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HolocaustSeptember 1941

Development of Auschwitz 3

How did Auschwitz develop - 1941-2?
In September 1941 the Nazis began building a huge new camp, just a mile and a half away from the existing main camp. They called this new camp Birkenau.

Video Transcript

Laurence Rees: In the autumn of 1941 the Germans decided to build a new camp about a mile and a half away from the old camp behind me. This was to be a monumental undertaking - a camp capable of holding more than a hundred thousand people. And it was to be built just ahead of me, at a place the Poles called Brzezinka, and the Germans Birkenau.

Commentary: Auschwitz/Birkenau was destined to become one the most infamous locations on earth. It would eventually grow to over five times the size of the original Auschwitz concentration camp nearby and would become central to the Nazi policy of exterminating the Jews. But that was not how it started.

Laurence Rees: This vast new camp wasn’t designed to hold Jews. In fact it’s another example of change brought on by war in the east. Because this was designed to hold Soviet prisoners of war. It wasn’t until the beginning of 1942 that that policy changed. The Soviet prisoners of war were thought to be needed elsewhere as forced labour, and Himmler decided that this was a place to send the Jews.

Commentary: In 1942 the mass deportation of European Jews began from as far afield as Holland and Slovakia. Over the next two years more than a million of them would be sent to Auschwitz – the majority of them making the journey crammed on board freight trains.  

Words of Silvia Veselá (Jewish deportee): It’s a really humiliating feeling when your personality is being taken away. I don’t know whether you can understand it. You suddenly mean nothing. We were treated like animals.

Commentary: In the spring of 1942 the SS at Auschwitz/Birkenau began killing Jews who arrived and who were selected as unfit to work. And they chose one of the most remote areas in Birkenau as the location for the killings. 

Laurence Rees: They improvised gas chambers in two separate peasant cottages. This is the remains of one of them, known as the Little White House, behind me. The SS bricked up the windows of the cottage, crammed people inside and then inserted Zyklon B in through hatches.

Commentary: They then buried the bodies nearby in makeshift mass graves. But in the heat of the summer of 1942 the bodies began to putrefy. And so other Jewish prisoners were made to dig these human remains up and burn them. 

Words of Otto Pressburger (Auschwitz prisoner): It did not look like a dead body anymore - it was a rotten mass. We had to dig into that mass and sometimes we took out a head, sometimes a hand or a leg. The smell was unbearable.

Commentary: Meantime the SS still searched for a way to kill people more effectively and then to dispose completely of the evidence of the crime.