Millions of people suffered and died in camps, ghettos, and other sites during the Holocaust. The Nazis and their allies oversaw more than 44,000 camps, ghettos, and other sites of detention, persecution, forced labor, and murder. Among them was the Blechhammer subcamp of Auschwitz.
The Germans established a subcamp of Auschwitz on April 1, 1944, when they placed the Jewish forced labor camp near Blechhammer (now Blachownia Slaska) under the command of the Auschwitz III-Monowitz concentration camp.1 Initially, there were about 3,000 men and around 200 women in the camp; in the following months, over 1,000 Jewish prisoners were sent to the subcamp. A total of approximately 4,500 male and female prisoners from 15 European countries went through the subcamp.2 Blechhammer was the second-largest Auschwitz subcamp, after Monowitz, as far as prisoner population was concerned.
The camp occupied an area of almost 4 hectares (10 acres).3 It was fenced in by a concrete wall almost 4 meters (13 feet) high with concrete watchtowers. The prisoners occupied about 25 living and hospital barracks. The camp also had toilet, washroom, workshop, ware house, and bathhouse barracks.
The prisoners were guarded by SS men who belonged to the Auschwitz III 7th Guard Company, commanded by SS Hauptsturmführer Otto Brossmann and his deputy SS Untersturmführer Kurt Klipp.4
Living conditions at the Blechhammer subcamp were similar to those prevailing in other subcamps of the Auschwitz concentration camp.5 The prisoners’ wooden barracks were greatly overcrowded; there were about 1.4 square meters (15 square feet) of space per person. The prisoners slept on two or three- decker bunks. Because there were not enough toilets, washrooms, or bathhouses, the use of those facilities was limited. Camp clothing was also inadequate. Any attempts to augment it illegally met with severe punishments. Walking in wooden shoes was especially onerous for the prisoners. Camp food was also inadequate. Almost all the surviving punishment reports referring to Blechhammer prisoners have to do with illicit food dealing.6
The camp hospital was in two barracks and was supervised by SS orderlies, who were in charge of administrative and cleaning work. They treated the patients and prisoner doctors brutally. They would beat sick people waiting to be admitted to the hospital for treatment, then chase them out of the building. Not infrequently, they would also beat the prisoner doctors. The average patient population in the autumn and winter was about 100 people. As in other subcamps, the hospital was where selections took place. Those who were found to be unfit for work or further treatment were taken away to Auschwitz II-Birkenau, which often ended in their being put to death in the gas chamber. Selections were also conducted in the living quarter barracks and on the way back from work.
Approximately 250 prisoners died in the camp over the nine and a half months it existed.7 The bodies of dead prisoners were burned in the camp’s own crematorium.
The prisoners were put to work building a synthetic gasoline factory owned by Oberschlesische Hydrierwerke AG (Upper Silesia Synthetic Gas Works) in Blechhammer. To the sounds of the camp orchestra, every day SS men would escort them to the work site almost five kilometers (three miles) away and put them under the supervision of civilian workers and prisoner-foremen. The SS men themselves would surround the entire construction site in a cordon until work was over and the prisoners in the respective detachments were counted. They started a search if a prisoner was missing. At that time, they tormented the prisoners, making them do punitive exercises in an attempt to force them to disclose the fugitive’s escape route or hiding place.
The prisoners were divided into a few dozen detachments of 100 to 200 persons, which were assigned to the respective construction companies.8 The labor the prisoners performed was typical construction work: excavating for foundations, building roads and structures, and transporting building materials. In the latter instance, they used prisoners to pull the wagons instead of horses or tractors. Eight prisoners would be harnessed to a wagon. They used physical coercion to force the hungry and weak prisoners to work. The prisoner-foremen supervising the prisoners during work never parted from their bats, which they put to use often. The prisoners worked all day, from dawn to dusk, for about 10 to 12 hours. They also worked at the construction site every other Sunday. On alternate Sundays, they were put to work at various jobs within the camp.
After the bombing of the Hydrierwerke plant, Jewish prisoners were used to remove duds, during which many of them met with fatal accidents. Prisoners also died in the bombing raids themselves, as they were not allowed to enter the bomb shelters.
Strict discipline prevailed in the camp. Not only were prisoners beaten randomly at work; they were also given what were called “regulation punishments.” These included whipping (from 5 to 25 lashes), punitive labor on Sundays, and confi nement in a special bunker.9 There were also executions by hanging in the camp; that is how the SS would execute prisoners for acts regarded as sabotage, among other offenses.
The Germans began evacuating the prisoners on January 21, 1945, in connection with the Rus sian winter offensive. Approximately 4,000 prisoners were driven on foot to Gross-Rosen, which was reached 10 days later.10 Weak prisoners who did not keep up in the march were shot along the way. Prisoners estimate that approximately 800 people were killed on the way. Mass graves of several dozen bodies each were found along the evacuation route after liberation.11
APMO contains the following relevant rec ords: Punishment Reports and Orders; Zespół Oswiadczenia, accounts of Aron Goldfinger, Luzer Markowicz, Emanuel Luftglas, Aba Sztulberg, Gita Brandsztedter-Sztulbergowa, Abram Szeftel, Lucjan Radzik, Erwin Lagus, and Carl Demerer; Kommandanturbefehle KL Auschwitz III; Materials, Catalog Nos. 597, 598, 599; Materials of the camp resistance movement; Nummernbuch; Fahrbefehle; Häftlingspersonalbogen; Prämienscheine. See also Franciszek Piper, “Das Nebenlager Blechhammer,” HvA 10 (1967): 19–39.
Series: Auschwitz Subcamps
Critical Thinking Questions
- Where were the camps located? How might the German population and the local community in Poland have been aware of this camp, its purpose, and the conditions within?
- Investigate the entire Auschwitz complex of 3 main camps and the numerous subcamps. What was the purpose of each camp?
- Did the outside world have any knowledge about these camps? If so, what actions were taken by other countries and their officials? What choices do other countries have in the face of mistreatment of civilians?
- How does the example of this camp demonstrate the complexity and the systematic nature of the German efforts to abuse and kill the Jews?
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos, 1933-1945. Vol 1, Early Camps, Youth Camps, and Concentration Camps and Subcamps under the SS-Business Administration Main Office (WVHA), ed. Geoffrey Megargee. Bloomington: Indiana University Press in association with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2009.
APMO, Materiały Ruchu Oporu/123, vol. 20, list of male transports, Nuremberg Document NO KW 2824.
APMO, Nummernbuch; akta SS-Hygiene Institut; Häftlingspersonalbogen; “Arbeitseinsatz” prisoner employment lists.
APMO, Neg. No. 10168. Blechhammer. Werkluftschutzpla—Oberschlesische Hydrierwerke.
APMO, Kommandanturbefehle KL Auschwitz III, May 22, 1944, and November 11, 1944.
Living and working conditions and prisoner treatment have been depicted based on accounts and other stories of former Blechhammer subcamp prisoners in the archives of the APMO: Aron Goldfinger, Luzer Markowicz, Emanuel Luftglas, Aba Sztulberg, Gita Brandsztedter-Sztulbergowa, Abram Szeftel, Lucjan Radzik, Erwin Lagus, and Carl Demerer.
APMO, Punishment Reports and Orders Collection (Strafmeldungen und Strafverfügungen).
APMO, Nummernbuch: 248 deaths were noted among Blechhammer subcamp prisoner numbers (176512–179567 and 184349–184891).
Some of the company names are listed in the punishment reports. APMO, Punishment Reports and Orders Collection (Strafmeldungen und Strafverfügungen).
APMO, Punishment Reports and Orders Collection (Strafmeldungen und Strafverfügungen).
APMO, D-AuIII-3 a/78 women’s employment list dated December 30, 1944 (157 people). Resistance Movement Materials, vol. 3, books 208, 212. Prisoner population on January 17, 1945 (3,858 people).
APMO, Sygn. Mat. 597, 598, 599. Reports of exhumations in the towns of Laka and Prudnik.