Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, so let’s talk, for just a few minutes, about something related to it.
Oswiecim is a town in southwestern Poland. My talent with foreign languages is limited to a bit of Spanish, but I believe it’s pronounced “oss-vee-hay-chim“, with an emphasis on the “hay” and a mostly silent “h”. Anyone who knows better than I should chime in and correct me. Anyways…
This town lived in almost complete obscurity until January 27, 1945. Since then, it’s never been far from the lips of those discussing the Holocaust. But even today, Oswiecim itself is relatively unknown, unless you use the German translation of the town. Then, it’s instantly recognizable.
It is, without question, the most infamous of the six death camps that existed during World War II, and only one of two death camps to be captured intact (the other being Madjanek in mid-1944). Rudolf Hoess, the camp’s commandant, estimated that 3 million people (mostly Jews) had been killed there, but more accurate (and reliable) figures put the number at a still-staggering 1+ million.
The camp was first opened in early 1940 (shortly after Germany had overrun Poland), but the first mass killings didn’t take place until September of 1941, when several hundred Soviet POW’s were executed. It wasn’t until 1942 that arriving Jews (and other “undesirables) were killed in large numbers, and late 1942 and 1943 marked the time of the camp’s largest expansion.
But by the end of 1943, most Germans troops in eastern Europe were moving westward, retreating in the face of the Soviet juggernaut and the failure of Adolf Hitler’s titanic gamble in the east. In late 1944, an uprising in Auschwitz led to the destruction of one of the camp’s five crematoriums, but already the Germans were giving thought to dismantling the rest and removing all traces of the camp.
Events, however, would see otherwise. The Soviet armies advanced so quickly that discipline among the Germans at the camp began to break down. Orders to destroy the camp were either ignored or took second place to a more basic need…escape. The Germans fled in January 1945, taking most of the prisoners on forced marches west toward other camps or packing them in westbound trains.
The arrival of the Soviet army on January 27, 1945 found Auschwitz mostly standing and 7,000+ remaining prisoners with a horrific tale to tell. While Auschwitz is the most well-known death camp, it’s pretty safe to say that Treblinka was the most powerful killing machine. That camp, in all likelihood, killed more people than died at Auschwitz, and accomplished it in little more than a year.
But because it still stands as a testament to the depravity that man can unleash, one camp is remembered above all. A massive camp outside the small city of Oswiecim. Auschwitz.
Recommended Reading: Eyewitness Auschwitz – A look inside the camp from one who survived nearly 3 years there. A great book.