Jews in Auschwitz
Until early 1942, the Nazis deported to Auschwitz only a relatively small number of Jews, who were sent there along with the non-Jewish prisoners, mostly Poles, who accounted for the majority of the camp population until mid-1942.
Among the first transports of more than a thousand Polish political prisoners sent to Auschwitz in June 1940 from the prisons in Tarnów and Wiśnicz Nowy, there were at least 21 Polish Jews. All of them died in the camp within a short time.
Extant records from the period January-December 1941 indicate that—not counting Soviet POWs—17,270 prisoners were registered in Auschwitz, of whom 1,255 were Jews.
Throughout the existence of the camp, the authorities there treated Jews with the most ruthless, and often quite refined, cruelty. SS men regarded a Jewish life as the least valuable of all. To the greatest possible extent, Jews fell victim to starvation, cold, hard labor, constant harassment and abuse, and various kinds of cyclical extermination operations.
Jewish prisoners suffered worse mistreatment than others during registration and in the course of the penal physical exercises called “sport.” A high proportion of Jews were sent to the penal company. As opposed to other prisoners, they were forbidden in principle to write letters or receive parcels. Of the Jews who arrived in Auschwitz during the early years, very few survived.
Beginning in the spring of 1942, Jews began to be placed in Auschwitz after arriving in separate transports, although Jews arriving together with non-Jews from various prisons continued to be admitted to the camp.
Auschwitz as the center for the extermination of the Jews
In 1942-1944, as part of the “final solution of the Jewish question” (Endlösung der Judenfrage), Auschwitz served as the largest Nazi center for the destruction of the Jewish population of the European countries occupied by and allied to the Third Reich.
The majority of the Jews who arrived in Auschwitz in transports organized by the Reich Main Security Office (RSHA), at least 1.1 million people including more than 200 thousand children and young people, were killed in the gas chambers immediately or soon after arrival. These deportees included many figures from Jewish intellectual life: scholars and artists, including, for instance, the Polish-Jewish poet and dramatist Icchak Kacenelson (Itzhak Katzenelson), author of the poem Song of the Murdered Jewish People, who was one of a group of literary figures deported in May 1944.
Through the middle of July 1942, some of the transports arriving in Auschwitz were sent directly to the gas chambers, while other Jews, classified before deportation as fit for labor, were placed in the camp, as was the case with the Jews who arrived in the first transports from Slovakia.
On July 4, 1942 at the latest, regular selection was introduced for the Jews arriving on RSHA transports. As a result, an average of only 20% of them were kept alive and placed in the camp as prisoners capable of performing slave labor. They were employed mostly in constructing new parts of the camp, or at German companies involved in maintaining and developing the military potential of the Third Reich. They were transferred on a mass scale from Auschwitz to sub-camps set up nearby or in Upper Silesia, or to concentration camps in the depths of the Third Reich.
By the second half of 1942, Jews made up a majority of the prisoner population. They account for somewhat more than half of the 400 thousand prisoners registered in Auschwitz. The majority of them died either while they were in Auschwitz or after transfer to other camps.
There were instances in which the SS made exceptions to the practice of immediately selecting the Jews arriving in RSHA transports. This was the case, for instance, with the men, women, and children deported in seven transports, in September and December 1943 and May 1944, from the Theresienstadt ghetto-camp at Terezin in Czechoslovakia. All of them, about 18 thousand people, were placed in the so-called Czech family camp in Birkenau (sector BIIb). About 10 thousand of them were killed in the gas chambers in March and July 1944.
From May to October 1944, tens of thousands of Jews, mostly from Hungary and Poland, were held in separate parts of Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp defined as transit camps (Durchgangslager) without being registered individually. Referred to as “transit Jews” (Durchgangs-Juden), or “deposit,” they were held by the SS leadership as a labor reserve to be “distributed” on a gradual basis. They waited days, weeks, or months for the SS to arrive at a decision as to their fate—whether they would be assigned to work or sent to the gas chamber. Their situation was in fact worse than that of prisoners with camp numbers assigned to them. After a certain time, some of these “transit Jews” were registered in the camp (that is, tattooed with camp numbers on their left forearms) and sent to work in the various Auschwitz Concentration Camp labor details or sub-camps; thousands of others were transferred to camps in the depths of the Third Reich, to labor for the sake of the German war machine.
Countries of origin
The largest group among the Jews deported to Auschwitz in RSHA transports comprised the 430 thousand men, women, and children deported from Hungary between late April and August 1944. Auschwitz was also the final destination for about 300 thousand Jews from occupied Poland (above all, from the lands incorporated into the Third Reich), 73 thousand from the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia and from Slovakia, 69 thousand from France, 60 thousand from the Netherlands, 55 thousand from Greece, 25 thousand from Belgium, 23 thousand from Germany and Austria (thousands of German and Austrian Jews arrived in Auschwitz by way of the Theresienstadt ghetto-camp in Bohemia), 10 thousand from Yugoslavia, 7.5 thousand from Italy, and 690 from Norway. The German authorities and their foreign representatives were the initiators and primary organizers of these deportations.
Selections in the camp
Beginning in the second half of 1941, mostly among the prisoners in the “rewir” or camp hospital, SS doctors began carrying out the selection of Auschwitz prisoners, during which they put to death those prisoners they regarded as unfit for labor because of terminal exhaustion or sickness. They killed these prisoners by lethal injection of phenol to the heart, or sent them to the gas chamber. This practice was halted in the spring of 1943. Shortly afterwards, it was revived—but only for Jewish prisoners.
Extant camp documents (Zugangslisten Juden) indicate that, of the 973 Jews from Slovakia admitted to Auschwitz on April 17, 1942, only 88 remained alive less than 4 months later. The majority of Jewish prisoners met a similar fate; as noted previously, they constituted the lowest category within the multiethnic camp population. Surviving prisoners remembered as particularly drastic the high mortality rate in Auschwitz of Jews from Greece and Italy, who were accustomed to a warm climate, or the killing of newborn Jewish infants.