Auschwitz: A Historical Overview of the Death Camp The Holocaust is one of the most horrifying crimes against humanity. 'Hitler, in an attempt to establish the pure Aryan race, decided that all mentally ill, gypsies, non supporters of Nazism, and Jews were to be eliminated from the German population. He proceeded to reach his goal in a systematic scheme.' (Bauer, 58) One of his main methods of exterminating these 'undesirables' was through the use of concentration and death camps. In January of 1941, Adolf Hitler and his top officials decided to make their 'final solution' a reality. Their goal was to eliminate the Jews and the 'unpure' from the entire population. Auschwitz was the largest concentration camp that carried out Hitler's 'final solution' in greater numbers than any other.
The first concentration camps were set up in 1933. Hitler established the camps when he came into power for the purpose of isolating, punishing, torturing, and killing anyone suspected of opposition against his regime. In the early years of Hitler's reign, concentration camps were places that held people in protective custody. These people in protective custody included those who were both physically and mentally ill, gypsies, homosexuals, Jehovah Witnesses, Jews and anyone against the Nazi regime. By the end of 1933 there were at least fifty concentration camps throughout occupied Europe. At first, the camps were controlled by the Gestapo (police), but by 1934 the S.
S. (Hitler's personal security force) was ordered, by Hitler, to control the camps. (Feig, 20) These camps were set up for many different purposes: Some for forced labor, others for medical experiments and, later on, for the mass destruction of the Jews. (Feig, 21) However, there was never a clear idea from camp to camp as to the true purpose. Was it to extract labor or merely to kill? We do know that Auschwitz was designed for those three reasons stated.
Its ultimate goal though was to exterminate as many people possible in the shortest amount of time. The first death camp, Chelmno, was set up in Poland on December 8, 1941. This was five weeks before the Wann see Conference at which time the 'final solution' was planned out. (Feig, 23) Usually, the death camps were part of existing camps, but some new ones were just set up for the sole purpose of mass extermination. In total there were close to 46 concentration camps and six death camps. These camps were set up along railroad lines so that the prisoners would be conveniently close to their destination.
Unfortunately, many prisoners didn't even survive the train ride to the camps. Herded like cattle, exhaustion, disease, and starvation ended the long treacherous journey for many of the prisoners. On the trains, Jews were starved of food and water for days. Nearly 8% of the people did not even survive the ride to the camps.
(Nyiszli, 37) When they arrived at the camps, most of the families who were shipped out together, ended up being separated. Often, the transports were a sampling of what went on in the camps: cruelty by the officers, near starvation of those being transported, as well as fetid and unsanitary conditions. For the people who survived the trip, it was just the beginning of the living nightmare that they would face inside the walls of Auschwitz. Jews were forced to obey the guards' orders from the moment they arrived at the camps. 'If they didn't, they would be beaten, put into solitary confinement, or shot.' (Nyiszli, 49) A prisoner said, 'I can remember when I first arrived.
The S. S. would take babies right out of their mother's arms, throw them in the air and then shoot them. This is when I realized that I had just entered hell.' (Nyiszli, 102) The prisoners had marks on their clothes and numbers on their arms to identify them. Once they entered the camp, they were no longer known by their names, but rather the serial number tattooed on their arms. The sanitary conditions of the camps were horrible.
'There was only one bathroom for four hundred people. They had to stand for hours in snow, rain, heat, or cold for role-call, which was twice a day.' (Feig, 346) Within the first few days of being at the camps, thousands of people died of hunger, starvation, and disease. Other people died of the cruel punishments of the guards which included beatings and torture. 'Typhus, a disease caused by germs carried by flies, was the main disease that spread throughout the camps. Even when people were sick, they still continued working because they did not see that sickness meant death.' (Feig, 377) In 1937, only 7, 000 Jews were in camps. By 1938, this number increased as 10, 000 more Jews were sent to camps.
(Bauer, 29) 'Jews were taken to camps if they expressed negative feelings about the government, if they married a non-Jew, if they were sick (mentally or physically), or if they had a police record.' (Bauer, 42) By the end of the war, more than 1, 000, 000 prisoners were killed each year in the camps. This mass destruction is incomparable to any other event in world history. Henrik Himmler, chief of the German police, the Gestapo, thought that the camps would provide an economic base for the soldiers. (Bauer, 89) This did not happen. The work force was poorly organized and working conditions were so inhumane that even the smallest tasks could take hours to complete. Since the prisoners were so weak and emaciated, productivity was extremely low.
The fact of the matter was that the prisoners were worked until death. When one prisoner died working, the others would carry him away and then quickly take his place. In the camps there were two choices - you could work or you could die. Although it rarely worked, escaping was one option. There were several reasons why this was virtually impossible.
First, the prisoners were so weak from being malnourished that, physically they were not strong enough to escape. Second, if someone did manage to escape, they had no place to go. The Nazis strategically built their concentration camps in isolation from other cities. This limited escaping and also hid the camps from the general public.
Many gentiles didn't even realize that these horrific crimes were occurring in their country. Lastly, the camps were so well guarded that escaping was almost impossible. When someone did escape from a concentration camp, all the prisoners in their group were shot. Prisoners knew that if they tried to escape, their family members would be tortured and killed.
The prisoners had no choice but to work and pray for help. For six million Jews however, these prayers were never answered. When the prisoners first arrived at the camps, the men and women were separated. Those sent to the left were transferred to death camps. Generally these were the elderly, weak, or sick people. All the other men were sent to the right which led to the labor camp.
Women and children were sent to a separate labor camp. The S. S. would also pick out attractive young women whom they would rape and use as domestic help in their quarters. When Jews entered the particular camps, their personal possessions were taken and sold. 'Gold fillings, wedding bands, jewelry, shoes and clothing were taken from the prisoners when they first entered the camps's aid one prisoner.
The Nazis would shave all of the prisoner's hair off and use it to stuff mattresses and pillows for soldiers. (Gilbert, 26) Once in the death camps, the prisoners were again divided. Women were sent to one side to have their hair shaven and the men to the other. 'They were all sent to the showers, naked with a bar of soap, so as to deceive them into believing that they were truly going into a shower.' (Nyiszli, 43) Many heard the stories about the gas chambers and knew the truth. The six death camps were: Chelmno, Treblinka, Auschwitz (Birkenau), Sobibor, Maid anek, and Belzec. These camps used gas from the shower heads to murder their victims.
A seventh death camp, Mauthausen, used a method called 'extermination through labor.' The difference between the death camps and concentration camps is that death camps were built solely for the purpose of murdering human beings in mass amounts. Although thousands of Jews were killed in the concentration camps, their purpose wasn't focused on murder, but rather to detain and force them to work. Auschwitz, located in southeastern Poland, was Nazi Germany's largest death camp. It was established by order of Himmler on April 27, 1940. At first, Auschwitz was used as a work camp for....