When your relatives die, there’s usually a place you can go to pay your respects, like a cemetery with a grave where you can lay a stone and talk to them. The only place I have is Auschwitz and going back there for the first time will be the first and last chance I have to be able to return to the people I loved who I lost there and in other concentration camps.
I worked out pretty quickly certain survival tricks. That if the guards called us to line up in front of the barracks, I should hide or sneak into another barracks. The safest place I could find to hide was in the yard near the bathrooms where all the dead bodies were brought and piled up … I would get on the pile, lie down next to the dead bodies and pretend I was one of them.
Working from these principles, Hitler carried his party from its inauspicious beginnings in a beer cellar in Munich to a dominant position in world politics 20 years later. The Nazi Party originated in 1919 and was led by Hitler from 1920. Through both successful electioneering and intimidation, the party came to power in Germany in 1933 and governed through totalitarian methods until 1945, when Hitler committed suicide and Germany was defeated and occupied by the Allies at the close of World War II.
After less than a year at Auschwitz, Lasker-Wallfisch and Renate were among the tens of thousands of prisoners transported to camps in Germany. Lasker-Wallfisch had no idea where she was being sent, but it didn’t matter. “The gas chambers were still working when we left,” she says. “I was very pleased to be rolling out of Auschwitz. We figured anything was better than the gas chamber.” On April 15, 1945, British troops liberated Lasker-Wallfisch and Renate from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp near Hamburg. Lasker-Wallfisch emigrated to England after the war and became a professional cellist. Her sister Renate worked for the BBC, and is now living in France.
One night in the autumn of 1944, two Frenchwomen—Loulou Le Porz, a doctor, and Violette Lecoq, a nurse—watched as a truck drove in through the main gates of Ravensbrück, the Nazi concentration camp for women. “There was a lorry,” Le Porz recalled, “that suddenly arrives and it turns around and reverses towards us. And it lifts up and it tips out a whole pile of corpses.” These were the bodies of Ravensbrück inmates who had died doing slave labor in the many satellite camps, and they were now being returned for cremation. Talking, decades later, to the historian and journalist Sarah Helm, whose new book, “Ravensbrück: Life and Death in Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women” (Doubleday), recounts the stories of dozens of the camp’s inmates, Le Porz says that her reaction was simple disbelief. The sight of a truck full of dead bodies was so outrageous, so out of scale with ordinary experience, that “if we recount that one day, we said to each other, nobody would believe us.” The only way to make the scene credible would be to record it: “If one day someone makes a film they must film this scene. This night. This moment.”
Lunch was three quarters of a liter of watery soup at midday, reportedly foul-tasting, with meat in the soup four times a week and vegetables (mostly potatoes and rutabaga) three times. The evening meal was 300 grams of bread, often moldy, part of which the inmates were expected to keep for breakfast the next day, with a tablespoon of cheese or marmalade, or 25 grams of margarine or sausage. Prisoners engaged in hard labor were given extra rations.
One of the first people I encountered was Mengele. He told us to undress and stand in line and he went through the ranks deciding who was strong and healthy and fit for work, and who was only fit for the gas chamber. After inspecting me, he put his thumb up high, so they gave me the striped uniform and sent me to get a number tattooed on to my arm. I don’t remember the number. It’s there still, but I never look at it because it brings back too many painful memories.
The women selected from this transport, including Anne, Edith, and Margot, were marked with numbers between A-25060 and A-25271. Records indicating their exact numbers have not been preserved. Approximately eight weeks later, in late October 1944, Anne and Margot were transferred from Auschwitz-Birkenau to Bergen-Belsen, where they both died sometime in March 1945. Though Anne’s death certificate documents her movement between camps, it, too, does not include her tattoo ID number.
When the women arrived to the factory in Brunnlitz, weak, hungry, frostbitten, less than human, Oskar Schindler met them in the courtyard. They never forgot the sight of Schindler standing in the doorway. And they never forgot his raspy voice when he - surrounded by SS guards - gave them an unforgettable guarantee: 'Now you are finally with me, you are safe now. Don't be afraid of anything. You don't have to worry anymore.'
In July 1942, the Nazis began deporting Dutch Jews to work and extermination camps in eastern Europe via train, mainly from the Westerbork transit camp and Vught concentration camp. On July 5, 1942, Margot received a call-up notice to report for deportation to a labor camp. The following day, the family went into hiding in the achterhuis or secret annex above Otto’s business on the Prinsengracht Canal in Amsterdam. They would live there, helped by four of Otto’s trusted employees, for 25 months. The Franks were joined by Otto’s business partner, Hermann van Pels, his wife Auguste, and their son Peter on July 13, and by Fritz Pfeffer, a dentist, on November 16.
At the same time, the Nazis cannot be placed in a special category outside history, outside the human condition—a sui generis episode beyond comparison. They must be demythologized and studied closely, because the National Socialist German Workers’ Party and its leader emerged out of a particular context, in a particular time, with a particular set of ideas that won greater and greater purchase the more they were propagated. Moreover, this band of extremist reactionaries were incrementalists. As Whitman emphasizes, “it is simply not the case that the drafters of the Nuremburg Laws were already aiming at the annihilation of the Jews in 1935.” At that point, the Nazis wanted to exile and marginalize the Jewish minority, turning them into second-class citizens.
During the second half of the war the prisoners, who now included women for the first time, were increasingly used as forced labourers in the arms industry. In order to accommodate the prisoners where they worked, the SS established several subcamps. Newly-arrived prisoners were transferred to these camps from the main camp. More and more, Mauthausen itself became a camp were the sick and weak were sent to die.
Those deported to Auschwitz arrived at the nearby train station and were marched or trucked to the main camp where they were registered, tattooed, undressed, deloused, had their body hair shaven off, showered while their clothes were disinfected with Zyklon-B gas, and entered the camp under the infamous gateway inscribed 'Arbeit Macht Frei' ("Labor make you free")
During the German invasion of the Soviet Union the Nazis began the first mass killings of Jews. Between June and September 1941, the Einsatzgruppen supported by local collaborators murdered hundreds of thousands of Jews across Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and the Soviet Union. Having observed the killings, Adolf Eichmann ordered a more efficient method of killing the Jews of Europe be developed.
Birkenau was the largest camp in the Auschwitz complex. It became primarily a centre for the mass murder of Jews brought there for extermination, and of Roma and Sinti prisoners during its final period. Sick prisoners and those selected for death from the whole Auschwitz complex – and, to a smaller extent, from other camps – were also gathered and systematically killed here. It ultimately became a place for the concentration of prisoners before they were transferred inside the Third Reich to work for German industry. Most of the victims of the Auschwitz complex, probably about 90%, were killed in the Birkenau camp.
Nazism emphasized German nationalism, including both irredentism and expansionism. Nazism held racial theories based upon a belief in the existence of an Aryan master race that was superior to all other races. The Nazis emphasised the existence of racial conflict between the Aryan race and others—particularly Jews, whom the Nazis viewed as a mixed race that had infiltrated multiple societies and was responsible for exploitation and repression of the Aryan race. The Nazis also categorised Slavs as Untermensch (sub-human).
The victories of Operation Barbarossa in the summer and fall of 1941 against Hitler's new enemy, the Soviet Union, led to dramatic changes in Nazi anti-Jewish ideology and the profile of prisoners brought to Auschwitz. Construction on Auschwitz II-Birkenau began in October 1941 to ease congestion at the main camp. Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler, head of the Schutzstaffel (SS), intended the camp to house 50,000 prisoners of war, who would be interned as forced laborers. Plans called for the expansion of the camp first to house 150,000 and eventually as many as 200,000 inmates. An initial contingent of 10,000 Soviet prisoners of war arrived at Auschwitz I in October 1941, but by March 1942 only 945 were still alive, and these were transferred to Birkenau, where most of them died from disease or starvation by May. By this time the Nazis had decided to annihilate the Jewish people, so Birkenau became a labor and extermination camp.
Nazism attempted to reconcile conservative, nationalist ideology with a socially radical doctrine. In so doing, it became a profoundly revolutionary movement—albeit a largely negative one. Rejecting rationalism, liberalism, democracy, the rule of law, human rights, and all movements of international cooperation and peace, it stressed instinct, the subordination of the individual to the state, and the necessity of blind and unswerving obedience to leaders appointed from above. It also emphasized the inequality of men and races and the right of the strong to rule the weak; sought to purge or suppress competing political, religious, and social institutions; advanced an ethic of hardness and ferocity; and partly destroyed class distinctions by drawing into the movement misfits and failures from all social classes. Although socialism was traditionally an internationalist creed, the radical wing of Nazism knew that a mass base existed for policies that were simultaneously anticapitalist and nationalist. However, after Hitler secured power, this radical strain was eliminated.
The SS gained its independence from the SA in July 1934, in the wake of the Röhm purge. Hitler then authorized SS leader Heinrich Himmler to centralize the administration of the concentration camps and formalize them into a system. Himmler chose SS Lieutenant General Theodor Eicke for this task. Eicke had been the commandant of the SS concentration camp at Dachau since June 1933. Himmler appointed him Inspector of Concentration Camps, a new section of the SS subordinate to the SS Main Office.
On our arrival at Auschwitz they chased us off the cattle wagon, which stopped right in front of the gate with the sign Arbeit Macht Frei (Work Makes You Free). I thought I was entering a labour camp, but little did I know. They asked me my profession, and I said painter as I’d picked up the advice en route to say something practical and useful. If I’d said I’d just finished high school they’d have sent me straight to the gas chambers.
When the Nazis came to power in Germany, they quickly moved to suppress all real and potential opposition. The general public was intimidated by the arbitrary psychological terror that was used by the special courts (Sondergerichte). Especially during the first years of their existence when these courts "had a strong deterrent effect" against any form of political protest.