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.
Auschwitz-Birkenau is the generic name given to the cluster of concentration, labour and extermination camps established by the Nazis during the Second World War and located near the towns of Oświęcim and Brzezinka in southern Poland, some 60 km from Kraków. The camps have become a place of pilgrimage for survivors, their families and all who wish to travel to remember the Holocaust.
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 Theresienstadt family camp, which existed between September 1943 and July 1944, served a different purpose. A group of around 5,000 Jews had arrived in Auschwitz in September 1943 from the Theresienstadt ghetto in Czechoslovakia. The families were allowed to stay together, their heads were not shaved, and they could wear their own clothes. Correspondence between Adolf Eichmann's office and the International Red Cross suggests that the Germans set up the camp to cast doubt on reports, in time for a planned Red Cross visit to Auschwitz, that mass murder was taking place in Auschwitz. A second group of 5,000 arrived from Theresienstadt in December 1943. On 7 March 1944, the first group was sent to the gas chamber at crematorium III; before they died, they were asked to send postcards to relatives, postdated to 25 March. This was the largest massacre of Czechoslovak citizens in history. News of the liquidation reached the Czechoslovak government-in-exile, which initiated diplomatic manoeuvers to save the remaining Jews. After the Red Cross visited Theresienstadt in June 1944 and were persuaded by the SS that no deportations were taking place from there, about 3,500 Jews were removed from the family camp to other sections of Auschwitz. The remaining 6,500 were murdered in the gas chambers between 10 and 12 July 1944.
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In the final months of the war, SS guards moved camp inmates by train or on forced marches, often called “death marches,” in an attempt to prevent the Allied liberation of large numbers of prisoners. As Allied forces moved across Europe in a series of offensives against Germany, they began to encounter and liberate concentration camp prisoners, as well as prisoners en route by forced march from one camp to another. The marches continued until May 7, 1945, the day the German armed forces surrendered unconditionally to the Allies.
The number of Afro-Germans in Germany when the Nazis came to power is variously estimated at 5,000–25,000. It is not clear whether these figures included Asians. Although blacks, including prisoners of war, in Germany and German-occupied Europe were subjected to incarceration, sterilization, murder, and other abuse, there was no programme to kill them all as there was for the Jews.
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.
Auschwitz-Birkenau was the largest Nazi extermination and concentration camp, located in the Polish town of Oswiecim, 37 miles west of Cracow. One sixth of all Jews murdered by the Nazis were gassed at Auschwitz. In April 1940 SS chief Heinrich Himmler ordered the establishment of a new concentration camp in Oswiecim, a town located within the portion of Poland that was annexed to Germany at the beginning of World War II. The first Polish political prisoners arrived in Auschwitz in June 1940, and by March 1941 there were 10,900 prisoners, the majority of whom were Polish. Auschwitz soon became known as the most brutal of the Nazi concentration camps.
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.
Construction of crematorium I began at Auschwitz I at the end of June or beginning of July 1940. Initially intended not for mass murder but for prisoners who had been executed or had otherwise died in the camps, the crematorium was in operation from August 1940 until July 1943, by which time the crematoria at Auschwitz II had taken over. By May 1942 three ovens had been installed in crematorium I, which together could burn 340 bodies in 24 hours.
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".
The first 'bunker', with two sealed rooms, operated from January 1942 to the end of that year. The second, with four air tight rooms, became redundant in the spring of 1943, but remained standing and was used again in the autumn of 1944 when extra 'capacity' was needed for the murder of Hungarian Jews and the liquidation of the ghettos. The second measured about 1.134 square feet. The victims murdered in the 'bunkers' were first obliged to undress in temporary wooden barracks erected nearby. Their bodies were taken out of the gas chambers and pushed to pits where they were burned in the open. Between January 1942 and March 1943, 175,000 Jews were gassed to death here, of whom 105,000 were killed from January to March 1943.
These techniques were used to great effect in 1939, when the Polish Army was destroyed in a series of encirclement battles. In May 1940 Hitler attacked France, his panzer divisions smashing through slow-moving French formations and cutting off the British Expeditionary Force at Dunkirk. Spectacular success was also achieved during the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 and large numbers of Soviet troops were captured.
Paradoxically, at the same time that Germany tried to rid itself of its Jews via forced emigration, its territorial expansions kept bringing more Jews under its control. Germany annexed Austria in March 1938 and the Sudetenland (now in the Czech Republic) in September 1938. It established control over the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia (now in the Czech Republic) in March 1939. When Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, the “Jewish question” became urgent. When the division of Poland between Germany and the Soviet Union was complete, more than two million more Jews had come under German control. For a time, the Nazis considered shipping the Jews to the island of Madagascar, off the southeast coast of Africa, but discarded the plan as impractical; the Nazis had not prevailed in the Battle of Britain, the seas had become a war zone, and the resources required for such a massive deportation were scarce.
Ultimately, three SS guards were killed—one of whom was burned alive by the prisoners in the oven of Crematorium II—and 451 Sonderkommandos were killed. Hundreds of prisoners escaped, but all were soon captured and executed, along with an additional group who had participated in the revolt. Crematorium IV was destroyed in the fighting. A group of prisoners in the gas chamber of Crematorium V was spared in the chaos.
Tours provided by the museum in various languages cost 40 zł (discounted price for students up to 24 years of age is 30 zł) and are recommended if you want a deeper understanding of the site, but they are unfortunately somewhat rushed, and you can get a pretty good feel by buying a guidebook and map (small simple guide costs 5 zł) and wandering around on your own.
I have only ever seen this film once, I only ever want to see this film once and I will only ever need to see this film once. It is etched on my mind. I, like many others, left in silence. I could not imagine inventing a critical analysis of this film, picking small points of detail or of style, or even scoring points off the Director. It stands alone as a monumental piece of cinema, a magnificent accomplishment.
Repeat selections took place several times during the day in roll calls. Inmates who had become weak or ill were separated from the ranks and sent to the gas chambers. A brutal regimen based on a set of punishments and torture was invoked in the camp. Few managed to survive. In Auschwitz-Birkenau, more than 1,100,000 Jews, 70,000 Poles, 25,000 Sinti and Roma (Gypsies) and some 15,000 prisoners of war from the USSR and other countries were murdered.
The Auschwitz I main camp was a place of extermination, effected mainly by depriving people of elementary living conditions. It was also a centre for immediate extermination. Here were located the offices of the camp’s administration, the local garrison commander and the commandant of Auschwitz I, the seat of the central offices of the political department, and the prisoner labour department. Here too were the main supply stores, workshops and Schutzstaffel (SS) companies. Work in these administrative and economic units and companies was the main form of forced labour for the inmates in this camp.
Albert Goering loathed all of Nazism's inhumanity and at the risk of his career, fortune and life, used his name and connections to save hundreds of Jews and and political dissidents during the Second World War. After the war Albert Goering - savior of victims of the tyranny his brother helped create - was imprisoned for several years for his name alone. But his story is almost unknown: he was shoved into obscurity by the enormity of his brother's crimes.
Even before the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, they had made no secret of their anti-Semitism. As early as 1919 Adolf Hitler had written, “Rational anti-Semitism, however, must lead to systematic legal opposition.…Its final objective must unswervingly be the removal of the Jews altogether.” In Mein Kampf (“My Struggle”; 1925–27), Hitler further developed the idea of the Jews as an evil race struggling for world domination. Nazi anti-Semitism was rooted in religious anti-Semitism and enhanced by political anti-Semitism. To this the Nazis added a further dimension: racial anti-Semitism. Nazi racial ideology characterized the Jews as Untermenschen (German: “subhumans”). The Nazis portrayed the Jews as a race and not as a religious group. Religious anti-Semitism could be resolved by conversion, political anti-Semitism by expulsion. Ultimately, the logic of Nazi racial anti-Semitism led to annihilation.
The most notorious physician was Josef Mengele, an SS officer who became the Auschwitz camp doctor on 30 May 1943. Interested in genetics and keen to experiment on twins, he would pick out subjects from the new arrivals during "selection" on the ramp, shouting "Zwillinge heraus!" (twins step forward!). They would be measured, killed, and dissected. One of Mengele's assistants said in 1946 that he was told to send organs of interest to the directors of the "Anthropological Institute in Berlin-Dahlem". This is thought to refer to Mengele's academic supervisor, Otmar Freiherr von Verschuer , director from October 1942 of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Anthropology, Human Heredity, and Eugenics in Berlin-Dahlem.[i] Mengele's experiments included placing subjects in pressure chambers, testing drugs on them, freezing them, attempting to change their eye color by injecting chemicals into children's eyes, and amputations and other surgeries.
Similarly, in Ordinary Men (1992), Christopher Browning examined the deeds of German Reserve Police Battalion 101 of the Ordnungspolizei ("order police"), used to commit massacres and round-ups of Jews, as well as mass deportations to the death camps. The members of the battalion were middle-aged men of working-class background from Hamburg, who were too old for regular military duty. They were given no special training. During the murder of 1,500 Jews from Józefów in Poland, their commander allowed them to opt out of direct participation. Fewer than 12 men out of a battalion of 500 did so. Influenced by the Milgram experiment on obedience, Browning argued that the men killed out of peer pressure, not bloodlust.
Soon after his marriage, Schindler quit working for his father and took a series of jobs, including a position at Moravian Electrotechnic and the management of a driving school. After an 18-month stint in the Czech army, where he rose to the rank of Lance-Corporal in the Tenth Infantry Regiment of the 31st Army, Schindler returned to Moravian Electrotechnic, which went bankrupt shortly afterwards. His father's farm machinery business closed around the same time, leaving Schindler unemployed for a year. He took a job with Jarslav Simek Bank of Prague in 1931, where he worked until 1938.