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.
In a blitzkrieg, tanks and troop-transport vehicles were concentrated, and massive attacks by dive bombers were conducted on enemy front-line positions. When these forces had broken through, they continued deep into enemy territory, encircling and cutting off the enemy. The techniques were first developed by the German army late in World War I in an effort to overcome static trench warfare, but the Germans lacked the mobility to succeed. Between the wars, armored tactics were further developed by Basil Liddell Hart and J. F. C. Fuller in Britain, Charles de Gaulle in France, and Heinz Guderian in Germany. Made chief of German mobile troops in 1938, Guderian led the drive across France in 1940.
The women's concentration camp (Frauenkonzentrationslager or FKL) was established in August 1942, in 15 brick and 15 wooden barracks in sector BIa (Bauabschnitt Ia) in Auschwitz II, when 13,000 women were transferred from Auschwitz I. The camp was later extended into sector BIb, and by October 1943 it held 32,066 women. Conditions in the camp were so poor that, in October 1942, when a group of male prisoners arrived to set up an infirmary, their first task, according to researchers from the Auschwitz museum, was to distinguish the corpses from the women who were still alive. Gisella Perl, a Romanian-Jewish gynecologist and inmate of the women's camp, wrote in 1948:
Museum curators consider visitors who pick up items from the ground to be thieves, and local police will charge them as such. The maximum penalty is a prison sentence of ten years. In June 2015, two British youths from the Perse School were convicted of theft after picking up buttons and shards of decorative glass from the ground near the area where camp victims' personal effects were stored. Curators said that similar incidents happen once or twice a year. The 16-ft Arbeit Macht Frei sign over the main camp's gate was stolen in December 2009 by a Swedish former neo-Nazi and two Polish men. The sign was later recovered.
Responding with alarm to Hitler’s rise, the Jewish community sought to defend their rights as Germans. For those Jews who felt themselves fully German and who had patriotically fought in World War I, the Nazification of German society was especially painful. Zionist activity intensified. “Wear it with pride,” journalist Robert Weltsch wrote in 1933 of the Jewish identity the Nazis had so stigmatized. Religious philosopher Martin Buber led an effort at Jewish adult education, preparing the community for the long journey ahead. Rabbi Leo Baeck circulated a prayer for Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) in 1935 that instructed Jews on how to behave: “We bow down before God; we stand erect before man.” Yet while few, if any, could foresee its eventual outcome, the Jewish condition was increasingly perilous and was expected to worsen.
On October 7, 1944, several hundred prisoners assigned to Crematorium IV at Auschwitz-Birkenau rebelled after learning that they were going to be killed. During the uprising, the prisoners killed three guards and blew up the crematorium and adjacent gas chamber. The prisoners used explosives smuggled into the camp by Jewish women who had been assigned to forced labor in a nearby armaments factory.
Entering conquered Soviet territories alongside the Wehrmacht (the German armed forces) were 3,000 men of the Einsatzgruppen (“Deployment Groups”), special mobile killing units. Their task was to murder Jews, Soviet commissars, and Roma in the areas conquered by the army. Alone or with the help of local police, native anti-Semitic populations, and accompanying Axis troops, the Einsatzgruppen would enter a town, round up their victims, herd them to the outskirts of the town, and shoot them. They killed Jews in family units. Just outside Kiev, Ukraine, in the ravine of Babi Yar, an Einsatzgruppe killed 33,771 Jews on September 28–29, 1941. In the Rumbula Forest outside the ghetto in Riga, Latvia, 25,000–28,000 Jews were shot on November 30 and December 8–9. Beginning in the summer of 1941, Einsatzgruppen murdered more than 70,000 Jews at Ponary, outside Vilna (now Vilnius) in Lithuania. They slaughtered 9,000 Jews, half of them children, at the Ninth Fort, adjacent to Kovno (now Kaunas), Lithuania, on October 28.
Starting out with 45 employees, the company grew to more than 1,700 at its peak in 1944. Initially, Schindler hired Jewish workers because they were a less expensive Polish workforce. But as Nazi atrocities against the Jewish community increased, Schindler’s attitude changed. With the help of Stern, he found reasons to hire more Jewish workers, regardless of their abilities. By 1942, nearly half of his employees were Jewish and were known as Schindlerjuden (Schindler Jews). When the Nazis began to relocate Krakow’s Jews to labor camps, Itzhak Stern and several hundred other employees were among them. Schindler raced to the train station and confronted an SS officer, arguing that his workers were essential to the war effort. After several tense minutes of dropping names and making veiled threats, Schindler was able to free his workers and escort them back to the factory.
At the end of the war, between 50,000 and 100,000 Jewish survivors were living in three zones of occupation: American, British and Soviet. Within a year, that figure grew to about 200,000. The American zone of occupation contained more than 90 percent of the Jewish displaced persons (DPs). The Jewish DPs would not and could not return to their homes, which brought back such horrible memories and still held the threat of danger from anti-Semitic neighbors. Thus, they languished in DP camps until emigration could be arranged to Palestine, and later Israel, the United States, South America and other countries. The last DP camp closed in 1957 (David S. Wyman, "The United States," in David S. Wyman, ed., The World Reacts to the Holocaust, Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996, pp. 70710).
When in August 1944 his factory was decommissioned, Schindler successfully petitioned to have it moved to Brnĕnec (Brünnlitz) in the Sudetenland, close to his hometown. Schindler and his associates composed a list of Jewish workers that he deemed essential for the new factory and submitted it for approval to the Jewish labour office. (With several versions of the list known, it is difficult to determine how many people were ultimately selected.) Though those chosen were diverted for a time to other concentration camps, Schindler intervened, ensuring that 700 men and 300 women eventually arrived at Brnĕnec. They were later joined by 100 more Jews who had been transported from another concentration camp by the Nazis and abandoned in train cars in Brnĕnec. Those who reached the camp spent the remaining months of the war manufacturing munitions that were rigged to fail. A final head count compiled at this time listed 1,098 Jews at the camp.
Over the decades that followed, ordinary Germans struggled with the Holocaust’s bitter legacy, as survivors and the families of victims sought restitution of wealth and property confiscated during the Nazi years. Beginning in 1953, the German government made payments to individual Jews and to the Jewish people as a way of acknowledging the German people’s responsibility for the crimes committed in their name.
To concentrate and monitor the Jewish population as well as to facilitate later deportation of the Jews, the Germans and their collaborators created ghettos, transit camps, and forced-labor camps for Jews during the war years. The German authorities also established numerous forced-labor camps, both in the so-called Greater German Reich and in German-occupied territory, for non-Jews whose labor the Germans sought to exploit.
David M. Crowe’s book Oskar Schindler: The Untold Account of His Life, Wartime Activities and the True Story Behind The List should be considered a classic in investigative and historical research. Based on interviews with dozens of Holocaust survivors saved by Oskar Schindler and with access to documents unavailable to Schindler’s List author Thomas Keneally, Crowe sheds light on one of the most dramatic and important stories to come out of World War II.
The rioting was triggered by the assassination of Ernst vom Rath, a German diplomat in Paris, by a Polish Jewish teenager, Herschel Grynszpan, on November 7th. Grynszpan did not attempt to escape and claimed that the assassination was motivated by the persecution of the Jewish people. Despite being attended to by Hitler’s personal physician, vom Rath died two days later.
In September 1939, Germany invaded Poland, starting World War II. Schindler left his wife and traveled to Krakow, hoping to profit from the impending war. Looking for business opportunities, he quickly became involved in the black market. By October, Schindler used his charm and doled out “gifts of gratitude” (contraband goods) to bribe high-ranking German officers. Wanting to expand his business interests, Schindler obtained a former Jewish enamelware factory to produce goods for the German military.
Throughout the Middle Ages in Europe, Jews were subjected to antisemitism based on Christian theology, which blamed them for killing Jesus. Even after the Reformation, Catholicism and Lutheranism continued to persecute Jews, accusing them of blood libels and subjecting them to pogroms and expulsions. The second half of the 19th century saw the emergence in the German empire and Austria-Hungary of the völkisch movement, which was developed by such thinkers as Houston Stewart Chamberlain and Paul de Lagarde. The movement embraced a pseudo-scientific racism that viewed Jews as a race whose members were locked in mortal combat with the Aryan race for world domination. These ideas became commonplace throughout Germany, with the professional classes adopting an ideology that did not see humans as racial equals with equal hereditary value. Although the völkisch parties had support in elections at first, by 1914 they were no longer influential. This did not mean that antisemitism had disappeared; instead it was incorporated into the platforms of several mainstream political parties.
When Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, triggering World War II, Adolf Hitler ordered that the Polish leadership and intelligentsia be destroyed. Approximately 65,000 civilians, viewed as inferior to the Aryan master race, had been killed by the end of 1939. In addition to leaders of Polish society, the Nazis killed Jews, prostitutes, the Roma, and the mentally ill. SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich, then head of the Gestapo, ordered on 21 September 1939 that Polish Jews be rounded up and concentrated into cities with good rail links. Initially the intention was to deport them to points further east, or possibly to Madagascar. Two years later, in June 1941, in an attempt to obtain new territory, Hitler invaded the Soviet Union.
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.
By 1943 it was evident to the armed forces leadership that Germany was losing the war. The mass murder continued nevertheless, reaching a "frenetic" pace in 1944. Auschwitz was gassing up to 6,000 Jews a day by spring that year. On 19 March 1944, Hitler ordered the military occupation of Hungary and dispatched Eichmann to Budapest to supervise the deportation of the country's Jews. From 22 March, Jews were required to wear the yellow star; forbidden from owning cars, bicycles, radios or telephones; then forced into ghettos. From 15 May to 9 July, 440,000 Jews were deported from Hungary to Auschwitz-Birkenau, almost all to the gas chambers.[v] A month before the deportations began, Eichmann offered to exchange one million Jews for 10,000 trucks and other goods from the Allies, the so-called "blood for goods" proposal. The Times called it "a new level of fantasy and self-deception".
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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.
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."