Like the network of concentration camps that followed, becoming the killing grounds of the Holocaust, Dachau was under the control of Heinrich Himmler, head of the elite Nazi guard, the Schutzstaffel (SS), and later chief of the German police. By July 1933, German concentration camps (Konzentrationslager in German, or KZ) held some 27,000 people in “protective custody.” Huge Nazi rallies and symbolic acts such as the public burning of books by Jews, Communists, liberals and foreigners helped drive home the desired message of party strength.
May 16, 1944 - Jews from Hungary arrive at Auschwitz. Eichmann arrives to personally oversee and speed up the extermination process. By May 24, an estimated 100,000 have been gassed. Between May 16 and May 31, the SS report collecting 88 pounds of gold and white metal from the teeth of those gassed. By the end of June, 381,661 persons - half of the Jews in Hungary - arrive at Auschwitz.
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."
Once the strategic Schwerpunkt had been identified, the attack could commence, using the concept of Kesselschlacht (“cauldron battle”). A frontal attack would immobilize the enemy while forces on the flanks would execute a double envelopment, forming a pocket called a Kessel (“cauldron”) around the enemy. Once surrounded, the opposing army, demoralized and with no chance of escape, would face the choice of annihilation or surrender.
Following the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, Einsatzgruppen and, later, militarized battalions of Order Police officials, moved behind German lines to carry out mass-murder operations against Jews, Roma, and Soviet state and Communist Party officials. German SS and police units, supported by units of the Wehrmacht and the Waffen SS, murdered more than a million Jewish men, women, and children, and hundreds of thousands of others.
Most of the Jewish ghettos of General Government were liquidated in 1942–1943, and their populations shipped to the camps for extermination.[t] About 42,000 Jews were shot during the Operation Harvest Festival on 3–4 November 1943. At the same time, rail shipments arrived regularly from western and southern Europe at the extermination camps. Few Jews were shipped from the occupied Soviet territories to the camps: the killing of Jews in this zone was mostly left in the hands of the SS, aided by locally recruited auxiliaries.[u]
Many people ask, "Why didn't the Jews fight back?" Well, they did. With limited weapons and at a severe disadvantage, they found creative ways to subvert the Nazi system. They worked with partisans in the forests, fought to the last man in the Warsaw Ghetto, revolted at the Sobibor death camp, and blew up gas chambers at Auschwitz. Learn more about the resistance, both by Jews and non-Jews, to the Nazis.
In the spring of 1941, German conglomerate I.G. Farben established a factory in which its executives intended to exploit concentration camp labor to manufacture synthetic rubber and fuels. I.G. Farben invested more than 700 million Reichsmarks (about 2.8 million US dollars in 1941 terms) in Auschwitz III. From May 1941 until July 1942, the SS had transported prisoners from Auschwitz I to the “Buna Detachment,” at first on foot and later by rail. (Between July and October 1942 there was a pause in transports, due to a typhus epidemic and quarantine.) With the construction of Auschwitz III in the autumn of 1942, prisoners deployed at Buna lived in Auschwitz III.
After roll call, to the sound of "Arbeitskommandos formieren" ("form work details"), prisoners walked to their place of work, five abreast, to begin a working day that was normally 11 hours long—longer in summer and shorter in winter. A prison orchestra, such as the Women's Orchestra of Auschwitz, was forced to play cheerful music as the workers left the camp. Kapos were responsible for the prisoners' behavior while they worked, as was an SS escort. Much of the work took place outdoors at construction sites, gravel pits, and lumber yards. No rest periods were allowed. One prisoner was assigned to the latrines to measure the time the workers took to empty their bladders and bowels.
In the final days of the war, just before the entry of the Russian army into Moravia, Schindler managed to smuggle himself back into Germany, into Allied-controlled territory. The wartime industrial tycoon was by now penniless. Jewish relief organizations and groups of survivors supported him modestly over the years, helping finance his (in the long run, unsuccessful) emigration to South America. When Schindler visited Israel in 1961, the first of seventeen visits, he was treated to an overwhelming welcome from 220 enthusiastic survivors. He continued to live partly in Israel and partly in Germany. After his death in Hildesheim, Germany, in October 1974, the mournful survivors brought the remains of their rescuer to Israel to be laid to eternal rest in the Catholic Cemetery of Jerusalem. The inscription on his grave says: 'The unforgettable rescuer of 1,200 persecuted Jews".
On May 8, 1945, the war in Europe ended, and the next day Schindler and his wife fled the country with the help of several of the Schindlerjuden, as the Jews he saved came to be known. Schindler was wanted for war crimes in Czechoslovakia due to his earlier espionage activities. In 1949 they settled in Argentina with several of the Jewish families they had saved. Having spent the bulk of his profiteering fortune on bribes, Schindler unsuccessfully attempted to farm. He went bankrupt in 1957 and the next year traveled alone to West Germany, where he made an abortive entry into the cement business. Schindler spent the rest of his life supported by donations from the Schindlerjuden. He was named a Righteous Gentile by Yad Vashem in 1962 and was interred in the Catholic cemetery on Mount Zion in Jerusalem.
The crematoria consisted of a dressing room, gas chamber, and furnace room. In crematoria II and III, the dressing room and gas chamber were underground; in IV and V, they were on the ground floor. The dressing room had numbered hooks on the wall to hang clothes. In crematorium II, there was also a dissection room (Sezierraum). SS officers told the victims they were to take a shower and undergo delousing. The victims undressed in the dressing room and walked into the gas chamber, which was disguised as a shower facility; signs in German said "To the baths" and "To disinfection". Some inmates were even given soap and a towel.
Blitzkrieg tactics were used in the successful German invasions of Belgium, the Netherlands, and France in 1940, which saw audacious applications of air power and airborne infantry to overcome fixed fortifications that were believed by the defenders to be impregnable. The Kesselschlacht campaigns on the Eastern Front were staggering in scale, with Kessels that covered vast swathes of territory, enveloping hundreds of thousands of troops. Blitzkrieg tactics were also used by the German commander Erwin Rommel during the desert campaigns in North Africa.
[Steinlauf says] ‘…even in this place one can survive, and therefore one must want to survive, to tell the story, to bear witness; and that to survive we must force ourselves to save at least the skeleton, the scaffolding, the form of civilisation. We are slaves, deprived of every right, exposed to every insult, condemned to certain death, but… … we must certainly wash our faces without soap in dirty water and dry ourselves on our jackets…. …for dignity… We must walk erect, without dragging our feet… …to remain alive, not to begin to die.’”
Life within Nazi concentration camps was horrible. Prisoners were forced to do hard physical labor and given little food. Prisoners slept three or more to a crowded wooden bunk; bedding was unheard of. Torture within the concentration camps was common and deaths were frequent. At a number of concentration camps, Nazi doctors conducted medical experiments on prisoners against their will.
Throughout the late-1930s, the Nazi government began to forcibly acquire ethnically German territory in Austria and Czechoslovakia that was taken from Germany at the end of the First World War. Although the international community initially allowed Germany to incorporate these territories into the growing German Empire, it became increasingly clear that Hitler’s ambition did not stop at these small territories. When Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, Britain and France responded by declaring war on Germany, beginning the Second World War.
The German invasion of France, with subsidiary attacks on Belgium and the Netherlands, consisted of two phases, Operation Yellow (Fall Gelb) and Operation Red (Fall Rot). Yellow opened with a feint conducted against the Netherlands and Belgium by two armoured corps and paratroopers. Most of the German armoured forces were placed in Panzer Group von Kleist, which attacked through the Ardennes, a lightly defended sector that the French planned to reinforce if need be, before the Germans could bring up heavy and siege artillery.[h] There was no time for such a reinforcement to be sent, for the Germans did not wait for siege artillery but reached the Meuse and achieved a breakthrough at the Battle of Sedan in three days.
After the Allied landings at Normandy, the Germans began a counter-offensive to overwhelm the landing force with armoured attacks but these failed for lack of co-ordination and Allied superiority in anti-tank defence and in the air. The most notable attempt to use deep penetration operations in Normandy was Operation Luttich at Mortain, which only hastened the Falaise Pocket and the destruction of German forces in Normandy. The Mortain counter-attack was defeated by the US 12th Army Group with little effect on its own offensive operations.
At the three Reinhard camps the victims were killed by the exhaust fumes of stationary diesel engines. Gold fillings were pulled from the corpses before burial, but the women's hair was cut before death. At Treblinka, to calm the victims, the arrival platform was made to look like a train station, complete with fake clock. Majdanek used Zyklon-B gas in its gas chambers. In contrast to Auschwitz, the three Reinhard camps were quite small. Most of the victims at these camps were buried in pits at first. Sobibór and Bełżec began exhuming and burning bodies in late 1942, to hide the evidence, as did Treblinka in March 1943. The bodies were burned in open fireplaces and the remaining bones crushed into powder.
All of the musicians were required to perform forced labour in addition to their daily concerts. They were also subject to regular selections. As was the case in other camps, the musicians were required to play marches at the main gate when the work commandos left the camp in the morning and returned in the evening. Due to the forced labour, frequent selections, suicides and generally poor health of the musicians, by the end of the year the orchestra was shrinking rather than growing. Simultaneously, the sub-camp commander Johann Schwarzhuber, who provided the men with instruments and sheet music, increased his demands, seriously challenging Kopka's abilities. The latter became increasingly dependent on the arranging and conducting skills of Laks, who grew skilled at composing music with interchangeable parts in case of the sudden disappearance of a musician. Eventually Laks became the de facto conductor, a position made official when Kopka was sent to the front with the German army.
SS officers, including the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele, would conduct selections among these lines, sending most victims to one side and thus condemning them to death in the gas chambers. A minority was sent to the other side, destined for forced labor. Those who were sent to their deaths were killed that same day and their corpses were burnt in the crematoria. Those not sent to the gas chambers were taken to “quarantine,” where their hair was shaved, striped prison uniforms distributed, and registration took place. Prisoners’ individual registration numbers were tattooed onto their left arm.
Jews were forced to move, often to different cities or countries, and live in designated areas, referred to as ghettos. Most of the ghettos were “open” which meant Jews were free to come and go during the daytime. As time past, more and more ghettos became “closed” meaning that Jews were trapped and not allowed to leave. No ghettos were ever established within the borders of Germany and most were only meant as a temporary means of isolating Jews from the German population until they could be moved elsewhere.
The twin goals of racial purity and spatial expansion were the core of Hitler’s worldview, and from 1933 onward they would combine to form the driving force behind his foreign and domestic policy. At first, the Nazis reserved their harshest persecution for political opponents such as Communists or Social Democrats. The first official concentration camp opened at Dachau (near Munich) in March 1933, and many of the first prisoners sent there were Communists.
September 21, 1939 - Heydrich issues instructions to SS Einsatzgruppen (special action squads) in Poland regarding treatment of Jews, stating they are to be gathered into ghettos near railroads for the future "final goal." He also orders a census and the establishment of Jewish administrative councils within the ghettos to implement Nazi policies and decrees.
In the summer of 1942, Germany launched another offensive in the southern USSR against Stalingrad and the Caucasus, the Soviets again lost tremendous amounts of territory, only to counter-attack once more during winter. German gains were ultimately limited by Hitler diverting forces from the attack on Stalingrad and driving towards the Caucasus oilfields simultaneously. The Wehrmacht became overstretched, although winning operationally, it could not inflict a decisive defeat as the durability of the Soviet Union's manpower, resources, industrial base and aid from the Western Allies began to take effect.
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.