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Auschwitz Concentration Camp

The town of Oświęcim lies in the Lesser Poland province of southern Poland, 50km west of Kraków. The town's name in German (Auschwitz), however, will be much more familiar to many around the world as here was situated the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II.

Above: Composite image of Auschwitz II-Birkenau. "Auschwitz represents the Holocaust... because more people died here than anywhere else" - Otto Friedrich [2]

The name Auschwitz evokes fear in almost everyone as it was the largest concentration and extermination camp established by the Nazis. The name is synonymous with death, cruelty, the annihilation of the Jewish people and the Holocaust. The camp was established in 1940 for Polish political prisoners. Originally, it was intended to be an instrument of terror and extermination of Poles but through time, the Nazis began to deport to the camp people from all over the European continent, overwhelmingly Jews, but also Polish political prisoners, Soviet prisoners-of-war , gypsies and homosexuals.

After Germany had invaded Poland, the town of Oświęcim and its surrounding areas were incorporated into the Third Reich and the town was renamed Auschwitz. By the end of 1939 a plan came about to set up a concentration camp, based on the justification that the existing prisons in the region of Silesia were overcrowded and there would also be the requirement by the Nazis to conduct further waves of mass arrests amongst the Polish people of both this region and the rest of German-occupied Poland. The site chosen for this concentration (and subsequently extermination) camp was the deserted pre-war barracks in Oświęcim. The site was away from the town itself and had room for expansion into a relatively isolated area. In addition, for the Third Reich, the town of Oświęcim was notably located on a main railway junction. The order to found a camp here (Auschwitz I) was given in April 1940 with Rudolf Höss as its first (and longest serving) commandant and by the following June, the first Polish political prisoners were to arrive. As the number of inmates increased, the original site was enlarged (using prisoners as construction workers) and the area covered by the camp also grew, until it had been transformed into a massive and horrific factory of death. The monstrosity created at Auschwitz I was to become the parent (or Stammlager) to a whole generation of new camps. In March 1941, a much larger camp, 3km from Oświęcim, at Birkenau (Brzezinka) was started. This was to be the extensive Auschwitz II, a combination concentration/extermination camp. Auschwitz III, a labour camp in nearby Monowitz, was to follow in 1943 and this was built to staff an IG Farbenindustrie factory. In addition, during 1942-1944, there were about 45 satellite camps set up as part of the Auschwitz complex.

At Auschwitz, the gas chambers, which had the capacity to kill 1000's daily started operating in 1942. Trains brought prisoners in who would then be shepherded out and selected for forced labour, medical experimentation or (the majority) extermination. Those facing extermination would be gassed and their corpses incinerated in one of four crematoria. For the Polish people, the site is a particular symbol of their people's suffering under the Third Reich. Soviet forces liberated the camp in January 1945, where they found 7,650 sick and dying prisoners. In total, between 900,000 and 1.5 million Jews and others were murdered in the extermination camps here.

Today, the camps at Oświęcim (Auschwitz I) and Birkenau (Auschwitz II) are maintained as a memorial and museum open to the public. The prison blocks at Auschwitz I contain a museum portraying the history of the camp and persecution in wartime Poland. Above the main gate to the camp here, through which the prisoners passed daily on their way to work is the infamous and cynical inscription "Arbeit macht frei" (Work makes you free). At Auschwitz II, a vast site, it is possible today to see the remnants of four crematoria, gas chambers and cremation pits. Also, at Auschwitz II are the unloading platform where the deportees were selected, some preserved prisoners barracks, the main entrance gate, sentry watch towers, fences and poignantly a pond containing human ashes. Much of the site at Auschwitz II was completely destroyed by the SS, in an effort to cover up evidence of their crimes. However, some of the constructions at Auschwitz II which were destroyed were rebuilt from the original elements by the Museum, so that the visitor today can build up a clearer picture about the horrific events that took place here. It is without a doubt that no visitor can leave here unmoved.

'Auschwitz Birkenau German Nazi Concentration and Extermination Camp (1940-1945)' is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Of course, this web page provides only a brief description of Auschwitz Concentration Camp and so for the reader wishing to learn more, I have put a small selection of links at the foot of this web page. The photos below were taken during a visit to Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II in 1998 and it was deemed more befitting to display them in black and white.

Auschwitz I

Auschwitz II

References and Further Reading:

1. State Museum in Oświęcim Guide-Book

2. The Kingdom of Auschwitz, by Otto Friedrich, published by Penguin Books (GB) / HarperCollins (USA)

3. UNESCO Webpage Here

4. Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum Here

5. On Here

6. Wikipedia Main Article Here

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