Auschwitz originally was conceived as a concentration camp, to be used as a detention center for the many Polish citizens arrested after Germany annexed the country in 1939. These detainees included anti-Nazi activists, politicians, resistance members and luminaries from the cultural and scientific communities. Once Hitler’s Final Solution became official Nazi policy, however, Auschwitz was deemed an ideal death camp locale. For one thing, it was situated near the center of all German-occupied countries on the European continent. For another, it was in close proximity to the string of rail lines used to transport detainees to the network of Nazi camps.
In early February, the Polish Red Cross hospital opened in blocks 14, 21, and 22 at Auschwitz I, headed by Dr. Józef Bellert and staffed by 30 volunteer doctors and nurses from Kraków, along with around 90 former inmates. The critically injured patients—estimated at several thousands—were relocated from Birkenau and Monowitz to the main camp. Some orphaned children were adopted by Oświęcim residents, while others were transferred to Kraków, where several were adopted by Polish families, or placed in an orphanage at Harbutowice. The hospital cared for more than 4,500 patients (most of them Jews) from 20 countries, suffering from starvation, alimentary dystrophy, gangrene, necrosis, internal haemorrhaging, and typhoid fever. At least 500 died. Assistance was provided by volunteers from Oświęcim and Brzeszcze, who donated money and food, cleaned hospital rooms, delivered water, washed patients, cooked meals, buried the dead, and transported the sick in horse-drawn carts between locations. Securing enough food for thousands of former prisoners was a constant challenge. The hospital director personally went from village to village to collect milk.
On 6 June 1944, American, British, and Canadian forces established a front in France with the D-Day landings in Normandy. On 20 July 1944, Hitler survived an assassination attempt. He ordered brutal reprisals, resulting in 7,000 arrests and the execution of more than 4,900 people. The failed Ardennes Offensive (16 December 1944 – 25 January 1945) was the last major German offensive on the western front, and Soviet forces entered Germany on 27 January. Hitler's refusal to admit defeat and his insistence that the war be fought to the last man led to unnecessary death and destruction in the war's closing months. Through his Justice Minister Otto Georg Thierack, Hitler ordered that anyone who was not prepared to fight should be court-martialed, and thousands of people were put to death. In many areas, people surrendered to the approaching Allies in spite of exhortations of local leaders to continue to fight. Hitler ordered the destruction of transport, bridges, industries, and other infrastructure—a scorched earth decree—but Armaments Minister Albert Speer prevented this order from being fully carried out.
When the Nazis realized that the Russians were successfully pushing their way toward Germany in late 1944, they decided to start destroying evidence of their atrocities at Auschwitz. Himmler ordered the destruction of the crematoria and the human ashes were buried in huge pits and covered with grass. Many of the warehouses were emptied, with their contents shipped back to Germany.
The ideology of Nazism brought together elements of antisemitism, racial hygiene and eugenics, and combined them with pan-Germanism and territorial expansionism with the goal of obtaining more Lebensraum (living space) for the Germanic people. Immediately after the Nazi seizure of power in Germany, boycotts of German Jews and acts of violence against them became ubiquitous, and legislation was passed excluding them from the civil service and certain professions, including the law.[a] Harassment and economic pressure were used to encourage them to leave Germany; their businesses were denied access to markets, forbidden to advertise in newspapers, and deprived of government contracts.
Memory is not something that is acquired once and stays on forever. The moment that the last eyewitnesses and survivors pass away, we have to work together to build on that which remains: the testimonies of those former prisoners and the authentic artifacts connected with Auschwitz. Each item can have its own enormous meaning and should find its place in the collection of the Auschwitz Memorial. Here, it will be preserved, studied, and displayed. Its place is here.
A concentration camp is a place where people are detained or confined without trial. Prisoners were kept in extremely harsh conditions and without any rights. In Nazi Germany after 1933, and across Nazi controlled Europe between 1938 and 1945, concentration camps became a major way in which the Nazis imposed their control. The first concentration camps in Germany were set up as detention centres to stop any opposition to the Nazis by so called ‘enemies of the state’. These people included communists, socialists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, Roma, and so called ‘asocials’.
I do not understand, however, the attitude of Hitler and his followers in this matter. To atone for the Paris murder, the Nazis imposed a collective punishment upon all German subjects of Jewish origin. First they organized a 'spontaneous' outburst of popular rage on the eve of November 10, 1938, throughout Germany at almost the same hour, and everywhere by the same methods. Abuses and tortures, even manslaughter, destruction of Jewish shops and apartments, arson of synagogues with gasoline brought for the purpose—such was the program.
During the Röhm Purge of 30 June to 2 July 1934 (also known as the "Night of the Long Knives"), Hitler disempowered the SA's leadership—most of whom belonged to the Strasserist (national revolutionary) faction within the NSDAP—and ordered them killed. He accused them of having conspired to stage a coup d'état, but it is believed that this was only a pretence to justify the suppression of any intraparty opposition. The purge was executed by the SS, assisted by the Gestapo and Reichswehr units. Aside from Strasserist Nazis, they also murdered anti-Nazi conservative figures like former chancellor Kurt von Schleicher. After this, the SA continued to exist but lost much of its importance, while the role of the SS grew significantly. Formerly only a sub-organisation of the SA, it was made into a separate organisation of the NSDAP in July 1934.
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.”
In early 1942, at the Wannsee Conference near Berlin, the Nazi Party decided on the last phase of what it called the “Final Solution” of the “Jewish problem” and spelled out plans for the systematic murder of all European Jews. In 1942 and 1943, Jews in the western occupied countries including France and Belgium were deported by the thousands to the death camps mushrooming across Europe. In Poland, huge death camps such as Auschwitz began operating with ruthless efficiency. The murder of Jews in German-occupied lands stopped only in last months of the war, as the German armies were retreating toward Berlin. By the time Hitler committed suicide in April 1945, some 6 million Jews had died.
Between 1940 and 1942, the French interned Jewish refugee families fleeing Nazi oppression elsewhere in Europe in Rivesaltes for the same reason. Lists of those incarcerated include a transport of Czech Jewish children: Brothers Salomon and Abraham Davidovic were 13 and 14 when they arrived. Conditions deteriorated. Directors complained in 1941 of no heat. Illness spread. Babies and the elderly died. The situation worsened when the Nazi-puppet Vichy regime assumed control of the camp in 1942 and began deporting its 7,000 foreign Jewish refugee prisoners to the gas chambers of Auschwitz. There, mothers and children were not separated but instead went to their deaths together.
Germany regained control of the Saarland through a referendum held in 1935 and annexed Austria in the Anschluss of 1938. The Munich Agreement of 1938 gave Germany control of the Sudetenland, and they seized the remainder of Czechoslovakia six months later. Under threat of invasion by sea, Lithuania surrendered the Memel district in March 1939.
Action T4 was a programme of systematic murder of the physically and mentally handicapped and patients in psychiatric hospitals that took place mainly from 1939 to 1941, and continued until the end of the war. Initially the victims were shot by the Einsatzgruppen and others; gas chambers and gas vans using carbon monoxide were used by early 1940. Under the Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring, enacted on 14 July 1933, over 400,000 individuals underwent compulsory sterilisation. Over half were those considered mentally deficient, which included not only people who scored poorly on intelligence tests, but those who deviated from expected standards of behaviour regarding thrift, sexual behaviour, and cleanliness. Most of the victims came from disadvantaged groups such as prostitutes, the poor, the homeless, and criminals. Other groups persecuted and killed included Jehovah's Witnesses, homosexuals, social misfits, and members of the political and religious opposition.
In 2015, Flemish journalist Jeroen de Bruyn and Joop van Wijk, Bep Voskuijl's youngest son, wrote a biography, Bep Voskuijl, het zwijgen voorbij: een biografie van de jongste helper van het Achterhuis (Bep Voskuijl, the Silence is Over: A Biography of the Youngest Helper of the Secret Annex), in which they alleged that Bep's younger sister Nelly (1923–2001) could have betrayed the Frank family. According to the book, Bep's sister Diny and her fiancé Bertus Hulsman recollected Nelly telephoning the Gestapo on the morning of 4 August 1944. Nelly had been critical of Bep and their father, Johannes Voskuijl, helping the Jews. (Johannes was the one who constructed the bookcase covering the entrance to the hiding place.) Nelly was a Nazi collaborator between the ages of 19 and 23. Karl Silberbauer, the SS officer who received the phone call and made the arrest, was documented to say that the informer had "the voice of a young woman".
To protect the supposed purity and strength of the Aryan race, the Nazis sought to exterminate Jews, Romani, Poles and most other Slavs, along with the physically and mentally handicapped. They disenfranchised and segregated homosexuals, Africans, Jehovah's Witnesses and political opponents. The persecution reached its climax when the party-controlled German state set in motion the Final Solution–an industrial system of genocide which achieved the murder of an estimated 5.5 to 6 million Jews and millions of other targeted victims, in what has become known as the Holocaust.
But some characteristics are more pertinent. Schneidermann’s analysis begins with the St. Louis, the ship that carried around a thousand mostly German and Austrian Jewish refugees across the Atlantic in May, 1939, only to see its passengers refused entry into both the U.S. and Cuba. (At the time, the newspapers reported that the U.S. had fulfilled an annual quota for German and Austrian immigrants, a claim that was later revealed to be likely false.) Viewed from the distance of eighty years, the tone of the coverage seems, to Schneidermann, woefully insufficient. He cites the Holocaust Memorial Museum’s encyclopedia entry for the event, which notes, “though US newspapers generally portrayed the plight of the passengers with great sympathy, only a few journalists and editors suggested that the refugees be admitted into the United States.” Schneidermann compares this to the media’s more admirable response to Trump’s “Muslim ban,” in 2017, which sent a mass of journalists to airports across the U.S. to tell the stories of people—stranded and separated from their families—whose rights had been violated.
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.
The first “bunker,” with two sealed rooms, operated from January 1942 to the end of that year. The second, with four air tight rooms, became redundant in the spring of 1943, but remained standing and was used again in the autumn of 1944 when extra “capacity” was needed for the murder of Hungarian Jews and the liquidation of the ghettos. The second measured about 1.134 square feet. The victims murdered in the “bunkers” were first obliged to undress in temporary wooden barracks erected nearby. Their bodies were taken out of the gas chambers and pushed to pits where they were burned in the open.
I’m often asked how I have coped. I never went to a psychologist and I never will. Quite simply, I kept it at a distance. I saw and understood, and yet I didn’t. I’ve never cried over the columns of children and mothers I saw. When I was in Auschwitz I thought: ‘This is not actually on earth.’ It was a system of masters and slaves, gods and subhumans and I thought to myself: ‘No one knows about it. It’s the forest, surrounded by multiple layers of fence, it’s not actually real.’ I never let it penetrate that my parents were killed and I even thought: ‘After this we’re going home and everyone will be there again.’ Those who never managed to keep it distant killed themselves.
Those who reported for treatment in the infirmary had to line up in front of the infirmary barracks. After a prolonged waiting—often after hours—a doctor appeared and asked about the complaints. Thereupon he divided the prisoners into two categories: category one was examined and received into the sickroom if the occasion warranted it. In very grave cases—supposedly very rarely—inmates were taken to the police infirmary in Berlin. Category two was lined up without any sort of examination in front of the barracks, sometimes for hours, as a punishment, and then sent back to the barracks with the usual reprimands. The chief physician of the camp was called 'Dr. Cruel' by the old inmates. (His real name was Irrsam. 'Cruel' in German is grausam; the puns therefore, is not translatable.)
The existing legal system provides appropriate tools for the effective protection and management of the property. The Museum Council, whose members are appointed by the Minister of Culture and National Heritage, supervises the performance of the Museum’s duties regarding its collections, in particular the execution of its statutory tasks. In addition, the International Auschwitz Council acts as a consultative and advisory body to the Prime Minister of the Republic of Poland on the protection and management of the site of the former Auschwitz Birkenau camp and other places of extermination and former concentration camps situated within the present territory of Poland.
I was taken into protective custody in connection with the murder of the German attaché in Paris, Ernst vom Rath, by the seventeen-year-old Polish subject, Grynszpan, who had been expelled from Germany first and then had been ordered to leave France. I do not want to justify this political murder in any way, but I can understand it as the act of a hopelessly desperate person.
Hitler added to Pan-Germanic aspirations the almost mystical fanaticism of a faith in the mission of the German race and the fervour of a social revolutionary gospel. This gospel was most fully expressed in Hitler’s personal testament Mein Kampf (1925–27; “My Struggle”), in which he outlined both his practical aims and his theories of race and propaganda.
The lead editors of the Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos, 1933–1945 of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Geoffrey Megargee and Martin Dean, cataloged some 42,500 Nazi ghettos and camps throughout Europe, spanning German-controlled areas from France to Russia and Germany itself, operating from 1933 to 1945. They estimate that 15 million to 20 million people died or were imprisoned in the sites.