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As early as 1939, Nazis began arresting teachers, civil servants, artists, priests, politicians, representatives of the intellectual elite, and members of the numerous resistance organizations that were springing up in Germany and Poland. Sometimes these victims were simply shot on the spot. Others were arrested and sent to concentration camps for trivial offenses—like failing to sing the pledge of allegiance with enough enthusiasm.

Before Auschwitz was built, Poles were expelled from a large region west of Krakow. By 1941, all residents were gone and their homes had been demolished.

Auschwitz I, located near the former village of Oświęcim, was an SS garrison and the seat of the main offices of political and prison labor departments. The main military supply stores and workshops were located there. Political prisoners began arriving in 1940.

Auschwitz II-Birkenau, built in 1942 on the site of the former village of Brzenka, was originally intended to house Soviet POWs, and as a center for the Final Solution—extermination. It was the largest of the Auschwitz complex of 40 sub camps. Without the benefit of brick barracks buildings, Birkenau was a muddy hell hole. Wooden dorms were erected by incoming prisoners but never provided sufficient room for the population nor were they in any manner weather proof. Four large crematoria were built in each quadrant of the 40-square-kilometer site.

Rows of crumbling brick chimneys are all that remains of the crude wooden barracks watched by armed guards.

Death Barrack in which women deemed unfit to work were isolated by the SS. Here they waited for their “final solution, without food or water and often for several days. Each bunk held 20+ women. The top bunk was preferred, as two below suffered from the uncontrollable dysentery of their companions above. But few had the strength to access the top bunks.

Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II were split into separate entities and run by different commanders in early 1944, at which time Auschwitz II was referred to simply as Birkenau. The two camps merged again on November 25, 1944. At its peak in 1944, Birkenau housed a fourth of the entire population of the Nazi concentration camp system. Ninety percent of all Auschwitz gas chamber victims perished in Birkenau.

Auschwitz III, or Monowitz, was built in 1942 to house camp labor for IG Farben plants that fabricated synthetic rubber and liquid fuels. This was the next largest sub camp built. Workers had to walk seven kilometers from the camp to the factory. A crematorium was erected at Monowitz to deal with the high turn over of overworked and underfed prisoners.

In October 1944, the encroaching Soviet army prompted the annihilation if the gas chambers and crematoria, along with the final liquidation and evacuation of the camps. Dead and dying prisoners were dispatched into gigantic pit graves which were sometimes barely covered with dirt. When the Soviet Army arrived at Auschwitz on January 27, 1945, they found 7,000 starving prisoners too sick to stand, many only minutes from their last breath. Newly discovered pit graves are still uncovered in forests and farmlands throughout Poland.

Collapsed remnant of crematorium and gas chamber #II at Birkenau.

As early as 1946 and still in the throes of war shortages and devastation, the Polish government and citizenry began work to secure evidence of the Holocaust and to preserve and restore the historical site of Auschwitz-Birkenau. The Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Museum is open all year, every day except January 1, December 25, and Easter Sunday. Admission is free, but hiring a licensed guide is highly recommended, as is reserving an appointment at least one month ahead of a visit. Guides accommodate 17 languages and are professional and knowledgeable.

International Memorial sculpture with quote translated into 26 languages on Birkenau site.

Location of pit graves near crematoria II.

Part Three of this series will explore the parallels that jumped out at me as I explored historic sites of Nazi-occupied Poland.