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Section: What was the Final Solution?

Auschwitz-Birkenau

A map of the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex.
A map of the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex. © 2011 Yad Vashem The Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority.

Auschwitz-Birkenau, is the most infamous of the Nazi camps. It was a massive concentration, forced labour and extermination camp at the centre of a network of more than 40 satellite camps.

The first Auschwitz camp (Auschwitz I) was established by the Germans in 1940, in the suburbs of the town of Oświęcim less than 40 miles south of Krakow in the south of Poland. It was originally designed to house political prisoners.

As part of the ‘Final Solution’ the Nazis began building Auschwitz-Birkenau in the autumn of 1941 on the site of the village of Brzezinka, less than two miles from Auschwitz I. The local population were evicted from their homes. Their houses were demolished and used as building materials for the new camp.

Auschwitz-Birkenau began operating as a death camp between March 1942 and January 1945.

Upwards of 80 percent of those Jews transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau were selected for immediate death. The remainder was selected for work. The majority of those selected for work died within a few weeks or months of their arrival at the camp as a result of overwork, mistreatment, disease or lack of food.

In this section of The Holocaust Explained you will be able to read and hear about the lives of those who lived in the camp.

As you learn about Auschwitz-Birkenau, reflect on the following:

What lessons can we learn about man’s inhumanity to man?

What can we learn about the human spirit; man’s ability to cope with the most inhumane conditions and not give in to the perpetrator?

Transport and arrival

The first trains carrying Jews arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau in March 1942. Often several trains arrived daily carrying Jews from almost every country in Europe.

Each of the trains carried in excess of a thousand victims. Prisoners had been packed into cattle wagons with no room to sit, no food and two buckets: one for water and another to use as a toilet. The journey could last days on end, with the prisoners not knowing where they were passing through or where they were going. Many victims died during the journey as a result of suffocation, illness or hunger.

Initially, arrivals at Auschwitz-Birkenau would be unloaded on a ramp alongside the main railway lines at Oświęcim. The prisoners would then walk the short distance to the camp. However, in preparation for the arrival of 440,000 Hungarian Jews during the spring of 1944, railway tracks were laid right into the camp, through the now infamous gatehouse building.

On arrival at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the trains would pull up on the unloading ramp in front of the awaiting SS officers and guards, kapos and the Sonderkommando.

The Jews were thrown out of the railway wagons and made to leave their belongings behind them. They were then ordered to form lines ready for the selection process. This was when the Nazis selected which Jews would be sent straight to their deaths in the gas chambers and which Jews would remain alive temporarily.

More than 80 percent of those who arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau were immediately murdered. The majority of the remainder died as a result of overwork, mistreatment, disease or lack of food.

Selection

Once the Jews were unloaded and separated into male and female lines, they were then subjected to a selection process. SS doctors carried out this selection process.

Usually, those aged over 14 years of age and deemed ‘fit’ for work were sent to one side of the unloading ramp; the rest were sent to the other side.

The elderly and women with children were sent directly to the line of prisoners who were condemned to death in the gas chambers.

Those Jews selected for work were sent to a separate building for registration. Prisoners would be registered, before undressing, placing their clothes on a hook, together with their shoes. They would then be tattooed with a registration number, shaved of all body hair, disinfected and forced through showers that were either extremely cold or painfully hot.

Once showered, prisoners were given the infamous striped pyjamas, hat and a pair of wooden clogs. They were marched to the blocks to begin their life within the camp.

Kanada Kommando

The possessions and precious belongings of the Jews transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau were left in the train carriages and on the ramp as their owners were quickly put through the selection process.

When the selection process was complete, a work group of prisoners called the ‘Kanada Kommando’ collected the belongings of victims and took them to the ‘Kanada’ warehouse facility for sorting and transporting back to Germany. To the prisoners, Canada was a country that symbolised wealth. They, therefore, gave the ironic name Kanada (the German spelling of Canada) to the warehouse area as it was full of possessions, clothing and jewellery.

The prisoners working in the Kanada Kommando lived in barracks. The barracks were inside the warehouse, away from the rest of the prisoners in the camp. They were in a better position than the other inmates. They could take extra food on which to survive, a pair of shoes or extra clothing to protect themselves from the severe winter weather. Some smuggled valuables to bribe the kapos or guards. If they were caught, they were killed.

Living conditions and sanitation

The prisoners selected for work were housed in wooden or brick built barracks.

The brick barracks were constructed in the autumn of 1941. The Germans originally intended the barracks to house 40 prisoners, but very often more than 700 would be placed in each of them. The total number of prisoners to each barrack depended on the number of transports arriving. The prisoners slept in 60 spaces, with three bunks in each space. Prisoners slept on straw spread over the wooden bunks. The barracks had earth floors and few sanitary facilities.

The wooden barracks had once been stables. The walls were thin and had gaps at the bottom and top, which let in the bitterly cold wind in the winter. Near the entrance door were two rooms to house the ‘functionaries’ or kapos. The barracks had no windows, but instead had a row of skylights at the top of the roof. Each block had wooden three-tiered bunks. Prisoners slept under thin blankets or rags on their straw mattresses.

Each barrack had two stoves with a brick heating flue running between them. However, fuel was not provided. As a result many prisoners died during the extreme cold of the Polish winters.

Sanitation

Sanitary facilities for prisoners at Auschwitz-Birkenau were extremely poor. It was impossible for inmates to keep clean or have a change of clothes.  For the first two years of the camp’s existence, the prisoners had no access to water for washing. When there was later water, it was not clean. Prisoners, therefore, spent their existence in the camp dirty and in filthy clothes, which increased the likelihood of them contracting infections and diseases.

Nevertheless, despite the lack of access to clean water, soap and a change of clothes, many prisoners continued to go through the motions of washing each morning. This was because, even though it was not possible to carry out the activities of a normal life, it was extremely important to preserve the ‘spirit’ of life, not to give up. This can be seen so vividly in the writings of Primo Levi, a survivor of Auschwitz, who went on to become a distinguished writer,

He remembered having a conversation with a fellow prisoner one morning:

“I suddenly see Steinlauf, my friend aged almost fifty, with nude chest, scrub his neck and shoulders with little success (he has no soap) [He] sees me and asks me severely why I do not wash. Why should I wash? Would I be better off than I am? Would I please someone more? Would I live a day longer?…. Does Steinlauf not know that after half an hour with the coal sacks every difference between him and me will have disappeared?….

[Steinlauf says] ‘…even in this place one can survive, and therefore one must want to survive, to tell the story, to bear witness; and that to survive we must force ourselves to save at least the skeleton, the scaffolding, the form of civilisation. We are slaves, deprived of every right, exposed to every insult, condemned to certain death, but… … we must certainly wash our faces without soap in dirty water and dry ourselves on our jackets…. …for dignity… We must walk erect, without dragging our feet… …to remain alive, not to begin to die.’”

– Primo Levi, “Survival in Auschwitz”

Roll call

As in the concentration camps, those prisoners selected for work faced appalling conditions and severe treatment. After being woken at dawn, they would have to stand in line for the roll call and endure many hours of hard labour. At the end of the working day, exhausted, they returned to the camp, when they would once again have to stand in line for evening roll call.

During roll call (Appell) prisoners would have to stand still, wearing very thin clothing, in all weather conditions and for hours on end. The block kapo would count the number of prisoners before reporting to the SS officer.

If the number of prisoners appeared not to be correct, it would take hours until the SS officer finally made the numbers tally. Anyone unable to stand was taken away to his or her death.

Roll calls were often used as a punishment to prisoners. This was especially the case with evening roll call, which often took much longer than the morning one. If a prisoner had not worked hard enough, attempted some form of resistance or tried to escape, he or she would be punished. In this case, punishment usually meant death.

This treatment was used to teach the other prisoners a lesson: it was pointless to resist.

Freddie talks about life in Auschwitz-Birkenau

In this video Freddie describes arriving at Auschwitz-Birkenau in October 1943.

Freddie remembers being registered, undressed, showered and tattooed before being given a striped uniform and then taken to a barrack. The next day Freddie was taken to a chemical factory at Buna Monowitz, Auschwitz III.

Listen to Freddie’s story as he talks about the daily routines, food, and his work within the camp. Learn how another prisoner saved Freddie’s life.

Please note that the lead in may take a few moments to allow the video to begin.

 

Resistance within Auschwitz-Birkenau

Some people still managed to resist the Nazis and their collaborators despite the harsh conditions. These examples take the form of indirect and direct action.

Indirect / Spiritual resistance

One form of resistance the prisoners took was to continue observing their Jewish faith. Some would quietly say a prayer while carrying out their daily duties. Others would hollow out potatoes to make candle holders for Chanukah. They used clothing thread for the candle wicks and oil was stolen from within the camp.

Some prisoners kept diaries, recording life inside the camp, so that the world would one day know the story of what happened to them. Others collected evidence of the killings and events within the camp, burying it in the hope that one day someone would find the evidence of the atrocities. Prisoners had to be careful to make sure these form of indirect resistance went undiscovered by the SS guards and kapos.

Direct / Physical resistance

In October 1943, a transport of Jews arrived from Bergen-Belsen, a camp in Germany. All were selected for death.

In the undressing room of Crematorium II, one of the women seized the pistol from an SS officer. She shot two SS guards, one of whom later died from his wounds. Other women joined the attack. The SS overcame the mutiny and killed all of the women.

There are examples of Jews escaping from the crematoria and gas chambers. One such incident involved men, women and children who had been transported from Hungary. On the night of 25-26 May 1944, they escaped and hid in the woods and in ditches. The SS tracked them down and killed them.

On 10 June 1942, a group of Polish prisoners in a work detail attempted to escape whilst constructing a drainage ditch at Auschwitz-Birkenau. The SS shot twenty prisoners and very few got away. To prevent future acts of resistance and in revenge, more than 300 Poles were murdered in the gas chambers.

The most ambitious uprising at Auschwitz-Birkenau involved the actions of 250 Jewish Sonderkommando on 7 October 1944. They set fire to one of the crematoria. They managed to cut through the fence and reach the outside of the camp. The SS surrounded them. In the fight that followed, they managed to kill three SS guards and wound ten of them. All 250 Jews were killed.

One of the work camps made arms for the German army. The SS discovered that four Jewish women had stolen explosive material from this factory and given it to the Sonderkommando. The women were captured and hanged in front of other prisoners – again as an act of revenge, but also to send a message to other prisoners to stop resisting.

Liberation

Inmates behind barbed wire fences at Auschwitz, at the time of the liberation.
Inmates behind barbed wire fences at Auschwitz, at the time of the liberation. © 2013 Yad Vashem The Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority.

On 27 January 1945, the 60th Army of the First Ukrainian Front, a unit of the Soviet Army, opened the gates and entered the Auschwitz camp complex. The liberators discovered around 7,000 surviving prisoners across the three main camps of Auschwitz I, Auschwitz-Birkenau and Buna Monowitz. Amongst the survivors were 180 children; 52 of them under the age of eight.

Many of these survivors had been deemed unfit to join the final evacuation of thousands of prisoners by the SS just ten days earlier on what would become known as the ‘death marches’.

Whilst carrying out this final evacuation the SS had set about removing evidence of their crimes. Many thousands of documents were set alight. Between 21 and 26 January 1945, the Germans blew up  and partially dismantled the gas chambers and crematoria in Birkenau. Kanada II, the warehouse in which property plundered from victims of the gas chambers was stored and sorted, was also looted and set alight. Members of the Wehrmacht joined in the looting.

On entering the camp, Soviet soldiers discovered the bodies of around 600 prisoners, many of whom had been shot by the SS during the evacuation. Others had died due to the conditions and treatment within the camp.

Soviet army medics gave immediate first aid to the survivors. Two military field hospitals were assisted by members of the Polish Red Cross and volunteers from the town of Oświęcim.

DID YOU KNOW...

Recovery

It took many years before survivors of Auschwitz began to recover from their ordeal. However, many suffered the effects of the physical or mental trauma throughout their lives.

Over the coming months they began to leave the camp in search of surviving relatives and a place to rebuild their lives.

Many refugees found themselves living in temporary displaced persons camps before emigrating to countries across western Europe, the United States or seeking to travel to Palestine.

Between May 1940 and the liberation of the camp in January 1945, the Nazis transported more than 1.3 million prisoners to Auschwitz. Of this number 1.1 million were murdered; around 90 percent were selected for death on arrival.

In January 2000, 44 governments from around the world met in Stockholm, the capital of Sweden, to discuss the importance of Holocaust education, remembrance and research.

It was decided that 27 January; the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, should become International Holocaust Memorial Day (HMD).

On 27 January 2001, the UK held the inaugural HMD. Each annual HMD is commemorated with a UK event and over 2,000 local activities taking place on or around 27 January each year.

Find out about how you can become involved in HMD events near your school or college.

Freda returns to Auschwitz-Birkenau

Freda Wineman was born in France. She lived with her father, mother and brothers. In the spring of 1940, the German army invaded France. A year later Freda and her family went on the run, leaving everything behind. By 1942 they were living in hiding in their own country in constant fear of being captured.

Freda’s family had been in hiding for over two years when they were tracked down by the secret police and sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Freda’s mother was selected for death on arrival at the camp. Her brother and father also lost their lives in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Freda was the only member of her family to survive.

After the war Freda moved to the UK, where she rebuilt her life. After 64 years, Freda eventually returned to Auschwitz-Birkenau as part of a Blue Peter Special.

Please note that the lead in may take a few moments to allow the video to begin.

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Kanada Kommando

Kanada Kommando

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