1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Remembering Auschwitz

January 27, 2010

Holocaust Memorial Day commemorates the day on which the Red Army liberated the Auschwitz concentration camp. More than a million people were murdered there before the Soviet troops arrived on January 27, 1945.

A group of children wearing concentration camp uniforms behind barbed wire at Auschwitz
The Nazis killed Jews, Roma, the disabled, homosexuals and others at AuschwitzImage: AP

Today, Auschwitz is a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust and on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The day the camp was liberated by the Soviet army, January 27, 1945, is commemorated as International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Polish soldiers followed by former prisoners of the WWII Nazi Death Camp Auschwitz-Birkenau carry a wreath during commemorations marking the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz Birkenau
Today Auschwitz is a place to remember the horrors of the HolocaustImage: AP

Auschwitz was the name of a network of concentration camps located in the southern part of Nazi-occupied Poland, some 50 kilometers (31 miles) from Krakow, and operated by the Nazi paramilitary organisation, the SS. It was unlike other camps in that it included both concentration camps, in which people lived, and the Birkenau extermination camp, whose sole function was to send people to their deaths. It was the largest of all the Nazi camps, and grew rapidly from its beginnings in 1940 as a prison for Polish intelligentsia to become the symbol of the so-called "Final Solution of the Jewish Question."

Final destination

From across Nazi-controlled Europe Jews, Roma and Sinti, people with physical disabilities, homosexuals and political prisoners were rounded up and sent by train to Auschwitz. They arrived not knowing what awaited them behind the barbed-wire fence surrounding the camp, entering through a gate bearing the cynical motto, "Work will set you free."

The prisoners were quickly divided into those who were fit to work and those who were not. Mothers and their small children, the elderly and the sick were immediately sent to the gas chambers. According to Nazi records, the four crematoriums in the camp could burn more than 4,700 bodies per day.

Those who were spared the gas chambers were employed as slave laborers, often to the point of physical exhaustion or even death. Around the main Auschwitz complex, smaller sub-camps served industrial companies, to which prisoners were "sub-contracted."

Malnourished Auschwitz prisoners shortly after the Nazi concentration camp was liberated by the Russians
The soldiers who freed Auschwitz found 5,000 prisoners starving to deathImage: AP

Conditions in the camp were inhuman. Prisoners were tattooed with identity numbers like animals. There was severe overcrowding: during 1943, around 100,000 people were packed into some 200 wooden barracks. Many died of malnourishment or disease; others were killed for minor transgressions. Some prisoners were used for medical experiments.

Of the more than a million people who were killed in Auschwitz, 90 percent were Jewish. The other groups with large numbers of victims were Sinti and Roma, Poles and Soviet prisoners-of-war.

Liberation by the Soviets

As the Soviet army gained ground and began closing in on Auschwitz, the Nazis evacuated the camp, sending those prisoners who were able to walk on a death march to camps located deeper in the occupied territories.

When the Russian army did liberate Auschwitz, they found some 5,000 prisoners who had been left behind by the Nazis to die. Many of them survived to serve as witnesses to the atrocities committed in the death camp.

Author: Mary Mares
Editor: Michael Lawton

Skip next section Explore more

Explore more

Show more stories