My father surveyed the scene from the train and could see prisoners, uniforms and barracks so we immediately thought it was a work camp, and that was reassuring – if we can work, it can’t be such a dreadful place. We had heard about the stories in Poland of lots of mass shootings of Jews or people being taken into the forest and shot, so it was a relief to see out the window that there was actually a system. Even though we were victims of discrimination at that stage that’s all it was, as we had no clue then that this was a very carefully orchestrated plan of genocide. We could not have imagined that they would kill little children, until we realised that killing children was their primary goal to prevent any new generations. Because desperate people will always look to find some sign of hope, we thought to ourselves even if we have to work, at least we’ll see each other occasionally.
In 1920, the Nazi Party officially announced that only persons of "pure Aryan descent [rein arischer Abkunft]" could become party members and if the person had a spouse, the spouse also had to be a "racially pure" Aryan. Party members could not be related either directly or indirectly to a so-called "non-Aryan". Even before it had become legally forbidden by the Nuremberg Laws in 1935, the Nazis banned sexual relations and marriages between party members and Jews. Party members found guilty of Rassenschande ("racial defilement") were persecuted heavily, some members were even sentenced to death.
On the night of the 27 February 1933 and 28 February 1933, someone set the Reichstag building on fire. This was the building where the German Parliament held their meetings. The Nazis blamed the communists. Opponents of the Nazis said that the Nazis themselves had done it to come to power. On the very same day, an emergency law called Reichstagsbrandverordnung was passed. The government claimed it was to protect the state from people trying to hurt the country. With this law, most of the civil rights of the Weimar Republic did not count any longer. The Nazis used this against the other political parties. Members of the communist and social-democratic parties were put into prison or killed.
Whitman’s study covers the earliest period of the Nazi regime, before it arrived at its monstrous endpoint. The Nazis’ ideas were still being debated, discussed, and put into practice at this point. Since their beginnings on the fringes of German politics, the Nazis had advocated a program of racist nationalism; they were consumed by what Whitman calls Rassenwahn—“race madness.” It was this hysteria over race, and the single-minded focus on it, that distinguished Hitler and his party from other fascists and authoritarians. It was also why the Nazis looked to the United States for inspiration.
The Nazis argued that free market capitalism damages nations due to international finance and the worldwide economic dominance of disloyal big business, which they considered to be the product of Jewish influences. Nazi propaganda posters in working class districts emphasised anti-capitalism, such as one that said: "The maintenance of a rotten industrial system has nothing to do with nationalism. I can love Germany and hate capitalism".
Only after the true scope of the Holocaust’s horrors were known did the world begin to react to what had happened at Auschwitz. Though the Nazis fled and tried to cover up their deeds, making it impossible to ever know the complete history of their crimes, the voices of the victims and survivors live on through their testimony. All in all, 6 million Jews perished in the Holocaust. Today, a museum and memorial at Auschwitz preserves the remnants of the Nazis’ crimes—a reminder of the many who were killed and a testament to those who survived.
Women were encouraged to leave the workforce, and the creation of large families by racially suitable women was promoted through a propaganda campaign. Women received a bronze award—known as the Ehrenkreuz der Deutschen Mutter (Cross of Honour of the German Mother)—for giving birth to four children, silver for six, and gold for eight or more. Large families received subsidies to help with expenses. Though the measures led to increases in the birth rate, the number of families having four or more children declined by five percent between 1935 and 1940. Removing women from the workforce did not have the intended effect of freeing up jobs for men, as women were for the most part employed as domestic servants, weavers, or in the food and drink industries—jobs that were not of interest to men. Nazi philosophy prevented large numbers of women from being hired to work in munitions factories in the build-up to the war, so foreign labourers were brought in. After the war started, slave labourers were extensively used. In January 1943, Hitler signed a decree requiring all women under the age of fifty to report for work assignments to help the war effort. Thereafter women were funnelled into agricultural and industrial jobs, and by September 1944 14.9 million women were working in munitions production.
When Otto Frank returned to Amsterdam following his release from Auschwitz, Miep Gies gave him five notebooks and some 300 loose papers containing Anne’s writings. Gies had recovered the materials from the Secret Annex shortly after the Franks’ arrest by the Nazis and had hidden them in her desk. (Margot Frank also kept a diary, but it was never found.) Otto Frank knew that Anne wanted to become an author or journalist, and had hoped her wartime writings would one day be published. Anne had even been inspired to edit her diary for posterity after hearing a March 1944 radio broadcast from an exiled Dutch government official who urged the Dutch people to keep journals and letters that would help provide a record of what life was like under the Nazis.
These detention facilities for refugee children can rightly be labeled “concentration camps.” The Nazis do not own the term irrevocably, as it refers to prisonlike facilities where individuals are forcibly detained because of who they are. That meaning was applied to the British camps in South Africa where the term was coined during the Boer War. It would also be appropriate for the U.S. “internment camps” for Japanese Americans during World War II. We can call today’s U.S. border detention centers “concentration camps” and be within the realm of historical accuracy. By the same token, they are not Auschwitz. These children are undergoing terrible trauma, but they are not being murdered.
This is not the limit of the horrors of Auschwitz I. It was also the site of disturbing medical experimentation on Jewish and Roma prisoners, including castration, sterilisation and testing how they were affected by contagious diseases. The infamous “Angel of Death”, SS captain Dr Josef Mengele, was one of the physicians practising here. His particular interest was experimenting on twins.
Though most Nazi concentration and extermination camps were destroyed after the war, some of them were turned into permanent memorials, and museums. In Communist Poland, some camps such as Majdanek, Jaworzno, Potulice and Zgoda were used by the Soviet NKVD to hold German prisoners of war, suspected or confirmed Nazis and Nazi collaborators, anti-Communists and other political prisoners, as well as civilian members of the German-speaking, Silesian and Ukrainian ethnic minorities. Currently, there are memorials to the victims of both Nazi and communist camps at Potulice; they have helped to enable a German-Polish discussion on historical perceptions of World War II. In East Germany, the concentration camps at Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen were used for similar purposes. Dachau concentration camp was used as a detention centre for the arrested Nazis.
When I met her at her house in London, Lasker-Wallfisch, 84, explained that she and her sister avoided the dreaded selection process because they went to Birkenau as convicts. “People shipped from prisons weren’t shipped in huge trainloads of Jews,” Lasker-Wallfisch said. “They were shipped as individuals, which was an advantage. It’s not worth turning the gas on for one Jew, I suppose.” Instead, Lasker-Wallfisch was stripped, guards shaved her head and an inmate tattooed her with an identification number (a practice unique to Auschwitz).
Of the seven people who hid in the secret annex, only Otto Frank survived. Upon returning to Amsterdam on June 3, he discovered that his employees had faithfully kept his business running, awaiting his return. He stayed with Miep Gies and her husband and immediately began searching for his daughters—in mid-July, he learned of their deaths at Bergen-Belsen.
Our trip, full of suspense, took us past the baroque palace of Oranienburg, built at the time of Frederick the Great, through the sand of Brandenburg and through deserted pine forests, thence to a large settlement. Suddenly we saw in front of us high walls (about fourteen feet) which, at intervals of two hundred yards, were crowned by watchtowers, so that the whole camp gave the impression of a Chinese city as we knew it from pictures. We drove through an iron gate, and soon after through a second gate in a second inner wall about a hundred feet from the first one. In the space between the two walls there were barracks with administration and treasury buildings, and vegetable and other gardens. The inner gate, which led through the main watchtower, bore the inscription 'Work Makes Free'—an inscription which many inmates of the camp, after years of work and vain hope for release, will probably take as sarcasm.
The crematoria consisted of a dressing room, gas chamber, and furnace room. In crematoria II and III, the dressing room and gas chamber were underground; in IV and V, they were on the ground floor. The dressing room had numbered hooks on the wall to hang clothes. In crematorium II, there was also a dissection room (Sezierraum). SS officers told the victims they were to take a shower and undergo delousing. The victims undressed in the dressing room and walked into the gas chamber, which was disguised as a shower facility; signs in German said "To the baths" and "To disinfection". Some inmates were even given soap and a towel.
The third camp, Auschwitz III, also called Monowitz, was opened in October 1942. It was predominantly used as a base for imprisoned labourers working for the German chemical company IG Farben. According to the Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial museum, an estimated 10,000 labourers are thought to have died there. Once they were judged incapable of work, most were killed with a phenol injection to the heart.
The last days of Auschwitz, which was opened by the Nazis in Oswiecim, Poland, in 1940, were marked by chaos, cowardice and an attempt to destroy what was once one of Nazi Germany’s most efficient tools in the quest to eradicate European Jews. By late 1944, as the Allied forces of World War II wrested much of occupied Europe out of Nazi hands, it had become clear that the Nazi military—once a mighty force that had invaded and occupied most of Europe after Hitler’s rise to power in 1933—was headed toward a spectacular defeat.
From its rise to power in 1933, the Nazi regime built a series of incarceration sites to imprison and eliminate so-called "enemies of the state." Most prisoners in the early concentration camps were German Communists, Socialists, Social Democrats, Roma (Gypsies), Jehovah's Witnesses, homosexuals, and persons accused of "asocial" or socially deviant behavior. Some of these facilities were called “concentration camps” because those imprisoned there were physically “concentrated” in one location.
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.
Racism, especially antisemitism, was a central feature of the regime. The Germanic peoples were considered by the Nazis to be the master race, the purest branch of the Aryan race. Discrimination and persecution against Jews and Romani people began in earnest after the seizure of power. The first concentration camps were established in March 1933. Jews and others deemed undesirable were imprisoned, and liberals, socialists, and communists were killed, imprisoned, or exiled. Christian churches and citizens that opposed Hitler's rule were oppressed, and many leaders imprisoned. Education focused on racial biology, population policy, and fitness for military service. Career and educational opportunities for women were curtailed. Recreation and tourism were organised via the Strength Through Joy program, and the 1936 Summer Olympics showcased Germany on the international stage. Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels made effective use of film, mass rallies, and Hitler's hypnotic oratory to influence public opinion. The government controlled artistic expression, promoting specific art forms and banning or discouraging others.
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.
Then, the marches began. The remaining prisoners deemed healthy enough to march were told to assemble into columns and leave Auschwitz. About 7,000 were left behind as 60,000 marched. Nazi guards led them through the forests and fields of southern Poland on their way to Germany. The Germans called the march an “evacuation”; prisoners immediately dubbed it the “death march.”