Online lessons present history of Auschwitz and horrifying fate of Poles who ended up there
The fate of the 150,000 Poles who were sent to Auschwitz during World War Two is the subject of a series of online lessons that have been released by the Auschwitz Museum on its website.
While Auschwitz-Birkenau has become synonymous with the extermination of European Jews by Germany, the Auschwitz main camp was initially set up to be the largest concentration camp in German-occupied territory for Polish political prisoners.
The thirteen lessons describe their fate in detail using text, photographs, prisoners records, mug shots, transport lists, site plans, quotes, prisoner art work and charts.
The content-rich pages outline the German aim to destroy Polish resistance, the origins of the Auschwitz concentration camp, how Poles were selected to be sent there, the expansion of the camp and the experience and treatment of different categories of Polish prisoners.
In the first lesson on the genocidal nature of the German occupation, readers learn that from the very beginning of the occupation “executions by shooting on the one hand, and terrorizing the remaining Polish population through mass arrests and deportations to concentration camps on the other, were at the core of the German policy in occupied Poland. In part, these methods complemented each other.”
The next lesson shows how the Germans initially planned to open Auschwitz as a ‘quarantine camp’.
Readers learn that the sending of Polish prisoners to concentration camps in Germany had to be halted due to the overcrowding caused by the arrival of numerous transports from Poland and the sudden deterioration of sanitary conditions, epidemics of infectious diseases.
At the end of November or early December 1939, the SS and Police Leader in Breslau proposed that a ‘quarantine camp’ be created in the former Polish military barracks in Oświęcim.
The camp was to be organised on the model of concentration camps in Germany and was to temporarily hold mainly political prisoners from the Katowice area before they were transferred to the camps in Dachau, Sachsenhausen and Buchenwald.
However, this plan changed due to the mass arrests of all actual and alleged enemies of the Reich in occupied Poland as part of the Extraordinary Operation of Pacification, or A-B Action.
“On June 1, 1940, SS-Oberführer Richard Glücks issued a formal order: Auschwitz was to become the largest concentration camp in Germany where 30,000 prisoners, without doubt almost exclusively Poles, were to be guarded by no fewer than six SS guard companies,” the lesson reads.
Later chapters focus on the reasons for arresting and imprisoning Poles in Auschwitz and statistics of transports and the number of Polish prisoners in the camp are provided.
In lesson five, readers can learn that “in the first two years of the camp's existence, Poles were deported to the camp at irregular intervals: there were months when the number of prisoners exceeded 2,000”.
A chart shows a breakdown of the number of prisoners in each transport from June 1940 to December 1944.
By the beginning of 1944, the number of deported Poles dropped considerably to 400–600 as Auschwitz and Majdanek were generally closed to Polish prisoners, who were from then on sent to Gross-Rosen and other concentration camps in Germany.
The chapter on the expansion of Auschwitz describes plans for the first stationary device for cremating bodies in the history of German concentration camps.
“[camp commandant] Höss expected a large number of deaths among prisoners (initially up to 100, later up to 200 per day). This was many times higher than the death rate in the concentration camps in Dachau or Buchenwald at that time,” the lesson says.
Lesson six presents the social structure of Polish prisoners and highlights the presence of children in the camp.
“Among the Poles there was also a fairly large group of children of several years of age who had been deported from the Zamość region and from Warsaw during the Uprising.
“These age groups were almost completely absent among the Jews registered in the camp (with the exception of children selected by SS physician Josef Mengele for pseudo-medical experiments) and a few children from transports not subjected to selections—those evacuated in the summer of 1944 from labor camps for Jews.”
A later lesson describe the special categories of re-education prisoners and police prisoners.
Re-education prisoners were forced labourers who had been accused by their employers of laziness or absenteeism.
The reason they were sent to the camp “was not to punish them, but to create conditions for re-education through ‘intensive work to make them aware of their [previous] socially harmful behavior, to educate them in the spirit of organized work, and thus to set a deterrent and warning example’.”
They were treated just as brutally as the other prisoners, forced to perform hard labour and fed starvation rations. When they returned to their employers, they often had to go on sick leave to recover.
Police prisoners, meanwhile, were Poles who were sent to the camp to face summary trial. They did not have the status of a camp prisoner, they were not included in the camp population count, they did not receive striped uniforms and were not tattooed with numbers.
“All the formal documents were already prepared when they arrived and the ‘trials’, sentencing to death, and execution of the sentence could all take place almost immediately.”
If a death sentence was passed, the prisoner’s end was swift: “the prisoners were taken to a washroom where they had to undress. They were then led to the courtyard of Block 11, to a black wall of wood panels and particle boards. There, the SS (usually Rapportführer Gerhard Palitzsch) killed them with a shot in the back of the head.”