On June 14, 1940, Nazi authorities organised the first mass transport to the Auschwitz I concentration camp, deporting more than 700 Polish prisoners incarcerated in the Tarnów prison in German-occupied Poland.
In line with the Molotov-Ribbentrop treaty signed with the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany invaded and occupied the western half of Poland from September 1939, immediately introducing a policy of repression, arbitrary killings, summary arrests and deportation intended to stifle any resistance and rid Poland of its political and military leadership and intelligentsia.
First Polish prisoners sent to Auschwitz
Among them, hundreds of Poles were incarcerated as political enemies of the Third Reich in the prison of Tarnów, many of them teachers, students, soldiers, or priests accused of being members of the Polish underground resistance or of trying to flee the country.
A small group of about 20 Polish Jews was also part of this convoy, although the first exclusively Jewish transport to Auschwitz took place in March 1942, and consisted of 997 Jewish girls deported from Nazi Germany ally Slovakia.
On June 13, 753 Tarnów inmates were selected in line with a pre-prepared list out of the 911 prisoners held in the prison at the time and sent to a local bathhouse for cleaning and disinfection. In the early morning hours of June 14, 1940, they were escorted by the SS to the railway station of Tarnów and shoved into rail cars with no idea of the fate awaiting them.
“The day of our departure was hot and sunny,” would recount camp survivor Eugeniusz Niedojadlo. “We were walking in fours, guarded by armed SS men. The inhabitants of Tarnów were ordered to stay in their homes, and we had no idea where we were going.”
“No way out”
This would become the first known mass transport of prisoners to the German concentration camp established in Oświęcim at the behest of Heinrich Himmler, heralding the start of Nazi Germany’s increasingly murderous deportation policy that would reach its darkest depths during the second half of the war with the systematic extermination of European Jews.
Historians note that while a total of 753 prisoners were taken from the Tarnów prison on that dark day, only 728 of them eventually reached and were interned at Auschwitz – the remaining 25 are likely to have been sent back to Tarnów for reasons unknown.
After an arduous train journey through Krakow, the capital of the General Government, the new inmates of the Nazi concentration camp were assigned numbers 31 through 758, tattooed on their arms in their order of arrival (numbers 1 to 30 had been given to a group of German prisoners brought from Sachsenhausen several weeks earlier).
“You have come here not to a sanatorium, but to a German concentration camp, from which there is no other way out than through the chimney. If someone does not like it, then they can go straight to the wires,” yelled the deputy-commander of the camp Karl Fritzsch upon their arrival.
Historians note that over 300 of these first transport prisoners may have survived, and research over the years have shed some light on the identity and fate of a large number of these first Polish inmates.
Auschwitz-Birkenau and the Holocaust
Although having become the symbol of the horrors committed by Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, the former army barracks of Auschwitz were set up in 1940 not as an extermination site, but as a concentration camp – at least during its first two years of operation – for mostly Polish prisoners and meant to intimidate and suppress the Polish population while serving the business interests of German companies, first and foremost IG Farben.
Following the construction of Auschwitz II-Birkenau in 1942 and the intensification of the Reich’s “Final Solution”, the camp acquired a more hybrid nature. It became both a labour facility where inmates worked and lived in horrific conditions, as well as the largest Nazi death camp modeled on the earlier extermination sites of Chełmno, Bełżec, Sobibór or Treblinka, and where mostly Jewish prisoners were immediately gassed on arrival.
About 1.1 million people are estimated to have been killed in Auschwitz, including over 950,000 Jews, and tens of thousands of non-Jewish Poles, Roma, and Soviet prisoners of war.
A vast majority of the Jews killed in Auschwitz (about 700,000) came from other parts of Nazi-occupied Europe, including Greece, Italy, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. Of the 3 million Polish Jews killed during the Holocaust, about 200,000 (or less than 10%) were killed there.
In total, more than 100,000 people are believed to have survived the Nazi death camp.
Auschwitz was liberated by the advancing Soviet army on January 27, 1945, a day commemorated since 2005 as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979, Auschwitz is now a major Holocaust memorial center and one of the most visited museums in Europe.