The courtyard between blocks 10 and 11, known as the "death wall" served as an execution area for Poles not in Auschwitz who had been sentenced to death by a criminal court—presided over by German judges—including for petty crimes such as stealing food. Several rooms in block 11 were deemed the Polizei-Ersatz-Gefängnis Myslowitz in Auschwitz ("Alternative jail of the police station at Mysłowice"). There were also Sonderbehandlung cases ("special treatment") for Poles and others regarded as dangerous to the Third Reich. Members of the camp resistance were shot there, as were 200 of the Sonderkommandos who took part in the Sonderkommando revolt in October 1944. Thousands of Poles were executed at the death wall; Höss wrote that "execution orders arrived in an unbroken stream".
The chief of construction of Auschwitz II-Birkenau was Karl Bischoff, a competent and dynamic bureaucrat who, in spite of the ongoing war, carried out the construction deemed necessary. The Birkenau camp, the four crematoria, a new reception building, and hundreds of other buildings were planned and constructed. Bischoff's plans, based on an initial budget of RM 8.9 million, called for each barracks to hold 550 prisoners. He later changed this to 744 per barracks, which meant the camp could hold 125,000, rather than 97,000. The SS designed the barracks not so much to house people as to destroy them. There were 174 barracks, each measuring 116 by 36 ft, divided into 62 bays of 43 sq. ft. The bays were divided into "roosts", initially for three inmates and later for four. With personal space of 11 sq. ft to sleep and place whatever belongings they had, inmates were deprived, Robert-Jan van Pelt wrote, "of the minimum space needed to exist".
By then, Auschwitz was serving as both a slave labor facility and a death camp. As the Germans brought more and more Jews from all over Europe to the sprawling complex, SS doctors selected the fittest for work. Other prisoners were sent directly to Birkenau’s gas chambers for what was euphemistically known as a special action. “Was present for first time at a special action at 3 a.m. By comparison Dante’s Inferno seems almost a comedy,” SS doctor Johann Paul Kremer wrote in his diary on September 2, 1942. Camp records show the transport he observed contained 957 Jews from France; only 12 men and 27 women were selected for work.
Germany's wartime foreign policy involved the creation of allied governments controlled directly or indirectly from Berlin. They intended to obtain soldiers from allies such as Italy and Hungary and workers and food supplies from allies such as Vichy France. Hungary was the fourth nation to join the Axis, signing the Tripartite Pact on 27 September 1940. Bulgaria signed the pact on 17 November. German efforts to secure oil included negotiating a supply from their new ally, Romania, who signed the Pact on 23 November, alongside the Slovak Republic. By late 1942, there were 24 divisions from Romania on the Eastern Front, 10 from Italy, and 10 from Hungary. Germany assumed full control in France in 1942, Italy in 1943, and Hungary in 1944. Although Japan was a powerful ally, the relationship was distant, with little co-ordination or co-operation. For example, Germany refused to share their formula for synthetic oil from coal until late in the war.
Auschwitz I (or "the Main Camp") was the original camp. This camp housed prisoners, was the location of medical experiments, and the site of Block 11 (a place of severe torture) and the Black Wall (a place of execution). At the entrance of Auschwitz, I stood the infamous sign that stated "Arbeit Macht Frei" ("work makes one free"). Auschwitz I also housed the Nazi staff that ran the entire camp complex.
Gies had saved everything she could from the secret annex, including Anne’s diary, her short stories, and favorite quotes from other writers. Otto read the diary, which Anne had rewritten in hopes of publishing after the war, typed it, and began sharing it with family and friends interested in reading it. A newspaper article by historian Jan Romein called Kinderstem (A Child’s Voice) led to the first publication of Het Achterhuis. Dagboekbrieven 14 july 1942 – 1 augustus 1944 (The Annex: Diary Notes from 14 June – 1 August).
I have already said I that our barracks were overcrowded. It should be added that, although these barracks contained toilets and washrooms, neither came up to the most modest demands of modern hygiene. The cleansing of our bodies took place in a special room and was limited to a short washing of the upper extremities with cold water. A weekly warm shower was supposed to be provided, but with the overcrowding of the camp it was several weeks before a bath was available for each one. There was, of course, no toilet paper.
The process of denazification, which was initiated by the Allies as a way to remove Nazi Party members was only partially successful, as the need for experts in such fields as medicine and engineering was too great. However, expression of Nazi views was frowned upon, and those who expressed such views were frequently dismissed from their jobs. From the immediate post-war period through the 1950s, people avoided talking about the Nazi regime or their own wartime experiences. While virtually every family suffered losses during the war has a story to tell, Germans kept quiet about their experiences and felt a sense of communal guilt, even if they were not directly involved in war crimes.
And if existence was a struggle, a war, then it made no sense to show mercy to the enemy. Like many Nazi institutions, the K.L. embodied conflicting impulses: to reform the criminal, to extort labor from the unproductive, to quarantine the contagious. But most fundamental was the impulse to dehumanize the enemy, which ended up confounding and overriding all the others. Once a prisoner ceased to be human, he could be brutalized, enslaved, experimented on, or gassed at will, because he was no longer a being with a soul or a self but a biological machine. The Muselmänner, the living dead of the camps, stripped of any capacity to think or feel, were the true product of the K.L., the ultimate expression of the Nazi world view.
Movies were popular in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s, with admissions of over a billion people in 1942, 1943 and 1944. By 1934, German regulations restricting currency exports made it impossible for US film makers to take their profits back to America, so the major film studios closed their German branches. Exports of German films plummeted, as their antisemitic content made them impossible to show in other countries. The two largest film companies, Universum Film AG and Tobis, were purchased by the Propaganda Ministry, which by 1939 was producing most German films. The productions were not always overtly propagandistic, but generally had a political subtext and followed party lines regarding themes and content. Scripts were pre-censored.
Auschwitz was considered a comfortable posting by many SS members, because of its many amenities. SS personnel were initially allowed to bring partners, spouses, and children to live at the camp, but when the SS camp grew more crowded, Höss restricted further arrivals. Facilities for the SS personnel and their families included a library, swimming pool, coffee house, and a theater that hosted regular performances.
The Auschwitz registry (Hauptbücher) shows that 20,946 Roma were registered prisoners, and another 3,000 are thought to have entered unregistered. On 22 March 1943, one transport of 1,700 Polish Sinti and Roma was gassed on arrival because of illness, as was a second group of 1,035 on 25 May 1943. The SS tried to liquidate the camp on 16 May 1944, but the Roma fought them, armed with knives and iron pipes, and the SS retreated. Shortly after this, the SS removed nearly 2,908 from the family camp to work, and on 2 August 1944 gassed the other 2,897. Ten thousand remain unaccounted for.
I married a Polish Jew and we settled in Germany, the “Täterland” – the land of the perpetrator – after being forced out of Czechoslovakia after the collapse of the Prague Spring in 1968. It does sometimes feel like a strange decision to live in Germany because the Holocaust is just so omnipresent here and there is a growing antisemitism that scares me, especially when you feel it in Germany, of all places, which is why I always repeat what Primo Levi wrote: “What happened can happen again.”
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?
Adolf Hitler, the party's leader since 1921, was appointed Chancellor of Germany by President Paul von Hindenburg on 30 January 1933. Hitler rapidly established a totalitarian regime known as the Third Reich. Following the defeat of the Third Reich at the conclusion of World War II in Europe, the party was "declared to be illegal" by the Allied powers, who carried out denazification in the years after the war.