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The name Auschwitz is the German name for Oświęcim, which is the Polish name of the town the concentration camps were built beside.
Auschwitz I was the first camp to be "built" or more accurately transformed from a preexisting army barrocks. The reason it was chosen for the cite of Hitler's largest extermination camp is disturbing in itself: efficiency. It was already very well connected to the European rail network, it was isolated from large populations and it was in Poland, the "country" (by now it was simply a Germany territory) with the largest Jewish population in Europe
In 1941, deputy camp commandant SS-Hauptsturmführer Fritzsch experimented on 600 Russian POWs and 250 Polish inmates by gathering them in the basement of Block 11 and gassing them with Zyklon B, a highly lethal cyanide-based pesticide. This paved the way for the use of Zyklon B as an instrument for extermination at Auschwitz, and a gas chamber and crematorium were constructed by converting a bunker.
Construction on Auschwitz II-Birkenau, the extermination camp, began in October 1941 to ease congestion at the main camp. It was larger than Auschwitz I, and more people passed through its gates than through Auschwitz I. It was designed to hold several categories of prisoners, and to function as an extermination camp in the context of Heinrich Himmler's preparations for the Final Solution of the Jewish Question, the extermination of the Jews.
By 1942, the SS were conducting the infamous "selections," at Auschwitz II in which incoming Jews were divided as they disembarked the cattle carriages into those deemed able to work, who were sent to the right and admitted into the camp, and those who were sent to the left and immediately gassed.
The ambition for efficiency was to prove the most disturbing reoccurring theme during our visit. We visited room after room of personal possessions stolen from Polish, Jewish and Gypsy victims by the SS to fund the Third Reich. Glasses, pots, pans, shoes, shoe polish and most disturbing of all, human hair. The SS sold it to German manufacturers to make rope and nets out of
Similarly disturbing was the deception used to improve such efficiency:
Speech by Franz Hössler to a group of Greek Jews in the undressing room shortly before the group was led into the gas chamber to be killed:
"On behalf of the camp administration I bid you welcome. This is not a holiday resort but a labor camp. Just as our soldiers risk their lives at the front to gain victory for the Third Reich, you will have to work here for the welfare of a new Europe... The chance is there for every one of you. We shall look after your health, and we shall also offer you well-paid work... Now, would you please all get undressed. Hang your clothes on the hooks we have provided and please remember your number [of the hook]. When you've had your bath there will be a bowl of soup and coffee or tea for all. Oh yes, before I forget, after your bath, please have ready your certificates, diplomas, school reports and any other documents so that we can employ everybody according to his or her training and ability."
Approximately 1/2 of the more than 6 million Jewish victims of the Holocaust were exterminated in Auschwitz, with around 2.5 million being gassed to death and another 500,000 dying of starvation, disease and medical experiments (at the hands of Josef Mengele and others)
With the enormous amount of human resources Hitler devoted to the Final Solution (i.e.the number of soldiers (7,000 SS members worked at Auschwitz), doctors, accountants, manufacturers, train drivers and other staff required to run the camps), it is strikingly evident that "all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing."
An extraordinarily moving day, even more so because our exceptional tour guide's own grandfather was sent to Auschwitz.