In 1939, on the morning of September 1, the Third Reich began their assault on the nation of Poland. The invasion was, in effect, the first strike of World War II, for two days later, France and Britain declared war on Germany in response. They were unable to stop the German army and air force, however, and even less able to stop the Soviet forces that came to Germany's aid from the east on September 17. By October 6, Poland had been completely overtaken, and the USSR and Germany divided the country in two, with Germany taking the western half.

In 1940, the Third Reich faced a problem. Mass arrests of Poles were overrunning the prisons located throughout the country, and a solution was needed to contain them. It was for this reason that Konzentrationslager Auschwitz (Auschwitz concentration camp) was established in the suburbs of the Polish city of Oswiecim. Oswiecim was located about 60 kilometers west of Krakow and near the geographic center of Germany's expanding empire, with several roads and trains nearby for transportation, an ideal location for its purpose.

Local residents in and near Oswiecim were forcibly evicted and their homes occupied or demolished as needed. Polish prisoners sent to Auschwitz took part in its construction as slave laborers. Buildings were torn down, barracks were built, gates and barbed wire were erected. It was a work camp, and the prisoners were expected to work.

In 1941, Adolf Hitler's "Final Solution" against the Jews was in effect and Auschwitz was being expanded. The nearby village of Brzezinka, three kilometers from Oswiecim, was evicted and renamed Birkenau, also known as "Auschwitz II" or "Auschwitz-Birkenau" as the original camp became "Auschwitz I".

It was in Auschwitz I that another solution to the crowding was developed: the gas chamber. Germany declared war on the USSR in June, and Russian prisoners were being added to the Polish ones at Auschwitz. These new prisoners were ordered to be "liquidated", unlike the Poles who were used for labor. They were executed by shooting at the "Death Wall", an effective but slow means of eliminating them.

An insecticide called Zyklon B, which had been used to control lice and other pests on the prisoners, became their new technique beginning in September of that year. In the first experiment, around five hundred Russians and half as many sick Poles were crowded into a single underground detention cell. The windows were buried and Nazi men wearing gas masks entered the room with canisters of small blue pellets--Zyklon B. The men left, the doors were sealed, and the pellets' poisonous hydrocyanic acid gas did its work. Even by the next day not all the prisoners had died yet, so a second dose of the insecticide was used.

The experiment was reported as a success, and the Reich contracted a German firm to construct four larger, permanent gas chambers in Auschwitz-Birkenau, as well as crematoria to burn the corpses afterwards. According to official Reich documents, these four crematoria could dispose of over four thousand bodies per day.

In 1942, the Reich constructed the first of what would become over forty sub-camps surrounding Auschwitz. The largest of them was on the grounds of the Polish town of Buna, six kilometers from Auschwitz I.

In March, it was decreed that the minimum working day in all Nazi concentration camps would be eleven hours. This, in addition to the starvation diet already apportioned to prisoners (seventeen hundred calories for hard-labor prisoners, thirteen hundred for others) and the disease-ridden living conditions in the crowded barracks, killed around half of all prisoners before they could be executed.

In December, Heinrich Himmler decreed that Gypsies--who were German, and Aryan, but failed to live up to the Nazi ideal of the Aryan race--imprisoned by the Reich were to be sent to Auschwitz for extermination as well. Thirty thousand Gypsies were expelled to Poland under orders from Berlin beginning almost three years earlier; Himmler ordered almost all of them to the concentration camps to be gassed and burned.

In 1943, the Buna sub-camp was renamed Monowitz and became "Auschwitz III", which also served as the administration center for many of the other sub-camps. There a commandant named Rudolf Höss was promoted to chief of the Central Administration for Camps.

By this year the "Final Solution" was well underway; it is estimated that about eighty percent of the Jews who vanished in the Holocaust were already dead.

In 1944, Auschwitz-Birkenau held over ninety thousand prisoners. By August Auschwitz's crematoria were burning twenty-four thousand corpses per day, and still this was not enough. To dispose of the prisoners, large pits were dug within the camp and bodies were burned in them; grooves were dug to allow human fat to drain off, which was then recollected and poured atop the new bodies to encourage them to burn.

In this manner, between two and five hundred thousand Gypsies and at least a million Jews were executed by the end of 1944 in the Auschwitz camps alone. But the Soviet army was fast approaching German-occupied Poland, and the decision was made at Auschwitz to destroy the camps and all evidence of what had gone on there.

In 1945, mid-January, the order was given to evacuate the camps. Fifty-six thousand prisoners were marched out of Auschwitz and its sub-camps to Prudnik, some sixty kilometers to the west. Many of them died during this "Death March". Only a few thousand prisoners who couldn't march remained behind, to be liberated by the Soviets on January 27.

In 1947, the restored parliament of Poland declared that the grounds of Auschwitz I and II would be used to create a new Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, which preserved many of the ruins as they were found by the Soviet army two years earlier. The first exhibition was opened in the former camp blocks of Auschwitz I to present the history of what had happened there. No exhibits were ever opened in Auschwitz-Birkenau; to this day that site remains much as it was, a memorial and cemetery for the millions who died there.

Primary Sources:
The Nizkor Project, "Holocaust: A Layman's Guide to Auschwitz-Birkenau",
Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum,

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