Auschwitz Camp I - Page 2

LINKS BELOW are to pages in the Auschwitz site and to the Colin Day Travelling Days series:

     1 : Auschwitz Introduction
     2 : Auschwitz I
     3 : Auschwitz II Birkenau
     4 : Aerial Photograph
HOME PAGE : Colin Day's Links

Much of the information contained in these pages was gained from the 'Escape to Poland' travel website, the London 'Daily Telegraph', 'Wikipedia' and the helpful guides at Auschwitz and to all of whom due acknowledgement and thanks are given here. Other acknowledgements are given within the text.

'Arbeit Macht Frei' over the main Auschwitz gate is one of the most recognizable symbols of the holocaust. Twice each day thousands of prisoners passed through this main gate of Auschwitz I when going to work in the early morning and later on their return. On each occasion they glanced at the sign "Arbeit Macht Frei" in full realisation that it could be the last time that they might see it.

The words 'Arbeit Macht Frei' ('Work Sets You Free') is a word play on the phrase taken from the Bible which says 'Wahrheit macht frei' ('Truth Sets You Free'). In early 1930s the slogan 'Arbeit Macht Frei' was very popular because of high unemployment level in Germany. Later it became a favourite motto of Nazi officers who forced prisoners to work in inhuman conditions. The slogan has appeared over the gates of many similar forced labour and extermination camps around the world.

The sign over Auschwitz gate was designed by the camp's iron-worker and erected by prisoners in 1940 at the camp's entrance. In protest against the wording, the letter "B" was placed upside down.

The building in the background was used as a camp brothel. In a space to the right of the gate a camp orchestra played when prisoners were leaving and returning to the camp. In this area hanged bodies of prisoners were often displayed to dissuade other prisoners from attempting to escape.

The sign displayed here is a replica of the original which was stolen from the original site on Friday 18 December 2009. Thieves had cut up the black wrought-iron sign into its three constituent words in order to fit it into their getaway car after taking it down from the main gate. Following a nationwide search, police found the sign a few days later in a rural area hundreds of kilometres away.

Five Polish men were convicted of carrying out the theft on behalf of a Swedish man, Anders Hoegstroem, who helped to found the National Socialist Front party in Sweden in 1994. He is serving a prison sentence in his homeland following his conviction in Poland.

Following its recovery conservation workers at Auschwitz worked for nearly a year and a half photographing, analysing and finally welding back together the pieces of the badly damaged sign. The thieves had not only cut it into pieces, they also had bent and fractured its metal tubes.

The fully restored sign will probably be moved to the exhibition hall presently under development. The replica of the sign continues to stand in its place. It reminds us of Nazi cruelty and commemorates those who died in the Auschwitz Concentration Camps.

The SS and Police Leader for Silesia, Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski had been searching for a site to house prisoners in the Silesia region, as the local prisons were filled to capacity. What later became the Auschwiitz I site already held sixteen dilapidated one-story buildings that had once served as an army barracks and a camp for transient workers.

Reichsföhrer-SS Heinrich Himmler, head of the Schutzstaffel (SS), approved the site in April 1940, intending to use the facility to house political prisoners. SS-Obersturmbannföhrer (lieutenant colonel) Rudolf Höss oversaw the development of the camp and served as its first commandant.

The first prisoners (30 German criminal prisoners from the Sachsenhausen camp) arrived in May 1940. They were intended to act as functionaries within the prison system.

The first transport of 728 Polish prisoners, which included 20 Jews, arrived on June 14, 1940 from the prison in Tarnów, Poland. The inmate population grew quickly as the camp absorbed Poland's dissidents and Polish underground resistance members.

By March 1941, 10,900 (mainly Poles) were imprisoned there. By the end of 1940, the SS had confiscated land measuring about 40 square kilometres in the adjacent area to create a 'zone of interest' and surrounded it with a double ring of electrified barbed wire fencing and watchtowers.

Auschwitz I became the administrative centre for the whole complex which, by the time of its liberation, had grown to include three large camps and 45 sub-camps.

Within the Auschwitz 1 compound are twenty-eight detached blocks. Our first visit is to Blocks 10 and 11.

A courtyard lies between Blocks 10 and 11. Block 11 is shown here. Various rooms for prisoners and for staff use were situated on the ground floor (below).

The cells were in the basement - note the concrete walls constructed around the cell windows so as to cut off further the prisoners from the outside world.

Block 11 was originally intended solely to punish prisoners by torture but later the punishments extended to gassing and shooting.

The block contained special torture cells in the basement in which various punishments, described later, were applied to prisoners. It was here the first attempts to gas prisoners with Zyklon-B were implemented.

Every few weeks a Gestapo 'court' sat in Block 11 and dealt with prisoners accused of illegal political activity considered hostile to the Third Reich. The maximum penalty applied in the camp was execution which was usually carried out on the orders of Maximilian Grabner, the head of the Political Department and Gestapo chief in Auschwitz. (Grabner was arrested by the Allies in 1945 and was hanged on 28 January 1948.)

Prisoners condemned to be shot were later led from the cellars of Block 11 to a washroom either on the ground floor floor or in the basement where they stripped naked and awaited execution.

In another room women, also naked, waited to be shot. Shootings took place inside Block 11 or at the 'Wall of Death' described on the next page.

  Block 11 orderly's room. (right)

  The prisoners' wash room. (below)

     Prisoners' quarters on the ground
     floor of Block 11 (above and left)

When the Russians liberated Auschwitz this room was piled with bodies that the Nazi soldiers didn't have time to remove.
(See the picture on the wall)  The women were often killed by shooting in this room.  Shawls have been laid on the floor.

The Cellar Rooms of Block 11 and the 'Wall of Death' are described on the next page.

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