To help carry out the "Final Solution" (the genocide or mass destruction of Jews), the Nazis established killing centers in German-occupied Poland, the country with the largest Jewish population. Killing centers were designed for efficient mass murder. The first one, which opened in December 1941, was Chelmno, where Jews and Roma were gassed in mobile gas vans. In 1942, the Nazis opened the Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka killing centers to systematically murder the Jews of the Generalgouvernement (the territory in the interior of German-occupied Poland).
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.
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.
Lunch was three quarters of a liter of watery soup at midday, reportedly foul-tasting, with meat in the soup four times a week and vegetables (mostly potatoes and rutabaga) three times. The evening meal was 300 grams of bread, often moldy, part of which the inmates were expected to keep for breakfast the next day, with a tablespoon of cheese or marmalade, or 25 grams of margarine or sausage. Prisoners engaged in hard labor were given extra rations.
Remarkably, there were instances of individual resistance and collective efforts at fighting back inside Auschwitz. Poles, Communists and other national groups established networks in the main camp. Some Jews assaulted Nazi guards, even at the entrance to the gas chambers. In October 1944, the Sonderkommando crew at crematoria IV revolted and destroyed the crematoria. It was never used again.
Several SS personnel oversaw the killings at each gas chamber, while the bulk of the work was done by the mostly Jewish prisoners known as Sonderkommandos (special squads). Hungarian doctor Miklós Nyiszli reported that the Sonderkommando numbered around 860 prisoners when the Hungarian Jews were being killed in May–July 1944. Their responsibilities included removing goods and corpses from the incoming trains, guiding victims to the dressing rooms and gas chambers, and working in the "Canada" barracks, where the victims' possessions were stored. Housed separately from other prisoners, in somewhat better conditions, their quality of life was further improved by access to the goods taken from murdered prisoners, which they were sometimes able to steal and trade on Auschwitz's black market. Many Sonderkommandos committed suicide in response to the horrors of their work; others were generally shot by the SS in a matter of weeks. New Sonderkommando units were formed from incoming transports. Almost none of the 2,000 prisoners placed in these units survived to the camp's liberation.
From 1921 to 1922, Hitler evoked rhetoric of both the achievement of Lebensraum involving the acceptance of a territorially reduced Russia as well as supporting Russian nationals in overthrowing the Bolshevik government and establishing a new Russian government. Hitler's attitudes changed by the end of 1922, in which he then supported an alliance of Germany with Britain to destroy Russia. Hitler later declared how far he intended to expand Germany into Russia:
I threw myself into family life. I married young, I had three children, (I now also have four grandchildren) and then I went to college and became a teacher. You fall into a routine and do the best you can. But I’ve never lost the feeling of how unreliable human beings are and neither am I fooled by superficial civilisation. But I realise that loss of faith in people is more devastating than loss of faith in God.
One exchange Jew was Eve, daughter of Hans and Rita Oppenheimer. The family was German–Jewish. Eve’s father had moved to Holland from Germany to escape Nazi persecution. Eve was born in June 1936 during a visit to England by her mother and brothers, Paul and Rudi; she therefore had British nationality. The mother, brothers and sister then joined the father in Holland.
Otto had prepared a secret hideout next to his place of work. The door was hidden behind some bookshelves. The hideout was small. The first floor had a bathroom and a small kitchen. The second floor had two rooms, one for Anne and Margot and one for her parents. There was also an attic where they stored food and where Anne would sometimes go to be alone.
In “Ravensbrück,” Helm gives a further example of the erratic way the Nazis treated their own regulations, even late in the war. In 1943, Himmler agreed to allow the Red Cross to deliver food parcels to some prisoners in the camps. To send a parcel, however, the Red Cross had to mark it with the name, number, and camp location of the recipient; requests for these details were always refused, so that there was no way to get desperately needed supplies into the camps. Yet when Wanda Hjort, a young Norwegian woman living in Germany, got hold of some prisoners’ names and numbers—thanks to inmates who smuggled the information to her when she visited the camp at Sachsenhausen—she was able to pass them on to the Norwegian Red Cross, whose packages were duly delivered. This game of hide-and-seek with the rules, this combination of hyper-regimentation and anarchy, is what makes Kafka’s “The Trial” seem to foretell the Nazi regime.
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.