Auschwitz concentration camp

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Believe me, it wasn’t always a pleasure to see those mountains of corpses and smell the perpetual burning. —Rudolf Höss
The road to Auschwitz was built by hate, but paved with indifference. —Ian Kershaw
Auschwitz, the meaning of painJeff Hanneman
More people kept coming, always more, whom we hadn’t the facilities to kill. . . . The gas chambers couldn’t handle the load. —Franz Suchomel

Auschwitz concentration camp (German: Konzentrationslager Auschwitz [Auschvits]) was a network of concentration and extermination camps built and operated by the Third Reich in Polish areas annexed by Nazi Germany during World War II. It was the largest of the German concentration camps, consisting of Auschwitz I (the Stammlager or base camp); Auschwitz II–Birkenau (the Vernichtungslager or extermination camp); Auschwitz III–Monowitz, also known as Buna–Monowitz (a labour camp); and 45 satellite camps.


  • It is a name that has become synonymous with evil: Auschwitz - the Germanized name for the unprepossessing Polish town of Oswiçcim, thirty-seven miles west of Krakôw. It was in the nearby brick-walled barracks converted by the Germans into a concentration camp that a pesticide called Zyklon B was first used for the purpose of mass murder. The date was September 1941, and the initial victims were Soviet prisoners of war. But this was always intended as a test-run for genocide. Initially, the S S converted two farmhouses into provisional gas chambers at a new purpose-built camp known as Auschwitz-Birkenau. When these proved insufficient, four large crematoria were erected between March and June 1943, each consisting of an area for undressing, a large gas chamber and ovens for incinerating the asphyxiated victims. The purpose was to murder Jews from all over Europe and dispose of their remains in the most efficient way possible. At the peak of its operations, more than 12,000 people were being killed at the complex each day. Altogether, it has been calculated, 1.1 million people were murdered at Auschwitz, all but 122,000 of them Jews. That means that just under a fifth of all Holocaust victims perished there.
    • Niall Ferguson, The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West (2006), p. 506
  • It is its efficiency that makes Auschwitz so uniquely hateful. Among the exhibits visitors can see today are vast piles of human hair shaved from the heads of prisoners which were still awaiting shipment to German textile factories, neatly stuffed into sacks, when the camp was overrun by Soviet forces. In a separate display are examples of the products that were made from earlier consignments: coarse cloth, naval ropes and a peculiarly vile brown netting. Almost as disturbing are the great mounds of dull and dusty shoes; of false limbs; of spectacles; of suitcases with their owners' addresses painted on them in the vain hope of return, addresses from all over Europe. And these are the merest traces, a tiny fraction of the detritus of genocide. Long gone is the gold from the victims' pockets, off their fingers, from their teeth. For the Nazis were not content merely to kill those they defined as subhuman. They were impelled also to exploit them economically. A tiny minority were selected to work as slave labourers, some in the death camp itself, others - like Primo Levi, a trained chemist from Turin - in the adjoining factory run by IG Farben at Auschwitz III (also known as Buna or Monowice); still others were employed in nearby farms, mines and arms factories. Most, however, were simply gassed and then processed like so much waste product. You feel, after visiting Auschwitz, that the Germans did everything conceivable to those whom they killed except eat them. No other regime has come so close to H. G. Wells's nightmare of a mechanized sucking out of human life by voracious aliens.
    • Niall Ferguson, The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West (2006), p. 506-507
  • He also expressed “surprised disapproval that Jewish Special Detachments (Sonderkommandos) were willing, in return for a short extension of their own lives, to help with the gassing of members of their own race.”
    • Joachim C. Fest The Face of the Third Reich, p. 285, as quoted in Awake! magazine, in the article The Holocaust—Yes, It Really Happened! (April 8, 1989).
  • Some of the one-sided perfectionist pride of the expert comes out in Höss’s statement: ‘By the will of the Reichsführer of the SS [Heinrich Himmler], Auschwitz became the greatest human extermination centre of all time,’ or when he points out with the satisfaction of the successful planner that the gas chambers of his own camp had a capacity ten times greater than those of Treblinka.
    • Joachim C. Fest The Face of the Third Reich
  • The Auschwitz exhibition does everything right, and fixes nothing. I walked out of the museum, past the texting joggers by the cattle car, and I felt utterly broken.
    • Dara Horn "Blockbuster Dead Jews" in People Love Dead Jews: Reports from a Haunted Present (2021)
  • Believe me, it wasn’t always a pleasure to see those mountains of corpses and smell the perpetual burning.
    • Rudolf Höss, quoted in The Spectator, vol.224 (1970), p. 211.
  • The prisoners [transferred to labor camps] would have been spared a great deal of misery if they had been taken straight into the gas chambers at Auschwitz.
    • Rudolf Höss, commandant of Auschwitz. Awake! magazine, The Holocaust—Yes, It Really Happened!, April 8, 1989.
  • I was a chemist in a chemical plant... and I stole in order to eat. If you do not begin as a child, learning how to steal is not easy; it had taken me several months before I could repress the moral commandments and acquired the necessary techniques... I stole everything except the bread of my companions. ...There was a mysterious jar ...It contained ...gray, hard, colorless, odorless, tasteless little rods and did not have a label ...[T]he Russians were a few kilometers away ..; everybody knew the war was about to end: but finally some constants must still subsist, and among them were our hunger ...Alberto took a penknife ...He tried to scrape it ...and saw a spray of yellow sparks was iron-cerium ...from which common flints of cigarette lighters are made. ...Alberto ...explained ...they were mounted on the tips of oxyacetylene torches to ignite the flame. ...Alberto ...did not accept the concentration camp universe ...and miraculously he had remained free ...he had not bowed his head ...I has stolen the cerium: good ...he would turn it into article of high commercial value. Prometheus had been foolish to bestow fire... instead of selling it... the price of a lighter flint was equivalent to a ration of bread... one day of life. ...[I]n two months cerium would have liberated us, an element about which I knew nothing, save ...that it belongs to the equivocal and heretical rare-earth, and that its name has nothing to do with the ...word for wax (cera) and celebrates ...the asteroid Ceres, since the metal and the star were discovered in the same year affectionate-ironic homage to alchemical couplings: just as the Sun was gold and Mars iron, so Ceres must be cerium.
  • Auschwitz is the most familiar killing site of the bloodlands. Today Auschwitz stands for the Holocaust, and the Holocaust for the evil of a century. Yet the people registered as laborers as Auschwitz had a chance of surviving: thanks to the memoirs and novels written by survivors, its name is known. Far more Jews, most of them Polish Jews, were gassed in other German death factories where almost everyone died, and whose names are less often recalled: Treblinka, Chelmno, Sobibor, Belzec. Still more Jews, Polish or Soviet or Baltic Jews, were shot over ditches and pits. Most of these Jews died near where they had lived, in occupied Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Soviet Ukraine, and Soviet Belarus. The Germans brought Jews from elsewhere to the bloodlands to be killed. Jews arrived by train to Auschwitz from Hungary, Czechoslovakia, France, the Netherlands, Greece, Belgium, Yugoslavia, Italy, and Norway. German Jews were deported to the cities of the bloodlands, to Lodz or Kaunas or Minsk or Warsaw, before being shot or gassed. The people who lived on the block where I am writing now, in the ninth district of Vienna, were deported to Auschwitz, Sobibor, Treblinka, and Riga: all in the bloodlands.
    • Timothy D. Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. New York: Basic Books, 2010,
  • As Arendt recognized, Auschwitz was an unusual combination of an industrial camp complex and a killing facility. It stands as a symbol of both concentration and extermination, which creates a certain confusion. The camp first held Poles, and then Soviet prisoners of war, and then Jews and Roma. Once the death factory was added, some arriving Jews were selected for labor, worked until exhaustion, and then gassed. Thus chiefly at Auschwitz can an example be found of Arendt’s image of progressive alienation ending with death. It is a rendering that harmonizes with the literature of Auschwitz written by its survivors: Tadeusz Borowski, or Primo Levi, or Elie Wiesel. But this sequence is exceptional. It does not capture the usual course of the Holocaust, even at Auschwitz. Most of the Jews who died at Auschwitz were gassed upon arrival, never having spent time inside a camp. The journey of Jews from the camp to the gas chambers was a minor part of the history of the Auschwitz complex, and is misleading as a guide to the Holocaust or to mass killing generally. Auschwitz was indeed a major site of the Holocaust: about one in six murdered Jews perished there. But though the death factory at Auschwitz was the last killing facility to function, it was not the height of the technology of death: the most efficient shooting squads killed faster, the starvation sites killed faster, and Treblinka killed faster. Auschwitz was also not the main place where the two largest Jewish communities in Europe, the Polish and the Soviet, were exterminated. Most Soviet and Polish Jews under German occupation had already been murdered by the time Auschwitz became the major death factory. By the time the gas chamber and crematoria complexes at Birkenau came on line in spring 1943, more than three quarters of the Jews who would be killed in the Holocaust were already dead. For that matter, the tremendous majority of all of the people who would be deliberately killed by the Soviet and the Nazi regimes, well over ninety percent, had already been killed by the time those gas chambers at Birkenau began their deadly work. Auschwitz is the coda to the death fugue.
    • Timothy D. Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. New York: Basic Books, 2010,
  • More people kept coming, always more, whom we hadn’t the facilities to kill. . . . The gas chambers couldn’t handle the load.
    • Franz Suchomel, SS officer, Awake! magazine, The Holocaust—Yes, It Really Happened!, April 8, 1989.

See also