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, Soviet troops reached Auschwitz-Bir­ke­nau (Polish, Oświęcim) outside 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 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‑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 such as Bergen-Belsen, Dachau, and Sachsen­hausen. 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 75th 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. (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.

Main entrance "Gate of Death" to Auschwitz-Birkenau Auschwitz: 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 (2.15 mil­lion in 2018) 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.

Judenrampe (Jewish ramp) at Auschwitz 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 survivors at time of liberation, January 1945 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