Auschwitz-Birkenau, Occupied Poland · October 30, 1944
On this date in 1944 in Poland, the last murders by poisoned gas took place at the Nazis’ largest and arguably most infamous death camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau (Polish, Oświęcim), one of eight camps used for mass murder during World War II. (Six were in what is today’s Poland, one in Belarus, and one in Croatia, the latter operated by fascist Ustaše forces; see map below.) Established in 1940 under Germany’s Minister of the Interior Heinrich Himmler and expanded by camp commandant SS-Obersturmbannfuehrer (Lt. Col.) Rudolf Hoess (Höss), Auschwitz-Birkenau was the site where an estimated 1.1 million people, around 90 percent of them Jews, were killed in gas chambers (located at Birkenau) or by clubs and hatchets, shootings, hangings (usually during roll-call), disease (both natural [e.g., typhus] and medically inflicted), physical exhaustion, malnutrition, and starvation. After Adolf Hitler had ordered the physical extermination of Europe’s Jews, Himmler selected Hoess’s camp for this purpose owing to its easy access by rail, its proximity to mineral resources, and its relative isolation. Originally Auschwitz housed Soviet POWs, but it also processed those rounded up under Nacht und Nebel, the Nazis’ “disappearance” campaign. Prisoners whose files were marked “return not desired” or “do not transfer” were killed. Camp labor, estimated at over 400,000, was used extensively in quarries, ponds dredging mud and clearing rushes, and on-site factories established by Siemens, Krupp (munitions), and I.G. Farben (synthetic rubber). During his superintendency, Hoess tested and perfected the techniques of mass killing that made Auschwitz the most potent symbol of the Holocaust and certainly the most efficiently murderous instrument of the “Final Solution.” During one 24‑hour period, Hoess calculated he had exterminated 10,000 people. When the camp was liberated by the Soviets on January 27, 1945, only about 7,600 prisoners were present, while roughly 50,000 had been hastily evacuated by the Nazis, many of whom died on the forced march. Hoess, captured by British troops in 1946, was turned over to the Poles, who, after his trial in Warsaw, hanged him adjacent to a crematorium at Auschwitz on April 16, 1947. Hoess had just he finished writing his chilling memoir, Death Dealer.
Concentration-Death Camp Auschwitz-Birkenau, May 1940 to January 1945
Above: Routes to the major death (extermination) camps (signified by hard-to-see skull and crossbones in black box) in Germany, Poland, Belarus, and Croatia. The estimated total number of people killed in the camps is over three million: Auschwitz-Birkenau (Poland), 1,100,000; Bełżec (Poland), 600,000; Chełmno (Poland), 320,000; Majdanek (Poland), 360,000; Sobibór (Poland), 250,000; Treblinka (Poland), 700,000–800,000; Maly Trostenets (Belarus), 65,000; and Jasenovac (Croatia), 85,000–600,000.
Left: Photo of Birkenau (the extermination camp at Auschwitz) following the camp’s liberation on January 27, 1945. In the foreground is the unloading ramp (the so-called Judenrampe) and in the distance Birkenau’s main gate called the “Gate of Death.”
Right: Beginning on January 27, 1945, almost 9,000 prisoners in Auschwitz I (the Stammlager, or main camp), Auschwitz II-Birkenau (the extermination camp), and Monowitz-Buna (Monowice, or Auschwitz III), judged unfit to join the SS forced evacuation march, were liberated by Soviet troops, a day commemorated around the world as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Over 230 Soviet soldiers died while liberating the camps, subcamps, and the nearby city of Oświęcim. In 1947, Poland founded a museum on the site of Auschwitz I and II. Millions of visitors (1.4 million in 2012) have passed through the iron entrance gates to Auschwitz crowned with the notorious motto, ARBEIT MACHT FREI (“Work Sets You Free”).
Left: Hungarian Jews on the Judenrampe (Jewish ramp) after disembarking from transport trains. Being directed rechts! (to the right) meant camp labor. Sent links! (to the left) meant the gas chambers at Birkenau.
Right: Hungarian Jewish mothers, children, elderly, and infirm sent links (to the left) after “selection,” May 1944. They would be murdered in gas chambers soon thereafter.
Left: Survivors at the camp liberated by the Red Army in January 1945. Army medics and orderlies gave the first organized help to survivors. Two Soviet field hospitals soon arrived and began caring for more than 4,500 ex-prisoners from more than 20 countries, most of them Jews. Numerous Polish volunteers from Oświęcim and the vicinity, as well as other parts of the country, also arrived to help. Most of the volunteers belonged to the Polish Red Cross. Liberated prisoners who were in relatively good physical condition left Auschwitz immediately. Most of the patients in the hospital did the same within three to four months.
Left: Child survivors of Auschwitz, wearing adult-size prisoner jackets, stand behind a barbed wire fence on the day of their liberation by the Red Army. The majority of the liberated child prisoners left Auschwitz in separate groups in February and March 1945, with most of them going to charitable institutions or children’s homes. Only a few were ever reunited with their parents.
The Auschwitz Album, 1944, the Only Surviving Visual Evidence of the Process of Mass Murder at Auschwitz-Birkenau