Poland’s history book, like that of any country, is 1 of many chapters, with magnificent battles, acts of heroism, bravery & treachery and the rise/fall of Empires littering its pages. There are however dark chapters that would change the nation forever, and sadly for Poland one such Chapter began on September 1st 1939…
Status: Oswiecim County, Lesser Poland Voivodeship, Town, Poland
Travel: Minibus (Krakow – Auschwitz)
Eating & Sleeping: N/A
Attractions: Auschwitz A, Auschwitz Birkenau
Adolf Hitler became head of the Nazi Party in Germany in 1921, replacing Anton Drexler. Born in Austria, Hitler had served in the German Army during World War I, and witnessed 1st hand the horrors of war. Germany would surrender at the end of the War, with the Allies claiming Victory. The next few decades would spell disaster for Germany, as economic woes and hardships took their toll.
This would all change when the Nazi’s came to power in 1933, making Adolf Hitler the new German Chancellor. By 1934, Hitler had abolished the office of German President, making himself the joint Head of State & Government together. Determined to bring back all the ancient German lands under 1 Reich, he annexed Austria, and then Czechoslovakia into his new Third Reich. On September 1st 1939 his army entered Poland, an act that sparked the beginning of World War II in Europe, with the declaration of War by the British & French Governments. Poland would soon become the site of the worst crimes in Human History…
The Germans began construction of a network of Concentration Camps across Eastern Germany, and Poland. They held political prisoners as well as those thought dangerous to the new regime. As Europe quickly fell, including France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, and with the Red Army being pushed deep into the USSR allowing the Germans to enter the Eastern Soviet States, 1 nationality above all others would be persecuted the most.
Hitler hated the Jews. He blamed them for Germany’s problems following World War I, and he quickly convinced others of this view. He initiated a programme to exterminate the Jewish population of Europe, the culmination of which would make this camp, Auschwitz, 1 of the most notorious places in history.
The history of Auschwitz however began very differently, as when it opened in 1940 it held Polish Political Prisoners, and was a minor camp within the wider network. Other camps had opened even before the war began, such as Dachau in Germany. It also provided the inspiration for the famous sign above the Auschwitz Gates, which reads:
“Arbeit Macht Frei” which translates as “Work Makes You Free”, an ironic statement considering the fate of many of the people imprisoned here. The idea to copy the Dachau design was supposedly that of Rudolf Hoss (1900 – 1947, Camp Commandant during most of Auschwitz’s operational history). The name Auschwitz is actually a German translation of Oswiecim, the Polish name for the original town here.
Many of the buildings here existed long before Auschwitz was set up, as they had been used at various times as Army Barracks for the Austrian & Polish Armies. A collection of 16 large brick buildings still existed, and these were used to create the 1st Auschwitz Camp. There would eventually be 3, with the original, Auschwitz Birkenau nearby, and Auschwitz C Monowitz.
Over the next few years prisoners from all over the Reich, including German Dissidents and Polish Resistance Fighters would be held here. New buildings were constructed and the site was encircled by watchtowers, barbed wire and high fences.
But Auschwitz was no holiday camp. The horrors endured by the prisoners still make people shudder today. They were overworked and underfed, with multiple prisoners forced to live in cramped conditions inside small rooms. Disease and infection was rampant and would spread quickly, and soon the camp would be full to capacity, and pushed even further.
In 1941, the German Army reneged on a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union, and invaded, pushing the Red Army back far into Soviet Territory. Soviet Prisoners of War began to arrive at Auschwitz, however this was only the start. By 1942 Hitler had initiated the Final Solution, his plan to exterminate the Jews of Europe.
But Auschwitz A was already full by the time the Soviets arrived, never mind hundreds of thousands of Jews. The solution was to build a whole new camp, Auschwitz Birkenau, just a few Kilometres away, multiple times the size of the original camp. It would be transformed into 2 camps living side by side, 1 designed for prisoners, and 1 for extermination. The newly arriving Jews were sent straight to Birkenau by rail, where many of them would end up in the notorious Gas Chambers.
Many Jews across Europe, forcibly surrendered by host nations invaded by the Nazi’s, had no idea what was in store for them, and were told to pack any belongings they needed for the trip. As they arrived at Auschwitz, whether it be A or Birkenau, their belongings were taken, as you can see in the pictures above. The collections on show at Auschwitz A are just a small part of the amount of items stolen from prisoners, from Pots & Pans, to prosthetic legs. Money was also stolen, counted, and sent to Berlin to the German Treasury.
Auschwitz A was heavily fortified, and escape was near impossible, although some cases have been documented, such as that of Eugeniusz Bendera, Kazimierz Piechowski, Jozef Lempart and Stanislaw Gustaw Jaster. They broke into 1 of the warehouses of Auschwitz A, and stole some uniforms belonging to the SS, the Nazi’s private army which helped run the camp. Incredibly, after dressing themselves up as SS Officers, they took a car and drove straight through the main gates, to freedom.
Auschwitz A is open to the public, having been preserved as a large museum. Different exhibits are located in the various brick huts, where you can find out individual prisoners stories, and view the vast amounts of items stolen from incoming prisoners.
1 particularly famous site in Auschwitz A only become so 2 years after World War II ended, and concerned Rudolf Hoss. He was known for being ruthless in his running of the camp, and stayed in a large house just outside the complex with his Wife and Children. He served as Auschwitz Commandant from May 1940 until January 1945 (barring a 6 month gap during 1944 when he returned to work in Berlin). He originally escaped capture by the Allies, changed his identity and hid. It would be his Wife who eventually led to his capture, giving his location to the British out of fear her son would become a prisoner in Siberia. He was captured in March 1946, and became 1 of the leading figures tried at the Nuremberg War Trials in Germany by the Allies. He was found guilty of the murder of over 2 million people, and eventually hanged at a set of gallows specially built in Auschwitz itself, shown above. The Final Solution wasn’t just in force here at Auschwitz, and over 10 million people were killed by the Nazi regime in this act alone.
Hoss’s boss, Heinrich Himmler (1900 – 1945, Head of the SS) was in charge of the Nazi’s concentration camps and made regular visits to the area to inspect proceedings. He was responsible overall for the atrocities committed in the various camps. Near the end of the war he was arrested by the British, but committed suicide before he could be tried.
Auschwitz III Monowitz was set up to house workers forced to work for a large company called I G Farben, which opened a factory to make synthetic rubber for use by the German army. The factory never entered full production, as the lack of materials and slave labour delayed its production so much that the Red Army had arrived.
Auschwitz is a harrowing place to visit, but pales in comparison with the crimes committed at Auschwitz Birkenau, where the true scale of the Final Solution, also known as the Holocaust, imprinted itself on history. We were on an all inclusive tour that took in both Auschwitz camps, and 1 that soon took us into the heart of Birkenau…