Description: Construction on Auschwitz II (Birkenau) began in October 1941 to ease congestion at the main camp. It was designed to hold several categories of prisoners, and to function as an extermination camp in the context of Himmler's preparations for the Final Solution of the Jewish Question.
Many people know the Birkenau camp simply as "Auschwitz"; it was larger than Auschwitz I, and more people passed through its gates than did those of Auschwitz I. It was the site of imprisonment of hundreds of thousands, and of the killing of over one million people, mainly Jews but also large numbers of Poles, and Gypsies, mostly through gassing.
Birkenau had four gas chambers, designed to resemble showers, and four crematoria, used to incinerate bodies. Approximately 40 more satellite camps were established around Auschwitz. These were forced labor camps and were known collectively as Auschwitz III. The first one was built at Monowitz and held Poles who had been forcibly evacuated from their hometowns by the Nazis. The inmates of Monowitz were forced to work in the chemical works of IG Farben.
Prisoners were transported from all over German-occupied Europe by rail, arriving at Auschwitz-Birkenau in daily convoys. Arrivals at the complex were separated into four groups:
* One group, about three-quarters of the total, went to the gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau within a few hours; they included all children, all women with children, all the elderly, and all those who appeared on brief and superficial inspection by an SS doctor not to be fully fit. In the Auschwitz Birkenau camp more than 20,000 people could be gassed and cremated each day. At Birkenau, the Nazis used a cyanide gas produced from Zyklon B pellets, which were manufactured by two companies who had acquired licensing rights to the patent held by IG Farben. The two companies were Tesch & Stabenow, of Hamburg, who supplied two tons of the crystals each month, and Degesch, of Dessau, who produced three-quarters of a ton. The bills of lading were produced at Nuremburg.
* A second group of prisoners were used as slave labor at industrial factories for such companies as IG Farben and Krupp. At the Auschwitz complex 405,000 prisoners were recorded as slaves between 1940 and 1945. Of these about 340,000 perished through executions, beatings, starvation, and sickness. Some prisoners survived through the help of German industrialist Oskar Schindler, who saved about 1,100 Polish Jews by diverting them from Auschwitz to work for him, first in his factory near Kraków and later at a factory in what is now the Czech Republic.
* A third group, mostly twins and dwarfs, underwent medical experiments at the hands of doctors such as Josef Mengele, who was also known as the “Angel of Death.”
* The fourth group was composed of women who were selected to work in "Canada", the part of Birkenau where prisoners' belongings were sorted for use by Germans. The name "Canada" was very cynically chosen. In Poland it was - and is still - used as an expression used when viewing, for example, a valuable and fine gift. The expression comes from the time when Polish emigrants were sending gifts home from Canada.
The camp was staffed partly by prisoners, some of whom were selected to be kapos (orderlies) and sonderkommandos (workers at the crematoria). The kapos were responsible for keeping order in the barrack huts; the sonderkommando prepared new arrivals for gassing (ordering them to remove their clothing and surrender their personal possessions) and transferred corpses from the gas chambers to the furnaces, having first pulled out any gold that the victims might have had in their teeth. Members of these groups were killed periodically. The kapos and sonderkommandos were supervised by members of the SS; altogether 6,000 SS members worked at Auschwitz.
By 1943 resistance organizations had developed in the camp. These organizations helped a few prisoners escape; these escapees took with them news of exterminations, such as the killing of hundreds of thousands of Jews transported from Hungary between May and July 1944. In October 1944 a group of sonderkommandos destroyed one of the crematoria at Birkenau. They and their accomplices, a group of women from the Monowitz labor camp, were all put to death. It was also not uncommon if one prisoner escaped, selected persons in the escapee's block were killed.
When the Soviet army liberated Auschwitz on January 27, 1945, they found about 7,600 survivors abandoned there. More than 58,000 prisoners had already been evacuated by the Nazis and sent on a final death march to Germany. In 1947, in remembrance of the victims, Poland founded a museum at the site of the Auschwitz concentration camp. By 1994, some 22 million visitors — 700,000 annually — had passed through the iron gate crowned with the cynical motto, "Arbeit macht frei" ("Work will set you free").