Auschwitz Death Camp - The End

Posted on Friday 25th January 2013


The town of Auschwitz (Oswiecim) was situated in a remote corner of south-western Poland, in a marshy valley where the Sola River flows into the Vistula about thirty-five miles west of the ancient city of Krakow. The town was virtually unknown outside Poland and following the occupation of the country Oswiecim was incorporated into the Reich together with Upper Silesia and renamed by the German authorities as Auschwitz. Prior to the war, the town’s population was 12,000, including nearly 5,000 Jews. It was here in the small district town of Auschwitz that the Germans had chosen a site for a new concentration camp. Originally it had been a former Polish labour exchange and artillery barracks. The location for the site was deemed well situated for Auschwitz had very good railway connections and was isolated from outside observation.
SS-Hauptsturmführer (later Obersturmbannführer) Rudolf Höss was named as commandant of the new quarantine camp and set about adapting the site at Auschwitz to house around 10,000 prisoners. By the end of 1941 Auschwitz had slowly transformed from a quiet backwater quarantine camp in south western Poland, into one of the largest concentration camp systems of the Reich. In little over a year Auschwitz had developed into a dual function camp with many of the inmates that were sent there now living and working. The SS had produced an institution of brutality where it frequently killed others.
Since September 1940, the Auschwitz crematorium had been working at a steady pace burning the bodies of prisoners that died of natural death or were killed or executed. By 1941, the crematorium had in fact reached its maximum capacity of eighteen bodies per hour. In direct response to the dramatic increase of deaths in the camp Höss was prompted to authorise the expansion of the crematorium. After all he was well aware why it was most important to equip and expand his camp with a facility to murder, for the destruction of Bolshevism was about to begin in earnest.
Although Auschwitz remained a camp primarily for Polish prisoners, Höss received reports that the SS were actually weeding out commissars that were found hiding in German army POW camps. The first of these Soviet prisoners were transported to Auschwitz in July. Several hundreds of them were marched through the main gate, and from the moment they arrived they were treated much worse than the Polish inmates. They were hated at Auschwitz. Many of them were beaten and tortured, whilst some were shot in the gravel pits or were condemned to the cellars of Block 11. Here they were locked in the dark, cold cells and left to starve to death.
As a result of these increased deaths at Auschwitz the crematorium was once again working to full capacity. Executions were now so frequent that Höss was compelled to discuss at his meetings a more effective method of killing than just starving, shooting and hanging the victims, or having them murdered by lethal injection. Höss told his staff that to find an effective method was essential to guarantee the rapid effectiveness of cleansing the camp of what he deemed were undesirables, and those unfit for work.
Höss had become increasingly concerned at the amount of Russian POWs that would be sent to the camp and pass through the crematorium. By September the Germans had already captured an estimated three million Soviet prisoners. Some 100,000 of them were transferred from the Army to the SS in September, and many were earmarked for Auschwitz. According to a report, Himmler had ordered Hans Kammler, head of the Central SS Building Office, to inform the commandant of Auschwitz that the long-awaited giant POW camp at Auschwitz would be constructed next to the parent camp. Its construction was to house many of the new Soviet POWs, and the environment in which they were to be placed would ensure that large numbers of them would perish.
The site chosen for the extension of Auschwitz was near the Polish village of Brzezinka. This marshy tract of land surrounded by birch woods was situated nearly two miles west of the main camp. Although there had never been any concrete plans to construct a massive POW camp on the land, as a precaution, the houses of the small village of Brzezinka were cleared by the SS in July and all its inhabitants relocated elsewhere. The Germans renamed the area Birkenau. Russian POWs were used for slave labour to build the camp, having first dismantled the existing village. They were not given any tools with which to do this and instead had to pull down the buildings with their bare hands. Within fourteen days the quarantine camp had been completed and construction of the Birkenau site continued. At the end of February 1943 the first of Birkenau’s crematoria, Crematorium II, was finally completed.

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Showing the infamous gates of 'Arbeit Mact Frei' - Work Makes You Free. The inscription was the work of a Polish political prisoner called Jan Liwacz. Jan was a professional artsmith and had arrived at Auschwitz in the second transport sent from Wisnicz Prison on 20 June 1940. It still stands today as a reminder. [Courtesy of the HITM Archive and Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum]

the end
By 1944, with death camps like Kulmhof, Sobibor, Belzec, and Treblinka now closed down, it was up to the other camps, in particular Auschwitz-Birkenau, to take responsibility for the remnants of the Jewish communities of Poland, France, the Netherlands, Italy and the rest of occupied Europe. Hungary was one particular country that still had the largest amount of Jews. Almost 725,000 Jews were still on Hungarian territory, and for the German government that figure was too much of an opportunity to resist. When the German occupation forces rolled across into Hungary on 19 March, Himmler now wanted the Hungarian Jews transported to Auschwitz where they would be selected for slave labour and shipped out again through the various concentration camps that served the German industry. Those that were selected for labour would be held in quarantine until transport was made readily available to them. In effect, the Reichsführer was planning to turn Auschwitz into a huge labour exchange, just as he had done with the main camp in 1940. But now it was on a greater scale than ever before. The Auschwitz authorities were informed that they were to prepare for a huge assignment of Hungarian Jews. They were also told that more of an effort was to be made to separate those Jews who could serve the German war effort through work, but were to continue to use ‘special treatment’ on those that served absolutely no purpose for the Reich.
The first transport of Hungarian Jews, consisting of 1,800 people, had arrived in Birkenau in early May, but Höss was expecting many more convoys over the weeks to come. In preparation for their arrival he immediately set to work and ordered that Crematorium V be put into operation again. An engineer’s report, however, confirmed that Crematorium V furnaces were still damaged, and because of their slow incineration rate they had replaced them in late April by five small incineration ditches. In order to compensate the huge numbers of transports expected over the coming weeks it was suggested to reactivate Bunker II, and designate it as Bunker 2/V. Höss agreed, because from his past experiences at the camp it was not actually the process of killing the Jews that presented him and his SS colleagues with any problems; the hardest task was disposing of the gassed victims. So that he could facilitate the process of murder quickly and effectively he made SS-Hauptsturmführer Otto Moll in charge of all four crematoria, and assigned a special squad to enlarge the inside of the crematoria. From Crematorium V a special track was laid between the building and the pits so that the corpses could be loaded onto trolleys and disposed of quickly. As for the other killing installations, they were also overhauled including Crematoria II and III, which received new elevators connecting the gas chambers with the incineration rooms. Even the walls of the changing rooms and the gas chambers were given a fresh coat of paint.
To assist the smooth arrival of the Hungarian Jews and to provide a direct link between the Auschwitz station and the crematoria the train lines were extended through the main entrance of Birkenau with plans to run them right up to Crematoria II and III. Night and day hundreds of prisoners had been busy laying the three-way railway track through the camp, and constructing the loading and unloading ramps. By the second week of May the railway line was completed and the finishing touches were made to the ramps. From these ramps Höss would now coordinate the destruction of the Hungarian Jews, now code-named ‘Aktion Höss’.

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A photograph taken looking down towards the prisoners quarters, Block 25. On the right of the electric fence is the former registration building, and on the left is the camp kitchen. Note two of the camps prefabricated guard towers on the right. These were erected in early 1941. The whole site, when completed, was to have a very large camp kitchen, utility, theatre, registration buildings, Blockführer officer, commandant’s office, camp administration offices, SS hospital, a fully operational crematorium, Gestapo offices, medical block, and a large water pool reserve for fire emergencies. [Courtesy of the HITM Archive and Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum]

The first major Hungarian transports steamed their way through to Auschwitz on 15 May. Once they arrived the train pulled over the new spur through the gate into Birkenau and halted at the ramps. Here at the ramps ‘Aktion Höss’ was put into operation, firstly unloading of the Jews from the cattle trains. Once the Jews were unloaded they were immediately separated into two columns, one of women and children, the other of men. A selection was then carried out by one or two SS medical doctors and the two columns were divided into four columns; two of women and children, and two of men. Those unfit for labour were sent straight ahead toward the crematoria, whilst all able-bodied workers were interned in Auschwitz, or were retained ready at a moment’s notice to be transferred to other camps in the Reich. The selection for labour in each transport varied daily, sometimes it was as low as ten per cent, or as high as fifty per cent. But the majority of Jews that arrived through the gates of Birkenau were immediately sent through to the ‘bathhouses’ to their death. Roughly there were 3,300 people per day arriving, sometimes that figure even rose to 4,300. On 20 May, for instance, one convoy arrived with an average of 3,000 people of whom some 1,000 were able, and 2,000 were unable to work. The following day on 21 May two convoys were reported to have arrived from Hungary with 6,000 people of whom 2,000 were able to work and the remainder were directly sent to their death. During that day both the incinerators of Crematoria II and III were being serviced so the victims from the transport were disposed of in the three incineration ditches next to Crematorium V. Though the specially built track from the crematorium to the pits had been laid it was never used because it was considered an inconvenience. Instead, the Sonderkommando had to drag the corpses directly from the gas chamber to the pits.
As more convoys arrived daily at Birkenau from Hungary, Höss was kept continuously informed on its progress. Regularly he visited Birkenau where he watched the selections, and was even seen observing the burning of the corpses in the open-air ditches, ensuring that they were being disposed of quickly, ready for the next arrival. The transports varied daily, but from the very beginning of the ‘Aktion’ until midnight on 28 May, it had been reported that some 184,049 Jews had arrived in Auschwitz in fifty-eight trains. Within a period of just two weeks approximately 122,700 persons that were deemed unsuitable for forced labour were subsequently sent to their death. Birkenau was effectively gassing over 8,000 Jews on average each day. For the Auschwitz authorities the numbers were no less impressive for it was the most sustained mass killing so far in the history of the camp, and only comparable to the scale of murders undertaken at Treblinka during July and August 1942.
In order to ensure that the camp would not generate into chaotic disorder the SS increased the numbers of Sonderkommando that were working in shifts in the four crematoria. By the end of May there were nearly 900 of these people living and working in the crematoria. The whole of this horrific operation was supervised only by a handful of SS men.
Throughout June more trains continued to arrive from Hungary. Though the operation was a success, the high numbers gassed began to exceed the official incineration capacity, and as a result the crematoria begun overflowing with the dead. Many victims were already being burned in the pits nearby to cope with the high amount of corpses, but Moll, who oversaw the liquidation of the Hungarian Jews, assured his superiors that the ‘Moll Plan’ would be achieved swiftly and successfully.
Over the coming weeks an orgy of destruction escalated. Thousands of Hungarian Jews continued their one-way passage to the crematoria, including valuable labour. Höss had observed how families had often fought to stay together during the selections, and watched with fascination how children clung to their mothers, screaming and crying. Instead of wrenching children from their mother’s arms he had learnt that the best way to prevent any emotional disturbances was to reluctantly send young and healthy women suitable for hard labour to the gas chambers with their offspring. Many Hungarian women and children went to their deaths in this way.
No matter how gruesome the outcome was for these hapless Hungarian Jews during the summer of 1944, the SS had created the perfect killing factory on an industrial scale. All four crematoria were now working more or less on a daily basis, killing thousands each day. The ovens continued to work at full capacity and the incineration ditches were being used day and night. The frenetic gassings and burnings carried on for days and weeks regardless of the deteriorating military situation. During July an average of 3,500 each day were arriving at the ramps with more than three-quarters of the new arrivals being sent directly to the crematoria for ‘special treatment’. This phenomenal figure certainly demonstrated the SS efficiency to oversee ‘Aktion Höss’ with a fanatical determination. In no less than eight weeks they had masterminded the killing of more than 320,000 Hungarian Jews. During July Budapest confirmed that the deportations were to be suspended.

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A photograph taken by a Russian photographic unit showing children that have survived Auschwitz. By their physical condition it is more than probable that they have not been in the camp very long. [Courtesy of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum/USHMM - Yad-Vashem Museum]

Auschwitz had finally evolved, and it was now left in the capable hands of the new commander to start making plans to liquidate whole sections of Birkenau. One particular section that had been discussed was the gypsy camp. At its peak there were estimated to be some 23,000 gypsy men and women in the camp. However, thanks to overcrowding combined with the lack of food and water, disease had quickly spread throughout the camp killing 20,000 of the 23,000 gypsies. Those remaining were rounded up on the night of 2 August and marched off to the crematoria and gassed.
Over the next few months the killings at Auschwitz continued, but as the fighting on the Eastern Front deteriorated and the Russians pushed ever deeper into Poland, the Auschwitz authorities were ordered to cease extermination operations across the Reich. At Birkenau the Sonderkommando had dismantled all the killing apparatus. The incineration ditches too had been cleared and levelled, and pits which had been filled with ash and crushed bones of murdered prisoners were emptied and covered with fresh turf and other plantation. Crematorium I in the main camp had been turned into an air raid shelter and the chimney and holes in the ceiling in which the Zyklon B was thrown in was removed. All the furnaces of Crematoria I, II, III and IV were dismantled and usable parts transported to other camps. On the night of 17 January some 58,000 prisoners were evacuated from Monowitz and the Auschwitz sub-camps, with about 20,000 coming from the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp alone. Very few were evacuated by train, with the majority of them being forced into the snow and marched in freezing night-time temperatures westward towards Germany. As they shuffled along the icy road behind them the night sky lit with flashes and the distant sounds of Russian gunfire rumbled across the horizon. Anyone – including children – who was unable to keep pace with the mass exodus was shot and their murdered corpses left at the roadside. The scenes were utterly terrible.
Amidst the chaotic evacuation order, the small groups of SS left behind at Auschwitz were given instructions for the demolition of the crematoria including Bunkers I and II. After having blown up the remaining shells of Crematoria II and III in the early afternoon of 20 January, six days later they dynamited Crematorium V. As for Crematorium IV, this building had been demolished after it had been damaged by fire following a revolt in October 1944 by Sonderkommando. During the demolition of the crematoria special SS units murdered around 700 prisoners at Birkenau and nearby sub-camps. As news of the Red Army advanced along the main road from Krakow, the guards were ordered to destroy the last of the camp records, set fire to the Canada stores and liquidate the remaining prisoners in the camp. However, more concerned with saving their own lives than following orders the SS guards fled the camp leaving the soldiers of the First Ukrainian Front to liberate Auschwitz and its sub-camps.
'By 1944, with death camps like Kulmhof, Belzec, and Treblinka now closed down, it was up to the other camps, in particular Auschwitz-Birkenau, to take responsibility for the remnants of the Jewish communities of Poland, France, the Netherlands, Italy and the rest of occupied Europe.'

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The main entrance to Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp.

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SS-Obersturmbannfuhrer Rudolf Hoss, in 1944.

'Executions were now so frequent that Hoss was compelled to discuss a this meetings a more effective method of killing than just starving, shooting and hanging the victims, or having them murdered by lethal injection. Hoss told his staff that to find an effective method was essential to guarantee the rapid effectiveness of cleansing the camp of what he deemed were undesirables.'

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One of a number of signs posted around the camp warning prisoners not to pass beyond the sign into a prohibited stretch of land bordering the high tension electric fence. The red brick building in front of the fence is the registration building. Here new prisoners would be catalogued, receive their camp registration number; have their photograph taken, before being escorted by armed guard through the main gates to serve their sentence. [Courtesy of the HITM Archive and Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum]

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A photograph taken between the double fence perimeter between the camp administration offices and prisoner block no 12. At the far end is one of the camps prefabricated wooden guard towers. [Courtesy of the HITM Archive and Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum]

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Prisoners from Auschwitz-Birkenau on a work detail being escorted along a road. They are wearing the distinctive blue-and-white-striped uniforms. These are male prisoners as they can be identified wearing hats. Female prisoners were sometimes required to wear headscarves. [Courtesy of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum]
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A long column of women and children including the elderly are led away down towards Crematorium II to a fate that can only be imagined. In little under an hour, pending on the volume of people that entered the camp that day, all those regarded as ‘unfit for work’, were led down to the Crematorium and filed into what was known as the central room and undressed there in preparation for gassing. [USHMM - Courtesy of Yad-Vashem Museum]

'Within a period of just two weeks approximately 122,700 persons that were deemed unsuitable for forced labour were subsequently sent to their death. Birkenau was effectively gassing over 8,000 Jews on average each day.'

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A photograph showing Hungarian women with their children being led through the camp to the crematorium to be gassed. [USHMM - Courtesy of Yad-Vashem Museum]

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SS officers including Rudolf Höss watch as Commandant Baer exchanges documents with Karl Bischoff during the dedication of the new SS hospital in Auschwitz. [Courtesy of USHMM Archives]

'On the night of 17 January some 58,000 prisoners were evacuated from Monowitz and the Auschwitz sub-camps, with about 20,000 coming from the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp alone. Very few were evacuated by train, with the majority of them being forced into the snow and marched in freezing night-time temperatures westward towards Germany... Anyone - including children - who was unable to keep pace with the mass exodus was shot and their murdered corpses left at the roadside. The scenes were utterly terrible.'

Further Reading


Auschwitz Death Camp
(Paperback - 128 pages)
ISBN: 9781848840720

by Ian Baxter
Only £14.99

The concentration camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau was the site of the single largest mass murder in history. Over one million mainly Jewish men, women, and children were murdered in its gas chambers. Countless more died as a result of disease and starvation.

Auschwitz Death Camp is a chilling pictorial record of this infamous establishment. Using some 250 photographs together with detailed captions and accompanying text, it describes how Auschwitz evolved from a brutal labour camp at the beginning of the war into what was literally a factory…
Read more at Pen & Sword Books...

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