Auschwitz lay thirty miles west of Cracow, Poland's fifth largest city, and was on the direct railroad line to German Upper Silesia. Before the German attack in September 1939, Auschwitz had been a Polish army camp. In May 1940, Rudolf Franz Hoess the adjutant at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, was detailed with thirty men to establish a new compound at Auschwitz.
Until the early spring of 1941, Auschwitz, containing nine thousand inmates, was an installation approximately the same size as earlier German concentration camps, such as Dachau and Buchenwald. Then, as Hitler prepared the assault on Russia, Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS and German police, came to Auschwitz and told Ho"ss that the camp would have to be expanded to accommodate a large population of 130,000 - 100,000 of them Soviet prisoners of war. The inhabitants of seven villages standing on the swampy, malarial ground between the Sury and the Vistula rivers west of Auschwitz were to be dispossessed and removed as farm laborers to Germany. Since this area was thickly covered with birch trees, the Germans called the new part of the concentration camp Birkenau (`in the birches').
Weczler's transport arrived in Auschwitz after midnight on April 15 - arrivals were usually timed so that the twelve thousand residents of the adjoining town would not be witness to their coming. Stumbling stiff and bewildered out of the cars into the glare of spotlights, the men were lined up in a column of five. Carrying their heavy luggage - for they had been told to come well equipped - they were marched a mile to a building, where they were ordered to strip. Their heads and bodies were shaved roughly, they were given showers, and then were disinfected with Lysol. Each man had a number tattooed onto his left breast, a procedure so painful that many passed out. (Later, to simplify processing, the Germans changed the location of the tattoos to inmates' left arms.) It was ten o'clock in the morning before the operation was completed.
Outfitted with wooden clogs and Russian uniforms daubed with red paint, Weczler and his compatriots were taken to Birkenau. There he learned that only 150 of the twelve thousand Russian prisoners of war detailed in December 1941 to work on the camp's construction had survived the winter. Quartered in half-finished, unheated buildings, they had died of exposure, starvation, and disease. The Birkenau camp, a mile long and half-mile wide, was encompassed, like Auschwitz, by two rings of electrified barbed wire. Along these, watchtowers were placed every 150 yards. Only a few buildings had so far been completed, though the ultimate goal was to expand the camp to an area covering some two hundred square miles.
The men were awakened at three o'clock every morning and marched off at four to clear land and work on the construction of factories of Siemens, Germany's largest electrical manufacturer; I.G. Farben, the nation's leading chemical company; and the Deutsche Aurustungswerke (German Defense Works), an SS enterprise. Jews not capable of labor were executed.
Except for a half-hour break at noon, when the prisoners each received a bowl of filthy carrot, cabbage, or turnip soup, the work continued uninterrupted until 6 PM. For supper, the men received one ounce - a little over one slice - of moldy bread made from ersatz flour and sawdust. They slept in almost windowless barracks with steeply pitched roofs resembling stables. Tiers of balconies, honeycombed with cells two and one-half feet high, each shared by three men, ran along the walls, giving the building the appearance of a giant beehive.
Lice and fleas tortured the men. Rats were so bold they gnawed at the toes and fingers of sleepers and stole carefully preserved crumbs of bread out of their pockets. A third of the prisoners died every week - the sick and injured were taken to the infirmary, where they were granted two to three days to recover or expire. If they did neither, they were spritzed - given a fatal injection of phenol directly into the heart. At the end of two weeks, only 150 of the 640 men Weczler had arrived with were still alive. By August 15, all but 159 of the 2,722 on the first four transports from Slovakia were dead. (Conot, 3-5)
* Not to be confused with Rudolf Hess, the Nazi Party secretary until May 1941."
Conot, Robert E. Justice at Nuremberg. New York: Harper and Row, Publishers.