Auschwitz II- Birkenau

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Auschwitz-Birkenau - Main Gate

The Birkenau camp, which was designated Auschwitz II was the largest of the camps and sub-camps included in the vast Auschwitz complex. It combined the function of a mass killing centre, like Belzec, Sobibor or Treblinka, with its murderous gas chambers, alongside as a source of manpower for the Reich, and its incarceration of people in a concentration camp setting. The majority of the victims of the Auschwitz complex of camps, some 90 percent, perished at Birkenau – an approximate total of 1 million people, of which over 90 percent of them were Jews. In addition, a significant portion of the approximately 70,000 Poles who died or were killed in the Auschwitz complex died at Birkenau, as well as about 20,000 Gypsies, Soviet Prisoners of War and thousands of people of other nationalities.

The idea of establishing a camp near the village of Brzezinska, which was located near the Auschwitz main camp was proposed by Reichsführer- SS Heinrich Himmler during his first inspection visit to Auschwitz on 1 March 1941. Himmler ordered Rudolf Höss, the commandant, to enlarge the Auschwitz main camp to hold 30,000 prisoners; to build a camp for 100,000 prisoners of war near the village of Brzezinska (Birkenau in German); to make 10,000 prisoners available to I.G.Farben for the construction of an industrial plant in Dwory and other projects. The camp’s first designs and plans were drawn up by the SS Main Office for Budget and Buildings which later in February 1942 became part of the SS-Business Administration Main Office (WVHA). These plans initially provided for a camp with a capacity of 125,000 prisoners, but in October 1941, during the initial construction phase, the Germans increased the capacity to 200,000. According to these plans the camp would eventually consist of four sections, called building sectors (Bauabsschnitte), numbered BI to BIV, the first sector was to hold 20,000 people, while the other three would hold 60,000 each. The entire camp was to occupy 432 acres.

It was the prisoners who performed the construction of the camp in Birkenau, between 7 October and 23 October 1941, approximately 10,000 Soviet Prisoners of War (POW’s) were brought from POW camps at Lamsdorf and Neuhammer. They were placed in temporary and segregated barracks within the Auschwitz main camp and were marched daily to the village at Birkenau, where construction began on sector BI. Birkenau expanded during the years 1941 up to 1944, and progressed as far as section BIII, although this was only partially completed (which was called ‘Mexico’ by the prisoners). In total, over an area of about 346 acres, the Germans erected approximately 300 barracks and residential, administrative, and service buildings, 8 miles of drainage ditches, 10 miles of barbed-wire fencing, 7 miles of roads and six gas chamber facilities. Four of these were purpose built in massive brick structures, whilst two were converted farm houses, known as the ‘Red House’ and the ‘White House’. In the area between the Gas Chamber and Crematorium III and Gas Chamber and Crematorium IV were the warehouses that collected the personal belongings of the Jews gassed in Birkenau, which according to the prisoners was known as ‘Canada,’ a land of great wealth.  Adolf Eichmann visited Auschwitz on 15 September 1941 to inform Höss, that Himmler had decided to use Auschwitz as one of the sites for the Final Solution of the Jewish question. A peasant farmstead situated in the northwest corner of what later became sector BIII in Birkenau was to be converted into the gas chamber.  

On 20 March 1942, a farmstead now converted into two gas chambers, were put into operation; this is the so-called Bunker Number 1, also known as the ‘Red House.’ A transport of Polish Jews from Upper Silesia, were taken from the unloading platform at the freight depot in Auschwitz directly to the gas chambers. The corpses of the murdered people were buried in mass graves in a nearby meadow. In June 1942, in connection with an increase in the transports of Jews to Auschwitz, four gas chambers were built in a farmhouse, similar to Bunker Number 1. It is located west of the later site of Crematoriums IV and V and is designated Bunker Number 2, also known as the ‘White House.’ Next to it, three barracks are built to serve as undressing rooms, for the people prior to gassing. A month later on 17 July 1942, Heinrich Himmler carried out his second inspection visit to Auschwitz. After inspections of the farms, dam construction, the laboratories, and the plant breeding in Rajsko, and the camp in Birkenau, Himmler witnesses the extermination process. He attends the unloading, the selection of the able-bodied, the killing by gas in Bunker Number 2, and the clearing of the bunker. The corpses were buried in mass graves. The following day Himmler visits the camp where personal effects are sorted and stored, the so-called ‘Canada’ and the DAW plant, as well as other camp facilities. He ordered Höss to continue to expand the Auschwitz complex and promoted him to the rank of SS- Obersturmbannführer.

Prior to Himmler’s visit, in early July 1942, the Central Construction Board of the Waffen-SS and Police in Auschwitz commenced negotiations with various firms concerning the construction of four large crematoria together with gas chambers. An offer accompanied by an estimate of 133,756,65 Reichsmark for the building of one crematorium was lodged on 13 July 1942, by the firm of Hoch-und Tiefbau AG of Katowice. The building of the crematorium ovens and the installation of the necessary equipment in the gas chambers was undertaken by the firm J.A.Topf und Sohne of Erfurt. On 29 January 1943, Head Engineer Prufer, from the firm of J.A.Topf visits Birkenau and confirms that Crematorium II can commence operations on 15 February 1943, and that Crematorium III can start up operations on 17 April 1943, at the earliest. The work on Crematorium IV should be completed on 28 February 1943, but the completion of Crematorium V will depend on weather conditions. On 5 March 1943, a test heating of the ovens in Crematorium II under Head Kapo August Bruck, who had been transferred from Buchenwald concentration camp, takes place. A high level commission from Berlin inspects the performance, 45 corpses take 40 minutes to cremate, which is an unexpectedly long time. The Sonderkommando are instructed to let the generators run for several days to heat the ovens up.

Each of these modern crematoria was surrounded by a barbed-wire fence, with a separate entrance, and was concealed from the camp by a wicker fence. Neatly tended flower beds gave the whole place an innocent appearance. The gas chambers and undressing rooms attached to Crematorium II and III were underground. On the walls of the spacious undressing room were appropriate notices and numbered pegs to hang clothes on with benches under them. The gas chambers had piping and imitation showers. People entering the chambers – first women with children, followed by men – were led up to the opposite wall, behind a cordon of SS men standing in front of it. As the gas chamber filled up, the SS withdrew towards the door. In this way 3,000 people would be crammed into a gas chamber with a floor space of 210 square meters.

In Crematoria IV and V, for reasons of economy, the gas chambers had not been built underground but on the surface. Each of these chambers had been originally divided into three, later four compartments. As in the two converted farmsteads, the so called Bunkers 1 and 2, the gas shafts attached to Crematoria IV and V were in the side walls. In the gas chambers attached to Crematoria II and III the gas was introduced through openings in the ceiling which led into special pillars made of thick wire netting and with a moveable core, which reached to the floor. The SS disinfector opened a tin of Zyklon B and threw its contents into a special separating cone, thanks to which , the lumps of diatomite distributed themselves evenly inside the core of the mesh pillar, which hastened the process of gassing.

The grisly tasks of supervising the undressing of the Jewish victims, the removal from the gas chambers, the shaving of hair, removal of gold teeth, and the burial and later burning of the corpses, was undertaken by specially selected Jewish males, known as Sonderkommando. Their number varied with the size and frequency of transports slated for extermination. In order to isolate them from other prisoners the members of the Sonderkommando were quartered separately, in the cellars of Block 11, in the main camp, and at Birkenau in a block specially set aside for them. From mid-1944, they were housed above the crematoria where they worked. The first Sonderkommando – numbering about 80 prisoners – which had been employed to bury the bodies of those gassed in Bunker 1 and Bunker 2, were liquidated in August 1942. The second - numbering some 150 to 300 prisoners – which had been employed in these same bunkers from September to the end of November 1942 were gassed on 3 December 1942 in the gas chambers attached to Crematorium 1 in the main camp. The Sonderkommando reached a peak of about 1,000 prisoners in the early summer of 1944 during the mass extermination of the Jews from Hungary took place.

On 30 May 1943, the position of Camp Doctor in the Gypsy Family Camp in Birkenau is taken over by SS- Hauptsturmführer Dr. Josef Mengele. Dr Mengele was wounded on the Eastern Front in the spring of 1943, volunteers for service in the concentration camps. He conducts selections at the ramp, sending thousands to their deaths. In Birkenau he conducts pseudoscientific research on twins and dwarfs, killing many of them in the pursuit of so-called research purposes.

With transports of Jews from all over occupied Europe arriving in Birkenau from 1942 onwards, the living conditions deteriorated and lessened the prisoners’ chances of survival. Sleeping arrangements consisted of wooden shelves, with a minimum of straw bedding, on which the prisoners were packed. The camp uniform consisted of a striped jacket and trousers of rough cloth, which were never changed or washed, stiff with dirt, sweat, and excrement, infested with lice and poor protection against the harsh Polish climate. Wooden shoes were the only footwear. The diet consisted of the lowest quality food in amounts that could barely sustain life; the only hope for survival lay in ‘organising’ additional food. Prisoners that fell sick either got better by themselves or perished; there was no medical care to speak of. Prisoners who managed to stay alive, but became too weak to work, were subject to murderous selections, the Germans were not interested in keeping ‘useless eaters’ alive.

In November 1943, Höss was replaced as commandant by Arthur Liebehenschel and Birkenau was designated as Auschwitz II under the command of SS- Sturmbannführer Fritz Hartjenstein. At this time a special commission visited Auschwitz under Dr. Morgen, and on 7 December 1943, a barrack where evidence of valuables and jewelry found on SS men was destroyed in a fire.

On 7 April 1944, two prisoners escape from Auschwitz II; they are the Slovak Jews Alfred Wetzler and Walter Rosenberg, who later uses the name Rudolf Vrba. They make their way by foot to Slovakia and make contact with representatives of the Jewish Council to whom they give oral and written accounts of their stay in Birkenau. The complete text of their report is published during November 1944, by the War Refugee Board in Washington DC, United States of America. Jewish groups in Britain and the United States urged the Allied governments to bomb the Birkenau extermination centre or the railway connections that served the camp, but these pleas were to no avail.

In May 1944, significant changes are made to the chain of command in the main camp and in Birkenau. SS- Sturmbannführer Fritz Hartjenstein is transferred from Birkenau to become commandant of Natzweiler concentration camp, and is replaced by SS- Hauptsturmführer Josef Kramer. Former camp commandant Rudolf Höss returns as SS Camp Senior in order to take charge of the mass extermination of the Jews from Hungary. In connection with the planned destruction of Hungarian Jews, Höss orders the completion of a new unloading ramp, within Birkenau itself, and three track rail connections in Birkenau to be accelerated. He also ordered that the inactive ovens in Crematorium V be ready for operation and that next to Crematorium V, three large and two small pits for the incineration of corpses be dug. He also orders that Bunker 2 – the so-called ‘White House’ is to put back into operation and that incineration trenches are to be dug next to it. He orders that barracks to be used as undressing rooms constructed, near the restored gas chamber. SS- Hauptscharführer Otto Moll was promoted to the post of Director of all crematoriums.

On 16 May 1944, the Germans attempt to liquidate the Gypsy Family Camp in Sector BII e in Birkenau, but the Gypsies forewarned about the liquidation arm themselves with knives, crowbars etc refuse to leave their barracks and the SS abandon the attempt for the moment. On the same day three RSHA transports of Hungarian Jews arrived at the ramp in Birkenau and the prisoners recalled that the chimneys of the crematorium ‘could be seen smoking.’ Between 16 May 1944, and 7 July 1944, in all 147 freight trains left Hungary carrying some 435,000 Jewish men, women, and children to Auschwitz-Birkenau.  The procedure which was followed every day, is worth capturing;

After getting off the train cars, families were separated, and two columns were formed. One column was of men and older boys; the second was of women and children of both sexes. Then they were brought forward to SS doctors or other camp functionaries participating in the selection process. The victims were judged by appearance; sometimes a brief question was asked of them about age or trade. A life –or-death decision followed.

As a rule, in Jewish transports, all children under fourteen and the elderly were condemned to death. Depending on the composition of a given transport, 20 percent on average were selected for work. They were brought to the camp registered as prisoners, and serial camp numbers were tattooed on their arms. Those selected for gassing – men, women, and children –were escorted by SS men to the gas chambers. Those unable to walk were loaded onto trucks, while others marched to their destination. Before entering the gas chamber, the victims had to disrobe in the undressing rooms attached to the crematoria. Throughout the procedure the SS men kept the victims destined for gassing in complete ignorance of what lay in store for them. The people soon to be gassed were told they would be placed in a camp, but first they had to be disinfected and washed. After they undressed, the victims were led to a gas chamber, the doors were locked, and the poison gas Zyklon B was released.

When all the victims had died, the Sonderkommando prisoners removed the bodies from the gas chamber, cut off the women’s hair, and removed all precious metals from dental work and jewelry. Then the bodies were incinerated in the crematoria ovens, or were incinerated in pits, or on pyres. The bones that remained after the burning were powdered and, after being mixed with the ashes, were sunk into the waters of the Vistula and Sola rivers, or scattered over ponds or fields as fertilizer, or used to fill in land depressions or swamps. On 2 August 1944, and a selection is made in the Gypsy Camp and approximately 1,400 are sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp. Following the evening roll call, the Gypsy Family Camp is liquidated. Trucks take 2,897 men, women, and children to the gas chambers in Birkenau. After the gassing, the corpses of the murdered are incinerated in the pit next to the crematorium.

On 7 October 1944, members of the Sonderkommando learn of the SS plans to liquidate them and during the midday break, in Crematorium IV, the prisoners start to discuss an uprising, and are surprised by a German prisoner who threatens to report them to the SS. The informer is killed on the spot. At 1.25 p.m. the members of Crematorium IV attack an approaching SS guard unit with stones, axes and hammers. They set Crematorium IV on fire, and throw several hand-made grenades. Afterwards some of the prisoners from Squad 59B of Crematorium IV reach the small wooded area nearby. At the same time the Sonderkommando in Crematorium II, Squad 57B, become active. When they see the revolt in Crematorium IV, they overpower the Head Kapo, a German from the Reich, and push him and an SS man into the burning crematorium oven. They beat to death a second SS man, tear up the fence that surrounds the crematorium area and flee. The Sonderkommando members in Crematorium III and Crematorium V do not revolt as the SS men move quickly to prevent any action and the SS launch a ferocious attack on the woods near Crematorium IV. In Rajsko the fleeing prisoners of Squad 57B from Crematorium II, barricade themselves into a barn and prepare to fight. The SS troops set fire to the barn and 250 prisoners are killed. Amongst those killed are organizers of the revolt, such as; Zelman Gradowski, Josef Dorebus, Jozef Deresinski, Ajzyk Kalniak, Lajb Langfus and Lajb Panusz. A fire fighting squad is sent from Auschwitz I to put out the fire in Crematorium IV and subsequently they are sent to Rajsko to put out the fire in the barn. In the evening, all the prisoners who were killed were brought to the grounds of Crematorium IV. All the members of the Sonderkommando are assembled, and a further 200 are shot on the spot. During the revolt 3 SS men were killed by the prisoners; Rudolf Erler, Willi Freese, and Josef Purke. .

On 14 October 1944, members of the Sonderkommando were employed in pulling down the walls of the partially destroyed Crematorium IV, and on 26 November 1944, the SS Commandant orders the destruction of all the crematoriums in Auschwitz-Birkenau. The members of the Sonderkommando dismantle the technical installations of the gas chambers and the ovens in the crematorium II and IIII, which were then blown up. On 28 November 1944, half of the 200 strong Sonderkommando were sent to the Gross Rosen concentration camp, where there subsequent fate is unknown, but in all probability they were murdered. On 5 January 1945, six members, the so-called ‘bearers of secrets’ were sent to the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria, they were; Jon Agrestoeski, Wladyslaw Biskup, Josef ILczuk, Waclaw Lipka, Mieczyslaw Morlawa, and Stanislaw Slezak, who had operated the x-ray machines in the experimental station of SS Doctor Horst Schumann, who was conducting experiments into the sterilization of men in Birkenau. They were all shot to death on 3 April 1945. Four courageous women, Ella Gartner, Roza Roberta, Regina Safir and Estera Wajsblum are hanged on 6 January 1945, in the women’s camp at Auschwitz. They were arrested and brutally interrogated for providing the Sonderkommando with explosives they stole from the Weichsel-UnionMetalwerke, which were used during the revolt by the Sonderkommando on 7 October 1944.

The advance of the Soviet Red Army, triggers the first mass departure from  Birkenau. Towards morning on 18 January 1945, 5345 prisoners leave the Women’s Camp. Columns of 500 prisoners leave at specific intervals, escorted by SS men. They are taken to the Auschwitz main camp and wait there for the evacuation columns. The last column with approximately 1,500 prisoners leaves Camp B-IId in the afternoon. Among this number are some prisoners from the Penal Company, 70 prisoners from the crematorium demolition squad, and 30 members from the Sonderkommando, who take advantage of an unguarded moment in Crematorium V, to join the march. This column leads through Auschwitz, and passes through many places en-route to Wodzislaw in Silesia. An SS squad on 20 January 1945, under SS- Rottenführer Perschel, the Labour Manager in the women’s camp enters the sector B-IIe and orders all Jewish prisoners to leave the blocks; approximately 200 women come out and are shot to death. Following this brutality the SS squad blow up with dynamite the partly demolished Crematoriums II and III and abandon the camp.

At 2.00 p.m. on 25 January 1945, an SD squad arrives in both the women’s and men’s camp in Birkenau. They order all Jews to leave their barracks, Kapo Schulz points to Jews and drives them out, although some Jews manage to conceal themselves in prepared hiding places. Approximately 150 men and 200 women are marched towards the main gate. Several Jewish prisoners are taken behind the Block Leaders Room and shot to death, included amongst this group is the Jewish prisoner Harff from Cologne. Those marched out of Birkenau are stopped by SS men in automobiles, and the SD men abandon the prisoners and leave with the SS men. Some of the prisoners return to Birkenau whilst others march to Auschwitz main camp.

The following day on 26 January 1945, an SS squad blows up Crematorium V, the last of the crematoria in Birkenau, whilst the sound of the advancing Red Army can be clearly heard. The long awaited liberation takes places on 27 January 1945, when Soviet forces of the 60th Army of the Ist Ukrainian Front occupy the Auschwitz main camp and Birkenau. On the grounds of the main camp there are 48 corpses and in Birkenau over 600 corpses of both men and women who had either been murdered or died in the last few days. Dr Otto Wolken, a former prisoner doctor reports that in Birkenau 5,800 prisoners have survived.  


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 – Chris Webb Private Archive

© Holocaust Historical Society, January 13, 2022