Architecture of Murder: The Auschwitz-Birkenau Blueprints
“There is a place on earth that is a vast, desolate wilderness. A place populated by shadows of the dead in their multitudes. A place where the living are dead; where only death, hate and pain exist.” – Juliana Tedeschi Auschwitz is universally recognized as the ultimate symbol of evil, the world’s largest death factory. It is estimated that approximately 1.1 million people were murdered there, of whom 1 million were Jews. From a single camp in 1940, Auschwitz was transformed into a massive complex, including 3 main camps and 40 sub-camps. The establishment of the Auschwitz complex was a project that lasted years, and was never completed. In the course of the planning phase, SS draftsmen prepared hundreds of drawings and plans of the construction sites and the various buildings. These included detailed drawings of the gas chambers and the crematoria. The Germans established the first camp at Auschwitz in the spring of 1940. It was the first concentration camp to be set up in Poland, and the first prisoners were brought there in June of the same year. In early 1941, the petrochemical corporation IG Farben decided to establish a huge factory there for the production of synthetic rubber and fuel. The SS agreed to supply the corporation with cheap labor to build the factory, and later – to man it. As the construction of the factory progressed, a small labor camp was set up next to it, named Monowitz, which was later called “Auschwitz III”. After the German invasion of the Soviet Union, the Germans decided to establish an immense POW camp next to the main camp for the many Soviet soldiers who had been taken captive. This camp was called “Auschwitz II”, better known as Birkenau. Naphtali Lau-Lavie, a survivor of the camp, recalls: “The workplace we arrived at was an extensive green area, swampy in parts. We poured gravel over the swampy section, and dispersed it with shovels. Others drained the area by digging water ditches along its length and breadth. Around us, a few hundred meters away, we could see farmers’ houses, and next to them – cattle, chickens, and geese. A wretched-looking village, most of its houses roofed with straw. This village was called Brzezinka – “Birkenau” in German. It never crossed anyone’s mind that we were actually laying the foundations for the largest death factory in human history.” The preparation of the land for construction, and later the building itself, were carried out by thousands of Soviet POWs and Polish and Jewish inmates, who worked under German supervision. The labor conditions were appalling, and the death rate of the prisoners was especially high in winter. Most of the buildings in Birkenau were uniform wooden huts that were unfit for human habitation. They did not have an efficient drainage system, or insulation against the bitter cold. They were originally intended to house some 550 prisoners each, but in practice many more prisoners were crammed inside. The severe overcrowding in the huts caused unspeakable sanitary conditions, and led to a high death rate amongst the prisoners living in them. Rudolf Vrba, a prisoner of Auschwitz who later managed to escape, recalls: “The more inmates there were, the more deaths ensued. and not always as a result of beatings, hunger, or murder. The sanitation arrangements, which were inadequate from the very beginning, became positively dangerous. Dysentery, which had always posed a threat. spread throughout the camp, followed by the even more hazardous typhus.” Shortly after construction had begun at Birkenau, the decision was made to change its designation and turn it into an extermination camp. The first experiments with gas were carried out in the main camp in the fall of 1941, and in the light of their success, the SS decided to build four permanent installations in Birkenau for the specific purpose of gassing people to death. The extermination installations each included a room for undressing and a gas chamber, both underground, and a building for cremating the bodies of the murdered. These facilities made the murder of the Jews a far more efficient process. The extermination reached its peak in the spring and summer of 1944, with the deportation of some 430,00 Hungarian Jews to the camp, and the subsequent murder of the majority of the deportees. During this period, the pressure on the extermination machinery was so great that the Germans also reactivated the makeshift gas chambers that had been operating before the permanent installations were built. The construction work at the Auschwitz complex continued until November 1944. At this point, Himmler gave the order to halt the extermination of the Jews in Birkenau, and the Germans began to dismantle the extermination facilities in order to conceal all traces of their crime. Despite this, when the Red Army arrived on January 27, 1945, most of the Birkenau camp was still intact. The Germans incinerated the camp archives shortly before the Soviets arrived, but missed the construction archive. As a result, the Soviets found a considerable amount of the technical paperwork, including many of the constructions blueprints. From no other extermination camp did so much paperwork survive, including detailed documents about extermination facilities. The Auschwitz construction blueprints thus constitute extraordinary documentation of the manner in which a major building operation served as a central tool of Nazi extermination policy. These blueprints were discovered in Germany in 2008, and were recently presented to Yad Vashem by the German newspaper Bild, in the presence of Prime Minister of Israel, Binyamin Netanyahu. They will be preserved for perpetuity in the Yad Vashem archives.