Before Auschwitz became the ultimate symbol of the Holocaust, it was an ordinary Polish town known as Oświęcim, where Jews made their home from the early 16th century until the Holocaust, when most of them were murdered. In the pre-war years, the majority of Oświęcim’s citizens were Jewish, and for generations they raised families here and contributed to a richly textured culture. The Holocaust suddenly ended the vibrant Jewish life of the town.

1940 – 1945

Located in Nazi-occupied Poland, Auschwitz was the largest of all of the German Nazi concentration, forced labor, and extermination camps. More than 1.1 million people were murdered behind the barbed-wire fences of Auschwitz between May 1940 and January 1945. Around 1 million of those murdered were Jews, along with nearly 75,000 Poles, 21,000 Sinti and Roma, 14,000 Soviet prisoners of war, and nearly 15,000 others whom the Nazis deemed “inferior” or “undesirable” (including those who were allegedly homosexual, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and people the Nazis called criminals). Those kept as prisoners were stripped of their names, assigned numbers, and subjected to forced labor and brutal—frequently deadly—conditions.

Auschwitz gates
Entrance to Auschwitz II-Birkenau was through what prisoners called the “Gate of Death.” Auschwitz was a major railway hub—a convenient location for the Nazis to bring Jews from all over Europe.

At the end of 1944, facing the reality of the Soviet Army’s imminent arrival, Nazi authorities in Auschwitz prepared to abandon the compound and ordered the destruction of evidence of the crimes they had perpetrated—including the human beings who had been living in the camp.

From January 17 to 21, 1945, the Nazis transported nearly all remaining inmates to other camps in what became known as death marches toward the inner Reich. A vast number of people would die on these forced marches due to exhaustion, hunger, and cold. Those who were too weak to keep walking were often shot and killed by SS officers and guards.

When their offensive reached Auschwitz, the Soviet Army found almost 7,000 people—exhausted, ill, and traumatized—in the compound. Despite the efforts of Allied troops and doctors, more than half of these people would die within days of the liberation of the camp.

Survival, recovery, and reckoning with loss would be a lifelong project for those who lived beyond the liberation of Auschwitz.

Auschwitz Today

The Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum is a public museum located in the Polish town of Oświęcim. It is consecrated to the memory of the victims of the Nazi concentration, forced labor, and extermination camp, as well as to the preservation of the very place (Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau) and the historical objects it contains.

Created by the Government of Poland in 1947 at the request of survivors, the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum comprises almost 472 acres (191 hectares) and was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1979. The Memorial today consists of Collections, Archives, a research, education, conservation and publishing center. Millions of people have visited the complex to learn its crucial significance, honor survivors and victims, and carry forward the memory of Auschwitz and the Holocaust.

The Auschwitz Jewish Center (AJC) in Oświęcim, operated by the Museum of Jewish Heritage — A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, is just two miles from the Auschwitz–Birkenau death camps. The only Jewish presence in the vicinity of Auschwitz, the Center opened its doors in September 2000 so that people from around the world could gather to learn, pray, and remember the victims of the Holocaust.

Auschwitz Today
American soldier visiting the Auschwitz Jewish Center Museum, December 2017. Photo by Andrzej Rudiak