What follows does not attempt to be a full or 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 events in our family, many of whose members ended up here, one way or another.
First, I give a brief history of the military and political context, before going on to outline some specific information about Auschwitz.
I discuss these issues mainly in relation to Jewish victims, that being our own family story, but the majority of the books referred to (see Bibliography) have extensive information about the many other victims of the National Socialist death and slave labour camps.
Steps towards ‘Auschwitz’: a brief political and military context
At the outbreak of World War II, 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 until October 1941, as part of the attempt to make particular areas ready for the expansion of German lebensraum (the new ‘living space’ that was to be created across occupied lands for the ‘superior race’ of Germanic peoples, which entailed the removal of Poles, Russians, Slavs and, of course, Jews).
Over the early years of the war, then, the main aim was to resettle German people into the newly occupied lands. Bear in mind, at this stage, the Nazi regime envisioned having years, if not generations, in which to achieve this – it 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 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” (Browning, pp. 24/5). Not least, as Browning wryly 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; certainly, by October 1941, the ‘Final Solution’ was in place.
The ‘Final Solution’ (to the ‘Jewish Question’) took the form of deportation to death camps that were to be equipped with facilities to gas large numbers of people and to destroy all evidence of having done so.
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 first truly 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 and the implementation of the ‘Final Solution’ across Europe went hand in hand.
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 from the Third Reich regions to Lodz; others were transported shortly afterwards to Kovno, Minsk, and Riga. By February 1942 there had been 46 transports: of these, 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 anyway killed within months to ‘make room’ for further transports of people.
The numbers to be killed under the ‘Final Solution’ were of course vast, and the National Socialists needed 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 Jewish victims.
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, if not a majority, 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 in terms of the new German territories and it was well connected in terms of transport.
Located 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 construction was underway, with terrible loss of life – it is estimated that around 10,000 Russians died at this time. By March 1942 mass exterminations were taking place at Birkenau – however, the vast majority of victims were Jewish, and most were killed on arrival.
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.
Jewish Gen provides a list of many of the sub-camps of Auschwitz.
USHMM estimates that there were around 44 in total, though more are listed here; so many were completely destroyed as the German army retreated at the end of the war that it is difficult to be sure of precise numbers now.
Altdorf / Stara Wies Althammer / Stara Kusnia Babice Bauzug Beruna Bismarckhütte / Chorzow-Battory Blechhammer / Slawiecice Bobrek / Oscwiecim Budy Brunn / Brono Charlottengrubbe / Rydultowy Chelmek / Chelmek-Paprotnik Chorzow Chrzanow Czernica Ernforst Ernfort-Slawecice Eintrachthutte / Swietochlowice Freudenthal / Bruntal Furstengrabe / Lawski Gleiwitz I, II, II, IV / Gliwice Golleschau / Goleszow Gunthergrubbe / ledziny Harmeze Hindenburg / Zabrze Hubertushutte-Hohenlinde / Lagiewniki Janigagrube-Hoffnung / Libiaz Jawichowitz Kobio / Kobior Lagischa / Lagisza Laurahutte / Siemianowice Lepziny-Lawki Lesslau-Wloclawek Libiaz-Maly Lukow Monowitz / Monowice Myslowice Neu Dachs / Jaworzno Neustadt / Prudnik Sosnowitz I et II / Sosnowiec Trezbinia Tscechwitz / Czechwiece Harmeze Plawy Rajsko Rybnik Rydultowy Siemiennowice Wloklawek-lesslan Zasole Zittau
Auschwitz-Birkenau was to become the largest of the concentration and extermination camps in Poland; it provided both a series of labor camps and a center 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 to 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 and sent to be gassed.
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. After German tanks rolled into Poland in September 1939, triggering World War II, most Jewish people remaining in the area occupied by Germany – approximately 1.8 million – were imprisoned in ghettos. By June 1941, the rest of the Polish Jews were being imprisoned in ghettos and then deported to concentration and slave labour camps. As German military actions expanded eastwards, so too did the rounding up and deportation and extermination of Jewish men, women and children. Very few of the millions who were sent to Auschwitz and its sub-camps were to survive the war.
In 1944 a rapid summer offensive by Soviet troops in eastern Belarus led to their overrunning of the first of the major Nazi concentration camps at Lublin / Majdanek. Himmler ordered that all other concentration camp prisoners should be evacuated towards the interior of the Reich territory. SS atrocities at Majdanek had been widely publicised with footage and through interviews with survivors.
As winter approached, the Germans 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 of prisoners who collapsed or could not keep pace were shot where they stood; many thousands died of 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”.
Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated by members of the Soviet Army on January 27, 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 between 1940 and 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 between 1940 and 1945. Of these, the 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 alone, 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 first started the current session of looking for family information in autumn 2014, the family narrative held that my grandmother and my great grandmother ‘probably died in Auschwitz’, as indeed I was to discover that it states on our ITS records on Else and Hermine.
At the time I didn’t know what to think about the likelihood of this being the truth, partly because I was already aware that not everything we had been told by my mother was accurate, and partly because I was also aware that Auschwitz, as well as being a physical location (many locations, in fact), is also used almost as a metaphor for the many places in which Jews were killed in the holocaust.
As you will see from our records 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 when forced from her bed 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 the deportation conditions.
On arrival at Auschwitz, if my grandmother and great-grandmother were still alive, given their advanced ages they would have been sent to be killed straight away, which will be why there are no records of them arriving at the camp when their names are on the transport lists. The elderly, who made up the vast majority of people arriving from Gleiwitz and surrounding districts, were sent immediately to the gas chambers and would never have entered the work camp, which is where records were taken, detailing possessions and names. In any case, as the Allied forces approached towards the end of the war, the vast majority of 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.
Some of our family’s children
While the task of writing a page on Auschwitz has been daunting, given how much has already been written, I did set out to provide some information on every place that is mentioned in these pages, and 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 myself 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
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 the countless other 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