Visit Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial & Museum
Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial & Museum is the former Nazi concentration and extermination camp. It was intended to carry out Hitler's Endlösung der Judenfrage (Final Solution to the Jewish Question) policy, which entailed the elimination of Jews in Europe by mass murder. It was also a prison for several other nationalities, mainly Poles, but also Roma, Gypsies, Hungarians, Czechs, Ukrainians, and Russians. There were also minorities that were considered inferior and a threat to the purity of the Aryan race and, thus, were supposed to be eliminated. These included homosexuals, the mentally and physically handicapped, communists, and any other groups that were inconvenient to the Nazis and therefore discriminated against in Germany. The camp was also meant to be a prison for Poles who were disobedient, not to mention those who collaborated against the German rule.
The construction of the Auschwitz camp was ordered by Heinrich Himmler in April 1940. The camp was established in a prewar Polish military base with 22 brick barracks located in the suburbs of Oswiecim in southern Poland. It was an industrial town annexed to the Third Reich by the Nazis, 1-hour drive from Krakow. Auschwitz camp location was not chosen by accident. It was situated almost in the center of all German-occupied countries in Europe. It was also near the railroads, which enabled the deportation of people from all over Europe. The camp opened in the spring of 1940 and it expanded over time. At its peak in the summer of 1944, Auschwitz covered about 40 sq. km. The first transport of Poles arrived at Auschwitz from Tarnow prison on June 14, 1940. Rudolph Höss became the first commandant at Auschwitz and upheld this position till 1943. He was the one who introduced the Zyklon B pesticide for the mass murder of the prisoners in the gas chambers. After the war, he was convicted of war crimes and was executed by hanging.
Auschwitz carried three functions: a prison camp, an extermination camp (death camp), and a slave-labor camp. It combined extermination with forced labor. It was the most lethal of the Nazi extermination camps - between 1.1 and 1.5 million people was killed at Auschwitz between 1940 and 1945 by starvation, exhaustion, tortures, individual executions, and, predominantly, being gassed in the gas chambers. 90 percent of the fatal victims were Jews. Thousands of prisoners were also selected for medical experiments led by Josef Mengele, known as the “Angel of Death".
It is impossible to calculate the exact number of how many people died in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Upon arriving at the camp, the prisoners were examined by German doctors. Those considered unfit for work, including young children, the elderly, pregnant women, and the infirm, were immediately taken to the gas chambers, where they were exposed to Zyklon-B poison gas. Individuals marked as unfit for work were never officially registered as Auschwitz inmates. Even without this data, Auschwitz death toll is the highest of all the Nazi extermination camps.
The complex was divided into three main areas:
The first and oldest was the so-called 'main camp' (Stammlager), later also known as 'Auschwitz I'. The number of its prisoners fluctuated around 15,000, sometimes rising above 20,000. Auschwitz entrance gate greeted its prisoners with an infamous and ironic inscription: “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work will set you free). It was a paraphrase of the title of the novel by the German writer Lorenz Diefenbach entitled "Die Wahrheit Macht Frei". The same inscription could also be found in other Nazi camps, e.g. Dachau, Sachsenhausen, Flossenbürg, Gross-Rosen, and Theresienstadt. In December 2009, at the request of a Swedish neo-Nazi, the inscription was stolen from Auschwitz and cut into pieces. Two days later it was recovered, repaired, and preserved. Currently, a replica of the original hangs over the gate. At Auschwitz I, SS garrison administration (SS Standortverwaltung), the commander of the local garrison, and the commandant of Auschwitz I had its offices. Also here, the main offices of the political department and the prisoner labor department, the main supply stores, workshops, and SS companies (DAW, DEST, and Deutsche Lebensmittel GmbH) were located. Working in these administrative and economic units and companies was the main labor assignment for the prisoners at this camp.
The second and the biggest part of the complex was the Birkenau camp, known as 'Auschwitz II'. The Nazis began building it in 1941 on the site of Brzezinka village, three kilometers away from Oswiecim. It opened as a branch of Auschwitz in March 1942. The largest part of the apparatus of mass extermination was built here in Birkenau camp. More than nine out of every ten prisoners of the Auschwitz complex died here. In its final phase, from 1944, Birkenau camp also became a place where prisoners were concentrated before being transferred to labor in German industry in the Third Reich. The so-called "Gate of Death" was the main entrance to the camp. Next to it, there was a barbed-wire fence, and inside there was the main guardhouse of the camp. Above the gate, through which the railway track runs, there was a guard tower. Along the railway tracks, there was a ramp through which hundreds of thousands of people came to the camp on trains. Right after arrival, their luggage was left here and a selection took place. Around 25 percent of people were sent to work, the rest were sent directly to the gas chambers. The items stolen from the victims were stored in nearby wooden barracks called "Canada". Nowadays, at the end of the railway tracks, visitors can see the International Monument to the Victims of Fascism.
Auschwitz III- Monowitz
More than 40 Auschwitz sub-camps were established in the neighboring area and functioned as slave-labor camps. The largest of them was Buna (Monowitz) opened in 1942 on the grounds of the demolished Polish village Monowice, six kilometers from the Auschwitz camp. Fo the purpose of the camp, the Nazis used the buildings of Buna-Werke synthetic rubber and fuel plant. The camp was later named Auschwitz III-Monowitz and became the headquarters of all the industrial sub-camps existing within the Auschwitz complex. Despite the somewhat better conditions than in Birkenau, the prisoners of Monowitz were dying of exhaustion due to heavy physical work. They leveled the area, dug ditches, built roads, unloaded transports of building materials. The authorities carried out frequent selections. Weak and sick prisoners were systematically replaced with new ones. Those unfit for work were directed to the hospital in Auschwitz, where they were usually killed with a phenol injection, to the hospital in Birkenau, or directly to the gas chambers. The Allies bombed the I.G. Farben factories at Monowitz four times during the last year of the war. Monowitz was the first of the three main camps of the Auschwitz complex to be liberated by Red Army soldiers on January 27, 1945.
The Germans isolated all the camps and sub-camps from the outside world and surrounded them with barbed wire fencing. The local population, the Poles and Jews living near the newly-founded camp, were evicted in 1940-1941. Most houses were confiscated and demolished. Others were assigned to SS officers, who moved here with their families.
By the end of 1944, the Auschwitz commandants began destroying evidence of the genocide that had taken place there. Buildings were torn down, blown up, or set on fire, and records were destroyed. In January 1945, with the Soviet army approaching, Nazi officials ordered an evacuation of the camp. Before the end of the month, in what came to be known as the Auschwitz death marches, thousands of prisoners (mostly Jews) accompanied by Nazi guards, departed the camp and were forced to march to the Polish towns of Gliwice or Wodzislaw, around 30 miles away. From there, they were supposed to be transported to concentration camps in Germany, e.g. Buchenwald and Mauthausen, away from the Allied forces. The Nazis intended to use the prisoners as slave labor or as a form of a bargain with the Allies. Countless prisoners died during the marches, the rest of them were sent to Germany on trains. Soviet troops arrived at the Auschwitz complex on 27 January 1945. Since 2005, this day has been commemorated as International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Although the Germans destroyed parts of the camps before abandoning them in 1945 to conceal their crimes against humanity, much of Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II (Birkenau) remained intact and were later converted into a museum and memorial.
Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
The Museum was formally founded on July 2nd, 1947. That year, the first exhibition in the barracks opened. In 1979 the remains of the two camps of Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau were inscribed on the World Heritage List as evidence of the racist and anti-Semitic ideology, which led to the dehumanization of groups considered inferior and their systematic murder. Birkenau was mostly destroyed by the retreating Germans, but the majority of Auschwitz I has remained intact. The museum exhibition contains original documents, suitcases, shoes, and other belongings of murdered prisoners. Original barracks, fences, fortified walls with barbed wire, wooden watchtowers, and railway ramps have been preserved. The interiors of some of the barracks have been modified to adapt them to commemorative purposes, but the external facades of the buildings have remained unchanged. Because the original evidence has been carefully conserved without any unnecessary restoration, the site has a high level of authenticity. In 2020 a special event took place at the museum - 75th anniversary of Auschwitz Liberation. Today, Auschwitz is the most frequently visited memorial in Poland. In 2019, 2,320,000 people visited the museum.