^ In The Drowned and the Saved (1986), Levi wrote that the concentration camps represented the epitome of the totalitarian system: "[N]ever has there existed a state that was really "totalitarian" ... Never has some form of reaction, a corrective of the total tyranny, been lacking, not even in the Third Reich or Stalin's Soviet Union: in both cases, public opinion, the magistrature, the foreign press, the churches, the feeling for justice and humanity that ten or twenty years of tyranny were not enough to eradicate, have to a greater or lesser extent acted as a brake. Only in the Lager [camp] was the restraint from below nonexistent, and the power of these small satraps absolute."
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.
Oskar Schindler was born April 28, 1908, in the city of Svitavy [Zwittau], in the Sudetenland, now part of the Czech Republic. The eldest of two children, Oskar’s father, Hans Schindler, was a farm-equipment manufacturer, his mother, Louisa, was a homemaker. Oscar and his sister, Elfriede, attended a German-language school where he was popular, though not an exceptional student. Forgoing the opportunity to attend college, he went to trade school instead, taking courses in several areas.
^ The escapees included 396 Polish men and 10 Polish women; 164 men from the Soviet Union (including 50 prisoners of war), and 15 women; 112 Jewish men and three Jewish women; 36 Romani/Sinti men and two women; 22 German men and nine women; 19 Czech men and four women; two Austrians; one Yugoslav woman and one man; and 15 other men and one woman.
The book’s existence as something of a quasi-novel/biography serves the needs of Young Adult Readers in two very important ways. First, it makes factual accounts accessible and exciting. Rather than dispassionately seek the stark facts of The Holocaust and those who resisted it, readers are able to pathetically experience the suffering and moral conflict. Thus the faculties of imagination and empiricism are both equally engaged. This can lead to more exciting and productive discussions. Second, the reliability of this kind of novel in representing fact portrays the ethical difficulties inherent in The Holocaust. We Goeth as the monstrous sadist and mass murderer, but also as the companion, connoisseur, and host. We see Schindler as the philanthropist, but also as the womanizer and profiteer. The net result is that a Young Adult is presented with an ethical reality in which there are absolutes being encountered by fallible people, people who are not absolute.
After this night, the German government supported dozens of laws and decrees that took away Jews property and livelihood. By the end of the year, Jews were prohibited from attending school. One billion reichsmarks of Jewish property was seized as collective punishment against the nation’s Jews for the murder of von Rath. Those able to flee the country did. In the year after Kristallnact, more than 100,000 Jews left Germany as the situation deteriorated.
One of the most remarkable humanitarian acts performed by Oskar and Emilie Schindler involved the case of 120 Jewish male prisoners from Goleszow, a sub-camp of Auschwitz. The men had been working there in a quarry plant that belonged to the SS-operated company “German Earth and Stone Works.” With the approach of the Russian front in January 1945, they were evacuated from Goleszow and transported westward in sealed cattle-wagons, without food or water. At the end of a seven-day grueling journey in the dead of winter, the SS guards finally stationed the two sealed cattle-cars with their human cargo at the gates of Brunnlitz. Emilie Schindler was just in time to stop the SS camp commandant from sending the train back. Schindler, who had rushed back to the camp from some food-procuring errand outside, barely managed to convince the commandant that he desperately needed the people who were locked in the train for work.
Concentration camps began to incarcerate ‘habitual criminals’ in addition to political prisoners. Goebbels stepped up anti-Semitic propaganda with a traveling exhibition which cast Jews as the enemy. Nearly half a million people attended. Some guessed worse would come. Winston Churchill criticised British relations with Germany, warning of ‘great evils of racial and religious intolerance’, though many colleagues complained of his ‘harping on’ about Jews.
In less than 24 hours I shall be departing with my wife and two friends for a holiday in Krakow. As a minority of one I have been outvoted on whether we should visit Auschwitz Berkenau. Very reluctantly I will go. As an ex soldier, I am hardly a shrinking violet and perhaps more aware than some of the horrors of war or even lesser conflicts. I don't need to pore over such things. But many seem to cherish a ghoulish and prurient interest in such places. They are right to remember what happened there. From such knowledge mankind just might avoid or prevent anything similar happening again...but I doubt it. Look around the world. Horrors have existed, still exist and almost certainly will happen again. The scale is not the most significant factor. One child or adult butchered with machettes, bombs or bullets or bombs or tortured to death is just as horrific. Somehow I already feel guilty for allowing myself to go. For me it is almost on a par with digging up a coffin just to observe the putrefying remains of some departed soul. Why do some feel compelled to do that...does it awake in some a compassion that they did not previously have? No number of visits to such places can possibly make anyone feel and suffer as the inmates undoubtedly did. It takes some considerable effort to understand how a post-Auschwitz society can promote and run profiteering bus tours to one of the closest places humanity has to Hell. History cannot be changed by tears. Perhaps it is a forlorn hope but we would all do well to remember such places and events and then move forwards, using our best efforts to stop the slaughters that are occurring right now. That is where our consciences and efforts are most needed.