The darkest chapter of World War II started here, in Auschwitz I – a camp that was originally intended for political prisoners but was then expanded and enlarged by other sub-camps over time.
In September 1939, the site where the Auschwitz I concentration camp would be established was a Polish army garrison in Oświęcim. At the beginning of the September Campaign, the complex, which then consisted of 22 buildings, was abandoned by the Polish forces as they retreated to the east. In the autumn of the same year, a temporary prisoner-of-war camp was set up there.
After the September Campaign ended in defeat for Poland, Oświęcim was incorporated into the Third Reich, along with the surrounding villages, and its name was changed to Auschwitz. In the spring of 1940, due to the overcrowded prisons, the concept of establishing concentration camps in the country took shape, following a similar policy that had already been pursued in Germany. This place was chosen for two reasons: the proximity of an important transport junction (which Oświęcim was at that time) and its convenient rail connections not only with other towns in Upper Silesia, but also with other areas of Poland and other countries (including Germany and Austria).
The history of the Auschwitz concentration camp began with the first transport. On 14 June 1940, 728 captives were transported from Tarnów prison; most of them were Polish political prisoners but there were also a few Polish Jews. The prisoners were given numbers ranging from 31 to 758 due to the fact that the first 30 prisoners, mainly German criminals, had been brought from the camp at Sachsenhausen the previous month. These German prisoners worked as prisoner functionaries, otherwise known as kapos. As the situation at the front developed and the terror worsened, many people from other religious, ethnic and social groups, such as common German criminals, homosexuals, Soviet prisoners of war, Jews and Roma people, were sent there as well.
As a result of the decision to implement the concept of Endlösung der Judenfrage (the ‘Final Solution to the Jewish Question’), mass transports brought an increasing number of Jews to the camp, and they gradually became the largest group among all Auschwitz I prisoners. One of the most symbolic places in the grounds of Auschwitz I was Block 11, and its courtyard where the so-called Death Wall was located.
Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
20 Więźniów Oświęcimia Street
+48 33 844 8000