Auschwitz Auschwitz began as a barracks camp in the town of Oswiecim, for the polish army in the early 1930’s. Germany then captured Poland and needed another location for Polish political prisoners. In 1940, the German SS sent a commission to Oswiecim to see if the barracks there could be used. The first inspection reported that it could not be used, however, a later inspection stated that after a few minor changes it would be useable. On May 4, 1940 Rudolf Hoss officially established it as a German concentration camp.
Hoss was Auschwitz’s first commandant. Auschwitz was originally intended for Polish political prisoners and other Poles. In June of 1940, the first load of prisoners arrived. 728 Poles and a handful of Jews. Soon, though, it became a melting pot of prisoners. Czechs, Soviets, Yugoslavs, Jews, and Gypsies; but only men were housed there.
Not until 1942 did women arrive. In January of 1942 it was decided that Auschwitz would become the main Jewish extermination camp. Thereafter cattle cars brought in ship loads of Jews monthly. They were brought from all over in these filthy cars, going for days without food, water, or washing facilities. Many times these cars were so crowded that people were simply crushed to death.
During the first few months of operation, Auschwitz simply housed the Jews because an effective method for mass extermination had not yet been found. They performed many experiments on the prisoners to find a gas that was cheap and quickly effective. Also, they had not yet begun cremating the bodies so they had prisoners dig huge trenches 15 ft. wide, 15 ft. deep, and 150 yds. long to bury them. These massive holes would be filled within days. However, during the summer, the bodies bloated and rotted and a disgusting purplish liquid began seeping up from these graves, smelling of bile and rotting flesh. Nearby fish farmers complained that their fish were dying from pollution caused by the rotting bodies.
Some other way to deal with the prisoners had to be found, especially since their numbers were increasing with every arrival. The Nazis then discovered Zyklon B. It was a very effective gas. Since they were then able to kill more efficiently, they had to find a more efficient means of disposing of the bodies. Soon, mass crematoriums were erected, capable of burning 2,000 bodies in a single day.
Upon arrival at camp, doctors made selections as to who would live and perform slave labor. The others would be gassed. Two lines would be formed, one going in the direction of the camp, and the other leading toward the ‘shower rooms’. Those not selected for the ‘life’ line were told that they would be going to the showers for ‘delousing’. They were made to fold their clothes neatly and put them in piles and march, naked, to the ‘showers’.
Those rooms were equipped with fake shower heads and benches and everything, but none of them worked. The Jews would be herded into these rooms and the doors would lock. Then Vents in the ceiling would open and granules of Zyklon B would be released. Within 15 minutes, they would all be dead. Thirty minutes after they died, they would open the doors and let it air out for two or three hours.
Then they would send in slaves to remove the bodies, taking them to the crematorium. The prisoners chosen for the ‘life’ line had the worst fate though. The conditions at Auschwitz were unthinkable. Prisoners slept 6 people to a bunk, which was made for two. These bunks rose 6 feet high, sometimes with so much weight on the tops of them, they would collapse and kill all them ones underneath while they slept. Sleep was impossible for most though, beds were hard plank boards, over crowded and infested with lice, ticks and bed bugs.
The rats were so bad that if a prisoners died in the middle of the night, the rats would have eaten him to the point where recognition was impossible. Every morning prisoners had to stand or squat for hours at a time for roll call. They also had to bring out the bodies of anyone who had died during the night and hold them up to be counted. Then they were sent off to work. Work was long hours of hard labor building more barracks, adding to the camp, or going off to the German factories. The Nazis rented out slave labor very cheaply to the industries in the area.
Some had a lunch of cabbage stew, but those away on work crews did not. After work was another roll call, lasting for hours. The living holding up the bodies of those who had died while working. Dinner for the prisoners was rotten meat, stale bread, and ‘coffee’ made of warm, dirty water. Those who had missed lunch were also given cold pulpy cabbage stew that had been poured at noon.
Prisoners were supposed to be broken and dehumanized. The Nazis shaved their body hair (yes, all of it) and took all their possessions. They were allowed 15 minutes every day to use the lavatories. All 1,500 prisoners (per bunker) had 15 minutes to go to the bathroom with no privacy whatsoever in the mornings before work. They weren’t allowed to go while they were at work, and if they did, the punishment was so severe that few survived it.
The ‘Hospital,’ if that’s what you want to call it, was a horror. The prisoners referred to it as the crematorium waiting room. If you didn’t heal fast enough to suit them, they gave you an injection of phenol to the heart or they sent you to the gas chambers. There was no medication. The only advantage to the hospital was that you could spend your last few days lying down rather than working. Many were sick but afraid to go to the hospital. As a result, typhus and diarrhea were an epidemic. The SS was corrupt.
They would select the best rations for themselves and then sell the stolen goods on the black market. The prisoners got whatever was left, no matter how meager or rotted it was. SS officers however were fat and pig like. They had parties where they were served pork sausages, potatoes, and vegetables by the women prisoners. The professional criminals (burglars, murderers, rapists) at Auschwitz were entrusted with special jobs. They were called ‘kapos’.
It was the kapos job to wake prisoners in the morning, beating them with sticks if they didn’t move fast enough. They also administered some of the punishments, floggings and beatings mostly. Kapos were also not required to do the menial slave labor. Punishment at Auschwitz was sever and biased. If a an SS officer didn’t like a particular prisoner for some reason then that poor prisoner was tormented and beaten until the SS was satisfied, usually when the prisoner died. They had many ways of punishing people.
You could be beaten, flogged (75-100 lashes), or just plain shot. They were creative and came up with many torments just to amuse themselves. They might make you stand holding rocks over your head for one of the long roll call and shoot you if you drop them. The SS might also force you to beat or torture your friends or family. The worst thing they could do to you however was send you to Cell Block 11. Cell Block 11 was a torture chamber. There were ‘standing’ cells, four feet square that prisoners were packed into, sometimes twenty at a time. These cell had no room to lie down or even sit. The ventilation consisted of two inch squares covered over with heavy wire mesh to deter escape attempts.
Many peopl! e suffocated, after being left in them for hours or days at a time. Even if you did survive a standing cell you still had to go to work that day. Cell Block 11 also contained starvation cells. These cells accommodated fifty people or more. Prisoners were put here to die if one of them attempted to escape.
They would lick the walls and drink their own urine to stay alive just a little bit longer, some even resorted to cannibalism. Outside Block 11 more murders took place. It was there that they held their hangings and floggings. One wall was covered in cork and the ground in sand to help absorb the blood from all the shootings that took place there. Cell Block 10 was just as bad, it was here that ‘Doctor’ Menegal did his infamous research on twins and sterilization.
They tried many drugs and new procedures on helpless prisoners. They would inject poisonous chemicals and compounds into the prisoners, just to see if some of them might live. Most all died of course though. On a regular day in Cell Block 10 they would perform mass sterilization, castrating around ninety Jewish men. Approximately twice that many women were sterilized daily. They performed brain surgery and amputations just for practice and send samples off to labs in other places.
Prisoners would be given deadly viruses to test antibiotics. They did experiments on pregnant women and their fetuses. Many things they did were unthinkable. Winter at Auschwitz was even worse. They had to stand outside for hours at a time in the freezing snow and sleet for roll call every morning and every night. Frostbite was very common, and after frostbite gangrene usually set in killing the already weak prisoners within days.
In the summer of forty-three, a new director took over. Conditions improved somewhat, but prisoners still were not treated as humans. In late forty-five Allies bombed the railroads that took the shiploads of Jews to Auschwitz. It didn’t end the killing there though. The SS, knowing that liberation for the Jews was probably coming soon started killing all the elite prisoners. The decorated Jewish military men, the gypsies, and the kapos.
Then in a frenzy, burned as many of their incriminating files as they could before they fled taking all the prisoners able to march with them. Today very few of the files from Auschwitz remain. Those prisoners left in the camp, too sick or weak to walk were liberated a few days later by the Russian Army. However only half of them lived to see the next week. All of that is in the past now though.
Today Auschwitz still stands. It has become a Polish museum honoring all the Jews that needlessly died there. BIBLIOGRAPHY Brimmer, Larry, Pane. Voices From the Camps. New York, Franklin Watts; 1994. Friedrich, Otto.
The Kingdom of Auschwitz. New York, Harper Perennial; 1994 Leitner, Isabella. Fragments of Isabella. New York, Dell Publishing Co.;1987 Swiebocka, Teresa. Auschwitz A History in Photographs.
Indianapolis, Indiana University Press; 1990 Zacek, F. Josph. “Oswicim” Encyclopedia Americana; 1992 ed. pg 121, 031 ENC.