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Auschwitz I

The Building and Expansion of Auschwitz Concentration Camp

The basis for Auschwitz consisted of 22 prewar brick barracks buildings. Over time, the camp expanded steadily in both organizational and spatial terms. At its peak in the summer of 1944, Auschwitz covered about 40 sq. km. in the core area, and more than 40 branch camps dispersed within a radius of several hundred kilometers. At this time, there were about 135 thousand people (105 thousand registered prisoners and about 30 thousand unregistered) in the Auschwitz complex, which accounted for 25% of all the people in the entire concentration camp system.


Considering the functions of the camp, it is plain that it underwent significant evolution in the almost 5 years of its existence: from the concept of a quarantine camp, which was the starting point for the decision to found the camp in 1940 (the concept was never implemented), through concentration camp (a place for the annihilation of all prisoners by depriving them of the basic prerequisites for life), to a new type of camp combining a Dachau- or Gross-Rosen-type concentration camp with a center for immediate killing on the model of Treblinka or Bełżec.

In view of the basic functions of Auschwitz, its history may be divided into two basic periods:

  • from its founding in 1940 and the deportation of the first transport of Poles, political prisoners on June 14, 1940, to the first months of 1942, when it functioned exclusively as a concentration camp—that is, predominantly a place of slow killing as the result of deliberately created, inhuman conditions, above all starvation;
  • from the first months of 1942 to October 1944, when the camp continued to function as a concentration camp for prisoners of various ethnic backgrounds (from mid-1942 mainly Jews, Poles, and Roma), while simultaneously functioning as the largest center for the immediate, mass killing of Jews brought here within the framework of the campaign for the destruction of the entire Jewish population of Europe.

In the last two months of its existence, after the closing of the gas chambers in October 1944 in connection with the critical military situation of the Third Reich and the expected Soviet offensive, the camp entered the phase of final liquidation, which ended with the evacuation of the prisoners.

A complex of blocks in Auschwitz I
A complex of blocks...

The division of the Auschwitz camp

The difficulties in running such a large camp complex led to its formal division on November 22, 1943 into three camps with considerable autonomy. There was a formally sanctioned functional division that was clear in most, but not all, aspects:

Auschwitz I, the main camp in Oświęcim. In August 1944, it held about 16 thousand prisoners (roughly 10 thousand Jews, 4 thousand Poles, and 3 thousand prisoners from other ethnic groups). This was the location of the SS garrison administration (SS Standortverwaltung), the commander of the local garrison, and the commandant of Auschwitz I, who enjoyed the formal prerogative of “senior” service status in relation to the other two commandants (“Der Lagerkommandant des KL Auschwitz I ist dienstältester Lagerkommandant und SS-Standortältester des SS-Standortes Auschwitz”). Auschwitz I was also the seat of the main offices of the political department and the prisoner labor department. Here, too, were the main supply stores, workshops, and SS companies (DAW, DEST, and Deutsche Lebensmittel GmbH). Work in these administrative and economic units and companies was the main labor assignment for the prisoners in this camp.

In October 1944, a camp for several thousand women prisoners employed producing artillery-shell fuses in the Union-Werke factory opened in the new blocks in the so-called camp extension (Schutzhaftlagererweiterung).