Notable memoirists of the camp include Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel, and Tadeusz Borowski. Levi's If This is a Man, first published in Italy in 1947 as Se questo è un uomo, became a classic of Holocaust literature, an "imperishable masterpiece".[h] Wiesel wrote about his imprisonment at Auschwitz in Night (1960) and other works, and became a prominent spokesman against ethnic violence; in 1986, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Camp survivor Simone Veil was later elected President of the European Parliament, serving from 1979 to 1982. Two Auschwitz victims—Maximilian Kolbe, a priest who volunteered to die by starvation in place of a stranger, and Edith Stein, a Jewish convert to Catholicism—were later named saints of the Catholic Church.
Romania implemented anti-Jewish measures in May and June 1940 as part of its efforts towards an alliance with Germany. Jews were forced from government service, pogroms were carried out, and by March 1941 all Jews had lost their jobs and had their property confiscated. After Romania joined the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, at least 13,266 Jews were killed in the Iași pogrom, and Romanian troops carried out massacres in Romanian-controlled territory, including the Odessa massacre of 20,000 Jews in Odessa in late 1941. Romania also set up concentration camps under its control in Transnistria, where 154,000–170,000 Jews were deported from 1941 to 1943.
Initially, arrivals at Auschwitz-Birkenau would be unloaded on a ramp alongside the main railway lines at Oświęcim. The prisoners would then walk the short distance to the camp. However, in preparation for the arrival of 440,000 Hungarian Jews during the spring of 1944, railway tracks were laid right into the camp, through the now infamous gatehouse building.
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.
The Holocaust began in 1933 when Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany and ended in 1945 when the Nazis were defeated by the Allied powers. The term Holocaust is derived from the Greek word holokauston, which means sacrifice by fire. It refers to the Nazi persecution and planned slaughter of the Jewish people and others considered inferior to "true" Germans. The Hebrew word Shoah, which means devastation, ruin or waste, also refers to this genocide.
In 1914, German strategic thinking derived from the writings of Carl von Clausewitz (June 1, 1780 – November 16, 1831), Helmuth von Moltke the Elder (26 October 1800 – 24 April 1891) and Alfred von Schlieffen (28 February 1833 – 4 January 1913), who advocated manoeuvre, mass and envelopment to create the conditions for a decisive battle (Vernichtungsschlacht). During the war, officers such as Willy Rohr developed tactics to restore manoeuvre on the battlefield. Specialist light infantry (Sturmtruppen, "storm troops") were to exploit weak spots to make gaps for larger infantry units to advance with heavier weapons and exploit the success, leaving isolated strong points to troops following up. Infiltration tactics were combined with short hurricane artillery bombardments using massed artillery, devised by Colonel Georg Bruchmüller. Attacks relied on speed and surprise rather than on weight of numbers. These tactics met with great success in Operation Michael, the spring offensive of 1918 and restored temporarily the war of movement, once the Allied trench system had been overrun. The German armies pushed on towards Amiens and then Paris, coming within 120 kilometres (75 mi) before supply deficiencies and Allied reinforcements halted the advance. Historian James Corum criticised the German leadership for failing to understand the technical advances of the First World War, having given tank production the lowest priority and having conducted no studies of the machine gun prior to that war.
Some Auschwitz prisoners were subjected to inhumane medical experimentation. The chief perpetrator of this barbaric research was Josef Mengele (1911-79), a German physician who began working at Auschwitz in 1943. Mengele, who came to be known as the “Angel of Death,” performed a range of experiments on detainees. For example, in an effort to study eye color, he injected serum into the eyeballs of dozens of children, causing them excruciating pain. He also injected chloroform into the hearts of twins, to determine if both siblings would die at the same time and in the same manner.
That month, Himmler ordered the evacuation of all camps, charging camp commanders with "making sure that not a single prisoner from the concentration camps falls alive into the hands of the enemy". Beginning on 17 January, 56,000–58,000 Auschwitz detainees—over 20,000 from Auschwitz I and II, over 30,000 from subcamps, and two-thirds of them Jews—were evacuated under guard, largely on foot, in severe winter conditions, heading west. Around 2,200 were evacuated by rail from two subcamps; fewer than 9,000 were left behind, deemed too sick to move. During the marches, camp staff shot anyone too sick or exhausted to continue, or anyone stopping to urinate or tie a shoelace. SS officers walked behind the marchers killing anyone lagging behind who had not already been shot. Peter Longerich estimates that a quarter of the detainees were thus killed. Those who managed to walk to Wodzisław Śląski and Gliwice were sent on open freight cars, without food, to concentration camps in Germany: Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald, Dachau, Flossenburg, Gross-Rosen, Mauthausen, Dora-Mittelbau, Ravensbruck, and Sachsenhausen.
The Nazis considered Jews to be the main danger to Germany. Jews were the primary victims of Nazi racism, but other victims included Roma (Gypsies) and people with mental or physical disabilities. The Nazis murdered some 200,000 Roma. And they murdered at least 250,000 mentally or physically disabled patients, mainly German and living in institutions, in the so-called Euthanasia Program.
Under Laks' more positive leadership, the orchestra began to increase in size again. His efforts won his musicians easier work assignments and a dispensation not to play outdoors in bad weather. By the end of 1943, there were about forty members, including many Jews, from France, Germany, Poland, the Netherlands and Greece. They included Henry Meyer, Louis Bannet, and Jacques Stroumsa.
The next blow came a month later. In the early morning darkness of May 10, the Germans unleashed their Blitzkrieg against the Netherlands and Belgium. The attack sent the defending troops reeling. The roads overflowed with refugees fleeing the front. French and British troops rushing to the rescue were caught in the headlong retreat and pushed back. German dive-bombers - the Stukas - filled the sky, strafing the retreating mix of civilians and soldiers with machine gun and bomb. The Allies fought valiantly but in vain - the German war machine advanced unperturbed. In England, the invasion forced Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain to resign, to be replaced by Winston Churchill.
The Nazis used the phrase Lebensunwertes Leben (life unworthy of life) in reference to the disabled and mentally ill. On 14 July 1933, the Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring (Gesetz zur Verhütung erbkranken Nachwuchses), the Sterilization Law, was passed, allowing for compulsory sterilization. The New York Times reported on 21 December that year: "400,000 Germans to be sterilized". There were 84,525 applications from doctors in the first year. The courts reached a decision in 64,499 of those cases; 56,244 were in favor of sterilization. Estimates for the number of involuntary sterilizations during the whole of the Third Reich range from 300,000 to 400,000.
The Germans invaded the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Belgium, and France in May 1940. In the Netherlands, the Germans installed Arthur Seyss-Inquart as Reichskommissar, who quickly began to persecute the approximately 140,000 Dutch Jews. Jews were forced out of their jobs and had to register with the government. Non-Jewish Dutch citizens protested these measures, and in February 1941 they staged a strike that was quickly crushed. After Belgium's surrender at the end of May 1940, it was ruled by a German military governor, Alexander von Falkenhausen, who enacted anti-Jewish measures against the country's 90,000 Jews, many of whom were refugees from Germany or Eastern Europe.
The twin pairs of gas chambers were numbered II and III, and IV and V. The first opened on March 31, 1943, the last on April 4, 1943. The total area of the gas chambers was 2,255 square meters; the capacity of these crematoria was 4,420 people. Those selected to die were undressed in the undressing room and then pushed into the gas chambers. It took about 20 minutes for all the people to death. In II and III, the killings took place in underground rooms, and the corpses were carried to the five ovens by an electrically operated lift. Before cremation gold teeth and any other valuables, such as rings, were removed from the corpses. In IV and V the gas chambers and ovens were on the same level, but the ovens were so poorly built and the usage was so great that they repeatedly malfunctioned and had to be abandoned. The corpses were finally burned outside, in the open, as in 1943. Jewish sonderkommandos worked the crematoria under SS supervision.
Though the Nazis tried to keep operation of camps secret, the scale of the killing made this virtually impossible. Eyewitnesses brought reports of Nazi atrocities in Poland to the Allied governments, who were harshly criticized after the war for their failure to respond, or to publicize news of the mass slaughter. This lack of action was likely mostly due to the Allied focus on winning the war at hand, but was also a result of the general incomprehension with which news of the Holocaust was met and the denial and disbelief that such atrocities could be occurring on such a scale.
The British and American governments were reluctant to publicize the intelligence they had received. A BBC Hungarian Service memo, written by Carlile Macartney, a BBC broadcaster and senior Foreign Office adviser on Hungary, stated in 1942: "We shouldn't mention the Jews at all." The British government's view was that the Hungarian people's antisemitism would make them distrust the Allies if Allied broadcasts focused on the Jews. The US government similarly feared turning the war into one about the Jews; antisemitism and isolationism were common in the US before its entry into the war. Although governments and the German public appear to have understood what was happening, it seems the Jews themselves did not. According to Saul Friedländer, "[t]estimonies left by Jews from all over occupied Europe indicate that, in contradistinction to vast segments of surrounding society, the victims did not understand what was ultimately in store for them." In Western Europe, he writes, Jewish communities seem to have failed to piece the information together, while in Eastern Europe, they could not accept that the stories they heard from elsewhere would end up applying to them too.
Before the outbreak of war, Poland had been a relative haven for European Jews - Krakow's Jewish population numbered over 50,000. But when Germany invaded, destruction began immediately and it was merciless. Jews were herded into crowded ghettos, randomly beaten and humiliated, capriciously killed. Jewish property and businesses were summarily destroyed, or appropriated by the SS and 'sold' to Nazi 'investors', one of whom was the fast talking, womanizing, money hungry Schindler.
Ghettos were intended to be temporary until the Jews were deported to other locations, which never happened. Instead, the inhabitants were sent to extermination camps. The ghettos were, in effect, immensely crowded prisons serving as instruments of "slow, passive murder." Though the Warsaw Ghetto contained 30% of Warsaw's population, it occupied only 2.5% of the city's area, averaging over 9 people per room. Between 1940 and 1942, starvation and disease, especially typhoid, killed many in the ghettos. Over 43,000 Warsaw ghetto residents, or one in ten of the total population, died in 1941; in Theresienstadt, more than half the residents died in 1942.
To prosecute the leaders of the Holocaust, the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg was formed in 1946. The U.S., the UK, the Soviet Union and France each supplied two judges (a primary and an alternate) and a prosecution team for the trial. Twelve leading Nazi officials were sentenced to death for the crimes they had committed, while three received life sentences in prison, and four had prison terms for up to twenty years.
Central to this is the decision cycle. Every decision made by German or opposing forces required time to gather information, make a decision, disseminate orders to subordinates, and then implement this decision through action. Through superior mobility and faster decision-making cycles, mobile forces could take action on a situation sooner than the forces opposing them.
This is the punishment card of a prisoner in Auschwitz-Birkenau, dated 24 October 1942. In German it reads: “Trotz verbot hinter haus 7 seine Grossnotdurft verrichtete”. In English this means: “Despite being forbidden, the prisoner went behind block 7 to relieve themselves”. The prisoner would have been severely punished for going to the toilet without permission as a warning to other prisoners.
The understanding of operations in Poland has shifted considerably since the Second World War. Many early postwar histories incorrectly attribute German victory to "enormous development in military technique which occurred between 1918 and 1940", incorrectly citing that "Germany, who translated (British inter-war) theories into action...called the result Blitzkrieg." More recent histories identify German operations in Poland as relatively cautious and traditional. Matthew Cooper wrote that
From the overpass, the road leads directly to the Gate of Death. The railroad spur line that goes through the gate house begins on the left side of the gate, about a quarter of a mile away, and curves around until it forms a straight line in front of the gate. Trains coming from the west entered the Birkenau camp from tracks on the left side of the gate, as you are facing it, and did not pass the railroad station in the town of Auschwitz. Trains coming from the opposite direction passed the train station in Auschwitz and then entered the camp on the spur line. The train tracks end only a few yards from two of the gas chambers inside the Birkenau camp.