Tag Archives: Concentration Camp

Auschwitz III

This is the last of 3 related postings regarding Auschwitz.  The first post is available here and the second here.

The last selection took place on October 30, 1944. In September Heinrich Himmler, Reichsführer of the SS, ordered the crematoria destroyed before the advancing Soviet Army reached the camp. The gas chambers of Birkenau were blown up by the SS in January 1945 in an attempt to hide their crimes.

Large rectangular concrete bunker in the ground with roof collapsed

Gas Chamber with Collapsed Roof

The SS command sent orders on January 17, 1945 calling for the execution of all prisoners remaining in the camp, but in the chaos of the Nazi retreat the order was never carried out. They did try to evacuate the camp though.  Nearly 60,000 prisoners were forced on a death march toward a camp in Wodzisław Śląski, over 60 kilometers away.  Many never made it.  On January 27, 1945, Auschwitz was liberated by Soviet troops.

Twisted concrete and metal amid a field of debris

Remains of a Crematorium blown up by the Nazis

On November 24, 1947, the Polish Supreme National Tribunal in Krakow began the trial of only 41 of the over 6,000 Nazis who worked at Auschwitz.  It took less than a month.  23 death sentences were issued, as well as 16 imprisonments.  Commandant Höss was found hiding among the German civilian population.  He was tried, found guilty of numerous war crimes, and then hung on a gallows specifically erected for this purpose, in a place just between the home he shared with his wife and children and the first gas chamber at Auschwitz I.

Simple wooden gallows with 4 steps on grass with green trees in background

Gallows built to execute Commandant Rudolf Höss

Visiting the Memorial

In 1947, Poland founded a museum on the site of Auschwitz I and II.  It receives about 1.3 Million visitors annually.  Why do they come?  Why did I come?  I had already been to see 2 other concentration camps in Germany, Dachau and Buchenwald.

Visitors to Auschwitz I are required to go on a guided tour.  It includes the grounds, several of the barracks (including Block 11), and the first gas chamber and crematorium.  Particularly shocking are the exhibitions showing the confiscated belongings of inmates found by the Soviet liberators.  These include hundreds of eye glasses in a tangled pile, thousands of pairs of shoes, a room full of prosthetic limbs, a huge pile of suitcases (many with the names of their owners written on the sides), a 30 meter (98 ft.) long room filled with 2 tonnes of human hair, and nearby a display of the products made from this hair.

Pile of old leather suitcases (brown and black) with names written on the side in white paint

Suitcases of some of those who died

Some of the prosthetic limbs were from German Jews, veterans of World War I who fought for their country, only to be killed by the Nazis 25 years later. We also saw baby clothes and dolls of some children murdered here.  These items really brought home the humanity of the victims.  They were not just statistics, but real people just like us, who had children to be consoled, who wore shoes and who needed glasses.

While visiting we observed several other groups that were obviously Jewish.  We saw a group of Israeli military with the Star of David on their uniforms and a group of young men in black dress pants and white shirts wearing yamikas who were accompanied by a rabbi.  I wondered how many Jewish people are drawn to this place, to see what happened here.  How surreal must this be for them.  Notably, the signs at Birkenau II are in Polish, English, and in Hebrew.

There were many more visitors here than when we went to Dachau or Buchenwald, partly because it was a week with 2 national holidays, a week when many Poles take time off work.  When we arrived, there were touts trying to direct cars and buses to their private parking areas.  The staging area where people purchased tickets and waited for their guides was crowded and loud, too busy to encourage self-reflection at the start of the tour.  After this point, all visitors to Auschwitz I wear headsets to hear their guides’ voices transmitted wirelessly.  The barracks were similarly crowded with visitors, and the logistics of keeping our group together and on pace was distracting.  The whole thing had a feeling of mass-production.  For me, I could begin to reflect upon things only when we reached the quieter, open spaces of Auschwitz II-Birkenau.

Many visitors passing through gate with words 'Arbeit Macht Frei' (Work will make you free) above

Many visitors enter the gates of Auschwitz I.

The guide’s narrative was fast-paced and direct.  He did not pull any punches, rely on subtle differentiations, or utilize any euphemisms.  This surprised me because there were some young children in our group.  I wondered how many of them really understood what he was talking about.

Why did I visit another camp?  Perhaps because Auschwitz was different.  It was an extermination camp, the largest and the most infamous.  Why did I want to visit it?  Certainly not because my wife wanted to.  She went only at my request.  Perhaps it’s because I still can’t get my head around it.  I understand something of Nazi doctrine and how many Germans were seduced by it.  Hitler told them they were special, that he could fix their problems quickly, and he offered them someone else to blame.  I’ve studied the research that demonstrates that ordinary people can and will do terrible things to one another with the slightest institutional inducement.  The German people were not evil nor special in this regard.  Most of them didn’t know what was happening in the extermination camps.  The whole thing just seems so surreal to me.  The huge numbers of people killed make it hard to conceptualize.  The horrific acts almost impossible to imagine.

Today the confines of Auschwitz II-Birkenau are green and grassy.  It is surrounded by birch trees. When we visited, the sun was shining, the birds were singing, and there was a warm breeze.  This made it difficult to visualize what happened here.  Of course, when the camp was operational, there was no grass, only mud, due to the large numbers of prisoners occupying the space.

Grassy area surrounded by a fence with a guard tower and trees beyond.

Today the fence and guard tower overlook grass and trees at Birkenau.

For all these reasons, I found my trip to Auschwitz to be less emotional than my previous visits to other concentration camp sites in Germany.   Perhaps it’s a coping mechanism to allow the contemplation of such atrocities?

Auschwitz is a place where murder took place on an industrial scale with the goal of eliminating an entire race of people.  The scariest and saddest thing is that, albeit with cruder methods, similar things have happened since in other places (e.g. Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Sudan).  Will we ever evolve to the point where such atrocities don’t happen?

This is the last of 3 related postings about Auschwitz. The first post is available here and the second here.


This is the first of 3 related postings about Auschwitz.  The second post focuses on Auschwitz II-Birkenau, and the last post on my experience visiting the memorial.

Auschwitz was established as a concentration camp, a place where criminals, political prisoners, academics, dissidents, prisoners of war, Jews, Roma (gypsies), homosexuals, and other people considered dangerous or undesirable by the Nazis were held and forced to work as slave labourers.  In its first year (1940-1941) it was converted from a Polish military camp and grew to hold over 10,000 inmates, the large majority of whom were Polish.  Over the years 1940-1945 Auschwitz expanded to become the largest German concentration & extermination camp.  It consisted of Auschwitz I (the original labour camp and administrative center for the whole complex),  Auschwitz II–Birkenau (a labour & extermination camp),  Auschwitz III–Monowitz (a labour camp), and 45 satellite labour camps.

The site for Auschwitz was chosen because it was near an industrial area where slave labourers were needed to help the war effort.  It was also at the center of the rail network, allowing easy transport of goods and people across Europe. Additionally, it was a large area and relatively isolated from nearby towns.  The Nazis were concerned about the opinion of German citizens and some Western nations (e.g. Western Europe, America) and endeavored to keep secret what was really happening in their concentration camps.  Initially the Red Cross was allowed to visit the camps, and so some had hospitals and even schools, though they were primarily for show.  This is also why they located their 6 main extermination camps in Poland, where they were less visible to observers from the West.

Auschwitz I

Prisoners who would be staying in the camp were stripped of everything.  They surrendered all their personal property including their clothes.  Children with blond hair and blue eyes were separated from their parents, to be sent elsewhere for education.  Men and women were completely shaved and their hair sold to make wigs, blankets, and other items.  In the early days of the camp prisoners were photographed for identification, but this was later deemed to be too expensive and not particularly useful (prisoners lost so much weight that they soon didn’t resemble their pictures anyway) and so it was abandoned.  Today the hallways of the prisoner barracks are filled with thousands of these photos, row upon row of those who died here.

Black and white images of Auschwitz prisoners

Auschwitz Prisoner Photos

Prisoners also lost their identities.  All of their personal documents were destroyed.  Instead of names they were assigned numbers, one of many techniques used by the guards to dehumanize them, making them easier to abuse and ultimately to kill.  Initially names were sewn on to prisoner uniforms, but this was an added effort, so they switched to tattooing numbers directly on to the prisoners’ bodies.

Inmates wore striped pyjamas and wooden clogs without socks.  The footwear was often ill fitting leading to foot problems and pain that made it difficult to walk.  These were the only clothes they wore in all seasons, even while working outside in winter.  They worked and slept in a single garment that was not changed.  Like in other concentration camps, prisoner uniforms had patches that distinguished their group (criminal, Jew, homosexual, Roma, etc.)

Sign showing the symbols used to categorize prisoners on their clothing

Badges used to categorize prisoners on their clothing

The prisoner barracks, preserved to this day, are made of brick.  They were only used for sleeping as prisoners worked all day.  Although they had heaters, insufficient fuel was provided to warm the buildings in winter.  Initially the camp had no toilet facilities, and prisoners had to go outside.  They were only given 2 opportunities per day to do so.

Brick barrack in the sunshine

Auschwitz I Barrack

All inmates had to work in the nearby arms factories.  Those who couldn’t work were murdered.  Prisoners worked 10-12 hours a day, 6 days a week.  Most worked outside of the camp and had to walk to work.  To maintain illusions, a band played each morning as they marched out of the camp and when they returned each evening.  Every evening the prisoners were counted, so those who died during the day had to be carried back by their fellow prisoners for roll call.  Auschwitz’s 45 satellite camps were established to allow prisoners to sleep closer to their work, thereby losing less productive time having to walk to and from each day.  The harsh work requirements, combined with poor nutrition and hygiene, led to high death rates.

Black and white drawing by former inmate of prisoners leaving gate to walk to work

Drawing by former inmate of prisoners leaving gate to walk to work

The warehouses where prisoners sorted through the belongings confiscated from incoming prisoners and the dead were known as Canada.  At this time Canada was regarded as a paradise by Poles; it had a reputation as a land of plenty and was a desirable location for Europeans to emigrate to.  Working in ‘Canada’ was one of the best jobs to have in the camp.  The work was indoors.  Sometimes food could be found in people’s belongings.  Occasionally the workers smuggled out valuables which they could trade to the Nazi guards in exchange for favours.

Auschwitz was run in a very orderly and efficient manner, supervised by the SS (Schutzstaffel meaning ‘protection squadron’).  German doctors, dentists, engineers, and other educated people helped to design and to operate the camp.  The day-to-day enforcement of rules and the maintenance of order was handled by kapos, prisoners selected by the SS to be in charge of their assigned groups.  Initially, they were recruited only from the criminal population at Auschwitz.  In return, they were given special privileges, which increased their chances of surviving.  Our guide told us repeatedly that we should not judge these people too harshly, as they were only trying to stay alive.

Prisoners were fed 3 meals a day but the food was so limited and of such poor quality that starvation was the biggest killer in the camp.  We saw a picture of an adult woman who was liberated from the camp and who weighed only 25 kilograms (55 pounds) after 4 months in hospital.  Another major factor was exposure.  Working inside greatly increased one’s chance of survival.  In summer, those who worked outside might live a few months – in winter, a few weeks.

Very thin woman, naked on hospital bed

Auschwitz survivor after 4 months in hospital

Many prisoners were tortured, starved, and executed in Auschwitz I.  Barrack Block 11 was reserved for this purpose.  Although the guards tried to keep these atrocities quiet, there are no secrets in a small ‘town’, and word got around quickly. On September 3, 1941, the deputy camp commandant experimented on 600 Russian POWs and 250 Polish inmates by gathering them in the basement of Barrack Block 11 and gassing them with Zyklon B, a deadly cyanide-based pesticide.  Following this successful test, a small gas chamber and crematorium was established in 1941 by converting an existing bunker.  It operated for 1 year and was used to kill 60,000 people before the larger gas chambers were built at Auschwitz II-Birkenau.  We walked through this gas chamber.  Diane was initially reluctant to enter but decided that it was more important to see what was inside.

The Guards

The first Commandant of Auschwitz between 1940 and 1943 was Rudolf Franz Ferdinand Höss (not to be confused with Rudolf Hess who was Adolf Hitler’s Deputy).  Höss lived at Auschwitz I in a villa with his wife and 5 children, about 100 meters from the first gas chamber built there.  He claimed that he kept the real purpose of the camp a secret from outsiders for 3 years and did not tell anyone until he shared it with his wife in 1942.

Black and white image of Rudolf Hoss during his trial with armed guard behind

Commandant Rudolf Höss       (source Wikipedia)

Most of the guards who worked at Auschwitz preferred it to other more dangerous wartime assignments. According to Höss’s diary, after the war many of those involved directly in the killing went mad or committed suicide.

Josef Mengele was among the German doctors at the camp who performed human experiments on prisoners.  He was known as ‘The Angel of Death’ for the cruel things he did, particularly to identical twins.  Bayer and other pharmaceutical companies also bought prisoners to use as guinea pigs for testing new drugs.

Black and white head shot of Joseph Mengele in a suit and tie

Dr. Joseph Mengele       (Source: Wikipedia)

To be continued.  This is the first of 3 related postings about Auschwitz.  The second post focuses on Auschwitz II-Birkenau, and the last post on my experience visiting the memorial.


There are many memorials of war in Europe, monuments to its long and often violent history.  Dachau is the site of a former Nazi concentration camp which we visited with some trepidation.  It is located just 20 kilometers from the beer drinking revelry of Munich, but it is a very different and sobering experience.

The camp is now a permanent memorial to what happened there.  The perimeter fence, some guard towers and administrative buildings remain, as does the gas chamber/crematorium building.  All the original prisoner barracks (except the one for special prisoners) have been demolished but their foundations remain and there is a replica barrack for visitors to view.  Much of the camp is now open space, but there remains a sombre, eerie feeling to the place.  We were strongly affected by what we saw and what we learned at Dachau, and subsequently at Buchenwald concentration camp, and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin.

Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor of German through entirely legal means on January, 30, 1933.  Germany was at that time a democracy.  Once the Nazis came to power they quickly moved to ruthlessly suppress all real or potential opposition.  On February 27th the Reichstag (parliamentary building) was set on fire.  It wasn’t proven definitively who did it, but it was blamed on an individual communist who was in the building at the time.  Using fears of communism to justify his actions, within 24 hours Hitler suspended many of the German people’s basic rights (free speech, freedom of association, free press, etc.)  He then quickly rounded up all of his political opponents and moved them to camps for re-education.

First they came for the communists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak out for me.
Pastor Martin Niemoller (1892 – 1984)

Why did the German people stand for this?  After World War I concluded with the Treaty of Versailles, Germany was required to pay onerous (some say impossible) reparations to the victors (mainly England and France).  The German economy struggled and the German government printed more money eventually leading to hyper-inflation.  The life savings of most Germans were wiped out.  Unemployment was very high and the people were desperate for change.  Hitler was a charismatic speaker and propagandist who billed his as the ‘party of action’.  He identified scapegoats to blame for the problems (e.g. communists and Jews).  He said that he would restore Germany to its former greatness.  It was a message with appeal to distressed Germans.

Hitler made no secret of his racist views.  He believed that ‘Aryans’ (purportedly a master race of people of Northern European descent) were the superior race, that the Slavic peoples were inferior and should serve the Aryans, and that Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, and the disabled should be exterminated.  Unfortunately, most people did not believe he would follow through with this, and chose instead to focus on the more appealing aspects of his message.

Dachau was the first Nazi concentration camp.  It opened in March 1933 within 5 weeks of Hitler’s rise to power on the site of a closed ammunition factory.  The camp was originally intended to holding German and Austrian political prisoners and Jews, but in 1935 it also began to hold ordinary criminals.  In early 1937 the SS, using prisoner labor, initiated construction of a large complex of buildings on the grounds of the original camp. The construction was officially completed in mid-August 1938 after which the camp remained essentially unchanged.  During the war it came to also include other nationalities including French, Poles, Yugoslavs, Czechs, Russians, and also a few captured Americans (because they had Jewish sounding names).  Dachau remained in operation until it was liberated by the Americans in 1945, and was thus the longest running concentration camp of the Third Reich.

The name ‘concentration camp’ derives from the idea of concentrating the members of a group that is perceived to be undesirable in one place.  The Nazis did not invent this concept.  It had been used previously by the Americans, British, Cubans, and others.  The term did not originally refer to the death camps of the Nazis, but it has since become synonymous with them.

Dachau was branded a re-education camp, purportedly set up to re-educate people whose views were inconsistent with the Nazi philosophy.  The principle means of ‘re-education’ were torture and abuse.  The camp held primarily men and boys, but there were some women in subsidiary work camps.  It had 69 barrack buildings with one reserved for special prisoners (well-known or influential people and clergy who opposed the Nazi regime — at least 3,000 Catholic priests, deacons, and bishops were kept there) and one reserved for unethical medical experiments on prisoners.

Hallway of barrack for Special Prisoners

Barrack for Special Prisoners

Dachau was also one of what would eventually become 24 main distribution or registration camps.  Prisoners were brought into the concentration camp system, catalogued, and redistributed to one of over 1200 subsidiary camps throughout Europe.  Although many people were murdered here, it was not an extermination camp like Auschwitz, none of which were on German soil.  A gas chamber was installed at Dachau (we walked through it reluctantly), but it was apparently never used.  This camp was intended to be used for 20 years, after which time the Nazis believed that they would have long since conquered and stabilized Europe, and that no more re-education would be required.

Prisoners did forced labour in the camp or at one of its 200 subsidiary camps, 90 of which could be reached by marching on foot.  Those who could not work were murdered (or sent away to be murdered).  The main door of the camp still displays the words ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ meaning ‘work will liberate’, but there was no relationship between one’s work at the camp and their chances of being set free.  A small number of people were freed from Dachau, including some to celebrate Hitler’s birthday, on the condition that they never report what happened there.

Front Gate of Dachau with words "Arbeit Macht Frei"

Front Gate of Dachau

Prisoners arriving at Dachau were stripped of their belongings, identification, and very importantly for their captors, their names.  Each was given a number and wore coloured badges to identify their groups (e.g. political prisoner, Jew, homosexual, criminal).  They had no contract with relatives and were quickly lost in a system where they were moved to other camps without anyone knowing.

Conditions in the camp were atrocious.  The camp was designed for 5000 people but held 37,000 when it was liberated.  Barracks designed for 200 people held over 2000.  There were not adequate or sufficient toilet facilities.  Many people were sick with typhus and diarrhea.  Windows were not allowed to be opened so air quality was poor.  The food provided was the minimal to sustain life but of poor quality, and most of the good provisions originally intended for the prisoners were withheld by the hierarchy of guards and others who controlled the camp.  Most prisoners lost half of their body weight within months of entering the camp, if they lived that long.

Bunks in regular barrack of Dachau

Bunks in a regular barrack

These terrible conditions, in conjunction with the torture, abuse, and forced work resulted in the death of many people.  Those who couldn’t handle it any longer committed suicide, often with the encouragement of the guards.  Most commonly people committed suicide by running across the ‘death strip’ and into the wire surrounding the camp where they were shot.  Twice a day all prisoners (living and dead) were assembled on the parade square to be counted.  At the height of the epidemics, over 200 people were dying per day.

Crematorium at Dachau


There was a hierarchy of prisoners within the camp which was deliberately organized and manipulated by the guards.  Prisoners from the various groups (political prisoners, criminals, homosexuals, gypsies, etc.) were mixed together in the barracks to divide and conquer, with those who helped control the other prisoners per their captors wishes receiving special treatment (e.g. cigarettes, alcohol, access to prostitutes).  For the most part, the camp was run by the prisoners themselves.  There were always people willing to do the dirty jobs, including torturing and even murdering other prisoners, in return for special treatment and perhaps the hope that by currying the guards favour they might survive.  At the height of the epidemics in the camp, the guards would not even enter it, and yet the camp continued to function normally, run by the prisoners themselves.  I find this to be frightening example of how people, when faced with the breakdown of society, will act to save and benefit themselves even at the direct expense of others.  How quickly we can revert to survival of the fittest.

Dachau became the prototype for all other concentration camps.  All the Commandants of other concentration camps started here.  Dachau was known as the ‘School of Violence’. where the techniques of containment, forced labour, abuse, and murder were refined.

In the final months of the war, the conditions at Dachau became even worse. As Allied forces advanced toward Germany, the Germans began to move prisoners from concentration camps nearer the front to more centrally located camps. By doing so they hoped to prevent the liberation of large numbers of prisoners.  Transports from the evacuated camps arrived continuously at Dachau.  After days of travel with little or no food or water, the prisoners arrived weak and exhausted, often dead or near death.  The camp was constantly overcrowded and the hygiene conditions were beneath human dignity.

Due to the immaculate record keeping of the Germans, we know that 206,000 prisoners went through Dachau concentration camp.  Of these approximately 40,000 people died here or in the subsidiary work camps, mainly from disease, malnutrition, and suicide.

The Dachau Concentration Camp was liberated by the 45th Infantry Division of the United States Seventh Army on April 29, 1945.  The camp Commandant had fled two days before so two SS troopers officially surrendered the camp to the Americans, facilitated by a representative of the Red Cross.  The American soldiers, already hardened by war, were not prepared for what they found.  Outside the camp were 30 box cars full of dead bodies in advanced stages of decomposition.  More bodies were found around the camp and piled high in rooms adjacent to the gas chambers and crematorium.   The surviving prisoners were gaunt and sick.  Seeing this, some American soldiers killed an estimated 25 to 50 of the German guards.  These soldiers were later court-martialed but subsequently pardoned by General George S. Patton.  After liberation, the prisoners were forced to remain in the camp for a period of time for fear of them spreading disease among the general population.  Most of them had no money, homes, or families to return to.  Despite improved treatment, food, and sanitation, people continued to die in the camp at the rate of 50 to 80 per day.

U.S. troops guarding Dachau entrance after liberation

U.S. troops guarding Dachau entrance after liberation

Despite the many atrocities, some people did survive Dachau.  Although thousands survived as a result of liberation or the rare release or escape, there are no records of the names of the survivors.  Only 200 of them are known.  Each year, on April 20th, those who can face their painful memories are welcomed to return to Dachau.  There they can share with fellow survivors, remember those who died, and they also receive free health care from the German government.

Germany is very open and honest about this dark period of its history.  All school children are required to learn of this and most visit concentration camps on field trips.  There were several groups of teenagers there the day we visited.  I wondered what they thought.  How would I feel if my country or perhaps my grandparents had been part of something like this?

Note from Patrick – This posting took me a very long time to write, and not just due to the detail required.  I started and stopped many times thinking about what I was writing and why I was writing it.  For some reason, having learned this information, I thought it was important to share it.  Perhaps it is my small contribution to helping make sure that this never happens again.

Monument at Dachau with the words Never Again in several languages

Monument at Dachau with the words Never Again in several languages