Auschwitz as a center for the extermination of the Jews

In 1942-1944, as part of the “final solution of the Jewish question” (Endlösung der Judenfrage), Auschwitz served as the largest Nazi center for the destruction of the Jewish population of the European countries occupied by and allied to the Third Reich.

The majority of the Jews who arrived in Auschwitz in transports organized by the Reich Main Security Office (RSHA), at least 1.1 million people including more than 200 thousand children and young people, were killed in the gas chambers immediately or soon after arrival. These deportees included many figures from Jewish intellectual life: scholars and artists, including, for instance, the Polish-Jewish poet and dramatist Icchak Kacenelson (Itzhak Katzenelson), author of the poem Song of the Murdered Jewish People, who was one of a group of literary figures deported in May 1944.

Through the middle of July 1942, some of the transports arriving in Auschwitz were sent directly to the gas chambers, while other Jews, classified before deportation as fit for labor, were placed in the camp, as was the case with the Jews who arrived in the first transports from Slovakia.

On July 4, 1942 at the latest, regular selection was introduced for the Jews arriving on RSHA transports. As a result, an average of only 20% of them were kept alive and placed in the camp as prisoners capable of performing slave labor. They were employed mostly in constructing new parts of the camp, or at German companies involved in maintaining and developing the military potential of the Third Reich. They were transferred on a mass scale from Auschwitz to sub-camps set up nearby or in Upper Silesia, or to concentration camps in the depths of the Third Reich.

By the second half of 1942, Jews made up a majority of the prisoner population. They account for somewhat more than half of the 400 thousand prisoners registered in Auschwitz. The majority of them died either while they were in Auschwitz or after transfer to other camps.

There were instances in which the SS made exceptions to the practice of immediately selecting the Jews arriving in RSHA transports. This was the case, for instance, with the men, women, and children deported in seven transports, in September and December 1943 and May 1944, from the Theresienstadt ghetto-camp at Terezin in Czechoslovakia. All of them, about 18 thousand people, were placed in the so-called Czech family camp in Birkenau (sector BIIb). About 10 thousand of them were killed in the gas chambers in March and July 1944.