A Visual Guide to Auschwitz

A Visual Guide to Auschwitz

Auschwitz was the largest of the Nazi concentration camp complexes in German-occupied Poland, consisting of 45 satellite and three main camps: Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II - ​Birkenau and Auschwitz III - Monowitz. The complex was a place of forced labor and mass murder. No collection of pictures can show the horrors that occurred within Auschwitz, but perhaps this collection of historical images of Auschwitz will at least tell part of the story.

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The Entrance to Auschwitz I

Courtesy of USHMM Photo Archives

The first political prisoners of the Nazi party arrived at Auschwitz I, the main concentration camp, in May 1940. The above image depicts the front gate that over 1 million prisoners were estimated to have entered during the Holocaust. The gate bears the motto "Arbeit Macht Frei" which translates roughly to "Work Sets You Free" or "Work Brings Freedom," depending on the translation.
The upside-down "B" in "Arbeit" is thought by some historians to be an act of defiance by forced labor prisoners who made it.

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The Double Electric Fence of Auschwitz

Philip Vock Collection, Courtesy of USHMM Photo Archives

By March 1941, Nazi soldiers had brought 10,900 prisoners to Auschwitz. The above photo, taken immediately after liberation in January 1945, depicts the double electrified, barbed wire fence that surrounded the barracks and kept prisoners from escaping. Auschwitz I's border expanded 40 square kilometers by the end of 1941 to include nearby land that had been marked as a "zone of interest." This land was later used to create more of the barracks like the ones seen above.

Not pictured are the watchtowers that border the fence from which SS soldiers would shoot any prisoner who attempted to escape.

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Interior of Barracks in Auschwitz

State Museum of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Courtesy of USHMM Photo Archives

The above depiction of the interior of a stable barrack (type 260/9-Pferdestallebaracke) was taken after liberation in 1945. During the Holocaust, conditions in the barracks were unlivable. With as many as 1,000 prisoners detained in each barrack, disease and infections spread rapidly and prisoners slept piled on top of one another. By 1944, five to 10 men were found dead at each morning's roll call.

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Ruins of Crematorium #2 in Auschwitz II - Birkenau

Main Commission for the Investigation of Nazi War Crimes, Courtesy of USHMM Photo Archives

In 1941, president of the Reichstag Hermann Göring gave written authorization to the Reich Main Security Office to draft a "Final Solution to the Jewish Question," which began the process of exterminating Jews in German-controlled territories.

The first mass killing took place in the basement of Austchwitz I's Block 11 in September 1941 where 900 inmates were gassed with Zyklon B. Once the site proved to be unstable for more mass killings, operations expanded to Crematorium I. 60,000 people were estimated to have been killed at Crematorium I before it closed in July 1942.
Crematoria II (pictured above), III, IV and V were constructed in surrounding camps in the years to follow. Over 1.1 million were estimated to have been exterminated via gas, labor, disease, or harsh conditions at Auschwitz alone.

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View of the Men's Camp in Auschwitz II - Birkenau

State Museum of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Courtesy of USHMM Photo Archives

Construction of Auschwitz II - Birkenau began in October 1941 following the success of Hitler over the Soviet Union during Operation Barbarossa. The depiction of the men's camp at Birkenau (1942 - 1943) illustrates the means for its construction: forced labor. Initial plans were drafted to only hold 50,000 Soviet prisoners of war but eventually expanded to include a capacity of up to 200,000 inmates.

Most of the original 945 Soviet prisoners who were transferred to Birkenau from Auschwitz I in October 1941 died of disease or starvation by March of the following year. By this time Hitler had already adjusted his plan to exterminate Jews, so Birkenau was converted into a dual-purpose extermination/labor camp. An estimated 1.3 million (1.1 million Jews) were reported to have been sent to Birkenau.

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Prisoners of Auschwitz Greeting Their Liberators

Central State Archive of Film, Courtesy of USHMM Photo Archives

Members of the 332nd Rifle Division of the Red Army (Soviet Union) liberated Auschwitz over the course of two days on January 26 and 27, 1945. In the above image, prisoners of Auschwitz greet their liberators on January 27, 1945. Only 7,500 prisoners remained, largely due to a series of exterminations and death marches carried out in the year prior. 600 corpses, 370,000 men's suits, 837,000 women's garments, and 7.7 tonnes of human hair were also discovered by Soviet Union soldiers during the initial liberation.

Immediately after the war and liberation, military and volunteer aid arrived at the gates of Auschwitz, setting up temporary hospitals and providing inmates with food, clothing and medical care. Many of the barracks were taken apart by civilians to rebuild their own homes that had been destroyed in Nazi displacement efforts to construct Auschwitz. The remains of the complex still exist today as a memorial to the millions of lives lost during the Holocaust.