When I returned this past autumn, the hair was a barely differentiated mass of gray, more like wool than human locks. Only the occasional braid signaled the remnants of something unprecedented and awful—the site where the Third Reich perpetrated the largest mass murder in human history. At least 1.1 million people were killed here, most within hours of their arrival.
Anne Frank is included as one of the topics in the Canon of Dutch History, which was prepared by a committee headed by Frits van Oostrom and presented to the Minister of Education, Culture and Science, Maria van der Hoeven, in 2006; the Canon is a list of fifty topics that aims to provide a chronological summary of Dutch history to be taught in primary schools and the first two years of secondary school in the Netherlands. A revised version, which still includes her as one of the topics, was presented to the Dutch government on 3 October 2007.
Le Porz’s remark was prophetic. The true extent of Nazi barbarity became known to the world in part through the documentary films made by Allied forces after the liberation of other German camps. There have been many atrocities committed before and since, yet to this day, thanks to those images, the Nazi concentration camp stands as the ultimate symbol of evil. The very names of the camps—Dachau, Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald, Auschwitz—have the sound of a malevolent incantation. They have ceased to be ordinary place names—Buchenwald, after all, means simply “beech wood”—and become portals to a terrible other dimension.
As Soviet troops closed in on Auschwitz in late January 1945, the SS hurriedly evacuated some 56,000 prisoners on death marches to the west, then blew up the Birkenau gas chambers and crematoria to erase evidence of the mass murders. The Red Army liberated Auschwitz on January 27, 1945. Some 6,000 people were still alive at Birkenau. Another 1,000 were found at the main camp.
Auschwitz inmates were employed on huge farms, including the experimental agricultural station at Rajsko. They were also forced to work in coal mines, in stone quarries, in fisheries, and especially in armaments industries such as the SS-owned German Equipment Works (established in 1941). Periodically, prisoners underwent selection. If the SS judged them too weak or sick to continue working, they were transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau and killed.
The soldiers also found warehouses containing 836,525 items of women clothing, 348,820 items of men clothing, 43,525 pairs of shoes and vast numbers of toothbrushes, glasses and other personal effects. They found also 460 artificial limbs and seven tons of human hair shaved from Jews before they were murdered. The human hairs were used by the company “Alex Zink” (located in Bavaria) for confection of cloth. This company was paying the Nazi’s 50 pfennig per kilo of human hair.
The Nazis claimed that Bismarck was unable to complete German national unification because Jews had infiltrated the German parliament and they claimed that their abolition of parliament had ended this obstacle to unification. Using the stab-in-the-back myth, the Nazis accused Jews—and other populations who it considered non-German—of possessing extra-national loyalties, thereby exacerbating German antisemitism about the Judenfrage (the Jewish Question), the far-right political canard which was popular when the ethnic Völkisch movement and its politics of Romantic nationalism for establishing a Großdeutschland was strong.
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.
Persecution of the Catholic Church in Germany followed the Nazi takeover. Hitler moved quickly to eliminate political Catholicism, rounding up functionaries of the Catholic-aligned Bavarian People's Party and Catholic Centre Party, which along with all other non-Nazi political parties ceased to exist by July. The Reichskonkordat (Reich Concordat) treaty with the Vatican was signed in 1933, amid continuing harassment of the church in Germany. The treaty required the regime to honour the independence of Catholic institutions and prohibited clergy from involvement in politics. Hitler routinely disregarded the Concordat, closing all Catholic institutions whose functions were not strictly religious. Clergy, nuns and lay leaders were targeted, with thousands of arrests over the ensuing years, often on trumped-up charges of currency smuggling or immorality. Several Catholic leaders were targeted in the 1934 Night of the Long Knives assassinations. Most Catholic youth groups refused to dissolve themselves and Hitler Youth leader Baldur von Schirach encouraged members to attack Catholic boys in the streets. Propaganda campaigns claimed the church was corrupt, restrictions were placed on public meetings and Catholic publications faced censorship. Catholic schools were required to reduce religious instruction and crucifixes were removed from state buildings.
The property is protected by Polish law under the provisions of heritage protection and spatial planning laws, together with the provisions of local law. The site, buildings and relics of the former Auschwitz Birkenau camp are situated on the premises of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, which operates under a number of legal Acts concerning the operation of museums and protection of the Former Nazi Extermination Camps, which provide that the protection of these sites is a public objective, and its fulfilment is the responsibility of the State administration. The Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum is a State cultural institution supervised directly by the Minister of Culture and National Heritage, who ensures the necessary financing for its functioning and the fulfillment of its mission, including educational activities to understand the tragedy of the Holocaust and the need to prevent similar threats today and in future. The Museum has undertaken a long-term programme of conservation measures under its Global Conservation Plan. It is financed largely through funds from the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation, which is supported by states from around the world, as well as by businesses and private individuals. The Foundation has also obtained a State subsidy to supplement the Perpetual Fund (Act of 18 August 2011 on a Subsidy for the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation Intended to Supplement the Perpetual Fund).
The Nazi regime promoted a liberal code of conduct regarding sexual matters and was sympathetic to women who bore children out of wedlock. Promiscuity increased as the war progressed, with unmarried soldiers often intimately involved with several women simultaneously. Soldier's wives were frequently involved in extramarital relationships. Sex was sometimes used as a commodity to obtain better work from a foreign labourer. Pamphlets enjoined German women to avoid sexual relations with foreign workers as a danger to their blood.
In June 1945 the Soviet authorities took over Auschwitz I and converted it into a POW camp for German prisoners. The hospital had to move beyond the camp perimeter into former administrative buildings, where it functioned until October 1945. Many of the barracks at Birkenau were taken apart by civilians, who used the materials to rebuild their own homes, which had been levelled out in the construction of Auschwitz II. The poorest residents sifted the crematoria ashes in search of nuggets from melted gold, before warning shots were fired. The POW camp for German prisoners of war was used until 1947 by the Soviet NKVD (People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs). The NKVD and its Polish counterpart, the MBP, used the Auschwitz Neu-Dachs sub-camp at Jaworzno to the north of Oświęcim as a concentration camp from 1945 to 1956. The Soviets dismantled and exported the IG Farben factories to the USSR. Meanwhile, Soviet and Polish investigators worked to document the war crimes of the SS. After the site became a museum in 1947, exhumation work lasted for more than a decade.
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Jewish civil servants lost their jobs in 1933, except for those who had seen military service in World War I. Members of the NSDAP or party supporters were appointed in their place. As part of the process of Gleichschaltung, the Reich Local Government Law of 1935 abolished local elections, and mayors were appointed by the Ministry of the Interior.
Since the beginning of the war, special SS units called Einsatzgruppen had carried out mass executions of Jews and others in conquered territories; these commandos rounded up entire villages, forced them to dig their own graves and shot them. The massacres took a toll even on the German firing squads, says Debórah Dwork, a Holocaust historian at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, and co-author (with van Pelt) of Holocaust: A History. “It’s totally clear from Nazi documents,” she says, “that Germans were looking for a way to murder masses of people without having such a traumatic impact on the murderers.”
The line most often quoted from Frank’s diary—“In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart”—is often called “inspiring,” by which we mean that it flatters us. It makes us feel forgiven for those lapses of our civilization that allow for piles of murdered girls—and if those words came from a murdered girl, well, then, we must be absolved, because they must be true. That gift of grace and absolution from a murdered Jew (exactly the gift, it is worth noting, at the heart of Christianity) is what millions of people are so eager to find in Frank’s hiding place, in her writings, in her “legacy.” It is far more gratifying to believe that an innocent dead girl has offered us grace than to recognize the obvious: Frank wrote about people being “truly good at heart” three weeks before she met people who weren’t.
Levin’s play was performed in Israel in 1966 to resounding, though shortlived success. Since he had not obtained the rights to perform it anywhere, legal action on the part of Otto Frank, led to an immediate close-down of the production. His success in Israel was not surprising: In 1950s Israel, every fourth Israeli was a Holocaust survivor who had personal experience of the worst actions humanity could commit. By the 1960s there were already 360,000 survivors in Israel. So Anne’s statement about people being good at heart, which served as the Hollywood production’s final line, the very motto of the Hollywood production, required a different response. In the adaptation of Levin’s play staged in Israel, when Anne tells her father that she still believes in people, he replies: “I don’t know, my child. I don’t know.” In another version, Peter falls at Anne’s feet and says: “Oh, Anne, if only I could believe!” The sentence about the human heart was written before Anne was captured and banished to the hell from which she never returned, before she saw Auschwitz or Bergen-Belsen. Who knows whether she would have left it in place if she had lived to re-read her diary?
The process of losing any kind of hope was a very gradual one. We were transported in cattle wagons in which many babies and children suffocated, in what it turned out was the last transport of Hungarians. We had no water, no food, there was no hygiene. That diminished our hope and increased the feeling of being trapped. But despite that, you always retained a glimmer of hope. Always.
The preservation lab, with high-end technology, opened in 2003. One afternoon last week, Nel Jastrzebiowska, 37, a paper conservator, was using a rubber eraser to clean a row of papers in files. They were letters on Auschwitz stationery, written in German in rosy prose intended to slip past the censors. “I’m in good health,” one read, adding, “Send me money.”
We know this because there is no shortage of texts from victims and survivors who chronicled the fact in vivid detail, and none of those documents has achieved anything like the fame of Frank’s diary. Those that have come close have only done so by observing the same rules of hiding, the ones that insist on polite victims who don’t insult their persecutors. The work that came closest to achieving Frank’s international fame might be Elie Wiesel’s Night, a memoir that could be thought of as a continuation of Frank’s experience, recounting the tortures of a 15-year-old imprisoned in Auschwitz. As the scholar Naomi Seidman has discussed, Wiesel first published his memoir in Yiddish, under the title And the World Kept Silent. The Yiddish book told the same story, but it exploded with rage against his family’s murderers and, as the title implies, the entire world whose indifference (or active hatred) made those murders possible. With the help of the French Catholic Nobel laureate François Mauriac, Wiesel later published a French version of the book under the title Night—a work that repositioned the young survivor’s rage into theological angst. After all, what reader would want to hear about how his society had failed, how he was guilty? Better to blame God. This approach did earn Wiesel a Nobel Peace Prize, as well as a spot in Oprah’s Book Club, the American epitome of grace. It did not, however, make teenage girls read his book in Japan, the way they read Frank’s. For that he would have had to hide much, much more.
A reorganisation of the Gaue was enacted on 1 October 1928. The given numbers were the official ordering numbers. The statistics are from 1941, for which the Gau organisation of that moment in time forms the basis. Their size and populations are not exact; for instance, according to the official party statistics the Gau Kurmark/Mark Brandenburg was the largest in the German Reich. By 1941, there were 42 territorial Gaue for Germany, 7 of them for Austria, the Sudetenland (in Czechoslovakia), Danzig and the Territory of the Saar Basin, along with the unincorporated regions under German control known as the Protectorate of Bohemia-Moravia and the General Government, established after the joint invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in 1939 at the onset of World War II. Getting the leadership of the individual Gaue to co-operate with one another proved difficult at times since there was constant administrative and financial jockeying for control going on between them.
Friends who searched the hiding place after the family’s capture later gave Otto Frank the papers left behind by the Gestapo. Among them he found Anne’s diary, which was published as Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl (originally in Dutch, 1947). Precocious in style and insight, it traces her emotional growth amid adversity. In it she wrote, “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are really good at heart.”
The Nazi Party grew significantly during 1921 and 1922, partly through Hitler's oratorical skills, partly through the SA's appeal to unemployed young men, and partly because there was a backlash against socialist and liberal politics in Bavaria as Germany's economic problems deepened and the weakness of the Weimar regime became apparent. The party recruited former World War I soldiers, to whom Hitler as a decorated frontline veteran could particularly appeal, as well as small businessmen and disaffected former members of rival parties. Nazi rallies were often held in beer halls, where downtrodden men could get free beer. The Hitler Youth was formed for the children of party members. The party also formed groups in other parts of Germany. Julius Streicher in Nuremberg was an early recruit and became editor of the racist magazine Der Stürmer. In December 1920, the Nazi Party had acquired a newspaper, the Völkischer Beobachter, of which its leading ideologist Alfred Rosenberg became editor. Others to join the party around this time were Heinrich Himmler and World War I flying ace Hermann Göring.
In 1934, Hitler told his military leaders that a war in the east should begin in 1942. The Saarland, which had been placed under League of Nations supervision for 15 years at the end of World War I, voted in January 1935 to become part of Germany. In March 1935, Hitler announced the creation of an air force, and that the Reichswehr would be increased to 550,000 men. Britain agreed to Germany building a naval fleet with the signing of the Anglo-German Naval Agreement on 18 June 1935.
"Like the adults, the kids were only a mere bag of bones, without muscles or fat, and the thin skin like pergament scrubbed through and through beyond the hard bones of the skeleton and ignited itself to ulcerated wounds. Abscesses covered the underfed body from the top to the bottom and thus deprived it from the last rest of energy. The mouth was deeply gnawed by noma-abscesses, hollowed out the jaw and perforated the cheeks like cancer". Many decaying bodies were full of water because of the burning hunger, they swelled to shapeless bulks which could not move anymore. Diarrhoea, lasting for weeks, dissolved their irresistant bodies until nothing remained ....."
I bought this book to prepare for a trip to the Anne Frank Museum. It was a sad but fascinating read - and when I got to the Franks' hiding place in Amsterdam, I knew exactly what I was looking at, who slept where - and who all the individuals were that helped Anne, her family, and their companions survive for as long as they did. I think I got more out of the visit than I would have without reading this book.
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It was founded as the German Workers’ Party by Anton Drexler, a Munich locksmith, in 1919. Hitler attended one of its meetings that year, and before long his energy and oratorical skills would enable him to take over the party, which was renamed National Socialist German Workers’ Party in 1920. That year Hitler also formulated a 25-point program that became the permanent basis for the party. The program called for German abandonment of the Treaty of Versailles and for the expansion of German territory. These appeals for national aggrandizement were accompanied by a strident anti-Semitic rhetoric. The party’s socialist orientation was basically a demagogic gambit designed to attract support from the working class. By 1921 Hitler had ousted the party’s other leaders and taken over.
The commander of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Rudolf Höss, stated in his autobiography that in 1941 (no exact date is given) he was summoned to Berlin, where Himmler informed him that Hitler had issued an order to solve the “Jewish Question” for good, and that the order was to be implemented by the SS. “The existing extermination places in the east are unsuited to a large scale, long-term action. I have designated Auschwitz for this purpose,” Himmler said.
By January 1945 Soviet troops were advancing towards Auschwitz. In desperation to withdraw, the Nazis sent most of the 58,000 remaining prisoners on a death march to Germany, and most prisoners were killed en route. When the Soviet army liberated Auschwitz on January 27, soldiers found only 7,650 barely living prisoners throughout the entire camp complex. In all, approximately one million Jews had been murdered there.
When Anne’s sister, Margot, was faced with deportation (supposedly to a forced-labour camp), the Franks went into hiding on July 6, 1942, in the backroom office and warehouse of Otto Frank’s food-products business. With the aid of a few non-Jewish friends, among them Miep Gies, who smuggled in food and other supplies, the Frank family and four other Jews—Hermann and Auguste van Pels and their son, Peter, and Fritz Pfeffer—lived confined to the “secret annex.” During this time, Anne wrote faithfully in her diary, recounting day-to-day life in hiding, from ordinary annoyances to the fear of capture. She discussed typical adolescent issues as well as her hopes for the future, which included becoming a journalist or a writer. Anne’s last diary entry was written on August 1, 1944. Three days later the annex was discovered by the Gestapo, which was acting on a tip from Dutch informers.
Nine out of 10 victims in Auschwitz-Birkenau were Jews. The remaining victims were mainly Poles, gypsies, and Soviet POW’s. Majdanek began its gassings in October 1942. The camp functioned in the same way as Auschwitz-Birkenau, and also included a concentration- and work camp. In the autumn of 1943 the camp was closed after claiming between 60,000 and 80,000 Jewish victims.
Forced-Labor Camps and transit camps: Forced labor camps were utilized for pointless and humiliating labor, imposed on prisoners without proper equipment, clothing, nourishment, or rest. Transit camps functioned as temporary holding facilities for Jews awaiting deportation. These camps were usually the last stop before deportations to a killing center. There were 1,830 forced labor and transit camps.
Many of the prisoners died in the concentration camps due to deliberate maltreatment, disease, starvation, and overwork, or they were executed as unfit for labor. Prisoners were transported in inhumane conditions by rail freight cars, in which many died before reaching their final destination. The prisoners were confined in the boxcars for days or even weeks, with little or no food or water. Many died of dehydration in the intense heat of summer or froze to death in winter. Concentration camps also existed in Germany itself, and while they were not specifically designed for systematic extermination, many of their inmates perished because of harsh conditions or they were executed.