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

Killing EvolutionVictims & PerpetratorsGermany & the Camp System

Orders and Initiatives


September 1941 to March 1942

Heinrich Himmler tours the Monowitz-Buna building site

Reichsführer SS Heinrich Himmler (right) tours the Monowitz-Buna building site.

In October 1941 Auschwitz construction chief Karl Bischoff and SS architect Fritz Ertl
were developing plans for a camp to be built about a mile and a half away from Auschwitz, on a site the Germans called Birkenau.

Soviet Prisoners

The original occupancy figure of 550 was crossed out and replaced with 744.

The new camp was to hold 100,000 prisoners. The architects built suffering into the plans. Birkenau had no provision for adequate water or waste disposal, and putting so many people together meant that the barracks were breeding grounds for disease. Newly available documents reveal that at the last minute, Bischoff decided to force even more prisoners into each barrack. A handwritten change on the plans shows the occupancy figure of 550 crossed out and replaced with 744.

Surprisingly, the Birkenau camp wasn't initially designed to take Jews, but Russian prisoners of war. Kazimierz Smolen, a Polish political prisoner at Auschwitz, remembers Soviet prisoners of war arriving in the autumn of 1941.

Hans Friedrich

Kazimierz Smolen

Polish prisoner, Auschwitz

“It was October. I remember that it was snowing. They were unloaded at the railway ramp, at the goods station. They were exhausted. It was difficult for them even to move. It is hard to imagine a human being in rags—dirty, starved, sick. It was simply a caricature of a human being.”

Of the initial 10,000 Soviet prisoners of war sent to Birkenau, only a few hundred survived the first five months.

“Death, death, death. Death at night, death in the morning, death in the afternoon. Death. We lived with death. How could a human feel?”

– Pavel Stenkin, Russian POW, Auschwitz

Auschwitz Commandant Rudolf Höss' memoirs reveal that early in this period, Auschwitz still had no role in the mass murder of Jews, which was being pursued in other places.

Lódz ghetto

Children standing in front of a wagon in the Lódz ghetto

The Germans were beginning to isolate the Jews into smaller and smaller geographic areas. In September 1941 in Hamburg, Germany, for example, after hundreds of families were left homeless following a bombing, a regional officer asked Hitler to evacuate the city's Jews so their residences could be given to the homeless. Soon Hitler ordered the deportation of the Reich's Jews.

In October Hamburg Jews were told to report to a spot near the rail station in 24 hours. From Hamburg the Jews went by train to the Lódz Ghetto in Poland, one of many ghettos the Nazis had created to imprison Polish Jews.

Soviet Prisoners

SS-Brigadefuehrer Reinhard Heydrich at Gestapo headquarters in 1932

On January 20, 1942, a strategy for the mass murder of the Jews was fully articulated at an infamous meeting at 56/58 Am Grossen Wannsee, an SS villa in a fashionable Berlin suburb. With Reinhard Heydrich in charge and Adolf Eichmann taking the minutes, the Nazis’ “Final Solution” was articulated: All Jews under Nazi control were to die.

In Spring 1942 Auschwitz began to play a pivotal role in implementing the Final Solution. The plans for the new camp at Birkenau changed. No longer were Soviet prisoners of war expected to be slave laborers there. Jews were now central to the future of Auschwitz.


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