Commentary: This is the original Auschwitz in southern Poland. A place with a surprising history.
Laurence Rees: The camp that opened on this spot in June 1940 was not built as a place to exterminate Jews, all that would come much later. This place was built first and foremost as a site of oppression. A place to imprison Poles from the surrounding countryside, anyone who the Nazis considered a threat.
Commentary: Though modelled on a pre-war Nazi concentration camp, Auschwitz was from the first more deadly. Of the 20,000 Poles initially sent to the camp - most of them political prisoners - more than half were dead by the start of 1942. The majority from lack of food, beating or disease.
Words of Jerzy Bielecki (Auschwitz prisoner, 1940): It seemed to me that we found ourselves in hell. You cannot describe it any other way. And it turned out that this was hell.
Commentary: Auschwitz was in a part of Poland the Nazis wanted to incorporate into Germany – and they chose a man to run the place who had worked for years in concentration camps inside the Reich. An SS officer called Rudolf Hoess – someone totally committed to the Nazi cause.
Words of Rudolf Hoess (Commandant of Auschwitz): As a fanatical National Socialist I was completely convinced that our ideal would be accepted, and would prevail all over the world.1
Commentary: Hoess had been tasked with turning what had been a collection of run down army barracks into a place to strike terror into the hearts of the Poles. And at the very core of the newly created Auschwitz was a building that did just that. Block 11. A place the Nazis sent prisoners for special attention.
Laurence Rees: Here in Block 11 the SS used a variety of different techniques to interrogate, torture and kill people. This, for example, was a starvation cell. Selected prisoners would be locked inside here, deprived of all food, and left to die.
Commentary: So this was the very first Auschwitz. Not yet a dedicated extermination camp, but from the beginning a place of immense suffering.
1 Rudolf Hoess, Commandant of Auschwitz, Phoenix Press, 2000, p. 131
The photo of Himmler and Hoess is copyright Yad Vashem Museum, and used with permission.