Auschwitz′s harrowing history | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 27.01.2020
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Culture

Auschwitz's harrowing history

Holocaust Remembrance Day commemorates Nazi crimes worldwide. On January 27, 1945, the Soviet army liberated the prisoners in Auschwitz. What they found was unfathomable.

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Conserving the memory of the horrors of Auschwitz

Over 25 million people have visited the memorial site at the former Auschwitz concentration camp in southern Poland since its opening in 1947. Now, every year, the site welcomes more than 2 million visitors from all over the world.

Located about 50 kilometers (30 miles) west of Krakow, at the gates of the small town of Oswiecim, the former Nazi concentration camp complex occupied a huge area up until 1945. Today there is a state museum and memorial on the site.

In addition to the Nazis' central extermination camp, the complex consisted of three main camps and sub- and external camps of different sizes. It was an industrial killing machine of unimaginable proportions. The Memorial and Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau that can be visited today covers 191 hectares (472 acres).

A woman holds a flower on August 2, 2014 during the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the the Roma Genocide in Auschwitz II-Birkenau, former Nazi concentration camp in Oswiecim (Getty Images/B.Siedlik)

Remembering the mass killings remains our responsibility for the future

Here are a few historical facts and figures related to the term "Auschwitz":

1. The town of Oswiecim (Auschwitz)

Long before the name became known through the German concentration camp, Auschwitz (Polish: Oświęcim) was a small town with an eventful history.

The town's name, Oswiecim, was first mentioned around 1200. In 1348 it was incorporated into the Holy Roman Empire, and German became the official language.

At times it belonged to Austrian territory; at other times, the Duchy of Auschwitz was part of the Kingdom of Bohemia or of the Kingdom of Prussia — and was later once again returned to the Kingdom of Poland. And after World War I, it was part of the newly established Polish state.

After the town was connected to the railways in 1900, Oswiecim's economy developed quickly. Accommodation was needed for the many seasonal and migrant workers in the surrounding industrial areas of Upper Silesia and Bohemia. They were housed in newly built brick houses and wooden barracks. The buildings were later to form the basis of the Auschwitz National Socialist concentration camp.

Shortly after the beginning of World War II in September 1939, Oswiecim was conquered by the German Wehrmacht and annexed by the German Empire. In 1940, under the leadership of Heinrich Himmler, the SS was able to quickly and without much construction work convert the camp area into a concentration camp, the Auschwitz I main camp. The vast area of the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp (Auschwitz II), known through historical aerial photographs of the US Air Force and the UK's Royal Air Force, was a later addition.

2. The Jewish population

Before the Second World War, about half of Oswiecim's 14,000 inhabitants were Jewish. The Jewish community had grown considerably due to immigration; the number of ethnic Germans in the town was very small. This changed abruptly after the attack by Hitler's Wehrmacht on Poland on September 1, 1939 and the military occupation of the country.

The Nazis' racial "cleansing" policy had the Jewish population displaced to make way for resettled Germans. The remaining Polish Jews initially lived cramped together and isolated from the rest of the population in the old town of Oświęcim. From 1940 onward, many were forced to work as slave laborers for the SS, in what was to become the concentration camp.

3. The strategic hub

The town of Oswiecim happened to be located at a strategically important site for the Nazis, as its railway station was at the junction of lines from Prague, Vienna, Berlin, Warsaw and the northern industrial areas of Silesia — perfect conditions for mass transports of people from the so-called "Altreich," or Germany's territory within the borders of 1937, as planned by the SS and the authorities of the Reich Main Security Office in Berlin.

An overview of the Auschwitz concentration camp complex

An overview of the vast concentration camp complex

SS Lieutenant Colonel Adolf Eichmannwas put in charge of deportations of people into camps in these eastern regions. He had prepared the files for the fateful "Wannsee Conference" held on January 20, 1942. High-ranking SS and Nazi party officials met at the Wannsee villa for a meeting initiated by the chief of the Reich Main Security Office, Reinhard Heydrich. After only 90 minutes, they had determined their murderous plan for a "final solution to the European Jewish question." All the countries from which Jews should be deported by train were listed in the minutes of the meeting.

4. The concentration camp system

Following Dachau, Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald, Flossenbürg, Mauthausen and the women's camp of Ravensbrück, Auschwitz was the seventh concentration camp to be gradually established by the Nazis — and by far the largest one. The site on the outskirts of the small Polish town of Oświęcim was planned as a location for camps of different sizes. In addition to the main camp (Auschwitz I), and the huge extermination camp of Birkenau (Auschwitz II), where the crematoriums were located, there were smaller external camps as well as the Buna and Monowitz labor camps (Auschwitz III).

In line with decisions taken at the Wannsee Conference, Auschwitz was turned into a systematic death factory of unimaginable proportions in the spring of 1942. As the SS commandant of the Auschwitz concentration and extermination camp, Rudolf Höss managed the guards and the entire administration of the camp and was responsible for the technical execution of the mass murders, up until his replacement in November 1943.

Zyklon B from Auschwitz Memorial (DW)

A powerful weapon: A single can of Zyklon B was enough to kill more than 1,000 people

5. The SS influence zone

By the spring of 1942, 2,000 SS security guards were already employed in Auschwitz. Initially only German citizens of the empire worked at the concentration camp, but later, "Volksdeutsche" — citizens from other countries — were also among the staff.

By the end of summer in 1944, more than 4,000 SS members served in Auschwitz. This also included camp guards, typists or nurses who were employed by the SS and did not wear badges of rank.

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.

6. The death factory

In the spring of 1943, additional ovens were put into operation in the expanded complex of Auschwitz-Birkenau. The SS tested their functionality on a group of transported prisoners: After their agonizing death in a gas chamber filled with Zyklon B, the bodies of 1,100 men, women and children were burned, and their ashes dispersed in surrounding lakes — just as the remains of other murdered concentration camp prisoners and deportees would be.

Auschwitz pond (picture-alliance/dpa/F. Schumann)

This pond contained the ashes of tens of thousands of murdered people

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-track railroad ramp was built in Birkenau with the aim of speeding up the selection of deportees at their arrival. It can still be seen at the memorial site today. More than two-thirds of the new arrivals were not registered as prisoners and were sent to the gas chambers and to their deaths immediately upon arrival.

The last transports of Jews from all over Europe arrived in Auschwitz in the late autumn of 1944. Among the deportees from the occupied Netherlands was 15-year-old Anne Frank. Her diaries, which were preserved by chance, serve as a lasting document of the persecution of Jews by the Nazis.

7. The number of victims

Calculations of the number of the Holocaust victims who died at Auschwitz still vary, as new details are still coming to light every year through historical and family archives.

While it's likely that we will never know the precise number of victims, it's now estimated that over 5 million people were deported to Nazi concentration camps. Only very few survived.

Arrival of Hungarian Jews in Auschwitz-Birkenau (picture-alliance/dpa/Mary Evans Picture Library)

The infamous 'Judenrampe,' the platform where convoys of Jews arrived and where prisoners were selected

The names of over 60% of the 400,000 prisoners registered in the former Nazi German death camp Auschwitz have been established, according to a research project commissioned by the Auschwitz Memorial that was published in December 2019.

Not included in the database are the over 900,000 Jews deported in mass transports from European territories occupied by Germany, who were murdered in gas chambers immediately after arriving at the camp without being registered. Their identity could nevertheless be determined through meticulously kept deportation lists.

Upon their arrival in Auschwitz-Birkenau, the only ones to be registered were those with a tattooed prisoner number, those who were deemed fit enough to be used as laborers in the camp on the selection platform, the so-called "Judenrampe." Most people, especially the elderly, sick, women and small children, were directly and without prior registration forced into the gas chambers and murdered.

According to the numbers of the Auschwitz Memorial, more than 1.1 million people were killed at the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp. Ninety percent of the victims were Jews — mainly from Hungary, Poland, Italy, Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Greece, Croatia, the Soviet Union, Austria and Germany. Other targeted victims of Nazi killings included Sinti and Roma, homosexuals, Catholics, Jehovah's Witnesses and the disabled, as well as political opponents.

8. The liberation of the imprisoned

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, with 500 children among them. Most of them couldn't even stand up, lying motionless on the ground.

They had been too weak for the death marches through which SS guards had driven tens of thousands towards the West in the freezing cold.

The SS had cleared the camp at the end of January in a last-minute attempt to cover up their mass murder. They had also burned documents, files and death certificates. Only a few documents and photos were preserved. Most of the barracks, gas chambers and crematories had been blown up as well.

Most of the emaciated prisoners on the death marches were wearing only the thin cotton clothes of the concentration camp and hardly any of them had shoes on. Nearly every fourth prisoner on those death marches died — either from starvation, freezing to death, or being shot.

Some surviving Auschwitz prisoners when the concentration camp was liberated at the end of January 1945 by Soviet troops (picture-alliance/dpa/akg-images)

Some surviving Auschwitz prisoners when the concentration camp was liberated at the end of January 1945 by Soviet troops

9. The Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial site

In early 1946, the Soviet occupying forces transferred authority over the former camp to the Polish state. Based on an initiative of former prisoners and a decision by the Polish government, the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum was founded in 1947 as a memorial.

The memorial site includes the preserved facilities, buildings and barracks of the main Nazi concentration camp (Auschwitz I) and the almost-empty site of the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp (Auschwitz II), as well as the current museum area. The first exhibition was created in collaboration with the Israel's World Holocaust Remembrance Center, Yad Vashem.

The memorial site was visited by 170,000 people in the first year of its existence. In 2018-2019, more than 2 million visitors a year came to the site of Holocaust remembrance, with many school groups among them. The Auschwitz memorial was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. 

March of the Living 2018 (Reuters/K. Pempel)

The 'March of the Living' is held every year at Auschwitz. Left: Holocaust survivor Edward Mosberg

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 on that day.

In past years, German presidents, European politicians as well as Jewish Holocaust survivors, including Ruth Klüger and Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, as well as prominent Jewish writers and historians, such as Marcel Reich-Ranicki and Saul Friedländer, have given emotional speeches to mark the occasion.

International Holocaust Remembrance Day has been held worldwide since 2005.

Today, there are very few remaining Auschwitz concentration camp survivors. During the annual "March of the Living," they walk hand in hand with young people from all over the world from the former concentration camp Auschwitz to Birkenau. Soon, it will be up to the following generations — and not only those of Jewish families — to keep carrying the remembrance on their own.

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