Auschwitz was the largest and most lethal of all the German Nazi concentration and extermination camps. More than 1,100,000 people were murdered behind its barbed-wire fences between June 1940 and January 1945 in a systematic and industrialized fashion.

Boys and girls, women and men, most of them Jewish of different nationalities, were deported there, murdered, turned into slaves, numbers, dehumanized and humiliated. Other groups of victims included Poles, Roma and Sinti, Soviet POWs and people of other nationalities.

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The Holocaust, one of the darkest chapters in the history of the world, took place in a civilized continent and within the most technologically and culturally advanced society in its period. Auschwitz developed while the world remained silent before the Nazi horrors and changed forever the foundations and perspective of humanity.

Not Long Ago. Not Far Away.

Before Auschwitz

The National Socialist German Workers’ Party, better known as Nazi Party, was founded in 1919 and shaped the far-right wing’s racist theories that had been winning followers in Germany and other European countries with special vigour since the last decades of the 19th century. The fundamentals of its ideology were its opposition to Communism and democracy and hatred to the Jews, as well as its defense of social Darwinism and the alleged superiority of the ‘Aryan’ race, that, in its opinion, was to rule the world.

Germany was a crippled country at the beginning of the 1930’s, with devastating poverty and unemployment rates amidst a world economic depression. This, added to the humiliating German defeat in World War I and the punishment imposed in the Treaty of Versailles, lead to the popularity of the Nazi Party and its leader, Adolf Hitler. Tens of thousands of followers supported him with their votes, believing in his promise to restore the former greatness of Germany and his accusation that certain minorities, and particularly the Jews, were responsible for the nation’s misfortunes.

This is how anti-Semitism became institutionalized and the rights of a vast portion of the population began to be severed. The authorities organized Anti-Semitic boycotts and book burnings, and enacted anti-Jewish laws conceived to make a portion of the German citizenship poorer and poorer, and more and more segregated.

More than 30,000 Jews were arrested after the ‘Night of the Broken Glass’ (November 9, 1938). In barely two days, the aggressors murdered tens of people and destroyed more than 250 synagogues and 7,000 Jewish businesses… while the police sat on the fence. © Universal History Archive/Getty Images.

Ultimately, and after an escalation of anti-Semitic violence, this hatred would lead to the state-sponsored systematic murder of almost six million Jews.

Nazi ideology also persecuted different groups of people deemed ‘enemies’ of the German nation: Slavs, Roma and other groups such as homosexuals, Soviet prisoners of war, disabled or, among others, Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Creating Auschwitz

The Nazi concentration camps began to be built in Germany in 1933. From then on, they increasingly became the unswerving destination for the opponents to Hitler’s regime, the Jews and every other person deemed by Nazi soldiers as an ‘undesirable element’. After World War II was declared, Germany began to install these camps in its occupied territories throughout Europe and ordered, at the same time, the deportation of prisoners from other lands.

Model of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp. Made by Piper Bernbaum, Anna Longrigg, Michael Nugent, Madeleine Reinhart, Tristan van Leur, and Robert Jan van Pelt (2016) © Musealia

Auschwitz was the most lethal and largest of the camps built and operated by Nazi Germany. Its forty square kilometres zone of interest were home to the three main camps:

  • Auschwitz I
  • Auschwitz II-Birkenau (where most gas chambers and crematoria of the extermination center were located)
  • Auschwitz III-Monowitz (located by the IG Farbenindustrie factory building site)

Almost 50 subcamps to exploit the prisoners as slaves were also established in the vicinity of Auschwitz.

Concrete posts that were once part of the fence of the Auschwitz camp (1940-1945). These posts were covered in barbed and electrified wire, ensuring that no prisoner could escape. Collection of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum © Musealia

Concrete posts that were once part of the fence of the Auschwitz camp (1940-1945). These posts were covered in barbed and electrified wire, ensuring that no prisoner could escape. Collection of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum © Musealia

The Victims

Of the 1.3 million deported sent to Auschwitz by Hitler’s Nazi regime, barely 400,000 were registered and imprisoned in the compound. This group included Jews and many other groups of victims. The other 900,000 - Jews who went through initial selection process - were gassed and cremated in incineration ovens or burning pits within hours after their train’s arrival.

Personal pictures of the pre-war lives of the 1.3 million people, mostly Jews, deported to Auschwitz. Originals in the collection of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, with special thanks to Ann Weiss. © Musealia

Getting past the first SS selection did by no means guarantee survival. Inmates’ average living expectancy did not exceed a few weeks due to the extreme conditions in which they were held.

Chart by Franciszek Piper for the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum

More than 50 percent of the people interned in Auschwitz died to starvation, exhausting work, executions, tortures and punishments, diseases and epidemics, pseudo-scientific experiments and the harsh conditions of the daily life in the camp.

When Germans were surrounded by the Soviet Army that liberated the compound, they transported almost all remaining inmates to other camps in what became known as death marches. A vast number of them would die due to exhaustion, hunger, cold and the bullets the SS men fired against those too weak to keep walking.

The Extermination

Group of children and women waiting in the woods next to the crematorium, not knowing they would soon be sent to the gas chambers. © Yad Vashem.

Children’s clothing and objects carried into Auschwitz by deportees (1940s) Collection of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. © Musealia

In January 1942 the anti-Semitic policies of Nazi Germany plunged in the horror with the coordination of the so-called ‘Final Solution to the Jewish Problem’, which would put the camps to a new use, all the more terrifying. In few words, the Nazi leaders gathered at the Wannsee Conference discussed technical and logistical details of the annihilation, without further ado, of every Jewish man, woman or child still alive in the occupied Europe.

This terrible culmination of Nazism involved wiping the Hebrew people, the greatest ‘foe’ of the German nation, off the face of the earth and removing any trace of their contribution to the history of humanity.

They almost achieved their goal.

German World War I gas mask (1917–18) In World War I, face-to-face combat gave way to faceless and indiscriminate slaughter; gas attacks were one part of this development. © Collection of Musealia

In the beginning of the Holocaust, the most commonly used method of murder was mass shooting, but they were soon replaced by a cheaper, more anonymous and more efficient procedure–the death camps that used different types of gas chambers located in German-occupied Poland.

The Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp was undoubtedly the key instrument to reach their goal, because both of its size and its strategic location on the confluence of the main railway routes of the Third Reich.

The Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp had four crematoria where the SS made their own prisoners (those assigned to the Sonderkommandos) to burn the bodies of hundreds of thousands of their comrades in order to hide the evidences of the massacre.

Almost six million Jews were murdered during the Shoah as part of a comprehensive plan of Aryanization of the German society. Two thirds of the European Jews disappeared forever.

Life in the Camp

People from all occupied Europe were transported in fully crammed freight carswith no water nor food, to Auschwitz. After a journey that sometimes took days and killed many, they arrived at the long platform of the camp, known as die Rampe (The ramp).

SS Jackboots (1940s) Collection of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum.

Suitcases deportees brought to the Auschwitz concentration camp (1944) Collection of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum © Musealia

Non-Jewish people were automatically registered in the camp as prisoners. From late spring 1942 the Jews deported to the camp went through the selections made by SS doctors that in a few seconds decided the fate of the deportees and resolved who would become a slave and die from exhaustion, hunger or torture, who would serve as a ‘guinea pig’ in pseudo-scientific experiments and who would be killed straightaway.

The method was mechanical and very simple: the people were asked about their age, their occupation and their health, and, depending on their answers, the SS men gave their verdict. If his thumb pointed to one side, the inmate was fit for work, but if it pointed to the other side, it meant immediate execution. Children and old people, pregnant women and people with disabilities were automatically deemed unfit for forced labor and, therefore, sent directly to the gas chambers. The same was true for mothers with little babies and, as a general rule, for all the people considered weak or sickly.

The victims had to give to the camp SS the few belongings they carried. Their baggage was piled on the platform to be subsequently sent to Germany and sold there. The new arrivals that survived the selection that took place on die Rampe were sent directly to a section known as ‘the Sauna’, where they were disinfected, shaved, stripped of their clothes and their valuables and registered with a number (that at some point was also tattooed on their bodies), which since then would replace its name before the camp authorities.

Bunk from a prisoner barrack (1941–44) Prisoners slept on the floors of the barracks for the first year of the camp. Triple bunk beds were introduced at the end of 1941. © Musealia

Prisoner’s jacket and pants from the Sachsenhausen concentration camp (ca. 1941). Collection of the Gedenkstätte und Museum Sachsenhausen © Musealia

To make matters worse, Auschwitz inmates lived in fully unhealthy barracks scarcely ventilated and barely insulated from the extreme cold that was common in Oświęcim, where winters are particularly harsh. In Auschwitz, as in the rest of the German Nazi concentration and extermination camps, hunger was chronic and ubiquitous, being the first reason of the drop in life expectancy to a few weeks or months.

Bowl (1940s) and wooden spoon (1940–45) marked with the name Zośka and the number 30921 on the underside. The owner of the spoon, Stanisław Śitaj, was admitted to the camp on April 17, 1942. Collection of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. © Musealia

The daily ration consisted in a bowl of a bitter beverage similar to coffee for breakfast, a dish of thin soup made from rotten vegetables or meat at midday and a crust of bread and a little portion of margarine before going to bed.

After some weeks in the camp, eating tiny amounts of calories and suffering from diarrhea, crippling abdominal pain and, in consequence, demoralization, many of them died from weakness.

Although at the Auschwitz gate the well-known inscription ‘Arbeit macht frei’ (‘Work sets free’) could be read, this was only a macabre metaphor used by Nazis.

Whip (1940s) Kapos—and especially German Kapos—were given great license in the way they treated Polish prisoners: they could beat them, whip them, choke them, and even kill them. Collection of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. © Musealia

Auschwitz female and male prisoners were forced to work at a frenzied pace during working days of more than 11 hours with barely no rest or tools.

They performed a range of very diverse tasks, such as loading heavy materials, mining, producing chemicals, weapons and fuel or building infrastructures. Other forced chores very common at the camp were the sorting of the belongings robbed to prisoners or the incineration of bodies in the crematoria.

Inmates building the Krupp factory in Auschwitz, 1921-43. Other companies, such as IG Farben, IBM or Siemens, also benefited from the slave labour in the camp. Courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration.

“There were armed guards to prevent us from running away. We couldn’t speak much. If we spoke and the guards saw us, we got beaten up. We only were allowed to work.”


Joseph Stanley. Holocaust survivor.

Thousands of prisoners were victims to pseudo-medical studies carried out in Auschwitz-Birkenau, where prominent doctors pertaining to the Nazi apparatus ignored all ethical concerns and took advantage of the chance to experiment with thousands of prisoners against their will, with SS Josef Mengele as the cruelest of all the doctors that operated in Auschwitz.

Medical instrument used by Dr Mengele’s team in his racial studies. © Paweł Sawicki.

Victims of the Nazi pseudo-scientific experiments. Courtesy of the USHMM.

Many of the prisoners used in these tests died during the procedures. Many others were murdered after completion to check the effect they had had in their interiors. The few survivors were mutilated or otherwise incapacitated and marked for life thanks to the SS doctors’ cruelty.

Liberation

At the end of 1944, the unstoppable offensive of the Red Army forced the Nazi authorities in Auschwitz to prepare to abandon the compound and order the destruction of all the evidence of the crimes they had perpetrated.

After getting rid of almost all documentation and a great part of the camp facilities, on January 17-21, the prisoners still able to walk were forced to trek towards the inner Reich in what were known as death marches. Those that did not perish on the journey were relocated to other camps.

Troops still found at their arrival, on January 27, 1945, plenty of irrefutable evidences of the mass extermination carried on in Auschwitz, such as mountains of unburied bodies or the victims’ belongings–thousands of men’s suits and women’s dresses and, among other things, 6,500 kilos of human hair ready to be sold in Germany.

Some of the evidences of the deliberate murdering found in the camp after its liberation–mountains of glasses and shoes stolen to the prisoners. © Wiener Library.

Courtesy of USHMM.

They also found over 7,000 people, exhausted and sick, in the entire camp complex. Despite the efforts made by the Allied troops and doctors, some would die within days of having been liberated.

The world had to wait until November 20, 1945 for the Nuremberg trials to take place, in which eight Hitlerian associations and 24 Nazi leaders were judged for the crimes and atrocities they had committed.

Twelve of those prominent Nazis were sentenced to death. Most admitted having perpetrated the crimes they were accused of, although barely three of them showed regret.

The highest authority of the Nazi state, Adolf Hitler, was not present. As many of his nearest collaborators, he had killed himself during the death rattle of World War II.

The exhibition is recommended for ages 12+. Although the history of Auschwitz is challenging, we have developed this exhibition not only with profound respect for the victims, but also for our visitors. Care has been taken to ensure that there are no gratuitous depictions of violence. Every effort has been made to consider the emotional impact this story can have on our visitors, so that they can safely explore this history, seek to understand it better, and to make meaning for themselves.

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For a list of collaborating institutions, lenders of artifacts, copyright holders, and key acknowledgments, click here.

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Exhibit made possible thanks to Presenting Underwriter Ambassador Gordon D. Sondland