I was not even two when we arrived at Auschwitz in 1944. I have no conscious memories of that time, but plenty of subconscious ones. My mother told me later how when they tattooed my arm with a needle, it was so painful that I passed out. The number they gave me and that I still have was A26959. My mother’s ended in 8. I was probably the youngest child to have been tattooed who survived.
Repeat selections took place several times during the day in roll calls. Inmates who had become weak or ill were separated from the ranks and sent to the gas chambers. A brutal regimen based on a set of punishments and torture was invoked in the camp. Few managed to survive. In Auschwitz-Birkenau, more than 1,100,000 Jews, 70,000 Poles, 25,000 Sinti and Roma (Gypsies) and some 15,000 prisoners of war from the USSR and other countries were murdered.
I bought this book to prepare for a trip to the Anne Frank Museum. It was a sad but fascinating read - and when I got to the Franks' hiding place in Amsterdam, I knew exactly what I was looking at, who slept where - and who all the individuals were that helped Anne, her family, and their companions survive for as long as they did. I think I got more out of the visit than I would have without reading this book.
The systematic extermination of Jews, however, took place largely outside the concentration camps. The death camps, in which more than one and a half million Jews were gassed—at Belzec, Sobibór, and Treblinka—were never officially part of the K.L. system. They had almost no inmates, since the Jews sent there seldom lived longer than a few hours. By contrast, Auschwitz, whose name has become practically a synonym for the Holocaust, was an official K.L., set up in June, 1940, to house Polish prisoners. The first people to be gassed there, in September, 1941, were invalids and Soviet prisoners of war. It became the central site for the deportation and murder of European Jews in 1943, after other camps closed. The vast majority of Jews brought to Auschwitz never experienced the camp as prisoners; more than eight hundred thousand of them were gassed upon arrival, in the vast extension of the original camp known as Birkenau. Only those picked as capable of slave labor lived long enough to see Auschwitz from the inside.
Heinrich Himmler's Schutzstaffel (SS) took full control of the police and the concentration camps throughout Germany in 1934–35. Himmler expanded the role of the camps to hold so-called "racially undesirable elements", such as Jews, Gypsies/Romanis/Sintis, Serbs, Poles, disabled people, and criminals. The number of people in the camps, which had fallen to 7,500, grew again to 21,000 by the start of World War II and peaked at 715,000 in January 1945.