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, January 27, 1945, 79 years ago, Soviet troops reached Auschwitz-Bir­ke­nau (Polish, Oświęcim), 40 miles/­64 km west of Cra­cow (Kra­ków) in South­ern Poland, 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, the larger of the two camps less than 2 miles/­3.2 km away. (Most of the people trans­ported to Auschwitz actually never entered the main 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‑foot/­4‑meter‑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 such as Bergen-Belsen (33 miles/­53 km north­east of Hann­over), Dachau (10 miles/­16 km north­west of Munich), and Sachsen­hausen (21 miles/­34 km north of Berlin). Approx­i­mately 15,000 pri­soners died on these death marches before the Soviets arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Established under Reichs­fuehrer-SS Heinrich Himmler in 1940 at an aban­doned Polish milit­ary base 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, over one million were killed at Auschwitz-Birkenau, a figure repre­senting 75 per­cent of the nearly 1.3 mil­lion people impri­soned at Auschwitz between 1940 and 1945. 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, the 79th anniversary of Auschwitz’s lib­er­a­tion, is com­mem­orated around the world as International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

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), esti­mated 1,100,000; Bełżec (Poland), 430,000–500,000; Chełmno/Kulmhof (Poland), 152,000–340,000; Majdanek (Poland), esti­mated 78,000; Sobibór (Poland), 250,000–350,000; Treblinka (Poland), 700,000–900,000; Maly Trostenets (Belarus), 60,000–65,000; and Jasenovac (Croatia), 85,000–600,000. Of the camps listed here, Bełżec, Sobibór, and Tre­blinka were the dead­li­est, even more so than Auschwitz-Birkenau, because the three were true exter­mi­na­tion camps. They were set up under the secre­tive Oper­ation Rein­hard (Octo­ber 1941 to Novem­ber 1943), the most lethal phase of the so-called Final Solution to the Jewish Question (German, die End­loesung der Juden­frage), which was set in motion at the January 1942 Wannsee Conference outside Berlin that resulted in the murder of 90 per­cent of Poland’s Jews and two thirds of Europe’s Jewish popu­la­tion during the Holo­caust, or Shoah, which in Hebrew means catas­trophe. (Twenty-five percent of the Holo­caust’s victims were killed in just 3 months during Oper­ation Rein­hard.) Unlike Auschwitz-Birkienau and Majdanek, which oper­ated as forced-labor camps ini­ti­ally before they became death camps fitted with cre­ma­toria, Bełżec, Sobibór, and Treblinka kept no pri­soners except as a means of furthering the camps’ sole pur­pose of indus­trial-scale murder. Most camp prisoners were killed immediately on arrival.

Auschwitz-Birkenau Death Camp: Main entrance "Gate of Death" to Auschwitz-BirkenauAuschwitz-Birkenau Death Camp: Infamous "ARBEIT MACHT FREI" inscription

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 (2.3 mil­lion in 2019) 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.

Auschwitz-Birkenau Death Camp: "Judenrampe" (Jewish ramp) at AuschwitzAuschwitz-Birkenau Death Camp: Hungarian Jews sent to Birkenau’s gas chambers

Left: Hungarian Jews on the Judenrampe (Jewish ramp) after disem­barking from window­less trans­port trains at Auschwitz. Tens of thou­sands of Hun­garian Jews arrived every day. In the space of just two months, between May and July 1944, Hun­gary trans­ported 420,000 Jews to Auschwitz, three quarters of them killed on arrival. Being directed rechts! (to the right) by camp author­ities meant slave 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” at Auschwitz, May 1944. Very soon they would be stripped of their clothing, herded into large shower rooms osten­si­bly for delousing, and killed using powerful Zyklon-B gas pellets in the sealed chambers, thereby becoming part of the nearly one million Jews, out of at least 1.1 mil­lion victims, the Nazis systematically murdered at Auschwitz.

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

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.

Well-Done Narrated Tour of Auschwitz-Birkenau by a Visitor, June 9, 2016