/owsh"vits/, n.
a town in SW Poland: site of Nazi concentration camp during World War II. 39,600. Polish, Oswiecim.

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or Auschwitz-Birkenau

Nazi Germany's largest concentration camp and extermination camp, located in southern Poland (modern Oświȩcim).

It consisted of three camps (prison, extermination, and forced labour), established in 1940, 1941 (Birkenau), and 1942. Able-bodied Jewish prisoners were sent to a slave-labour camp, while the aged, the weak, and children and their mothers were killed. Some prisoners were also subjected to medical experiments, conducted by Josef Mengele. The camp was gradually abandoned in 1944–45 as Soviet troops advanced. The total number who died at Auschwitz is estimated at between 1.1 million and 1.5 million, 90% of which were Jews; also among the dead were some 19,000 Roma (Gypsies), who were killed in July 1944, and some 83,000 Poles. Much of the camp was later converted into a museum and memorial. It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979. See also Holocaust.

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Polish  Oświęcim , also called  Auschwitz-Birkenau 
Nazi (Nazi Party) Germany's largest concentration camp and extermination camp. Located near the industrial town of Oświęcim in southern Poland (in a portion of the country that was annexed by Germany at the beginning of World War II), Auschwitz was actually three camps in one: a prison camp, an extermination camp, and a slave-labour camp (forced labour). As the most lethal of the Nazi extermination camps, Auschwitz has become the emblematic site of the “final solution,” a virtual synonym for the Holocaust.

      Auschwitz was probably chosen to play a central role in the “final solution” because it was located at a railway junction with 44 parallel tracks—rail lines that were used to transport Jews from throughout Europe to their death. Heinrich Himmler (Himmler, Heinrich), chief of the SS, the Nazi paramilitary corps, ordered the establishment of the first camp, the prison camp, on April 27, 1940, and the first transport of Polish political prisoners arrived on June 14. This small camp, Auschwitz I, was reserved throughout its history for political prisoners, mainly Poles and Germans. In October 1941, work began on Auschwitz II, or Birkenau, located outside the nearby village of Brzezinka. There the SS later developed a huge concentration camp and extermination complex that included some 300 prison barracks; four large so-called Badeanstalten (German: “bathhouses”), in which prisoners were gassed to death; Leichenkeller (“corpse cellars”), in which their bodies were stored; and Einäscherungsöfen (“cremating ovens”). Another camp (Buna-Monowitz), near the village of Dwory, later called Auschwitz III, became in May 1942 a slave-labour camp supplying workers for the nearby chemical and synthetic-rubber works of IG Farben. In addition, Auschwitz became the nexus of a complex of 45 smaller subcamps in the region, most of which housed slave labourers. During most of the period from 1940 to 1945, the commandant of the central Auschwitz camps was SS-Hauptsturmführer (Captain) Rudolf Franz Höss (Hoess, Rudolf Franz).

 The death camp and slave-labour camp were interrelated. Newly arrived prisoners at the death camp were divided in a process known as Selektion. The young and the able-bodied were sent to work. Young children and their mothers and the old and infirm were sent directly to the gas chambers. Thousands of prisoners were also selected by the camp doctor, Josef Mengele (Mengele, Josef), for medical experiments. Auschwitz doctors tested methods of sterilization on the prisoners using massive doses of radiation, uterine injections, and other barbaric procedures. Experiments involving the killing of twins, upon whom autopsies were performed, were meant to provide information that would supposedly lead to the rapid expansion of the “Aryan race.”

      Subject to harsh conditions—including inadequate shelter and sanitation—given minimal food, and worked to exhaustion, those who could no longer work faced transport back to Birkenau for gassing. German corporations invested heavily in the slave-labour industries adjacent to Auschwitz. In 1942 IG Farben alone invested more than 700 million Reichsmarks in its facilities at Auschwitz III.

      Between May 15 and July 9, 1944, some 438,000 Hungarian Jews were shipped on 147 trains to Birkenau, stretching the camp's resources for killing beyond all limits. Because the crematoria were overcrowded, bodies were burned in pyres fueled partly by the victims' own fat. Just prior to the deportation of Hungarian Jewry, two prisoners escaped with plans of the camp. They met with resistance leaders in Slovakia and compiled a detailed report including maps. As this report made its way to Western intelligence services in the summer of 1944, there were requests to bomb Auschwitz. Although the industrial complex adjacent to Auschwitz was bombed, the death camp and its crematoria were left untouched, a subject of controversy more than 50 years later. (See )

 As Soviet armies advanced in 1944 and early 1945, Auschwitz was gradually abandoned. On January 18, 1945, some 60,000 prisoners were marched to Wodzisław, where they were put on freight trains (many in open cars) and sent westward to concentration camps away from the front. One in four died en route from starvation, cold, exhaustion, and despair. Many were shot along the way in what became known as the “death marches.” The 7,650 sick or starving prisoners who remained were found by arriving Soviet troops on January 27, 1945.

      Between 1.1 and 1.5 million people died at Auschwitz; 90 percent of them were Jews. Also among the dead were some 19,000 Roma (Rom) (Gypsies) who were held at the camp until the Nazis gassed them on July 31, 1944—the only other victim group gassed in family units alongside the Jews. The Poles constituted the second largest victim group at Auschwitz, where some 83,000 were killed or died.

      Although the Germans destroyed parts of the camps before abandoning them in 1945, much of Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II (Birkenau) remained intact and were later converted into a museum and memorial. The site is threatened by increased industrial activity in Oświęcim. In 1996, however, the Polish government joined with other organizations in a large-scale effort to ensure its preservation. Auschwitz was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979.

Michael Berenbaum

Additional Reading
Survivors' memoirs constitute an important source of information on life inside Auschwitz. Three of the most important include Elie Wiesel, Night (1960, reissued 1986; originally published in Yiddish, 1956); Primo Levi, If This Is a Man (1959; originally published in Italian, 1947), also published as Survival in Auschwitz (1961, reissued 1996); and Viktor E. Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning, 4th ed. (1992; originally published in German, 1946), first English title From Death Camp to Existentialism (1959).Danuta Czech, Auschwitz Chronicle, 1939–1945, translated from Polish (1990, reissued 1997), records daily events at the concentration camp. Teresa Świebocka (compiler and ed.), Auschwitz: A History in Photographs, translated from Polish, English edition prepared by Jonathan Webber and Connie Wilsack (1990, reissued 1995), collects more than 280 photographs from a variety of sources. Yisrael Gutman (Israel Gutman) and Michael Berenbaum (eds.), Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp (1994, reissued 1998), presents analytic essays on many aspects of the camp. Debórah Dwork and Robert Jan van Pelt, Auschwitz, 1270 to the Present (1996), examines the history of the town and why it was chosen as the site for the concentration camp.

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Universalium. 2010.

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