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Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp: Facts & Liberation

Instructor: Ashley Kannan

Ashley has taught history, literature, and political science and has a Master's Degree in Education

Close your eyes and imagine the worst place on the planet, and you may come close to imagining Auschwitz. Open your eyes and read on to find out more about what a place of complete cruelty looks like.

Jewish Targeting

The facts behind Auschwitz begin with prejudice and intolerance. The discrimination against Jewish people began with the Nazis coming into power in 1933. Specific laws were passed to politically, economically, and socially silence Jewish people. One of the most painful examples are the Nuremburg Laws passed in 1935. These laws deprived Jewish people of citizenship. The Nazis used this form of targeting in order to relocate, and eventually attempt to eliminate, Jewish people.

Expansion of Germany

The need to establish more 'living space' or, Lebensraum in German, for their people was central for the Nazis. This philosophy justified the 1939 expansion into Poland. Germany expanded at the cost of those they considered undesirable, such as Polish people and Slavic ethnic minority groups. Once Poland fell, Hitler sought to eliminate Polish culture, declaring their people enemies of Nazi Germany.

Logistics now confronted the Nazis. They needed a location where they could imprison those who they perceived to be enemies.

Auschwitz I

In a remote Southwestern corner of Poland stood a site of sixteen uninhabited and decrepit buildings. Nazi officials stationed in Poland saw this and envisioned a prison. The town in which it was located was called Oswiecim, or Auschwitz. Jewish residents of Oswiecim were forced to restore and rebuild the abandoned barracks into a prison named Auschwitz I that would house prisoners of war, the first of which started arriving in May 1940. The population of the camp grew as more enemies of the Nazis were deported. Auschwitz was envisioned as a concentration camp. Surrounded by barbed wire fences and watchtowers, the camp had written above its black gates, 'Arbeit macht frei' ('Work makes you free').

Gates at Auschwitz
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Auschwitz II

In 1941, Hitler declared war on the Soviet Union, resulting in more prisoners of war being sent to Auschwitz. In response, Auschwitz II- Birkenau expanded the camp and was rebranded as a labor camp/ extermination camp. Hitler and Nazi leadership saw extermination as the only way to address 'the Jewish problem.' Auschwitz II- Birkenau was equipped with the latest advances in extermination, featuring five different gassing centers and complementing crematoria.

Buna

In order to increase war production, Auschwitz was expanded again. The primary product produced was buna, a synthetic rubber. This part of Auschwitz was known as Buna or Monowitz, based on the town it was near. Imprisoned enemies from all over Europe were exploited as workers. 35,000 prisoners worked in the Buna Camp. While life expectancy was only a few months, those who died were replaced with new prisoners every day.

Layout of Auschwitz
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Different German companies built factories in Auschwitz subcamps. They were encouraged by government incentives, abundant natural resources like coal, accessible railroad lines and abundant labor. At its height, there were three major camps and over forty subcamps in Auschwitz on a 15 square mile site.

Auschwitz and Death

The killing capacity of Auschwitz increased over time. By 1944, over 6,000 people were killed each day. No other camp could match its output of death.

Eyeglasses of victims
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Trains would arrive into Auschwitz and initial 'selections' were made.

Train entrance at Auschwitz
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Each day, an increasing number of people were going into the line that ensured they would never see their loved ones again.

The faces of those not selected for work
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The criteria for selections were never revealed, but the very old and very young were immediately identified for 'special treatment' and sent off to the gas chambers.

Hungarian Jewish children and an elderly woman having to go to the gas chambers
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Liberation

By late 1944, Germany was retreating as defeat was becoming more likely. In November 1944, Nazi officials insisted on destroying all evidence of Auschwitz. The crematoria and gas chambers were now being dismantled, as records of prisoners were destroyed.

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