Auschwitz-Birkenau, Poland • January 27, 1945
In the months following the Red Army’s entry into the abandoned Nazi death camp at Majdanek on the outskirts of Lublin, Poland, where more than 79,000 people had been killed, the growing list of liberated camps (the Nazis had over 40 death camps) characterized by mounds of corpses and emaciated survivors revealed the essence of Nazi evil and horror.
At 3 p.m. on this date in 1945, Soviet troops reached Auschwitz-Birkenau (Polish, Oświęcim) outside Cracow (Kraków), the largest and arguably most diabolical and infamous of the Nazi concentration and death camps. There they found 648 corpses and 7,000 survivors—1,200 at the Auschwitz main camp (there were 45 subcamps) and 5,800 at Birkenau. (Most of the people transported to Auschwitz actually never entered the concentration camp, but just crossed it on their way to the Birkenau gas chambers.) In the rush to greet their rescuers, some inmates died on the 13‑ft‑high electric fences that surrounded the camps. More survivors would have been found (estimated at roughly 60,000) had Auschwitz-Birkenau not been hastily evacuated by SS camp guards, who forced-marched inmates to other camps outside the Red Army’s reach. Approximately 15,000 prisoners died on these death marches before the Soviets arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Established in 1940 under Reichsfuehrer-SS Heinrich Himmler and expanded by camp commandant Rudolf Hoess (Höss), Auschwitz originally housed Soviet POWs, but it also processed homosexuals, Roma (Gypsies), Jehovah Witnesses, people with disabilities, and others deemed undesirable, especially Jews, as well as those rounded up under Nacht und Nebel, the Nazis’ “disappearance” campaign. Of the three million Polish Jews killed during the Third Reich, one million were killed at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Toward the end of the war, as many as 10,000 people were gassed daily at the Birkenau complex.
A July 2, 1947, act of the Polish parliament established the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum on the grounds of the two extant parts of the camp, Auschwitz I (the Stammlager, or main camp) and Auschwitz II-Birkenau (the Vernichtungslager, or extermination camp). Today’s date, January 27, is commemorated around the world as International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
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.” Auschwitz-Birkenau was the site where an estimated 1.1 million people, around 90 percent of them Jews, were killed in Birkenau’s gas chambers 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.
Right: Beginning on January 27, 1945, almost 9,000 prisoners in Auschwitz I (main camp), Auschwitz II-Birkenau (extermination camp), and Monowitz-Buna (Monowice, or Auschwitz III), whom the Nazis 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 (1.72 million in 2015) have passed through the iron entrance gate to Auschwitz crowned with the notoriously cynical inscription, ARBEIT MACHT FREI (“Work Sets You Free”). The arched inscription—designed and made by camp inmates—became the central symbol for the prisoners’ ordeal.
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 (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.
Right: Wearing adult-size prisoner jackets, child survivors of Auschwitz 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 fortunate few were reunited with their parents.
Slide Show of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Then and Now. WARNING: Some Scene Are Disturbing