Auschwitz I

Aerial view of Auschwitz I camp

Shown above is an aerial photo of KL Auschwitz I, the main camp or Stammlager. Across the top of the picture on the left is the Sola river, which separates the former concentration camp from the town of Auschwitz, now called Oswiecim. 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 buildings at 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.

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 Greater Germany 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 Greater Germany. 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 Russians after the defeat of Poland by the Germans and the Russians 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 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 army.

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 opened 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 in March 1933, following an alleged attempt by Hitler's political enemies to burn down the Reichstag, a building that was the equivalent of the Congressional building in Washington, DC. Before the start of World War II in September 1939, five other main camps had been established in the German Reich, which after March 1938 included Austria. These camps were Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald, Flossenbürg, Mauthausen and Ravensbrück, which was a women's camp. There were, in addition, many labor camps. After the German invasion of Poland in 1939, and before the Auschwitz I camp opened in 1940, political prisoners in 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 IG 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 Nazis 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 Nazis began plans to abandon Auschwitz-Birkenau, as they retreated from the advancing Russian army.

In 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 Russian Prisoners of War.

In 1942, Auschwitz III was opened in Monowitz at the factory complex that had been built by the IG Farben company. The SS collected wages from IG Farben for the work done by the Auschwitz prisoners. Both the SS and the IG 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 steelworks, 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.

Today, the date that Auschwitz was liberated by the Soviet Union, January 27, 1945, is an international Holocaust remembrance day.

Entrance to Auschwitz Museum

Detailed History of Auschwitz-Birkenau