I was with my older sister Serena and we were sent to be forced labourers together in the Birkenau section of Auschwitz. Many times we were threatened with separation but somehow we managed to stay together. Later on, to our great relief we ran into my mother’s two younger sisters, our aunts Rose and Piri, who were in their early 20s. It was like finding our parents. They were such a huge moral and emotional support for us.
While unmarried until the very end of the regime, Hitler often made excuses about his busy life hindering any chance for marriage. Among National Socialist ideologues, marriage was valued not for moral considerations but because it provided an optimal breeding environment. Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler reportedly told a confidant that when he established the Lebensborn program, an organisation that would dramatically increase the birth rate of "Aryan" children through extramarital relations between women classified as racially pure and their male equals, he had only the purest male "conception assistants" in mind.
In Germany, the belief that Jews were economically exploiting Germans became prominent due to the ascendancy of many wealthy Jews into prominent positions upon the unification of Germany in 1871. From 1871 to the early 20th century, German Jews were overrepresented in Germany's upper and middle classes while they were underrepresented in Germany's lower classes, particularly in the fields of agricultural and industrial labour. German Jewish financiers and bankers played a key role in fostering Germany's economic growth from 1871 to 1913 and they benefited enormously from this boom. In 1908, amongst the twenty-nine wealthiest German families with aggregate fortunes of up to 55 million marks at the time, five were Jewish and the Rothschilds were the second wealthiest German family. The predominance of Jews in Germany's banking, commerce and industry sectors during this time period was very high, even though Jews were estimated to account for only 1% of the population of Germany. The overrepresentation of Jews in these areas fueled resentment among non-Jewish Germans during periods of economic crisis. The 1873 stock market crash and the ensuing depression resulted in a spate of attacks on alleged Jewish economic dominance in Germany and antisemitism increased. During this time period, in the 1870s, German Völkisch nationalism began to adopt antisemitic and racist themes and it was also adopted by a number of radical right political movements.
I was 20, about 1.7 metres (5ft 7in) tall, blond, not bad looking and, despite the beating, in pretty good shape. When my limit in the hospital was up, they sent me to the gas chambers. There I met Dr Mengele, who asked me what was wrong. I said: “You can see, I’ve been beaten up.” Instead of sending me to the gas chambers, I was sent back to the hospital, presumably he saw the potential for labour in me. As I had trained as a tailor, he decided I had my uses there. The soldiers wanted to look nice, so they’d come to me in the hospital if they wanted their uniforms fixed up. The very fact that my new job meant I didn’t have to get up in the morning in the harsh winter in thin clothes standing around for hours for the headcount was a big thing. It meant that being a tailor saved my life.
After what happened, and having lost 50 members of my family, it was very important for me to have my own little family, to have again that sense of belonging. I really wanted to have children and was just 18 when I got married to a fellow Holocaust survivor from Transylvania. But I’ve always been careful not to tell my children too much about what I went through so as not to traumatise them. They’re entitled to a carefree youth, I always thought, and I didn’t want to be spreading bitterness and hate.
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.
In every camp, Allied soldiers encountered appalling scenes. Bergen-Belsen was liberated by British forces on 15 April 1945. It had become exceptionally overcrowded after the arrival of survivors of the death marches. Thousands of unburied bodies lay strewn around the camp, while in the barracks some 60,000 starving and mortally ill people were packed together without food or water. The mortality rate amongst those suffering from typhus was over 60 per cent.
Once Hitler gained control of the government, he directed Nazi Germany’s foreign policy toward undoing the Treaty of Versailles and restoring Germany’s standing in the world. He railed against the treaty’s redrawn map of Europe and argued it denied Germany, Europe’s most populous state, “living space” for its growing population. Although the Treaty of Versailles was explicitly based on the principle of the self-determination of peoples, he pointed out that it had separated Germans from Germans by creating such new postwar states as Austria and Czechoslovakia, where many Germans lived.
In early 1942, mass exterminations were moved to two provisional gas chambers (the "red house" and "white house", known as bunkers 1 and 2) in Auschwitz II, while the larger crematoria (II, III, IV, and V) were under construction. Bunker 2 was temporarily reactivated from May to November 1944, when large numbers of Hungarian Jews were gassed. In summer 1944 the combined capacity of the crematoria and outdoor incineration pits was 20,000 bodies per day. A planned sixth facility—crematorium VI—was never built. Prisoners were transported from all over German-occupied Europe by rail, arriving in daily convoys. By July 1942, the SS were conducting "selections". Incoming Jews were segregated; those deemed able to work were sent to the selection officer's right and admitted into the camp, and those deemed unfit for labor were sent to the left and immediately gassed. The group selected to die, about three-quarters of the total,[c] included almost all children, women with small children, the elderly, and all those who appeared on brief and superficial inspection by an SS doctor not to be fit for work.
The Sturmabteilung (SA) and the Schutzstaffel (SS) functioned as the paramilitary organizations of the Nazi Party. Using the SS for the task, Hitler purged the party's more socially and economically radical factions in the mid-1934 Night of the Long Knives, including the leadership of the SA. After the death of President Hindenburg, political power was concentrated in Hitler's hands and he became Germany's head of state as well as the head of the government, with the title of Führer, meaning "leader". From that point, Hitler was effectively the dictator of Nazi Germany, which was also known as the "Third Reich", under which Jews, political opponents and other "undesirable" elements were marginalized, imprisoned or murdered. Many millions of people were eventually exterminated in a genocide which became known as the Holocaust during World War II, including around two-thirds of the Jewish population of Europe.
Measuring 270 by 490 metres (890 ft × 1,610 ft), the camp was larger than Auschwitz I. By the end of 1944, it housed 60 barracks measuring 17.5 by 8 metres (57 ft × 26 ft), each with a day room and a sleeping room containing 56 three-tiered wooden bunks. IG Farben paid the SS three or four Reichsmark for nine- to eleven-hour shifts from each worker. In 1943–1944, about 35,000 inmates worked at the plant; 23,000 (32 a day on average) died as a result of malnutrition, disease, and the workload. Deaths and transfers to Birkenau reduced the population by nearly a fifth each month; site managers constantly threatened inmates with the gas chambers. In addition to the Auschwitz inmates, who comprised a third of the work force, IG Auschwitz employed slave laborers from all over Europe. When the camp was liquidated in January 1945, 9,054 out of the 9,792 inmates were Jews.
But Auschwitz—with its 155 buildings and hundreds of thousands of artifacts—is deteriorating. It is a conservation challenge like no other. “Our main problem is sheer numbers,” Jolanta Banas, the head of preservation, tells me as we walk through the white-tiled facility where she and her 48-member staff work. “We measure shoes in the ten thousands.”
In the meantime the inmates of the camp had assembled for the evening roll call. We heard rhythmic beats on a big drum, and I could see a man walking through the rows of the assembled men carrying a drum in front of him and beating on it. Soon after, loud cries of pain were heard. The carrier of the drum was tied to a block and subjected to twenty-five blows from a steel rod: his punishment for attempting to escape.
After the start of World War II, Adolf Hitler (1889-1945), the chancellor of Germany from 1933 to 1945, implemented a policy that came to be known as the “Final Solution.” Hitler was determined not just to isolate Jews in Germany and countries annexed by the Nazis, subjecting them to dehumanizing regulations and random acts of violence. Instead, he became convinced that his “Jewish problem” would be solved only with the elimination of every Jew in his domain, along with artists, educators, Gypsies, communists, homosexuals, the mentally and physically handicapped and others deemed unfit for survival in Nazi Germany.
Another reactionary aspect of Nazism was in their arts policy, which stemmed from Hitler's rejection of all forms of "degenerate" modern art, music and architecture. Overall, however, Nazism – being the ideology and practices of the Nazi Party, and the Nazi Party being the manifestation of Hitler's will – is best seen as essentially revolutionary in nature.
Auschwitz I (or "the Main Camp") was the original camp. This camp housed prisoners, was the location of medical experiments, and the site of Block 11 (a place of severe torture) and the Black Wall (a place of execution). At the entrance of Auschwitz, I stood the infamous sign that stated "Arbeit Macht Frei" ("work makes one free"). Auschwitz I also housed the Nazi staff that ran the entire camp complex.
Otto and Edith Frank planned to go into hiding with the children on 16 July 1942, but when Margot received a call-up notice from the Zentralstelle für jüdische Auswanderung (Central Office for Jewish Emigration) on 5 July, ordering her to report for relocation to a work camp, they were forced to move the plan ten days forward. Shortly before going into hiding, Anne gave her friend and neighbour Toosje Kupers a book, a tea set, a tin of marbles, and the family cat for safekeeping. As the Associated Press reports: "'I'm worried about my marbles, because I'm scared they might fall into the wrong hands,' Kupers said Anne told her. 'Could you keep them for me for a little while?'"
In 1942, with the Nazis occupying Holland, a thirteen-year-old Jewish girl and her family fled their home in Amsterdam and went into hiding. For the next two years, until their whereabouts were betrayed to the Gestapo, the Franks and another family lived cloistered in the “Secret Annexe” of an old office building. Cut off from the outside world, they faced hunger, boredom, the constant cruelties of living in confined quarters, and the ever-present threat of discovery and death. In her diary Anne Frank recorded vivid impressions of her experiences during this period. By turns thoughtful, moving, and surprisingly humorous, her account offers a fascinating commentary on human courage and frailty and a compelling self-portrait of a sensitive and spirited young woman whose promise was tragically cut short.
A total of 22 main concentration camps (Stamlager) were established, together with approximately 1,200 affiliate camps. Besides these, thousands of smaller camps existed in all parts of German-controlled Europe. The 22 main camps, in alphabetical order, were as follows: Arbeitsdorf, Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald, Dachau, Flossenbürg, Gross-Rosen, Herzogenbosch, Kaunas, Krakow-Plaszow, Majdanek, Mauthausen, Mittelbau-Dora, Natzweiler-Struthof, Neuengamme, Ravensbrück, Riga-Kaiserwald, Sachsenhausen, Stutthof, Vaivara, Warsaw, Wewelsburg, Germany.
When Hitler and the Nazis came to power in 1933, they instituted a series of measures aimed at persecuting Germany’s Jewish citizens. By late 1938, Jews were banned from most public places in Germany. During the war, the Nazis’ anti-Jewish campaigns increased in scale and ferocity. In the invasion and occupation of Poland, German troops shot thousands of Polish Jews, confined many to ghettoes where they starved to death and began sending others to death camps in various parts of Poland, where they were either killed immediately or forced into slave labor. In 1941, when Germany invaded the Soviet Union, Nazi death squads machine-gunned tens of thousands of Jews in the western regions of Soviet Russia.
At universities, appointments to top posts were the subject of power struggles between the education ministry, the university boards, and the National Socialist German Students' League. In spite of pressure from the League and various government ministries, most university professors did not make changes to their lectures or syllabus during the Nazi period. This was especially true of universities located in predominantly Catholic regions. Enrolment at German universities declined from 104,000 students in 1931 to 41,000 in 1939, but enrolment in medical schools rose sharply as Jewish doctors had been forced to leave the profession, so medical graduates had good job prospects. From 1934, university students were required to attend frequent and time-consuming military training sessions run by the SA. First-year students also had to serve six months in a labour camp for the Reich Labour Service; an additional ten weeks service were required of second-year students.
Of those who received numbers at Auschwitz-Birkenau, only 65,000 survived. It is estimated that only about 200,000 people who passed through the Auschwitz camps survived. Michael Bornstein was one of the lucky ones. Decades after the war, he learned from Auschwitz documents kept in Israel that he had survived because he was sick and the Nazis left him behind when they evacuated the camp. He said that he was one of only 52 children under the age of eight who lived.
A parallel system to the main camp in Auschwitz began to operate at the Birkenau camp by 1942. The exception, though, was that the majority of “showers” used to delouse the incoming prisoners proved to be gas chambers. At Birkenau, only about 10 percent of Jewish transports were registered, disinfected, shaven and showered in the “central sauna” before being assigned barracks as opposed to being sent directly to the death chambers.
The gas chambers worked to their fullest capacity from April to July 1944, during the massacre of Hungary's Jews. Hungary was an ally of Germany during the war, but it had resisted turning over its Jews until Germany invaded that March. A rail spur leading to crematoria II and III in Auschwitz II was completed that May, and a new ramp was built between sectors BI and BII to deliver the victims closer to the gas chambers. On 29 April the first 1,800 Hungarian Jews arrived at the camp; from 14 May until early July 1944, 437,000 Hungarian Jews, half the pre-war population, were deported to Auschwitz, at a rate of 12,000 a day for a considerable part of that period. The crematoria had to be overhauled. Crematoria II and III were given new elevators leading from the stoves to the gas chambers, new grates were fitted, and several of the dressing rooms and gas chambers were painted. Cremation pits were dug behind crematorium V. The last mass transports to arrive in Auschwitz were 60,000–70,000 Jews from the Łódź Ghetto, some 2,000 from Theresienstadt, and 8,000 from Slovakia. The last selection took place on 30 October 1944. Crematorium IV was demolished after the Sonderkommando revolt on 7 October 1944. The SS blew up crematorium V on 14 January 1945, and crematoria II and III on 20 January.
If Godwin has a law clerk, she is working overtime this week. I refer to the truism Godwin’s Law: that all arguments eventually end with Hitler and the Holocaust. Everyone, it seems, is hurling comparisons between the American detention centers housing refugee children at the Mexican border and Nazi concentration camps. Former CIA director Michael Hayden tweeted an image of Auschwitz-Birkenau with the message, “Other governments have separated mothers and children.”
From 1942, the SS reorganised the concentration camp administration to mobilise the millions of prisoners within the camps. The Nazis established hundreds of sub-camps across Europe. The Auschwitz camp complex contained over 40 sub-camps that housed thousands of Jewish prisoners to work as forced labour in the coalmines, various munitions factories and the I.G. Farben synthetic rubber plant at Buna Monovitz.
The following summer, on June 5, 1934, Nazi lawyers, jurists, and medical doctors gathered under the auspices of Justice Minister Franz Gürtner to discuss how to codify the Prussian Memorandum. The very first item discussed was U.S. law: “Almost all the American states have race legislation,” Gürtner averred, before detailing a myriad of examples, including the many states that criminalized mixed marriages. Roland Freisler, the murderous Nazi judge, stated at the meeting that U.S. jurisprudence would “suit us perfectly.” All the participants displayed either an eager interest in, or an avowed knowledge of, U.S. law. This went beyond specific legislation. The Nazis looked to an innovative legal culture that found ways to relegate Native Americans, African Americans, immigrants, Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos, and others to second- and third-class status; the many devious pathways around the constitutional guarantees of equal protection; the deliberate textual ambiguity on the definition of race itself; the draconian penalties for sexually consorting with a lesser race, or even meeting publicly. The United States in the 1930s was the apogee of a racist state.
In spite of efforts to prepare the country militarily, the economy could not sustain a lengthy war of attrition. A strategy was developed based on the tactic of Blitzkrieg ("lightning war"), which involved using quick coordinated assaults that avoided enemy strong points. Attacks began with artillery bombardment, followed by bombing and strafing runs. Next the tanks would attack and finally the infantry would move in to secure the captured area. Victories continued through mid-1940, but the failure to defeat Britain was the first major turning point in the war. The decision to attack the Soviet Union and the decisive defeat at Stalingrad led to the retreat of the German armies and the eventual loss of the war. The total number of soldiers who served in the Wehrmacht from 1935 to 1945 was around 18.2 million, of whom 5.3 million died.
In most camps, prisoners were forced to wear identifying overalls with colored badges according to their categorization: red triangles for Communists and other political prisoners, green triangles for common criminals, pink triangles for homosexual men, purple triangles for Jehovah's Witnesses, black triangles for asocials and the "work shy", yellow triangle for Jews, and later the brown triangle for Romanis.