Already two years after World War II, a museum was opened at the former Auschwitz camp. Its creation is largely due to former prisoners.
In the second half of 1944, in the face of the successes of the Red Army, the authorities of the German concentration camp Auschwitz carried out activities aimed at removing traces of the crimes committed. Documents were burned, human ashes removed from the combustion pits, looted property removed, installations dismantled and gas chambers and crematoriums prepared for blowing up. However, due to the haste resulting from the Soviet soviet offensive, the Germans did not manage to cover all traces of the crime and take away all the property.
From 17 to 21 January 1945, the SS evacuated the Auschwitz camp complex, evacuating approx. 58,000 prisoners and forcing most of them to pass – in difficult winter conditions – several dozen kilometers to Wodzisław Śląski and Gliwice. From there, prisoners were transported by train to other concentration camps. After the “evacuation”, shortly before the arrival of Soviet soldiers, the SS blew up the buildings of the gas chambers and crematoria, and set fire to the so-called Canada in Birkenau. However, they did not destroy all the looted property; part of it (also some documents) survived in various facilities, mainly the main camp.
After “evacuation” about 9,000 remained in the Auschwitz camp complex. prisoners, the vast majority of the sick and physically exhausted. About seven hundred of them were murdered by SS-men in Birkenau and several sub-camps, some died, some managed to escape. As a result, about 7.5 thousand survived the liberation. prisoners.
KL Auschwitz was liberated by Red Army soldiers on January 27, 1945. Most of the survivors required quick medical assistance, which is why the Soviet military authorities organized two field hospitals within a few days. In the first days of February, the hospital was also created by volunteers of the Polish Red Cross, who initially took care of patients together with the Soviet medical staff, and in the summer took over their full care. Hospitals operated in the blocks of the main camp, where patients from Birkenau and Monowitz were transported. For their needs, some of the camp property was used – blankets, clothing, medicines, and equipment in prison chambers, including three-story bunks that were cut to make single-level beds. The total treatment covered approx. 4.5 thousand survivors, most of whom have been recovered. However, despite careful care, at least five hundred died. The PCK hospital operated until autumn 1945.
The survivors who were in relatively good physical condition left the camp. Many of them set off on their own in the first days after the liberation, others – after completing the treatment – left in transports organized by Soviet soldiers and the Polish Red Cross personnel. On the way they received certificates of imprisonment in Auschwitz, as well as usually clothing from the camp’s warehouses, packed lunch and a small amount of money.
In the former camps – the mother and Birkenau – there were over six hundred corpses of prisoners who died or were killed shortly before liberation. Initially, they were collected in the improvised morgue in Block 11 of the main camp and several pits dug in Birkenau. On February 28, they were solemnly buried in mass graves near the former Auschwitz I. Bodies of patients who died in those hospitals were also buried there. Later this place was transformed into a small cemetery that can still be visited.
Employees of the Polish Red Cross hospital were the first to collect information about former prisoners, both during conversations with survivors and on the basis of documents found in various places of the former camp. With this data, they sent thousands of letters to people in various countries where they informed about the fate of their loved ones. Over time, these works were taken over by the offices of the Polish Red Cross in Krakow and Warsaw, and in 1954 – by the State Museum in Oświęcim (now the Information Office for Former Prisoners).
In the first weeks after the liberation at the premises of the main camp and Birkenau, the investigation was conducted by the Prosecutor’s Office of the First Ukrainian Front (units of this front liberated Auschwitz), supervised by the Extraordinary State Commission of the Soviet Union to Investigate the Crimes of German-Fascist Aggressors. Employees of the prosecutor’s office and commission experts inspected, among others numerous post-camp objects, and also explored the crematorium areas and combustion pits near Crematorium V, where they discovered human ashes. As material evidence of the crime, they secured significant amounts of property stolen from Jews, as well as about 7 tons of human hair. They also gathered many camp documents, which were then sent to the Soviet Union. Only in the early nineties, some of them, in the form of originals or copies, were transferred to the archives of the museum in Oświęcim. In May 1945, the commission published a communiqué in which, among many findings, it provided the number of 4 million victims, and also listed the countries from which the deportees came, without taking into account their nationality. She did not mention the Jews, or the fact that they constituted the largest group of victims. The number and manner of presenting prisoners by country of origin, not nationality, were later established in historiography and journalism in Poland ruled by communists. They also had a significant impact on the content of exhibitions and publications of the museum in Oświęcim. It was only the political changes in Poland in the late 1980s that made it possible to undertake scientific research on these issues.
From April 1945, the investigation in the former camp was conducted by the Polish Commission for the Investigation of German-Fascist Crimes in Oświęcim, and then the Krakow branch of the Main Commission for the Investigation of German Crimes in Poland (GKBZNwP). Members of the commission collected many documents, prepared photographic documentation of part of the property, including dismantled elements of the equipment and installation of gas chambers and crematoria, which the SS did not manage to take away. They also secured victims’ hair samples and some elements of the gas chamber ventilation system, which they then sent to the Kraków Institute of Forensic Research. The research conducted there revealed the presence of hydrogen cyanide and derivatives of compounds that were components of cyclone B, a preparation used to kill people in gas chambers. The collected materials were later used in processes including former commandant Rudolf Höß and forty crew members.
After the liberation, the grounds of the former KL Auschwitz were under the control of the Soviet authorities. In the spring of 1945, they created two transit camps for German prisoners of war. The first of them was initially located in the western part of the former main camp, and from June it covered the entire area. The second was located in sectors BI and BIIa (until September 1945) of the former Birkenau. Only German prisoners of war were detained in the camp in Oświęcim, and in Brzezinka, apart from them, the Soviet authorities also detained civilians from Upper Silesia and the Opole region who were arrested in the back of the front. Although there were many Poles in this group, everyone was treated by the Soviet side as Germany. In time, most of them were released, but some were taken together with the prisoners to the labor camps in the Soviet Union. The camp in former Auschwitz I existed until autumn 1945, and in former Birkenau until February of the following year.