Deportees were brought to Auschwitz crammed in wretched conditions into goods or cattle wagons, arriving near a railway station or at one of several dedicated trackside ramps, including one next to Auschwitz I. The Altejudenrampe (old Jewish ramp), part of the Oświęcim freight railway station, was used from 1942 to 1944 for Jewish transports. Located between Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II, arriving at this ramp meant a 2.5 km journey to Auschwitz II and the gas chambers. Most deportees were forced to walk, accompanied by SS men and a car with a Red Cross symbol that carried the Zyklon B, as well as an SS doctor in case officers were poisoned by mistake. Inmates arriving at night, or who were too weak to walk, were taken by truck. Work on another railway line and Judenrampe (pictured right) between sectors BI and BII in Auschwitz II, was completed in May 1944 for the arrival of Hungarian Jews, who between May and early July 1944 were deported to Auschwitz II at a rate of 12,000 a day. The rails led directly to the area around the gas chambers.
The group raced to the English Channel, reaching the coast at Abbeville and cut off the BEF, the Belgian Army and some of the best-equipped divisions of the French Army in northern France. Armoured and motorised units under Guderian, Rommel and others, advanced far beyond the marching and horse-drawn infantry divisions and far in excess of that with which Hitler and the German high command expected or wished. When the Allies counter-attacked at Arras using the heavily armoured British Matilda I and Matilda II tanks, a brief panic was created in the German High Command. The armoured and motorised forces were halted by Hitler outside the port of Dunkirk, which was being used to evacuate the Allied forces. Hermann Göring promised that the Luftwaffe would complete the destruction of the encircled armies but aerial operations failed to prevent the evacuation of the majority of the Allied troops. In Operation Dynamo some 330,000 French and British troops escaped.
Born on April 28, 1908 in Austria-Hungary, Oskar Schindler was a German businessman and member of the Nazi party who built his career on finding opportunities to get rich. Although married, he was also known for his womanizing and his excessive drinking. Not the kind of individual you'd picture as a hero, right? But Schindler, despite his flaws, was just that to over 1,100 Jews whose lives he saved during the Holocaust in World War II. Perhaps it was because of — not despite — his duplicitous character that his story is made all the richer.
Schindler’s most effective tool in this privately conceived rescue campaign was the privileged status his plant enjoyed as a “business essential to the war effort” as accorded him by the Military Armaments Inspectorate in occupied Poland. This not only qualified him to obtain lucrative military contracts, but also enabled him to draw on Jewish workers who were under the jurisdiction of the SS. When his Jewish employees were threatened with deportation to Auschwitz by the SS, he could claim exemptions for them, arguing that their removal would seriously hamper his efforts to keep up production essential to the war effort. He did not balk at falsifying the records, listing children, housewives, and lawyers as expert mechanics and metalworkers, and, in general, covering up as much as he could for unqualified or temporarily incapacitated workers.
Guderian expressed a hearty contempt for General Ludwig Beck, chief of the General Staff from 1935 to 1938, whom he characterized as hostile to ideas of modern mechanised warfare: [Corum quoting Guderian] "He [Beck] was a paralysing element wherever he appeared....[S]ignificantly of his way of thought was his much-boosted method of fighting which he called delaying defence". This is a crude caricature of a highly competent general who authored Army Regulation 300 (Troop Leadership) in 1933, the primary tactical manual of the German Army in World War II, and under whose direction the first three panzer divisions were created in 1935, the largest such force in the world of the time.
On January 20, 1942, several top officials of the German government met to officially coordinate the military and civilian administrative branches of the Nazi system to organize a system of mass murder of the Jews. This meeting, called the Wannsee Conference, "marked the beinning of the full-scale, comprehensive extermination operation [of the Jews] and laid the foundations for its organization, which started immediately after the conference ended" (Yahil, The Holocaust, p. 318).
^ In his testimony, according to Polish historian Aleksander Lasik, "Höss neither protected anyone nor evaded his own responsibility. His stance came as a surprise to many, especially those who viewed him as a bloodthirsty beast. Instead, he viewed his crimes in terms of the technical obstacles and challenges with which he had to cope. Höss stated that he led the killings in Auschwitz on express orders of Reichsführer Himmler."
The first gas chamber at Birkenau was in what prisoners called the "little red house" (known as bunker 1 by the SS), a brick cottage that had been converted into a gassing facility. The windows were bricked up and its four rooms converted into two insulated rooms, the doors of which said "Zur Desinfektion" ("to disinfection"). It was operational by March 1942. A second brick cottage, the "little white house" or bunker 2, was converted and operational by June 1942. When Himmler visited the camp on 17 and 18 July 1942, he was given a demonstration of a selection of Dutch Jews, a mass killing in a gas chamber in bunker 2, and a tour of the building site of the new IG Farben plant being constructed at the nearby town of Monowitz.
Whilst carrying out this final evacuation the SS had set about removing evidence of their crimes. Many thousands of documents were set alight. Between 21 and 26 January 1945, the Germans blew up and partially dismantled the gas chambers and crematoria in Birkenau. Kanada II, the warehouse in which property plundered from victims of the gas chambers was stored and sorted, was also looted and set alight. Members of the Wehrmacht joined in the looting.
Here over an acre of ground lay dead and dying people. You could not see which was which. ... The living lay with their heads against the corpses and around them moved the awful, ghostly procession of emaciated, aimless people, with nothing to do and with no hope of life, unable to move out of your way, unable to look at the terrible sights around them ... Babies had been born here, tiny wizened things that could not live. ... A mother, driven mad, screamed at a British sentry to give her milk for her child, and thrust the tiny mite into his arms. ... He opened the bundle and found the baby had been dead for days. This day at Belsen was the most horrible of my life.
Each of the trains carried in excess of a thousand victims. Prisoners had been packed into cattle wagons with no room to sit, no food and two buckets: one for water and another to use as a toilet. The journey could last days on end, with the prisoners not knowing where they were passing through or where they were going. Many victims died during the journey as a result of suffocation, illness or hunger.
Hitler quickly moved to cement his power by suspending many civil liberties and allowing imprisonment without trial. By March, the first Nazi concentration camp was established at Dachau, not to imprison Jews but to hold political dissidents. Further laws targeted Jews, restricting the jobs they could hold and revoking their German citizenship. Anti-Semitic sentiment increased as the Jewish population was blamed for many of Germany's recent and historical problems.
Birkenau was subdivided into several sections, fairly isolated from one another, and each supporting its own unique cultural scene. There was a men’s camp, a women’s camp, and two ‘family camps’, one for Roma and Sinti, and the other for Jews brought from Theresienstadt. Both ‘family camps’ were eventually liquidated, but before then the inmates were allowed to live in relatively better conditions than the other inmates. They were not required to have their heads shaved, at least initially were given more generous rations and various other 'privileges', and above all were allowed to stay together as families. Each of these mini-camps supported its own band, as well as a variety of singing, performing and instrumental groups.
Memory is not something that is acquired once and stays on forever. The moment that the last eyewitnesses and survivors pass away, we have to work together to build on that which remains: the testimonies of those former prisoners and the authentic artifacts connected with Auschwitz. Each item can have its own enormous meaning and should find its place in the collection of the Auschwitz Memorial. Here, it will be preserved, studied, and displayed. Its place is here.
The first mass transport to Auschwitz I, which included Catholic prisoners, suspected members of the Polish resistance, and 20 Jews, arrived on 14 June 1940 from prison in Tarnów, Poland. They were interned in the former building of the Polish Tobacco Monopoly, adjacent to the site, until the camp was ready. By the end of 1940, the SS had confiscated land around the camp to create a 40-square-kilometre (15 sq mi) "zone of interest" surrounded by a double ring of electrified barbed wire fences and watchtowers. The inmate population grew quickly as the camp absorbed Poland's intelligentsia and dissidents. By March 1941, 10,900 were imprisoned there, most of them Poles.
After becoming Chancellor of Germany (head of government) in 1933, Adolf Hitler ignored the Versailles Treaty provisions. Within the Wehrmacht (established in 1935) the command for motorised armored forces was named the Panzerwaffe in 1936. The Luftwaffe (the German air force) was officially established in February 1935, and development began on ground-attack aircraft and doctrines. Hitler strongly supported this new strategy. He read Guderian's 1937 book Achtung – Panzer! and upon observing armoured field exercises at Kummersdorf he remarked, "That is what I want – and that is what I will have."
“I suddenly see Steinlauf, my friend aged almost fifty, with nude chest, scrub his neck and shoulders with little success (he has no soap) [He] sees me and asks me severely why I do not wash. Why should I wash? Would I be better off than I am? Would I please someone more? Would I live a day longer?…. Does Steinlauf not know that after half an hour with the coal sacks every difference between him and me will have disappeared?….
^ Historian H.P. Willmott writes that, "Many examples of the experiences and losses suffered by German formations moving up to the front are well known. Panzer Lehr, for instance, on 7 June alone lost 84 half-tracks, prime movers and self propelled guns, 40 fuel bowsers, 90 soft-skinned vehicles and five tanks as it made its way from Le Mans to Caen.
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.
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.
By the war’s end, approximately 1.25 million people had been killed here, more than 90 per cent of them Jewish. Birkenau was also where the infamous Dr Josef Mengele performed many of his experiments on pregnant women, dwarves, and twins. As was the case in the other camps of Auschwitz, there was a mass evacuation immediately before the Soviets reached the camp. Only a few thousand prisoners remained to be liberated when the Soviets arrived on 27 January 1945.
After Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, sparking World War II, the Germans converted Auschwitz I from an army barracks to hold Polish political prisoners. The first prisoners, German criminals brought to the camp as functionaries, arrived in May 1940, and the first gassing of prisoners took place in block 11 of Auschwitz I in September 1941. Auschwitz II–Birkenau went on to become a major site of the Nazis' Final Solution to the Jewish Question. From early 1942 until late 1944, transport trains delivered Jews from all over German-occupied Europe to the camp's gas chambers. Of the estimated 1.3 million people sent to Auschwitz, at least 1.1 million died, around 90 percent of them Jews. Approximately one in six Jews killed in the Holocaust died at the camp. Others deported to Auschwitz included 150,000 non-Jewish Poles, 23,000 Roma, 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war, 400 Jehovah's Witnesses, tens of thousands of others of diverse nationalities, and an unknown number of gay men. Many of those not killed in the gas chambers died because of starvation, forced labor, infectious diseases, individual executions, and medical experiments.
While some of the guiding conceptions of the Blitzkrieg were tried out in Ethiopia, the results were not considered conclusive. The Ethiopians were a semi-savage people, and they lacked the modern armament and equipment necessary to offer the Italian invaders the kind of resistance essential if Blitzkrieg were to receive a real and complete battlefield test. But Spain furnished a fine proving ground. Then Albania was a dress rehearsal. And in Poland the system was put to the final proof.
^ Nothing appeared in Luftwaffe 'doctrine' stipulating "terror" as a major operational factor. The method of "terror", was denied to German aerial operations (and strategic bombing methods) by the Luftwaffe field manual The Conduct of Air Operations, Regulation 16, issued in 1935 (Corum 1992, pp. 167–169). Regulation 16 denied "terror" operations against civilians, and it was not until 1942 when indiscriminate "terror" operations, in which terror and civilian casualties become the primary target, took place (Corum 1997, pp. 7, 143).
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.
By the spring of 1942, the Nazis had established six killing centers (death camps) in Poland: Chelmno (Kulmhof), Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, Maidanek and Auschwitz. All were located near railway lines so that Jews could be easily transported daily. A vast system of camps (called Lagersystem) supported the death camps. The purpose of these camps varied: some were slave labor camps, some transit camps, others concentration camps and their subcamps, and still others the notorious death camps. Some camps combined all of these functions or a few of them. All the camps were intolerably brutal.
Fewer than 200 Jews escaped from the camps. Herman Shine, one of the last survivors to have escaped Auschwitz, died in July 2018. He was born in Berlin to a Polish father and they were arrested in that city in 1939. Along with 1,700 other Polish Jews, they were deported to Sachsenhausen. To survive, Shine claimed to be a roofer and learned how to build roofs before being transferred to Auschwitz in 1942.
As the Red Army drew nearer in July 1944, the SS began closing down the easternmost concentration camps and evacuating the remaining prisoners westward to Auschwitz and Gross-Rosen concentration camp. Göth's personal secretary, Mietek Pemper, alerted Schindler to the Nazis' plans to close all factories not directly involved in the war effort, including Schindler's enamelware facility. Pemper suggested to Schindler that production should be switched from cookware to anti-tank grenades in an effort to save the lives of the Jewish workers. Using bribery and his powers of persuasion, Schindler convinced Göth and the officials in Berlin to allow him to move his factory and his workers to Brünnlitz (Czech: Brněnec), in the Sudetenland, thus sparing them from certain death in the gas chambers. Using names provided by Jewish Ghetto Police officer Marcel Goldberg, Pemper compiled and typed the list of 1,200 Jews—1,000 of Schindler's workers and 200 inmates from Julius Madritsch's textiles factory—who were sent to Brünnlitz in October 1944.