Auschwitz-Birkenau was the largest German concentration/extermination camp in occupied Poland. Located in south-western Poland near the Polish-German border it was composed of three camps: Auschwitz I, II and III. Founded in 1940 and evacuated in 1945 ahead of approaching Soviet troops, Auschwitz-Birkenau was the site of a murder of 1.1 million people.
The original camp, Auschwitz I, was located in Polish army barracks in the town of Oswiecim. Created within a year of the occupation of Poland it was meant as a brutal prison for Polish intellectuals and resistance members as part of the plan to gradually exterminate the Polish people. Included in the first shipment to the camp were men who were caught trying to escape occupied Poland to reach the Free Polish forces in France. A small minority of the prisoners were also German criminals - often brought in to act as supervisors called `kapo` and who through their own brutality tried to maintain a higher status and thus better treatment from the guards. After the expansion of the camp through the creation of nearby camps, Auschwitz I remained the administrative headquarters of the entire Auschwitz camp complex.
After the German invasion of the Soviet Union the camp was expanded through the construction of wooden barracks at the site of the village of Brzezinka renamed by the Germans as Birkenau. This expansion was meant to help contain the huge number of Soviet prisoners-of-war that were captured early on on the Eastern Front with a capacity of about 100,000 prisoners. The new camp, located near Auschwitz I was named Auschwitz II.
Throughout this early part of the camp`s existense the prisoners were killed off by a mixture of malnourishment, intense labour and executions. In 1942 a new, more sinister, phase in the camp`s history began with the mass gassings of Jews. Until then, Auschwitz was officially still just a prison camp meant for the imprisonment and isolation of inmates - although the brutal conditions within the camp meant that their life expectancy was severely reduced. Like in other prisons, the inmates were photographed and registered upon arrival and issued prison uniforms as well as getting their prisoner number tatooed on their forearms. In 1942 however it also gained the status of an extermination camp that was to take part in the German plan to exterminate the Jews. It was at that point that the mass transports of Jews, first from Poland and then from throughout Europe, were brought in and sent directly to their death in the gas chambers of Auschwitz II.
The third camp, Auschwitz III, together with numerous sub-camp represented the German attempt to make use of the camp prisoners as slave labour. Located in the nearby Monowice, Auscwhitz III housed prisoners that were `rented out` by the camp administration to the German chemical company Farbenindustrie A.G. which produced rubber and synthetic fuels and whose plant was located in occupied Poland in order to ensure it was beyond the range of Allied bombers. Attempts were made there to improve the prisoners` conditions in order to increase their productivity but they had little effect.
As the Soviet forces arrived in central Poland in 1944 preparations were made for the evacuation of the camp. These were put into effect near the end of 1944 and in the beginning of 1945 and were composed of the destruction of the evidence of the crimes committed at the camps, the execution of the Jews that formed the Sonderkommando - the work unit that operated the gas chambers and the crematorium, and the evacuation of surviving prisoners for use as slave labour in German factories further to the west. This evacuation was the final stage of the prisoners` martyrdom as thousands either died of exposure or were shot when no longer able to march in the evacuated column.
On 27 January 1945, Soviet forces finally arrived at the gates of Auschwitz, liberating the 7 thousand prisoners that were still left at the complex. Polish and Soviet film crews recorded the horrific images found at the camp and immediate help was given to the inmates by Soviet military hospitals, the Polish Red Cross and Poles living in the area.