Poles in Auschwitz

Józef Szajna, prisoner number 18 729 (Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum Archives)
Józef Szajna,...

After the liquidation of the Polish state and its institutions, the fundamental goal of German policy in occupied Poland was the exploitation of material and labor resources, and the removal of the local Polish population and ethnic minorities. This was done through expulsion and systematic extermination. The Polish lands were to be completely germanized, through German settlement in the depopulated area. Hitler repeatedly told German dignitaries and leaders as much. On March 15, 1940, at a meeting of the commandants of various camps in occupied Poland, Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS and German police, said:

“All skilled workers of Polish background are to be used in our war industry. Afterwards, Poles will disappear from the world. . . . Every German’s time is coming. That is why it is necessary for the great German people to see their main task in the destruction of all Poles.”

From the beginning of the occupation, various places of imprisonment, police jails, judicial prisons, transit camps, labor camps, reeducation camps, penal camps and, above all, concentration camps played an important role in the process of the systematic extermination of the Poles, the weakening of their intellectual potential, and the imposition of unquestioning obedience.

Auschwitz as a Place for the Deportation and Annihilation of Poles

The Auschwitz concentration camp created 10 months after the beginning of the war was the first concentration camp built in occupied Polish territory. Together with Majdanek (created in 1941) and Stutthof it was one of the main places of deportations and annihilation of Poles. The first transport of Polish political prisoners arrived at the Auschwitz camp on 14 June 1940. On that day Germans deported 728 people from a prison in Tarnów.


Representatives of the intelligentsia

In addition to those in breach or suspected breach of the orders of the occupying authorities and activities in the resistance movement, persons who prior to the war, due to their education, activities and social position had a considerable standing in the society, were also imprisoned in the camp. They were pre-war government officials, politicians, schools teachers at different levels from basic to higher education institutions, doctors, professional army officers, the clergy and nuns. According to the Germans, they were particularly predisposed to resist the occupant. All these people, regardless the reasons of the arrest were considered political prisoners.

Arrested in round-ups

Among those classified as political prisoners were also entirely innocent people arrested accidentally during the various controls on the streets, in public buildings, homes, or during the so-called street round-ups. In the first transport from Warsaw on 15 August 1940, out of the 1,666 persons transferred 1,153 were arrested during round-ups.


Some Polish detainees in the camp were hostages, who were shot in retaliation for the actions of the resistance movement in a particular area, in the event of failure to apprehend the actual perpetrators.

"Return undesirable"

Some prisoners arrived at the camp with death sentences. They were those the police outpost in charge of the camp had inscribed in their personnel files the annotation: "Rückkehr unerwünscht" (return undesirable), "nicht uberstellen" (do not transfer), or who had a red cross marked in the files. Some names were even assigned a date of execution. From time to time, the SS men from the political department reviewed the files of prisoners, took out the ones with the above-mentioned annotations and prepared an appropriate list of names. Upon approval by the commandant, the prisoners were summoned to the camp Office to verify their personal data, and then shot on the same day.

“Reeducation” prisoners

From 16 July 1941, labourers, mostly Poles employed in industrial plants were transferred from the Gestapo in the Katowice district to the KL Auschwitz concentration camp “for reeducation”. These prisoners were not recognised as political prisoners, but had a special status of education prisoners (Erziehungshäftlinge - EH). Their conditions of stay in the camp did not differ from those of the other prisoners. The difference in the status of this category of inmates compared to others was that they were imprisoned at the camp for a specified period – officially 8 weeks, in practice, often much longer. A total of approximately 11 thousand prisoners in this category were imprisoned in the camp

Victims of the Gestapo Court Martial

The camp was also the site of execution of persons who were not entered into the records. They were therefore unofficial prisoners of the camp. These were persons sentenced to death via "special treatment" (Sonderbehandlung), i.e., at the request of the local security police outposts, and approved by the Reich Main Security Office.

Persons residing in the eastern part of the so-called Province of Upper Silesia (including part of the lands of the Upper Silesia and Lesser Poland annexed to the Reich), sentenced to death by the drumhead martial court of the security police, reactivated in June 1942 were also executed by firing squad in the camp. This court mostly sentenced Poles, sometimes Jews, even for minor offenses to the death penalty. From February 1943, the Court also met on the premises of the camp, and the prisoners at the disposal of the police, referred to in the camp as police prisoners were detained until hearing in block 2a and later in block 11. It is estimated that approximately 3-4.5 thousand Poles may have been victims of the drumhead martial court, shot in the camp or gassed in the chambers.

Euthanasia operation

The camp was also a place for the extermination of Poles as part of the euthanasia action conducted on Polish lands i.e., the killing of terminally ill people. This category included primarily the mentally ill, but also the elderly, the infirm, especially those in residential care facilities. On 23 June 1942, 566 patients of the psychiatric hospital in Kobierzyn near Krakow and Kalwaria Zebrzydowska were killed as part of the euthanasia action.

Poles from Zamość region

Towards the end of 1942, plans were in place to make Auschwitz, one of the main places of deportation of the Polish population relocated from the South-Eastern part of the General Government - Zamość. The weekly shipment to the camp was planned at 3 transports of 1000 persons. Unexpected developments on the Eastern Front (the defeat at Stalingrad) shattered the plans. A total of 1,301 persons were deported. A vast majority of them died due to cold and starvation, or were killed by injections of phenol or gassed in the gas chambers.

Warsaw residents during the Warsaw Uprising 

The last group of Poles imprisoned in KL Auschwitz were the inhabitants of Warsaw, numbering approximately 13,000 (men, women and children) who arrived in August and September 1944. Their deportation was a result of the ongoing uprising in Warsaw against the occupant, and the decision taken by the German authorities to remove the surviving civilian population from Warsaw and then destroy the city.


Before deportation to Auschwitz, Poles were concentrated in the large, central district prisons of the General Government: Pawiak (Warsaw) in the Warsaw District; Montelupich (Cracow) and Tarnów prison in the Cracow District; Na Zamku (Lublin) in the Lublin District; the Radom Gestapo prison in the Radom District; and the Gestapo prison in Lwów in the Galicia District. From the Polish land annexed by the German Reich and from the Reich itself, Poles arrived in Auschwitz by way of the prisons in Katowice, Sosnowiec, Mysłowice, Opole, Opawa, Wrocław, Szczecin, Inowrocław, Poznań,  Bydgoszcz, Legnica, and Łódź.

They were transported by special trains or, more frequently, in train cars added to passenger trains. New prisoners boarded as the trains stopped in cities along the way. These were referred to as collective transports (Sammeltransport).

The Number of Victims

It is estimated that a total of 130-140 thousand Poles were sent to Auschwitz in direct or collective transports, and added to the list of prisoner numbers. It is further estimated that approximately 10 thousand Poles (including police prisoners) were killed in Auschwitz without ever being registered as prisoners. At least half of the Poles imprisoned there are estimated to have died as a result of starvation, beating, sickness, excessive labor, failure to receive medical care, and execution by shooting, lethal injection of phenol, or murdered in the gas chambers. Many prisoners died soon after being transferred to other concentration camps.