Teaching the Holocaust with Primary Sources
Introduction: Nuremberg Race Laws | Kristallnacht | Ghettos
Concentration Camps: Dachau | Bergen-Belsen | Auschwitz
Righteous Among the Nations: Gies | Schindler | Winton | Grueninger
Primary Source and Analysis Tools | Library of Congress Resources
Primary Source Sets | PDF Version
The largest of all Nazi concentration camps, Auschwitz was actually comprised of three main camps, Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II (also called Auschwitz-Birkenau) and Auschwitz III (also called Auschwitz-Monowitz). Auschwitz is where the largest mass murder in history took place. Trains filled with Jewish prisoners entered the camp day and night. If they survived the trip, which could take many days with no food or water, they were unloaded from the trains and told to stand in line, men on one side, women and children on the other. From a platform, Dr. Josef Mengele would choose who lived or died by separating those capable of hard labor from the others. Many women, children, elderly and those unable to work were led straight to the gas chambers. Those chosen for hard labor would first have their heads shaved. The hair was used to make fabric for the German war effort. The prisoner would then receive a striped uniform to wear and a tattoo on their chest or forearm. Auschwitz was the only camp to use tattoos. These Jewish prisoners were no longer known by name; only by the number tattooed on their body. Hard labor consisted of construction of Auschwitz II and Auschwitz III, working in coal mines, stone quarries and armament factories.17
In efforts to create a true German Aryan race, many concentration camps performed medical experiments on Jewish prisoners. None were more feared than Dr. Mengele at Auschwitz. Mengele known as the "Angel of Death", would search individuals such as infants, dwarfs and especially twins. Mengele had the full backing and funding of the Nazi regime. He administered painful injects, conducted amputations with no anesthetic and subjected prisoners to freezing conditions and high pressure experiments. No documentation has been found listing the substances he injected, so long term effects are unknown. Mengele was especially interested in twins. Hitler's vision of a blond-haired, blue-eyed Aryan race could be accomplished faster if the genetics of twins could be found. They were the perfect test subjects; he could use one for experiments and the other as the control which to compare. Mengele would take large amounts of blood from one twin and inject it into the other. They were given many injections and exposed to various genetic experiments. If one twin died the other was killed by an injection to the heart then both were studied in autopsies. Nearly 3,000 children were selected for Mengele's twin experiments and only about 200 survived.15
Auschwitz was heavily guarded with electric fencing, SS guard and their dogs constantly on patrol, and guard towers, which meant escape was nearly impossible. Roll call was taken every morning and evening to confirm that every prisoner was present even those who died in the night. When the Soviet Army liberated Auschwitz on January 27, 1945, there were nearly 7,000 prisoners, but most were sick or dying.16 Between the years 1940 to 1945, 1.1 million Jews were murdered at Auschwitz.16 The Jewish death toll during the Holocaust is estimated to be close to six million.16
15. The Jewish Virtual Library, Josef Mengele. Accessed 8.7.12
16. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Liberation of Auschwitz.
17. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Liberation of Auschwitz.