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 Polish and Soviet prisoners of war. In 1941, it nearly doubled in size and was converted into a death camp. Auschwitz was divided into three areas: Auschwitz 1 was the camp commander's headquarters and administrative offices.
Auschwitz 2 was called Birkenau and it was the death camp with forty gas chambers and crematoriums. Auschwitz 3 was a slave labor camp. At its peak in 1943, 100, 000 prisoners were held in Auschwitz at one time. It encompassed two square kilometers and took approximately one and a half hours to walk around its perimeter. (Feig, 340) On the gate of Auschwitz was a sign in German which read, 'Arbeit macht frei', which translates into English as 'work makes you free.' (Feig, 334) This was one of the many lies which the Nazis told their prisoners.
The lies which the Jews were told deceived them for a while. The first Jews in Auschwitz believed that they were just being taken there to work for the Nazis. As more and more people died in the death camps, word leaked to the outside world about what was really happening in these camps. Auschwitz included camp sites a few miles away from the main complex. At these sites, slave labor was used to kill the people. The Jews were forced into so called 'Death Marches'.
They were forced to march several kilometers in the snow to another part of the camp in order to do work. If a prisoner stopped marching, they were shot and left to die in the cold. The working conditions were so poor that death was inevitable. When the Jews arrived at Auschwitz, they were met with threats and promises. One prisoner said, 'If we didn't do exactly as we were told, then we would be beaten, deprived of food, or shot. From time to time, they would assure us that things would get better.
They never did, they only got worse.' (Feig, 345) The daily meals in Auschwitz consisted of watery soup, distributed once a day, with a small piece of bread. In addition, they got extra an allowance consisting of 3/4 ounce of margarine, a little piece of cheese, or a spoonful of watered jam. Everyone in the camp was so malnourished that if a drop of soup spilled, prisoners would rush from all sides to see if they could get some of the soup. (Nyiszli, 31) Because of the bad sanitary conditions, the inadequate diet, the hard labor and other torturous conditions in Auschwitz, most people died after a few months of their arrival. (Feig, 342) The few people who managed to stay alive for longer were the ones who were assigned better jobs. The prisoners slept on three shelves of wooden slabs with six of these units to each tier.
Three to five prisoners would sleep in a bed built for one person. Twice a day, they had to stand for hours in the wet and mud during role call. Many people thought that the reason hundreds of people died was because when it rained, they laid freezing cold in their wet clothes. (Nyiszli, 112) In place of toilets, there were wooden boards with round holes and underneath them concretes troughs. Two or three hundred people could sit on them at once. 'There was no toilet paper, so we used linings of jackets's aid one prisoner.
'If we didn't have any, we would steal from anyone we could.' (Nyiszli, 113) The smells were so horrible because there wasn't enough water to clean the latrine. One prisoner said, 'The smell of death and excrement was everywhere. Diarrhea was so rampant that people were dying left and right.' (Nyiszli, 113) The Jews in Auschwitz were killed by an odorless, colorless poison called Lykon B. It was hydrogen cyanide which was poured through the ceiling of the gas chambers and turned into gas. The S. S.
commanders of Auschwitz preferred Lykon B. because it worked faster than previous poisons used such as Cyclone B and Zyclon B. (Feig, 360) At first, there were only five gas chambers in Auschwitz. The procedure for gassing was systematic and extremely organized.
In the largest gas chambers, close to 900 people could be gassed at a time. First, the prisoners were undressed in a nearby room. Then, they were told to go into another room to be deloused. Here they were all packed in, and after a few minutes of horrible suffering, the gas filled the chamber and the prisoners were killed by asphyxiation. The bodies were then transported to ovens where they were burned. The dilemma of disposing the bodies was solved by the idea of crematoriums.
The crematoriums were huge ovens that burned mass numbers of corpses at a time. Theoretically, the crematoriums could burn 12, 000 bodies in less than 24 hours or 4, 380, 000 a year. An elevator would take them from the dressing room to the crematorium. Although it took only about 10 minutes to kill 12, 000 victims, it took close to 24 hours to burn the bodies.
This slowed down the extermination process tremendously. (Feig, 360) One aspect of Auschwitz that makes it unique from other camps, was the special area where medical experiments were conducted. Dr. Joseph Mengle, one of the most notorious Nazi doctors, hummed opera tunes when selecting the new arrivals who would eventually become patients for his medical experiments. Dr. Mengle would pick out Jews at random to be 'human guinea pigs' for his experiments.
In his laboratory, Dr. Mengle would perform autopsies on people while they were alive. He frequently performed experiments using diseases and viruses. The doctors would inject malaria and typhus into a prisoner to see how they would react. (Feig, 486) In total, close to 3.
5 million Jews were murdered at Auschwitz between the years 1940 and 1945. It is inconceivable to many how such an atrocity could happen without anyone intervening. Today, many experts feel that the allies knew what was going on, but chose not to send military aid. In 1942, President Roosevelt actually ordered a boat carrying 5, 000 Jews to be sent back to Auschwitz.
So how could six million innocent people be killed without any serious concern from the rest of the world? Although the answer to this question is complex, it can be simplified. The reality was that nobody thought it was their business to intercede. The allies knew where the gas chambers and railroads leading to Auschwitz were, but decided not to bomb them. The untold agenda was that, 'it wasn't our problem.' Many believe that the allies were just as guilty as the Nazis. 'We Must Never Forget' are the words which the world must remember. By not forgetting, we are preventing another holocaust from occurring.
We are also letting the entire world know and remember the millions of loved ones lost in these atrocious concentration camps. However, as often as we retell the horror stories of the Holocaust, concentration camps and torture still exist today in places like Bosnia and Rwanda. Our world leaders must stand up to these horrific acts of violence and emphasize that these innocent people will not be tortured anymore. In summation, the Holocaust was one of the most vile acts committed against humanity in our world history. In an attempt to commit genocide of the Jewish people, Hitler and Nazis constructed more than 50 concentration and death camps to confine, torture, and murder the Jews. The epicenter of the mass murders was performed in the death camp, Auschwitz.
During the history of Auschwitz, close to 3. 5 million innocent men, women, and children were murdered because the Nazis needed a scapegoat for their own problems. We must never forget what went on in Auschwitz during the Holocaust. The stories must be retold by generation to generation so that these horrific acts don't ever happen again. WORKS CITED Bauer, Yehuda. A History of the Holocaust.
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