The first gas chamber at Birkenau was in what prisoners called the "little red house" (known as bunker 1 by the SS), a brick cottage that had been converted into a gassing facility. The windows were bricked up and its four rooms converted into two insulated rooms, the doors of which said "Zur Desinfektion" ("to disinfection"). It was operational by March 1942. A second brick cottage, the "little white house" or bunker 2, was converted and operational by June 1942. When Himmler visited the camp on 17 and 18 July 1942, he was given a demonstration of a selection of Dutch Jews, a mass killing in a gas chamber in bunker 2, and a tour of the building site of the new IG Farben plant being constructed at the nearby town of Monowitz.
The most infamous doctor at Auschwitz was Josef Mengele, the "Angel of Death", who worked in Auschwitz II from 30 May 1943, at first in the gypsy family camp. Particularly interested in performing research on identical twins, dwarfs, and those with hereditary disease, Mengele set up a kindergarten in barracks 29 and 31 for children he was experimenting on, and for all Romani children under six, where they were given better food rations. From May 1944, he would select twins and dwarfs during selection on the Judenrampe, reportedly calling for twins with "Zwillinge heraus!" ("twins step forward!"). He and other doctors (the latter prisoners) would measure the twins' body parts, photograph them, and subject them to dental, sight and hearing tests, x-rays, blood tests, surgery, and blood transfusions between them. Then he would have them killed and dissected. Kurt Heissmeyer, another German doctor and SS officer, took 20 Jewish children from Auschwitz to use in pseudoscientific medical experiments at the Neuengamme concentration camp. In April 1945, the children were killed by hanging to conceal the project.
For Hitler, the twin goals of the party were always German nationalist expansionism and antisemitism. These two goals were fused in his mind by his belief that Germany's external enemies – Britain, France and the Soviet Union – were controlled by the Jews and that Germany's future wars of national expansion would necessarily entail a war against the Jews. For Hitler and his principal lieutenants, national and racial issues were always dominant. This was symbolised by the adoption as the party emblem of the swastika or Hakenkreuz. In German nationalist circles, the swastika was considered a symbol of an "Aryan race" and it symbolised the replacement of the Christian Cross with allegiance to a National Socialist State.
But as far as racially inspired lawmaking was concerned, it was the United States that aroused the Führer’s interest the most, even as he deplored its liberal-egalitarian ethos. He loved the novels of Karl May that depicted cowboys conquering the West, and, as Timothy Snyder and others have argued, Hitler’s model for creating German Lebensraum in Europe was the American genocide of indigenous peoples, the depopulation of their lands, and their subsequent legal subjugation and ghettoization. Nazi intellectuals and doctors had a sustained engagement with the eugenics movement, which was codified into U.S. immigration law and served as a model for the Third Reich’s own sterilization and euthanasia program. (North Carolina had a sterilization policy for the mentally ill until 1977.) The very founding of the United States, in white supremacist history, was the crowning achievement of the Aryan peoples. “The racially pure and still unmixed German,” Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf, “has risen to become master of the American continent, and he will remain master as long as he does not fall victim to racial pollution.” The United States was “the one state,” Hitler wrote from prison, that sensibly refused immigration to “physically unhealthy elements, and simply excludes the immigration of certain races.” In his unpublished second book, Hitler again marveled at the racial hierarchy of the United States, with Nordics, English, and Germans at the top of their rightful dominion as the master race.
In general, subcamps that produced or processed agricultural goods were administratively subordinate to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Subcamps whose prisoners were deployed at industrial and armaments production or in extractive industries (e.g., coal mining, quarry work) were administratively subordinate to Auschwitz-Monowitz. This division of administrative responsibility was formalized after November 1943.
My father surveyed the scene from the train and could see prisoners, uniforms and barracks so we immediately thought it was a work camp, and that was reassuring – if we can work, it can’t be such a dreadful place. We had heard about the stories in Poland of lots of mass shootings of Jews or people being taken into the forest and shot, so it was a relief to see out the window that there was actually a system. Even though we were victims of discrimination at that stage that’s all it was, as we had no clue then that this was a very carefully orchestrated plan of genocide. We could not have imagined that they would kill little children, until we realised that killing children was their primary goal to prevent any new generations. Because desperate people will always look to find some sign of hope, we thought to ourselves even if we have to work, at least we’ll see each other occasionally.
A concentration camp was not the same as an extermination camp – camps constructed with the specific purpose of mass murdering Jews and other victim groups. Despite this fact, the concentration camps claimed many thousands of victims. Imprisonment in a concentration camp meant inhuman forced labour, brutal mistreatment, hunger, disease, and random executions. It is certain that several hundred thousand died in the concentration camps. In comparison, more than three million Jews were murdered in the extermination camps.
Toward the end of the diary we see just how difficult things have become for the family which is not always accurately represented in the movie versions of the diary. They were starving, never full at meals, and having to exist off moldy and tasteless food. There was one bathroom for eight people and at times the toilet could not be flushed. They had threadbare, holey clothing which was too small. The cat used the bathroom wherever it wanted towards the end, and their helpers came less and less frequently as circumstances got worse and worse. Their conditions deteriorated in ways that children living in the comfort of the 21st century could never imagine. It's so important for kids to read about these conditions and contrast them with their own in order to not only feel grateful but to feel sympathy for those who lived in these terrible times.
Sunday was not a work day, but prisoners were required to clean the barracks and take their weekly shower, and were allowed to write (in German) to their families, although the SS censored the outgoing mail. Inmates who did not speak German would trade some of their bread for help composing their letters. Observant Jews tried to keep track of the Hebrew calendar and Jewish holidays, including Shabbat, and the weekly Torah portion. No watches, calendars, or clocks were permitted in the camp. Jewish calendars were rare among prisoners; being in possession of one was dangerous. Only two Jewish calendars made in Auschwitz survived to the end of the war. Prisoners kept track of the days in other ways, such as obtaining information from newcomers.
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.