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Section: What were the ghettos and camps?

Case Study: Auschwitz-Birkenau

The gate to Auschwitz I camp, on which an inscription read 'Arbeit macht frei' ('Work sets you free').

The gate to Auschwitz I camp, on which an inscription read ‘Arbeit macht frei‘ (‘Work sets you free’).

Courtesy of The Wiener Holocaust Library Collections.

The Auschwitz camp complex was made up of three large camps: Auschwitz I (the ‘main’ camp, Auschwitz II (Birkenau) and Auschwitz III (Monowitz). At its largest the camp had a network of more than forty satellite camps. The complex was located west of Kraków in Poland.

All three camps functioned both as forced labour and concentration camps . Auschwitz-Birkenau became the main extermination camp following the Wannsee Conference in January 1942, after which the Nazis moved the gassing of prisoners from Auschwitz I to Birkenau.

The lethal gas Zyklon B was selected as the method of mass murder, after tests were conducted in Auschwitz I in September 1941. Auschwitz initially had one gas chamber at the Auschwitz I camp, but this was soon expanded. By 1943, four new crematoria, with gas chambers attached, had been built in Auschwitz-Birkenau.

An estimated 1.3 million people were deported to Auschwitz, and approximately 1.1 million people were murdered in the Auschwitz gas chambers, including 1 million Jews.

Prisoners inside Auschwitz

The camp started operating in June 1940 with a first transport of 728 Polish political prisoners, who made up the majority of inmates until mid-1942. An estimated 130,000 Poles were deported to Auschwitz, and 70-75,000 died there.

In October 1941, 10,000 Soviet Prisoners of War (POWs) were sent to the Auschwitz main camp. They were tasked with building the Birkenau camp extension, but by January 1942, only a few hundred POWs were still alive. The Nazis adopted a policy of mass starvation for Soviet POWs across forced labour and concentration camps, leading to extremely high death rates for this victim group. Overall, around 15,000 Soviet POWs died in Auschwitz.

The number of Jews in Auschwitz was relatively low until early 1942, but in the spring of 1942, there was a huge increase in transports to the camp, including those with women and children. From then onwards, transports of Jews regularly arrived in Auschwitz until early November 1944. 960,000 Jews were deported to Auschwitz between 1942-1944, the majority of whom were from Hungary (426,000), Poland (300,000) and France (69,000). Between 1940 and 1945, 1.1 million Jews were deported to Auschwitz, and it is estimated that 1 million Jews died in the camp. Jews were treated worst out of all prisoner categories and were most likely to be immediately selected to be sent to the gas chambers upon arrival out of all prisoner categories.

Different prisoner groups in Auschwitz were kept separate. Men and women were also housed separately, except for Roma prisoners.

Roma and Sinti in Auschwitz

Roma and Sinti prisoners were housed in a separate part of the camp from February 1943, in Auschwitz-Birkenau, known as the Zigeunerlager (‘Gypsy camp’). In this section families were not separated, and the prisoners were allowed to wear civilian clothes. The camp was severely overcrowded, and sanitary conditions were poor, leading to the spread of diseases such as typhus. The camp was liquidated on 2 August 1944, and around 4,200 Roma were killed in the gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Overall, 23,000 Roma and Sinti were sent to Auschwitz, and approximately 21,000 either died from the conditions in the camp or were murdered in the gas chambers.

A closer look at a Jewish prisoner: Mala Zimetbaum

Mala Zimetbaum was a Jewish woman born in Brzesko in Poland, on January 26, 1918. She later emigrated to Belgium with her family. 

In April 1942 she was arrested by the Gestapo in Antwerp and deported to Mechelen, a transit camp in northern Belgium. She was then transferred on one of the first prisoner transports from Mechelen to Auschwitz-Birkenau in September 1942.  

Once she arrived in Auschwitz, she was granted a privileged position working as a translator and runner for one of the camp overseers, due to her fluency in multiple languages. This job allowed her relative freedom of movement, and she began to organise a resistance movement within Auschwitz.  

She and fellow Polish prisoner Adek Galinski planned an escape from the camp. Zimetbaum had acquired the uniform of an Aufseherin, a female guard of the camp, which she wore to escape the camp alongside Galinski, who was dressed as an SS guard, in August 1944.  

Zimetbaum was the first woman to escape Auschwitz.  

An anonymous testimony described the reaction in Auschwitz to this escape: ‘When the news of the escape spread round the camp all the prisoners were full of joy and hope, knowing that the aim of the escape was to proclaim to the whole world the news of what was happening in the camp.’ 

Conditions inside Auschwitz-Birkenau from 1942

When prisoners arrived at the camp, they were either immediately selected to be sent to the gas chambers or chosen for forced labour. When deportees descended from the trains, families were divided and individuals lined up in two columns, one with men and older boys, the other with women and young children. A group of primarily Jewish prisoners was assigned to collect and sift through the confiscated possessions of those who arrived in Auschwitz, which were deposited in warehouses nicknamed ‘Kanada‘. Deportees were then examined by camp doctors or other camp officials. The main criterion for selection for gassing or for work was age: children below sixteen and the elderly were generally immediately sent to the gas chambers. Overall, approximately only 20 per cent of the people who arrived on transports to Auschwitz were selected for forced labour, and the rest were murdered on arrival.

Those sent to work were usually given a tattoo with their prisoner serial number. Auschwitz was the only concentration camp where inmates had their number tattooed. Conditions inside Auschwitz were terrible, and the aim was to kill to wear down the prisoners through starvation and disease.

Slave labour was another way of killing wearing down prisoners, and many died from the consequences of work instead of through being gassed. Prisoners were organised into Kommandos (work squads) and put to work on large construction or industrial projects in one of the forty Auschwitz sub-camps, often working ten to eleven hours a day.

Prisoners were housed in overcrowded, unheated barracks, often with 700 inmates for 200 bunks. The food served mainly consisted of watered down soup and was woefully inadequate, and many prisoners slowly starved to death. If inmates became too weak and were unable to work, they were sent to the gas chamber.

Discipline in Auschwitz was enforced by the SS , and by inmates who were appointed to oversee other prisoners who were known as Kapos . Punishable offences included any attempts to obtain more food, failing to be present for the frequent roll calls, and wearing incorrect uniforms, and these infractions were punished by floggings which were often public, or incarceration in the camp cell blocks.

Physicians carried out forced medical experiments in Auschwitz I in Barrack 10, for their pseudo-scientific research on infants, dwarfs, twins, and Roma and Sinti prisoners. Doctors also carried out forced sterilisations and castration of adult men and women.

ADVANCED CONTENT

Medical Experimentation in Auschwitz-Birkenau

Thousands of prisoners were victims of pseudo-medical  experiments in Auschwitz. Josef Mengele was one of the main doctors leading these experiments, performing tests on twins as well as on Roma and Sinti prisoners, to test how different ‘races’ withstood different contagious diseases. Hans Braun, a Sinto survivor of Auschwitz, described some of these experiments in his testimony. 

Other doctors such as Claus Clauberg and Horst Schumann also conducted experiments to test methods of mass sterilization. Experiments were often carried out without anaesthetic and caused great pain to their victims, who often died during the experimentation or following the complications that resulted. Hinda Tennenbaum was a Polish Jew who had moved to Brussels in 1935, where she was arrested by the Gestapo and transferred to Auschwitz in April 1943. She remained in the camp for two years and underwent experiments involving artificial insemination and sterilization at the hands of Claus Clauberg. Though she survived, she was left severely weakened and unable to have children after the war. 

The Sonderkommando Uprising

The Sonderkommando were groups of Jewish prisoners forced to perform tasks in the gas chambers and crematoria in extermination camps. The Sonderkommando working in Crematorium IV in Auschwitz spent eighteen months working on a plan to destroy the gas chambers and crematoria. Róża Robota, a Polish Jewish woman slave labourer tasked with sorting through the clothes of those who were murdered in the gas chambers, contacted Jewish women working in a munitions factory within Auschwitz, and through this network obtained gunpowder which Robota passed on to the Sonderkommando at the Crematorium.

On 7 October 1944, the Sonderkommando set off explosives to blow up Crematoria IV and launched a mass mutiny. The uprising was quickly crushed. 250 prisoners were killed in the fighting, and another 200 after the fighting was over.

Liberation

The SS began evacuating Auschwitz and its subcamps in mid-January 1945, as a response to the approach of the Soviet forces. An estimated 60,000 prisoners, most of them Jews, were forced to march west from Auschwitz for between 50-60 km. As many as 15,000 prisoners died on these marches.

The Soviet Army liberated Auschwitz on 27 January 1945.

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The Sonderkommando Uprising

The Sonderkommando Uprising

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