How Many People Died at Auschwitz?

March 21, 2024

In the years following the war, scholars tried to figure out how many people died at Auschwitz. They studied what witnesses told them at the Nuremberg trials, and they looked at the camp itself. They also consulted medical records and prisoner accounts. Several methods emerged for estimating the number of deaths, but they all converged on a rough figure: 4,1 million.

By the end of September 1941, work began on a new site called Auschwitz II-Birkenau, where the Nazis gassed Jews and other prisoners and burned their bodies in crematoria. This concentration camp was largely devoted to extermination, and a huge death rate set in. By early 1943, new transports of Jewish prisoners were arriving almost daily, and the death rate soared further. The SS began planning large-scale gassing facilities to cope with the numbers, and construction of four massive crematoria got underway.

But before the gas chambers were operational, the SS tested Zyklon B with a handful of Soviet POWs and sick Poles. They wanted to learn whether the gas would kill in a sufficiently short time. The experimenters also sought to work out the best method of administering it.

The euthanasia process was industrial and efficient. A typical selection train brought about 600 prisoners, who were sent to their deaths within hours of the railway station's arrival. August Kowalczyk, a Polish political prisoner on the nearby Buna labor detail, recalls that "the murders took place like an assembly line." The only break was when SS judgments went awry and it took twice as long for the victims to be killed.

Mission

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