On 7 November 1938, Herschel Grynszpan, a Polish Jew, shot the German diplomat Ernst vom Rath in the German Embassy in Paris, in retaliation for the expulsion of his parents and siblings from Germany.[k] When vom Rath died on 9 November, the government used his death as a pretext to instigate a pogrom against the Jews throughout the Third Reich. The government claimed it was spontaneous, but in fact it had been ordered and planned by Hitler and Goebbels, although with no clear goals, according to David Cesarani; the result, he writes, was "murder, rape, looting, destruction of property, and terror on an unprecedented scale".
Himmler ordered the closure of ghettos in Poland in mid-July 1942; most inhabitants were sent to extermination camps. Those Jews needed for war production would be confined in concentration camps. The deportations from the Warsaw Ghetto began on 22 July; over the almost two months of the Aktion, until 12 September, the population was reduced from 350,000 to 65,000. Those deported were transported in freight trains to the Treblinka extermination camp. Similar deportations happened in other ghettos, with many ghettos totally emptied. The first ghetto uprisings occurred in mid-1942 in small community ghettos. Although there were armed resistance attempts in both the larger and smaller ghettos in 1943, in every case they failed against the overwhelming German military force, and the remaining Jews were either killed or deported to the death camps.
The chief of construction of Auschwitz II-Birkenau was Karl Bischoff, a competent and dynamic bureaucrat who, in spite of the ongoing war, carried out the construction deemed necessary. The Birkenau camp, the four crematoria, a new reception building, and hundreds of other buildings were planned and constructed. Bischoff's plans, based on an initial budget of RM 8.9 million, called for each barracks to hold 550 prisoners. He later changed this to 744 per barracks, which meant the camp could hold 125,000, rather than 97,000. The SS designed the barracks not so much to house people as to destroy them. There were 174 barracks, each measuring 116 by 36 ft, divided into 62 bays of 43 sq. ft. The bays were divided into "roosts", initially for three inmates and later for four. With personal space of 11 sq. ft to sleep and place whatever belongings they had, inmates were deprived, Robert-Jan van Pelt wrote, "of the minimum space needed to exist".
By the end of September, the SS had started to develop plans to deport Jews to newly invaded Poland: the first steps towards the systematic murder that would follow. In Poland itself, thousands of Poles and Jews were rounded up and shot, early indications of the systematic murder that would follow. Alongside this, Hitler approved a new programme of euthanasia to exterminate the handicapped and mentally ill.
Despite being common in German and English-language journalism during World War II, the word Blitzkrieg was never used by the Wehrmacht as an official military term, except for propaganda. According to David Reynolds, "Hitler himself called the term Blitzkrieg 'A completely idiotic word' (ein ganz blödsinniges Wort)". Some senior officers, including Kurt Student, Franz Halder and Johann Adolf von Kielmansegg, even disputed the idea that it was a military concept. Kielmansegg asserted that what many regarded as blitzkrieg was nothing more than "ad hoc solutions that simply popped out of the prevailing situation". Student described it as ideas that "naturally emerged from the existing circumstances" as a response to operational challenges. The Wehrmacht never officially adopted it as a concept or doctrine.[a]
Oscar Schindler was all that stood between them and death at the hands of the Nazis. A man all too human, full of flaws like the rest of us. The unlikeliest of all role models - a Nazi, a womanisor, a war profiteer. An ordinary man who answered the call of conscience. Even in the worst of circumstances Oscar Schindler did extraordinary things, matched by no one. He remained true to his Jews, the workers he referred to as my children. He kept the SS out and everyone alive.
An inmate's first encounter with the camp, if they were being registered and not sent straight to the gas chamber, would be at the prisoner reception centre, where they were tattooed, shaved, disinfected, and given their striped prison uniform. Built between 1942 and 1944, the center contained a bathhouse, laundry, and 19 gas chambers for delousing clothes. Debórah Dwork and Robert Jan van Pelt write that inmates would then leave this area via a porch that faced the gate with the Arbeit macht frei sign. The prisoner reception center of Auschwitz I became the visitor reception center of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum.
While the labour camps at Auschwitz and Majdanek used inmates for slave labour to support the German war effort, the extermination camps at Belzec, Treblinka, and Sobibor had one task alone: killing. At Treblinka a staff of 120, of whom only 30 were SS (the Nazi paramilitary corps), killed some 750,000 to 925,000 Jews during the camp’s 17 months of operation. At Belzec German records detail a staff of 104, including about 20 SS, who killed some 500,000 Jews in less than 10 months. At Sobibor they murdered between 200,000 and 250,000. These camps began operation during the spring and summer of 1942, when the ghettos of German-occupied Poland were filled with Jews. Once they had completed their missions—murder by gassing, or “resettlement in the east,” to use the language of the Wannsee protocols—the Nazis closed the camps. There were six extermination camps, all in German-occupied Poland, among the thousands of concentration and slave-labour camps throughout German-occupied Europe.
In the view of Christian Gerlach, Hitler announced his decision to annihilate the Jews on or around 12 December 1941, probably on 12 December during a speech to the Gauleiters, part of the Nazi Party leadership. This was one day after the German declaration of war against the United States, which followed the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour on 7 December and the United States declaration of war on Japan on 8 December. According to Deborah Dwork and Robert Jan van Pelt, Hitler had trusted American Jews, whom he assumed were all-powerful, to keep their government out of the war in the interests of German Jews. When America declared war, the Jews were blamed. Joseph Goebbels, the Reich Minister of Propaganda, noted of Hitler's speech: "He warned the Jews that if they were to cause another world war, it would lead to their destruction. ... Now the world war has come. The destruction of the Jews must be its necessary consequence."[o]
In early 1942 the Nazis built killing centres at Treblinka, Sobibor, and Belzec in occupied Poland. The death camps were to be the essential instrument of the “final solution.” The Einsatzgruppen had traveled to kill their victims. With the killing centres, the process was reversed. The victims were taken by train, often in cattle cars, to their killers. The extermination camps became factories producing corpses, effectively and efficiently, at minimal physical and psychological cost to German personnel. Assisted by Ukrainian and Latvian collaborators and prisoners of war, a few Germans could kill tens of thousands of prisoners each month. At Chelmno, the first of the extermination camps, the Nazis used mobile gas vans. Elsewhere they built permanent gas chambers linked to the crematoria where bodies were burned. Carbon monoxide was the gas of choice at most camps. Zyklon-B, an especially lethal killing agent, was employed primarily at Auschwitz and later at Majdanek.
A memorandum dated July 31, 1941, from Hitler’s top commander Hermann Goering to Reinhard Heydrich, chief of the SD (the security service of the SS), referred to the need for an Endlösung (final solution) to “the Jewish question.” Beginning in September 1941, every person designated as a Jew in German-held territory was marked with a yellow star, making them open targets. Tens of thousands were soon being deported to the Polish ghettoes and German-occupied cities in the USSR.
Half of the German divisions available in 1940 were combat ready but less well-equipped than the British and French or the Imperial German Army of 1914. In the spring of 1940, the German army was semi-modern, in which a small number of well-equipped and "elite" divisions were offset by many second and third rate divisions". In 2003, John Mosier wrote that while the French soldiers in 1940 were better trained than German soldiers, as were the Americans later and that the German army was the least mechanised of the major armies, its leadership cadres were larger and better and that the high standard of leadership was the main reason for the successes of the German army in World War II, as it had been in World War I.
At Auschwitz, after the chambers were filled, the doors were shut and pellets of Zyklon-B were dropped into the chambers through vents, releasing toxic prussic acid, or hydrogen cyanide. Those inside died within 20 minutes; the speed of death depended on how close the inmate was standing to a gas vent, according to the commandant Rudolf Höss, who estimated that about one-third of the victims died immediately. Johann Kremer, an SS doctor who oversaw the gassings, testified that: "Shouting and screaming of the victims could be heard through the opening and it was clear that they fought for their lives." The gas was then pumped out, the bodies were removed, gold fillings in their teeth were extracted, and women's hair was cut. The work was done by the Sonderkommando, work groups of mostly Jewish prisoners. At Auschwitz, the bodies were at first buried in deep pits and covered with lime, but between September and November 1942, on the orders of Himmler, they were dug up and burned. In early 1943, new gas chambers and crematoria were built to accommodate the numbers.
By mid-1942, the majority of those being sent by the Nazis to Auschwitz were Jews. Upon arriving at the camp, detainees were examined by Nazi doctors. Those detainees considered unfit for work, including young children, the elderly, pregnant women and the infirm, were immediately ordered to take showers. However, the bathhouses to which they marched were disguised gas chambers. Once inside, the prisoners were exposed to Zyklon-B poison gas. Individuals marked as unfit for work were never officially registered as Auschwitz inmates. For this reason, it is impossible to calculate the number of lives lost in the camp.
Most Holocaust historians define the Holocaust as the enactment, between 1941 and 1945, of the German state policy to exterminate the European Jews.[a] In Teaching the Holocaust (2015), Michael Gray, a specialist in Holocaust education, offers three definitions: (a) "the persecution and murder of Jews by the Nazis and their collaborators between 1933 and 1945", which views the events of Kristallnacht in Germany in 1938 as an early phase of the Holocaust; (b) "the systematic mass murder of the Jews by the Nazi regime and its collaborators between 1941 and 1945", which acknowledges the shift in German policy in 1941 toward the extermination of the Jewish people in Europe; and (c) "the persecution and murder of various groups by the Nazi regime and its collaborators between 1933 and 1945", which includes all the Nazis' victims. The third definition fails, Gray writes, to acknowledge that only the Jewish people were singled out for annihilation.
Buses leave Auschwitz I for Birkenau at a half past the hour, every hour. It costs two zloty and takes no more than five minutes. The experience of the camp is very different from Auschwitz I. For one thing it is much larger, covering over four hundred acres. It also retains the air of the place as it was when abandoned to a greater degree than the former camp. Some sixty seven buildings have survived virtually intact, and the interiors, with their stark wooden furnishings, take you right back to the war era. The other buildings remain as they were - some burnt to the ground and others massed up in heaps of rubble.
Remarkably, there were instances of individual resistance and collective efforts at fighting back inside Auschwitz. Poles, Communists and other national groups established networks in the main camp. Some Jews assaulted Nazi guards, even at the entrance to the gas chambers. In October 1944, the Sonderkommando crew at crematoria IV revolted and destroyed the crematoria. It was never used again.
In fall 1941, the Nazis began transporting Jews out of the ghetto. Most of them were sent to the Bełżec extermination camp and killed. On 13 March 1943, the ghetto was liquidated and those still fit for work were sent to the new concentration camp at Płaszów. Several thousand not deemed fit for work were sent to extermination camps and killed. Hundreds more were killed on the streets by the Nazis as they cleared out the ghetto. Schindler, aware of the plans because of his Wehrmacht contacts, had his workers stay at the factory overnight to prevent them coming to harm. Schindler witnessed the liquidation of the ghetto and was appalled. From that point forward, says Schindlerjude Sol Urbach, Schindler "changed his mind about the Nazis. He decided to get out and to save as many Jews as he could."