The word “Holocaust,” from the Greek words “holos” (whole) and “kaustos” (burned), was historically used to describe a sacrificial offering burned on an altar. Since 1945, the word has taken on a new and horrible meaning: the mass murder of some 6 million European Jews (as well as millions of others, including Gypsies and homosexuals) by the German Nazi regime during the Second World War. To the anti-Semitic Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, Jews were an inferior race, an alien threat to German racial purity and community. After years of Nazi rule in Germany, during which Jews were consistently persecuted, Hitler’s “final solution”–now known as the Holocaust–came to fruition under the cover of world war, with mass killing centers constructed in the concentration camps of occupied Poland.
The history of Auschwitz-Birkenau as an extermination center is complex. From late 1941 to October 1942, the mortuary at Auschwitz main camp, which was already equipped with a crematorium, was adapted as a gas chamber. It measured approximately 835 square feet. In the spring of 1942, two provisional gas chambers at Birkenau were constructed out of peasant huts, known as the 'bunkers'.
Over the decades that followed, ordinary Germans struggled with the Holocaust’s bitter legacy, as survivors and the families of victims sought restitution of wealth and property confiscated during the Nazi years. Beginning in 1953, the German government made payments to individual Jews and to the Jewish people as a way of acknowledging the German people’s responsibility for the crimes committed in their name.
According to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem, "[a]ll the serious research" confirms that between five and six million Jews died. Early postwar calculations were 4.2 to 4.5 million from Gerald Reitlinger; 5.1 million from Raul Hilberg; and 5.95 million from Jacob Lestschinsky. In 1986 Lucy S. Dawidowicz used the pre-war census figures to estimate 5.934 million. Yehuda Bauer and Robert Rozett in the Encyclopedia of the Holocaust (1990) estimated 5.59–5.86 million. A 1996 study led by Wolfgang Benz suggested 5.29 to 6.2 million, based on comparing pre- and post-war census records and surviving German documentation on deportations and killings. Martin Gilbert arrived at a minimum of 5.75 million. The figures include over one million children.
Sanitary facilities for prisoners at Auschwitz-Birkenau were extremely poor. It was impossible for inmates to keep clean or have a change of clothes. For the first two years of the camp’s existence, the prisoners had no access to water for washing. When there was later water, it was not clean. Prisoners, therefore, spent their existence in the camp dirty and in filthy clothes, which increased the likelihood of them contracting infections and diseases.
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New arrivals to the Auschwitz camp complex were immediately sorted into two groups, those on the left and those on the right. The few in the right-hand group would be sent to one of the various camps within Auschwitz to become forced labourers. The remaining majority were sent to Birkenau, otherwise known as Auschwitz II, where they were gassed and cremated. Birkenau, the death camp of Auschwitz, was also one of the few places where, historians confirm, music regularly accompanied selections and mass murder. Former inmate Erika Rothschild remembered this macabre accompaniment:
"Blitzkrieg" is a German compound meaning "lightning war". The word did not enter official terminology of the Wehrmacht either before or during the war, even though it was already used in the military Journal "Deutsche Wehr" in 1935, in the context of an article on how states with insufficient food and raw materials supply can win a war. Another appearance is in 1938 in the "Militär-Wochenblatt", where Blitzkrieg is defined as a "strategic attack", carried out by operational use of tanks, air force, and airborne troops. Karl-Heinz Frieser in his book 'Blitzkrieg Legende', who researched the origin of the term and found the above examples, points out that the pre-war use of the term is rare, and that it practically never entered official terminology throughout the war.
The death camp and slave-labour camp were interrelated. Newly arrived prisoners at the death camp were divided in a process known as Selektion. The young and the able-bodied were sent to work. Young children and their mothers and the old and infirm were sent directly to the gas chambers. Thousands of prisoners were also selected by the camp doctor, Josef Mengele, for medical experiments. Auschwitz doctors tested methods of sterilization on the prisoners, using massive doses of radiation, uterine injections, and other barbaric procedures. Experiments involving the killing of twins, upon whom autopsies were performed, were meant to provide information that would supposedly lead to the rapid expansion of the “Aryan race.”
But, in May 1944, a railroad spur line was built right into the camp to accelerate and simplify the handling of the tens of thousands of Hungarian and other Jews deported in the spring and summer of 1944. From then to November 1944, when all the other death camps had been abandoned, Birkenau surpassed all previous records for mass killing. The Hungarian deportations and the liquidation of the remaining Polish ghettos, such as Lodz, resulted in the gassing of 585,000 Jews. This period made Auschwitz-Birkenau into the most notorious killing site of all time.
Recognising that battlefield conditions changed rapidly and that orders often became overtaken by events, the German army encouraged its commanders to make decisions without waiting for orders from above, thus allowing them to take advantage of fleeting opportunities as they arose. Above all else, this doctrine created aggressive and flexible leaders.
During the interwar period, aircraft and tank technologies matured and were combined with systematic application of the traditional German tactic of Bewegungskrieg (maneuver warfare), deep penetrations and the bypassing of enemy strong points to encircle and destroy enemy forces in a Kesselschlacht (cauldron battle). During the Invasion of Poland, Western journalists adopted the term blitzkrieg to describe this form of armoured warfare. The term had appeared in 1935, in a German military periodical Deutsche Wehr (German Defence), in connection to quick or lightning warfare. German manoeuvre operations were successful in the campaigns of 1939–1941 and by 1940 the term blitzkrieg was extensively used in Western media. Blitzkrieg operations capitalized on surprise penetrations (e.g., the penetration of the Ardennes forest region), general enemy unreadiness and their inability to match the pace of the German attack. During the Battle of France, the French made attempts to re-form defensive lines along rivers but were frustrated when German forces arrived first and pressed on.
The concentration and death-camp complex at Auschwitz-Birkenau was the largest killing center in the entire Nazi universe; the very heart of their system. Of the many sub-camps affiliated with Auschwitz, Birkenau, or Auschwitz II, was by far the largest. The main camp, Auschwitz I was on the outskirts of the Polish city Oswiecim. Birkenau was in a suiburb named Zasole.
Responding to domestic pressures to act on behalf of Jewish refugees, U.S. Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt convened, but did not attend, the Évian Conference on resettlement, in Évian-les-Bains, France, in July 1938. In his invitation to government leaders, Roosevelt specified that they would not have to change laws or spend government funds; only philanthropic funds would be used for resettlement. Britain was assured that Palestine would not be on the agenda. The result was that little was attempted and less accomplished.
Beginning in late 1941, the Germans began mass transports from the ghettoes in Poland to the concentration camps, starting with those people viewed as the least useful: the sick, old and weak and the very young. The first mass gassings began at the camp of Belzec, near Lublin, on March 17, 1942. Five more mass killing centers were built at camps in occupied Poland, including Chelmno, Sobibor, Treblinka, Majdanek and the largest of all, Auschwitz-Birkenau. From 1942 to 1945, Jews were deported to the camps from all over Europe, including German-controlled territory as well as those countries allied with Germany. The heaviest deportations took place during the summer and fall of 1942, when more than 300,000 people were deported from the Warsaw ghetto alone.
Today, the word Auschwitz has become synonymous with terror, genocide, and The Holocaust. The site, though partially destroyed by the retreating Nazi’s in 1945, has been established as a museum to help future generations understand the atrocities committed within its fences. By 2011, more than 30 million people had visited the camp, and during 2014 a record number of 1.5 million people visited the Auschwitz complex and museum. Spokespeople for the museum said that from January to April 2015, over 250,000 people visited Auschwitz, marking a 40% increase over the already large numbers from the previous year. Authorities in charge of the site began to urge people to book their visit to Auschwitz online ahead of time to prevent them from having to turn people away.
German-occupied Denmark rescued most of its own Jews by spiriting them to Sweden by sea in October 1943. This was possible partly because the German presence in Denmark was relatively small. Moreover, while anti-Semitism in the general population of many other countries led to collaboration with the Germans, Jews were an integrated part of Danish culture. Under these unique circumstances, Danish humanitarianism flourished.
The Nazis then combined their racial theories with the evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin to justify their treatment of the Jews. The Germans, as the strongest and fittest, were destined to rule, while the weak and racially adulterated Jews were doomed to extinction. Hitler began to restrict the Jews with legislation and terror, which entailed burning books written by Jews, removing Jews from their professions and public schools, confiscating their businesses and property and excluding them from public events. The most infamous of the anti-Jewish legislation were the Nuremberg Laws, enacted on September 15, 1935. They formed the legal basis for the Jews' exclusion from German society and the progressively restrictive Jewish policies of the Germans.
With the financial backing of several Jewish investors, including one of the owners, Abraham Bankier, Schindler signed an informal lease agreement on the factory on 13 November 1939 and formalised the arrangement on 15 January 1940.[b] He renamed it Deutsche Emailwarenfabrik (German Enamelware Factory) or DEF, and it soon became known by the nickname "Emalia". He initially acquired a staff of seven Jewish workers (including Abraham Bankier, who helped him manage the company) and 250 non-Jewish Poles. At its peak in 1944, the business employed around 1,750 workers, a thousand of whom were Jews. Schindler also helped run Schlomo Wiener Ltd, a wholesale outfit that sold his enamelware, and was leaseholder of Prokosziner Glashütte, a glass factory.