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The founding of Auschwitz

At the same time, the German police continued arresting Poles, a policy they initiated as early as September 1939. They imprisoned teachers, civil servants, artists, priests, politicians, representatives of the intellectual elite, and members of the numerous resistance organizations that were springing up, or simply shot them on the spot. They arrested people guilty of trivial offenses and sent them to concentration camps (as indicated by entries in the camp records: “attempted to escape from a place of compulsory labor,” “said that the Germans will not win the war,” “sang the Polish national anthem,” “did not turn in his radio,” or “injured a German horse”). Some Poles were imprisoned and killed as hostages in reprisal for sabotage or resistance movement actions.

The Germans detained people at random on the street (“roundups”) and sent them off to the camps. Although incomparable in scale to the later killing of the Jews, these actions affected tens of thousands of people in a short time. Soon, the jails and prisons, and the concentration camps in Germany, were unable to hold all the Poles that the police continued to arrest. In Oświęcim (which they renamed Auschwitz) in the spring of 1940, the Germans therefore began setting up the first concentration camp in occupied Polish territory. For almost two years, the overwhelming majority of the prisoners there were Poles. There were also Polish Jews in the constantly rising numbers of arriving transports, but there were not yet many of them. The Germans organized the camp along the lines of the prewar concentration camps in the “Old Reich”; the high prevailing death rate resulted from hunger, sickness, and murderous labor.

By the end of 1941, almost all the Jews in occupied Poland were in ghettos or forced labor camps. Despite the high number of victims of starvation and epidemics, it might have seemed that the ghettos would continue to exist for several more years, especially since the Germans were exploiting Jewish labor to an increasing extent in various types of workshops and production facilities. In this context, the hopes of some Jewish council leaders (Czerniakow, Rumkowski) that at least a part of the ghetto population would survive until the end of the war did not initially seem groundless. As time passed, however, these hopes became less and less real, especially in the light of events in the German-occupied parts of the Soviet Union.