Above, Photograph, Auschwitz Memorial, June 2015. C Weissenberg, pers. archive, copyright retained
What follows does not attempt to be a full – or in any way a scholarly – overview of the history of Auschwitz. Many survivors, writers, and thinkers have analysed this concentration camp and its satellites.
Below, I set out a context for outcomes for my family, many of whom were probably killed here.
Original document, Extract, Else Weissenberg. Source: Werner Weissenberg, pers. archive, copyright retained
First, a brief history of the military and political context, followed by an outline of some specific information about Auschwitz.
I discuss these issues mainly in relation to Jewish victims, that being my own family context, but the majority of the websites and books referred to in these pages (see Websites, Bibliography) have extensive information about the many other victims of the National Socialist death and slave labour camps.
Photograph, ITS document, Hedwig Weissenberg, Wiener Holocaust Library, 2021. C Weissenberg, pers. archive, copyright retained
Steps towards Auschwitz: a brief political and military context
At the outbreak of the Second World War, the German National Socialist intention was that Jews should be removed first from Germany and then from the newly occupied European landscape. This can be seen in the resettlement plans of 1939 to 1941, as well as in the Nuremberg Laws, the mass imprisonment of German Jewish men in November 1938, and in the brutal regimes in prison camps such as Dachau throughout the 1930s and early 1940s.
To this end, Jewish emigration was permitted – even encouraged – until October 1941, as part of an attempt to make areas ready for the expansion of German lebensraum (the new ‘living space’ to be created across occupied lands for the ‘superior race’ of Germanic peoples, which entailed the removal of Poles, Russians, Slavs, and Jews).
Over the early years of the war, then, the main aim was to resettle ‘Germans’ into newly occupied lands. Bear in mind, at this stage, the Nazi regime envisioned having years, if not generations, in which to achieve this. The Third Reich was intended to be a ‘Thousand-year Reich’. Around half a million Polish and French people were expelled in this early period, of which around ten percent were Jews. Thus, although many thousands of Jews were killed over the period from 1933 to 1941, the killing was not yet the so-called industrialised process that was soon to begin.
According to Christopher Browning, and substantiated by many others, it was the “decision to invade Russia [that] brought about a reversal of these priorities.” Browning goes on to state, “Driven on by his frustration with the military stalemate in the west, his own fervent anti-Bolshevism, his vision of Russia as a land destined for German expansion, his calculation that through the growth of the US and USSR time worked against Germany … Hitler opted for … [the] final solution to the Jewish Question” (pp. 24–25).
Not least, as Browning notes, expanding further into Russia meant incorporating more Jews, which thwarted any notion of living space that was judenfrei – free of Jews.
Thus, the National Socialist state moved further and faster towards the mass murder of all European Jews, in a plan that was probably approved in July 1941. By October 1941, the ‘Final Solution’ was in place.
The ‘Final Solution’* (to the ‘Jewish Question’*) included mass deportation to death camps that were equipped with facilities to gas large numbers of people, and to destroy all evidence of having done so.
*These are translations of Nazi terms – hence the use of scare quotes to denote this fact throughout this page
To this end, around 92 T–4 ‘euthanasia programme’ personnel with experience in mass murder were transferred in autumn 1941 from Germany to Poland.
The T–4 programme
The experience of the T–4 squads had been gained by killing large numbers of people who had specific mental or physical health conditions. The conditions were defined in the Sterilisation Law, 14 July 1933, which named nine disabilities ranging through physical disabilities, epilepsy, and alcoholism.
“The Nazis believed” that people with disabilities “could not be a part of the German master race. They believed that they were genetically ‘impure’, and a financial burden on the state. Ultimately, this view led to the murder of thousands of disabled people” (The Holocaust Explained).
As a first step, there had been a mass sterilisation programme, which by Autumn 1939 became the T–4 extermination programme – named after the address of its headquarters at Tiergartenstraße 4.
The victims were transported to one of the killing centres at Brandenburg, Gradfeneck, Bernburg, Sonnenstein, Hartheim, or Hadamar. Initially, people were killed by administration of a lethal injection. This was changed to gassing with carbon monoxide gas in 1940.
In all, 70,273 people were killed at the ‘euthanasia’ centres between January 1940 and August 1941
Source: quotations and figures, The Wiener Holocaust Library online, The Holocaust Explained: https://www.theholocaustexplained.org/life-in-nazi-occupied-europe/oppression/anti-semitic-laws/.
The first systematic death camps as we know them today were built at Belzec and Chelmno.
From an early priority to provide lebensraum for ‘Aryan’ peoples, the main concern was now to eradicate all European Jews, while other aspects of Nazi ‘racial engineering’ were for the time being postponed.
Thus, according to Browning and others, the reach for lebensraum in Russia went hand in hand with the implementation of the ‘Final Solution’ across Europe.
In Prague in October 1941 Reinhard Heydrich announced, “the Fuhrer wishes that by the end of the year as many Jews as possible are removed from the German sphere”. Between mid-October and mid-November, around twenty trains transported Jews to Łódź; others were transported shortly afterwards to Kovno, Minsk, and Riga. By February 1942 there had been 46 transports. All people sent to Kovno and to Riga on the first transport were killed on arrival. The rest had to try to survive the winter in appalling conditions. The early arrivals who did manage to survive were then killed within months to ‘make room’ for further transports of people.
The numbers to be killed under the ‘Final Solution’ were vast, and the National Socialists wanted to find a method other than shooting or starving people, although both mass shootings and mass starvation were to continue throughout the war. They tested the use of explosives for a while, but exhaust gas proved to be the method that could be done at the greatest physical distance, and thus with least psychological affect on German soldiers, which was of increasing concern to their officers.
In Auschwitz, by September 1941 early experiments with gas vans had led to the first tests of Zyklon B gas, which had until this time been used against pests and parasites; it continued to be used on the clothes of slave labourers in delousing processes. It was initially tested as a means of execution on Soviet prisoners of war, and was then used to murder millions of Jews.
By October 1941 the first plans to construct gas chambers were underway in Belzec, gassing experiments were being conducted in Auschwitz, scientists were being sent to Riga for the same purposes, and Chelmno was being established, which is where gas was first used systematically to kill large numbers of people by December 1941.
Rudolph Hoss first proposed the idea of building a camp near the village of Oświęcim in April 1940. Initially it was intended as a tool of intimidation against the local Polish population. In this, it was an intrinsic part of the plan to ‘Aryanise’ the whole of the Upper Silesia region in which Oświęcim was situated.
Operations began in Auschwitz in May 1940: Polish people were to be moved away from the area (in fact many – probably most – were killed). Prisoners from Sachsenhausen were sent to build the camp alongside members of Oświęcim’s Jewish population. The first transport, mostly of Polish people, arrived in June 1940; by March 1941 there were over 11,000 prisoners. The camp was already known for its torture and executions.
In that month Himmler visited Auschwitz and ordered that the camp should be enlarged to house around 30,000 prisoners. It was centrally located for the new German territories and well connected in terms of transport.
Situated approximately 37 miles west of Krakow, this first site, now known as Auschwitz I, covered around 40 square kilometres. Himmler also ordered a new camp to be built about two miles away to house another 100,000 prisoners. Birkenau (Auschwitz II) was originally intended for Russian prisoners of war – they were to be used as slave labourers, mainly for the chemical company IG Farben.
By winter 1941 this new construction at Birkenau was underway, with terrible loss of life. It is estimated that around 10,000 Russians died here at this time.
By March 1942 mass exterminations were taking place at Birkenau. The vast majority of victims were Jewish, and most were killed on arrival.
Original document, Letter, 16 December 1959, Searching for family, Hermine (Kohn) Bloch. Source: Werner Weissenberg, pers. archive, copyright retained
Over the next two years over forty Auschwitz sub-camps were constructed, many of which were built to supply labour to German companies. The largest of these was Buna Monowitz (the rubber plant in which Primo Levi worked as a slave labourer), which housed 10,000 prisoners. It was up and running by the end of 1942. By the end of 1943 the Buna plant was known as Auschwitz III.
JewishGen provides a list of many of the sub-camps of Auschwitz 👇
https://www.jewishgen.org/forgottencamps/General/ListeEng.html#auschwitz (see also, table below)
USHMM estimates that there were around 44 Auschwitz sub-camps in total,(https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/auschwitz), although more are listed by JewishGen. So many were destroyed as the German army retreated at the end of the war that it is difficult to be sure of precise numbers now.
There is a useful website on the sub camps, here: https://subcamps-auschwitz.org/auschwitz-subcamps/wirtschaftshof-babitz/#documents.
- Altdorf / Stara Wies
- Althammer / Stara Kusnia
- Beruna. ***
- Bismarckhütte / Chorzów Batory
- Blechhammer / Slawiecice
- Bobrek / Oscwiecim
- Brunn / Brono
- Charlottengrubbe / Rydultowy
- Chelmek / Chelmek-Paprotnik
- Eintrachthutte / Swietochlowice
- Freudenthal / Bruntal
- Furstengrabe / Lawski
- Gleiwitz I, II, II, IV / Gliwice
- Golleschau / Goleszow
- Gunthergrubbe / ledziny
- Hindenburg / Zabrze
- Hubertushutte-Hohenlinde / Lagiewniki
- Janigagrube-Hoffnung / Libiaz
- Kobio / Kobior
- Lagischa / Lagisza
- Laurahutte / Siemianowice
- Monowitz / Monowice
- Neu Dachs / Jaworzno
- Neustadt / Prudnik
- Sosnowitz I et II / Sosnowiec
- Tscechwitz / Czechwiece
Auschwitz was to become the largest of the concentration and extermination camps in Poland. It provided both a series of labor camps and a centre for the rapid extermination of Jews. To this end, in Birkenau, which was the main Auschwitz killing centre, the gas chambers were combined in one area alongside the crematoria. The prisoners were cursorily ‘selected’ on arrival either to be sent straight to their deaths or to be used as labourers before being killed when they were no longer able to work. As a rough guide to conditions in the ‘work camps’, according to Primo Levi, prisoners who were unable to acquire some level of ‘privilege’ only had to eat what they were given to eat and do the hard physical labour required – and they would be dead from exhaustion and starvation within three months.
The ‘selection’ process at Birkenau was carried out in part by SS doctors, who also carried out unethical – indeed, horrific – medical experiments on prisoners. However, many other SS men and women also carried out selections: it did not take a medic to make the kinds of cursory selections of the elderly, the ill, of mothers and their children that were made in moments on their arrival by train at the camp. Selections were also made throughout the day in the slave labour areas during roll call. People who had become weak or ill were separated out and sent to be gassed.
“On the 27th or 28th there is another transport departing and I expect we will be on that … They are talking about taking us to Poland but a Russian destination is also a possibility”
Original document, Letter, Extract, Else Weissenberg, 22 May 1942. Source: Werner Weissenberg, pers. archive, copyright retained
It is estimated that around 3.3 million Jews were living in Poland when it was occupied by Germany – more than in any other European country.
By June 1941, any remaining Polish Jews – approximately 1.8 million – were imprisoned in ghettos, and then deported to concentration and slave labour camps. As German military actions expanded eastwards, so too did the rounding up, deportation, and extermination of Jewish women, men, and children. Very few of the millions who were sent to Auschwitz, its sub-camps, and to other killing centres would survive the war.
In 1944 a rapid summer offensive by Soviet troops in eastern Belarus led to their overrunning of the first major Nazi concentration camp – at Lublin / Majdanek. SS atrocities at Majdanek were widely publicised with footage and through interviews with survivors. Himmler ordered that all other concentration camp prisoners should be evacuated west, towards the interior of the Reich territory.
As winter approached, German soldiers continued to empty the camps; prisoners were forced to leave, often on foot. The guards had orders to kill anyone who could no longer walk, and the number of deaths increased as winter wore on. The term death march was probably coined by the prisoners themselves: hundreds who collapsed or could not keep pace were shot where they fell or left to die; many thousands perished from exposure, starvation, and exhaustion.
USHMM (‘Death Marches’): “To almost the last day of the war, German authorities marched prisoners to various locations in the Reich. As late as May 1, 1945, prisoners who had been evacuated from Neuengamme to the North Sea coastline were loaded onto ships; hundreds of them died when the British bombed the ships a few days later, thinking that they carried German military personnel” (https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/death-marches).
Auschwitz–Birkenau was liberated by members of the Soviet Army on 27 January 1945.
During the deportation of Hungarian Jews in early 1944, the SS at Birkenau were gassing up to 6,000 Jews each day.
By November 1944, over a million Jews had been killed at this site alone, as well as tens of thousands of Roma people, Polish people, and Soviet PoWs.
At least 865,000 Jews were killed upon arrival.
The vast majority were killed in the gas chambers.
According to USHMM, the number of Auschwitz victims up to 1945 are as follows:
- 1,095,000 deported to Auschwitz
- 960,000 died
- 147,000 deported
- 74,000 died
- 23,000 deported
- 21,000 died
- 5,000 deported and died
- 25,000 deported
- 12,000 died
“It is estimated that the SS and police deported at least 1.3 million people to the Auschwitz complex … [T]he camp authorities murdered approximately 1.1 million” (USHMM).
When the Soviet troops liberated the camp in 1945, around 7,000 starving prisoners were found alive, including some children.
Among the items found were
- 348,820 men’s suits
- 836,255 women’s coats
- thousands of pairs of shoes
- tens of thousands of children’s outfits
- 6,350kg of human hair in sacks, ready for shipment
- piles of human teeth from which gold fillings had been extracted
Millions of people were killed in the Nazi extermination camps, either by asphyxiation with poison gas or by shooting. Millions more were killed in other places, by other methods.
The final numbers will never be known.
Names from numbers …
When I began the current project of looking for information in autumn 2014, our family narrative held that my grandmother and my great-grandmother ‘probably died in Auschwitz’, as indeed I was to discover that it states on the ITS records for Else and Hermine.
Photograph, Else and Leopold Weissenberg, my grandparents. Source: Werner Weissenberg, pers. archive, copyright retained
At the time, I didn’t know how likely it was that this was the truth – partly because I knew that not everything I had been told by my mother was accurate. Partly, I was aware that Auschwitz, as well as being a physical location (many locations, in fact), is used almost as a metaphor for the many places in which Jews were killed in the holocaust.
Photograph, Hermine Bloch, my great-grandmother. Source: Werner Weissenberg, pers. archive, copyright retained
As you will see from the record pages, in the end, the state-level conclusion was that Else and Hermine were killed at Auschwitz, although whether Hermine would have survived long enough to board a train is anyone’s guess at this distance in time. There are terrible reports of what happened in Gleiwitz to the very elderly and bed-ridden on deportation days. By late May 1942, Hermine was almost 90, had had at least two strokes, was almost blind, and was pretty much confined to her bed. The chances that she even left Gleiwitz must be slender – let alone that she would have survived deportation conditions.
Photograph, Hedwig and Clara Weissenberg, my great-aunts. Source: Werner Weissenberg, pers. archive, copyright retained
If my grandmother and great-grandmother were still alive on arrival at Auschwitz, given their age they would have been sent to be killed straight away. This would also have been the case for Hedwig and Clara Weissenberg.
It is why there are no records of any of my family arriving at the camp, although their names are on the transport lists.
The elderly – who made up the majority of people arriving from Gleiwitz and surrounding districts of Upper Silesia – were sent immediately to the gas chambers.
They would not have entered the work camps, which is where records were taken, detailing possessions and names.
Furthermore, as the Allied forces approached towards the end of the war, most records from Auschwitz were destroyed, and many hundreds of thousands of people were killed in accelerated processes either at the camp or on the Death Marches.
While the task of writing a page on Auschwitz has been daunting, given how much has already been written, I set out to provide some information on every place that is mentioned in these pages. To omit this place because of the weight of work that has gone before would seem strange. Also, it would have been wrong to assume that everyone coming to this site knows about Auschwitz – just because it happens to be so familiar to me that it is part of who I am, and how I understand the world.
Our family and friends who probably died at Auschwitz
In loving memory
60-year old Else Weissenberg
88-year old Hermine Bloch
56-year old Kurt Bloch
50-year old Frieda Bloch
15-year old Ruth Bloch
13-year old Ilse Bloch
65-year old Clara Weissenberg
63-year old Hedwig Weissenberg
54-year old Jakob Gruschka
We also think of
38-year old Walter Bernstein
37-year old Eva Bernstein
36-year old Artur Toczek
35-year old Nelly Toczek
6-year old Noemi Toczek
78-year old Helene Weiss
64-year old Selma Wienskowitz
And of countless millions lost.
We think of them as we would think of family members and friends.
Every person killed was someone’s daughter or someone’s son – who felt pain and loss as surely as any one of us would today.
From numbers to names