This Week in History: Prisoners arrive at Auschwitz

On June 14, 1940, 728 Polish resistance members arrived to Auschwitz in the first transfer of prisoners to the infamous Nazi extermination camp.

Auschwitz 300 R (photo credit: REUTERS)
Auschwitz 300 R
(photo credit: REUTERS)
“Young and healthy people don't live longer than three months here. Priests one month, Jews two weeks. There is only one way out — through the crematorium chimneys.”
That was the message delivered to the 728 prisoners who arrived in the first mass transport to Auschwitz on June 14, 1940, as later recalled by survivor Kazimierz Albi.
The first group the Nazis sent to Auschwitz, which later became one of the most notorious institutions of murder in human history, was made up of Polish political prisoners. They arrived at the compound two years before it became a camp for the extermination of Jews, but the message delivered to that first group by a Nazi captain made clear that this was never an ordinary prison. The Polish prisoners, who were transported by train from Tarnow, were mostly Poles accused of belonging to resistance movements and included a number of Jews. As they descended from the train that day, each was assigned a prison number between 31 and 758. Prisoners 1 through 30, common German criminals, had been sent to the camp a month earlier. “My brother was ahead of me. He got number 116; and Troop Captain Stachowicz was given number 117. I got number 118. The list for our transport started with Stanislav Ryniak, number 31, and ended with Ignacy Plachta, number 758.,” Albi recalled of those first minutes in the camp.
“After those formalities, the Kapos drove us... to the roll-call ground, where we had to line up in 5 rows.”
For the next two years, the Nazis continued sending Polish political prisoners to the concentration camp at the intersection of the Vistula and Sola rivers.  In 1942, however, Adolf Hitler and his Nazi regime devised the “Final Solution” to rid Europe of its Jews, a plan in which Auschwitz would play a central role. On January 25 of that year, Heinrich Himmler gave an order to camp authorities to prepare for the arrival of 150,000 German Jews. The first transport composed of Jews arrived some three weeks later from Bytom, a German-annexed area of Poland. That year, some 175,000 Jews were brought to the extermination camp. In the coming months and years, the deportations to Auschwitz increased in speed, frequency and size.When the Soviet Red Army finally arrived at Auschwitz to liberate it in 1945, one major-general described “the horrible villainies of the German fiends in the camp Auschwitz, which surpass all the atrocities known to us.” But even after its liberation, the full scope of the atrocities the Nazis carried out took months and years to be told. By the end of World War Two, when the camp was liberated, 1.1 million Jews had been sent to Auschwitz; 90 percent of them were exterminated by the genocidal Nazi killing machine established and first populated five years earlier. Over 100,000 non-Jews were also murdered within the confines of the deadliest concentration camp. Of the original 728 Polish political prisoners brought to Auschwitz, some 200 ultimately survived the war. In the decades since the end of the Holocaust, Auschwitz has become one of the most notorious symbols of the Nazis’ unparalleled genocide of the Jews and attempted liquidation of Gypsies, homosexuals and others. But as evidenced by the first group of prisoners to arrive in the death camp, Jews and other minorities were not the only ones to suffer the inhuman treatment and murderous fate at Auschwitz. Although their numbers were miniscule in comparison to the Jews gassed and cremated in the camp, political prisoners, prisoners of war and common criminals shared the same fate.