The wounds of the Holocaust–known in Hebrew as Shoah, or catastrophe–were slow to heal. Survivors of the camps found it nearly impossible to return home, as in many cases they had lost their families and been denounced by their non-Jewish neighbors. As a result, the late 1940s saw an unprecedented number of refugees, POWs and other displaced populations moving across Europe.
In 2017 a Körber Foundation survey found that 40 percent of 14-year-olds in Germany did not know what Auschwitz was. The following year a survey organized by the Claims Conference, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and others found that 41 percent of 1,350 American adults surveyed, and 66 percent of millennials, did not know what Auschwitz was, while 22 percent said they had never heard of the Holocaust. A CNN-ComRes poll in 2018 found a similar situation in Europe.
As discrimination against Jews increased, German law required a legal definition of a Jew and an Aryan. Promulgated at the annual Nazi Party rally in Nürnberg on September 15, 1935, the Nürnberg Laws—the Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honour and the Law of the Reich Citizen—became the centrepiece of anti-Jewish legislation and a precedent for defining and categorizing Jews in all German-controlled lands. Marriage and sexual relations between Jews and citizens of “German or kindred blood” were prohibited. Only “racial” Germans were entitled to civil and political rights. Jews were reduced to subjects of the state. The Nürnberg Laws formally divided Germans and Jews, yet neither the word German nor the word Jew was defined. That task was left to the bureaucracy. Two basic categories were established in November: Jews, those with at least three Jewish grandparents; and Mischlinge (“mongrels,” or “mixed breeds”), people with one or two Jewish grandparents. Thus, the definition of a Jew was primarily based not on the identity an individual affirmed or the religion he or she practiced but on his or her ancestry. Categorization was the first stage of destruction.
Beginning with the British air raids on Cologne in May of 1942, the Allies launched a strategic bombing campaign that would target cities and industrial plants across the Reich for the next three years. In the summer of 1942, Germany and its allies focused on the Soviet Union unsuccessfully. The Soviet Union gained the dominant role, which it would maintain for the rest of the war.
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.
In January 1945 a trainload of 250 Jews who had been rejected as workers at a mine in Goleschau in Poland arrived at Brünnlitz. The boxcars were frozen shut when they arrived, and Emilie Schindler waited while an engineer from the factory opened the cars using a soldering iron. Twelve people were dead in the cars, and the remainder were too ill and feeble to work. Emilie took the survivors into the factory and cared for them in a makeshift hospital until the end of the war. Schindler continued to bribe SS officials to prevent the slaughter of his workers as the Red Army approached. On 7 May 1945 he and his workers gathered on the factory floor to listen to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill announce over the radio that Germany had surrendered, and the war in Europe was over.
Known as block 13 until 1941, block 11 of Auschwitz I was the prison within the prison, where violators of the numerous rules were punished. To extract information from them, guards would hold inmates' heads held against the stove, burning their faces and eyes. Some prisoners were made to spend the nights in standing cells. Measuring 1.5 m2 (16 sq ft), the cells held four men who could do nothing but stand, and who were forced the following day to work as usual. In other cells, inmates were subjected to hanging with their hands behind their backs, thus dislocating their shoulder joints. In the basement were the "dark cells", which had only a 5 x 5 cm opening and a solid door. Prisoners placed in these cells gradually suffocated as they ran out of oxygen; sometimes the SS lit a candle in the cell to use up the oxygen more quickly.
Prisoners received half a liter of coffee substitute or a herbal "tea" in the morning, but no food. A second gong heralded roll call, when inmates had to line up outside in rows of ten to be counted. No matter how cold the weather, prisoners had to wait for the SS to arrive for the count. How long they stood there depended on the officers' mood, and whether there had been escapes or other events attracting punishment. Guards might force the prisoners to squat for an hour with their hands above their heads, or hand out beatings or detention for infractions such as having a missing button or an improperly cleaned food bowl. The inmates were counted and re-counted.
The driver promptly opened the throttle wide and drove straight into the nearest bushes. He had only gone a few yards, however, when the tank slid down a steep slope on the western edge of the wood and finally stopped, canted over on its side, in such a position that the enemy, whose guns were in position about 500 yards away on the edge of the next wood, could not fail to see it. I had been wounded in the right check by a small splinter from the shell which had landed in the periscope. It was not serious though it bled a great deal.
The hair of 12 year-old Lili had not been cut since her early childhood. When she and her family were forced to leave their home in Târgu-Mureş and move to the ghetto, Lili’s mother, Rivka, knew she would not be able to care properly for her daughter’s hair in the ghetto. Chopping off Lili’s two long, beautiful braids, she promised that they would be given to the neighbors for safekeeping.Within six weeks, Lili and her mother were murdered at Auschwitz.
Prior to the German offensive in May, Winston Churchill had said "Thank God for the French Army". That same French army collapsed after barely two months of fighting. This was in shocking contrast to the four years of trench warfare they had engaged in during the First World War. The French president of the Ministerial Council, Reynaud, attributed the collapse in a speech on 21 May 1940:
Concentration camps began to incarcerate ‘habitual criminals’ in addition to political prisoners. Goebbels stepped up anti-Semitic propaganda with a traveling exhibition which cast Jews as the enemy. Nearly half a million people attended. Some guessed worse would come. Winston Churchill criticised British relations with Germany, warning of ‘great evils of racial and religious intolerance’, though many colleagues complained of his ‘harping on’ about Jews.
The government defined a Jewish person as someone with three or four Jewish grandparents, not someone who had religious convictions. This meant that people who had never practiced, or hadn’t practiced Judaism in many years, or even converted to Christianity were subjected to persecution. Although anti-semitism was pervasive in 1930s Germany, these restrictions frequently extended to any person the Nazis considered to be “non-Aryan”.
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.
In nearly every country overrun by the Nazis, the Jews were forced to wear badges marking them as Jews, they were rounded up into ghettos or concentration camps and then gradually transported to the killing centers. The death camps were essentially factories for murdering Jews. The Germans shipped thousands of Jews to them each day. Within a few hours of their arrival, the Jews had been stripped of their possessions and valuables, gassed to death, and their bodies burned in specially designed crematoriums. Approximately 3.5 million Jews were murdered in these death camps.
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."