Geoff Walden


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Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration and Extermination Camp


   Auschwitz-Birkenau is undoubtedly the name that first comes to mind when most people think of concentration camps or the Holocaust. The Auschwitz-Birkenau complex did become the largest of such facilities with the highest number of deaths. It is not possible to give exact numbers, but the Auschwitz Museum currently gives the number of 1.1 million deaths in the entire Auschwitz complex, some one million of whom were Jews. But Auschwitz did not start out to be what it eventually became, and the complex actually had several different parts with different functions, which changed over time. Prisoner life (and death) could vary across a wide range, depending on the prisoner's background (race and nationality), how and when they arrived, and where they lived and worked in the Auschwitz complex. Auschwitz cannot be viewed in a single narrow definition.

   The Auschwitz I main camp, also called the Stammlager, was started in May 1940 in a former Polish Army barracks complex outside the town of Oświęcim, called Auschwitz when this area was part of Germany. The original purpose of this camp was to house Polish internees and political prisoners ... at this time, there was no thought of the later huge complex that included the extermination facilities at Birkenau and the work camps holding over 35,000 prisoners. The Auschwitz main camp was enlarged over time with further buildings and additional stories added onto the Polish Army buildings - labor performed by the prisoners - as well as a new complex of some twenty prisoner barracks, just to the north of the main camp (these buildings are not included in the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum today). During its period of operation, up to 20,000 prisoners were housed here, including Soviet POWs (most of whom were killed).  (Google Maps link)


The best known site in the entire Auschwitz complex is the entry gate to the Auschwitz I Schutzhaftlager, or Protective Custody Camp, with its infamous "Arbeit Macht Frei" sign over the entry (this phrase, found also at other concentration camps, can be translated as "Work Makes You Free / Work Sets You Free" or "Work Brings Freedom"). The original sign was made by an inmate, who reportedly mounted the B in "Arbeit" upside down as a gesture of defiance, although this interpretation has been questioned. The original sign was stolen in December 2009 and later recovered, but in three pieces. The museum mounted a replica sign, which remains in place. The original sign is undergoing restoration and will reportedly be displayed inside the museum. Missing today is the wooden bar mounted across the inner gate posts. The period photo above was taken shortly after liberation in January 1945; that below was taken in 1955. The building seen on the left just inside the gate is Block 24, used today as offices and archives by the museum administration.   (above - East News / Getty Images; below - Bundesarchiv)


   The second main part of the Auschwitz complex was the large camp established at Birkenau, about 3km northwest of the main camp, on the other side of the main railway line. This camp complex was originally designed in 1941 and built in early 1942 to house Soviet prisoners of war. However, its primary purpose quickly became a concentration camp for Jewish deportees, and eventually, the main site for extermination of Jews and others who were condemned to the death camp.

   The third main part of the Auschwitz complex was the series of labor camps established to support German industrial and agricultural business, the principle example of which was the huge IG Farben chemical factory complex ("Buna-Werke"), built in 1942 to the east of Auschwitz, to manufacture synthetic rubber and fuel. The largest of these camps became independent from the Auschwitz I main camp, and was called Auschwitz III Monowitz. Other labor camps, eventually subordinated to the Monowitz camp, provided prisoner labor for mines, quarries, farms, and other industrial and agricultural sites. These sites are today outside the management of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum.

   This page also contains sites in the Auschwitz "Interest Zone" (Interessengebiet). These sites are also outside the Museum jurisdiction.

   A site added to the Museum in 2005 is a memorial to the so-called Judenrampe, the rail platform where over half a million Jews and other deportees arrived at Auschwitz, were sorted in the "selection process," and sent from there to the Auschwitz main camp or Birkenau.

   The following sites are featured on this page:  
        Auschwitz I main camp (below)
        Auschwitz II Birkenau extermination camp
        Auschwitz III Monowitz and surrounding labor camps, along with the IG Farben Buna-Werke factory site
        Auschwitz "Interest Zone" - SS administrative buildings and housing, and factory, agricultural, and support sites outside the main camps
        Judenrampe rail arrival site

   The building designations in parentheses in the text (e.g., BW7B) were the original construction project numbers for each building.


Prisoners arriving at the Auschwitz I camp were processed via a strict regimen - their belongings were taken from them, their hair was shaved, they were deloused, prisoner numbers were tattooed, and they were issued the familiar blue-and-gray striped prison clothing. This Reception Building (BW28), long planned but only finished in 1944, was designed to streamline this process, with internal showers and clothing delousing chambers. The building, greatly modified on the inside, today houses the main visitor entry, ticket sales, film room, bookshop, cafeteria, and museum offices. The central wing seen below housed the 19 chambers where prisoner clothing was deloused using the Zyklon B insecticide (the exterior arches were filled in after the war).  (Yad Vashem Collections)


The prisoners entered on the far left side (seen in the photo on the left - also today's main entry to the camp), and exited on the side facing the inside of the camp (seen on the right).


From the Reception Building, prisoners proceeded through the "Arbeit Macht Frei" gate into the Schutzhaftlager - the protective custody camp with its barracks blocks. The photo on the right was taken inside the camp enclosure. The building in the background (and on the left side of the left-hand photo) was the Blockführer building (guard house - BW7B), just outside the gate. 


Established in a former Polish army barracks, the Auschwitz I camp was enlarged to contain 28 brick barracks buildings, many built from scratch by the inmates and others of the original one-story barracks that had additional floors added by the inmates. Many of the trees planted by the prisoners still grow there.  (left - Yad Vashem Collections)


The barracks blocks served several different purposes. The living blocks housed prisoners in crowded conditions, sometimes in narrow wooden bunks beds and sometimes on the bare floor. The quarters were partially heated with tile ovens. The barracks eventually had primitive washroom and latrine facilities. "Unsauberkeit ist die Grundlage Krankheit" ("Uncleanliness is the Basis for Illness") appears on the wall in the period photo below, while the preserved washroom at the right shows artwork of a boy pouring water on another and two cats cleaning themselves. The main purpose of the washrooms was not prisoner comfort, but to prevent epidemic disease which was an ever-present danger in the crowded camp conditions.  (period photos from Yad Vashem Collections)


In addition to the barracks blocks, the camp included a large kitchen building (left - BW42) and a wooden laundry building (right - the brick building behind is the old Theater - see below). The kitchen was originally one long wing, and the space in front was used as the Appellplatz (roll call square). The camp orchestra also played in this area, near the center of the photo below, in the area where a brick wing was later built onto the kitchen building. The orchestra played while the work details were being marched out of and back into the camp, through the "Arbeit Macht Frei" gate (visible in the right distance).


There was another camp kitchen built between Blocks 1 and 2, during the period when this part of the camp was fenced off into a separate section. This wooden structure is now gone; only the chimneys and an oven and water tank are left today. This back row of blocks (1-10) were fenced off from the rest of the camp and occupied by female prisoners until mid-1942, when they were moved to Lager BI in Birkenau. The blocks were then disinfected and male political prisoners moved in. During the period when female prisoners lived here, new arrivals went through the reception process in this wooden building between Blocks 1 and 2.


Several of the barracks buildings served sinister purposes. Block 11, seen to the right of the brick wall on the left above, was the infamous "Death Block." It served as the camp jail, where prisoners were kept in solitary confinement and starvation cells, and the insecticide cyanide poison Zyklon B was first tested on prisoners around the beginning of September 1941 (Soviet prisoners of war and Polish political prisoners). The courtyard between Blocks 10 and 11, seen on the left above, was closed off from the camp street and the far wall was used as an execution site where thousands of prisoners (mostly Polish political prisoners) were flogged and shot to death. The original Execution Wall was dismantled in May 1944; the wall seen today is a partial reconstruction by the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum. Block 10, on the right above, was used by SS doctor Carl Clauberg and others for experimentation into forced sterilization of female prisoners (similar experiments were also conducted in the Birkenau camp and other barracks outside the Auschwitz I camp). This photo of Block 10 illustrates how the original single-story buildings had further stories built on by the prisoners.

Block 3, on the left below, was one of several barracks housing some 10,000 Soviet POWs in the fall and winter of 1941. Nine barracks blocks on the east side of the camp were fenced off into a separate camp-within-a-camp. The Soviet POWs were put to work building the Birkenau camp. The survivors were moved to Birkenau in February 1942 and these blocks reverted to political and other prisoners. Block 24 (below right), just inside the "Arbeit Macht Frei" gate, eventually served as the camp brothel, used by senior Polish and other political prisoners, Kapos and prisoner leaders, and privileged prisoners such as the fire brigade.


Soviet soldiers after liberation with prisoners at Block 19, the convalescent recovery building of the infirmary complex (Blocks 19-21 and 28). The lettering above the door has changed since 1945, along with the numbers for "19" on the lamp.  (Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum,


These photos show the controversial Auschwitz "swimming pool." This water tank was built as a reservoir for fire fighting purposes (there are several such fire fighting tanks around the Birkenau camp and the Auschwitz Erweiterungslager camp extension), but it was modified by the prisoner fire brigade into a swimming pool, complete with a diving board and starting blocks. Privileged Polish and other political prisoners (non-Jewish), in addition to the fire brigade, could use this pool.  (Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, (Google Maps link)


Several bands of electrified barbed wire fencing ran along the outer edges of the camp (above left - the southwest side). The outer sides also had concrete planks erected between the fence posts, to keep the curious from looking inside the camp. (The brick building in the distance beyond the guard tower was the so-called Theater - see below). The inner sides of the Schutzhaftlager had double lines of electrified fencing separating the prisoner area from the rest of the camp complex. The photo on the right above shows the northeast corner, with the prisoner barracks to the left and the Blockführer building outside the main gate in the right distance. Note that the barbed wire is periodically replaced and many of the concrete fence posts have been rebuilt. (See Ref. 2, page 33)

The period photo below was taken from the guard tower seen at the far right of the photo above (looking back the other way). The building outside the fence on the right (partly obscured by trees) was the Theater. The barrack at the left is Block 28, part of the prisoner infirmary complex. Beyond is the SS laundry (one story) with Block 11 (the "Death Block") in the distance.  (Yad Vashem Collections)


The Auschwitz guard towers were wooden structures of three differing heights, seven guard towers in total around the perimeter. The photos above show the smallest and the largest types. Below - Just at the bottom of the guard tower seen on the right above is a curious dome-shaped structure. These were one-man emergency bomb shelters for the SS guard force, scattered around the perimeter of this camp, Auschwitz II Birkenau, and the various subcamps of the Auschwitz III Monowitz camp complex. The openings faced toward the perimeter fencing (into the camp), so the guards could shoot from under cover at any prisoners who tried to escape during air attacks.


Various SS support buildings were located at Auschwitz I, just outside the fenced-in prisoner compound. This building was the Kommandantur (BW13), offices for camp commander Rudolf Höss and the camp headquarters. This building serves today as offices for the Museum staff. The original lettering still appears above the main door.


Adjacent to the Kommandantur was another building for SS administrative offices (Verwaltung). This building serves as private apartments today and is outside the Museum grounds. The attachment points above the main door for the legend SS-STANDORT-VERWALTUNG can still be seen.  (above - Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau)


Just beside the administration (Verwaltung) building was an SS infirmary and canteen building (BW14). Somewhat incongruous on an infirmary building, the wrought iron decoration of a "Drunken Man" above the doorways indicates the canteen function.


This villa, confiscated from its pre-war Polish owner, was provided for the camp Kommandant. It is located just outside the camp perimeter fence, at the main camp entrance near the Kommandantur building. For most of the Auschwitz camp history, camp commander Rudolf Höss and his family lived here. The house was enlarged and modernized by prisoner labor, and it and the adjacent garden were maintained by a staff of prisoners. Höss had his own underground air raid shelter (like this one) in the side yard. The house is a private residence today.  (Google Maps link)


Various wooden administrative and workshop buildings were established around the main camp perimeter - most of these are no longer standing. On the left above was the office building for the Prisoner Labor Administration, which once stood in the grassy area just to the right in the modern photo. The Blockführer building appears in the right distance of both photos, with the "Arbeit Macht Frei" gate just out of view to the right. The two workshop buildings visible behind the Prisoner Labor Administration building still exist, at the left of the modern photo. The further of these, a brick building beside a guard tower, appears at the left below, with other brick and wooden workshop buildings behind it, shown on the right below.  (Yad Vashem Collections)


Just outside the fence on the west side of the prisoner compound is the so-called Theater. During much of the camp's history, this building served as a warehouse for prisoners' confiscated belongings, and also a storage site for Zyklon B insecticide poison. On the left below is an air raid siren on top of the Theater. Adjacent to the Theater (right below) is the site of a gravel pit where prisoners were executed (the building in the background is Block 11). These two sites became controversial in the 1980s when Carmelite nuns moved into the former Theater building in 1984, and in 1988 erected the large cross seen below in the adjacent execution site (many Polish prisoners, including Catholics, were murdered there). The cross had been a temporary fixture at the Birkenau site when Pope John Paul II visited there in 1979. The presence of the nuns, and particularly the cross, were seen by many Jews as inappropriate at Auschwitz, and even an insult to the murdered Jews (even though the Auschwitz I camp held mainly Polish prisoners, many of whom had been executed at the former gravel pit). The nuns moved out of the Theater building in 1993, which remains empty, but the large cross remains at the gravel pit site.  (Google Maps link)


Two gallows sites exist in the Auschwitz I main camp. Both are replicas of the originals, erected by the Auschwitz Museum at the sites of the originals. On the left is an SS gallows where prisoners were hanged beside the camp kitchen. On the right is a replica of the gallows where camp Kommandant Rudolf Höss was hanged on 16 April 1947, after conviction by a Polish court. The execution site was adjacent to Crematorium I, where the headquarters of the camp Political Department (Gestapo) once stood.


Crematorium I (BW11) served several different functions during the early 1940s. It was modified several times during its existence, and it was rebuilt after 1945 by the Auschwitz Museum, leading to controversy. The building was originally a munitions bunker for the Polish army post. It was converted into a morgue and crematorium, and later the morgue area was used as a gas chamber to murder prisoners. After the larger crematoria in the Birkenau camp became operational in spring 1943, Crematorium I was no longer used to burn bodies, but the gas chamber was occasionally used until it was converted in 1944 into an air raid shelter for patients in the adjacent SS hospital. This conversion into an air raid shelter resulted in several changes to the building. The building was reconverted after the war, rebuilding the ovens and chimney, which had been dismantled, and changing interior walls, doors and windows, but its current appearance does not exactly match any of its wartime configurations. The entry seen at the lower left was installed in the back when used as an air raid shelter, and was not present when the building was used as a gas chamber and crematorium. The entry at the lower right is the main entry in the front of the building.


The morgue/gas chamber is considerably changed today from its original configuration. The room is longer than it was then, because the original wall between the former gas chamber area and an adjacent lavatory was removed by mistake after the war, during the museum reconversion. In addition, the partition at the left rear, where the exterior entry into the air raid shelter was located, was only added in 1944, and the door into the oven room is not in the same location as the pre-1944 doorway. On the left below is one of the replica chutes added by the Auschwitz Museum in the ceiling to represent the original chutes through which the Zyklon B cyanide pellets were poured into the gas chamber. The marks seen on the wall at the right below are said to be fingernail scratches from victims who were killed in this chamber (there is debate about whether these are really period fingernail scratches).


These ovens and equipment in the crematorium are all reproductions, built after the war by the Museum, using original parts found at Auschwitz (the ovens had been removed in 1944 when the crematorium was converted to an air raid shelter). They represent double-muffle single-door ovens made by the J.A. Topf & Söhne company. The third oven (photo below) was not replicated.


Note - Hundreds (if not thousands) of books have been published about Auschwitz-Birkenau. Dates, numbers, and even basic interpretations are debated. For references for these webpages, I have used mainly information from interpretive markers placed at both sites by the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum, guide books and other literature available at the Museum, and information on the Museum webpage ( In addition, I found the following books useful for information regarding important sites outside the Museum locations and background information on many of the interpreted sites: (Ref. 1) Debórah Dwork and Robert Jan van Pelt, Auschwitz 1270 to the Present (NY, Norton, 2002 ed.); (Ref. 2) Hans Citroen and Barbara Starzyńska, Oświęcim-Auschwitz, Auschwitz-Oświęcim (Rotterdam, Post Editions, 2011); (Ref. 3) Robert Jan van Pelt, The Case for Auschwitz (Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 2002); (Ref. 4) Danuta Czech, Auschwitz Chronicle 1939-1945 (NY, Henry Holt & Co., 1990 (1997 ed.); (Ref. 5) Piotr M.A. Cynwiński, Jacek Lachendro, and Piotr Setkiewicz, Auschwitz from A to Z (Oświęcim, Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, 2013); (Ref. 6) Marek Rawecki, Auschwitz-Birkenau Zone (Gliwice, Publishers of the Silesian University of Technology, 2003).

   Continue to Auschwitz II Birkenau extermination and concentration / slave labor camp
   Continue to Auschwitz III Monowitz and surrounding labor camps, along with the IG Farben Buna-Werke factory site
   Continue to Auschwitz "Interest Zone" - SS administrative buildings and housing, and factory, agricultural, and support sites outside the main camps
   Continue to Judenrampe rail arrival site

Official Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum Webpage  --

Follow these links to visit other Third Reich in Ruins pages on concentration camp sites  --  Dachau, Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen, Nordhausen (Dora), Flossenbürg, S/III Jonastal, Mauthausen (includes Gusen), Ebensee (Austria). 

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This page initially uploaded on 20 July 2000.