The German authorities founded Auschwitz Concentration Camp (Konzentrationslager Auschwitz) in 1940 on occupied Polish land that had been annexed to Germany. Like other concentration camps, Auschwitz was a state institution, administered by the SS and funded by the state treasury, which earned income from labor performed by prisoners hired out to companies.
While continuing in this function, Auschwitz also became one of the key elements in the mass extermination of Jews from all over Europe from 1942 on. On a lesser scale, prisoners from almost every ethnic group in Europe were also incarcerated and exterminated in Auschwitz Concentration Camp.
Consisting originally of a single camp, Auschwitz expanded constantly until, at the peak of its growth in the summer of 1944, it had become a complex of about 40 camps, holding 135,000 prisoners.
The two principal camps were located in Oświęcim (Auschwitz I-Stammlager) and Brzezinka (Auschwitz II-Birkenau), to use the nomenclature from the period of November 1943 — November 1944). The former of these housed some of the prisoners and also contained the commandant’s headquarters, the main administrative offices for the entire camp, the central warehouses, and the first, “old” crematorium and gas chamber, which operated from the autumn of 1941 to the autumn of 1942.
Founded in March 1942 and covering an area of about 150 hectares, Auschwitz II-Birkenau contained prisoner barracks, gas chambers, 4 crematoria with a daily throughput calculated by Nazi officials at 4,416 corpses, and a complex of 30 warehouses for the personal belongings confiscated from the victims. From 1944, a three-track railroad spur was operational inside the camp; this is where the selection of mass transports of Jews was carried out (earlier, in 1942-1943, transports were unloaded and selection carried out on the platforms outside the camp).
The camp administered an area of approximately 40 square kilometers of land at the confluence of the Vistula and Soła rivers. Aside from the Oświęcim suburb of Zasola, this zone also contained the villages of Brzezinka, Babice, Broszkowice, Budy, Harmęże, Pławy, Rajsko, Skidzin and Łęki, from which the Germans expelled several thousand Poles, plundering all their property in the process.
The so-called sub-camps (KL Auschwitz III-Aussenlager) were scattered throughout the Upper Silesian Industrial Region. The Auschwitz prisoners in them performed unpaid slave labor, mostly in German coal mines, mills, armaments plants, and at the large building sites for new industrial facilities of importance to the German war economy. When the prisoners had been worked to exhaustion, they were sent back to Auschwitz-Birkenau and killed.
As they withdrew from Auschwitz in 1945, the Germans destroyed most of the camp records, blew up the gas chambers and crematoria, and set alight the warehouses full of property plundered from the victims. The majority of the wooden barracks that housed prisoners were dismantled after the war; the chimneys left standing show where they were located.
The SS Garrison
The number of SS men and female SS overseers was increased in proportion to the number of prisoners and the spatial expansion of the camp: the garrison numbered about 700 in 1940, about 2,000 in June 1942, 3,342 in August 1944, and 4,480 SS men and 171 female SS overseers on January 15, 1945. A total of over 8,000 SS men and about 170 female SS overseers served in Auschwitz over the period during which the camp operated.
Initially, the camp administrators and sentry garrison were recruited from the garrisons of other concentration camps. Over time, the ranks began to be filled as well by members of the Waffen SS (frontline units) and, from 1944, by older or disabled soldiers from the Wehrmacht and the Territorial Riflemen (Landesschützbataillonen - a total of about 500 men), who were incorporated into the SS after undergoing training.
The ethnic makeup of the garrison, however, remained unchanged. The whole time, the garrison was, aside from a few exceptions, entirely German (including Austrians, who were acknowledged and treated within the Third Reich as Germans and who, in many cases, and especially among the active Nazis, regarded themselves as Germans). At first, the garrison was made up of Germans from Reich territory. Over time, ethnic Germans from satellite and occupied countries began to be recruited; in numerical order, they came from Hungary, Romania, Croatia, Poland, Slovakia, Lithuania, and Estonia. No attempt at organizing non-German sentry units ever succeeded. The creation of a Ukrainian sentry company (8-U-Kompanie) was indeed attempted in March 1943. When the Ukrainians discovered in July 1943 what the function of the camp was, they deserted.
In sociological terms, the SS garrison represented all strata of German society; they were, in a certain sense, a representative sample in terms of education and occupation. About 70% of the garrison had elementary education, 20% had secondary schooling, and 5.5% had higher education. The average age of garrison members was 36. After the war, only about 800 former SS men from Auschwitz were put on trial.
Deportees to Auschwitz
At least 1,300,000 people were deported to the camp, of whom at least 1,100,000 perished. Some estimates of the number killed are as high as 1,500,000.
Auschwitz victims can be divided into two basic groups:
- About 900,000 Jews not entered in the camp records, the great majority of whom were killed in the gas chambers soon after arriving in the camp. Formally, they were never Auschwitz prisoners.
- The second group comprises about 400,000 prisoners registered in the camp, who were designated by numbers and triangles, stars (Jews), or other insignia indicating the reason for their being imprisoned in Auschwitz, or their prisoner category.
Jews — 85% of all the deportees and 90% of those killed.
In 1942, while still remaining a concentration camp functioning within the organizational structure of the Inspectorate of Concentration Camps, Auschwitz also became one of the key elements in the Endlösung der Judenfrage operation—the planned, total extermination of the 11 million Jews living in Europe. In cooperation with their allies, the Germans carried out 50% of the plan, murdering some 5 to 6 million Jews in Europe. Of this total, Auschwitz (Birkenau) accounted for about 20% — one million people. The signal for the commission of this enormous crime was the decision on the part of the highest German authorities to murder all the people of Jewish origin they could lay their hands on. According to camp commandant Rudolf Höss, good train connections and the possibility of camouflaging the extermination process there dictated the choice of Auschwitz-Birkenau as a mass-extermination site.
Once the mass deportations began in 1942, the Jews became the most numerous ethnic group in Auschwitz. A total of about 1,100,000 Jews were deported to Auschwitz from 1940 to 1945; some 960,000 of them perished there (865,000 of them in the gas chambers immediately after arrival, and about 95,000 of the 200,000 Jews registered as prisoners). About 135,000 Jews were transferred to other camps as part of the distribution of labor resources and the final liquidation of the camp. The decided majority of the Jewish victims of Auschwitz came from outside Poland—from western, northern, central, and southern Europe.
The first mass transport of Jews noted in the camp records brought 999 Jewish women from Slovakia on March 26, 1942.
Jews were deported to Auschwitz from Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, Slovakia and Yugoslavia in 1942.
Transports of Jews from Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Latvia, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, and Yugoslavia arrived in 1943.
Transports of Jews arrived from Belgium, France, Germany Greece, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, and Slovakia in 1944.
| Transports of Jews by the countriesa |
from which they were deported:
|Hungary ||438,000b |
|Poland ||300,000 |
|France ||69,000 |
|The Netherlands ||60,000 |
|Greece ||55,000 |
|Bohemia and Moravia - Theresienstadt ||46,000 |
|Slovakia ||27,000b |
|Belgium ||25,000 |
|Germany and Austria ||23,000 |
|Yugoslavia ||10,000 |
|Italy ||7,500 |
|Latvia ||1,000 |
|Norway ||690 |
|Concentration camps and other origins ||34,000 |
|Total ||1,100,000 |
a - within their prewar borders
b - within the wartime borders
Poles — about 10% of all the deportees and 7% of those killed
Poles were the most numerous among the approximately 200,000 non-Jews deported to Auschwitz. About 140-150,000 Poles were sent to the camp. Half of them, some 70-75,000, died as a result of starvation, executions, routine killings, and sickness. In relation to the Poles, Auschwitz was carrying out the guidelines of the German Third Reich’s policy in occupied Poland.
The fundamental goal of this policy was to eliminate the Polish state and its institutions, to exploit its material and labor resources, and methodically to remove its local population through expulsion, resettlement, the limitation of fertility, the acceleration of the death rate, and systematic extermination. The Polish lands were to be thoroughly Germanized by means of settling a German population in the depopulated territory.
Defining the aims of his attack on Poland, Hitler told a meeting with Wehrmacht commanders on August 22, 1939, a week before invading Poland, that “For the time being I have prepared my Totenkopf [Death’s Head] units only in the east, ordering them to kill men, women, and children of Polish extraction and the Polish mother tongue ruthlessly and without mercy. Only in this way can we acquire the living space that we need... Poland will be depopulated and settled by Germans.”
Nazi leaders frequently referred to Hitler’s words that called for the destruction of Poles in order to create living space for Germans. Two who did so more than others were Hienrich Himmler, the head of the police apparatus, and General Governor Hans Frank. At a meeting of the commandants of various camps in occupied Poland on March 15, 1940, Himmler said that “all skilled workers of Polish background are to be used in our war industry. Afterwards, Poles will disappear from the world. . . . Every German’s time is coming. That is why it is necessary for the great German people to see their main task in the destruction of all Poles.”
After a meeting with Hitler on March 17, 1941, General Governor Hans Frank declared in the presence of the General Government’s undersecretaries of state, police and SS chiefs, district governors, and department directors that “the Führer is determined to make this country purely German in the course of 15 to 20 years.”
The extermination of Poles in Auschwitz was a part of this plan to depopulate and Germanize the country. Political prisoners involved in the underground struggle against the occupation regime and persons suspected of such involvement; members of the Polish intelligentsia and especially teachers, career and reserve officers, and priests and nuns; the mentally ill; the residents of depopulated villages in the Zamość region; Warsaw residents expelled from the capital during the 1944 Uprising; and Poles apprehended in random roundups on city streets and at railroad stations all perished in Auschwitz.
Gypsies — 1,7% of all the deportees, 1,8% of those killed
The Gypsies were the third most numerous group of victims. A small number of Gypsies, estimated at several hundred, were deported to Auschwitz in 1940-1942 and registered in the general series of prisoners. The number of Gypsies in the camp began to rise rapidly only as a result of a January 29, 1943 decision by the Main Reich Security Office to deport whole Gypsy families to Auschwitz. A total of about 23,000 Gypsies were incarcerated in Auschwitz. The decided majority of them came from Germany and Austria, the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, and the Białystok district. Other countries, such as France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway, Slovakia, Hungary, and Yugoslavia each accounted for less than 1% of the total.
They were placed in a special camp in Birkenau (BIIe). About 20,000 Gypsies perished in the camp. About 6,500 were killed in the gas chambers. The largest group, consisting of about 3,000 men, women, and children were killed by gas on August 2, 1944, during the liquidation of the Gypsy camp. The remainder were transferred to camps in Germany proper.
The extermination of Gypsies in Auschwitz was a fragment of the German Third Reich’s criminal plans for the almost total elimination of Gypsies. It is estimated that from 200,000 to 5000,000 Gypsies perished as a result of executions and imprisonment in various camps
Various Ethnic Groups from the Soviet Union — Over 23,000 deportees, over 10,000 killed
From 1941 to 1944, about 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war, from various ethnic groups within what was then the Soviet Union, were brought to Auschwitz. Almost all of them perished there. About 3,000 were killed by being shot or gassed immediately after arriving, and about 12,000 perished from starvation and exhaustion. At the last roll call, only 92 prisoners of war remained in the camp.
Because of the changing situation on the battlefront and the Third Reich’s economic difficulties, plans to create a large POW camp in Auschwitz-Birkenau, holding about 200,000 people and equipped with a crematorium with a daily capacity of 1,440 corpses, were never realized.
Aside from the prisoners of war, at least 6,000 civilians from Byelorussia—the majority of them ethnic Byelorussian men women, and children apprehended in pacification operations against Byelorussian partisans—were deported to Auschwitz, as were at least 1,500 Russians and at least 600 Ukrainians, most of whom were apprehended while fleeing from compulsory labor in Germany.
Other Ethnic Groups
In addition to those enumerated above, more than 10,000 prisoners from other ethnic groups were imprisoned in the camp.
According to ongoing, still incomplete research into the fragmentary source material, the most numerous among them were:
- Czechs, at least 7,000, of whom the largest group were members of the Sokol patriotic organization. Most Czech political prisoners came to Auschwitz from Prague, Brno, and Opava, which served as assembly points before deportation. They either arrived in separate transports or were added to so-called mass transports containing prisoners of various ethnic origins. These transports usually carried less than one hundred deportees, although some contained several hundred.
- Frenchmen and Frenchwomen, at least 4,000 (political prisoners).
- Germans and Austrians, at least 2,500, mostly antisocial or protective prisoners or imprisoned for common crimes, as well as political prisoners.
- Slovenes, at least 800.
- Smaller numbers of prisoners from almost all European countries, ranging from several to several hundred, were also imprisoned in Auschwitz.
Tables: deportees to Auschwitz; number of victims
| Number of deportees to Auschwitz by ethnic origin |
|Ethnicity ||Number |
|Jews ||1,100,000 |
|Poles ||140-150,000 |
|Gypsies ||23,000 |
|Soviet POWs ||15,000 |
|Others ||25 tys. |
|Total || ~ 1,300,000 |
| Overall number of people killed in Auschwitz |
by ethnic origin and category of deportees
|Ethnicity ||Number |
|Jews ||1,000,000 |
|Poles ||70-75,000 |
|Gypsies ||20,000 |
|Soviet POWs ||14,000 |
|Others ||12,000 |
|Total ||~ 1,100,000 |
Source: Ilu ludzi zginęło w KL Auschwitz. Liczba ofiar w świetle Źródeł i badań 1945-1990 [How Many People Perished in Auschwitz: The Number of Victims in the Light of the Sources and Research, 1945-1990]. Oświęcim 1992. Georges Wellers, "Essai de determination du nombre de morts au camp d'Auschwitz” [An Attempt at Determining the Number of Deaths in the Auschwitz Camp]; Le Monde Juif, no. 112 (October-December 1983), pp. 125-129.
There were 6 basic categories of prisoners in the Nazi concentration camps before the war began:
- political prisoners,
- common criminals,
- “Holy Scripture researchers” or Jehovah’s Witnesses,
- homosexuals, and
These categories were reflected in the insignia — triangles or stars of various colors — that the prisoners wore on their garments
Categories of Prisoners in Auschwitz
- Political Prisoners (Red Triangles) — Most of these were Poles arrested during various repressive actions, or for their activities in the resistance movement. They numbered some 160,000.
- Jews (Two triangles forming a six-pointed star: One yellow triangle, and one of the colour of the given prisoner category) — From 1943 onwards they were the most numerous group of prisoners in the camp (200,000).
- Asocial Prisoners (Black Triangles) — This category included more than 20,000 registered Gypsies, as well as the few prostitutes imprisoned in the camp.
- Prisoners of War (marked “SU” — “Sowjet Union”) — Only registered Soviet POWs, numbering some 12,000 were marked in this category in Auschwitz.
- Correctional Prisoners (marked with “EH” — “Erziehungshäftling”) — They were imprisoned for real or alleged violation of discipline at work. They are estimated to number 11,000.Criminal Prisoners (Green Triangle) — This category was not numerous (several hundred prisoners). Initially, the camp authorities chose functionary prisoners from among them to help the SS.
- Jehovah’s Witnesses (Violet Triangle) — Imprisoned in the camp for their behaviour and attitudes resulting from their religious convictions. They were at least 138 Jehovah’s Witnesses registered in this category.
- Homosexuals (Pink Triangle) — at least several dozen prisoners were put in the camp and marked with this category.
*Franciszek Piper, Research Dept.
Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial, March 2005