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Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp
Aushwitz- Birkenau
Public DomainAushwitz- Birkenau

Auschwitz was the largest concentration camp complex established by the Nazi regime. It included three main camps, all of which deployed prisoners as forced labour. One of them also functioned as a killing centre. The camps were located in Upper Silesia, an area the Germans annexed in 1939 after the invasion of Poland. The three main camps were: Auschwitz I, established in May 1940; Auschwitz II ( Auschwitz-Birkenau) established in early 1942; and Auschwitz III (Auschwitz-Monowitz) established in October 1942. Collectively, they are known today as the Auschwitz-Birkenau German Nazi Concentration and Extermination Camp. The camp complex was vast, covering an area of over forty square kilometres.

The camp in Monowitz was one of the first, and the largest, of the forty sub-camps of Auschwitz. Situated 7 kilometres east of Auschwitz I, over time it attained the status of headquarters of the “industrial” sub-camps. The camp was founded on the initiative of the German chemical conglomerate IG Farbenindustrie A.G. who needed a third plant for the manufacture of Buna, synthetic rubber and liquid fuels for the war effort. The new camp was to be located in Silesia because it was beyond the range of Allied bombers at the time. The opportunity to exploit prisoners from the nearby Auschwitz concentration camp as cheap slave labour was a decisive factor in the choice of location.


Public DomainBuna-Werke


The IG Farben Plant at Buna
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeThe IG Farben Plant at Buna - Credit: Deutsches Bundesarchiv

Trucks began ferrying the first prisoner labour detail to work at the plant construction site in April 1941. The first prisoners arrived on October 26, and by early November the camp population was two thousand. By the summer of 1943, the camp construction was completed.

Its population rose gradually, and by July 1944 there were over eleven thousand mainly Jewish prisoners. This growth came despite significant mortality in the camp and numerous selections for extermination.

More than ten thousand sick and exhausted prisoners fell victim to selection during the period that the camp was in operation. They were taken to the hospital in the main camp, where most of them were killed by lethal injection, or to Birkenau where they were murdered in the gas chambers. More than 1,600 prisoners died in the hospital in Monowitz, and several dozen were shot at the construction site or hanged in the camp. Over eleven thousand Auschwitz concentration camp prisoners lost their lives at Monowitz.

Sleeping quarters
Public DomainSleeping quarters

Prisoners slept in overcrowded barracks, sharing wooden bunks built in tiers of three, which were covered with a straw mattress and blanket. Inmates received minimal rations in the form of bread and soup. Suffering from cold, hunger and exhaustion, and undertaking arduous physical labour, their average life expectancy was approximately three months. Conditions in Monowitz were brutal, with Kapos and SS guards colluding with IG Farben Management to maintain high levels of productivity. Prisoners were regularly beaten to enforce higher work rates.

As the end of the war approached, Allied war planes bombed Monowitz four times -- in August, in September, and twice in December. In January 1945, approximately 20,000 of the camp's prisoners were evacuated on foot to Gliwice, and then by train to the Buchenwald and Mauthausen camps. The majority of the prisoners died. The camp and its remaining inmates were liberated by the Soviet Army on January 28th, 1945.