You find gripping and horrifying stories of Adolf Hitler and his most ruthless henchmen - men often seen as the very personifications of evil, like Rudolf Hoess, the SS Commandant of Auschwitz, the Nazi butcher Amon Goeth at Plaszow and Josef Mengele, The Angel Of Death. You may read about Hitler's wife, Eva Braun, or Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, Chief of the German Military Intelligence who was a dedicated anti-Nazi and held Hitler in utter contempt. He tried to put a stop to the crimes of war and genocide committed by the Nazis.
The Polish government has maintained the site as a memorial for all those who perished there during World War II. Unlike the main camp at Auschwitz, Birkenau is not a museum, research archive, or publishing house. It is preserved more or less in the state it was found at liberation in January 1945. However, only a few of the wooden barracks remain and are now being restored. The brick barracks and other structures in the women’s camp still stand. All four Birkenau krematoria were dynamited by the retreating SS, however their ruins can still be seen.
When Hitler came to power legally on January 30, 1933, as the head of a coalition government, his first objective was to consolidate power and to eliminate political opposition. The assault against the Jews began on April 1 with a boycott of Jewish businesses. A week later the Nazis dismissed Jews from the civil service, and by the end of the month the participation of Jews in German schools was restricted by a quota. On May 10 thousands of Nazi students, together with many professors, stormed university libraries and bookstores in 30 cities throughout Germany to remove tens of thousands of books written by non-Aryans and those opposed to Nazi ideology. The books were tossed into bonfires in an effort to cleanse German culture of “un-Germanic” writings. A century earlier Heinrich Heine—a German poet of Jewish origin—had said, “Where one burns books, one will, in the end, burn people.” In Nazi Germany the time between the burning of Jewish books and the burning of Jews was eight years.
During World War One, the armies of the two Allies had dug in for what became a long, drawn-out conflict. And in 1940, influenced by this experience, the British and French leaders of World War Two were still expecting to fight a war in which the defensive would dominate. With this approach in mind, the French army was sent to man France's heavily fortified border with Germany, the Maginot Line, and to await a German attack. The BEF was sent to join the line of French troops defending the border with Belgium.
The majority—probably about 90%—of the victims of Auschwitz Concentration Camp died in Birkenau. This means approximately a million people. The majority, more than nine out of every ten, were Jews. A large proportion of the more than 70 thousand Poles who died or were killed in the Auschwitz complex perished in Birkenau. So did approximately 20 thousand Gypsies, in addition to Soviet POWs and prisoners of other nationalities.
In April 1940, Rudolph Höss, who become the first commandant, identified the Silesian town of Oswiecim as a possible site for a concentration camp. The function of the camp was initially to intimidate Poles and prevent resistance to German rule. It was also perceived as a cornerstone of the policy to re-colonize Upper Silesia, which had once been a German region, with 'pure Aryans'. On April 27th, Himmler ordered construction of the camp.
Following Germany's military reforms of the 1920s, Heinz Guderian emerged as a strong proponent of mechanized forces. Within the Inspectorate of Transport Troops, Guderian and colleagues performed theoretical and field exercise work. There was opposition from many officers who gave primacy to the infantry or simply doubted the usefulness of the tank. Among them was Chief of the General Staff Ludwig Beck (1935–38), who skeptical that armored forces could be decisive. Nonetheless, the panzer divisions were established during his tenure.
“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.
After attending a series of trade schools in Brno and marrying Emilie Pelzl in 1928, Schindler held a variety of jobs, including working in his father's farm machinery business in Svitavy, opening a driving school in Sumperk, and selling government property in Brno. He also served in the Czechoslovak army and in 1938 attained the rank of lance corporal in the reserves. Schindler began working with the Amt Auslands/Abwehr (Office of the Military Foreign Intelligence) of the German Armed Forces in 1936. In February 1939, five months after the German annexation of the Sudetenland, he joined the Nazi Party. An opportunist businessman with a taste for the finer things in life, he seemed an unlikely candidate to become a wartime rescuer. During World War II, Schindler would rescue more than 1,000 Jews from deportation to Auschwitz, Nazi Germany's largest camp complex.
The prisoners working in the Kanada Kommando lived in barracks. The barracks were inside the warehouse, away from the rest of the prisoners in the camp. They were in a better position than the other inmates. They could take extra food on which to survive, a pair of shoes or extra clothing to protect themselves from the severe winter weather. Some smuggled valuables to bribe the kapos or guards. If they were caught, they were killed.
There's a basic cafe and cafeteria in the main visitors' centre of Auschwitz I and a coffee machine in the bookshop at Birkenau. More options are in a commercial complex across the street from Auschwitz I, although the quality of one (the Art Hamburger) is rather poor, but a cheap and quick eat. There are hot dog stalls and similar outlets outside the main museum at the end of the bus/car park, with food and drink combinations costing 10-12 zł. The car park outside Auschwitz I also has picnic tables for visitors.
Treatment inside the concentration camps were horrible. Prisoners were given tiny rations of food and forced into physical labor. They often slept more than three to a bed without pillows or blankets, even in the winter months. In many concentration camps, Nazi doctors conducted medical experiments on prisoners against their will, in many cases killing the prisoners in the process.
Driving from Kraków takes about one hour and you have to leave the A4 motorway at the Oświęcim/Balin exit. There is a big parking lot in Auschwitz I that costs 8 zł for the whole day. 200 metres from Auschwitz II there is another parking lot that costs 2 zł per hour, but also free space for around 40 cars near the main door. As of 2017, it is possible to find legal free parking within 1 km from Auschwitz I.
On November 9-10, 1938, the attacks on the Jews became violent. Hershel Grynszpan, a 17-year-old Jewish boy distraught at the deportation of his family, shot Ernst vom Rath, the third secretary in the German Embassy in Paris, who died on November 9. Nazi hooligans used this assassination as the pretext for instigating a night of destruction that is now known as Kristallnacht (the night of broken glass). They looted and destroyed Jewish homes and businesses and burned synagogues. Many Jews were beaten and killed; 30,000 Jews were arrested and sent to concentration camps.
From the earliest years of the Nazi regime, German authorities persecuted homosexuals and others whose behavior did not match prescribed social norms. German police officials targeted thousands of political opponents (including Communists, Socialists, and trade unionists) and religious dissidents (such as Jehovah's Witnesses). Many of these individuals died as a result of incarceration and maltreatment.
Birkenau (Auschwitz II) was established in October 1941, three kilometers from Auschwitz. Exterminations in Birkenau began in March 1942. There were four gas chambers in the camp that used Zyklon B gas. Until November 1944 the camp functioned as a factory for mass murder, receiving transports from all over Europe. Most of those brought to the camp were Jews and nearly all were immediately sent to the gas chambers. Only a small percentage was selected for labor in the camp itself, labor in munitions plants at satellite camps, or the “medical” experiments of Dr. Josef Mengele and his staff. In the spring and summer of 1944, the rate of extermination was increased as the Jews of Hungary and the Lodz ghetto were brought to the camp.
John Ellis wrote that "...there is considerable justice in Matthew Cooper's assertion that the panzer divisions were not given the kind of strategic mission that was to characterize authentic armoured blitzkrieg, and were almost always closely subordinated to the various mass infantry armies." Steven Zaloga wrote, "Whilst Western accounts of the September campaign have stressed the shock value of the panzer and Stuka attacks, they have tended to underestimate the punishing effect of German artillery on Polish units. Mobile and available in significant quantity, artillery shattered as many units as any other branch of the Wehrmacht."
The last German offensive on the Western front, the Battle of the Bulge (Operation Wacht am Rhein), was an offensive launched towards the port of Antwerp in December 1944. Launched in poor weather against a thinly held Allied sector, it achieved surprise and initial success as Allied air power was grounded by cloud cover. Determined defence by US troops in places throughout the Ardennes, the lack of good roads and German supply shortages caused delays. Allied forces deployed to the flanks of the German penetration and as soon as the skies cleared, Allied aircraft returned to the battlefield. Allied counter-attacks soon forced back the Germans, who abandoned much equipment for lack of fuel.
Throughout German-occupied territory the situation of the Jews was desperate. They had meagre resources and few allies and faced impossible choices. A few people came to their rescue, often at the risk of their own lives. Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg arrived in Budapest on July 9, 1944, in an effort to save Hungary’s sole remaining Jewish community. Over the next six months, he worked with other neutral diplomats, the Vatican, and Jews themselves to prevent the deportation of these last Jews. Elsewhere, Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, a French Huguenot village, became a haven for 5,000 Jews. In German-occupied Poland, where it was illegal to aid Jews and where such action was punishable by death, the Zegota (Council for Aid to Jews) rescued a similar number of Jewish men, women, and children. Financed by the London-based Polish government in exile and involving a wide range of clandestine political organizations, Zegota provided hiding places and financial support and forged identity documents.
In September 1939, the German army occupied the western half of Poland. German police soon forced tens of thousands of Polish Jews from their homes and into ghettoes, giving their confiscated properties to ethnic Germans (non-Jews outside Germany who identified as German), Germans from the Reich or Polish gentiles. Surrounded by high walls and barbed wire, the Jewish ghettoes in Poland functioned like captive city-states, governed by Jewish Councils. In addition to widespread unemployment, poverty and hunger, overpopulation made the ghettoes breeding grounds for disease such as typhus.
Auschwitz, perhaps the most notorious and lethal of the concentration camps, was actually three camps in one: a prison camp (Auschwitz I), an extermination camp (Auschwitz II–Birkenau), and a slave labour camp (Auschwitz III–Buna-Monowitz). Upon arrival, Jewish prisoners faced what was called a Selektion. A German doctor presided over the selection of pregnant women, young children, the elderly, handicapped, sick, and infirm for immediate death in the gas chambers. As necessary, the Germans selected able-bodied prisoners for forced labour in the factories adjacent to Auschwitz, where one German company, IG Farben, invested 700 million Reichsmarks in 1942 alone to take advantage of forced labour, a capital investment. The conglomerate presumed that slave labour would be a permanent part of the German economy. Deprived of adequate food, shelter, clothing, and medical care, these prisoners were literally worked to death. Periodically, they would face another Selektion. The Nazis would transfer those unable to work to the gas chambers of Birkenau.
Rather than repeating the World War One Schlieffen Plan, the Germans in 1940 advanced with their main thrust through the Ardennes Forest, in order to smash the vulnerable flank of the Allies. As 29 German divisions advanced through the Netherlands and Belgium in the north, 45 further divisions, including about 2,400 tanks in 7 divisions, burst through the Allied right flank and drove towards the English Channel.
Schindler joined the separatist Sudeten German Party in 1935. Although he was a citizen of Czechoslovakia, Schindler became a spy for the Abwehr, the military intelligence service of Nazi Germany, in 1936. He was assigned to Abwehrstelle II Commando VIII, based in Breslau. He later told Czech police that he did it because he needed the money; by this time Schindler had a drinking problem and was chronically in debt.