The name “Auschwitz” has become synonymous with the Holocaust. It was a vast, multi-purpose complex with three large camps near the Poland town of Oświęcim, and dozens of additional satellite camps. The original camp, Auschwitz I, was established in 1940 primarily for Polish political prisoners. Over the next few years, the killing center at Birkenau (Auschwitz II) and the industrial work camp at Monowitz (Auschwitz III) were constructed. Today the original camp is the chief memorial site, though the camp’s dark legacy chiefly issues the industrialized murder at Birkenau, two kilometers away. There, between 1.1 and 1.5 million people were killed, most of them in one of the four large gas chambers where Zyklon B pellets were poured in through the ceiling. A rail line—constructed to accommodate several hundred thousand Hungarian Jews in the late spring and summer of 1944—runs directly into Birkenau, along side of which stands the notorious ramp where initial selections took place. The able-bodied were directed to work details, while others—including nearly all the children, except those chosen for medial experimentation—were selected for immediate death. As the Russian army advanced westward in late 1944, the gas chambers and crematoria were blown up and tens of thousands of prisoners were sent on death marches to Germany. Approximately 6000 ill prisoners were left behind, some of whom were still alive when the Russian army liberated the camp in January 1945. About 90% of those killed here were Jews, though Soviet POWs, Polish political prisoners, and thousands of Roma are also numbered among the victims of this death factory.

The sturdy brick buildings of the main camp house a wide range of historical exhibitions, and its small crematory also survives. A few of the barracks in Birkenau have been preserved and contain some modest panels with historical information. The four large gas chambers and crematoria toward the back of the camp are in ruins, the result of the Nazi attempt to destroy them before the arrival of the Red Army.