About the Series Learning Resources
auschwitz: inside the nazi state
Auschwitz 1940-1945 Introduction Surprise Beginnings Orders & Initatives Factories of DeathCorruptionMurder & IntrigueLiberation & Revenge

Killing EvolutionVictims & PerpetratorsGermany & the Camp System

Surprising Beginnings


March 1940 to September 1941

Front gate, Arbeit Macht Frei

Front gate of Auschwitz incorporating the phrase Arbeit Macht Frei, or “Work Makes You Free” (graphic reconstruction).

the site of the largest mass murder in the history of the world
did not start out as a death camp. In the spring of 1940, Rudolf Höss, a captain in the SS (Schutzstaffel), the elite defense organization that answered only to Hitler and advanced his plans, became Commandant of a new Nazi concentration camp at the southwestern Polish town of Oswiecim. Auschwitz, as the Germans called it, was in territory that Hitler had invaded the previous year.

Polish Barracks

Polish barracks (graphic reconstruction)

Höss was directed to create a concentration camp for 10,000 prisoners, using old Polish army barracks, but as he later wrote in his memoirs, "The task wasn’t easy. In the shortest possible time, I had to create a camp for 10,000 prisoners using the existing complex of buildings which were well constructed but were completely run down and swarming with vermin."

“True opponents of the state had to be securely locked up... Only the SS were capable of protecting the National Socialist State from all internal danger. All other organizations lacked the necessary toughness.”

– Memoirs of Rudolf Höss, Commandant of Auschwitz

Polish Prisoners

A column of prisoners on a work assignment in Auschwitz

Auschwitz I, as the camp came to be called, was built primarily to confine and oppress Polish dissidents whom the Nazis considered to be a threat to their occupation. Polish Jews were confined elsewhere, increasingly in ghettos. Höss adopted the motto of Dachau, another concentration camp where he had previously worked: Arbeit Macht Frei ("Work Makes You Free").

“Watch your bread so that no one steals it. This is what you were preoccupied with, and this was a constant vigilance.”

– Kazimierz Piechowski, Polish political prisoner, Auschwitz

The Polish prisoners were subjected to appalling treatment from the SS. More than 10,000 died within twenty months. The camp received little support from Nazi headquarters and Höss often had to scrounge for supplies.

Jerzy Bielecki was one of the first Polish prisoners at Auschwitz. The SS thought he was with the Polish resistance and sentenced him to “hanging torture,” a brutal punishment where the prisoner carried his full body weight on his arms that were pulled behind his back in an unnatural position.

Jerzy Bielecki

Jerzy Bielecki

Polish political prisoner at Auschwitz

“He wanted to hang me on the hook. He said, ‘Stand up on your toes. Finally he hooked me and then he kicked the stool away without any warning. I just felt Jesus Mary, oh my God, the terrible pain. My shoulders were breaking out from the joints. Both arms were breaking out from the joints. I’d been moaning and he just said, ‘Shut up you dog. You deserve it. You have to suffer.’”

More Witnesses

Writing in his memoirs, Rudolf Höss admits that Auschwitz was a concentration camp where cruel and brutal treatment was routine. Despite this—during the early 1940s—the facility was almost a backwater in Nazi-occupied Poland.

Auschwitz, however, was about to change. The town was situated on major railroad lines. Its surrounding area was rich in natural resources, particularly fresh water, lime, and coal. This made it an excellent location for IG Farben, the German industrial conglomerate, to build a factory that would manufacture war materials.


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