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Online lesson – “The fate of Soviet prisoners in Auschwitz”


The fate of Soviet prisoners in Auschwitz” is the new online lesson prepared by the International Center for Education about Auschwitz and the Holocaust. The author of the lesson is Dr. Jacek Lachendro, a historian at the Auschwitz Museum Research Center.


Altogether 11,964 prisoners of war were registered in the German Nazi concentration and extermination Auschwitz camp, and there was moreover an estimate of 3,000 soldiers of the Red Army who were brought to the camp and killed without being entered into the registers. Thus, altogether, around 15,000 of captive Red Army soldiers were sent to the camp. Accounting for the few hundred who were removed from the camp and the several dozen who escaped, the estimated number of Soviet prisoners of war who died or were killed in Auschwitz exceeded 14,000.

'First Soviet POWs were transported to Auschwitz in July and August 1941. Without registration, they were placed in isolated Block 11 and everyday they were forced to work in a gravel pits where they were brutally murdered. All of them were killed in a very short time. At the beginning of September 1941 around 600 Soviets were murdered together with 250 Polish sick prisoners were murdered with Zyklon B in the basement of Block 11. It was the first case of mass murder of people with poisonous gas in Auschwitz,' said Jacek Lachendro.

Still in September the plans included sending 50,000 prisoners of war and another 10,000 inmates to Auschwitz; they were to be placed in “special camp” (this is probably how the isolated part of the mother camp was referred to). Yet already in October, the original number was increased to 125,000. There is plenty to suggest that they were to be employed at the construction of the chemical plants built by IG Farben, in the planned munitions and military equipment production facilities, as well as for the construction of model villages for German settlers, SS barracks, etc.

'In October 1941 the SS placed around 10,000 POWs in a isolated part of the Auschwitz I camp. Their main task was to build a new camp in the fields of the expelled Polish village of Brzezinka (Birkenau in German). The mortality among them was very high - every day 60 men died on average. Death was caused by executions, beating, punishments, overwork, starvation and diseases,' he added.

The camp for Soviet POWs in Auschwitz, nine blocks to the left from the 'Arbeit Macht Frei' gate, of which two (3 and 24) were two-storeyed, and each of the remaining seven (1–2, 12–14, and 22–23) had only one storey. The blocks were separated from the other buildings with an electrified barbed wire fence. A makeshift hospital was situated in Block 1, Block 24 housed the scribe’s office (chancellery) and rooms for prisoner functionaries, while the prisoners of war were quartered in the remaining buildings. SS-Obersturmführer Fritz Seidler was nominated the commander of the camp, and the functions of Kapos and block elders were mostly entrusted to German criminal prisoners.

'Already on arrival to the camp, many POWs were in a state of utter exhaustion. The reason was certainly the way they were treated, violating all and any rules of the martial law, as mentioned in the introduction. Despite that, they were gradually sent to work, mostly on the construction of Birkenau camp, where they felled trees, worked at levelling and improvement of land, and built roads and foundations for the barracks. They also worked on the demolition of the buildings that remained after the displacement of the residents of the local villages in the spring of 1941, on mining gravel, unloading railway cars, transport of various construction materials, and clamping of potatoes and beetroots. Such work, oftentimes conducted in harsh weather conditions and without appropriate clothing, among continuing harassment and brutal beating by the Kapos and the SS sped up the death of many. Horse-drawn carts filled up with the bodies of the POWs who were either murdered or died would go from the places where they worked to the camp almost every day,' we read in the lesson.

Another factor aggravating the exhaustion of the prisoners of war, besides the work, were the conditions in which they had to endure in the camp. They lived in extremely overcrowded rooms, as initially there were from 1,200 to 1,300 men in a single one-story block. The POWs slept on three-tier bunk beds, two in each, while some were even forced to sleep on the floor. Moreover, they received very small food rations, more or less half of the—after all, modest—rations for the other inmates. Combined with hard labour, it had a catastrophic impact on their physical condition and caused the state of chronic hunger.

The construction works in the fields of the village of Brzezinka, begun in October 1941, continued in the successive months (with a break for heavy frosts). In mid-March, after the completion of some barracks, the surviving prisoners of war were moved to Birkenau. Probably, the number of those transferred was just over 600 (of the nearly 10,000 registered five months earlier).

The conditions were enormously difficult in the first months of operation of the camp. Due to the mistakes in laying of the foundations and leaking roofs, the barracks were overcome by humidity and penetrating cold. Besides, due to shortage of water, the POWs went around dirty, in lice-ridden uniforms. Moreover, constantly undernourished, they had to work hard, and many of them died of exhaustion or were killed by SS staff and Kapos at work.

Prisoners of war were sent to different forms of labour together with other inmates. In 1944, they worked on the clamping of potatoes, cleaning the ditches for the draining of water, unloading of various materials, and also in the storehouse for food, kitchen, and hospital. They were also employed in the work details that performed various construction works, and that drained and levelled the land. Moreover, 19 POWs who arrived from the Lublin camp in April 1944 were included into the Sonderkommando. Yet most POWs, at least 150–160 worked at Zerlegebetrieb—the facility employing over 1,300 inmates situated about a kilometre south of Birkenau. There they worked on disassembling downed Allied planes and decommissioned German ones.

96 POWs stood up for the last roll call on 17 January 1945. Nearly all of them were led out of the camp and forced to march together with other inmates towards Gliwice. From there they were taken by trains to other concentration camps.

'It is known in turn that a handful of Red Army soldiers stayed on the premises of Birkenau. Apart from one, they however did not live to the liberation, as they were shot by Germans after they shot the guns they happened to find. Only one survived the execution, as he was only wounded and subsequently hidden away by the inmates in a barrack. The corpses of the remaining ones were burnt on a pyre next to Crematorium V on the order of the SS crew who arrived later,' said Jacek Lachendro.

The lesson “The fate of Soviet prisoners in Auschwitz” is available in English and Polish.