auschwitz main gate 2016

Auschwitz Main Gate March 2016

The Auschwitz complex of concentration camps created by the SS was the largest and well-known ‘murder factories’ that has been developed in the history of mankind. In less than five years the SS killed nearly 1.3 million people. Over 90 percent of the victims were Jews from all over occupied Europe. For many people the name Auschwitz remains synonymous with the Holocaust itself. The Auschwitz main camp, also known as Auschwitz I, located outside the small Polish city of Oswiecim, was the centre of the Auschwitz camp complex. The camp came into being because of the efforts of Reichsführer- SSHeinrich Himmler’s plenipotentiary in Breslau the Höhere SS- und Polizeiführer Sudost Erich von dem Bach –Zelewski, and his deputy, SS-  

Brigadeiführer Arpad Wigand. By December 1939, these two senior SS leaders wanted to establish a concentration camp for Police resistance members and criminals in Silesia, since the prisons in the region were already overcrowded. Eventually, Himmler approved the site of Auschwitz for the creation of such a camp, and he issued the order on 27 April 1940, and on 4 May 1940, he appointed SS- Hauptsturmführer Rudolf Höss, as camp commandant. The camp’s initial capacity was to be at least 10,000 inmates. The first prisoners – 300 local Polish Jews arrived shortly thereafter to begin work on the site. On 20 May 1940, Rapportführer Gerhard Palitzsch brought  30 German common criminals from Sachsenhausen concentration camp to act as Prisoner Functionaries. Nine days later on 29 May 1940, forty prisoners from Dachau concentration camp led by SS- Unterscharführer Beck, one Kapo and 39 Polish prisoners – young men, mainly secondary school pupils from Lodz. They brought a wagonload of barbed-wire and began to erect a fence.

By early June 1940, the original fence was complete, and Höss had approved arrangements with J.A.Topf & Sons from Erfurt to build and install the first crematorium. By mid-summer, renovation was also completed on the building designated Block 11, which housed large holding cells, offices and interrogation rooms for the Auschwitz camp Political Section and the regional Gestapo, as well as a basement complex serving as a punishment block of torture rooms, darkened cells, and tiny standing cubicles, where prisoners would be crammed in and left to starve. On 14 June 1940, Auschwitz received the first transport of 728 Polish men  from the prison in Tarnow on the orders of the Krakow Sipo and SD commander. The prisoners are given the numbers 31-758 and are quarantined in the building of the former Polish tobacco monopoly. More than 7,800 prisoners were registered in Auschwitz by the end of 1940. During the camp’s first months in operation, Höss received very little assistance from the SS and virtually no support from other government or military agencies or private companies. The situation changed dramatically, however, when Auschwitz attracted Himmler’s attention for its economic and ideological potential. Within a year, plans for the facility were expanded to incorporate construction, industrial production, agriculture and mass-killing. Meanwhile, the camp’s role in terrorising the inmates continued. Prisoner transports arrived regularly and by the spring of 1941, Höss had established a firm collaboration with the regional SS and police in carrying out the growing number of killings in Block 11. There, SS camp personnel, including Gerhard Palitzsch, shot thousands of Polish hostages and Gestapo detainees, prisoners they never registered or noted in Auschwitz records, after perfunctory trials conducted by Rudolf Mildner, the head of the Kattowitz Gestapo, that sat at least monthly in Block 11.

Auschwitz grew steadily and in March 1941, in connection with the recently agreed establishment of the IG Farben complex at the nearby hamlet of Dwory and the preparations for the invasion of the Soviet Union, Himmler ordered Höss to increase the inmate capacity to 30,000. By that spring, the Germans had already registered 15,000 prisoners, of which 3,000 had died. All told, between May 1940 and January 1945, approximately 405,000 men, women and children from every country in Europe and from many lands overseas arrived at Auschwitz I for registration, tattooing and assignment to other camps within the Auschwitz sub-camps complex. Of those 405,000, approximately 200,000 perished. The mortality rate for registered inmates was much higher than that of the SS concentration camps at Dachau, Buchenwald and even Mauthausen, which by SS classification standards was even harsher than Auschwitz. Within the diverse inmate population, different groups occupied different roles and places within the camp hierarchy. Originally, violent and professional criminals from Germany, known as the ‘greens’ because of the colour designation used by the SS, held the most trusted positions as prisoner –functionaries in Auschwitz, known as: camp elder (Lageraltester), block elder (Blockaltester), room leaders (Stubendienste), work overseers (Kapo’s), and work foreman (Vorabeiter). The SS counted on them, as violent criminals to physically mistreat the inmates under their stewardship. During 1941, however, Polish political prisoners gradually replaced the German ‘greens’ as the most numerous inmate functionaries.

Until early 1941, the largest influx of prisoners into Auschwitz consisted of Poles, followed by German, Austrian, and Western European transfers from other SS concentration camps. These inmates were classed as enemies of the state by the Nazis, under various categories such as ‘political, associals, Jehovah Witnesses, homosexuals, Protestant and Catholic clergymen. Between July and December 1941, approximately 10,000 Soviet Prisoners of War (POW’s) were sent to Auschwitz, and by May 1942, most of these soldiers had been murdered or had died of starvation, disease and exhaustion. About one-half of all the inmates registered in Auschwitz, each year were Jews, Poles made up the majority of the rest. Jews from all over Europe began arriving in Auschwitz on deportation trains during the spring of 1942. Only a fraction of these people survived the on-arrival selections. By mid-1943, all registered Jewish inmates had been moved from the Auschwitz main camp to the Birkenau camp. Small numbers of Gypsies were registered in the Auschwitz main camp in 1942 and then deported en masse to a special compound in Birkenau, until their murder in August 1944. Gypsies, Soviet Prisoners of War, and Jews were considered the lowest-ranking inmates. They were the most frequent abused by the Kapo’s, and the SS and were routinely selected for systematic killing.   

In practice, all inmates at Auschwitz had to work. Forced labour was essential to the SS culture of inmate persecution as well as to economic priorities. Inmates worked within the Auschwitz camps in administrative, service and clerical jobs, in skilled trades and crafts. Outside, they worked on roads, farms, swamps, fish hatcheries, factories, mines, chemical plants, armaments works, utilities, and other industrial concerns. Between June 1940 and January 1945, the SS and the Nazi state realised a net profit more than 60   million Reichsmark (RM), from the exploitation of the camp’s inmates. The inmates received no payment of any kind, the SS, the German state, private industries used them as slaves. In Auschwitz the Nazis pursued experiments in respect of sterilization of both men and women, from races the Nazis considered inferior. Professor Carl Clauberg and Dr. Horst Schumann led the experiments, Professor Clauberg on women and Dr Schumann on men. The experiments commenced during 1942, initially at Birkenau, but were transferred to Block 10, in the Auschwitz main camp, which had been specially vacated for this purpose. Few prisoners survived these experiments. Some died as a result of their injuries, while others were killed by phenol injections or by gassing as being classified unfit for work. Killings by lethal injections were commonplace in Auschwitz. Selections of the sick were conducted by SS doctors, and the phenol injections were usually administered by the SS medical orderlies Josef Klehr and Herbert Scherpe, and by the prisoners Alfred Stesel and Mieczyslaw Panszczyk, who had been taught the technique. In the space of four months during August, September, November and December 1942, 2,467 people were killed with phenol injections.  

By 1943, the number of Auschwitz sub-camps multiplied rapidly, and by mid-1944, the Auschwitz main camp served as the SS command and administrative centre for a network of more than 30 smaller external sub-camps. The number of private or non-SS concerns using prisoner forced labour grew to include IG Farben’s coal mining works at Furstengrube, Janinagrube, and Gunthergrube; Siemens-Schuckertwerke AG’s electrical components plant; the Reich Railway Rolling Stock Repair Yard; the Oberschlesische Hydrierwerke AG (Upper Silesia Synthetic Gas Works); the Trzebinia oil refinery and reprocessing plant; as well as 150 smaller German firms that subcontracted with the SS for slave workers in smaller ventures such as textile mills, shoe factories, and retail businesses. Thousands of men and women perished performing slave labour from hunger, dehydration, exposure, disease, and exhaustion. Others were beaten to death by Kapo’s, or shot by the SS guards for sport, or for trying to escape. Whilst others were torn to pieces by SS guard dogs, or, at the end of their strength, pulled from the ranks by SS doctors and sent back to Auschwitz main camp or Birkenau to be killed by lethal injection or murdered in the gas chambers. The endless stream of new arrivals constantly replenished the ranks of those destined to endure the relentless circle of exploitation, then death.

The development of the gassing techniques was crucial to the Nazis developing the ‘Final Solution’ to the Jewish question in Europe. At the end of August 1941, while Höss was absent in Berlin,SS- Lagerführer Karl Fritzsch, sealed the basement of Block 11 and gassed to death several hundred Soviet Prisoners of War (POW’s) using a powerful commercial-grade prussic acid gas, more commonly known as Zyklon B, which was used in the camps for delousing prisoners clothing. Fritzsch repeated the experiment in the cellar of Block 11, this time murdering 250 inmates from the camp’s infirmary and about 600 more Soviet Prisoners of War, after the evening roll call. On 16 September 1941, 900 Soviet Prisoners of War were killed with Zyklon B gas in the morgue of the crematorium, after holes were made in the ceiling of the mortuary and the crystals poured through them. On 15 February 1942, the first transport of Jews destined to be gassed arrives from Beuthen. They are unloaded on the platform on the camp siding, and are led to the gas chamber in the main camp crematorium. Here they are killed with Zyklon B.

Survival in Auschwitz involved obtaining extra food, avoiding physical abuse by the guards and Kapo’s and avoiding the more murderous outdoor working kommando’s. This was done by ‘organising’ which meant stealing or smuggling valuables that could be bartered for food or privileges. ‘Organising’ brought physical advantages and also raised stature by proving one had the ability or the connections that could help others survive. The scope and scale of ‘organising’ in Auschwitz was so vast, as to be virtually unique, among all the wartime SS concentration camps, mainly because of the personal effects confiscated from the gassed Jewish victims.  

The task of guarding the Auschwitz main camp, as well as Auschwitz II (Birkenau) and Auschwitz III (Monowitz), and all the sub-camps was the responsibility of the SS-Death’s Head Guard Battalion for Auschwitz. This unit grew along with the camp, from 500 guards in late 1940, to 2,000 in July 1942, and this rose to over 4,500 in January 1945. Initially, it was comprised of older men from the police, SS reservists, and transfers from the SS guard units in other concentration camps, from the Allgemeine (General) SS, and from Waffen-SS reserve and replacement formations. Later it received increasing numbers of wounded or older Waffen-SS men from the Russian Front. In March 1942, the first SS –women guard auxiliaries arrived to guard the women’s compound that had opened in the Auschwitz main camp. Beginning in early 1943, large numbers of young ethnic German SS recruits from Slovakia, Croatia, Hungary, Rumania, Estonia, and Latvia began to arrive. Many of these younger SS guards were subsequently called up for front-line duty with the Waffen-SS. In June 1944, Höss brought in 500 Wehrmacht veterans, gave them SS uniforms, and used them as additional manpower during the mass extermination of the Hungarian Jews.    

On 11 November 1943,SS- Obersturmbannführer Arthur Liebehenschel took over the position of Commandant from Rudolf Höss, who was transferred as head of Amstgruppe D of the WVHA in Berlin. The appointment of Liebehenschel also brought about a re-organisation of the camp structure, and three separate camps – Auschwitz I (Main Camp); Aushwitz II (Birkenau); Auschwitz III (Monowitz). On 8 May 1944, Liebehenschel was transferred to the post of Commandant of the Lublin Concentration camp and former camp commandant Rudolf Höss is appointed SS Camp Senior and three days later SS- Sturmbannführer Richard Baer took over as Commandant of Auschwitz I. Approximately 7,000 SS personnel who served at Auschwitz between June 1940 and January 1945, survived the war, and less than 10 percent of those, about 630 were apprehended and tried for their participation in mass murder. There were no Auschwitz SS defendants at the Nuremburg War Crimes Trial, although Rudolf Höss testified as a witness for Ernst Kaltenbrunner. The British Forces then extradited Höss to Warsaw to face the Polish Supreme National Tribunal, which came into being in January 1946, to try the most important Nazi and SS criminals who committed war crimes in Poland. Rudolf Höss stood trial from 11 March 1947 to 29 March 1947. He was found guilty and the Tribunal sentenced him to death, and he was hanged in the Auschwitz main camp, beside the building of his office on 16 April 1947.

In the second trial held before the Supreme National Tribunal in Krakow which lasted from 25 November to 16 December 1947. Forty former SS personnel were accused, among them were Arthur Liebenhenschel, who succeeded Höss as commandant; Maximillian Grabner, former head of the camp Gestapo; Hans Aumeier, former Lagerführer; Maria Mandel, commander of the Women’s Camp in Birkenau; Dr Johann Kremer, Dr Hans Munch, Erich Muhsfeld, head of the crematorium, Karl Mockel, head of the supply department and others. The sentences were announced on 22 December 1947. Twenty-three of the accused were sentenced to death, six to life imprisonment, seven to fifteen years each, and two to ten-and-a-half and three years imprisonment respectively. One of the accused Dr Hans Munch was found not guilty. One of the most important trials of former SS personnel to be held in the Federal Republic of Germany was that of 22 men, among them; Robert Mulka, Karl Hoecker, Wilhelm Boger, Hans Stark, Perry Broad, Oswald Kaduk, Josef Klehr and others. The trial in Frankfurt took place between December 1963 and August 1965. Seventeen of them were convicted and sentenced to prison – 6 to life and 11 to terms ranging from 20 years to 3 years.   


The Encyclopaedia of Camps and Ghettos 1933-1945, USHMM,Indiana University Press Bloomington and Indianapolis 2012

M. C. Yerger, Allgemeine –SS, Schiffer Military History, Atglen, PA, 1997

D. Czech, Auschwitz Chronicle, Henry Holt and Company, New York1989

Auschwitz Nazi Extermination Camp, Interpress Publishers, Warsaw 1985

Photograph – Tall Trees Archive

© Holocaust Historical Society 2016