The direct reason for the establishment of the camp was the fact that mass arrests of Poles were increasing beyond the capacity of existing "local" prisons. The first transport of Poles reached KL Auschwitz from Tarnów prison on June 14, 1940. Initially, Auschwitz was to be one more concentration camp of the type that the Nazis had been setting up since the early 1930s. It functioned in this role throughout its existence, even when, beginning in 1942, it also became the largest of the death camps.
By mid-1944 those Jewish communities within easy reach of the Nazi regime had been largely exterminated, in proportions ranging from about 25 percent in France to more than 90 percent in Poland. On 5 May Himmler claimed in a speech that "the Jewish question has in general been solved in Germany and in the countries occupied by Germany". As the Soviet armed forces advanced, the camps in eastern Poland were closed down, with surviving inmates shipped to camps closer to Germany. Efforts were made to conceal evidence of what had happened. The gas chambers were dismantled, the crematoria dynamited, and the mass graves dug up and the corpses cremated. Local commanders continued to kill Jews, and to shuttle them from camp to camp by forced "death marches". Already sick after months or years of violence and starvation, some were marched to train stations and transported for days at a time without food or shelter in open freight cars, then forced to march again at the other end to the new camp. Others were marched the entire distance to the new camp. Those who lagged behind or fell were shot. Around 250,000 Jews died during these marches.
Inmates at Birkenau numbered around 100,000 at their peak. They were of many different nationalities, but the vast majority of those that entered the camp were unregistered Jews, many of whom were immediately sent to their deaths in the gas chambers. Women and children stood the least chance of survival, and many died even before arriving at Birkenau due to the appalling conditions of the railway journeys. The unloading platform, where the brisk selection process was conducted, remains. Apart from physically fit men (who often perished later from the rigours of the camp) it was often only an accident of birth that merited a possibility of survival. Large numbers of twins survived until liberation as they were objects of interest to the research of Dr. Josef Mengele - a man disliked even by his Nazi peers.
In 1993, Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List brought to the screen a story that had gone untold since the tragic events of the Holocaust. Oskar Schindler, a Nazi party member, used his pull within the party to save the lives of more than 1000 Jewish individuals by recruiting them to work in his Polish factory. Here are some facts about Spielberg’s groundbreaking film on its 25th anniversary.
In June 1941 Germany attacked the Soviet Union and began the "Final Solution." Four mobile killing groups were formed called Einsatzgruppen A, B, C and D. Each group contained several commando units. The Einsatzgruppen gathered Jews town by town, marched them to huge pits dug earlier, stripped them, lined them up, and shot them with automatic weapons. The dead and dying would fall into the pits to be buried in mass graves. In the infamous Babi Yar massacre, near Kiev, 30,000-35,000 Jews were killed in two days. In addition to their operations in the Soviet Union, the Einsatzgruppen conducted mass murder in eastern Poland, Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia. It is estimated that by the end of 1942, the Einsatzgruppen had murdered more than 1.3 million Jews.
The concepts associated with the term blitzkrieg—deep penetrations by armour, large encirclements, and combined arms attacks—were largely dependent upon terrain and weather conditions. Where the ability for rapid movement across "tank country" was not possible, armoured penetrations often were avoided or resulted in failure. Terrain would ideally be flat, firm, unobstructed by natural barriers or fortifications, and interspersed with roads and railways. If it were instead hilly, wooded, marshy, or urban, armour would be vulnerable to infantry in close-quarters combat and unable to break out at full speed. Additionally, units could be halted by mud (thawing along the Eastern Front regularly slowed both sides) or extreme snow. Operation Barbarossa helped confirm that armour effectiveness and the requisite aerial support were dependent on weather and terrain. It should however be noted that the disadvantages of terrain could be nullified if surprise was achieved over the enemy by an attack through areas considered natural obstacles, as occurred during the Battle of France when the German blitzkrieg-style attack went through the Ardennes. Since the French thought the Ardennes unsuitable for massive troop movement, particularly for tanks, they were left with only light defences which were quickly overrun by the Wehrmacht. The Germans quickly advanced through the forest, knocking down the trees the French thought would impede this tactic.
Blitzkrieg (German: "lightning war") is a method of fast-moving, air-and-land warfare first used extensively during World War II. German armies invading Poland in 1939 used tanks, armored trucks, self-propelled guns, and dive bombers to break through opposing forces and penetrate far behind their lines. During the invasion of the Low Countries and France in 1940, the German armored columns again used these tactics to shock and disorganize the defenders. On the Allied side, U.S. general George S. Patton exhibited (1944) particular skill in mobile warfare in Europe.
Among the key revelations in Crowe’s book: Oskar Schindler did not write out a list of people to save, he didn’t break down in tears because he thought he could have saved more people, and it is unlikely he experienced a defining moment, such as seeing a girl in a red coat, that led to his decision to save the lives of his Jewish workers. Steven Spielberg’s movie Schindler’s List, while important, impressive and admirable in many ways, took creative license on these and other issues.
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."
After Germany’s loss in WWI, the Treaty of Versailles punished Germany by placing tough restrictions on the country. The treaty made Germany take full responsibility for the war, reduced the extent of German territory, severely limited the size and placement of their armed forces, and forced Germany to pay the allied powers reparations. These restrictions not only increased social unrest but, combined with the start of the Great Depression, collapsed the German economy as inflation rose alongside unemployment.
In 2017 a Körber Foundation survey found that 40 percent of 14-year-olds in Germany did not know what Auschwitz was. The following year a survey organized by the Claims Conference, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and others found that 41 percent of 1,350 American adults surveyed, and 66 percent of millennials, did not know what Auschwitz was, while 22 percent said they had never heard of the Holocaust. A CNN-ComRes poll in 2018 found a similar situation in Europe.
The Germans did not achieve surprise and were not able to outflank or break through into enemy rear areas during the operation. Several historians assert that Operation Citadel was planned and intended to be a blitzkrieg operation.[i] Many of the German participants who wrote about the operation after the war, including Manstein, make no mention of blitzkrieg in their accounts.[j] In 2000, Niklas Zetterling and Anders Frankson characterised only the southern pincer of the German offensive as a "classical blitzkrieg attack". Pier Battistelli wrote that the operational planning marked a change in German offensive thinking away from blitzkrieg and that more priority was given to brute force and fire power than to speed and manoeuvre.
Despite, wide reporting of Holocaust atrocities including gas chambers, many prominent analysts doubted the authenticity of these reports. Prominently, Roger Allen, a member of the British Foreign Office discounted intelligence reports on the use of gas chambers in Polish extermination camps because he could “never understand what the advantage of a gas chamber over a simple machine gun or over starving people would be.”
France had approximately 300,000 Jews, divided between the German-occupied north and the unoccupied collaborationist southern areas under the Vichy regime. The occupied regions were under the control of a military governor, and there, anti-Jewish measures were not enacted as quickly as they were in the Vichy-controlled areas. In July 1940, the Jews in the parts of Alsace-Lorraine that had been annexed to Germany were expelled into Vichy France. Vichy France's government implemented anti-Jewish measures in French Algeria and the two French Protectorates of Tunisia and Morocco. Tunisia had 85,000 Jews when the Germans and Italians arrived in November 1942. An estimated 5,000 Jews were subjected to forced labor.
The photo below shows the railroad siding inside the camp, called the ramp, where the Jews exited from the trains and the selection process took place. Those who were fit for work were allowed to live for a few months, until they inevitably died of disease or overwork. The others were sent immediately to one of the four gas chambers at the far end of the camp. The gas chambers in Krema II and Krema III were at the end of the main camp road, which is shown on the left in the photo below. The railroad tracks extend about a mile into the camp, all the way to the gas chambers II and III; some of the Hungarian Jews were immediately gassed without going through a selection process, even though the Nazis were desperately in need of workers for their munitions factories. This photo was taken in the early morning, looking west from the gate house tower.
Several SS personnel oversaw the killings at each gas chamber, while the bulk of the work was done by the mostly Jewish prisoners known as Sonderkommandos (special squads). Hungarian doctor Miklós Nyiszli reported that the Sonderkommando numbered around 860 prisoners when the Hungarian Jews were being killed in May–July 1944. Their responsibilities included removing goods and corpses from the incoming trains, guiding victims to the dressing rooms and gas chambers, and working in the "Canada" barracks, where the victims' possessions were stored. Housed separately from other prisoners, in somewhat better conditions, their quality of life was further improved by access to the goods taken from murdered prisoners, which they were sometimes able to steal and trade on Auschwitz's black market. Many Sonderkommandos committed suicide in response to the horrors of their work; others were generally shot by the SS in a matter of weeks. New Sonderkommando units were formed from incoming transports. Almost none of the 2,000 prisoners placed in these units survived to the camp's liberation.
After those initial German successes, the Allies adopted this form of warfare with great success, beginning with Stalingrad and subsequently used by commanders such as U.S. Gen. George Patton in the European operations of 1944. The Germans’ last successful Kessel campaign was against the British paratroops at Arnhem, Netherlands, an encirclement that came to be known as the Hexenkessel (“witches’ cauldron”). By the end of the war, Germany found itself defeated by the strategic (Schwerpunkt) and tactical (Kesselschlacht) concepts that had initially brought it such success. German armies were destroyed at Falaise in France, the Scheldt in the Netherlands, and the Bulge in Belgium and on the Eastern Front at Cherkasy (in modern Ukraine), Memel (now Klaipėda, Lithuania), and Halbe, Germany. The last great battle of World War II fought using blitzkrieg tactics was the Battle of Berlin (April 1945).
Also in 1993, the United States Holocaust Memorial Council posthumously presented the Museum's Medal of Remembrance to Schindler. Rarely presented, this medal honors deserving recipients for extraordinary deeds during the Holocaust and in the cause of Remembrance. Emilie Schindler accepted the medal on behalf of her ex-husband at a ceremony in the Museum's Hall of Remembrance.
German forces had begun evacuating many of the death camps in the fall of 1944, sending inmates under guard to march further from the advancing enemy’s front line. These so-called “death marches” continued all the way up to the German surrender, resulting in the deaths of some 250,000 to 375,000 people. In his classic book “Survival in Auschwitz,” the Italian Jewish author Primo Levi described his own state of mind, as well as that of his fellow inmates in Auschwitz on the day before Soviet troops arrived at the camp in January 1945: “We lay in a world of death and phantoms. The last trace of civilization had vanished around and inside us. The work of bestial degradation, begun by the victorious Germans, had been carried to conclusion by the Germans in defeat.”
By the late 1930s there was a desperate search for countries of refuge. Those who could obtain visas and qualify under stringent quotas emigrated to the United States. Many went to Palestine, where the small Jewish community was willing to receive refugees. Still others sought refuge in neighbouring European countries. Most countries, however, were unwilling to receive large numbers of refugees.
Not long after acquiring his “Emalia” factory - which produced enamel goods and munitions to supply the German front - the removal of Jews to death camps began in earnest. Schindler's Jewish accountant put him in touch with the few Jews with any remaining wealth. They invested in his factory, and in return they would be able to work there and perhaps be spared. He was persuaded to hire more Jewish workers, designating their skills as “essential,” paying off the Nazis so they would allow them to stay in Kraków. Schindler was making money, but everyone in his factory was fed, no-one was beaten, no-one was killed. It became an oasis of humanity in a desert of moral torpor.
September 26, 1942 - SS begins cashing in possessions and valuables of Jews from Auschwitz and Majdanek. German banknotes are sent to the Reichs Bank. Foreign currency, gold, jewels and other valuables are sent to SS Headquarters of the Economic Administration. Watches, clocks and pens are distributed to troops at the front. Clothing is distributed to German families. By February 1943, over 800 boxcars of confiscated goods will have left Auschwitz.
^ Goebbels noted: "Regarding the Jewish question, the Fuhrer is determined to clear the table. He warned the Jews that if they were to cause another world war, it would lead to their own destruction. Those were not empty words. Now the world war has come. The destruction of the Jews must be its necessary consequence. We cannot be sentimental about it. It is not for us to feel sympathy for the Jews. We should have sympathy rather with our own German people. If the German people have to sacrifice 160,000 victims in yet another campaign in the east, then those responsible for this bloody conflict will have to pay for it with their lives."
October 16, 1946 - Göring commits suicide two hours before the scheduled execution of the first group of major Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg. During his imprisonment, a (now repentant) Hans Frank states, "A thousand years will pass and the guilt of Germany will not be erased." Frank and the others are hanged and the bodies are brought to Dachau and burned (the final use of the crematories there) with the ashes then scattered into a river.
No matter the ethical background of a student, the lesson that true good and true evil exist in the world is invaluable. This can be a difficult concept to convey without controversy. The concept of what is good and what is evil is not constant. This changes from person to person based on belief. There is, however, an area of absolutes that ought to be discussed so that students can know where and when to take a stand and for what cause. There are a few examples from history that can be used to have this discussion productively. One such example is the Nazi Holocaust. This terrifying case has absolutes that do not change. Thus persons and events from World War II can be used as examples of good and evil, and therefore can lead to productive discussions of ethics. A very good text to use in order to encourage this discussion is Schindler’s List by Thomas Keneally.
After the arrival of a transport at the ramp in Birkenau, the process known as selection took place. SS officers decided who would be taken to work, and who would be sent directly to the gas chambers. Often it was mere chance or the mood of the SS officer that decided whether someone died immediately or had a hope of survival. The prisoners selected for slave labour were sent to one of the many auxiliary camps at Auschwitz or elsewhere in the Nazi concentration camp system. Their aim was „Vernichtung durch Arbeit“ - extermination through labour.
Those who arrived in Birkenau were driven out of the cattle wagons and put in rows … to this the band played, made up of the best musicians among the prisoners; they played, depending on the origins of the transport, Polish, Czech, or Hungarian folk music. The band played, the SS pummelled, and you had no time to reflect … some were forced into the camp, the others into the crematoria.
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^ Now came the riposte - a counter-attack [...] from the forest of Villers-Cotterets [...]. The French had developed a light and fast-moving tank. Two generals, Debeney on the British right, and Mangin, to his right, began the tactics that were to become famous in 1940 as Blitzkrieg - tanks, fast-moving infantry, and aircraft flying low to keep the German gunners' heads down. Three hundred tanks (Renault) and eighteen divisions, two of them American, struck in open cornfield, entirely by surprise, and went five miles forward. With the whole of the German force in the Marne salient threatened by a cut-off, Ludendorff pulled back from it, back to Chemin des Dames. By 4 August the French had taken 30,000 prisoners and 600 guns.
The first experimental gassing took place in September 1941, when Lagerführer Karl Fritzsch, at the instruction of Rudolf Höss, killed a group of Soviet prisoners of war by throwing Zyklon B crystals into their basement cell in block 11 of Auschwitz I. A second group of 600 Soviet prisoners of war and around 250 sick Polish prisoners was gassed on 3–5 September. The morgue was later converted to a gas chamber able to hold at least 700–800 people. Zyklon B was dropped into the room through slits in the ceiling. In the view of Filip Müller, one of the Sonderkommando who worked in crematorium I, tens of thousands of Jews were killed there from France, Holland, Slovakia, Upper Silesia, Yugoslavia, and from the Theresienstadt, Ciechanow, and Grodno ghettos. The last inmates to be gassed in Auschwitz I, in December 1942, were 300–400 members of the Auschwitz II Sonderkommando, who had been forced to dig up that camp's mass graves, thought to hold 100,000 corpses, and burn the remains.
To complete this mission, Hitler ordered the construction of death camps. Unlike concentration camps, which had existed in Germany since 1933 and were detention centers for Jews, political prisoners and other perceived enemies of the Nazi state, death camps existed for the sole purpose of killing Jews and other “undesirables,” in what became known as the Holocaust.
Eventually, Birkenau held the majority of prisoners in the Auschwitz complex, including Jews, Poles, Germans, and Gypsies. Furthermore, it maintained the most degrading and inhumane conditions–inclusive of the complex’s gas chambers and crematoria. A third section, Auschwitz III, was constructed in nearby Monowitz, and consisted of a forced labor camp called Buna-Monowitz.
In the first few decades after the Holocaust, scholars argued that it was unique as a genocide in its reach and specificity. This began to change in the 1980s during the West German Historikerstreit ("historians' dispute"), an attempt to re-position the Holocaust within German historiography. Ernst Nolte triggered the dispute in June 1986 with an article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung: "Vergangenheit, die nicht vergehen will: Eine Rede, die geschrieben, aber nicht mehr gehalten werden konnte" ("The past that will not pass: A speech that could be written but not delivered"), in which he compared Auschwitz to the Gulag and suggested that the Holocaust was a response to Hitler's fear of the Soviet Union: "Was the Bolshevik murder of an entire class not the logical and factual prius of the 'racial murder' of National Socialism? ... Was the source of Auschwitz a past that would not go away?"[aa]
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.
Blitzkrieg is simply a swiftly executed encirclement that presents an enemy force with an unenviable choice: annihilation or surrender. The name conveys the speed, the force and the effect of the attack. It builds on a few innovations that the Germans borrowed from the best military thinkers of the time, which they then packed into a coherent, comprehensive tactic:
The British methods induced "strategic paralysis" among the Ottomans and led to their rapid and complete collapse. In an advance of 65 miles (105 km), captures were estimated to be "at least 25,000 prisoners and 260 guns." Liddell Hart considered that important aspects of the operation were the extent to which Ottoman commanders were denied intelligence on the British preparations for the attack through British air superiority and air attacks on their headquarters and telephone exchanges, which paralyzed attempts to react to the rapidly deteriorating situation.