Auschwitz, German-Occupied Poland June 14, 1940

On this date in German-occupied Poland 728 male polit­ical pri­soners, Catho­lic priests, and Jews left Tarnów’s train station for Auschwitz con­cen­tra­tion camp (Konzen­tra­tions­lager Auschwitz), 80 miles away. It was the first mass trans­port of pri­soners to Auschwitz (Polish name, Oświę­cim) since the camp was opened for busi­ness on April 27, 1940, by order of Reichs­fuehrer-SS Heinrich Himm­ler. Run by Himm­ler’s para­mili­tary Schutz­staffel SS-Toten­kopf Divi­sion (SS Death’s Head Divi­sion), the Auschwitz Stamm­lager (main camp) in March 1941 held 10,900 in­mates, most of them Poles. Not until some­time in Febru­ary 1942, but most defi­nitely by spring of that year when the first three ovens in Cre­ma­to­ri­um I became oper­a­tional, did freight trains begin deliv­ering Jewish fami­lies from all over German-occupied Europe to what became known as Auschwitz I. In July 1942 mass killings shifted to a second, soon to be largest Auschwitz facil­ity, Bir­kenau (Auschwitz II), where even­tu­ally four cre­ma­to­ria came on­line. Several months earlier, in March 1942, con­struc­tion got under­way on a third camp slightly over 6 miles from Auschwitz I—this at Auschwitz III-Mono­witz after the Reich Ministry of Economy (Reichs­wirt­schafts­minis­terium) started offering tax exemp­tions to corpo­ra­tions that were willing to develop indus­trial enterprises on the Reich’s eastern frontier.

One of the first corporations to embrace the govern­ment offer was IG Farben­indus­trie AG, an affil­i­ated group of chem­i­cal and phar­ma­ceu­tical manu­fac­turers (BASF, Bayer, Hoechst, et al.). Among seve­ral sites IG Farben con­sidered in Decem­ber 1940–Janu­ary 1941 was the area between Oświę­cim and the Polish vil­lages of Dwory and Mono­wice (German, Mono­witz) in Upper Silesia. This was terri­tory that Germany had annexed shortly after the coun­try had invaded Poland, the act that ignited World War II in Europe. The deci­sion of IG Farben’s board of direc­tors was justi­fied by the area’s favor­able geo­logi­cal con­di­tions (the avail­abil­ity of raw mate­rials like coal, lime­stone, and salt), plenti­ful water supply, and access to rail­road lines. The near-cer­tain­ty of employing pri­soners as cheap labor from the Auschwitz Stamm­lager was likely deci­sive in choosing the plant site. Plus, the site was prac­ti­cally a steal in that it was seized with­out com­pen­sa­ting their owners. Vacated homes not demol­ished in clearing the campus were sold to the com­pany as housing for employees or set aside for mem­bers of the SS gar­ri­son. IG Farben exec­u­tive board mem­ber Otto Ambros, the firm’s expert on both Buna (IG Farben’s brand name for syn­the­tic rubber) and poi­son gas (brand name Zyk­lon B made by an IG Farben sub­sid­i­ary), was delighted with the easy working rela­tion­ship between company and Auschwitz autho­ri­ties: “Our new friendship with the SS is very fruitful.”

In late October 1942 IG Farben’s company-owned forced labor camp opened on plant grounds on the site of the former Polish village of Mono­wice. The first 2,100 SS pri­soners arrived in Octo­ber and Novem­ber from Buchen­wald, Sach­sen­hausen, and Dachau con­cen­tra­tion camps, as well as from camps in the Nether­lands. Over the next 27 or so months, IG Farben requi­si­tioned thou­sands upon thou­sands of volun­tary (mainly foreign) and forced laborers (com­pelled against their will) and slave laborers from Reich labor deploy­ment autho­ri­ties as well as from the pool of pri­son in­mates at Auschwitz I. Most laborers con­signed to Auschwitz III-Mono­witz (aka Buna-Mono­witz), around 25,000 to 30,000, suc­cumbed to the effects of over-crowded housing, inade­quate clothing (espe­cially in winter) and food (both neces­si­ties supplied by the SS except for a hot, watery “Buna soup” at noon), dis­ease, ill-treat­ment, exhaus­tion, and 56‑hour work weeks. Or they were shot at the Buna-Werke con­struc­tion site or hanged at the labor camp. Over 10,000 fell victim to camp “selec­tions,” killed by a lethal injec­tion of phenol to the heart in the camp hos­pi­tal or dis­patched to Auschwitz II-Bir­ke­nau’s Zyk­lon B gas cham­bers. In late 1944, on the eve of the Auschwitz com­plex’s liber­a­tion by Soviet sol­diers, more than 10,000 workers, pri­marily Jews, were incarcerated by IG Farben at Auschwitz III-Monowitz.

Life in the Shadow of Extermination: IG Farben at Auschwitz III-Monowitz, 1942–1945

IG Farben: Hoess, Himmler, Faust, Buna Werke, July 18, 1942IG Farben: Industrial complex at Auschwitz III-Monowitz

Left: Walking the construction site of IG Farben’s Buna-Werke (Buna Works) syn­thetic rubber and liquid fuel plant is Reichs­fuehrer‑SS Heinrich Himm­ler (first row, middle), flanked on his right by Auschwitz com­man­dant Rudolf Hoess and on his left, in civil­ian clothes, by IG Farben engi­neer Maxi­milian Faust, on-site repre­sen­tative for plant manager Otto Ambros. Photo taken July 18, 1942, on the second day of Himm­ler’s visit. Faust person­ally explained to Himm­ler the prog­ress of con­struc­tion and what the plant’s prin­ci­pal deliver­ables to the Wehr­macht were: Buna (syn­thetic) rubber of course, poison gas, and explo­sives. Sharing the Auschwitz-Mono­witz loca­tion were over 40 firms. For example, the elec­tri­cal engi­neering com­pany Siemens-Schuc­kert had a slave labor camp known as Bobrek con­cen­tra­tion camp near its fac­tory. Bobrek held approx­i­mately 250–300 pri­soners, among them 50 women, who pro­duced elec­tri­cal parts for air­craft and U‑boats. Krupp, the giant West German arma­ments maker, built an auto­matic wea­pons parts plant near Mono­witz with the inten­tion of using 550–600 Auschwitz in­mates as laborers to manu­fac­ture shell casings and to supply fuses, anti-aircraft can­nons, and howit­zers to the Wehr­macht. The SS oblig­ingly relo­cated 500 skilled Jewish workers to Auschwitz for Krupp’s proposed fuse-production facility.

Right: IG Farben’s industrial complex at Auschwitz III-Mono­witz was slated to become the biggest chem­i­cal plant in East­ern Europe. The engi­neering and pro­duc­tion facil­i­ties were planned so that they could pro­duce syn­the­tic rubber and motor fuels in peace­time. Resi­den­tial barracks grouped into 10 lager (camps) were located across the road from the fenced-in Buna-Werke plant. Workers were escorted to and from the plant by SS guards. Those not amen­able to SS-type disci­pline at the factory-owned labor camp or the Buna-Werke plant, where they were over­seen by IG Farben police, super­visors, and 200‑plus con­struc­tion contrac­tors, were sent back to the main Auschwitz concen­tra­tion camp or, as was more often the case, to Bir­kenau for exter­mi­n­ation. To the Wehr­macht’s mis­for­tune, in the same month, Janu­ary 1945, the Buna-Werke plant was com­pleted, it was over­run by units of the Red Army (Janu­ary 27, 1945). Buna-Werke was never able to deli­ver its primary product—synthetic rubber.

IG Farben: Ukrainian forced laborer at the lathe, Auschwitz III-MonowitzIG Farben: Roadworks crew of forced laborers, probably at Auschwitz III-Monowitz

Left: The great mass of IG Farben labor was simply unfree. If workers attempted to leave or escape their place of employment—even those acquired by way of tem­po­rary man­power ser­vices, recruit­ment by third-party firms, or indi­vid­ual recruit­ment—they were sub­ject to arrest and intern­ment by Himmler’s SS Sicher­heits­polizei (security police, or “SiPo”) in Germany, their home coun­tries, or German-occupied terri­tories. Among the foreign workers (Fremd­arbeiter), only the Poles were explic­itly labeled forced laborers (Zwangs­arbeiter). This was an arbi­trary usage, because many facto­ries made use of over 3 million “Ost­arbeiter” (“East­ern workers”), most of whom were young people drafted by force in occu­pied terri­tories of the Soviet Union, as we see in this 1941 photo of a Ukrai­nian lathe oper­a­tor at the IG Farben plant in Auschwitz III-Monowitz. Sep­a­rate IG Farben barracks were main­tained for Germans drafted for “ser­vice duty” and for each of the even less free cate­gories of drafted foreign workers (e.g., males ensnared by Vichy France’s Ser­vice du tra­vail obli­gatoire, or STO), pri­soners of war, and Eas­tern Euro­pean forced laborers, as well as for forced laborers taken from the SS con­cen­tra­tion camp system. By February 1943 IG Farben’s sprawling resi­den­tial camp system of 10 lager (e.g., one for Jews, one for German civil­ians, one for forced laborers from the Soviet Union, one for young male appren­tices, one for girls from the Bund Deutscher Maedels) had been expanded to hold 108,593 places for 70,543 Fremd­arbeiter, 19,958 Germans, 14,156 POWs, 2,195 German military prisoners, and 1,741 other workers.

Right: A roadworks crew of forced laborers, probably at Auschwitz III-Mono­witz, worked a 56‑hour work week as did other kinds of IG Farben workers. The odds of sur­viving employ­ment at IG Farben’s plants and sub­sid­i­aries varied, but over­all about one-third of all forced laborers used by the con­cern did not sur­vive. One esti­mate is that between 23,000 and 25,000 pri­soners were either killed by the autho­ri­ties or died from hun­ger, dis­ease, or exhaus­tion at the Auschwitz III-Mono­witz labor camp, the Buna-Werke con­struc­tion site, and out­lying mines. (Life expec­tancy for mine workers was one month.) The total num­ber of dead at IG Farben’s approx­i­mately 100 con­struc­tion and pro­duc­tion sites in Germany and German-occupied Europe ranges from 31,500 to 33,500, with the high point in fall 1944.

Auschwitz III-Monowitz and IG Farben, a Film Narrated by Dr. Tomasz Cebulski, August 2020