Today in 1945, the 322nd Infantry Division of the Soviet Red Army liberated 7,500 survivors of the Auschwitz concentration camp. Although the exact number will never be known, most historians agree that between 1.1 and 1.5 million human beings were murdered there.
Auschwitz was not a single camp, but a complex of 3 main camps and dozens of sub-camps located about 60 kilometers southwest of Krakow, Poland. Auschwitz I was the first camp built at the site, which had been a Polish Army barracks. The administration offices were located there and it was also the initial place of confinement for the first group of prisoners, Polish citizens who were sent there in June, 1940. Once Germany invaded the Soviet Union in May, 1941, Soviet POWs were sent to the camp as were German civilian criminals, homosexuals and anyone else who did not fit into the tight social constructs of the Nazis. By 1942, there were 20,000 prisoners in Auschwitz I. The entrance to the camp had a sign posted over it which read, in German, “work liberates” or “work sets us free”. Similar signs were displayed above many other concentration camp gates, but this was the first.
Auschwitz II, or Birkenau, is the camp that most people think of when they think of Auschwitz. Most of the people imprisoned her were guilty of nothing more than being Jewish. Auschwitz II was located about 3 kilometers from the first camp and was built during 1941. It was over 5 square kilometers in area and could hold up to 100,000 prisoners at a time. While forced labor went on in every part of the Auschwitz complex, Auschwitz II’s main purpose was, simply, extermination. By the spring of 1942, the camp had four large gas chambers capable of murdering 10,000 people at a time. The bodies were then cremated.
Auschwitz III and the other sub-camps were labor camps built to assist Germany industry. They produced many items for the war effort, always under the watchful eye of camp doctors who sent the weak and injured to Auschwitz II for extermination.
Most of the Jews, Poles and Roma who were sent to the camps arrived by train. For the first couple years of operation, the trains were emptied out at a nearby rail terminal and the prisoners were marched to the compound. In 1944, because of the high volume of people being sent there, the tracks were extended into the camps themselves.
Once at the camps, the prisoners were immediately divided into groups: those who would go to work, those who would be held for medical experimentation and those who would go straight to the gas chambers. Jews from all over Europe were victims of this horrible sorting: Hungary, Poland, France, the Netherlands, Greece, Monrovia, Belgium and other nations all saw people ripped from their homes and taken away, never to be seen again.
The liberation of the complex by the Red Army did not spell freedom for all the enslaved. The Soviet POWs held in Auschwitz I were either executed or sent to gulags in the Soviet Union with the accusation that they had conspired with the Nazis. The NKVD, or Soviet secret police, used the complex as a prison before turning it over to the Polish government, which eventually restored parts of the area.
There has been a great controversy over how much the Allies knew about the concentration camps. Photographs were taken of some of the camps by reconnaissance flights, but this was because most of them were near potential industrial targets. It is safe to say that, by 1944 at the latest, the Allies were well aware of Nazi Germany's intention to rid Europe of Jews and other grou considered undesirable. It has been argued that bombing the camps themselves would have killed many innocent people and done little to slow the genocide, but we will never know. What is certain is that we must never forget what happened.