Selection ramp in Auschwitz-Birkenau (photo taken in 2005).
Selection ramp in Auschwitz-Birkenau (photo taken in 2005).

Auschwitz was the largest and most deadly extermination camp of the Nazi regime, located in the occupied Polish town of Auschwitz (Polish: Oświęcim), approximately 25 miles  from Będzin.


It was made up of three main camps: Auschwitz main camp (mostly for political prisoners), Auschwitz-Birkenau (the extermination and labor camp), and Auschwitz-Monowitz (a slave labor camp). Auschwitz also functioned as the administrative center for approximately 40 subcamps and factories in the surrounding area. The first prisoners of the camp included Polish political prisoners and criminals relocated from Germany. Auschwitz served three main purposes: to incarcerate enemies to the Nazi regime, to create a supply of labor, and to serve as a site to implement the violent practices of the Final Solution.

Electrified fences in the main camp (Stammlager) of Auschwitz.
Electrified fences in the main camp (Stammlager) of Auschwitz.


Auschwitz-Birkenau was surrounded on all sides by electric barbed-wire fences and rifle-toting Nazis who shot anyone trying to escape. After March 1942, trains of Jewish people began arriving frequently at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Upon arrival, Jews deemed useful for forced labor were selected and processed. Those unfit for labor were immediately transported to the gas chambers and murdered. Some were selected for medical experiments, like Arnold Shay.


Auschwitz-Birkenau had four functioning gas chambers and crematoria. These chambers were constructed to look like showers in order to prevent prisoners from panicking. Zyklon-B gas was released in the gas chambers, killing inmates within minutes through suffocation. One of the crematoria was destroyed by the Sonderkommado uprising. The Sonderkommandos were special units of Jewish inmates forced to work at the gas chambers and crematoria.


Auschwitz-Birkenau had an extremely high mortality rate caused by extermination, mistreatment, starvation, hard labor, and contagious diseases. In total, approximately 1.1 million Jews were sent to Auschwitz. At least 960,000 Jews were killed in the camp, along with 74,000 Poles, 21,000 Roma (Gypsies), 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war, and 10,000-15,000 prisoners of other nationalities and minorities. Gassing of the Jewish people continued until November 1944 when most of the gas chambers were disabled or destroyed and the horrific death marches began. At that point, Nazi guards forced 60,000 camp inmates onto death marches across the Polish countryside to the German Reich, away from the advancing Soviet army.


Soviet soldiers liberated the camp on January 27, 1945. There were approximately 7,650 prisoners left, most of whom were sick and dying. In total, one-sixth of all Jews in Europe were murdered at Auschwitz.


For more information on Auschwitz:

USHMM: Auschwitz

Yad Vashem: Auschwitz-Birkenau