When we arrived it was, as I later found out, the usual story, though not to us at the time. Our family was torn apart on the platform on arriving. My sister, Serena, was chosen for slave labour. My mother and the younger children were sent off to one side and my father and 16-year-old brother to the other side. I held tightly on to the hand of my 12-year-old sister and for an instant I was mistaken for being older than I was, probably because I was wearing a headscarf that my mother had given me.
Then we were fitted out. Strange combinations! The younger and thinner men received, for the most part, old uniforms, even officers' coats without insignia. Others received striped prisoners' garb of relatively light material, a shirt, a pair of socks, and a suit of tissue-thin underwear. No vest, no coat. As headgear there were old soldiers' caps without cockades. It goes without saying that it was very difficult to find clothes fitting the various sizes and shapes. We were a sight grotesque as well as sad.
The property is of adequate size to ensure the complete representation of the features and processes that convey its significance. Potential threats to the integrity of the property include the difficulty in preserving the memory of the events and their significance to humanity. In the physical sphere, significant potential threats include natural decay of the former camps’ fabric; environmental factors, including the risk of flooding and rising groundwater level; changes in the surroundings of the former camps; and intensive visitor traffic.
As Soviet troops closed in on Auschwitz in late January 1945, the SS hurriedly evacuated some 56,000 prisoners on death marches to the west, then blew up the Birkenau gas chambers and crematoria to erase evidence of the mass murders. The Red Army liberated Auschwitz on January 27, 1945. Some 6,000 people were still alive at Birkenau. Another 1,000 were found at the main camp.
"Like the adults, the kids were only a mere bag of bones, without muscles or fat, and the thin skin like pergament scrubbed through and through beyond the hard bones of the skeleton and ignited itself to ulcerated wounds. Abscesses covered the underfed body from the top to the bottom and thus deprived it from the last rest of energy. The mouth was deeply gnawed by noma-abscesses, hollowed out the jaw and perforated the cheeks like cancer". Many decaying bodies were full of water because of the burning hunger, they swelled to shapeless bulks which could not move anymore. Diarrhoea, lasting for weeks, dissolved their irresistant bodies until nothing remained ....."
At this time only the main camp, later known as Auschwitz I, had been established. Himmler ordered the construction of a second camp for 100,000 inmates on the site of the village of Brzezinka, roughly two miles from the main camp. This second camp, now known as Birkenau or Auschwitz II, was initially intended to be filled with captured Russian POWs who would provide the slave labor to build the SS “utopia” in Upper Silesia. Chemical giant I G Farben expressed an interest in utilizing this labor force, and extensive construction work began in October 1941 under terrible conditions and with massive loss of life. About 10,000 Russian POWs died in this process. The greater part of the apparatus of mass extermination was eventually built in the Birkenau camp and the majority of the victims were murdered here.
Special “political units on alert” (Politische Bereitschaften) originally guarded the SS concentration camps. They were renamed “SS Guard Units” (SS-Wachverbände) in 1935 and “SS Death's-Head Units” (SS-Totenkopfverbände) in April 1936. One SS Death's-Head Unit was assigned to each concentration camp. After 1936, the camp administration, including the commandant, was also a part of the SS Death's-Head Unit.
There were factions within the Nazi Party, both conservative and radical. The conservative Nazi Hermann Göring urged Hitler to conciliate with capitalists and reactionaries. Other prominent conservative Nazis included Heinrich Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich. Meanwhile, the radical Nazi Joseph Goebbels opposed capitalism, viewing it as having Jews at its core and he stressed the need for the party to emphasize both a proletarian and a national character. Those views were shared by Otto Strasser, who later left the Nazi Party in the belief that Hitler had allegedly betrayed the party's socialist goals by endorsing capitalism.
For the preservation staff, the burden of remembrance informs every aspect of their restoration efforts. “If there’s damage to an object as part of its history, we leave it that way,” Banas says. She points to crates of shoes stacked in a hallway, most with worn insoles and uneven heels—signs of human use that will be left as they are. The International Auschwitz Council—museum officials and survivors from around the world dedicated to the conservation of Auschwitz—has decided that the mounds of hair will be allowed to decay naturally because they are human remains.
After the arrival of a transport at the ramp in Birkenau, the process known as selection took place. SS officers decided who would be taken to work, and who would be sent directly to the gas chambers. Often it was mere chance or the mood of the SS officer that decided whether someone died immediately or had a hope of survival. The prisoners selected for slave labour were sent to one of the many auxiliary camps at Auschwitz or elsewhere in the Nazi concentration camp system. Their aim was „Vernichtung durch Arbeit“ - extermination through labour.
Around 7,000 SS personnel were posted to Auschwitz during the war. Of these, 4 percent of SS personnel were officers and 26 percent were non-commissioned officers, while the remainder were rank-and-file members. Camp guards were members of the SS-Totenkopfverbände (Death's Head Units). Approximately three in four SS personnel worked in security. Others worked in the medical or political departments, in the camp headquarters, or in the economic administration, which was responsible for the property of dead prisoners. SS personnel at the camp included 200 women, who worked as guards, nurses, or messengers. About 120 SS personnel were assigned to the gas chambers and lived on site at the crematoria.
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.
Mindful that no mere visit can convey what the concentration camp was like when the Nazis ran it, I met with survivors. The week before I arrived in Krakow, I had called Jozef Stos, 89, to ask if he would discuss his years in captivity. “If I’m still alive then, sure—it’s my civic responsibility,” he said with a laugh. “But I’m pretty darn old, you know.”
Gradowski was one of the Jewish prisoners in Auschwitz’s Sonderkommando: those forced to escort new arrivals into the gas chambers, haul the newly dead bodies to the crematoriums, extract any gold teeth and then burn the corpses. Gradowski, a young married man whose entire family was murdered, reportedly maintained his religious faith, reciting the kaddish (mourner’s prayer) each evening for the victims of each transport—including Peter van Pels’ father, who was gassed a few weeks after his arrival in Auschwitz on September 6, 1944. Gradowski recorded his experiences in Yiddish in documents he buried, which were discovered after the war; he himself was killed on October 7, 1944, in a Sonderkommando revolt that lasted only one day. (The documents written by Gradowski and several other prisoners inspired the 2015 Hungarian film Son of Saul, which, unsurprisingly, was no blockbuster, despite an Academy Award and critical acclaim.)
I had become aware of antisemitism from a young age, when my uncle had his head chopped in two when he was attacked by fascists while driving up to Novograd where he lived. While his attacker was convicted, he was hardly punished, and continued to live opposite my uncle’s wife and child. But as a child you don’t think about these things all that much. My family had a wood and coal business and, like most people in those days, my father was self-employed. As they started to restrict us, he lost his licence to operate and then he faced the enormous task of trying to find work. Meanwhile, my mother was at home trying to keep the family together, with all of us all involved in domestic life.
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 SA leadership continued to apply pressure for greater political and military power. In response, Hitler used the Schutzstaffel (SS) and Gestapo to purge the entire SA leadership. Hitler targeted SA Stabschef (Chief of Staff) Ernst Röhm and other SA leaders who—along with a number of Hitler's political adversaries (such as Gregor Strasser and former chancellor Kurt von Schleicher)—were arrested and shot. Up to 200 people were killed from 30 June to 2 July 1934 in an event that became known as the Night of the Long Knives.
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.
Between 1933 and the fall of Nazi Germany in 1945, more than 3.5 million Germans were forced to spend time in concentration camps and prisons for political reasons, and approximately 77,000 Germans were executed for one or another form of resistance by Special Courts, courts-martial, and the civil justice system. Many of these Germans had served in government, the military, or in civil positions, which enabled them to engage in subversion and conspiracy against the Nazis.