“Those who do not remember their past are condemned to repeat their mistakes”
– George Santayana
When the Spanish/American writer George Santayana penned these words, there is no doubt that the events that took place in places like Auschwitz were the “past” he was referring to.
Auschwitz actually consisted of three camps, Auschwitz I (the original camp), Auschwitz II – Birkenau (the concentration/extermination camp) and Auschwitz III – Monowitz (a labour camp to staff the IG Farben chemical and pharmaceutical company)
Auschwitz was first constructed to hold Polish political prisoners with the first prisoner arriving in May of 1940. It didn’t take long for its function to change and the first extermination of prisoners took place in Auschwitz II – Birkenau in the September of 1941.
From 1942 to late 1944, transport trains delivered Jews to the camp, from all over German-Occupied Europe, where they were to be killed in the gas chambers by which had been installed in the camp using the pesticide Zyklon B. In total more than 1.3 million people were sent to the camp of which it is estimated that at least 1.1 million died.
Of those who were killed, approximately 90% were Jewish, which equated to 1 in 6 of the total Jews killed during the Holocaust.
Others deported to the camp included 150,000 Poles, 23,000 Gypsies, 15,000 Soviet Prisoners of War (POW), 400 Jehovah’s Witnesses as well as tens of thousands of diverse nationalities which included an unknown number of homosexuals. Many of those not killed in the gas chambers died of starvation, forced labour, infectious diseases and medical experiments.
Throughout the war the camp was staffed by more than 7000 members of the German Schutzstaffel (SS) of which approiamtely 12% were later convicted of War Crimes. Some, including the camp Commandant Rudolph Höss and Irma Grese, a female guard known as the “Hyena of Auschwitz”, were later executed. It is known that 144 prisoners successfully escaped the camp throughout its durations and at least one uprising by the Sonderkommando – work units assigned to staff the gas chambers – occurred on 7th October 1944.
As Soviet troops approached the camp in January 1945, most of the population was sent on a Death March in an attempt to leave no survivors. Auschwitz was finally liberated on the 27th January 1945, a day now remembered as International Holocaust Rememberance Day.
Several survivors have written memoirs of their experiences in Auschwitz and as a result it has become a symbol of the Holocaust. In 1947, Poland founded the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, which was constructed on the sites of Auschwitz I & II. The site was finally recognised by UNESCO as a world Heritage site in 1979 and continues so until this day.