Revisionism must not be taken to extremes. German operational successes in the early years of World War II were by no means the product of sheer good fortune. But neither did they reflect a coherent, planned approach to the diplomatic, economic, and military challenges that after 1918 confronted a state unwilling to accept the consequences of its defeat in World War I. What are commonly called blitzkrieg operations developed out of experiences gained on the field between 1939 to 1941. In that sense blitzkrieg is best understood as a post facto construction for explaining a complex structure of events and ideas.
During the era of the Holocaust, German authorities also targeted other groups because of their perceived racial and biological inferiority: Roma (Gypsies), people with disabilities, and some of the Slavic peoples (Poles, Russians, and others). Other groups were persecuted on political, ideological, and behavioral grounds, among them Communists, Socialists, Jehovah's Witnesses, and homosexuals.
Sunday was not a work day, but prisoners were required to clean the barracks and take their weekly shower, and were allowed to write (in German) to their families, although the SS censored the outgoing mail. Inmates who did not speak German would trade some of their bread for help composing their letters. Observant Jews tried to keep track of the Hebrew calendar and Jewish holidays, including Shabbat, and the weekly Torah portion. No watches, calendars, or clocks were permitted in the camp. Jewish calendars were rare among prisoners; being in possession of one was dangerous. Only two Jewish calendars made in Auschwitz survived to the end of the war. Prisoners kept track of the days in other ways, such as obtaining information from newcomers.
Measuring 270 by 490 metres (890 ft × 1,610 ft), the camp was larger than Auschwitz I. By the end of 1944, it housed 60 barracks measuring 17.5 by 8 metres (57 ft × 26 ft), each with a day room and a sleeping room containing 56 three-tiered wooden bunks. IG Farben paid the SS three or four Reichsmark for nine- to eleven-hour shifts from each worker. In 1943–1944, about 35,000 inmates worked at the plant; 23,000 (32 a day on average) died as a result of malnutrition, disease, and the workload. Deaths and transfers to Birkenau reduced the population by nearly a fifth each month; site managers constantly threatened inmates with the gas chambers. In addition to the Auschwitz inmates, who comprised a third of the work force, IG Auschwitz employed slave laborers from all over Europe. When the camp was liquidated in January 1945, 9,054 out of the 9,792 inmates were Jews.
The town of Auschwitz was a major railroad hub, with many train tracks coming into it, and a large marshaling yard near the Auschwitz station. Standing on the railroad overpass in 1941, Himmler realized that Birkenau was an ideal location for transporting people by rail from all over Europe, although the plans for exterminating the Jews were not finalized until the Nazis were confident that they would win their war against the Soviet Union.
Around 7,000 SS personnel were posted to Auschwitz during the war. Of these, 4 percent of SS personnel were officers and 26 percent were non-commissioned officers, while the remainder were rank-and-file members. Camp guards were members of the SS-Totenkopfverbände (Death's Head Units). Approximately three in four SS personnel worked in security. Others worked in the medical or political departments, in the camp headquarters, or in the economic administration, which was responsible for the property of dead prisoners. SS personnel at the camp included 200 women, who worked as guards, nurses, or messengers. About 120 SS personnel were assigned to the gas chambers and lived on site at the crematoria.
Now Albert Goering, who died in 1966, is being considered for an honour given to those who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. A file is being prepared at Yad Vashem The Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority, the Holocaust memorial and research centre in Israel, to put Albert Goering forward for the Righteous Among the Nations award. A campaign to honour him follows growing recognition of his efforts to save victims of the Nazis.
On January 20, 1942, several top officials of the German government met to officially coordinate the military and civilian administrative branches of the Nazi system to organize a system of mass murder of the Jews. This meeting, called the Wannsee Conference, "marked the beinning of the full-scale, comprehensive extermination operation [of the Jews] and laid the foundations for its organization, which started immediately after the conference ended" (Yahil, The Holocaust, p. 318).
There is no question that Oskar Schindler was appalled by the murder of Jewish children when the Krakow ghetto was closed but Crowe argues “evidence suggests that he had already chosen his path sometime before this tragedy” and that the murders “simply made him more determined to help as many Jews as he could.” In a film, of course, it is more challenging to portray gradual determination rather than a single moment that inspires action. However, Crowe writes, “In the end, there was no one, dramatic transforming moment when Oskar Schindler decided to do everything he could to save his Jewish workers.”
The British and American governments were reluctant to publicize the intelligence they had received. A BBC Hungarian Service memo, written by Carlile Macartney, a BBC broadcaster and senior Foreign Office adviser on Hungary, stated in 1942: "We shouldn't mention the Jews at all." The British government's view was that the Hungarian people's antisemitism would make them distrust the Allies if Allied broadcasts focused on the Jews. The US government similarly feared turning the war into one about the Jews; antisemitism and isolationism were common in the US before its entry into the war. Although governments and the German public appear to have understood what was happening, it seems the Jews themselves did not. According to Saul Friedländer, "[t]estimonies left by Jews from all over occupied Europe indicate that, in contradistinction to vast segments of surrounding society, the victims did not understand what was ultimately in store for them." In Western Europe, he writes, Jewish communities seem to have failed to piece the information together, while in Eastern Europe, they could not accept that the stories they heard from elsewhere would end up applying to them too.
In most ghettos, Nazis ordered the Jews to establish a Judenrat (Jewish council) to administer Nazi demands and to regulate the internal life of the ghetto. The Nazis routinely ordered deportations from the ghettos. In some of the large ghettos, 1,000 people per day were sent by rail to concentration and extermination camps. To get them to cooperate, the Nazis told the Jews they were being transported elsewhere for labor.
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.
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.
Schindler's ties with the Abwehr and his connections in the Wehrmacht and its Armaments Inspectorate enabled him to obtain contracts to produce enamel cookware for the military. These connections also later helped him protect his Jewish workers from deportation and death. As time went on, Schindler had to give Nazi officials ever larger bribes and gifts of luxury items obtainable only on the black market to keep his workers safe. Bankier, a key black market connection, obtained goods for bribes as well as extra materials for use in the factory. Schindler himself enjoyed a lavish lifestyle and pursued extramarital relationships with his secretary, Viktoria Klonowska, and Eva Kisch Scheuer, a merchant specialising in enamelware from DEF. Emilie Schindler visited for a few months in 1940 and moved to Kraków to live with Oskar in 1941.