Auschwitz-Birkenau, Occupied Poland October 30, 1944

On this date in 1944 in Poland, the last murders by poison 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 Poland, one in Belarus, and one in Croatia, the latter operated by fascist Ustaše forces.) 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—das juedische “Para­siten­tum, (English, Jewish para­sitic popu­la­tion) as the Nazis referred to Jews—Himm­ler selected Hoess’s forced labor camp as a killing center owing to its easy access by rail, its proxi­mity to mineral resources, and its rela­tive iso­la­tion in the south­western Polish area annexed by the Reich in October 1939, becoming a part of Germany’s Upper Silesia Pro­vince (Ostoberschlesien). 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 IG 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. Victims were driven into the gas cham­bers with their arms raised above their heads to accom­modate more; in the ovens children were stacked one on top of the other several layers high for the same reason. 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 POWs died on the forced march from Auschwitz. Hoess, cap­tured by British troops in 1946, was turned over to the Poles, who, after his trial in Warsaw, hanged him adja­cent to one of Auschwitz’s cre­ma­toria on April 16, 1947. Hoess had just he finished writing his chilling memoir, Death Dealer, first published in German in 1956. A debate con­tinues to rage over why the Allies did not act more swiftly to put Auschwitz-Birkenau and other Nazi death camps out of existence (see below).

Concentration-Death Camp Auschwitz-Birkenau, May 1940 to January 1945

Recon photo Auschwitz-Birkenau, June 26, 1944

Above: The Auschwitz-Birkenau complex as photo­graphed on June 26, 1944, from an alti­tude of 30,000. The first aerial recon­nais­sance photo­graphs of Auschwitz I (main camp) and Auschwitz II (Birkenau exter­mi­na­tion camp with its gas cham­bers and cre­ma­to­ria) were taken on April 4, 1944, by a Photo Recon Squadron of the South African Air Force. The pilot flew out of Foggia, an air base north­east of Naples, Italy, orig­i­nally to photo­graph the IG Farben war pro­duc­tion factory at Mono­witz (Auschwitz III) and other war pro­duc­tion and mili­tary facili­ties in the area. The South African Photo Recon Squadron photo­graphed the factory and parts of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp com­plex, including the crema­toria, on May 31, June 26, August 25, and Septem­ber 8, 1944. The May 31 photo material was shared with the U.S. Fifteenth Air Force, which struck the IG Farben factory on August 20 and Septem­ber 13 and a mili­tary hospi­tal on Decem­ber 26, 1944. The 5th Photo­graphic Recon­nais­sance Group of the Fifteenth Air Force, operating from Bari, Southern Italy, flew over the Auschwitz area on Novem­ber 29, Decem­ber 21, and finally on Janu­ary 14, 1945—only two weeks before the libera­tion of the camp by the Soviet Army. A debate con­tinues to this day over why Auschwitz-Birkenau or, at a mini­mum, the rail­road tracks leading to the complex were not bombed by the Allies, who were alerted by camp escapees as early as 1942 to the industrial-scale murders and mas­sive suffering taking place there. Troubling is that high-ranking mili­tary leaders never knew of the exis­tence of the Auschwitz-Birkenau aerial recon­nais­sance photos. One argu­ment against acting on the then evidence focuses on the technical diffi­culty, risk, and danger to the camp occu­pants inher­ent in even preci­sion bombing Auschwitz-Birkenau. A U.S. bombing opera­tion against a factory adja­cent to the Buchen­wald concen­tra­tion camp near Weimar, Germany, on August 24, 1944, was a dis­aster, killing 315 pri­soners and wounding over 1,400. An attack on Auschwitz-Birkenau using a margin of error similar to that of the Buchen­wald calam­ity might have cost 2,000–3,000 lives. Expressing sym­pathy for the idea of bombing Auschwitz, the air force stuck with bombing mili­tary targets even in the face of evi­dence that the Germans were increasing their exter­mi­na­tion acti­vi­ties, espe­cially against Hun­ga­rian Jews, when gas chambers and cre­ma­toria ran 24/7. Smashing rail lines between Hun­gary and Auschwitz for even one day could conceivably have saved 10,000 Hungarian Jews from death that day.

Main entrance "Gate of Death" to Auschwitz-BirkenauInfamous ARBEIT MACHT FREI message

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 (2,320,000 in 2019) have passed through the iron entrance gate to Auschwitz crowned with the notorious sign ARBEIT MACHT FREI (“Work Sets You Free”). A cast made from the original sign can be seen at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. The Nazis placed the ARBEIT MACHT FREI slogan over or on a number of camp entrance gates, including gates at Sachsenhausen (north of Berlin), Dachau (north of Munich), and Theresienstadt (Czech Republic).

Judenrampe (Jewish ramp) at Auschwitz, May 1944Hungarian Jews sent to Birkenau gas chambers, May 1944

Left: Hungarian Jews on the Judenrampe (Jewish ramp) after dis­em­barking from trans­port trains, May 1944. Being directed links! (to the left) meant the gas cham­bers at Birke­nau. Sent rechts! (to the right)—as was the fate of between 20 and 40 per­cent of the arrivals—meant labor camp.

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.

Auschwitz-Birkenau survivors at time of liberation, January 1945Child survivors of Auschwitz-Birkenau

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: 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