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.

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

Nazi death camp routes to Central Europe

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.

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.” 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, sub-camps, 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 notoriously cynical motto, ARBEIT MACHT FREI (“Work Sets You Free”). The entrance gate with its three words became the central symbol for the prisoners’ ordeal.

Judenrampe (Jewish ramp) at AuschwitzHungarian Jews sent to gas chambers

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.

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

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