Nowadays, Auschwitz is synonymous with the Holocaust. The camp has become the symbol of the atrocities committed by the Nazi regime during World War II. One quick fact: More people died in Auschwitz alone, than the British and American losses during World War II combined. The camp has become a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is home of the state museum that attracts more than 1 million visitors per year. Here are some secrets and facts about the camp you probably didn’t know.
Auschwitz was actually made up of three main camps. What most people recognize as Auschwitz was actually Auschwitz 1. This is the main camp made up of 16 old dilapidated army barracks. The main camp was built in April 1940, and was approved by Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS army.
In the beginning, Auschwitz was supposed to be a political prison. The main camp was the home of the infamous Block 11, a brick building with a sole purpose to punish prisoners through torture. The second camp was constructed in 1941 as a secondary building to ease congestion of the main camp. The original plan had place for 50,000 prisoners of war in the second camp, but that number was increased to 200,000 prisoners in the final design.
The third camp, called Monowitz was constructed to house workers for a chemical plant located 4.3 miles away from Auschwitz. In the beginning, workers traveled from the camp to the plant. But it proved impractical, so the third camp was also repurposed to house inmates.
The first prisoners in Auschwitz were 10,000 prisoners of war. They arrived at the main camp in October 1941. They were transferred to the second camp, called Birkenau in March 1942. By the time they were transferred, only 945 of the initial 10,000 prisoners were alive.
Auschwitz II, or Birkenau was repurposed to serve as an extermination camp with two gas chambers. In 1943, Nazi increased the gassing capacity of the “white house” by installing gas-tight doors.
There was a revolt in Auschwitz in 1944. The result of the revolt was one of the gas crematoria being destroyed. The revolt was carried out by “Sonderkommando units”. These were prisoners selected to carry out the mass extermination of fellow inmates. The units worked in the gas chambers. The first task of a sonderkommando unit was to dispose the previous one that was killed in the gas chambers.
On October 7th, 1944, the Sonderkommando unit revolted and attacked the SS guards with stones, axes, and hand grenades. Three guards were killed, one of whom was burned alive in one of the crematorium ovens. Hundreds of prisoners escaped, but they were later captured and executed.
There were many escape attempts in Auschwitz. Some were successful, some were not. The most famous escape was carried out by four Polish prisoners. They broke into the warehouse, disguised themselves as SS guards, stole weapons and a car, and then drove completely unchallenged through the main gate. This happened on June 20th, 1942.
In total, there were 800 escape attempts. Nearly 150 of them were successful. The punishment for escape was “death by starvation”. Families of successful escapes were arrested and displayed publicly to stop new escape attempts. When a prisoner made a successful escape, the SS guards chose 10 random people from their block and starved them to death.
The Catholic Church has canonized two Auschwitz prisoners as saints. The first one is Maximilian Kolbe, who was a Polish friar. He was imprisoned in 1941, and during his time at Auschwitz, he continued to serve as a priest. He was a victim of many beatings. In July 1941, he volunteered to take a prisoner’s place for the “starve to death punishment”. Kolbe survived 2 weeks in Block 11, and was the lone survivor. After two weeks, the guards killed him with a lethal injection because they needed his cell space. Pope John Paul II canonized the Polish friar on October 10, 1982. According to the Catholic Church, Kolbe is the patron saint of political prisoners, journalists, and drug addicts.
Edith Stein was a German Jewish philosopher who converted to Catholicism in 1922 and dedicated his life to prayer. He was arrested in 1942. She was canonized in 1998 as a saint and martyr of the Catholic Church.
Anne Frank is one of the most famous Jewish victims. She gained popularity after publication of ”Diary of a Young Girl”. In her diary, she documented the life in hiding from 1942 to 1944. Her father was a prisoner in Auschwitz.
The entire family was arrested in 1944. Anne and her sister were transferred to another camp, where they died from typhus. Her father Otto was the lone survivor of the family. When he returned to Amsterdam after the war, he found the diary. He made an effort to publish the diary in 1947. It was published in English in 1952. Anne’s father died in 1980.
Salamo Arouch was a Greek-born Jewish boxer. He was imprisoned in Auschwitz, and was given an option to fight for his life. He was forced to fight fellow prisoners. The one who lost would be sent to the gas chamber or shot. He survived for 2 years, and won 200 fights.
He died in Israel at age of 86. During his time at Auschwitz, Nazi guards placed bets on him. His story was the basis of the 1989 movie titled “Triumph of the Spirit”.
As a professional boxer, he had a 24-0 record, and won the amateur junior middleweight championships for Greece and the Balkans. The titles meant nothing when he arrived in Auschwitz in May 1943.
The camp was a small town. In essence, Auschwitz functioned as a town with its own hierarchy. The camp had cinema, theatre, grocery store, and a staff canteen. All of these were reserved for the guards. The guards also had their own athletics team.