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Auschwitz: Evolution of a death camp

Heike Mund ad
June 4, 2018

Rappers Kollegah and Farid Bang have accepted an invitation to visit Auschwitz following outrage over their anti-Semitic lyrics. What should they expect? The facts and figures behind the Nazi's monstrous death factory.

Holocaust Roma Auschwitz
Image: Getty Images/B.Siedlik

More than 45 million people from all over the world have visited the memorial and museum of the former Nazi extermination camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau in southern Poland since it opened in 1947.

Covering 191 hectares (472 acres) and located 50 kilometers (30 miles) west of the city of Krakow, unimaginable horror unfolded within the camp's machinery of industrial death. 

"People who've been in Auschwitz once in their lives, see European history in a different light," noted author Navid Kermani after his visit to Auschwitz. For most visitors, it's an emotionally devastating experience that long lingers in the memory.

The controversial rappers Kollegah and Farid Bang, who have provocatively referred to Auschwitz inmates in their lyrics, have accepted an official invitation to the memorial site. While they haven't announced the date this is going take place, they are likely to be affected by their experiences as well. 

US director Steven Spielberg (Schindler's List) visited Auschwitz on Holocaust Memorial Day in 2015
US director Steven Spielberg (Schindler's List) visited Auschwitz on Holocaust Memorial Day in 2015Image: Reuters/K. Maj

In an attempt to ponder what kind of lessons should be drawn from Auschwitz-Birkenau for the future, here are some historical facts and figures relating to the site.

1. The city of Oświęcim (Auschwitz)

Auschwitz was not only a concentration camp, but also a town called Oświęcim that was renamed Auschwitz in 1939 after Germany invaded Poland. The name returned to Oświęcim after the end of World War II.

Located by the Sola River, the small southern Polish town has had an eventful history as the region variously came under Bohemian, Austrian, Prussian, German, Soviet and Polish rule.

After the town became a railway crossing by the second half of the 19th century, Oświęcim's economy developed quickly. Accommodation was needed for numerous migrant workers who had come for employment in the surrounding industrial zones of Upper Silesia and Bohemia. They were housed in newly built brick buildings and 90 wooden barracks, which later served as Polish army barracks.

From 1940, the Nazis used these buildings for their concentration camp — the so-called "Stammlager Auschwitz I."

2. The Jewish population

Half of Oświęcim's population of 14,000 were Jewish when World War II broke out, only a few ethnic Germans were living in a town with over 20 synagogues.

After Hitler's invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, and the ensuing occupation of the country, all that would rapidly change. Ethnic cleansing saw the Jewish population displaced to make way for resettled Germans. The remaining Jews had to live in cramped conditions in the old town, and in isolation from the general population. From 1940 onwards, many also had to work as cheap laborers in what was to become the concentration camp.

Infographic Auschwitz
The complex system of camps in Auschwitz-Birkenau, including the outer camp of Monowitz

3. The railway station

The town of Oświęcim happened to be located at a strategically important site, namely a major railway station. This is where railroad lines from Prague, Vienna, Berlin, Warsaw and the northern industrial areas of Silesia crossed — perfect conditions for mass transports of people from the so-called "Altreich," or Old Empire, as planned by the SS and security authorities in Berlin.

SS Lieutenant Colonel Adolf Eichmann was put in charge of deportations of people into camps in these eastern regions as part of what he cynically called "The Final Solution of the Jewish Question," a code name for the industrialized murder of Jews. At the fateful Wannsee Conference in Berlin in January 1942, such high-ranking Nazi officials resolved to kill 11 million Jews across German-controlled territory, with Auschwitz earmarked as a prime site for carrying out this genocide.   

Read moreGermany's Merkel warns of increased anti-Semitism on Holocaust Remembrance Day

4. The camp system

Next to Dachau, Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald, Flossenbürg, Mauthausen and the women's camp of Ravensbrück, Auschwitz was the seventh Nazi concentration camp. The entire area consisted of several concentration camps of different sizes. Next to the "Stammlager" (Auschwitz I), the huge camp of Birkenau (Auschwitz II) and smaller camps in the outer areas, there were also the camps of Buna and Monowitz (Auschwitz III).

In line with decisions taken at the Wannsee Conference, Auschwitz was turned into an industrial scale death factory of unimaginable proportions in the spring of 1942.

The executor of this racially motivated task was SS camp commander Rudolf Höss. Until he was superseded in November 1943, he remained in charge of the SS surveillance staff and the camp administration, and was responsible for carrying out the Nazi murder plans in practice. 

Auschwitz Konzentrationslager Museum Zyklon B Kanister 4
A deadly weapon: Just one single can of Zyklon B could kill more than 1,000 people Image: DW

5. The SS influence zone

By the spring of 1942, 2,000 SS security guards had already been employed in Auschwitz. By August 1944, more than 3,300 SS members were working there, as well as female guards, secretaries and nurses who were employed by the SS but did not wear insignia. In mid-January 1945 — just before the evacuation — there were 4,480 SS men and 71 SS female auxiliaries in the Auschwitz camp garrison.

The SS also controlled local industrial companies and craftsmen who, profiting from the expansion of the camp, had settled in the region. The so-called SS settlement developed outside the camp's borders, offering all kinds of amenities to its inhabitants. They certainly didn't suffer from any shortages.

6. The death factory

As of March 1943, additional ovens were put into operation in the expanded complex of Auschwitz-Birkenau. A trial burning led to the agonizing death of 1,100 men, women and children in the gas chambers. Their bodies were burned, and their ashes dispersed in surrounding lakes.

Following yet another increase of capacities, the camp's construction manager, SS Lieutenant Colonel Karl Bischoff, reported to Berlin:

"From now on, a total of 4,756 bodies can be cremated within 24 hours." A three-pronged railroad track was constructed in Birkenau with the aim of speeding up the selection of deportees at their arrival. It can still be seen today.

Auschwitz lake
Auschwitz is Europe's biggest cemetery. The ashes of hundreds of thousands of bodies were dispersed in surrounding lakes Image: picture-alliance/dpa/F. Schumann

The last transports of European Jews arrived in Auschwitz at the end of fall and early winter of 1944. Among the deportees was 14-year old Anne Frank. To this day, her diaries serve as a lasting document of the atrocities committed by the Nazis.

7. The number of victims

Calculations of the number of victims still vary as new details are still coming to light. While it's likely that we will never know the precise number of victims, it's now estimated that roughly five million people were deported to concentration camps and that only very few survived.

Upon their arrival in Auschwitz, only those who were deemed fit enough were used as laborers in the camp. Most people, especially the elderly, sick, women and small children were directly and without prior registration driven into the gas chambers and murdered.

According to the numbers of the Auschwitz museum, approximately 1.1 million people were killed in the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp. Ninety percent of the victims were Jews from Hungary, Poland, Italy, Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Greece, Croatia, Russia, Austria and Germany.

8. The liberation of the imprisoned

Tens of thousands still died during death marches in January 1945 when the SS and security guards cleared the camp and fled towards the west together with inmates and prisoners of war. Relatively few Auschwitz inmates survived.

Surviving Auschwitz inmates are waiting to be liberated in January, 1945
Surviving inmates are waiting to be liberated in January, 1945 Image: picture-alliance/dpa/akg-images

On January 27, 1945, Soviet Red Army soldiers reached the barbed wire fences of the camp. They encountered almost 7,000 emaciated and feeble inmates. Most of the barracks, gas chambers and crematories had already been blown up by the SS in a last-minute attempt to cover up their mass murder. They also burned documents, files and death certificates.

9. The memorial site 

In early 1946, the Soviet occupying forces transferred authority over the former camp to the Polish state. 

An inmate organization initiated the construction of a museum and a memorial site on the former camp. In accordance with a law enforced by the Polish government on July 2, 1947, the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum came into being that year. It includes the Nazi concentration camps Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau as well as a museum.

The site was visited by 170,000 people in the first 12 months. Since the Auschwitz memorial became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979, the number of visitors has risen steadily every year. In 2017, 2.1 million people visited the camps in order to understand how the infamous Nazi death camp functioned.

Polen Ausschwitz Marsch der Lebenden
Every year, a "March of the Living" takes place in Oswiecim, formerly known as AuschwitzImage: Reuters/K. Pempel

10. The last survivors

Every year, January 27 is commemorated as the day of liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1945. A commemoration ceremony also takes place in Germany's parliament.

Since 2005, Holocaust Memorial Day has been commemorated worldwide. Very few contemporary witnesses who survived the horror are still alive.

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