Many buildings built after 1941 were constructed from reclaimed material in the local villages. Some of these can still be seen today. In 1945, the material was once again re-used (mainly from the Birkenau camp) to re-build the houses that were demolished by the SS. The majority of this activity took place in the villages around Birkenau where existing farms were confiscated from their owners by the SS.
A decision about establishing SS farms in the so-called Interessengebiet (interest zone) of the Auschwitz camp was taken in November 1940 by the SS-Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler, who was a farmer by hobby and education. Himmler made this decision in the presence of Auschwitz Commander Rudolf Höss and the Sturmbannführer Heinrich Vogel, who was part of the department dedicated to controlling SS farms: agricultural, forestry and fish.
In his autobiography Rudolf Höss described Himmler’s visit in detail. Höss tried to present all the difficulties of his job and the dangers connected with the camp. But Himmler didn’t show any interest. In an extract from Höss’ diary, he talks about this incident in detail:
His interest increased when I started to speak about the territory and showing the area on the map. His mood changed immediately. He started to talk about plans and was giving me tips – one by one – or just writing down what he wanted to be built there. Oswiecim will be a test farm for the East. There are possibilities that we have never had in Germany and we have more than enough manpower. We can experiment there. There has to be big laboratories and also stock-farming of all kinds and races. Vogel has to start looking for experts immediately. There has to be lakes created, grounds dried out, dykes built by the rivers. (…) Himmler wants to see all this done as soon as possible. Next, he was talking about his plans for the farms and going into the smallest details until his aide-de-camp reminded him about an important meeting that he was already late for.
On the 1st March 1941, during his first inspection of Auschwitz and the Interessengebiet, Himmler ordered Höss to 'manage the whole territory: both in a farming way and with every other way necessary'. Obeying that order was preceded with evictions of inhabitants from villages nearby, such as: Pławy, Rajsko, Broszkowice, Babice, Brzezinka and Harmęże. This was done in March and April 1941, which made the interest zone grow up to 4,000 hectares. In 1940, after the first phase of evictions from the so-called safety zone of the camp, special farm commandos (Landwirtschaftkommando) were created. Prisoners, who worked in the commandos, were carrying on farm works started by the former inhabitants, taking care over animals and protecting equipment.
Whilst the camp commanders were preparing the creation of specialised experimental SS farms, many prisoner commandos (also women after setting up a female camp) were transferred to the villages mentioned earlier and they started to work there demolishing existing buildings (Abbruchkommando), renovations, building dykes, cleaning fish lakes, equalising grounds, building drainage ditches in fields, building roads, building barracks and other buildings necessary on the specialised farms.
Commandos coming from Auschwitz I or Birkenau had to walk a few kilometers everyday whilst being observed by SS-men and female SS-supervisors (Aufseherinnen), who were kept company by trained dogs helping in supervising and preventing escapes. No matter what the weather was like, the prisoners were always wearing light uniforms, which were often wet (that would not dry on rainy days) and clogs hurting their feet badly, so they often walked with no shoes.
The ex-prisoner Zofia Sikora remembers:
Just walking to work was a torture. The road was filled with sharp and tiny bits of gravel which was hurting our feet and making them bleed. If one of the stones got caught in your foot, you couldn’t stop to remove it. If one of us tried to do that, dogs were ordered to attack and SS-men started to kick or use batons. The Aufseherinnen also beat these women, and the kapos – German prisoners, prostitutes and criminals – were joining them. (…) Marching to work always looked pretty much the same: shouting, hurrying up, beating up, dogs, aufgehen, schnell.
Demolishing buildings was exceptionally hard (and prisoners often discovered their dead colloeagues injured people lying under ruins). For example, after evicting people from Rajsko, 68 houses and 41 barns were demolished. Also cleaning the fish lakes was considered some of the hardest work; female prisoners of the Auschwitz penal company (SK-Strafkompanie) were working in the muddy areas by the lakes. They had to walk in water all day from morning until evening, falling on slime and dirt up to their necks.
This work was described by ex-prisoner Róża Jeleń-Chroń:
We were walking in water coming up to neck and injuring our feet with stones, wood and other garbage, scything rushes which had to be put on ground in even parts. But they were growing back in just a few days, so our work was starting over and over again. One day, one of the Slovakian women refused to go into the lake, so our guard pushed her in the water. When she tried to leave, he set his dog on her which kept her under the water until she drowned. When we finished our work, we had to take her body out and back to the camp.
We had to work there no matter what the weather was. When it was raining, we were already wet after working in water and then had to wear our wet uniforms which had been left by the lakes.
When it was hot, the sun was causing us to get bad blisters that filled with puss, which eventually burst. As our feet were getting injured, dirt was getting into the injuries and causing infections (…). One day a dog killed one of the women. On the way to work a rag on her foot from an old injury unwrapped. A dog belonging to a German man escorting us started to tousle the rag, then bit that poor woman’s leg. When she fell down in a pool of blood, the dog was biting her with more and more anger. We were not allowed to stop marching. When we were coming back later, she was dead. So again we were carrying a dead body back to the camp.
The Dammbau Commando was working on straightening dykes by the Harmęże lakes, cleaning the reservoirs as well as other work connected to preparing them for fish breeding. The commando consisted of a few dozen people, mostly Poles and Jews from Birkenau.
Czesław Ostankowicz remembers:
In April 1942, we were always wet and always cold and with fever. Working in the lakes didn’t help our plight. Supervision of our commando was the task of some really cruel SS-men. They were getting furious because they had to work on Sundays or just generally annoyed with the bad weather. They could be very sadistic towards the prisoners. ‘Functional prisoners’, (Kapos) armed with sticks, used to beat prisoners for wheelbarrows that were not full or for working too slowly.
They SS were persecuting prisoners in a very inventive ways. Work conditions and brutal behaviour were causes of high mortality level and many rotations within the commando. Early spring and in the late autumn of 1942, the prisoners used to come back to the camp very stiff with cold and covered in mud. They transported corpses of those killed and bodies of dying colleagues many times, carrying them on makeshift stretchers made with poles. At the beginning of November 1942 – after filling the lakes with fish – the Dammbau commando was dissolved and its prisoners were incorporated to other groups.
A similar commando known as the Garden Commando (Gartnerei-Kommando) would arrive at the gardens in the Rajsko sub-camp everyday – at the beginning they came from Auschwitz I, and later from Birkenau. They were farming vegetables for SS-men and their families. Otto Moll was its Kommandoführer, and later he became a commander of the Birkenau crematorium. Moll was cruel and relentless, killing prisoners in very brutal ways, especially Jews who he despised. Before establishing a female camp in Auschwitz (spring 1942), only men had worked in the agricultural camps. So in 1942 the female prisoners replaced men in many duties. On 23 March 1944 there were 4238 people working in agriculture: 1751 men and 2487 women.
The SS farms were managed directly by an agricultural department (Abteilung Landwirtschaft), which was a part of the camp management. After turning this department into farms independent from the camp itself, the SS-Obersturmbannfuhrer Dr Joachim Caesar who was an educated agronomist, became its commander on the order of Himmler. Caesar was managing everything connected to agriculture, forestry, fish breeding and experimental farming.
In July 1942 Himmler visited KL Auschwitz again. He explored the farms and got introduced to drainage works, laboratories and plant farming in Rajsko, as well as cattle-breeding and the tree nursery that had been established. By 1943, most of the Agricultural Sub-camps were in operation and were not closed down until the main evacuation in January 1945.