arrived in 1940, also the soviet prisoners who arrived in 1941.The estimated amount of polish political prisoners and Jewish poles, evacuated here throughout the entire camp’s existence amounts to between 140,000-150,000 people.
There were 10,000 soviet prisoners who arrived in October 1941 and by March 1942 this dwindled to a mere 945 still alive and these were further sent to Auschwitz II- Birkenau. Most died there of starvation or disease.
The German army and its leaders had already been trying to find out the best ways of killing on a large-scale. They realized that shooting victims or prisoners of war was having a detrimental effect on their own German soldiers. They also came to realize it was an expensive use of their bullets.
Who else became victims ?
Prior to the killing of prisoners at Auschwitz, the first targeted group had been the mentally and physically handicapped. They were found in and around Poland and Germany and they died in mock-up shower blocks within these institutions.They were generally not Jewish but deemed inferior.
Consequently many died by vehicle carbon monoxide flowing through a room that had its doors, windows etc sealed and the victims died of gas poisoning. This gave the German army ideas on how to perform mass killings during the war. The finding of Zyclon B, which was a pesticide used for fumigation of the prison uniforms was the final result.
The first mass murders !!
The first mass exterminations at Auschwitz took place in early September 1941, in block 11. They gathered 900 inmates sent them to the basement of Block 11, where they were all killed by gassing with Zyklon B.
This building proved unsuitable for mass gassing, so the site of the killings was then moved to the crematorium at Auschwitz I (Crematorium I). This was in operation right up until July 1942). It was here that more than 700 victims could be killed at once by Zyklon B (a highly lethal cyanide-based pesticide) being dropped into a chamber above. They used Ventilation equipment to remove the gas after all the victims were dead.
In one failed attempt to muffle the noise, they revved up two motorcycle engines nearby to full throttle. The sound of yelling however could still be heard over the engines. The New gas chambers and crematorium was then moved and housed in Auschwitz II-Birkenau. Below are pictures of Auschwitz I gas chamber and crematorium.
The different blocks in Auschwitz.
Block 11 of Auschwitz I was the prison within the prison. It was here that violators got punished for not abiding by the numerous rules that were not adhered too. Prisoners had to spend the nights in standing cells. These cells were about 1.5 m2 (16 sq ft), and held four men; all cramped together and they could do nothing but stand. They were then forced during the day to work with the other prisoners. Prisoners sentenced to death for attempting to escape were subsequently confined in a dark cell and given neither food nor water while being left to die. See the pictures below a photo of the standing cells.
The construction of Auschwitz II – Birkenau was later built due to the amount of prisoners already occupying Auschwitz I. Due mainly to the overcrowding and the feverish pace set out to eradicate the Jews. Reichsfuhrer SS Heinrich Himmler was to head the new construction in October of 1941. By 1942 Hitler had decided on his final solution to what he deemed the Jewish problem.
Auschwitz II-Birkenau became an extermination and labour camp. The Birkenau Camp had four crematoria commissioned by German SS architect Karl Bischoff. SS Karl Bischoff’s plans also initially called for each barrack to have an occupancy of 550 prisoners (one-third of the space allotted in other Nazi concentration camps). He later changed this to 744 prisoners per barrack. The SS designed the barracks not so much to house people as to destroy them. Dressed in a thin prison uniform and cramped in damp and rat infested conditions with very little to eat hence disease was rife.
Prisoners evacuated from all over German-occupied Europe by rail, arrived in daily convoys. By July 1942, the SS were conducting what became known as “selections”. Incoming jews subsequently went through a segregation process; those deemed able to work ordered to the right and admitted into the camp. Those deemed unfit for labor ordered to the left and immediately gassed. The group selected to die, about three-quarters of the total, included almost all children, women with small children, all the elderly, and all those who appeared on brief and superficial inspection by an SS doctor and deemed not completely fit.
Gas chambers !!
All these prisoners entered the gas chambers and the doors sealed shut. The SS men dumped in Zyklon B pellets through vents in the roof or holes in the side of the chamber. The victims were dead within 20 minutes. Despite the thick concrete walls, screaming and moaning from within could be heard outside.
When the prisoners were dead a special squad known as the sonderkommando went in. These prisoners forced to work in the crematoria were then sent in. They had to extract teeth for their gold fillings, collect earrings, rings and also had to remove hair from the bodies. The hair was subsequently sold and made into a cloth. 7 tons of human hair that had not been sold yet, was found at the time of liberation.
The belongings of the arrivals were also seized by the SS and sorted in an area of the camp called “Canada”. Named Canada due to the idea that Canada idealized as a land of Plenty. Many of the SS at the camp enriched themselves by pilfering the confiscated property.
For the Prisoners that remained alive another macabre fate lay in store for them. This was either in the form of hard work to the death or medical experiments. The German doctors performed a wide variety of experiments on prisoners at Auschwitz. SS doctors tested the efficacy of X-rays as a sterilization device . This was also performed by administering large doses to female prisoners. Prof. Dr. Carl Clauberg injected chemicals into woman’s uterus’ in an effort to glue them shut. It was a place where any mad or sadistic doctor could perform all manner of atrocities and medical crimes. Dr Mengele was one of those sadistic and cruel men who performed all kind of experiments on twins.
As part of the overall liquidation of the evidence of crime, crematoria II and III together with their gas chambers were partially dismantled in late 1944. They were then blown up in January 1945. Crematorium IV was partially burned during the Sonderkommando mutiny on October 7, 1944, and later dismantled. Crematorium V functioned until the very end, and on January 26, 1945, they blew it up, the day before the liberation of the camp.
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Take a walking tour or Auschwitz watch the video here