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Holocaust History: Concentration Camps

This LibGuide is a starting point for general research on the concentration camps, with resources on genocide, survivor memoirs, and primary sources.

Brief History

The Auschwitz camp complex near the town of Oświęcim, Poland, was the largest created by Nazi Germany. Auschwitz is comprised of three camps: a prison camp, a killing center, and a forced labor camp. Jews were transported by train to Auschwitz from 1942 to November 1944. Eventually, Auschwitz expanded with some 44 sub-camps.

The main camp, Auschwitz I, was established in April 1940. The first prisoners included prisoners from the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Germany, as well as Polish political prisoners. Auschwitz I was constructed to incarcerate those deemed enemies of the Nazi state and to provide forced laborers for the Schutzstaffel-owned (SS-owned) construction enterprises, including armaments and other war-related production. Various pseudoscientific medical experiments were also conducted in Auschwitz, including Dr. Josef Mengele’s twin experiments.

Construction started at Auschwitz II or Auschwitz-Birkenau, which would become the largest of the camps, in October 1941. Located at Brzezinski, Poland, about 2 miles from the first camp, it was divided into ten sections, including areas for male and female prisoners, a family camp for Roma deported from Germany and Austria, and a family camp for Jews deported from the Theresienstadt ghetto near Prague, Czechoslovakia. Over time, Auschwitz II was developed into the largest of Nazi Germany’s killing centers, with approximately 1 million Jews being murdered there.

Auschwitz III or Buna was constructed about a year later in October 1942, and was located outside of the village of Monowice. Prisoners at the camp were assigned to work at the I.G. Farben factory, where the Germans hoped to produce synthetic rubber. Initially, prisoners were transported daily from Auschwitz I to work in the factory, but in 1942, prisoners were moved into barracks there.

In mid-January 1945, as the Soviet Union Army approached the camp, the SS guards began evacuating prisoners from Auschwitz. Nearly 60,000 prisoners were sent west or northwest on death marches. All prisoners suffered from starvation, exhaustion, and exposure to the freezing temperatures that they were ill-prepared to withstand. Any prisoner who fell behind was killed. It is estimated that 15,000 prisoners died on these brutal marches. Those who survived were then transported on freight trains to other concentration camps, such as Buchenwald and Gross-Rosen. On January 27, 1945, the Soviet Army entered the three Auschwitz camps and liberated more than 6,000 prisoners deemed to be too ill or weak for the march.


The following summary derived information from the Encyclopedia of the Holocaust.

Sala and Aron Samueli Holocaust Memorial Library

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Archival Material