Auschwitz today is synonymous with the Holocaust; it has become an overarching symbol of the atrocities committed by the Nazi regime during the Second World War. The extermination camp is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a state museum that attracted almost 1.5million visitors in 2011 alone.
Here are five lesser-known facts about the concentration camp.
1. Auschwitz was actually made up of three main camps.
First, there was Auschwitz I, which is what most people would recognize as Auschwitz. It was the main camp and was made up of 16 old dilapidated army barracks, when the head of the Schutzstaffel (SS) Heinrich Himmler approved the site for a concentration camp in April 1940.
It was originally intended that Auschwitz would house political prisoners. During the duration of the camp’s operation, Auschwitz was the administration center for the entire three-camp complex and housed the infamous death Block 11.
The second camp, Auschwitz II-Birkenau began construction in 1941 to ease congestion in the main camp. It was intended to hold 50,000 prisoners of war who would be imprisoned as forced laborers, but plans changed and this figure was quadrupled to 200,000 inmates.
The first prisoners were 10,000 Soviet POWs who arrived in October 1941 at main camp Auschwitz; by the time they were transferred to Birkenau in March 1942 only 945 were still alive.
Birkenau was repurposed as an extermination camp; there were two gas chambers constructed which were used for mass killings until early 1943 when the Nazis decided to increase the gassing capacity of Birkenau Crematorium II – ‘the white house’ – by installing gas-tight doors, vents for Zyklon B and ventilation equipment. By June 1943 there were four functional crematoria in Birkenau.
The third camp, Monowitz, was constructed to house workers for a nearby chemical plant for IG Farben to manufacture a type of synthetic rubber called Buna. It was located 4.3 miles from Auschwitz I and workers initially lived at the main camp and walked to the plant every day but this was not efficient. Monowitz began housing inmates on October 30th, 1942. It was the first concentration camp to be financed and built by private industry.
The plant had 35,000 inmates as workers and of these 25,000 died of malnutrition, disease, and due to the heavy workload. Site managers used the threat of transportation to nearby Birkenau for death in the gas chambers to increase productivity among the workers, while transfers to the gas chambers reduced the population of Monowitz by almost a fifth every month.
Life expectancy for Monowitz prisoners was three months on average. Plant production was postponed due to labor shortages and supplies and was only about to begin operation when the site was overrun by Soviet forces in 1945.
2. There was a revolt in 1944 that resulted in one of the gas crematoria being destroyed.
The Sonderkommando units within the camp were prisoners selected to carry out the mass exterminations of their fellow inmates. They worked in the gas chambers, and the lifespan of a sonderkommando was short as they were witnesses to the killings. The first task of a new sonderkommando unit was to dispose of the previous one, and as they were new prisoners who had just arrived, very often their second task was to dispose of their own families.
On October 7th, 1944, the Sonderkommando of Birkenau heard they were to be ‘transported to another camp’, a common ruse for the murder of prisoners. In response, the Sondercommando revolted and attacked the SS Guards with stones, axes, and makeshift hand grenades. The SS set up machine guns to attack prisoners and so the Sonderkommando in Crematorium II also revolted, some of them even managing to escape the compound.
As a result, three SS guards were murdered, one of whom was burned alive in one of the crematorium ovens, and 250 Sonderkommando were killed. Hundreds of prisoners escaped, but all were captured and executed. Crematorium IV was destroyed in the fighting.