The Auschwitz concentration camp was opened in 1940 after incorporating the part of Lesser Poland Voivodeship, including Oświęcim, into the Katowice Regency (Regierungsbezirk Kattowitz). The initiator of its opening was SS-Oberführer Arpad Wigand who served as a security police and security service inspector in Wrocław. Factors that influenced the decision to create the camp were overcrowded prisons and arrests in Upper Silesia and Zagłębie Dąbrowskie as well as the existence of infrastructure, convenient location and closeness to railway lines.
On 15th March 1940 at a meeting of commandants of various camps in occupied Poland Reichsführer SS Heinrich Himmler said: All skilled workers of Polish background are to be used in our war industry. Afterwards all Poles will disappear from the world. […] Every German’s time is coming. That is why it is essential that the great German nation to see their main task in the destruction of all Poles.
Ultimately, on 27th April 1940 Himmler ordered to create the I Auschwitz concentration camp. Its first commandant became SS-Hauptsturmführer Rudolf Höß. Because the camp was opened after a mass wave of arrests connected with Intelligenzaktion, only a few arrested were sent to the I Auschwitz camp in spring 1940 and usually these were the people moved from the Dachau or Mauthausen-Gusen camp. The camp, which was situated in the place of artillery barracks, was called a parent camp and it initially included twenty two buildings (blocks). The first group of 30 prisoners constituted German criminals brought from the Sachsenhausen camp and they became the prisoners holding a work post. On 14th June 1940 the first group of 728 political prisoners from Tarnów arrived at the camp. At that time most of the arrested constituted the representatives of the Polish intelligentsia including: officials, politicians, teachers, doctors, career’s officers and clergymen. As Archbishop Adam Kozłowiecki, who was put in Auschwitz, recalled: prisoners after the arrival at the camp were informed: You are in the German concentration camp during the war. Here, the discipline is strict but fair. I expect absolute obedience from you to all superiors both the SS-men and other prisoners. Each offense will be punished. These are the punishments: hanging on a pole, whipping up to 75 strokes, death penalty. Each disobedience and rebellion against SS will be punished with death by shooting immediately, rebellion or throwing at one of the supervising prisoners will be punished with death by hanging; an attempt to escape from the camp will be punished with death by shooting. If a fugitive is not caught, 10 other prisoners from their room will be shot. Each conspiracy and concealing conspiracy from the authorities will be punished with death. Each even the smallest camp punishment will automatically extend the stay in the camp for at least two weeks.
Initially, the camp held about 10 000 prisoners but with time it turned out to be too small and it was expanded. At that time other camps were built: Auschwitz II (Birkenau) and Auschwitz III (Monowitz). Prisoners in the camp died because of hunger, bullying by the prisoners holding a work post and SS-men, destructive slave labour, executions by shooting, cardiac injections with phenol and gassing. According to estimated data about 130 000 – 140 000 Poles, who were placed in the number register, were brought to Auschwitz by direct transports or so called collective transports and about 10 000 Poles (e.g. police prisoners) who were killed in the camp without placing them in the number register. It is estimated that at least half of the Polish prisoners died (…)
From the top: prisoners working in the Auschwitz I concentration camp, a group of the Auschwitz I concentration camp prisoners. In the background: the view of the entry gate from the inside of the Auschwitz I concentration camp.