In 1941, senior Nazis were looking for what they abhorrently described at the time as a “final solution to the Jew question.”
They wanted to come up with an efficient way to mass murder all the Jews in Europe – ethnic cleansing on an epic scale. Simply rounding Jewish families up into overpopulated ‘ghettos’ in major towns and limiting their rations to 200 calories per day wasn’t enough for Nazis.
Eventually, Einsatzgruppen or ‘death squads’ would be tasked with the mass killing of Jews and communists by being shot. Each body would then land in a mass grave, similar to the ethnic cleansing witnessed during the Bosnian War.
January of 1942 saw high ranking Nazis meet at a conference in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee, to agree upon a plan of action. It was decided that Jews would be taken from their ‘ghettos’ and transported to Nazi death camps in occupied Poland. There they were gassed in chambers or forced to work to their deaths in labour camps.
Jewish men, women and children who hadn’t yet been murdered were left with devastating illnesses and skeleton-like bodies.
Many of the death camps were eventually liberated at the end of the Second World War in 1945.
As Russia came closer to discovering the true horror of Nazi death camps, SS guards were tasked with marching survivors deep into Germany.
In January 1945 survivors from Nazi death camp Auschwitz, who had been traumatized, starved and worked to within an inch of their lives, were sent on a ‘death march’. In freezing conditions and without proper clothing or food, they were forced to walk hundreds of miles until they collapsed, eventually arriving in Bergen-Belsen in February 1945.
By April 1945 the camp population was at 60,000 - eight times its size only a year before.
Overcrowding in camps like Bergen-Belsen resulted in widespread disease and even further death. A high proportion of those in Bergen-Belsen were children. Many of these child survivors were made to feel they weren't ‘true’ survivors because of their age.
LISTEN: Children Of Belsen
Did The British Army Liberate Auschwitz?
On January 27, 1945, soldiers from the 60th Army of the First Ukrainian Front liberated the prisoners of Auschwitz.
For the first time, the true scale of the systematic genocide of millions of Jews was revealed to a shocked world.
Entire Jewish families had been wiped away from history.
A matter of days before prisoners were to be liberated from Auschwitz tens of thousands were herded from the death camps to another, Bergen-Belsen.
After Belsen’s liberation in April 1945 by British and Canadian troops, 10,000 dead and disease-ridden, emaciated bodies were placed in mass graves.
To prevent the spread of disease the camp was burnt to the ground.
More than one million people died in Auschwitz - the vast majority of them Jews - between 1940 and 1945.
How Many People Survived Concentration Camps?
Thousands of people who initially survived being liberated from concentration camps died very soon after from disease and sometimes even because their starved bodies weren’t used to eating.
Why Is The Holocaust Called The Holocaust?
One of the most infamous genocides in modern history has many names around the world. English speaking countries refer to it as the Holocaust, a word derived from Ancient Greek for ‘sacrifice by fire’. In some parts of the world, people use the Hebrew word Shoah which means ‘catastrophe’.
Did People Other Than Jews Die At Auschwitz?
It wasn’t just Jewish men, women and children who were held captive in Nazi death camps. You would also be imprisoned if you were:
- Mentally ill
- Romani gypsies
Auschwitz: Shoes Of Victims
In June 1947, Auschwitz was turned into a museum so the world would remember the atrocities that took place there.
The museum consists of, among other things, camp buildings, railway lines, and the ruins of gas chambers. In the camp blocks, powerful exhibitions show the severe reality of death camps.
Piles upon piles of personal items like shoes, glasses and prosthetic legs are a stark reminder of the vast human loss. Polish conservators, preserving the horrific past for future generations, painstakingly ensure these precious items are restored.
Some conservators restore shoes worn by children. They are faced with small footprints of the youngest victims of the genocide.
Holocaust Auschwitz Twins: Did The Nazis Really Experiment On Twins At Auschwitz?
Camp physician Josef Mengele, known to many as the Angel Of Death, conducted genetic research on human subjects at Auschwitz. He knew that he wouldn’t get in trouble if they died. One of his main interests was experimenting on twin children. He would subject one twin to unimaginable horrors for so-called medical “research” and save the other as a control. If one twin died, he would quickly kill the other and study both of their dissected bodies.
Has The Pope Ever Visited Auschwitz?
In July 2016, Pope Francis offered a private prayer in one of the cells at Auschwitz.
The pontiff walked alone, in silence around the concentration camp and met elderly survivors - holding their hands and kissing them on each cheek.
In the Auschwitz museum guest book he wrote:
“Lord, have pity on your people. Lord, forgive so much cruelty.”
Nazi Camp Slurs
In August 2016, Poland's conservative government says anyone who uses language that implies Polish responsibility for Nazi German atrocities will face jail or a fine.
The government agreed on a new law to criminalise "insulting and slandering the good name of Poland".
Phrases like "Polish concentration camps" will be punishable by up to three years in jail.