When Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, triggering World War II, Adolf Hitler ordered that the Polish leadership and intelligentsia be destroyed. Approximately 65,000 civilians, viewed as inferior to the Aryan master race, had been killed by the end of 1939. In addition to leaders of Polish society, the Nazis killed Jews, prostitutes, the Roma, and the mentally ill. SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich, then head of the Gestapo, ordered on 21 September 1939 that Polish Jews be rounded up and concentrated into cities with good rail links. Initially the intention was to deport them to points further east, or possibly to Madagascar. Two years later, in June 1941, in an attempt to obtain new territory, Hitler invaded the Soviet Union.
These sights, like the truck full of bodies, are not beyond belief—we know that they were true—but they are, in some sense, beyond imagination. It is very hard, maybe impossible, to imagine being one of those men, still less one of those infants. And such sights raise the question of why, exactly, we read about the camps. If it is merely to revel in the grotesque, then learning about this evil is itself a species of evil, a further exploitation of the dead. If it is to exercise sympathy or pay a debt to memory, then it quickly becomes clear that the exercise is hopeless, the debt overwhelming: there is no way to feel as much, remember as much, imagine as much as the dead justly demand. What remains as a justification is the future: the determination never again to allow something like the Nazi camps to exist.
Auschwitz-Birkenau was also a killing center and played a central role in the German effort to kill the Jews of Europe. Around the beginning of September, 1941, the SS at Auschwitz I conducted the first tests of Zyklon B as a mass murder agent, using Soviet POWs and debilitated Polish prisoners as victims. The “success” of these experiments led to the construction of a chamber in the crematorium of Auschwitz I that, like the subsequent gas chambers at Auschwitz, used Zyklon B to murder victims. The first transports of Jewish men, women, and children sent to Auschwitz as part of the “final solution” were murdered in this gas chamber (Crematorium I) in February and March 1942.
Levin’s play was performed in Israel in 1966 to resounding, though shortlived success. Since he had not obtained the rights to perform it anywhere, legal action on the part of Otto Frank, led to an immediate close-down of the production. His success in Israel was not surprising: In 1950s Israel, every fourth Israeli was a Holocaust survivor who had personal experience of the worst actions humanity could commit. By the 1960s there were already 360,000 survivors in Israel. So Anne’s statement about people being good at heart, which served as the Hollywood production’s final line, the very motto of the Hollywood production, required a different response. In the adaptation of Levin’s play staged in Israel, when Anne tells her father that she still believes in people, he replies: “I don’t know, my child. I don’t know.” In another version, Peter falls at Anne’s feet and says: “Oh, Anne, if only I could believe!” The sentence about the human heart was written before Anne was captured and banished to the hell from which she never returned, before she saw Auschwitz or Bergen-Belsen. Who knows whether she would have left it in place if she had lived to re-read her diary?
In 1923, Hitler and his followers staged the Beer Hall Putsch in Munich, a failed takeover of the government in Bavaria, a state in southern Germany. Hitler had hoped that the “putsch,” or coup d’etat, would spark a larger revolution against the national government. In the aftermath of the Beer Hall Putsch, Hitler was convicted of treason and sentenced to five years in prison, but spent less than a year behind bars (during which time he dictated the first volume of “Mein Kampf,” or “My Struggle,” his political autobiography). The publicity surrounding the Beer Hall Putsch and Hitler’s subsequent trial turned him into a national figure. After his release from prison, he set about rebuilding the Nazi Party and attempting to gain power through the election process.
When it came to power in 1933, the Nazi Party had over 2 million members. In 1939, the membership total rose to 5.3 million with 81% being male and 19% being female. It continued to attract many more and by 1945 the party reached its peak of 8 million with 63% being male and 37% being female (about 10% of the German population of 80 million).
On 13 July 1942, the Franks were joined by the van Pels, made up of Hermann, Auguste, and 16-year-old Peter, and then in November by Fritz Pfeffer, a dentist and friend of the family. Frank wrote of her pleasure at having new people to talk to, but tensions quickly developed within the group forced to live in such confined conditions. After sharing her room with Pfeffer, she found him to be insufferable and resented his intrusion, and she clashed with Auguste van Pels, whom she regarded as foolish. She regarded Hermann van Pels and Fritz Pfeffer as selfish, particularly in regard to the amount of food they consumed. Some time later, after first dismissing the shy and awkward Peter van Pels, she recognized a kinship with him and the two entered a romance. She received her first kiss from him, but her infatuation with him began to wane as she questioned whether her feelings for him were genuine, or resulted from their shared confinement. Anne Frank formed a close bond with each of the helpers, and Otto Frank later recalled that she had anticipated their daily visits with impatient enthusiasm. He observed that Anne's closest friendship was with Bep Voskuijl, "the young typist ... the two of them often stood whispering in the corner."
According to the famous philosopher and political theorist, Hannah Arendt, the allure of Nazism as a totalitarian ideology (with its attendant mobilisation of the German population) resided within the construct of helping that society deal with the cognitive dissonance resultant from the tragic interruption of the First World War and the economic and material suffering consequent to the Depression and brought to order the revolutionary unrest occurring all around them. Instead of the plurality that existed in democratic or parliamentary states, Nazism as a totalitarian system promulgated "clear" solutions to the historical problems faced by Germany, levied support by de-legitimizing the former government of Weimar and provided a politico-biological pathway to a better future, one free from the uncertainty of the past. It was the atomised and disaffected masses that Hitler and the party elite pointed in a particular direction and using clever propaganda to make them into ideological adherents, exploited in bringing Nazism to life.
After Kristallnacht (the ‘Night of broken glass’) in November 1938, the Nazis and their supporters arrested many thousands of male Jews above the age of 14 years. They imprisoned them in camps for days or sometimes weeks. They were kept in poor conditions, given little food or water and subjected to brutal treatment and torture. When the German army invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, the SS set up many concentration camps to house Polish political prisoners and many thousands of Polish Jews. Many of the inmates of these camps were subjected to increasingly poor conditions. In addition they were subjected to forced labour, the result of which was often death.
At the same time, public interest in the camp has never been higher. Visits have doubled this decade, from 492,500 in 2001 to more than 1 million in 2009. Since Poland joined the European Union in 2004, Krakow has become a popular destination for foreign tourists, and Auschwitz is a must stop on many itineraries. A visit is also part of education programs in Israel, Britain and other countries. On peak days, as many as 30,000 visitors file through the camp’s buildings.
The third camp, Auschwitz III, also called Monowitz, was opened in October 1942. It was predominantly used as a base for imprisoned labourers working for the German chemical company IG Farben. According to the Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial museum, an estimated 10,000 labourers are thought to have died there. Once they were judged incapable of work, most were killed with a phenol injection to the heart.
Probably my earliest memories of anything at all are of walking through the streets of Trenčín and people stopping in their tracks and saying with amazement: “You’re back!” “What a miracle that you’re alive!” I understood as a three-and-a-half to four-year-old that I was a miracle because I got to hear it so many times, but I didn’t really understand what the word meant. Only much later could I recognise what a miracle it really was that I had survived, when I learned that of the thousands of Slovak men and women who were deported to Auschwitz, only a few hundred returned.
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.