Most of the teenage boys and girls in the photo are hamming it up for the camera, celebrating as nearly all raise as their right hand to deliver what looks like the Nazi salute. A few can be seen holding their phones and at least one girl appears to be taking a picture of the swastika made up of about 100 red plastic cups that look as though they've been set up to play a white supremacist version of the popular drinking game, beer pong.
In 1929, Germany entered a period of severe economic depression and widespread unemployment. The Nazis capitalized on the situation by criticizing the ruling government and began to win elections. In the July 1932 elections, they captured 230 out of 608 seats in the “Reichstag,” or German parliament. In January 1933, Hitler was appointed German chancellor and his Nazi government soon came to control every aspect of German life.
In Mein Kampf, Hitler effectively supported mercantilism in the belief that economic resources from their respective territories should be seized by force, as he believed that the policy of Lebensraum would provide Germany with such economically valuable territories. Hitler argued that the only means to maintain economic security was to have direct control over resources rather than being forced to rely on world trade. He claimed that war to gain such resources was the only means to surpass the failing capitalist economic system.
In late January 1945, SS and police officials forced 4,000 prisoners to evacuate Blechhammer on foot. Blechhammer was a subcamp of Auschwitz-Monowitz. The SS murdered about 800 prisoners during the march to the Gross-Rosen concentration camp. SS officials also killed as many as 200 prisoners left behind in Blechhammer as a result of illness or unsuccessful attempts to hide. After a brief delay, the SS transported around 3,000 Blechhammer prisoners from Gross-Rosen to the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany.
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.
“It may be that these, the lines that I am now writing, will be the sole witness to what was my life,” Gradowski writes. “But I shall be happy if only my writings should reach you, citizen of the free world. Perhaps a spark of my inner fire will ignite in you, and even should you sense only part of what we lived for, you will be compelled to avenge us—avenge our deaths! Dear discoverer of these writings! I have a request of you: This is the real reason why I write, that my doomed life may attain some meaning, that my hellish days and hopeless tomorrows may find a purpose in the future.” And then Gradowski tells us what he has seen.
However, it was the effects of the Great Depression in Germany that brought the Nazi Party to its first real nationwide importance. The rapid rise in unemployment in 1929–30 provided millions of jobless and dissatisfied voters whom the Nazi Party exploited to its advantage. From 1929 to 1932 the party vastly increased its membership and voting strength; its vote in elections to the Reichstag (the German Parliament) increased from 800,000 votes in 1928 to about 14,000,000 votes in July 1932, and it thus emerged as the largest voting bloc in the Reichstag, with 230 members (38 percent of the total vote). By then big-business circles had begun to finance the Nazi electoral campaigns, and swelling bands of SA toughs increasingly dominated the street fighting with the communists that accompanied such campaigns.
When the day of release came we were at first searched most carefully for any sort of written notes. Notes from our family—a short, well-watched exchange was allowed every week—had to be left behind. Then we were permitted to put on our civilian clothes, but how they looked! They had been disinfected under high steam pressure and had been wrapped in bundles. They looked like the outfits of tramps, all creased and out of shape. Soft felt hats had turned into cardboard-like monsters no longer usable, and even on our short trip back they could not be worn.
Those deemed fit enough for slave labor were then immediately registered, tattooed with a serial number, 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 will set you free”). Of approximately 2.5 million people who were deported to Auschwitz, 405,000 were given prisoner status and serial numbers. Of these, approximately 50% were Jews and 50% were Poles and other nationalities.
Overall 268,657 male and 131,560 female prisoners were registered in Auschwitz, 400,207 in total. Many prisoners were never registered and much evidence was destroyed by the SS in the final days of the war, making the number of victims hard to ascertain. Himmler visited the camp on 17 July 1942 and watched a gassing; a few days later, according to Höss's post-war memoir, Höss received an order from Himmler, via Adolf Eichmann's office and SS commander Paul Blobel, that "[a]ll mass graves were to be opened and the corpses burned. In addition the ashes were to be disposed of in such a way that it would be impossible at some future time to calculate the number of corpses burned."
Gradowski was not poetic; he was prophetic. He did not gaze into this inferno and ask why. He knew. Aware of both the long recurring arc of destruction in Jewish history, and of the universal fact of cruelty’s origins in feelings of worthlessness, he writes: “This fire was ignited long ago by the barbarians and murderers of the world, who had hoped to drive darkness from their brutal lives with its light.”
Auschwitz was probably chosen to play a central role in the “final solution” because it was located at a railway junction with 44 parallel tracks—rail lines that were used to transport Jews from throughout Europe to their death. Heinrich Himmler, chief of the SS, the Nazi paramilitary corps, ordered the establishment of the first camp, the prison camp, on April 27, 1940, and the first transport of Polish political prisoners arrived on June 14. This small camp, Auschwitz I, was reserved throughout its history for political prisoners, mainly Poles and Germans.
From 1942, members of the Bureau of Information and Propaganda of the Warsaw-area Home Army published reports based on the accounts of escapees. The first was a fictional memoir, "Oświęcim. Pamiętnik więźnia" ("Auschwitz: Diary of a prisoner") by Halina Krahelska, published in April 1942 in Warsaw. Also published in 1942 was the pamphlet Obóz śmierci (Camp of Death) by Natalia Zarembina, and W piekle (In Hell) by Zofia Kossak-Szczucka, founder of Żegota. In March 1944, the Polish Labor Group in New York published a report in English, "Oswiecim, Camp of Death (Underground Report)", with a foreword by Florence Jaffray Harriman, which described the gassing of prisoners from 1942.
Over the years, there have been dissenting views about the preservationist approach. “I’m not convinced about the current plans for Auschwitz,” said Jonathan Webber, a former member of the International Auschwitz Council of advisers, who teaches in the European Studies program at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow. “If you have a very good memorial, you could achieve that without having to have all this effort on conservation and restoration,” he added.
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.”
The similarities between the Rivesaltes camp and the Trump administration’s camps for children should already be apparent: a temporary, insufficiently conceived facility designed to prevent foreigners from entering the country. And, as with Rivesaltes, officials have no real plan for what to do with them. Moreover, as historian Terrence Peterson emphasized, Rivesaltes “remained the go-to space for the French government simply because it existed. The infrastructure was in place that allowed the French state to simply shift unwanted populations into a controlled space rather than dealing substantively with changing migration policy or dealing with the human consequences of bad policy.”
The train wasn’t headed to Germany. Stos was on the first transport of Polish prisoners to Auschwitz. There to greet them were 30 hardened German convicts, brought by the SS from a prison near Berlin. Guards confiscated Stos’ belongings and issued him a number. Sixty-nine years later, he slid a business card across the dining room table as his daughter brought us cups of tea. It read “Jozef Stos, former Auschwitz Concentration Camp Prisoner No. 752.” “I was there on the first day,” he said. “They had me for five years and five days.”
Surely there is nothing left to say about Anne Frank, except that there is everything left to say about her: all the books she never lived to write. For she was unquestionably a talented writer, possessed of both the ability and the commitment that real literature requires. Quite the opposite of how an influential Dutch historian described her work in the article that spurred her diary’s publication—a “diary by a child, this de profundis stammered out in a child’s voice”—Frank’s diary was not the work of a naif, but rather of a writer already planning future publication. Frank had begun the diary casually, but later sensed its potential; upon hearing a radio broadcast in March of 1944 calling on Dutch civilians to preserve diaries and other personal wartime documents, she immediately began to revise two years of previous entries, with a title (Het Achterhuis, or The House Behind) already in mind, along with pseudonyms for the hiding place’s residents. Nor were her revisions simple corrections or substitutions. They were thoughtful edits designed to draw the reader in, intentional and sophisticated. Her first entry in the original diary, for instance, begins with a long description of her birthday gifts (the blank diary being one of them), an entirely unself-conscious record by a 13-year-old girl. The first entry in her revised version, on the other hand, begins with a deeply self-aware and ironic pose: “It’s an odd idea for someone like me to keep a diary; not only because I have never done so before, but because it seems to me that neither I—nor for that matter anyone else—will be interested in the unbosomings of a 13-year-old schoolgirl.”
The fate of the Frank family and other Jews in Amsterdam was wrapped up with the German occupation of the city, which began in May 1940. In July 1942, German authorities and their Dutch collaborators began to concentrate Jews from throughout the Netherlands at Westerbork, a transit camp near the Dutch town of Assen, not far from the German border. From Westerbork, German officials deported the Jews to Auschwitz-Birkenau and Sobibor killing centers in German-occupied Poland.
Those unable to work – the old, women and children – were immediately sent to the gas chambers or shot in the "camp hospital". Even those able to work ended up in the gas chamber sooner or later, or they fell victim to random shooting actions within a few months, when they had been worn out by the tough work. That is, if they had not died already. Those able to work for instance helped carry the bodies to the crematoria or search the bodies for valuables.
Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will (1935)—documenting the 1934 Nuremberg Rally—and Olympia (1938)—covering the 1936 Summer Olympics—pioneered techniques of camera movement and editing that influenced later films. New techniques such as telephoto lenses and cameras mounted on tracks were employed. Both films remain controversial, as their aesthetic merit is inseparable from their propagandising of National Socialist ideals.
There is a serious anachronism at work: the coverage that speaks to Schneidermann on an emotional level now was largely ineffective at the time it was printed. He muses that the journalists in the thirties needed to invent a new language, but he doesn’t quite define what that language should have looked like—dry facts didn’t allow an audience truly to comprehend the incomprehensible, but irony didn’t work, either, and neither did outcry. He faults the news outlets, above all, for not publishing vivid portraits of the victims. “Facts. Raw facts,” Schneidermann writes of press descriptions of Jewish refugees in 1939. “We can’t accuse the New York Times of having avoided the raw facts. Except that the raw facts don’t suffice. They never suffice. In order for a piece of news to touch consciences and hearts, there must be emotion running through it.”
These gassing facilities soon proved inadequate for the task of murdering the large numbers of Jewish deportees being sent to Auschwitz. Between March and June 1943, four large crematoria were built within Auschwitz-Birkenau, each with a gas chamber, a disrobing area, and crematory ovens. Gassings ceased at Bunkers I and II when Crematoria II through V began operating, although Bunker II was put back into operation during the deportation of Hungary’s Jews in 1944. Gassing of newly arrived transports ceased at Auschwitz by early November 1944.
Over the weeks that ensued, most of the remaining inmates of Auschwitz, the largest of the Nazis’ more than 400,000 camps and incarceration facilities, were marched to other camps near and far, walking tens and sometimes even hundreds of miles. Along the way, Beller saw Nazi guards murder prisoners who tried to escape and shoot those who lagged—including women and children so exhausted from starvation and the brutal conditions they could no longer go on. As he marched on, his feet protected by the shoes he’d grabbed before leaving Auschwitz, he saw ordinary Germans standing along the road, watching the prisoners go by.
Later that evening we were lined up at the outskirts of the camp, while trucks, arriving constantly, brought new inmates who suffered the same reception as we had before them. After the collective defamation the individual ones began. The camp commander, Baranowsky, a stocky, common-looking man with the insignia of a high rank in the S.S., passed along our rows with his staff. He addressed some, asked their profession, and, in the case of former officials, inquired the amount of their pension, usually commenting that it was too high, especially for a Jew. Arrivals who stood out because of some physical defect were especially ridiculed by him and his staff. Some men wore hearing aids that connected the ear through a wire with a microphone. These were torn out of the ear with rude force, and afterwards inspected by the whole staff as something incredibly strange.
Prisoners were crammed into the crumbling barracks and provided only a few hundred calories a day. Most died of starvation, exhaustion and diseases such as typhus and dysentery. Beatings, torture and executions were commonplace. Camp doctors conducted experiments—usually fatal—on prisoners, looking for ways to sterilize women with radiation or toxic chemicals, and studying the effects of extreme cold or starvation on the human body. In the first few years of the camp, 80 percent of new inmates died within two months.
Though the Russians had just come across the Holocaust’s deadliest camp, the liberation of Auschwitz didn’t even make front page news. A communiquépublished in the New York Times on January 28, 1945, doesn’t even mention the camp, just the city; on February 3, the paper devotedtwo paragraphs to the “murder factory” at Oswiecim but gave few details. As World War II raced to its end, few people could even grasp the horror that was found in the camps.
Early one morning I met Stos, a retired architect, at his small first-floor apartment on the outskirts of Krakow. We sat in his small, dark dining room, a plate of jam-filled ginger cookies on the starched white tablecloth between us. He said he grew up in Tarnow, Poland, about 50 miles from Krakow. He remembers the day the Nazis shipped him off to Auschwitz: June 13, 1940. It had been almost a year since Germany invaded Poland and launched its campaign to destroy the nation. Following instructions issued by SS chief Reinhard Heydrich—“the leading strata of the population should be rendered harmless”—the SS killed some 20,000 Poles, mainly priests, politicians and academics, in September and October 1939. Stos was an 18-year-old Boy Scout and a member of a Catholic youth organization. Germans put him and 727 other Poles, mostly university and trade-school students, in first-class train cars and told them they were going to work on German farms.
Auschwitz is enshrined in history in part because, as a work camp, there were survivors. Anita Lasker-Wallfisch was a 14-year-old Jewish cello student living in the German city of Breslau (now Wroclaw in Poland) when the war broke out. Two years later, she and her sister Renate were sent to work in a nearby paper factory. In 1942, after the Germans deported her parents to a death camp, the sisters doctored their identity papers and tried to escape.
Otto, the only survivor of the Franks, returned to Amsterdam after the war to find that her diary had been saved by his secretary, Miep Gies, and his efforts led to its publication in 1947. It was translated from its original Dutch version and first published in English in 1952 as The Diary of a Young Girl, and has since been translated into over 60 languages.
Returning to Auschwitz is going to be a cold, painful and tearful experience. It is a shadow that has always been with me and I’m hoping that by facing it for one last time at the age of 84 I will be able to live my life more peacefully, but I am extremely anxious. I lost my husband just days ago and I’m hoping I’ll finally be able to release my emotions when I’m there, as I’ve never really been able to cry much about anything. I’m comforted by the thought that there will be strength in numbers and that I’ll be there with perhaps 100 or so other survivors, which makes it easier. I would not go on my own. I appear to be a strong person, but inside I’m really quite fragile.
Against the advice of many of his senior military officers, Hitler ordered an attack on France and the Low Countries, which began in May 1940. They quickly conquered Luxembourg and the Netherlands. After outmanoeuvring the Allies in Belgium and forcing the evacuation of many British and French troops at Dunkirk, France fell as well, surrendering to Germany on 22 June. The victory in France resulted in an upswing in Hitler's popularity and an upsurge in war fever in Germany.
Until 1990, the museum’s directors were all former prisoners. Cywinski is just 37. His office is on the first floor of a former SS administration building directly across from a former gas chamber and crematorium. He tells me that Auschwitz is about to slip into history. The last survivors will soon die, and with them the living links to what happened here. Preserving the site becomes increasingly important, Cywinski believes: younger generations raised on TV and movie special effects need to see and touch the real thing.
The orders for the final evacuation and liquidation of the camp were issued in mid-January 1945. The Germans left behind in the main Auschwitz camp, Birkenau and in Monowitz about 7,000 sick or incapacitated who they did not expect would live for long; the rest, approximately 58,000 people, were evacuated by foot into the depths of the Third Reich.
Hungary didn’t give up its Jewish population until it was invaded by Nazi Germany in 1944. The very first task the German government gave the Hungarians was to round up Jewish families and deport them to Auschwitz. There was a huge rush to take half a million Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz and it was completed in just six weeks, in 147 cattle cars. So in the spring of 1944 my family – my parents and their six children, the oldest of whom was 17 and I was 13 – found ourselves in the Munkács ghetto and from there being taken on cattle carts to Auschwitz in Nazi-occupied Poland.
Despite the horrible conditions, prisoners in Auschwitz managed to resist the Nazis, including some instances of escape and armed resistance. In October 1944, members of the Sonderkommando, who worked in the crematoria, succeeded in killing several SS men and destroying one gas chamber. All of the rebels died, leaving behind diaries that provided authentic documentation of the atrocities committed at Auschwitz.
Auschwitz I, a former Polish army barracks, was the main camp (Stammlager) and administrative headquarters of the camp complex. Intending to use it to house political prisoners, Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler, head of the Schutzstaffel (SS), approved the site in April 1940 on the recommendation of SS-Obersturmbannführer (lieutenant colonel) Rudolf Höss, then of the Concentration Camps Inspectorate. Höss oversaw the development of the camp and served as its first commandant, with SS-Obersturmführer (senior lieutenant) Josef Kramer as his deputy. Around 1,000 m long and 400 m wide, Auschwitz I consisted of 20 brick buildings, six of them two-story; a second story was added to the others in 1943 and eight new blocks were built. The camp housed the SS barracks and by 1943 held 30,000 inmates. The first 30 prisoners arrived on 20 May 1940 after being transported from the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Oranienburg, Germany. Convicted German criminals (Berufsverbrecher), the men were known as "greens" after the green triangles they were required to wear on their prison clothing. Brought to the camp as functionaries, this group did much to establish the sadism of early camp life, which was directed particularly at Polish inmates, until the political prisoners began to take over their roles.
The Nazis contested elections to the national parliament (the Reichstag) and to the state legislature (the Landtage) from 1924, although at first with little success. The "National-Socialist Freedom Movement" polled 3% of the vote in the December 1924 Reichstag elections and this fell to 2.6% in 1928. State elections produced similar results. Despite these poor results and despite Germany's relative political stability and prosperity during the later 1920s, the Nazi Party continued to grow. This was partly because Hitler, who had no administrative ability, left the party organisation to the head of the secretariat, Philipp Bouhler, the party treasurer Franz Xaver Schwarz and business manager Max Amann. The party had a capable propaganda head in Gregor Strasser, who was promoted to national organizational leader in January 1928. These men gave the party efficient recruitment and organizational structures. The party also owed its growth to the gradual fading away of competitor nationalist groups, such as the German National People's Party (DNVP). As Hitler became the recognised head of the German nationalists, other groups declined or were absorbed.
In 1933, after Adolf Hitler's Nazi Party won the federal election, Edith Frank and the children went to stay with Edith's mother Rosa in Aachen. Otto Frank remained in Frankfurt, but after receiving an offer to start a company in Amsterdam, he moved there to organize the business and to arrange accommodations for his family. He began working at the Opekta Works, a company that sold the fruit extract pectin, and found an apartment on the Merwedeplein (Merwede Square) in the Rivierenbuurt neighbourhood of Amsterdam. By February 1934, Edith and the children had joined him in Amsterdam. The Franks were among 300,000 Jews who fled Germany between 1933 and 1939.
When I was eight years old Czechoslovakia broke apart and we became part of Hungary. That was when our problems started, because the Hungarians were allied with the Nazis. It was a difficult time for Jewish families, as suddenly the law no longer protected us and overnight we lost our civil rights. My father’s lumber business was confiscated and given to a non-Jew, and we received no compensation. Jewish children were thrown out of Hungarian schools, so right away we had no choice but to concentrate on hunkering down and trying not to bring attention to ourselves. We couldn’t ride the trains and we had to wear the yellow star. It was a free for all. With no law to protect us, it was common for Jews to get beaten up or thrown off the train.
Today, the word Auschwitz has become synonymous with terror, genocide, and The Holocaust. The site, though partially destroyed by the retreating Nazi’s in 1945, has been established as a museum to help future generations understand the atrocities committed within its fences. By 2011, more than 30 million people had visited the camp, and during 2014 a record number of 1.5 million people visited the Auschwitz complex and museum. Spokespeople for the museum said that from January to April 2015, over 250,000 people visited Auschwitz, marking a 40% increase over the already large numbers from the previous year. Authorities in charge of the site began to urge people to book their visit to Auschwitz online ahead of time to prevent them from having to turn people away.
For her thirteenth birthday on 12 June 1942, Frank received a book she had shown her father in a shop window a few days earlier. Although it was an autograph book, bound with red-and-white checkered cloth and with a small lock on the front, Frank decided she would use it as a diary, and she began writing in it almost immediately. In her entry dated 20 June 1942, she lists many of the restrictions placed upon the lives of the Dutch Jewish population.
Hitler sent military supplies and assistance to the Nationalist forces of General Francisco Franco in the Spanish Civil War, which began in July 1936. The German Condor Legion included a range of aircraft and their crews, as well as a tank contingent. The aircraft of the Legion destroyed the city of Guernica in 1937. The Nationalists were victorious in 1939 and became an informal ally of Nazi Germany.