In the first phase of World War II in Europe, Germany sought to avoid a long war. Germany's strategy was to defeat its opponents in a series of short campaigns. Germany quickly overran much of Europe and was victorious for more than two years by relying on a new military tactic called the "Blitzkrieg" (lightning war). Blitzkrieg tactics required the concentration of offensive weapons (such as tanks, planes, and artillery) along a narrow front. These forces would drive a breach in enemy defenses, permitting armored tank divisions to penetrate rapidly and roam freely behind enemy lines, causing shock and disorganization among the enemy defenses. German air power prevented the enemy from adequately resupplying or redeploying forces and thereby from sending reinforcements to seal breaches in the front. German forces could in turn encircle opposing troops and force surrender.
Throughout the spring and summer of 1940, the German army expanded Hitler’s empire in Europe, conquering Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and France. Beginning in 1941, Jews from all over the continent, as well as hundreds of thousands of European Gypsies, were transported to the Polish ghettoes. The German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 marked a new level of brutality in warfare. Mobile killing units called Einsatzgruppenwould murder more than 500,000 Soviet Jews and others (usually by shooting) over the course of the German occupation.
In the Lviv pogroms in occupied Poland in July 1941, some 6,000 Polish Jews were murdered in the streets, on top of 3,000 arrests and mass shootings by Einsatzgruppe C.[m] During the Jedwabne pogrom, on 10 July 1941, a group of 40 Polish men killed several hundred Jews; around 300 were burned alive in a barn. The attack is thought to have been organized by the German Security Police (Sicherheitsdienst). A long debate about who was responsible for the Jedwabne murders was triggered in 2001 by the publication of Jan T. Gross's book Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland. The response to the book was described as "the most prolonged and far-reaching of any discussion of the Jewish issue in Poland since the Second World War".
By mid-1944 those Jewish communities within easy reach of the Nazi regime had been largely exterminated, in proportions ranging from about 25 percent in France to more than 90 percent in Poland. On 5 May Himmler claimed in a speech that "the Jewish question has in general been solved in Germany and in the countries occupied by Germany". As the Soviet armed forces advanced, the camps in eastern Poland were closed down, with surviving inmates shipped to camps closer to Germany. Efforts were made to conceal evidence of what had happened. The gas chambers were dismantled, the crematoria dynamited, and the mass graves dug up and the corpses cremated. Local commanders continued to kill Jews, and to shuttle them from camp to camp by forced "death marches". Already sick after months or years of violence and starvation, some were marched to train stations and transported for days at a time without food or shelter in open freight cars, then forced to march again at the other end to the new camp. Others were marched the entire distance to the new camp. Those who lagged behind or fell were shot. Around 250,000 Jews died during these marches.
Tens of thousands of Jews held in the eastern territories were marched towards the heart of Germany so they could not bear witness to the Allies. Aware that the world had been alerted to the horrors of the camps, the Nazis sought to destroy evidence. In June, Soviet forces liberated the first major camp, known as Majdanek, in Lublin, Poland. The Nazis had burned down the crematorium chimney but had failed to destroy the gas chambers and barracks. Only a few hundred inmates were still alive.
It is badly lighted, full of draughts, with the brick floor covered by a layer of mud. The water is not drinkable; it has a revolting smell and often fails for many hours. The walls are covered by curious didactic frescoes: for example, there is the good Häftling [prisoner], portrayed stripped to the waist, about to diligently soap his sheared and rosy cranium, and the bad Häftling, with a strong Semitic nose and a greenish colour, bundled up in his ostentatiously stained clothes with a beret on his head, who cautiously dips a finger into the water of the washbasin. Under the first is written: "So bist du rein" (like this you are clean), and under the second, "So gehst du ein" (like this you come to a bad end); and lower down, in doubtful French but in Gothic script: "La propreté, c'est la santé" [cleanliness is health].
After roll call, to the sound of "Arbeitskommandos formieren" ("form work details"), prisoners walked to their place of work, five abreast, to begin a working day that was normally 11 hours long—longer in summer and shorter in winter. A prison orchestra, such as the Women's Orchestra of Auschwitz, was forced to play cheerful music as the workers left the camp. Kapos were responsible for the prisoners' behavior while they worked, as was an SS escort. Much of the work took place outdoors at construction sites, gravel pits, and lumber yards. No rest periods were allowed. One prisoner was assigned to the latrines to measure the time the workers took to empty their bladders and bowels.
Subject to harsh conditions—including inadequate shelter and sanitation—given minimal food, and worked to exhaustion, those who could no longer work faced transport back to Birkenau for gassing. German corporations invested heavily in the slave-labour industries adjacent to Auschwitz. In 1942 IG Farben alone invested more than 700 million Reichsmarks in its facilities at Auschwitz III.
On 6 January 1942, the Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs, Vyacheslav Molotov, sent out diplomatic notes about German atrocities. The notes were based on reports about bodies surfacing from poorly covered graves in pits and quarries, as well as mass graves found in areas the Red Army had liberated, and on witness reports from German-occupied areas. The following month, Szlama Ber Winer escaped from the Chełmno concentration camp in Poland, and passed detailed information about it to the Oneg Shabbat group in the Warsaw Ghetto. His report, known by his pseudonym as the Grojanowski Report, had reached London by June 1942. Also in 1942, Jan Karski sent information to the Allies after being smuggled into the Warsaw Ghetto twice.[s] On 27 April 1942, Vyacheslav Molotov sent out another note about atrocities. In late July or early August 1942, Polish leaders learned about the mass killings taking place inside Auschwitz. The Polish Interior Ministry prepared a report, Sprawozdanie 6/42, which said at the end:
With the deportations from Hungary, the role of Auschwitz-Birkenau in the German plan to murder the Jews of Europe achieved its highest effectiveness. Between late April and early July 1944, approximately 440,000 Jews were deported from Hungary. Of the nearly 426,000 Hungarian Jews deported to Auschwitz, approximately 320,000 of them were sent directly to the gas chambers in Auschwitz-Birkenau. They deployed approximately 110,000 at forced labor in the Auschwitz camp complex. The SS authorities transferred many of these Hungarian Jewish forced laborers within weeks of their arrival in Auschwitz to other concentration camps in Germany and Austria.
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Oskar Schindler renamed the factory Deutsche Emaillewaren-Fabrik (German Enamelware Factory) and started production with a small staff. Possessing a certain panache for business and engaging in influence peddling, Schindler secured numerous German army contracts for kitchenware. He soon met Itzhak Stern, a Jewish accountant, who connected Schindler with Krakow’s Jewish community to staff the factory.
After some time off to recover in Zwittau, Schindler was promoted to second in command of his Abwehr unit and relocated with his wife to Ostrava, on the Czech-Polish border, in January 1939. He was involved in espionage in the months leading up to Hitler's seizure of the remainder of Czechoslovakia in March. Emilie helped him with paperwork, processing and hiding secret documents in their apartment for the Abwehr office. As Schindler frequently travelled to Poland on business, he and his 25 agents were in a position to collect information about Polish military activities and railways for the planned invasion of Poland. One assignment called for his unit to monitor and provide information about the railway line and tunnel in the Jablunkov Pass, deemed critical for the movement of German troops. Schindler continued to work for the Abwehr until as late as fall 1940, when he was sent to Turkey to investigate corruption among the Abwehr officers assigned to the German embassy there.