The Stories Of Germany’s Largest Concentration Camp

The Auschwitz concentration camp was a labor and extermination camp operated by the Nazi Regime during World War II. One of the major sites of the Nazi’s Final Solution to the Jewish Question, it was a place of untold horrors where millions of Jewish people and other minorities were mass murdered by the thousands and forced to live in conditions no human should have to endure. Of the 1.3 million people sent to Auschwitz, 1.1 million perished, with deaths ranging from gassing, starvation, torture, disease, and human experimentation. Take a look to see what it was truly like behind the wires of the camp and the stories that will last through the ages.

Not All Of The Guards Were Male

Picture of Irma Grese
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CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

At Auschwitz, among the many male guards, there were also around 170 female SS. Out of these women, one, in particular, named Irma Grese, gained a horrifying reputation. She was nicknamed by those imprisoned at the concentration camp as the “Hyena of Auschwitz.”

Following the war, at the age of 22, she was convicted of crimes involving the ill-treatment and murder of prisoners and was sentenced to death at the Belsen trial. She was the youngest woman to die judicially under British law in the 20th century.

There Were Revolts

Prisoners outside the camp
Culture Club/Getty Images
Culture Club/Getty Images

On October 7, 1944, several hundred Auschwitz prisoners led a revolt against the guards upon coming to the realization of what was going to happen to them. Jewish women who worked in a nearby camp smuggled weapons to them.

However, although a few SS guards were killed, the revolt was ultimately crushed. Just about every last one of those involved in the rebellion was killed, and the Jewish women that stole weapons were publicly hanged as a warning.

There Were Multiple Camps At Auschwitz

Outside the camp
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Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Although Auschwitz is considered to be one location for many people, it was located in German-occupied Poland and consisted of three separate camps, with one of them being built for mass execution.

The camps opened in 1940 and closed in January 1945 after being liberated by the Soviet Union. Auschwitz-Birkenau or Auschwitz II is the most infamous of the camps because it is where the gas chambers were kept and millions were herded to their deaths.

Many People Attempted To Escape

Gates of the camp
Daniel Schäfer/picture alliance via Getty Images
Daniel Schäfer/picture alliance via Getty Images

In total, 928 prisoners tried to escape from Auschwitz including 878 men and 50 women. Among them, the largest group to try were Polish prisoners in which 439 of them tried to escape with 11 of them being women.

Incredibly, 196 of the people that attempted to escape were successful, with many of them living to see the end of the war. However, there were also 25 prisoners that managed to escape but were eventually recaptured.

Janina Nowak Was The First Woman To Escape

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Janina Nowak was the first female prisoner at Auschwitz that managed to escape. She was deported to the camp on June 12, 1942, and received the prisoner number 7615. On June 24, 1942, she escaped from a work party known as Kimmando, consisting of 200 Polish women.

Nowak managed to evade authorities until March 1943 when she was recaptured and brought back to Auschwitz in May of that year. She managed to survive the camp once again until it was liberated at the end of April 1945.

There Were Brothels For Non-Jewish Prisoners

Stop sign in the camp
Gianni GIANSANTI/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Gianni GIANSANTI/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

At one point, infamous Nazi Heinrich Himmler ordered for brothels to be set up in concentration camps, Auschwitz included. The plan was introduced with the goal of encouraging non-Jewish inmates to work harder with the promise of a “reward” with a trip to the concentration camp brothels.

Of course, the women who volunteered for a position in the brothels were given the false promise of extra rations and better conditions, although this was incredibly unlikely.

There Was No Water For Some Time

Piles of shoes
Roger Viollet via Getty Images/Roger Viollet via Getty Images
Roger Viollet via Getty Images/Roger Viollet via Getty Images

During the first year or so after Auschwitz opened, water in the camp was only available in the kitchen barracks, and the prisoners had no access to it. On top of this, the barracks were frequently damp and overrun with lice and rats.

Unsurprisingly, these conditions and the inability to wash meant that epidemics of contagious diseases spread constantly. In 1943, sanitary conditions were hardly improved when parts of the camp were fitted with bathhouses, although few were actually given access to them.

Those Fit To Work Were “Sanitized”

Person with tattoo
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Ian Waldie/Getty Images

Upon arrival, those deemed fit enough for work were “sanitized,” and sent to a part of the camp known as the Sauna. There, they were washed, shaved, and stripped of their clothes and valuables.

It was after this, that the prisoners who made it to this point were tattooed with a number that would be how they would be identified from there on out. Today, these tattoos remain as a symbol of the Nazi agenda to dehumanize the prisoners.

They Were Given One Uniform

Prisoners in uniform
Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images
Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images

Those that weren’t killed almost immediately upon entry were provided with one ragged uniform and maybe a pair of shoes, most likely taken off the body of someone who had died.

The prisoners were then forced to wear the same uniform at all times, which were usually lice-ridden. With no option to wash the clothes, they lived, slept, and worked in the same uniform, which led to incredibly unsanitary conditions and the spreading of illness.

A Polish Man Volunteered To Be Imprisoned In Auschwitz To Gather Information

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Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Witold Pilecki was a Polish cavalry officer, resistance leader, and intelligence agent. He was a co-founder of the Secret Polish Army and later a member of the Home Army. During World War II, he volunteered for a Polish resistance operation, which involved becoming imprisoned in Auschwitz to gather information about what was going on within.

Inside of the camp, he organized a resistance movement and secretly sent messages to the Western Allies about the atrocities occurring in the camp. In April 1943, he escaped after nearly two-and-a-half years of imprisonment.

One Woman Delivered Over 3,000 Babies

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Stanisława Leszczyńska was a Polish midwife that was imprisoned in Auschwitz. Upon arriving in Auschwitz, Leszczyńska and her 24-year-old daughter Sylwia were relegated to women’s camp infirmary as they both had experience in medicine.

While imprisoned, she delivered over 3,000 infants although around 2,500 perished, and those with blue eyes taken to be “Germanized.” She survived the camp and died in 1974. Currently, she is a candidate for canonization into sainthood by the Catholic Church.

There Was Little To No Ventilation In The Barracks

Inside the barracks
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ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images

The barracks in Auschwitz, as well as other Nazi concentration camps, were structures built in order to house the prisoners. Inside, those who called the barracks home were cramped together living in filth and squalor.

The lack of ventilation also led to rampant disease as there was almost no way to avoid illness. Furthermore, the barracks were scarcely insulated from the cold, which was devastating to the people living inside of them during the harsh winters, resulting in further deaths.

The Oldest-Known Auschwitz Survivor Died At 108

Picture of Antoni Dobrowolski
Wikipedia Commons
Wikipedia Commons

Antoni Dobrowolski was born in modern-day Poland on October 8, 1904. A Polish educator, he was arrested by the Gestapo in June 1942 and was sent to Auschwitz, where he was assigned the prison number 38081.

He described Auschwitz as being “worse than Dante’s Hell” and was eventually transferred Gross-Rosen and Sachsenhausen concentration camp until he was released in 1945. Dobrowolski died on October 21, 2012, in Debno, Poland, at the age of 108 and is considered the oldest-living Auschwitz survivor.

An Auschwitz Guard Fell In Love With A Prisoner And Saved Her Life

Female Auschwitz prisoners
Photo 12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Photo 12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

In 1942, a Slovakian Jew named Helena Citrónová was deported to Auschwitz, where she caught the attention of a young SS guard named Franz Wunsch. He would leave her letters in her barracks, which she immediately destroyed, but things changed when Helena and her sister learned they were going to be sent to the gas chamber.

Franz interfered and saved Helena and her sister’s lives, who both survived Auschwitz. Although their relationship never furthered, Helena testified on his behalf at his war crimes trial.

There Was A Doctor Nicknamed the “Angel Of Death”

Photo of Mengele
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Joseph Mengele, otherwise known as the “Angel of Death” was a German SS officer and physician at Auschwitz. He is mostly remembered for his actions inside of the concentration camp in which he performed deadly experiments on prisoners, especially twins, as well as a member of a team of doctors that selected individuals for the gas chambers.

After the war, he fled to South America and eluded capture despite extradition requests by the West German government. He drowned in 1979 after suffering a stroke while swimming off the coast of Bertioga.

The Death Toll Is Staggering

Prisoners being registered
-/AFP via Getty Images
-/AFP via Getty Images

In total, approximately 1.1 million people died at Auschwitz with around 1 million of them being Jewish men, women, and children. Even more horrifically, there were over 232,000 children under the age of 18, which included 216,000 Jews, 11,0000 Gypsies, at least 3,000 Poles, and over 1,000 Belorussians, Russians, Ukrainians, and others.

By the time that the Russians liberated Auschwitz in 1945, only 7,000 of the prisoners remained. Even after the liberation, nearly half of the 7,000 died from starvation, disease, and exhaustion.

A Professional Boxer Managed To Survive Two Years

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Salamo Arouch was a Jewish Greek boxer, the Middleweight Champion of Greece as well as the All-Balkans Middleweight Champion. During the Holocaust, Arouch was deported to Auschwitz.

While there, Arouch was forced to fight other prisoners for the guard’s entertainment, with the loser being sent to the gas chambers. He survived two years until the camp was liberated, fighting in over 200 life-or-death boxing matches. He was portrayed by Willem Dafoe in the 1989 film Triumph of the Spirit.

The Prisoners Were Worked To Death

Gates of Auschwitz
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Martyn Aim/Corbis via Getty Images

The gate to Auschwitz bore the inscription,Arbeit macht frei or “Work will set you free.” Those that weren’t sent to the gas chambers immediately were registered and put to work. People were forced to work in horrendous conditions for more than 11 hours at a time with little rest and were severely malnourished.

On top of performing jobs to support the Third Riech’s war effort, to cover up the massacre, some prisoners were tasked with burning the bodies of fellow inmates.

Prisoners Were “Rented” By Private Companies

People getting out if the train
Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images
Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images

With no shortage of workers, the SS arranged a system in which private companies could “rent” the prisoners of Auschwitz. These companies would pay a fee to the Third Reich in exchange for what was essentially slave labor.

Many of those who worked for these companies experienced the same brutality from their employers as they would in the concentration camp. One of these companies was Bayer, who bought prisoners from Auschwitz to use as research subjects for drug testing.

There Was Nothing To Eat

Man in a blanket
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ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images

Although the Nazis claimed to have a balanced diet for the prisoners, the rations that they served were essentially inedible, and not enough to prevent hunger.

Meals consisted of a bowl of bitter beverage for breakfast, a dish of thin soup made from rotten vegetables or meat at midday, and a crust of bread and a small portion of margarine at night. Many people had to steal to survive and starvation took the lives of countless prisoners, although everyone was starving.

Few Were Selected To Live

Tracks into the camp
Francois LE DIASCORN/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Francois LE DIASCORN/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Upon arriving at Auschwitz, right off of the trains, people were selected as either fit to work or unfit. Unfortunately, those that were deemed unfit were sent directly to the gas chambers to be executed.

It’s estimated that around 75-80% of people were sent to the gas chambers during the first selection. This typically included the elderly, young children, or anyone that might have any ailments that would prevent them from working at full capacity.

The Prisoners Were Given Corresponding Badges

People in uniform
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

On top of receiving a tattoo of their prison number, those in Auschwitz were given special badges to distinguish the prisoners from one another. Jews had yellow stars. Gypsies had a brown triangle, homosexuals a pink triangle, a purple triangle for Jehovah’s Witnesses, and a black triangle for those that were considered “asocial elements.”

There were, of course, other badges that were used to identify other minorities as well. This was, yet again, another way of dehumanizing the prisoners.

The Name Auschwitz

Beds in barracks
Three Lions/Getty Images
Three Lions/Getty Images

The concentration camp received the name Auschwitz because it was the German name for the Polish town Oświęcim, where the camp was built.

The “main” camp was built around a group of buildings that had once been Polish army barracks, around a horse-breaking yard, not far from the center of Oświęcim along the bank of the Sola River. Originally built to hold Polish prisoners, Auschwitz would grow to become one of the most deadly concentration camps of World War II.

The Man In Charge

Ross on trial
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Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

Rudolph Hoss was the commandant of Auschwitz for the majority of the camp’s existence. He was 39 years old when he was first appointed the job in the spring of 1940 after being trained at the concentration camp in Dachau, north of Munich.

While he oversaw the death of over 1 million people, his demeanor was not that of the unbelievably sadistic SS guards. According to an American lawyer that interrogated him, he was a “normal person, like a grocery clerk.” After the war, he was executed for war crimes.

“The Good Man Of Auschwitz”

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Hans Wilhelm Münch was a German Nazi Party member that was stationed and worked as a physician at Auschwitz. He was given the nickname of “The Good Man of Auschwitz” after he refused to assist in the mass murders taking place and secretly helped some of the prisoners survive.

He was the only person acquitted of war crimes at the 1947 Auschwitz trials in Krakow, in which several former Auschwitz prisoners testified favorably on his behalf.

The Introduction Of Zyklon B

Zyklon B containers
Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images
Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

Eventually, the SS began investigating a more efficient way of killing unwanted prisoners in large numbers. Hoss’ deputy then began experimenting with an insecticide known as Zyklon B, known for killing lice.

It was soon discovered that releasing crystals of Zyklon B in a confined area with no ventilation would also kill humans. So, during the second half of 1941, experiments were conducted in the basement of one of the prison blocks until the process had been perfected.

Anne Frank’s Father Survived Auschwitz

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Calle Hesslefors/ullstein bild via Getty Images

Anne Frank is among one of the many famous Jewish prisoners who lost their lives in the Holocaust. She became famous after the publishing of her writings, The Diary of a Young Girl, following her death in a concentration camp.

Although Anne and her sister were sent to a different camp where they died of typhus, her father, Otto, was the only member of the Frank family to survive and even managed to survive the horrors of Auschwitz.

Some People Deny The Atrocities That Occurred

Outside of the camp
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Martyn Aim/Corbis via Getty Images

In the years following the war, groups began to emerge, claiming that the Holocaust was a hoax, in particular, the horrors that took place in Auschwitz. At one point, a Holocaust denial group offered $50,000 to anyone that could prove that gas chambers weren’t used to intentionally kill people inside of the camp.

Unsurprisingly, a judge forced the group to pay $50,000 for their claims on top of another $40,000, to Auschwitz survivor Mel Mermelstein, who proved what the gas chambers were actually used for.

Fooling The Guards

Piles of glasses
Roger Viollet via Getty Images/Roger Viollet via Getty Images
Roger Viollet via Getty Images/Roger Viollet via Getty Images

In 1942, four Polish men successfully escaped Auschwitz by tricking the guards. Kazimierz Piechowski, Stanislaw Gustaw Jaster, Josef Lempart, and Eugeniusz Bender managed to break into the SS Magazine, where they stole uniforms and rifles.

Then, pretending to be guards, they made their way to the garage where they stole a car and drove right out of the front gate. Incredibly, they weren’t questioned, and their escape plan went off without a hitch.

Days Started Early

Prisoners lined up
Votava/Imagno/Getty Images
Votava/Imagno/Getty Images

The working day at Auschwitz began at 4:30 during the warmer months and 5:30 during the winter. Prisoners woke up to the sound of a gong and would proceed to clean their barracks before receiving their “coffee” or “tea.”

At the sound of the second gong, the prisoners would line up in rows of ten for the morning count, which could take an incredibly long time, making it especially miserable in the winter. They would then proceed with their workday, which lasted 11 to 12 hours.