Auschwitz Main Camp
Aerial view of Auschwitz
I, the main camp
Shown above is an aerial photo of KL
Auschwitz, the main concentration camp or Stammlager, located
in the town of Auschwitz, now called Oswiecim.
Across the top of the picture on the
left is the Sola river, which separates the former concentration
camp from the town. In the top right-hand corner, you can see
the gravel pit with a Christian cross placed in the middle of
it. The building next to the gravel pit, outside the camp, was
first a theater, then a storehouse and clothing warehouse for
the Nazis, and later a convent for Carmelite nuns. The nuns placed
the cross in the gravel pit in 1988.
The last building on the right in the
row of brick buildings across the top of the photo is Block 11,
the prison block, which overlooks the gravel pit.
The large building complex in the lower
right-hand corner is the administration building where incoming
prisoners were processed; it now houses the Visitors' Center
and a hotel. The road that runs along the right side of the picture
is the location of the entrance to the Auschwitz Museum, as the
former camp is now called.
In the photo above, the large white building
with a courtyard in the center is the kitchen building. When
I visited in 1998 and 2005, this building was painted black;
it is now painted white again.
Auschwitz was selected to be the site
of the first concentration camp in what is now Poland because
of its location near a major railroad junction and because there
was already a military camp there with usable buildings.
The camp had been built originally for
migratory farm laborers on their way to seasonal work on large
German estates. This farm labor exchange was built in a district
of the town of Auschwitz, called Zazole, in 1916. Auschwitz was
then in Galicia, a province in the Austro-Hungarian sector of
the former country of Poland, which had been divided between
the Russians, Austrians and Prussians (Germans) in 1795. At the
time that the concentration camp was opened in Auschwitz, this
area had been incorporated into the Greater German Reich; it
was not part of German-occupied Poland.
The map below shows the Greater German
Reich in orange and the area of Poland that was annexed into
Greater Germany in a darker orange color. Note that two of the
Nazi death camps, Auschwitz and Chelmno, were located within
the Greater German Reich. The yellow line shows the boundary
of Poland between 1919 and 1939; during this period of time,
Germany was divided into two sections by the Polish Corridor.
The tan colored area within the boundary designates the part
of Poland that was occupied by the Soviet Union after the defeat
of Poland by the Germans and the Soviets in 1939. The General
Government was the name given to German-occupied Poland. The
headquarters for the German occupation of Poland was in Krakow,
which is about 37 miles east of Auschwitz.
Map of occupied Poland
and Greater Germany
After the end of World War I, the Auschwitz
1 camp became a military garrison for Polish soldiers when Poland
regained its independence after 124 years of foreign rule. Now
the Auschwitz I camp has come full circle, with some of the barracks
buildings in the extended camp again being used by the Polish
The decision to open a concentration
camp for Polish political prisoners in the town of Auschwitz
was made by Heinrich Himmler on April 27, 1940. The first prisoners,
a group of 728 Poles, arrived at the Auschwitz I camp on June
14, 1940. They were political prisoners from the Gestapo prison
at Tarnow, a Polish town about 40 miles east of Krakow. Tarnow
was also the site of a Ghetto set up by the Nazis in 1940 where
3,000 Jews worked in a clothing factory making uniforms for the
German army; over 40,000 Jews lived in the Tarnow Ghetto until
it was liquidated.
By the time the Auschwitz I camp received
its first prisoners on June 14, 1940, the Nazi concentration
camp system had been in operation for over 7 years. The very
first Nazi concentration camp had been opened at Dachau on March
22, 1933, following an alleged attempt by Hitler's political
enemies to burn down the Reichstag, a building that was the equivalent
of the American Congressional building in Washington, DC.
Before the start of World War II in September
1939, five other main camps had been established in the Greater
German Reich, which by 1938 included Austria and the Sudetenland
in what is now the Czech Republic. These camps were Sachsenhausen,
Buchenwald, Flossenbürg, Mauthausen in Austria, and a women's
camp at Ravensbrück. There were, in addition, many labor
camps in Germany. After the German invasion of Poland in 1939,
and before the Auschwitz I camp opened in 1940, political prisoners
from occupied Poland were sent to camps in Germany or Austria.
Auschwitz was considered an excellent
location for a concentration camp because it was centrally located
in Europe, and because it was in an area suitable for factories
because of its large coal deposits. At the same time that Heinrich
Himmler chose this location for the first concentration camp
in what is now Poland, the I.G. Farben company also chose Auschwitz
as the site of their new chemical factories.
Initially a labor camp for Polish political
prisoners and German criminals who assisted the Germans in supervising
the prisoners, Auschwitz I did not become a camp for the systematic
extermination of the Jews until after the Wannsee conference,
on January 20, 1942, in which plans for the "Final Solution
to the Jewish Question" were made.
In February 1942, the first known transport
of prisoners which was composed entirely of Jews arrived at Auschwitz;
train loads of Jews continued to arrive at Auschwitz-Birkenau
from all over Nazi-occupied Europe until November 1, 1944, at
which time the Germans began plans to abandon Auschwitz-Birkenau,
as they retreated from the advancing army of the Soviet Union.
In October 1941, a second camp, called
Auschwitz II, was established in the village of Birkenau, 3 kilometers
from the Auschwitz main camp. The first inmates at Birkenau were
Soviet Prisoners of War.
In 1942, Auschwitz III was opened in
Monowitz at the factory complex that had been built by the I.G.
Farben company. The SS collected wages from I.G. Farben for the
work done by the Auschwitz prisoners. Both the SS and the I.G.
Farben company made enormous profits from this arrangement.
Between 1942 and 1944, there were 40
sub-camps established, under the jurisdiction of Auschwitz III;
these camps were located mainly in the vicinity of steel works,
coal mines and factories where the Auschwitz prisoners worked
as slave laborers.
In 1947, the Auschwitz main camp and
the remains of the camp at Birkenau were turned into the Auschwitz
Museum. After the fall of Communism in 1989, Auschwitz became
synonymous with the Holocaust, as millions of visitors from the
West began coming to see the evidence of Nazi atrocities and
the genocide of the Jews.
In 2009, there were 1.3 million visitors
to Auschwitz-Birkenau; the majority of the visitors were students
who were studying the Holocaust in school.
Today, the date that Auschwitz was liberated
by the Soviet Union, January 27, 1945, is an international Holocaust
Remembrance Day. Ceremonies to commemorate this day are held
at Auschwitz-Birkenau and all over the world.
This page was last updated on January