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Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi concentration and extermination camp was first established in 1940 on the outskirts of the Polish town Oswiecim (changed by the Nazis to Auschwitz).

The camp was divided into three sections: Auschwitz I; Auschwitz II and around forty labour camps of which Auschwitz III was the largest.


Auschwitz I

Auschwitz I was founded in 1940 as a concentration camp for the internment of Polish and Soviet dissidents, resistance members and prisoners of war. During its first two years of existence it also housed homosexuals and some Jews. The mortality rate was high as inmates were given hard labour and poor nutrition. During the later months of 1941 trials using Zyklon B were carried out at an extermination chamber in Auschwitz I. Having deemed the trials successful the Nazi’s ordered the enlargement of the camp.

Auschwitz II (Birkenau) [pictured above]

Work began on this camp in October 1941. It was designed to be used as a mass extermination camp for Jews as part of Hitler’s Final Solution. The first gas chamber was operational by March 1942 and by mid 1943 four gas chambers were operational. Cattle trucks containing Jews arrived on a daily basis from all German-occupied countries. Upon disembarkation they were told to form two lines, one containing men, the other women and children. The two lines of people were then subjected to the infamous selection process whereby those deemed fit to work were sent to Auschwitz I or III and those unfit – the elderly, sick, children and mothers of young children were sent straight to the gas chambers.

Those selected as unfit – usually around 60% – 70% of each train – were told to undress as they were to take a shower. The gas chambers were disguised as shower rooms and had dummy shower heads in the ceiling. Once all were inside Zyklon B pellets were dropped inside which killed all inside in about 20 minutes.

Those selected as fit for work were dehumanized – their heads were shaved, their arms were tattooed with a number and they were given striped uniforms to wear.

Auschwitz III (Monowitz)

There were around 40 labour camps associated with the Auschwitz complex. Auschwitz II, Monowitz, was the largest of these. It became operational in 1942 and most of the inmates were sent to work at the I G Farben factory which produced synthetic fuel and rubber.

Medical Experiments

Some of those deemed fit were selected for medical experimentation. Prisoners were used as human guinea pigs for sterilisation experiments, testing of drugs and human reactions to various stimuli. The doctor Josef Mengele was given the nickname Angel of Death.


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