Arbeit macht frei, meaning work sets you free is a phrase from the title of a novel by German philologist Lorenz Diefenbac in which gamblers and fraudsters find the path to virtue through labor. Ironically this was the slogan that stood on the entrance of many WW2 concentration camps built by Nazis. Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland is without doubt the most notorious and dreadful network of German Nazi concentration camps and extermination camps that operated during the WW2.
When passing through the memorial security check, the iron forged slogan placed on top of a gate "welcomes" you. A guard post stands left from the gate, barb wires on both sides. Auschwitz, Oswiecim in Polish, was a military base of the Polish army. Created as a large complex of military barracks and various military facilities, it was an easy job for the Nazis to adapt it to a concentration camp. In August 1944, it held about 16 thousand prisoners.
People, almost all of them Jews, were brought to Auschwitz from all over the Europe. Polish political prisoners, Jews, Gypsies, Soviet POW, Homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses and many other ended their lives here. Over 1,5 million people were brought here for hard labor and extermination. Most of them could not survive more than a few months of forced labor, torture and medical experiments. The camp expanded with construction of Auschwitz II (Birkenau) and Auschwitz III (Monowitz). On the basis of the partially preserved camp records and estimates, it has been established that there were approximately 232 thousand children and young people up to the age of 18 deported to the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp.
The first extermination of prisoners took place in September 1941, and Auschwitz II–Birkenau went on to become a major site of the Nazi "Final Solution to the Jewish question". Jews usually arrived on trains. When they arrived, Nazis immediately took away all of their personal belongings and proceeded with the process of selection. Men capable for labor were taken to the barracks, and old, sick and children were immediately taken to the gas chambers. Their personal belongings can be still seen in the barracks.
The conditions in the camp were inhuman, and evidence of bad conditions can be seen even today. Barracks and beds were overcrowded. Clothes and food were extremely bad. There was no medical care. People worked the whole day with no right to rest or even go to the toilet.
Being shot was a common way to die. People were shot for no reason at all. A small yard within the block 11 was used for shooting at the prisoners. The whole block 11 was intended solely to punish prisoners through torture. The basement even had the standing cells where prisoners were locked in a dark chamber for several days and being forced to stand. People were forced to remain standing all night for up to twenty nights, while still being forced to work during the day.
First attempts to kill people with the Zyklon B were at the block 11. Zyklon B was a cyanide-based pesticide invented in Germany, and it was used in the gas chambers.
At the very beginning, when the camp started operating Nazis took record of every person that came in the camp. They even took photos, and some of them can still be seen in Auschwitz with names and dates when they came to the camp and when they died. Average lifespan was three months. At some time, they stopped taking record of people coming to the camp. They just did the selection and sent the weak ones to the extermination.
Rudolf Hess was the first commandant of Auschwitz. The whole time he and his family lived in a villa next to the concentration camp. In his affidavit made at Nuremberg on 5 April 1946 he stated:
"I commanded Auschwitz until 1 December 1943, and estimate that at least 2,500,000 victims were executed and exterminated there by gassing and burning, and at least another half million succumbed to starvation and disease, making a total of about 3,000,000 dead. This figure represents about 70% or 80% of all persons sent to Auschwitz as prisoners, the remainder having been selected and used for slave labor in the concentration camp industries. Included among the executed and burnt were approximately 20,000 Russian prisoners of war (previously screened out of Prisoner of War cages by the Gestapo) who were delivered at Auschwitz in Wehrmacht transports operated by regular Wehrmacht officers and men. The remainder of the total number of victims included about 100,000 German Jews, and great numbers of citizens (mostly Jewish) from Holland, France, Belgium, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Greece, or other countries. We executed about 400,000 Hungarian Jews alone at Auschwitz in the summer of 1944."
Construction of Auschwitz II known as Birkenau began in October 1941 to ease congestion at the main camp. The barracks were not made of solid materials like in Auschwitz I, so many of them did not survive. Only traces of the foundations can be seen where wooden barracks once stood. When approaching the main entrance, a large guard post above the gate dominates the camp. The whole place looks creepy. The only worse place in the complex are the surviving gas chambers with a crematorium in Auschwitz I where you can literally smell death.
Today, many people visit the memorial and it became a primary symbol of the Holocaust. School children from Israel travel each year to Poland to visit locations where millions of Jews were murdered by the Nazi regime. Auschwitz has a particular significance. Military delegations hold ceremonies there. The annual "March of the Living" brings people from all over the world. On January 27, 2015, some 300 Auschwitz survivors and other guests gathered to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the camp's liberation. In 1979 Auschwitz-Birkenau was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.