How Auschwitz evolved from a modern city to an extermination camp

After the war, the Nazis expected to convert the camp to the model city they had planned, but that future never materialized. Thus the name of Auschwitz became synonymous with the Holocaust.

Dr. Alex Grobman

OpEds New Auschwitz exhibit
New Auschwitz exhibit
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On January 27, 1945, Soviet troops entered Auschwitz-Birkenau, liberating the camps.  As we mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation, we should take a moment to understand what Robert Jan van Pelt, a professor of architecture, calls the “mythic power of ‘Auschwitz.’”

Concentration camps were initially constructed as means to instill fear in those who opposed to the Nazi Party. After 1939 when war in Europe began, the camps evolved into supplying free labor and housing prisoners of war.

 Auschwitz: A Model Aryan City 

After the defeat of Poland on September 27, 1939, Heinrich Himmler, Reichsführer of the Schutzstaffel (SS), viewed Auschwitz as one of numerous towns in the newly German annexed territories, where Poles and Jews
A concentration/labor camp and an IG Farben industrial plant were to be constructed in what was designed to become a model Aryan city.
would be deported and settled with Germans as explained by van Pelt and historian Debórah Dwork. Nazi Party headquarters, a concentration/labor camp and an IG Farben industrial plant were to be constructed in what was designed to become a model Aryan city.

German architect Hans Stosberg, who created the grand scheme for a new model town, proclaimed in 1943 the goal of the town was “to provide German people with an expanse of soil that can become a stretch of home earth for their children and themselves” writes historian Richard J. Evans.

By spreading out the settlement, Stosberg expected Auschwitz would be less vulnerable to air attacks. After Hamburg, Essen, Cologne and other German cities were damaged by an Allied aerial offensive in 1943, thousands of Germans sought refuge in the area.

 Nazi Invasion of Russia June 22, 1941

When the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, these plans were unexpectedly abandoned as thousands of Russian prisoners of war were transferred to the camp. To house them, barracks were built. After thousands each month died from disease, spotted fever spread by lice, and starvation, crematoria were built to dispose of the corpses.

Auschwitz was now in the process of becoming an extermination center.

Battle of Stalingrad: A Turning Point

After it became clear that the Battle of Stalingrad (July 17, 1942–February 2, 1943) would be a fierce and prolonged campaign, van Pelt said the Nazis realized they would have no more Russian prisoners arriving at Auschwitz. In late January 1942, Himmler sent a telegram to Richard Glücks, the inspector of concentration camps, to expect 100,000 Jewish men and about 50,000 Jewish women. Three weeks after the telegram was sent, the first transport arrived. Healthy prisoners were immediately employed. The old and the frail were gassed and cremated. 

Auschwitz Birkenau

As the need to expand the killing machine intensified, Auschwitz- Birkenau (Auschwitz II) was established in October 1941, three kilometers from Auschwitz. Birkenau began exterminating prisoners in March 1942, using four gas chambers. Most of the Jews arriving at the camp were immediately dispatched to the gas chambers.  A small number of Jews worked in the camp itself, in munitions plants at nearby camps, or were exploited in “medical” experiments. As Jews from Hungary and the Lodz ghetto began arriving in the spring and summer of 1944, the Nazis increased the pace of extermination.

More than 1,100,000 Jews were murdered at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

After the War 

“The extermination of the Jews was meant to be a transient phenomenon in the history of the camp,” van Pelt noted. After the war, the Nazis expected to convert the camp to a modern city but that future never materialized. Thus the name of Auschwitz became synonymous with the Holocaust, and not with Himmler’s model town.”

One Final Point: Who Will Believe Us?

Many of those in the concentration camps pleaded with their fellow inmates to inform the world of what had happened: “If you live, please tell our story.” The obsession to document began in the ghettos and continued in the camps.

Many questioned that even if they documented the enormity of the Holocaust and the extent of Nazi depravity, who would believe them? In The Drowned and the Saved, Primo Levi, a survivor of Auschwitz, wrote how the guards at Auschwitz taunted them: 

“However this war may end, we have won the war against you; none of you will be left to bear witness, but even if someone were to survive, the world will not believe him. There will be perhaps suspicions, discussions, research by historians, but there will be no certainties, because we will destroy the evidence together with you. And even if some proof should remain and some of you survive, people will say the events you describe are too monstrous to be believed: they will say that they are exaggerations of Allied propaganda and will believe us, who will deny everything, and not you. We will be the ones to dictate the history of the Lagers.”

Dr. Grobman, a Hebrew University-trained historian, is senior resident scholar at the John C. Danforth Society and a member of the Council of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East. Special thanks to Dr.  Michael Shermer.



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