After Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Oskar Schindler set up an enamelware factory in Krakow that used a combination of Jewish workers interred by the Germans and free Polish workers. His initial interest, of course, was to make money. But as time went on, he grew to care about his Jewish workers, particularly those with whom he came into contact on a daily basis. In addition, helping Jews became a way to fight against what he viewed as disastrous and brutal policies emanating from Adolf Hitler and the SS.
Oscar Schindler was all that stood between them and death at the hands of the Nazis. A man all too human, full of flaws like the rest of us. The unlikeliest of all role models - a Nazi, a womanisor, a war profiteer. An ordinary man who answered the call of conscience. Even in the worst of circumstances Oscar Schindler did extraordinary things, matched by no one. He remained true to his Jews, the workers he referred to as my children. He kept the SS out and everyone alive.
December 8, 1941 - In occupied Poland, near Lodz, Chelmno extermination camp becomes operational. Jews taken there are placed in mobile gas vans and driven to a burial place while carbon monoxide from the engine exhaust is fed into the sealed rear compartment, killing them. The first gassing victims include 5,000 Gypsies who had been deported from the Reich to Lodz.
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.
"Well the General (Brig. Gen. Linden) attempted to get the thing organized and an American Major who had been held in the Camp since September (1944) came out and we set him up as head of the prisoners. He soon picked me to quiet the prisoners down and explain to them that they must stay in the Camp until we could get them deloused, and proper food and medical care. Several newspaper people arrived about that time and wanted to go through the Camp so we took them through with a guide furnished by the prisoners. The first thing we came to were piles and piles of clothing, shoes, pants, shirts, coats, etc. Then we went into a room with a table with flowers on it and some soap and towels. Another door with the word showers lead off of this and upon going through this room it appeared to be a shower room but instead of water, gas came out and in two minutes the people were dead. Next we went next door to four large ovens where they cremated the dead. Then we were taken to piles of dead. There were from two to fifty people in a pile all naked, starved and dead. There must have been about 1,000 dead in all."
Steve Paulsson is a lecturer at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies. His doctoral thesis, 'Hiding in Warsaw: The Jews on the "Aryan side", 1940-1945', was co-winner of the 1998 Fraenkel Prize in Contemporary History, and is published by Yale University Press. He has also published articles on the flight of the Danish Jews to Sweden in 1943, and on Polish-Jewish relations. He was senior historian in the Holocaust Exhibition Project Office at the Imperial War Museum, 1998-2000.
Kramer's clear conscience is also suggested by the fact that he made no effort to save his life by fleeing, but instead calmly awaited the approaching British forces, naively confident of decent treatment. "When Belsen Camp was eventually taken over by the Allies," he later stated, "I was quite satisfied that I had done all I possibly could under the circumstances to remedy the conditions in the camp." /19
The book’s existence as something of a quasi-novel/biography serves the needs of Young Adult Readers in two very important ways. First, it makes factual accounts accessible and exciting. Rather than dispassionately seek the stark facts of The Holocaust and those who resisted it, readers are able to pathetically experience the suffering and moral conflict. Thus the faculties of imagination and empiricism are both equally engaged. This can lead to more exciting and productive discussions. Second, the reliability of this kind of novel in representing fact portrays the ethical difficulties inherent in The Holocaust. We Goeth as the monstrous sadist and mass murderer, but also as the companion, connoisseur, and host. We see Schindler as the philanthropist, but also as the womanizer and profiteer. The net result is that a Young Adult is presented with an ethical reality in which there are absolutes being encountered by fallible people, people who are not absolute.
With the appointment in January 1933 of Adolf Hitler as Chancellor of Germany, and the establishment of the Third Reich, German leaders proclaimed the rebirth of the Volksgemeinschaft ("people's community"). Nazi policies divided the population into two groups: the Volksgenossen ("national comrades") who belonged to the Volksgemeinschaft, and the Gemeinschaftsfremde ("community aliens") who did not. Enemies were divided into three groups: the "racial" or "blood" enemies, such as the Jews and Roma; political opponents of Nazism, such as Marxists, liberals, Christians, and the "reactionaries" viewed as wayward "national comrades"; and moral opponents, such as gay men, the work shy, and habitual criminals. The latter two groups were to be sent to concentration camps for "re-education", with the aim of eventual absorption into the Volksgemeinschaft. "Racial" enemies could never belong to the Volksgemeinschaft; they were to be removed from society.
While concentration camps were meant to work and starve prisoners to death, extermination camps (also known as death camps) were built for the sole purpose of killing large groups of people quickly and efficiently. The Nazis built six extermination camps, all in Poland: Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, Auschwitz, and Majdanek. (Auschwitz and Majdanek were both concentration and extermination camps.)
A further regulation stated that a prisoner would be shot or hanged for refusing to obey any order from an SS man. Those who were gunned-down had their deaths listed as "shot while attempting to escape." The only notification the victim's family ever got was an urn filled with ashes delivered to their front door. The ashes were usually not even from the dead man himself, but had been scooped up from whatever was lying around in the crematorium room.
^ "Headquarters Seventh Army Office of the Chief of Staff APO TSS, C/O Postmaster New York, NY 2 May 1945 Memorandum to: Inspector General, Seventh Army The Coming General directs that you conduct a formal investigation of alleged mistreatment of German guards at the Concentration Camp at Dachau, Germany, by elements of the XV Corps. A. WHITE Major General, G.S.C. Chief of Staff Testimony of: Capt. Richard F. Taylor 0-408680, Military Government, Detachment I-13, G-3". Archived from the original on 3 November 2014. Retrieved 3 June 2015.
Sometimes the mere presence of German troops in the vicinity was sufficient to spur a massacre. One example is what happened in the Polish village of Jedwabne, where neighbours murdered their Jewish neighbours. For years the massacre was blamed on the Germans, though many Poles likely knew that the local population had turned against its own Jews. In the Baltics, where the Germans were greeted as liberators by some segments of the population, the lure of political independence and the desire to erase any collaboration with the previous Soviet occupiers led nationalist bands to murder local Jews.
After the joint conquest of Poland, by Germany and the Soviet Union, in September 1939, numerous Polish resistance fighters were imprisoned, including 1,780 Catholic priests. When the Catholic Church complained about the harsh treatment the priests received in the concentration camps, all the priests were moved to Dachau because it was the mildest camp of all. Dachau was designated as the main camp for Catholic priests who had been arrested on various charges, including child molestation, and a total of 2,720 from 19 different nations were sent there. The priests did not have to work in the factories and were given special privileges.
While the Nazis murdered other national and ethnic groups, such as a number of Soviet prisoners of war, Polish intellectuals, and gypsies, only the Jews were marked for systematic and total annihilation. Jews were singled out for "Special Treatment" (Sonderbehandlung), which meant that Jewish men, women and children were to be methodically killed with poisonous gas. In the exacting records kept at the Auschwitz death camp, the cause of death of Jews who had been gassed was indicated by "SB," the first letters of the two words that form the German term for "Special Treatment."
In France Jews under Fascist Italian occupation in the southeast fared better than the Jews of Vichy France, where collaborationist French authorities and police provided essential support to the understaffed German forces. The Jews in those parts of France under direct German occupation fared the worst. Although allied with Germany, the Italians did not participate in the Holocaust until Germany occupied northern Italy after the overthrow of Fascist leader Benito Mussolini in 1943.
On April 15, 1945, Bergen-Belsen was liberated by the Allied 21st Army Group, a combined British-Canadian unit. At the time of liberation, the camp had been without food or water for three to five days. As Matthew Nesbitt, a Canadian liberator, recounted, "…the first thing we had to do when we got to camp. Prior to even distributing the food. And that was to make sure we used the guards to separate the living from the dead, from the huts, because first of all, if we are going to save anybody, we had to know who was alive and who had to be buried…The only way you could do that was to go into each individual hut and shake whoever was on that little slab…if they didn't move, they were dead."
As their health improved, survivors were sent to pick out new clothes from a supply store nicknamed 'Harrods'. This 'shop' was stocked with clothing provided by relief organisations or taken from German towns nearby. Norna Alexander was a nurse with 29th British General Hospital, which arrived at Bergen-Belsen just over a month after its liberation. Here she describes 'Harrods' and the effect new clothes had on the survivors' morale.
Of course, over time, we received help from outside. But we laid the foundation for this new community, we built it and ran it ourselves. We received food and books from outside, but we did the work and we can be proud of our efforts, Those who survived will always remember April 15, 1945 as their second birthday - in many ways more important than their first."5
^ "War nicht der 'Archipel Gulag' ursprünglicher als 'Auschwitz'? War nicht der 'Klassenmord' der Bolschewiki das logische und faktische Prius des 'Rassenmords' der Nationalsozialisten? Sind Hitlers geheimste Handlungen nicht gerade auch dadurch zu erklären, daß er den 'Rattenkäfig' nicht vergessen hatte? Rührte Auschwitz vielleicht in seinen Ursprüngen aus einer Vergangenheit her, die nicht vergehen wollte?"
The Bergen Belsen concentration camp was established in April 1943. Over the next year-and-a-half, five sub-camps were set up there. Jewish inmates of these camps were forced to perform hard labor for the Nazis. Bergen Belsen was infamous for its extremely unhygienic conditions; it was infested with lice and typhus. Its horrific conditions deteriorated near the end of the war, when tens of thousands of prisoners arrived at Bergen Belsen on death marches from the East.
The 15 men present at Wannsee included Adolf Eichmann (head of Jewish affairs for the RSHA and the man who organized the deportation of Jews), Heinrich Müller (head of the Gestapo), and other party leaders and department heads. Thirty copies of the minutes were made. Copy no. 16 was found by American prosecutors in March 1947 in a German Foreign Office folder. Written by Eichmann and stamped "Top Secret", the minutes were written in "euphemistic language" on Heydrich's instructions, according to Eichmann's later testimony. The conference had several purposes. Discussing plans for a "final solution to the Jewish question" ("Endlösung der Judenfrage"), and a "final solution to the Jewish question in Europe" ("Endlösung der europäischen Judenfrage"), it was intended to share information and responsibility, coordinate efforts and policies ("Parallelisierung der Linienführung"), and ensure that authority rested with Heydrich. There was also discussion about whether to include the German Mischlinge (half-Jews). Heydrich told the meeting: "Another possible solution of the problem has now taken the place of emigration, i.e. the evacuation of the Jews to the East, provided that the Fuehrer gives the appropriate approval in advance." He continued:
The ramp appeared to lead up to the crematorium ovens. I am not surprised that the commandant and the guards were not charged with gassing prisoners because the evidence had been destroyed by the British, but that was academic because they had enough evidence to hang Kramer and Grese a hundred times over. As my Dad's colonel said to him: "They'll have a legal trial and a legal hanging..."
Shortly after the outbreak of war in September 1939, thirty-one-year-old Schindler showed up in occupied Krakow. The ancient city, home to some 60,000 Jews and seat of the German occupation administration, the Generalgouvernement, proved highly attractive to German entrepreneurs, hoping to capitalize on the misfortunes of the subjugated country and make a fortune. Naturally cunning and none too scrupulous, Schindler appeared at first to thrive in these surroundings. In October 1939, he took over a run-down enamelware factory that had previously belonged to a Jew. He cleverly maneuvered his steps- acting upon the shrewd commercial advice of a Polish-Jewish accountant, Isaak Stern - and began to build himself a fortune. The small concern in Zablocie outside Krakow, which started producing kitchenware for the German army, began to grow by leaps and bounds. After only three months it already had a task-force of some 250 Polish workers, among them seven Jews. By the end of 1942, it had expanded into a mammoth enamel and ammunitions production plant, occupying some 45,000 square meters and employing almost 800 men and women. Of these, 370 were Jews from the Krakow ghetto, which the Germans had established after they entered the city.
On Wednesday the first concentration camp is to be opened in Dachau with an accommodation for 5000 people. 'All Communists and—where necessary—Reichsbanner and Social Democratic functionaries who endanger state security are to be concentrated here, as in the long run it is not possible to keep individual functionaries in the state prisons without overburdening these prisons, and on the other hand these people cannot be released because attempts have shown that they persist in their efforts to agitate and organize as soon as they are released.
But Auschwitz-Birkenau became more than a concentration camp. In the spring of 1942 gas chambers were built at Birkenau and mass transports of Jews began to arrive. Some of the new arrivals were inducted into the camp as registered prisoners, but the great majority were gassed immediately. These gassing operations were greatly expanded in the spring of 1943 with the construction of four purpose-built gas chamber and crematorium complexes, which included such refinements as electric lifts to carry bodies up to the crematoria. Each crematorium could handle 2,000 victims daily. In a nearby group of barracks, nicknamed 'Canada' by the prisoners, victims' belongings were sorted for transportation to the Reich. The victims' hair was used to stuff mattresses; gold teeth were melted down and the gold deposited to an SS account.
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.
Never one to miss a chance to make money, he marched into Poland on the heels of the SS. He dived headfirst into the black-market and the underworld and soon made friends with the local Gestapo bigwigs, softening them up with women, money and illicit booze. His newfound connections helped him acquire a factory which he ran with the cheapest labor around: Jewish.
As the tide of World War II turned against the Nazis, they began a systematic plan to eliminate or "liquidate" the ghettos they had established, by a combination of mass murder on the spot and transferring the remaining residents to extermination camps. When the Nazis attempted to liquidate the Warsaw Ghetto on April 13, 1943, the remaining Jews fought back in what has become known as the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The Jewish resistance fighters held out against the entire Nazi regime for 28 days, longer than many European countries had been able to withstand Nazi conquest.
Dachau was the place where many famous, high-level political opponents of the Nazi government were held near the end of the war. Just before the camp was liberated, there were 137 VIP prisoners at Dachau, including the former Chancellor of Austria, Kurt von Schuschnigg, and the former Jewish premier of France, Leon Blum. They were evacuated to the South Tyrol in April 1945 on three separate trips, shortly before soldiers of the American Seventh Army arrived to liberate the camp.