The process of selection and murder was carefully planned and organized. When a train stopped at the platform, veteran prisoners received the victims and gathered their belongings in several barracks in an area known as “Kanada.” The arrivals were lined up in two columns – men and boys in one, women and girls in the other – and SS physicians performed a selection. The criterion was the appearance of the prisoners, whose fate, for labor or for death, was determined at will. Before they entered the chamber, they were told that they were about to be disinfected and ordered to undress. The doors of the chamber were locked and the gas was introduced. After the victims were murdered, their gold teeth were extracted and women’s hair was shorn by the Sonderkommando – groups of Jews forced to work in the crematoria. The bodies were hauled to the crematorium furnaces for incineration, the bones were pulverized and the ashes were scattered in the fields.
Uniquely at Auschwitz, prisoners were tattooed with a serial number, on their left breast for Soviet prisoners of war and on the left arm for civilians. Categories of prisoner were distinguishable by triangular pieces of cloth (German: Winkel) sewn onto on their jackets below their prisoner number. Political prisoners (Schutzhäftlinge or Sch), mostly Poles, had a red triangle, while criminals (Berufsverbrecher or BV) were mostly German and wore green. Asocial prisoners (Asoziale or Aso), which included vagrants, prostitutes and the Roma, wore black. Purple was for Jehovah's Witnesses (Internationale Bibelforscher-Vereinigung or IBV)'s and pink for gay men, who were mostly German. An estimated 5,000–15,000 gay men prosecuted under German Penal Code Section 175 (proscribing sexual acts between men) were detained in concentration camps, of which an unknown number were sent to Auschwitz. Jews wore a yellow badge, the shape of the Star of David, overlaid by a second triangle if they also belonged to a second category. The nationality of the inmate was indicated by a letter stitched onto the cloth. A racial hierarchy existed, with German prisoners at the top. Next were non-Jewish prisoners from other countries. Jewish prisoners were at the bottom.
The party grew out of smaller political groups with a nationalist orientation that formed in the last years of World War I. In 1918, a league called the Freier Arbeiterausschuss für einen guten Frieden (Free Workers' Committee for a good Peace) was created in Bremen, Germany. On 7 March 1918, Anton Drexler, an avid German nationalist, formed a branch of this league in Munich. Drexler was a local locksmith who had been a member of the militarist Fatherland Party during World War I and was bitterly opposed to the armistice of November 1918 and the revolutionary upheavals that followed. Drexler followed the views of militant nationalists of the day, such as opposing the Treaty of Versailles, having antisemitic, anti-monarchist and anti-Marxist views, as well as believing in the superiority of Germans whom they claimed to be part of the Aryan "master race" (Herrenvolk). However, he also accused international capitalism of being a Jewish-dominated movement and denounced capitalists for war profiteering in World War I. Drexler saw the political violence and instability in Germany as the result of the Weimar Republic being out-of-touch with the masses, especially the lower classes. Drexler emphasised the need for a synthesis of völkisch nationalism with a form of economic socialism, in order to create a popular nationalist-oriented workers' movement that could challenge the rise of Communism and internationalist politics. These were all well-known themes popular with various Weimar paramilitary groups such as the Freikorps.
More than 40 sub-camps, exploiting the prisoners as slave laborers, were also founded, mainly as various sorts of German industrial plants and farms, between 1942 and 1944. The largest of them was called Buna (Monowitz, with ten thousand prisoners) and was opened by the camp administration in 1942 on the grounds of the Buna-Werke synthetic rubber and fuel plant, six kilometers from the Auschwitz camp. The factory was built during the war by the German IG Farbenindustrie cartel, and the SS supplied prisoner labor. On November 1943, the Buna sub-camp became the seat of the commandant of the third part of the camp, Auschwitz III, to which some other Auschwitz sub-camps were subordinated.
After three days at Auschwitz, I was left with the feeling that for some visitors, the former concentration camp is a box to check off on a tourist “to-do” list. But many people appeared genuinely moved. I saw Israeli teenagers crying and hugging each other and groups of people transfixed by the mug shots of prisoners that line the walls of one of the Auschwitz barracks. Walking through the room full of hair still makes my stomach churn. But what I hadn’t remembered from my first visit was the room next door filled with battered cooking pots and pans, brought by people who believed until the last moment that there was a future wherever they were being taken. And when Banas told me about the carefully folded math test that conservationists found hidden in a child’s shoe, I choked up. Even if only a fraction of the people who come here each year are profoundly affected, a fraction of a million is still a lot of people.
When the women arrived to the factory in Brunnlitz, weak, hungry, frostbitten, less than human, Oskar Schindler met them in the courtyard. They never forgot the sight of Schindler standing in the doorway. And they never forgot his raspy voice when he - surrounded by SS guards - gave them an unforgettable guarantee: 'Now you are finally with me, you are safe now. Don't be afraid of anything. You don't have to worry anymore.'
After their arrest, the Franks, Van Pels and Fritz Pfeffer were sent by the Gestapo to Westerbork, a holding camp in the northern Netherlands. From there, in September 1944, the group was transported by freight train to the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination and concentration camp complex in German-occupied Poland. Anne and Margot Frank were spared immediate death in the Auschwitz gas chambers and instead were sent to Bergen-Belsen, a concentration camp in northern Germany. In March 1945, the Frank sisters died of typhus at Bergen-Belsen; their bodies were thrown into a mass grave. Several weeks later, on April 15, 1945, British forces liberated the camp.
Gradowski’s chronicle walks us, step by devastating step, through the murders of 5,000 people, a single large “transport” of Czech Jews who were slaughtered on the night of March 8, 1944—a group that was unusual only because they had already been detained in Birkenau for months, and therefore knew what was coming. Gradowski tells us how he escorted the thousands of women and young children into the disrobing room, marveling at how “these same women who now pulsed with life would lie in dirt and filth, their pure bodies smeared with human excrement.” He describes how the mothers kiss their children’s limbs, how sisters clutch each other, how one woman asks him, “Say, brother, how long does it take to die? Is it easy or hard?” Once the women are naked, Gradowski and his fellow prisoners escort them through a gantlet of SS officers who had gathered for this special occasion—a night gassing arranged intentionally on the eve of Purim, the biblical festival celebrating the Jews’ narrow escape from a planned genocide. He recalls how one woman, “a lovely blond girl,” stopped in her death march to address the officers: “‘Wretched murderers! You look at me with your thirsty, bestial eyes. You glut yourselves on my nakedness. Yes, this is what you’ve been waiting for. In your civilian lives you could never even have dreamed about it. [...] But you won’t enjoy this for long. Your game’s almost over, you can’t kill all the Jews. And you will pay for it all.’ And suddenly she leaped at them and struck Oberscharführer Voss, the director of the crematoriums, three times. Clubs came down on her head and shoulders. She entered the bunker with her head covered with wounds [...] she laughed for joy and proceeded calmly to her death.” Gradowski describes how people sang in the gas chambers, songs that included Hatikvah, “The Hope,” now the national anthem of Israel. And then he describes the mountain of open-eyed naked bodies that he and his fellow prisoners must pull apart and burn: “Their gazes were fixed, their bodies motionless. In the deadened, stagnant stillness there was only a hushed, barely audible noise—a sound of fluid seeping from the different orifices of the dead. [...] Frequently one recognizes an acquaintance.” In the specially constructed ovens, he tells us, the hair is first to catch fire, but “the head takes the longest to burn; two little blue flames flicker from the eyeholes—these are the eyes burning with the brain. [...] The entire process lasts 20 minutes—and a human being, a world, has been turned to ashes. [...] It won’t be long before the five thousand people, the five thousand worlds, will have been devoured by the flames.”
When three refugee physicists confided to Einstein that the Nazis might be developing a new weapon—an atomic bomb—he decided to act. Despite his previous appeals for governments to dispense with the weapons of war, Einstein wrote to President Franklin Roosevelt in 1939 alerting him to "a new phenomenon that would...lead to the construction of bombs" and suggested that the United States accelerate its atomic weapons research program. Scholars debate the effect of this letter. Einstein signed it in 1939 and the Manhattan Project, the U.S. effort to build the bomb, began in 1941.
After September 1939, with the beginning of the Second World War, concentration camps became places where millions of ordinary people were enslaved as part of the war effort, often starved, tortured and killed. During the war, new Nazi concentration camps for "undesirables" spread throughout the continent. According to statistics by the German Ministry of Justice, about 1,200 camps and subcamps were run in countries occupied by Nazi Germany, while the Jewish Virtual Library estimates that the number of Nazi camps was closer to 15,000 in all of occupied Europe and that many of these camps were run for a limited amount of time before they were closed. Camps were being created near the centers of dense populations, often focusing on areas with large communities of Jews, Polish intelligentsia, Communists or Romani. Since millions of Jews lived in pre-war Poland, most camps were located in the area of the General Government in occupied Poland, for logistical reasons. The location also allowed the Nazis to quickly remove the German Jews from within Germany proper.