By mid-1944 those Jewish communities within easy reach of the Nazi regime had been largely exterminated, in proportions ranging from about 25 percent in France to more than 90 percent in Poland. On 5 May Himmler claimed in a speech that "the Jewish question has in general been solved in Germany and in the countries occupied by Germany". As the Soviet armed forces advanced, the camps in eastern Poland were closed down, with surviving inmates shipped to camps closer to Germany. Efforts were made to conceal evidence of what had happened. The gas chambers were dismantled, the crematoria dynamited, and the mass graves dug up and the corpses cremated. Local commanders continued to kill Jews, and to shuttle them from camp to camp by forced "death marches". Already sick after months or years of violence and starvation, some were marched to train stations and transported for days at a time without food or shelter in open freight cars, then forced to march again at the other end to the new camp. Others were marched the entire distance to the new camp. Those who lagged behind or fell were shot. Around 250,000 Jews died during these marches.
There was one latrine for thirty to thirty-two thousand women and we were permitted to use it only at certain hours of the day. We stood in line to get in to this tiny building, knee-deep in human excrement. As we all suffered from dysentry, we could barely wait until our turn came, and soiled our ragged clothes, which never came off our bodies, thus adding to the horror of our existence by the terrible smell that surrounded us like a cloud. The latrine consisted of a deep ditch with planks thrown across it at certain intervals. We squatted on those planks like birds perched on a telegraph wire, so close together that we could not help soiling one another.
After the start of World War II, Adolf Hitler (1889-1945), the chancellor of Germany from 1933 to 1945, implemented a policy that came to be known as the “Final Solution.” Hitler was determined not just to isolate Jews in Germany and countries annexed by the Nazis, subjecting them to dehumanizing regulations and random acts of violence. Instead, he became convinced that his “Jewish problem” would be solved only with the elimination of every Jew in his domain, along with artists, educators, Gypsies, communists, homosexuals, the mentally and physically handicapped and others deemed unfit for survival in Nazi Germany.
Overall 268,657 male and 131,560 female prisoners were registered in Auschwitz, 400,207 in total. Many prisoners were never registered and much evidence was destroyed by the SS in the final days of the war, making the number of victims hard to ascertain. Himmler visited the camp on 17 July 1942 and watched a gassing; a few days later, according to Höss's post-war memoir, Höss received an order from Himmler, via Adolf Eichmann's office and SS commander Paul Blobel, that "[a]ll mass graves were to be opened and the corpses burned. In addition the ashes were to be disposed of in such a way that it would be impossible at some future time to calculate the number of corpses burned."
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.
Slovak rabbi Michael Dov Weissmandl was the first to suggest, in May 1944, that the Allies bomb the rails leading to Auschwitz. At one point British Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered that such a plan be prepared, but he was told that precision bombing the camp to free the prisoners or disrupt the railway was not technically feasible.[not in citation given] In 1978, historian David Wyman published an essay in Commentary entitled "Why Auschwitz Was Never Bombed", arguing that the United States Army Air Forces had the capability to attack Auschwitz and should have done so; he expanded his arguments in his book The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust 1941–1945 (1984). Wyman argued that, since the IG Farben plant at Auschwitz III had been bombed three times between August and December 1944 by the US Fifteenth Air Force in Italy, it would have been feasible for the other camps or railway lines to be bombed too. Bernard Wasserstein's Britain and the Jews of Europe (1979) and Martin Gilbert's Auschwitz and the Allies (1981) raised similar questions about British inaction. Since the 1990s, other historians have argued that Allied bombing accuracy was not sufficient for Wyman's proposed attack, and that counterfactual history is an inherently problematic endeavor.
In the aftermath of the Holocaust, many of the survivors found shelter in displaced persons camps administered by the Allied powers. Between 1948 and 1951, almost 700,000 Jews emigrated to Israel, including 136,000 Jewish displaced persons from Europe. Other Jewish displaced persons emigrated to the United States and other nations. The last camp for Jewish displaced persons closed in 1957.
There have been protracted disputes over the perceived Christianization of the site. Pope John Paul II celebrated mass over the train tracks leading to Auschwitz II-Birkenau on 7 June 1979, and called the camp "the Golgotha of our age", referring to the crucifixion of Jesus. More controversy followed when Carmelite nuns founded a convent in 1984 in a former theater outside the camp's perimeter, near block 11 of Auschwitz I, after which a local priest and some survivors erected a large cross—one that had been used during the pope's mass—behind block 11 to commemorate 152 Polish inmates shot by the Germans in 1941. After a long dispute, Pope John Paul II intervened, and the nuns moved the convent elsewhere in 1993. The cross remained, triggering the "War of the Crosses", as more crosses were erected to commemorate Christian victims, despite international objections. The Polish government and Catholic Church eventually agreed to remove all but the original.
Birkenau was also home to two so-called family camps. Inmates from the Czech ‘model ghetto’ Theresienstadt were deported in several transports to Birkenau, where they lived in the ‘family camp’, did not have their heads shaved, were better fed, and were freed from slave labour assignments. They were also allowed far more freedom to create and continue the cultural production that had been the hallmark of life in Theresienstadt. As was the case in Theresienstadt, however, this ‘generosity’ was solely for the sake of propaganda, only temporarily delaying the killing. There was in the family camp a small musical group that was frequently required to play for the SS while they were drinking, as well as during public beatings. Perhaps the cruellest freedom allowed the Czech camp was the freedom to educate their children. Lessons were given in reading and counting. There were also singing and recorder lessons, with a focus on Jewish and Czech music. In two major killing waves of March and July 1944, the Theresienstadt family camp was liquidated.
Following Germany's military reforms of the 1920s, Heinz Guderian emerged as a strong proponent of mechanised forces. Within the Inspectorate of Transport Troops, Guderian and colleagues performed theoretical and field exercise work. Guderian met with opposition from some in the General Staff, who were distrustful of the new weapons and who continued to view the infantry as the primary weapon of the army. Among them, Guderian claimed, was Chief of the General Staff Ludwig Beck (1935–38), whom he alleged was sceptical that armoured forces could be decisive. This claim has been disputed by later historians. James Corum wrote:
The fire signaled the demise of German democracy. On the next day, the government, under the pretense of controlling the Communists, abolished individual rights and protections: freedom of the press, assembly, and expression were nullified, as well as the right to privacy. When the elections were held on March 5, the Nazis received nearly 44 percent of the vote, and with 8 percent offered by the Conservatives, won a majority in the government.
Camp commandant Rudolf Höss was arrested by the British at a farm near Flensburg, Germany, on 11 March 1946, where he had been working under the pseudonym Franz Lang. He was imprisoned in Heide, then transferred to Minden for interrogation, part of the British occupation zone. From there he was taken to Nuremberg to testify for the defense in the trial of SS-Obergruppenführer Ernst Kaltenbrunner. Höss was straightforward about his own role in the mass murder and said he had followed the orders of Heinrich Himmler.[g] Extradited to Poland on 25 May 1946, he wrote his memoirs in custody, first published in Polish in 1951 then in German in 1958 as Kommandant in Auschwitz. His trial before the Supreme National Tribunal in Warsaw opened on 11 March 1947; he was sentenced to death on 2 April and hanged in Auschwitz I, near crematorium I, on 16 April.
Auschwitz originally was conceived as a concentration camp, to be used as a detention center for the many Polish citizens arrested after Germany annexed the country in 1939. These detainees included anti-Nazi activists, politicians, resistance members and luminaries from the cultural and scientific communities. Once Hitler’s Final Solution became official Nazi policy, however, Auschwitz was deemed an ideal death camp locale. For one thing, it was situated near the center of all German-occupied countries on the European continent. For another, it was in close proximity to the string of rail lines used to transport detainees to the network of Nazi camps.
In late January 1945, SS and police officials forced 4,000 prisoners to evacuate Blechhammer on foot. Blechhammer was a subcamp of Auschwitz-Monowitz. The SS murdered about 800 prisoners during the march to the Gross-Rosen concentration camp. SS officials also killed as many as 200 prisoners left behind in Blechhammer as a result of illness or unsuccessful attempts to hide. After a brief delay, the SS transported around 3,000 Blechhammer prisoners from Gross-Rosen to the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany.
Near the end of the movie Schindler’s List, a famous scene depicts Oskar Schindler departing his factory at the end of the war and crying without consolation over his inability to save even more lives. (The scene was even parodied in an episode of Seinfeld.) “The idea that Oskar collapsed sobbing into Itzhak Stern’s arms and bemoaned his failure to save more Jews is preposterous,” writes Crowe. “Oskar was proud of all he had done to save Brunnlitz’s Jews and said so in his speech earlier that evening.”
Schindler first arrived in Kraków in October 1939, on Abwehr business, and took an apartment the following month. Emilie maintained the apartment in Ostrava and visited Oskar in Kraków at least once a week. In November 1939, he contacted interior decorator Mila Pfefferberg to decorate his new apartment. Her son, Leopold "Poldek" Pfefferberg, soon became one of his contacts for black market trading. They eventually became lifelong friends.