Poland fell to the German Blitzkrieg (Lightning War) on October 6th, 1939. The invasion had started just over a month before on September 1st, 1939 and commenced the beginning of World War Two. The Soviet Union who had a pact with Nazi Germany also invaded Poland on September 17th, 1939 (this was part of a secret protocol of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact). The two nations then split Poland in two and began their own separate programs to make the country more Germanic or Soviet (both harsh on the populace).
In 1940 Germany held many political prisoners in Poland. Local prisons were more or less full so they started to establish similar concentration camps in Poland to those like Dachau in Germany. One of the most infamous around the world became known as Auschwitz which was established in 1940 (it was set up near the town of Oswiecim but the Germans renamed it to Auschwitz). By 1942 the Third Reich had a different more grim agenda and Auschwitz not only acted as a concentration but also became a dreaded death camp.
Auschwitz was actually a number of sub camps. There were 3 main camps but all up some 40 sub camps in total (smaller camps were used for forestry work, farming, construction, repair workshops, manufacturing including weapons, coal mining and so forth). What is known as Auschwitz I is the original section of the camp (22 pre-war brick barracks buildings), nearby is Auschwitz II – Birkenau (the largest camp intended to hold 125,000 prisoners it was also used as a marshaling camp to transfer prisoners as slave labour to industry within the Third Reich) and the third camp was Auschwitz III – Monowitz.
At the peak of the camps in 1944 the 3 main camps covered some 40 square kilometres and the outlying sub-camps were in a radius of anywhere up to several hundred kilometres away. At this time there were 135,000 prisoners in the Auschwitz camps who were mostly Poles, Jews and Gypsies but there were also Prisoners Of War from the Soviet Union and other countries. This is massive and incorporated approximately 25% of the total number of people in all concentration camps operated by the Third Reich!
Despite the labour status of the camps, Auschwitz was also the largest camp for the immediate extermination of Jewish prisoners and became a central component of the Jewish Holocaust. From 1942 gas chambers and incinerators were the method for the final solution of the Holocaust at the Auschwitz camp. The official website for Auschwitz states approximately 90% of prisoners that died at the camp lost their lives at Auschwitz II – Birkenau. That is close to 1,000,000 lives (9 out of 10 were Jewish, some 70,000 Poles and 20,000 Gypsies also died at Auschwitz along with an unknown number of Prisoners of War)!
Auschwitz was also a centre for extreme medical experiments on prisoners by Nazi doctors such as the notorious SS Doctor Josef Mengele (the Angel of Death somehow fled capture at the end of the war and escaped to South America where he lived until his death in 1979). His specialty was genetic experiments on twins and people with inherited disabilities. Other doctors subjected prisoners to sterilization experiments, testing of experimental drugs and other foul deeds. Few survived these experiments.
In 2005 I visited Auschwitz I and II which are part of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. Grim places and an experience that I will never forget. The crematorium, rooms full of shoes, suitcases, personal possessions and even human hair from prisoners hit home the reality of what happened there between 1940 and 1945.
Today most of Auschwitz I remains intact as an everlasting reminder of what a horrible place it was. Auschwitz II – Birkenau has numerous buildings remaining with some rebuilt barracks but many foundations and chimneys remain from the old barracks that are dotted all over the countryside. You enter through the main gate building that has an ominous train line running through it. Despite German SS attempts to destroy gas chambers and crematoriums during their retreat from the Soviets in 1944/1945 some of them remain too.
The camp was liberated by the 60th Army of the First Ukrainian Front of the Soviet Union on January 27th , 1945. All that remained were 7,000 prisoners including approximately 400 children. The rest had either been evacuated by the SS or killed.
What a sad and horrifying sight this place must have been to the liberators and what a sense of relief and exhilaration the prisoners must have felt at the sight of the Liberators (one those not there will never truly comprehend). The Soviets quickly organized medical treatment and food for the prisoners. Those fit enough left the camp almost immediately and those who required medical attention had left the hospitals within 3 to 4 months. They were truly the lucky ones to survive the horrors of Auschwitz.