Facts Figures & Quotes: The Auschwitz concentration camp–Nazi Germany


    The Auschwitz concentration camp (Konzentrationslager Auschwitz) was a complex of over 40 concentration and extermination camps operated by Nazi Germany in occupied Poland during World War II and the Holocaust. But before we move ahead let me explain Nazi Germany and holocaust in a few words.

    The term Nazi Germany is the common English name for Germany between 1933 and 1945, when Hitler and his Nazi Party (NSDAP) controlled the country through a dictatorship under Hitler’s rule. Germany became a totalitarian state where nearly all aspects of life were controlled by the government. The term holocaust is also known as the Shoah—mass murder of Jews, was in fact the World War II’s genocide, of the European Jews, between 1941 and 1945 across, German occupied Europe, where Nazi Germany and its collaborators systematically murdered some six million Jews, which was around two-thirds of, Europe’s Jewish population.

    Auschwitz I, was the main camp (Stammlager) in Oswiecim; Auschwitz II-Birkenau, and Aaoshwit II were other concentration and extermination camps built with several gas chambers. Auschwitz III, was a labor camp created to staff a factory for the chemical con-glomerate IG Farben and dozens of sub-camps. These camps became a major site of the Nazis’ Final Solution to the Jewish Question.

    After Germany sparked World War II by invading Poland in September 1939, the Schutzstaffel (in short known as SS) became a major paramilitary organisation under Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party (NSDAP) in Nazi Germany, and later throughout German—occupied Europe during World War II. It began with a small guard unit known as the Saal-Schutz. They converted Auschwitz I, which used to be army barracks, into a prisoner-of-war camp for Polish political prisoners. The first inmates were German criminals that were brought to the camp in May 1940 as functionaries. They established the camp’s reputation for sadism, beating, torturing, and executing prisoners for the most trivial of reasons. The first gassings—of Soviet and Polish prisoners—took place in block 11 of Auschwitz I around August 1941.

    Prisoners were beaten and killed by guards and Kapos. Kapos were prison functionaries. It was their job to brutally force prisoners to do forced labor, despite the prisoners being sick and starving and for the slightest infraction of the rules they could be killed. Polish historian Irena Strzelecka writes that kapos were given nicknames such as “Bloody”, “Iron”, “The Strangler”, “The Boxer” that reflected their sadism. 

    Construction of Auschwitz II began from 1942 until late 1944. Freight trains delivered Jews from all over German-occupied Europe to its gas chambers. Out of the 1.3 million people sent to Auschwitz, 1.1 million died. The death toll includes 960,000 Jews (out of which 865,000 were gassed on arrival), 74,000 non-Jewish Poles, 21,000 Roma, 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war, and up to 15,000 other Europeans were also gassed to death. Those not gassed died of starvation, exhaustion, disease, individual executions, or beatings. Others were killed during medical experiments.

    At least 802 prisoners tried to escape, 144 successfully. On 7 October 1944 two Sonderkommando (they were units made up of German Nazi death camp prisoners, usually Jews, who were forced, on the threat of their own deaths, to aid with the disposal of gas chamber victims during the Holocaust. The death-camp Sonderkommandos, who were always inmates, were unrelated to the SS-Sonderkommandos which were adhoc units formed from various SS offices between 1938 and 1945.

The German term itself was part of the vague and euphemistic language which the Nazis used to refer to aspects of the Final Solution (e.g., Einsatzkommando “deployment units”).

 On 7 October 1944 two Sonderkommando units, consisting of prisoners who staffed the gas chambers, launched an unsuccessful uprising. Only 789 staff (not more than 15 percent) stood trial when several, including camp commandant Rudolf Hoss, were executed.

    The major allied powers that is Britain, France, Russia, and the United States, failure to act on the early reports of atrocities in the camp by bombing it or its railways remains a controversy.

    Sonderkommando wearing gas masks dragged the bodies from the chamber. They removed glasses and artificial limbs and shaved off the women’s hair. Women’s hair was removed before they entered the gas chamber at Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka, but at Auschwitz it was done after death. By 6 February 1943, the Reich—Economic Ministry of Nazi Germany had received 3,000 kg of women’s hair from Auschwitz and Majdanek. The hair was first cleaned in a solution of sal-ammoniac, dried on the brick floor of the crematoria, combed, and placed in paper bags. The hair was shipped to various companies, including one manufacturing plant in Bremen-Bluementhal, where workers found tiny coins with Greek letters on some of the braids that possibly belonged some of the 50,000 Greek Jews deported to Auschwitz in 1943. When they liberated the camp in January 1945, the Red Army found 7,000 kg of human hair in bags ready to ship.

    Just before cremation, jewelry was removed, along with denture and teeth containing precious metals from the dead bodies. Gold was removed from the teeth of dead prisoners from 23 September 1940 onwards by order of Heinrich Himmler—German Nazi leader. The work was carried out by members of the Sonderkommando who were dentists. Anyone caught overlooking or spying over the dental work were cremated alive. The gold was sent to the SS Health Service and was used by dentists to treat the SS and their families. 50 kg had been collected by 8 October 1942. By early 1944, around 10–12 kg of gold was extracted every month from various victims’ teeth.

    The corpses were burned in the nearby incinerators, and the ashes were buried, or thrown in the Vistula river or even used as fertilizer. Any bits of bone that had not burned properly were grounded down in wooden mortars.

    As the Soviet Red Army approached Auschwitz in January 1945, toward the end of the war, the SS sent most of the camp’s population west on a death march to camps inside Germany and Austria. Soviet troops entered the camp on 27 January 1945, a day commemorated since 2005 as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. In the decades after the war, survivors such as Primo Levi, Viktor Frankl, and Elie Wiesel wrote memoirs of their experiences, and the camp became a dominant symbol of the Holocaust. In 1947 Poland founded the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum on the site of Auschwitz I and II, and in 1979 it was named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

    Man is the most brutal beast on this planet when it comes to greed and power.

By Kamlesh Tripathi




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