Auschwitz-Birkenau, otherwise known as Auschwitz II, was one of the three main camps in the Auschwitz concentration complex. It debuted in October of 1941 near the Polish city of Oswiecim after Auschwitz I of 1940; and a year before Auschwitz III (also known as Auschwitz-Monowitz) of 1942. The Auschwitz concentration complex was the largest death camp established by the Nazi regime. All three camps were used to force Jews, Poles, prisoners of war, and other nationalities into labor and as well use them for experimentation. Deports from areas invaded by Nazi Germany were shipped into these camps and separated into two groups: those who would work and those who would die.
Jews deported from Hungary arriving at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Poland, May 1944
Auschwitz II was the largest of the complex with more than 40 camps and sub-camps that made up the Auschwitz complex. Birkenau operated for roughly three years and had a range of functions. When construction first began in October of 1941, it was due to be a camp for over 125 thousand prisoners of war. In March 1942, Birkenau opened as a branch of Auschwitz and also served as an extermination center for Jews. "In its final phase, from 1944, it also became a place where prisoners were concentrated before being transferred to labor in German industry in the depths of the Third Reich" (Auschwitz).
Auschwitz II sustained the largest population of the three camps, and played the center role in the plan to rid Europe of Jews. It is estimated that approximately 90% of those in the Auschwitz complex perished in Birkneau. It is estimated that over a million people that died within Auschwitz II's walls alone.
Residents of Auschwitz
Many people of different nationalities were brought into Auschwitz, and and only some walked out of the terror alive. Whether they came from different parts of Europe or were prisoners of war, they were all treated the same. The prisoners lost their identities, where their names were traded for a number. Where Auschwitz stood with the logo, "Work makes you free", no freedom came to the victims of this death camp. The fate of each individual prisoner was decided by the SS, where either they would go into forced labor... or die.
Poland prisoners at Auschwitz building the camp.
Starvation, sickness, and living conditions played big factors in the deaths of the prisoners in Auschwitz. Food was scarcely passed to them, and it lead to most of the prisoners dying of starvation. The prisoners´ skin would be lined up with their bones, with little or no fat in between. Additionally, with them not absorbing the nutrients their bodies need, this weakened their immune systems. Disease was easily spread in between the prisoners due to their weakened states. Their living conditions were no better, either. Auschwitz prisoners slept in crowded rooms, to the point where they could only sleep on their sides. Before 1943, there was no bathhouse and water was only available in the kitchen barracks - where prisoners had no access. Due to this, they wandered around dirty, and preformed their bodily functions "in unscreened outside privies" (Auschwitz). Also, the barracks were often damp, and lice as well as rats were a big problem. Only after 1943 did a bathhouse come in and equipment for disinfecting clothing and linen did conditions improve. However, it still was a problem as they had to undress in their barracks and no matter what the weather, they walked naked to the bathhouse.
Many of the prisoners of Auschwitz were mass murdered via Zyklon B. Zyklon B is a pesticide that released hydrogen cyanide upon exposure to heat and water. It was once used in cleansing large buildings such as barracks and warehouses. However, "during the summer and autumn of 1941, Zyklon B gas was introduced into the German concentration camp system as a means for murder" (USHMM). Thousands of prisoners died within the gas chambers of Auschwitz II, and it was not peaceful in the slightest. When under the influence of Zyklon B, it can cause violent seizures, and can bring death within minutes. Sometimes it took longer than a half an hour for a victim to die, and that meant a slow, painful death.
Reconstructed gas chamber at Auschwitz main camp.
After a half an hour in the gas chambers, the bodies of the now deceased prisoners would be taken to the crematorium. This is where other prisoners who worked in the crematorium would line up the corpses in massive ovens and burn the deceased into nothing but ash.
Auschwitz crematorium ovens.
In January 1945, the SS setup their final steps to destroy the evidence of the crimes they committed in Auschwitz. "They made bonfires of documents on the camp streets. They blew up crematoria II and III, which had already been partially dismantled, on January 20, and crematorium V, still in operational condition, on January 26" (Auschwitz). And finally on January 23, they set fire to the complex of barracks which held the belongings of the victims of the extermination.
Roughly 9 thousand prisoners were left behind in the confusion, which were those who were sick or exhausted and those who were lucky enough to escape death due to fortunate coincidences. Most of the SS guards on duty at the time left the camp complex; however, varying sizes of SS units continued to patrol the camp. "Wehrmacht units also passed through, and joined the SS in plundering the camp warehouses. Some prisoners took advantage of the confusion and risked escape" (Auschwitz).
Prisoners escaping from Auschwitz.
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum "Auschwitz." Holocaust Encyclopedia. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Accessed on February 2nd, 2017.
Państwowe Muzeum Auschwitz-Birkenau "Auschwitz II-Birkenau." Państwowe Muzeum Auschwitz-Birkenau. Państwowe Muzeum Auschwitz-Birkenau. Accessed on February 2nd, 2017.
Państwowe Muzeum Auschwitz-Birkenau "Life in the camp." Państwowe Muzeum Auschwitz-Birkenau. Państwowe Muzeum Auschwitz-Birkenau. Accessed on February 2nd, 2017.
Państwowe Muzeum Auschwitz-Birkenau "Liberation." Państwowe Muzeum Auschwitz-Birkenau. Państwowe Muzeum Auschwitz-Birkenau. Accessed on February 2nd, 2017.
History.com Staff "The Holocaust." History.com. Published in 2009. Publisher; A+E Networks. Accessed February 2nd, 2017