The Camps One

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Auschwitz-Birkenau, Its Commandant and its Angel of Death

The Auschwitz complex evolved into the jewel in the crown of Himmler's concentration camp system. After the defeat of Poland by Hitler's armies, Himmler's brokers of death set about the rounding up everyone they regarded as a threat to German security. To accommodate those not killed on the spot, the SS expanded their concentration camp system deep into occupied Poland. 

In 1940, SS-Hauptsturmführer (Captain) Rudolf Hoess and and a handful of other officers visited the small southern Polish town of Oświęcim (Known as Auschwitz in German) in southern Poland (Under the Germans it was now part of the annexed area known as Upper Silesia) with the view of establishing a concentration camp to hold Polish prisoners.  It was initially meant to act as a simple holding pen prior to sending prisoners onto other camps. But this policy was quickly dropped.  The site chosen was located just outside Oświęcim itself. An old dilapidated military barracks, that had been later transformed into a tobacco factory, was taken over by then SS.

The main Auschwitz camp lay some 160 miles southwest of Warsaw and built around stagnant ponds, which was smelly and pestilential.

After Himmler's visit in 1941, it was decided that the camp should be expanded due to the imminent invasion of the Soviet Union.  Himmler wanted the extended area to house Soviet Prisoners of War, but like most things in Nazi Germany, the policy was quick to change.  Instead, this new complex of buildings would house Jews who would become the primary target for incarceration within Auschwitz, and this camp would be known as Auschwitz-Birkenau and it would primary become a killing centre.  On the 26 March 1942, the first group of Jewish prisoners arrived within Birkenau from Slovakia after the Slovakian President Jozef Tiso had made arrangements with the SS to have them taken off his hands.  

Special installations were added at the Birkenau site, including Badeanstalten (bathhouses) used for the gassing of inmates and Leichenkeller (corpse cellars) used to store the bodies prior the cremation, and of course a crematorium. 

Experienced SS members staffed the camp. The staff was composed of Lageralteste (camp seniors), Blockalteste (block seniors), Studendienst (room orderlies) and Kapos (foremen of individual huts). Death transports flowed from all over Europe and it was estimated that between 1.1 million, men women and children died at this complex alone. 

The entire camp complex consisted of three main parts, and which had no fewer than 40 sub-camps. Auschwitz 1 was the main camp, which was the oldest part of the camp. This part of the camp was used mainly as a concentration camp rather than an extermination camp.  Auschwitz 2, also known as Auschwitz-Birkenau, was where all the special installations, as mentioned above, was built, This was the heart of the killing machine that was Auschwitz. The third part, Auschwitch 3, also known as Monowitz was mainly a slave labour complex were the inmates were expected to work within the purpose built Buna-Werke synthetic rubber and fuel plant and other private enterprises and which was based some six kilometres away from the Auschwitz camp itself.

In the Women's camp (Auschwitz) Block 30: SS doctors, Carl Clauberg and Horst Schumann carried out mass sterilisation experiments on inmates using X-ray machines. The primary purpose of these forced sterilisations was to prevent half-Jews (the Mischlinge) from being able to breed.  


Garrison Numbers (source:

It's been estimated that just over one million men, women and children were murdered within the Auschwitz complex as a whole, and that the SS garrison numbers were as follows:

In 1941 the estimate was: 700.

In  (June) 1942 the estimate was: 2,000.

In  (April) 1944 the estimate was 3,000.

In (August) 1944 the estimate was: 3,300 [SS men and female overseers].

In (January) 1945 the estimate was: 4,480 SS men and a further 71 female SS supervisors.

Between 8,000 - 8,200 men and 200 female guards oversaw the death and destruction of their fellow human beings that their masters in Berlin had decided were no longer worthy of life. Such a small number compared to how many died and suffered. 


Life and Death in Auschwitz:

Prisoners would have their hair removed and be tattooed with a set of numbers on their right arm. They would shower and be given a pair of wooden clogs and a blue-grey stripped prisoner uniform.

Afterwards they would be placed within quarantine and after which they would allocated a bunk within one of the barracks within the main camp.  

Morning roll call (Appell) would begin at 4.30 during the summer period and an hour later during the winter spell. Roll call would occur again in the evening after the days work had been completed. Each roll call could last hours, regardless of weather conditions.  

Prisoners would be placed into work details and life expectancy was determined by which detail one found themselve in.  

Each prisoner received a cup of ersatz coffee and a stale piece of bread in the morning. At lunchtimes, they received a watery, calorie void substance that was classed as soup, and a piece of bread to go with it. Prisoners were not expected to work on Sundays, instead, prisoners would spend their time searching and bartering for extra food. Starvation was rife and most, if not all prisoners ended up with diarrhea as well as dysentery. Many succumbed to soiling themselves during roll calls and night curfews. 

Prisoners would be beaten regularly either by the SS or from the Kapos (fellow prisoners who acted as overseers for the Germans) sometimes resulting in the deaths of many inmates.  

Typhus and other diseases were very common within the camps as lice moved from person to person.  

From time-to-time, selections would be carried out by SS doctors who simply would offer a quick glance at each prisoner and by doing so sealed their fate. Those too ill or too weak to work were simply dispatched to the gas chambers.  

The gas chambers within Auschwitz could hold up to 1,000 people at a time and after the people had been escorted in, a heavy door was closed behind them. The doors contain a peep hole so that a guard could see in and ensure those within were dead before opening the doors.  


The Labour Force:

Without the prisoners, the camps would have been imposible to run (the SS would have had to recruit more auxiliaries to step in as camp workers) as the prisoners acted as secretaries and clerks working within the camp's administration offices, they were also employed as construction workers,  assistant doctors and nurses, electricians, cooks, firemen and even helped run the more sinister parts of camp, such working within the gas chambers, the crematoriums as well as acting as prisoner supervisors (Kapos).   

Block 24 - The Auschwitz Brothel: 

Heinrich Himmler had already sanctioned the use of brothels within the camp system and as such, Rudolf Hoess had ordered the establishment of a camp brothel to induce privileged non-Jewish inmates (Kapos, firemen etc) to work harder in the hope that they would gain an honoured voucher that would allow them a few precious minutes, fifteen to be exact, with a camp prostitute. In Auschwitz, the brothel was located within the main camp (Auschwitz 1), Block 24 which was directly opposite the camps main entrance. However not all the women were too happy at the thought of being sexually exploited in this way. And when the Germans came across these women, their barbarism knew no limits. According to Henry Later, and at Auschwitz claimed in his book:

"The Germans gathered the more attractive women together and spelled it out for them. If you do what we want, have sex with these soldiers and privileged inmates, you can have it really good here. You can stay here and be safe, and well-fed. If a woman refused, if she protested, the Germans had devised a horrible punishment. One woman who put up a struggle was set on fire, we had heard. When she had refused the Germans, one forced her legs apart, poured gasoline on her vagina and lit a match. Everybody knew about things like that happening—it got around the

camp instantly." (The Kindness of the Hangman (2014) p101 Henry Later and Dexter Ford)

The SS had placed peepholes within all the room doors and would on occasions watch as the privileged inmates enjoyed themselves at the expense of their fellow prisoners, who would be forced by her circumstances to feed the sexual needs of at least six men on a daily basis. 


Selections, also known as 'Aktions' were simply a system of culling to make room for other prisoners, or to cleanse a block of anyone who looked too weak to work (through exhaustion or starvation), sick or carrying a disease.  It was usually carried out by SS doctors.  Prisoners would be given a quick glance over and selected for either death or continued forced labour.  

Zyklon B:

Zyklon-B (Cyclone B) was a pesticide made in Germany. It consisted of hydrogen cyanide particles which took on a granular form (another term for hydrogen cyanide is prussic acid) which releases a poisonous gas when exposed to heat or water. hydrogen cyanide was originally used in the late 1800s in the USA as a pesticide later a company within Germany expanded on its development. A similar gas was first used as part of Germany's chemical warfare strategy during the First World War and its use as a military weapon was banned after hostilities had ended. Later a German company by the name Degussa began selling it as a pesticide within sealed tins under the trade name Zyklon. Degussa soon improved on the pesticide which was then labelled as Zyklon-B). The product was designed as an effective delousing product. It was first used in Auschwitz to murder inmates.

Rudolf Hoess believed some three million people died within the camp, but historians believe the figure to be much lower.  Today, it's generally accepted that 1.1 million people perished within the the entire Auschwitz complex.  

RUDOLF FRANZ HOESS. (1900-1947):

Rudolf Hoess was born on November 25, 1900 at Baden-Baden. Hoess father, Franz, a local shopkeeper and staunch Catholic hoped that his son would join the priesthood but that was not to be, At the outbreak of the Great War, the young Hoess, who lied about his age, enlisted into the German army. After his basic training, Hoess was dispatched to the Turkish Front were he was awarded the Iron Cross, Second and First Classes. Hoess also was wounded in action on several occasions. After Germany's, Hoes enlisted in a right-wing nationalist paramilitary group calling itself the Friekorps. In 1923, along with Martin Bormann, he was arrested for the murder of a schoolteacher, whom had been suspected of betrayal, and was sentenced to imprisonment. As part of a general amnesty, Hoess was released from prison were he immediately joined the SS. Within a year of Hitler's assumption to political power, Hoess was attached to Dachau concentration camp. When Auschwitz was built in 1940, it was Hoess  who built it and became its first Commandant with the rank of Hauptsturmfuhrer (captain). Under his guardianship, the camp became the heart of the Nazi killing machine. In 1945, In an SS report, Hoess was commended and referred to as 'a true pioneer'. In 1945, at the recommendation of his friend, Martin Bormann, Hoess became the deputy to SS-Obergruppenfuhrer Richard Gluecks, head of the Inspectorate of Concentration Camps, a post he would retain until the end of the War. On March 29, 1947, Hoess was sentenced to death for war crimes and crimes against humanity and was hanged a few days later within the compounds of Auschwitz itself.

 Rudolf Hoess acting as a chief witness for the defence of Ernst Kaltenbrunner’s (Chief of the Reich Security Office) at the Nuremberg trials said in his affidavit

"It took from three to fifteen minutes to kill the people in the death chamber, depending upon climatic conditions. We knew when the people were dead because their screaming stopped. We usually waited about one half hour before we opened the doors and removed the bodies. After the bodies were removed our special Kommandos took off the rings and extracted the gold from the teeth of the corpses…"

Source: The Nuremberg Trials - The Nazis Brought To Justice (2015) Alexander MacDonald p121

Josef Mengele - Angel Of Death of Auschwitz:

"They come here as Jews, and leave as smoke up a chimney." ( Statement attributed to Josef Mengele)

Josef was born in Gunzburg, Germany on March 16, 1911. His father was the founder of the farm machinery factory of Karl Mengele & Sons. In the 1920s Josef went to study philosophy. There he learnt about the racial ideology of Alfred Rosenberg, which deeply impressed him. After he met Hitler, the young Mengele became an ardent supporter of the Nazis. Later, Josef moved on to study for a medical degree at the University of Frankfurt an Main. Mengele combines his studies of philosophy and medicine. He believed that like dogs, humans had pedigrees. He became obsessed with genetic engineering. In 1939 he enlisted in the army as a medical officer within the Waffen-SS, with the rank of Untersturmfehrer (2nd lieutenant). He saw service in France and Russia, were he was awarded the Iron cross. In May 1943, he was attached as chief medical officer to the Auschwitz. Mengele viewed the camp as the ultimate human laboratory, with an unlimited supply of guinea pigs that he could pursue his research. Mengele was now an SS-Hauptsturmfuhrer (captain). To Mengele, Auschwitz was the ultimate human laboratory with an endless supply of live guinea pigs so that he could practice his own research. He was well known to attend most of the transports and pace up and down the ramps calling out for twins to show themselves. Twins destined for his experiments were housed in Barrack 14, which was located in Camp F in Birkenau, which was nicknamed 'The Zoo'. Inside this barrack block, they were given good food and a comfortable bed. Mengele wanted to ensure that his lab rats were in perfect health prior to being dissected. Many of Mengele's child victims affectionately called him 'Uncle Pepi' for Uncle Pepi would bring them sweets and play games with them. When the twins were ready to be experimented on, they were moved to the camp hospital, which was located in Block 15, in the Main Camp. In one instance, the twins were separated and he would slowly torture one of them, just to see if the other felt any pain or sensed that their other half was in danger. He was also known to collect human eyes that he kept pinned to wooden boards. All of these eyes had been removed from his victims after experimenting on them. He would strap one of his victims down, and inject blue dye into the eyeball; just to see what effect it would have on the victim. In most cases no anaesthesia was used, and the victims always died. Victim's bones would be bleached and sent to Berlin for more studies. On 25, May 1943, He sent over 1000 women suspected of typhus to the gas chambers. and a further 600 women at the end of 1943. In late 1944, the camp was experiencing a severe food shortage, so Mengele decided, so as to save rations, that he would liquidate the entire women's camp, for which he was still in charge of. During those ten nights that it took to empty the camp, truck carried their human cargo to their deaths as their screams filled the air. Mengele fled Auschwitz in January 1945, just before the Russian arrived to liberate the camp. After the war, he managed to escape to South America, were he lived a comfortable life, with the help of his rich family. Mengele died a free man.

The Family camp and Express Work

When the Jewish family camp within Birkenau (BIIb) was earmarked for liquidation in mid 1944, and by the time the order confirming the action had reached the SS officer within the Crematoria there was still some 500 human cadavers to cremate before the new batch of murder victims could be processed. To achieve the aim of disposing these corpses, the Sonderkommando were ordered to cremate three to four bodies at a time. To ensure that there was no breakdown to the operation, the Jewish workforce was also ordered to place a 'Mussulman' (a prisoner who had been reduced to skin and bone) along with a child in the ovens with two adults, maybe even three to help speed up the cremations. The dead were placed into separate heaps. Mussulmen in one heap, women in another, men in another, children and babies in another, this way there would little delay in choosing the bodies to burn together. Other precautions were made to ensure that the ovens didn't fail, for example the ashes would be removed more regularly and oven channels couldn't get blocked. This process of body disposal was dubbed 'express work.' Express work had been devised by experimentation within Crematorium 5 in the autumn of 1943, and its purpose was to save fuel (coke). Agents from *Topf and Sons (of Erfurt) were sometimes present when these experiments were taking place and gave assistance whenever needed. (* This was the company that made the crematoria ovens for the camp). 

When word reached the family camp of their immediate demise it was met with suspicion and disbelief, as those within the Family Camp (mostly Czech Jews who had been deported to the ghetto in November 1941) had been brought straight from the ghetto at Theresienstadt and had been allowed to retain their own clothing and were not obligated to have their hair shaved off and as a group, were not split up, they were allowed to remain together as family units. They built the camp they were in and were not used outside their own area as slave labour like all the other inmates of Birkenau. The children even had places to play within the compound and they were all given better rations than the rest of the camp. The leaders of the family camp believed that an uprising was being planned and those outside their group were simply trying to get them involved in a hazardous enterprise which was doomed to failure, so there a strong reluctance not to believe what they were being told. When the day arrived and nothing happened, this may well have convinced the Jews within the Family Camp that they were right not to organise resistance, but little did they know, that the camp was still earmarked for liquidation soon.  

When the day arrived to begin the liquidation, the Jews in the camp were told that a couple of thousand Jews, including their families would be transferred to the Heydebrecklabour camp and on the 8 March 1944, this group was violently driven into the gas chambers. Those prisoners left within the Family Camp quickly realised what they had been told was true, but could now do nothing but await their turn.  

However in early July 1944, a selection was held within the Family Camp and those deemed fit for work was actually sent to another concentration camp but between 10 to 12 July, the rest were dispatched to their deaths, but this time there was no deception as those destined for the gas chambers knew what was coming and after a little commotion, they sang their country's national anthem as well as the Hebrew song 'Hatikbah' (the Hatikbah would later be adopted as the national anthem of Israel). By the time it was all over, the Nazis had murdered some 7,000 men, women and children. 

The camp only existed as family camp for about six months and it is still unclear why it was created. Maybe its purpose was because the SS required a few thousand healthier Jews in case they were required as a cover if the International Red Cross was awarded another visit to either another camp or ghetto, but somehow the plans to use the Jews within the Family Camp was ditched and then these Jews became surplus to requirement and therefore had to go.  


The Sonderkommando

The SS forced inmates to participate in the mass destruction of their fellow human being. These inmates were known as SonderKommandos (Special Detachments). They had to carry out various tasks within the camp and in exchange they were given extra rations and an extended life expectancy of approximately three to six months.  Other privileged inmates known as Kapos (foremen) kept them in line at the end of a whip or cudgel. Some of these Kapos became as notorious as the SS themselves.

SonderKommandos were used all over the camp. Their most grisly tasks occurred at the gas chambers and crematoriums. At the gas chambers they had to assist the SS in the packing of the chamber itself of inmates. Below is a typical example of the scenes that they had to endure:

The gas squads packed around 2000 naked victims into the death chamber that was disguised as a shower complex. From the ceiling hung imitation shower heads, the doors were closed, the air was pumped out and the gas was poured in, Zyklon-B, or hydrogen Cyanide, is a very poisonous gas that causes death by internal suffocation. As this happened, the gas squads had to endure the victims screams. Death could take up to 20 minutes. While the victims were dying the SS watched through peepholes. When the doors were opened, a bluish-grey haze would escape from the chamber. They found the victims in half-sitting positions in a tower like pile. Most were pink; others were covered with green spots. Some had foam on their lips whilst others were bleeding from their noses. Many had their eyes open. The majority was packed near the doors. The squads would then move in with hooks to pull the victims apart, sometimes they had to break the dead victims bones so as to separate them. They would them push the bodies down a chute to the corpse cellar where other prisoners would search the victims for gold teeth etc prior to stacking them for cremation.

Flilip Müller, an inmate at Auschwitz and who had worked as part of a Sonderkommando within the crematoria witnessed the following on his first day of work there:  "There Fischl went from corpse to corpse, forcing their mouths open with an iron bar.  When he found a gold tooth he pulled it out with a pair of pliers and flung it into a tin."  (Eyewitness Auschwitz. Three Years in the Gas Chambers (1979) p14. Fillip Müller). Everything was robbed from the victims before they were incarcerated.  This was what awaited for all those sent to Auschwitz and all the other camps regardless of age or sex. 

Gold Teeth Workshop

In the Summer of 1943, a workshop was established inside Crematorium 3 within Birkenau for the melting down of the gold stolen from the victims of the gas, such as gold teeth and this gold was turned into gold bars. Like all workshops, Jews would be used to carry out this grisly task. The teeth were soaked in hydrochloric acid so as to strip off any blood, bone and flesh remaining on the tooth, then they were melted into bars. The gold bars would be transported out of Birkenau inside an ambulance to the main camp in Auschwitz (main camp), and later transferred to the Reichsbank in Berlin.


The Angel of Death: Dr Joseph Mengele

Below: Leichenkeller (corpse cellars) and Crematorium.