Auschwitz-Birkenau is the most infamous of all Nazi camps, and we commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day on 27 January, the date of its liberation by Soviet troops. Over 1.1 million people were murdered at this site, over 90% of the victims being Jewish.
Auschwitz was a network of several camps, combining forced labour and extermination camps. In late summer 1941 the Nazis began experimenting with a new killing method – a poison gas called Zyklon B. Increasingly larger poison gas chambers were constructed at the camp as the war progressed, after Auschwitz-Birkenau was selected as the main killing site for European Jews – because of its location and access to the rail network. In 1942 Jews from across Europe began to be transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. The peak of the slaughter occurred in 1944, when more than 400,000 Hungarian Jews were killed in just two months.
Arrival in the camp started with a selection process – men, women and children were removed from the trains and had their valuables taken away. Men were separated from women and children. A Nazi physician would quickly assess whether each person was healthy enough to survive forced labour, and based on this visual inspection, individuals were sent to the camps or to the gas chambers. The disabled, elderly, pregnant women, babies, young children or the sick, stood little chance of surviving this selection.
Those who were selected for death were led to the gas chambers, and, in order to prevent panic, some victims were told they were going to the showers to remove the lice from their bodies. They were made to hand over any remaining valuables and remove all of their clothes. After being ushered into the gas chambers, the doors would be shut and bolted. The poison took up to 20 minutes to kill those in the chambers. Camp prisoners were then forced by the SS guards to remove the corpses from the chambers and to remove hair, gold teeth and fillings. The corpses were then burned in crematoria.