What happened to Zyklon B after World War II

Auschwitz - a place and its harrowing history

Over 25 million people have visited the memorial of the former Auschwitz concentration camp in southern Poland since it opened in 1947. More than 2 million visitors from all over the world now come there every year. Until 1945, about 50 kilometers west of Kraków, the huge area of ​​the entire Nazi camp complex stretched outside the gates of the small town of Oświęcim. Today there is a state museum and memorial on the site.

In addition to the three main camps, the central extermination camp of the Nazis also included auxiliary and satellite camps of different sizes - an industrial extermination machine of unimaginable proportions. The museum in the main camp Auschwitz and the extensive Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial alone, as you can see them today, cover 191 hectares.

What remains is the memory of the mass murder in Europe - and responsibility for the future

We have summarized the historical facts and figures, history and responsibility for the future behind the term "Auschwitz":

1. The city of Oświęcim (Auschwitz)

Long before the name became known through the German concentration camp, Auschwitz (Polish: Oświęcim) was a small town with an eventful history. Sometimes it belonged to the territory of the Austrians, sometimes as the Duchy of Auschwitz to the Kingdom of Bohemia, sometimes to Prussia - and later again to the Kingdom of Poland. The place Oświęcim was first mentioned in documents around the year 1200. In 1348 it was incorporated into the Holy Roman Empire, and German became the official language.

When Oświęcim became a stopping point for the railroad around 1900, the city's economy improved. After the end of the First World War, the city became part of Poland again. Accommodation was needed for the many seasonal and migrant workers in the surrounding industrial areas of Upper Silesia and Bohemia. They were housed in newly built, brick houses and wooden barracks. The buildings were later to form the basis of the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz.

Shortly after the start of the war in September 1939, Oświęcim was occupied by the German Wehrmacht and annexed by the German Reich. In 1940, under the leadership of Heinrich Himmler, the SS was able to convert the area into a concentration camp quickly and without much structural effort, into the main camp Auschwitz I. Later, the huge area of ​​the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp (Auschwitz II) was added, which can be seen from the historical aerial photographs of the US -American Air Force and the British Royal Air Force.

Part of the memorial: The gate at the end of the tracks on the grounds of Auschwitz-Birkenau

2. The Jewish population

Before the Second World War, about half of the 14,000 inhabitants of Oświęcim were Jewish. The Jewish community had grown strongly due to immigration, the number of people of German origin in the village was insignificantly low. After the attack by Hitler's Wehrmacht on Poland on September 1, 1939 and the military occupation of the country, that changed suddenly.

The Jewish population had to make way for the racial "cleansing" of the Nazis and resettled Germans. The remaining Polish Jews initially lived crammed together and isolated from the rest of the population in the old town of Oświęcim. From 1940 onwards, many were used by the SS as cheap labor to expand the planned concentration camp.

3. The strategic hub

The city of Oświęcim was located at a railway junction in the east that was strategically favorable for the Nazis: this is where the southern railway lines from Prague and Vienna crossed with those from Berlin, Warsaw and the northern industrial areas of Silesia. The planning staff of the SS leadership and the responsible Reich Security Main Office in Berlin found all the prerequisites for the planned mass transports from the so-called "Old Reich", i.e. the areas of Germany within the borders of 1937.

The extensive camp system of Auschwitz with the Monowitz subcamp (right)

SS-Obersturmbannführer Adolf Eichmann was responsible for the smooth transport of the deportees to the extermination camps in the east. He had prepared the files for the infamous "Wannsee Conference" on January 20, 1942 at the Reich Security Main Office in Berlin.

At the invitation of SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich, the chief of the security police and the SD, a meeting between senior ministerial officials and representatives of the SS and NSDAP took place in the noble villa on the Großer Wannsee. The murderous plan of a "final solution to the European Jewish question" was resolved. All European countries from which Jews were to be deported by train are listed in the protocol.

4. The storage system

After Dachau (established as the first concentration camp in 1933), Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald, Flossenbürg, Mauthausen and the Ravensbrück women's camp, Auschwitz was the seventh concentration camp set up by the Nazis, and Auschwitz was by far the largest. The site on the outskirts of the small Polish town of Oświęcim was planned as a location of differently sized camps: In addition to the main camp (Auschwitz I), the huge Birkenau extermination camp (Auschwitz II), where the crematoria stood, and smaller satellite camps, there were also the Buna and Monowitz labor camps.

After the Wannsee Conference, the Auschwitz concentration camp was expanded into a systematic extermination and murder machine from the spring of 1942. The executor of this racially motivated Nazi ideology, as the responsible SS camp commandant, was Rudolf Hoess. Until his replacement in November 1943, he was responsible for the SS guards and the entire camp administration at Auschwitz.

Effective murder weapon: One can of Zyklon B was enough to kill more than 1,000 people

5. The SS area of ​​influence

The SS provided security guards and leadership cadres of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp. As early as the spring of 1942, 2,000 SS guards were deployed in the camp complex. Towards the end of the Second World War, in the late summer of 1944, over 4,000 SS members were on duty there. This also included camp guards, typists, nurses, etc., who were employed by the SS and did not wear any badges of rank.

The control of local industrial and craft enterprises, which had settled as profiteers of the camp construction around Auschwitz, was also in the hands of the SS. The so-called "SS-Siedlung", in which the guards lived with their families, developed outside of the Warehouse fencing to a district with many amenities for the residents there.

6. The death factory

In the spring of 1943, the construction management of the expanded Auschwitz-Birkenau camp complex put additional ovens into operation in the newly built crematoria. The SS tested its functionality on a prisoner transport: 1,100 men, women and children were burned after an agonizing death in a gas chamber into which Zyklon B was filled. Their ashes - and later also those of the murdered concentration camp prisoners and deportees - were scattered in the surrounding lakes.

Auschwitz-Birkenau: At the bottom of this lake lies the ashes of tens of thousands of murdered people

The site manager of the Auschwitz concentration camp, SS-Obersturmbannführer Karl Bischoff, reported to Berlin: "From now on, 4,756 corpses can be cremated within 24 hours." In order to speed up the selection process when the transports arrive, the three-track railway ramp was built in Birkenau, which can still be seen in Auschwitz-Birkenau today. More than two thirds of the newcomers were not registered as prisoners and were sent to the gas chambers and died immediately upon arrival.

In the late autumn of 1944, the last transports of Jews from all over Europe arrived in Auschwitz. 15-year-old Anne Frank was among the deportees from the occupied Netherlands. The diaries you received by chance have been preserved after the end of the war as an impressive document of the time of the persecution of the Jews by the National Socialists.

7. The number of victims

The calculations of the Holocaust victims who perished in Auschwitz fluctuate. Every year new details are added through finds in historical archives and bequests. The exact number of victims cannot be determined. Scientific estimates assume that more than five million people were deported to the Nazi concentration camp system. Very few concentration camp prisoners survived.

After the arrival of the deportation trains, the SS made their first selections at the notorious "Judenrampe"

In December 2019, the result of a research project commissioned by the Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial was published. According to this, more than 60 percent of the prisoners registered by the SS camp administration at the time could be identified. (dpa v. 27.12.2019)

This does not include the more than 900,000 deportees who were never registered but were murdered immediately after their arrival in Auschwitz-Birkenau. A prisoner number was tattooed only to those who had survived the selection at the so-called "Judenrampe" and were intended for work in the camp system of the SS. Most of the deportees - the elderly, the sick, women and small children - were driven directly into the gas chambers by the SS troops without registration and brutally murdered.

According to the memorial, more than 1.1 million people died in the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp. 90 percent of them were Jews - the majority from Hungary, Poland, Italy, Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Greece, Croatia, the Soviet Union, Austria and Germany. Sinti and Roma, homosexuals, Catholics and supporters of Jehovah's Witnesses, people with disabilities and political opponents also fell victim to the Nazi machinery of extermination.

Surviving concentration camp prisoners liberated by Soviet troops at the end of January 1945

8. The liberation of the concentration camp prisoners

When the Soviet army reached the Auschwitz camp site on January 27, 1945, the soldiers were faced with a horrific picture: only about 7,000 emaciated, terminally ill concentration camp prisoners had survived, 500 of them were children. Very few prisoners could stand upright, many lay apathetically on the ground. They had been too weak for the marches on which the SS guards had driven tens of thousands through the freezing cold to the west.

The SS had hastily evacuated the camp at the end of January and tried to remove the traces of their murderous machinery: files, camp cards, death certificates, many things were quickly burned. Only a few documents and photos have survived. Most of the camp barracks, the gas chambers and crematoria were blown up.

Hardly any of the emaciated prisoners in the columns had shoes and warm clothes on, most of them only wore the thin cotton clothing of the concentration camp prisoners when the SS men fled. Almost every fourth prisoner died on these "death marches": starved, frozen, shot.

9. The Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial

At the beginning of 1946, the Soviet occupation authorities handed the former camp site over to the Polish state. Based on an initiative of former prisoners, the "State Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau" was founded as a memorial in 1947 - by decision of the Polish Parliament.

The memorial includes the preserved facilities, buildings and barracks of the Auschwitz I concentration camp (main camp) and the almost empty area of ​​the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp (Auschwitz II) as well as today's museum area. The first exhibition was created in collaboration with the Israeli Yad Vashem Memorial.

In the first year of its existence 170,000 visitors came, in 2018/19 there were more than 2 million every year. Especially young people and youth groups from all over the world visit the museum and the sites of Nazi crimes. Auschwitz-Birkenau has been on the UNESCO World Heritage List to be protected since 1979.

Every year the "March of the Living" takes place from the main camp Auschwitz to Birkenau (left: Edward Mosberg)

10. The last contemporary witnesses

Every year January 27 is celebrated as a historical day of remembrance - in collective memory of the "liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp" in 1945. A solemn commemoration is also held in the German Bundestag on this day.

In the past, moving speeches were given on this day: by German Federal Presidents and European politicians, by Jewish Holocaust survivors such as Ruth Klüger and Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, and by prominent Jewish writers and historians such as Marcel Reich-Ranicki and Saul Friedländer. "Holocaust Memorial Day" has existed worldwide since 2005.

There are only a few contemporary witnesses who survived the Auschwitz concentration camp and who can report on it. During the annual "March of the Living" from the former Auschwitz concentration camp to Birkenau, the last surviving concentration camp prisoners march hand in hand with young people from all over the world. The children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren - not only of the Jewish families - will soon have to carry on the memories alone.

Chancellor Angela Merkel visits the former Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz (December 6th, 2019)