Auschwitz was really a group of camps, designated I, II, and III. There were also 40 smaller “satellite” camps. It was at Auschwitz II, at Birkenau, established in October 1941, that the SS created a complex, monstrously orchestrated killing ground: 300 prison barracks; four “bathhouses” in which prisoners were gassed; corpse cellars; and cremating ovens. Thousands of prisoners were also used for medical experiments overseen and performed by the camp doctor, Josef Mengele, the “Angel of Death.”
The Red Army had been advancing deeper into Poland since mid-January. Having liberated Warsaw and Krakow, Soviet troops headed for Auschwitz. In anticipation of the Soviet arrival, SS officers began a murder spree in the camps, shooting sick prisoners and blowing up crematoria in a desperate attempt to destroy the evidence of their crimes. When the Red Army finally broke through, Soviet soldiers encountered 648 corpses and more than 7,000 starving camp survivors. There were also six storehouses filled with hundreds of thousands of women’s dresses, men’s suits and shoes that the Germans did not have time to burn.