The Germans began sending Soviet POWs to Auschwitz shortly after the beginning of their war against the Soviet Union (June 22, 1941). According to prisoner accounts, these transports were already appearing in Auschwitz in July. At first, the arriving POWs were usually shot in the gravel pits near the camp.
Hitler issued guidelines for the treatment of Soviet prisoners in March 1941. They called for the liquidation of political commissars and communists. In spite of international conventions, they were to be killed immediately. Police operational groups—Einsatzgruppen—were supposed to seek out and kill the commissars and communists from among the soldiers. These Einsatzgruppen were set up before the attack on the USSR to “cleanse” areas near the front of “dangerous elements,” such as communists, partisans, Jews, and Gypsies. Later, the search was extended to POW camps in the depths of the Reich. Executions would take place in the nearest concentration camp.
One such group of about 600 Soviet POWs was brought to Auschwitz in the first days of September 1941 and taken to the cellars of block 11. About 250 Polish prisoners selected from the camp hospital were also taken there, after which SS men in gas masks dumped Zyklon B in the cellar rooms, causing the death of the POWs and prisoners there in the course of two days. This was the largest group to be murdered during the tests of Zyklon B, which was used later in the mass extermination of the Jews.
Nine blocks near the main gate were separated from the rest of the camp with barbed wire in mid-September. A gate was built between blocks 24 and 14, with a sign reading Russisches Kriegsgefangenen Arbeitslager [Russian POW Labor Camp]. About 10 thousand Soviet POWs were brought here in October. They were treated exceptionally brutally. Immediately after arriving, they had to strip naked near the railroad platform and immerse themselves in kettles of disinfection fluid, before running naked to the camp. The fall of 1941 was exceptionally cold, with frequent snow. It took a long time to count the prisoners, and only afterwards were they allowed to enter the blocks. Several days passed before they received clothing, and they also had to wait to be given camp blankets.
During registration, they received camp numbers from a special series introduced for them. At first, these numbers were stamped on pieces of cloth, which the POWs had to sew onto their uniform blouses. The fact that the POWs sometimes replaced their own worn-out clothing with the garments of others who died led to enormous confusion in the records. This is why the camp administration soon decided to start tattooing the numbers onto the prisoners. At first, the tattoos were applied to their left breast. A stamp fitted with sharp needles perforated the skin, and ink was rubbed into the wounds. Later, a needle attached to a penholder was used.
Soviet POWs were the first prisoners in Auschwitz to be tattooed with numbers.
The Archives of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum hold a range of documents on this group of prisoners. The personnel records in the so-called Soviet prisoners’ file indicate a range of information on the prisoners: camp number, date of arrival in the camp, date of death, military rank, hometown, and occupation. Other records contain information on their identifying characteristics, party membership, and functionary posts. We know from these records that the majority of the Soviet POWs in Auschwitz were between 19 and 37 years of age, and that they came from the central and southern USSR, as well as formerly Polish lands in Lithuania, Byelorussia, and the Ukraine. Their most frequent occupation was farmer, followed by industrial workers, machinists, drivers, tractor drivers, bakers, carpenters, cooks, mechanics, blacksmiths, lathe operators, railway engineers, road builders, tinkers, tailors, bricklayers, teachers, and secondary-school students. We also know the military ranks of some of them: the majority were privates, although there were also officers holding the rank of colonel, major, captain, lieutenant, and second lieutenant.
The death rate among the POWs was extremely high as a result of starvation and disease (usually caused by the cold), and the terrible sanitary conditions. A special Gestapo commission from Katowice selected a group of about a thousand POWs (300 “fanatical communists” and 700 “politically undesirable”), who were murdered in November and December 1941. Some were shot, and the others killed in the gas chamber in the main camp.
The camp authorities began building the camp in Birkenau at the time of the arrival of the Soviet POWs. The POWs were sent to work demolishing and dismantling the houses that formerly belonged to the expelled residents of the village. They also did earth-moving and drainage labor in the marshy terrain intended for the future camp, built the access roads, and laid the foundations under the barracks.
The death rate among Soviet POWs took an upward turn during the winter of 1941/1942. The causes of death mentioned above were aggravated by hard labor with insufficient clothing and food, constant harassment, and torture by the SS men and prisoner functionaries
The extant Death Book of Soviet Prisoners of War contains entries 5 to 10 minutes apart listing the deaths of prisoners. The causes of death were written in Latin or German; the most frequent ones were heart attack, circulatory failure, enteritis, hyperasthenia, nephritis, pneumonia, collapse, phlegmon, heart defect, and bronchial pneumonia. These fictional causes of death were chosen from a list prepared for the purpose.
After five months, several hundred prisoners remained alive. In March 1942, they were transferred to newly erected barracks in Birkenau sector BIb.
Soviet POWs frequently attempted to escape from the camp. The largest mass escape attempt occurred in Birkenau on November 6, 1942, when several dozen of them made a run for it as darkness fell. Many of them were caught immediately and led back to the camp. Only a few succeeded. The others were tracked down, returned to Auschwitz, and shot.
Several groups of Soviet officers from the so-called Sonderkommando Zeppelin were shot in the camp. These were prisoners recruited to cooperate with the Germans, and used for diversionary activity on the eastern front. Those who fell ill or were otherwise regarded as no longer useful were sent to Auschwitz from training centers in Lower Silesia. They were shot in the courtyard of block 11 after short stays in the camp.
Smaller groups of Soviet POWs were sent to Auschwitz in later years. Their treatment improved only slightly. Nevertheless, the fact that they were placed in the men’s camp and sent to labor outside the camp gave them a chance to acquire additional food, and therefore enhanced their chances of surviving.
There were only 92 Soviet POWs in Auschwitz-Birkenau at the last roll call, just before the beginning of the evacuation. Earlier, some groups of POWs had been transferred to concentration camps in Germany, where a few of them lasted until liberation.
It is estimated that at least 15 thousand POWs arrived in Auschwitz; 12 thousand were entered in the camp records while 3 thousand remained unregistered. Those in the latter category were killed soon after reaching the camp.
The bodies of Soviet POWs who died in the camp were buried in a mass grave in the Birkenau camp. The place is now commemorated as a symbolic cemetery for the Soviet soldiers who were imprisoned in Auschwitz concentration camp as POWs.