Auschwitz (the German name; Oswiecim in Polish) was the largest of the Nazi labor and concentration camps. It was used for the extermination of Jewish people through death by gassing.
On 27 April 1940 Heinrich Himmler ordered the construction of a large new concentration camp near the city of Oswiecim in the eastern part of Upper Silesia, which the Reich had annexed in September 1939. The camp was built by 300 Jews from Oswiecim and the surrounding area - its first laborers. From June 1940 the Nazis sent consignments of prisoners to the camp, beginning with Polish political prisoners. Auschwitz rapidly became known as the worst of the Nazi concentration camps. In horrifying irony the words Arbeit Macht Frei ("work liberates") were written over the main gate.
In October 1941 the construction of a much larger second camp began - three kilometres from the original camp. It was called Auschwitz II - Birkenau. Subsequently, a third camp was opened: Auschwitz III - Buna Monowitz. Other satellite camps were built, all surrounded by barbed wire fences.
Birkenau was the most crowded of the camps. Its inmates were mostly Polish and German Jews. Conditions in this camp were also among the most severe, culminating in extermination in the camp's gas chambers and crematoria.
When the trains stopped at the railway platform in Birkenau the prisoners were ordered to leave all their belongings and stand in two lines, men and women separately. Then the SS officers selected the people to be sent immediately to the gas chambers. They were murdered on that same day and their bodies burnt in Birkenau's crematoria. In addition to Jews, gypsies and political prisoners were sent to the gas chambers. In all about one and a half million people were murdered in Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Those who escaped immediate gassing were designated for the forced labor camps. Their heads were shaved and they were issued with striped prisoner uniforms. The life expectancy of a prisoner in the work camps was no more than a few months. Many inmates became what was known in camp slang as "Musselmanner" - people with absolutely no strength left, who could hardly move or react to their environment.
Auschwitz has become a symbol, a metaphor, for inconceivable and monstrous evil. The works of artists like Halina Olomucki can give us some indication of the unspeakable horrors of this camp.
(Dr Pnina Rosenberg)