New research lifts the lid on the forgotten horrors of Auschwitz’s sub-camps

A fragment of wall and the ruins of a watchtower are just about all that remains of the Furstengrube sub-camp. Michael Challoner

On January 27, 74 years ago today, the Nazi German Auschwitz concentration and extermination camp was liberated by a rifle division of the Red Army’s Ukrainian Front.

The events of that time are well established and are often recounted each year on this anniversary. 

The 322 Rifle Division entered Auschwitz II Birkenau at around 3.30 in the afternoon after meeting some resistance from the withdrawing Germans, and found 7,500 prisoners who had been too weak and sick to be force-marched to other camps on their way to the Reich. 

The Soviet riflemen found piles of corpses from recent killings, the destroyed remains of gas chamber as well as hundreds of thousands of items of clothing and 7.7 tonnes of human hair.

A hospital was set up to treat the sick, wagons loaded with bread arrived the next day, while some prisoners who were strong enough set off on the journey home. 

However, Holocaust researchers Michael Challoner from the UK and Iga Bunalska, an Oświęcim native, believe that the traditional focus of Holocaust memory on the main Auschwitz camp only tells part of the story and that it underplays events at the city-like system of over 45 sub-camps that made up the Auschwitz universe.

The foundations of building belonging to the Gleiwitz I sub-camp.Michael Challoner

As part of their research, they have uncovered testimonies that have laid hidden in the Auschwitz Memorial archives for years which reveal how the Germans slaughtered the remaining prisoners at sub-camps of the Auschwitz complex. 

Michael Challoner told TFN: “Many of the sub-camp sites lie derelict now, or if they survive they are used for other purposes, while the people using today them are often not aware at all of what happened there.

“They are not commemorated in the way that the main camp is and this is also true regarding the liberation in 1945.” 

The pair claim that they are the only researchers to have visited and documented all the sites that the make up the sub-camp system. 

“What we do is a kind of Holocaust archaeology. Often, there is very little left, perhaps a fence post or a building’s foundations,” said Challoner. 

In the public imagination, Auschwitz predominantly means the three camps located in what is now the sleepy town of Oświęcim in southern Poland. 

The original Auschwitz I with red brick barracks and the infamous ‘Arbeit Mach Frei’ metal sign at the entrance was used mainly to hold Polish prisoners. 

A dark history long forgotten: a former Gleitwitz III barrack now being used as a business unit.Michael Challoner

Auschwitz II Birkenau was the huge complex a few kilometres away with mainly wooden barracks and the gas chambers where the vast majority of the camp’s estimated 1.1 million victims were murdered. 

In the east of the town was Auschwitz III-Monowitz, which housed the vast IG Farben chemical works.

However, Auschwitz in reality was made up of a vast network of sub-camps where German businesses operated factories, coal mines and metal works. Other sub-camps were farms and one was even a holiday resort for SS guards and female admin workers.

“What happened at the sub-camps is often as terrible or even more so that at the main camp, which the testimonies that we found prove,” Iga Bunalska explained to TFN.

Iga has spent over two years searching archives at the Auschwitz Memorial Museum for these testimonies and others. 

“Places outside the memorial zones have been forgotten over the years. It means the thousands of people who were killed there have also been forgotten,” she told TFN. 

“I think it's unfair that some places connected to Auschwitz are remembered and some are not. I want to show people the horrible things that happened outside the memorial too. In many cases they were far more horrible than those happening in the main camps. Nobody should get to decide what will be and what will not be commemorated.”

One example is the Gleiwitz system of four sub-camps in what is now the Polish city of Gliwice. Eugeniusz Franek, a local Pole, gave his testimony in 1970 of what he witnessed there. 

“A day before Gliwice was liberated, the local people noticed a glow above the sub-camp. It was maybe around 11.30 in the evening or even midnight. People ran in front of their houses. Me and some others – as we didn’t really care about the Nazis – decided to run through the snowy fields and managed to get maybe 300m away from the camp. 

One of the remaining watchtowers and a section of fence at the Gleiwtiz III camp.Michael Challoner

“Prisoners in striped uniforms were there. There was a burning wooden barrack in the background. You could see black smoke coming out from it. The fire looked as if somebody had poured something very flammable over the barrack.

“We saw a guard tower, and a guard on it. We saw single shots. Then we heard the whole series of shots. We saw black silhouettes of people who were trying to get out of the barrack through the windows. We assumed the guards were aiming at those people.

“[…] Just after the camp was liberated, we went to see the rubble of the burnt barrack. I didn’t see the bodies themselves though we heard 300 people had been burnt.”

Burning prisoners alive in barracks was a typical method used by the SS to murder those who remained. “The SS had been given orders to evacuate all prisoners and not to leave anyone behind. It often happened that the majority of prisoners were marched out and then an SS unit would return later to murder those that remained. The method they used was left up to them,” said Challoner.

Other testimonies reveal the help given by local Poles to Jewish prisoners. Piotr Olej lived near the Fürstengrube sub-camp. “There was a knock at my door. One of the Jewish prisoners made it to my house! He begged me to help him. He was half naked, covered in a blanket, you could see that his prisoner uniform had been burning just a few minutes earlier. The man was completely broken and at the edge of crying. I told him to take his clothes off.

“Suddenly, one of my neighbours came running to my house, and said that two SS-men were approaching us. I was terrified but I managed to take the prisoner to the basement. I helped him to get inside a big wine barrel.

“A couple of seconds later, the SS-men came inside my house. You could still actually smell the prisoner’s clothes that I was burning in the oven. They went it, started cursing at me and then began to search the house. I know they were looking for prisoners who might have escaped.

The old remains of the entrance to the Furstengrube sub-camp.Michael Challoner

“I almost had a heart attack when they passed the wine barrel. However, they didn’t find the hidden prisoner. After they left my house, they kidnapped two Ukrainian women. They raped them in the forest nearby, leaving them to die in the snow.

“When I realised the Germans were gone, I helped the prisoner out, I gave him my own clothes and I took care of him. He spent the whole day with me. In the evening I took him to meet the Soviet soldiers.

“After three months, the prisoner visited my house again. He was accompanied by a couple of American journalists. We both cried when we met.”

Although the liberation took place at the end of January, the process of evacuating prisoners and murdering the weak and sick had been going on for some time. 

Bolesław Pawłowski was a civilian living near the Fürstengrube camp. “In the first days of January 1945, a group of prisoners was led out of the sub-camp and rushed in an unknown direction,” he testified. “The war was coming to an end. We could hear bombs exploding in the distance.

“On 29th January 1945, around thirty SS-men came to the house of Puplacz. Half of them marched towards the sub-camp, and the other half stayed in the house to get drunk. There were 240 prisoners in the sub-camp then. Those were the people who were broken by heavy labour, hunger, fever and bad health. They had wounds all over their bodies.

“They were unfit to be evacuated. Fifteen SS-men brought all the prisoners from all the barracks into one barrack which was locked ... and set it on fire.

“Some of them tried to escape. But they were shot. The barrack burnt down. The SS-men returned to the house of Puplacz. They were laughing and bragging on the way who killed more prisoners. 

“Puplacz was sitting in his kitchen crying, looking the rubbles of the barrack slowly burning. Suddenly he saw two Auschwitz prisoners in the yard of his house. He didn’t say a word to anybody, not even his wife, left the room and hid them in a barn by the house.”

The testimonies will form part of a book, ‘The Forgotten Sub-camps of the Auschwitz Administration’, that the pair of researchers are planning to publish later this year.