Concentration Camps

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A concentration camp is where prisoners of war, enemy aliens, and

political prisoners are detained and confined, typically under harsh

conditions, or place or situation characterized by extremely harsh

conditions. The first concentration camps were established in 1933 for

confinement of opponents of the Nazi Party. The supposed opposition soon

included all Jews, Gypsies, and certain other groups. By 1939 there were six

camps: Dachau, Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald, Mauthausen, Flossenburg, and



Auschwitz, or Auschwitz-Birkenau, is the best-known of all Nazi death

camps, though Auschwitz was just one of six extermination camps. It was also

a labor concentration camp, extracting prisoners' value from them, in the

form of hard labor, for weeks or months. Auschwitz was the end of the line

for millions of Jews, gypsies, Jehovah's Witnesses, and other innocents.

Some spend almost two years in this most infamous of concentration camps. The

average prisoner only survived eight weeks in Auschwitz. Some learned the ins

and outs of survival in Auschwitz. Auschwitz was the largest concentration

and extermination camp constructed in the Third Reich. Located 37 miles west

of Krakow, Poland, Auschwitz was home to both the greatest number of forced

laborers and deaths.

The history of the camp began on April 27, 1940 when Heinrich Himmler,

the head of the SS and Gestapo, ordered the construction of the camp in

northeast Silesia, a region captured by the Nazis in September 1939. The camp

was built by three-hundred Jewish prisoners from the local town of Oswiecim

and its surrounding area. In June of 1940 the camp opened for Polish

political prisoners. By 1941 there were about 11,000 prisoners, most of whom

were Polish. From May 1940 to the end of 1943, Rudolf Hess was head

commander of Auschwitz. Under his leadership, Auschwitz quickly became known

as the harshest prison camp in the Nazi regime. Polish prisoners were forced

to stand at attention for roll call for hours on end naked in the cold, snowy

tundra of Polish winter. Following its first year of existence, Heinrich

Himmler visited Auschwitz and told Hess that its labor resource was to be

expanded to 100,000 prisoners, making it one of the largest of the

concentration camps. In order to accommodate this many people, a second, much

larger, section of Auschwitz (Auschwitz II) would have to be constructed.

Auschwitz II was built just two miles west of Auschwitz I and would be

called Birkenau. Prisoners were packed so tightly into the railroad cars that

they couldn't even squat to sit, much less lie down to sleep. They rode for

two days with no food, no water, no toilet facilities--with only dirty straw

on the floor. They finally arrived at their destination, glad to finally be

breathing fresh air when the cattle car doors were pulled open. Instead they

are greeted with shouts of anger, with guns and bayonets pointed at them, and

with guards holding back police dogs ready to tear them apart. A stench fills

the air. They are at Birkenau, the second part of the Auschwitz complex,

called by some "the mother of all concentration camps. The manpower to build

the camp came from 200,000 Russian prisoners of war who were forced to march

from Russia to a camp at Lamsdord without any food. During these early days

the Russians received more abuse than the Polish prisoners because they were

more feared for their military might. They were looked upon by Hess as

expendable labor due to their inferior abilities and physical weakness. Of

the 12,000 prisoners who were sent to Birkenau in 1941, only 150 survived to

the following summer. Some prisoners were assigned to the most gruesome

task -- that of the Sonderkommando. These prisoners were forced...
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