As Soviet troops approached Auschwitz in January 1945, most of its population was sent west on a death march. The remaining prisoners were liberated on 27 January 1945, a day commemorated as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. In the following decades, survivors such as Primo Levi, Viktor Frankl, and Elie Wiesel wrote memoirs of their experiences in Auschwitz, and the camp became a dominant symbol of the Holocaust. In 1947 Poland founded the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum on the site of Auschwitz I and II, and in 1979 it was named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
Local SS and police forces set up these first camps. However, very soon the Nazi leadership began to develop a systematic and centrally controlled system of camps. Later, as the Nazi regime imposed their influence over countries they occupied, they developed a range of different types of camps. These were concentration camps, transit camps, forced-labour or work camps and extermination camps.
At the end of 1944 and early in 1945, a complete deterioration of living conditions set in as thousands of survivors of death marches began to arrive at the camp. The large numbers arriving at the camp soon overwhelmed the meagre resources available. The camp administration did not attempt to house them. Serious overcrowding and a lack of sanitary facilities resulted in the break-out of a typhus epidemic. From January to mid-April 1945, some 35,000 prisoners died due to typhus, starvation and the terrible conditions within the camp.
Alfred Rosenberg, head of the NSDAP Office of Foreign Affairs and Hitler's appointed cultural and educational leader for Nazi Germany, considered Catholicism to be among the Nazis' chief enemies. He planned the "extermination of the foreign Christian faiths imported into Germany", and for the Bible and Christian cross to be replaced in all churches, cathedrals, and chapels with copies of Mein Kampf and the swastika. Other sects of Christianity were also targeted, with Chief of the NSDAP Chancellery Martin Bormann publicly proclaiming in 1941, "National Socialism and Christianity are irreconcilable." Shirer writes that opposition to Christianity within NSDAP leadership was so pronounced that, "the Nazi regime intended to eventually destroy Christianity in Germany, if it could, and substitute the old paganism of the early tribal Germanic gods and the new paganism of the Nazi extremists."
These people had a blue stamp in their registration cards, meaning that they were exempt from deportation. They were Jews who had British or American citizenship. The Nazis saw these Jews as ‘exchange Jews’, and they would attempt to exchange each one of them for five to 10 Germans; especially military prisoners of war. In fact, few exchanges ever occurred.
Frank was born Annelies or Anneliese Marie Frank on 12 June 1929 at the Maingau Red Cross Clinic in Frankfurt, Germany, to Edith (née Holländer) and Otto Heinrich Frank. She had an older sister, Margot. The Franks were liberal Jews, and did not observe all of the customs and traditions of Judaism. They lived in an assimilated community of Jewish and non-Jewish citizens of various religions. Edith was the more devout parent, while Otto was interested in scholarly pursuits and had an extensive library; both parents encouraged the children to read. At the time of Anne's birth the family lived in a house at Marbachweg 307, where they rented two floors. In 1931 the family moved to Ganghoferstrasse 24 in a fashionable liberal area called the Dichterviertel (Poets' Quarter). Both houses still exist.
Aware that as witnesses to the killings they would eventually be killed themselves, the Sonderkommandos of Birkenau Kommando III staged an uprising on 7 October 1944, following an announcement that some of them would be selected to be "transferred to another camp"—a common Nazi ruse for the murder of prisoners. They attacked the SS guards with stones, axes, and makeshift hand grenades, which they also used to damage Crematorium IV and set it on fire. As the SS set up machine guns to attack the prisoners in Crematorium IV, the Sonderkommandos in Crematorium II also revolted, some of them managing to escape the compound. The rebellion was suppressed by nightfall.
Auschwitz became one of the camps used for the mass extermination of Jews. In summer 1941, Heinrich Himmler gave orders to Auschwitz commander Rudolf Höß to build a centre at Auschwitz for the mass murder of Jews. In September 1941, the lethal effects of Zyklon B - a substance normally used for pest control - were first tested and verified there. Later, four large gas chambers were built at Birkenau, capable of killing up to six thousand people each day. The gas chambers were disguised as showers, meant to persuade the victims that these were disinfection measures which they had to undergo before they were sent to work in the camp.
Under this extermination program, known to S.S. bureaucrats by the code Action 14f13, some sixty-five hundred prisoners were killed in the course of a year. By early 1942, it had become obsolete, as the scale of death in the camps increased. Now the killing of weak and sick prisoners was carried out by guards or camp doctors, sometimes in gas chambers built on site. Those who were still able to work were increasingly auctioned off to private industry for use as slave labor, in the many subcamps that began to spring up around the main K.L. At Ravensbrück, the Siemens corporation established a factory where six hundred women worked twelve-hour shifts building electrical components. The work was brutally demanding, especially for women who were sick, starved, and exhausted. Helm writes that “Siemens women suffered severely from boils, swollen legs, diarrhea and TB,” and also from an epidemic of nervous twitching. When a worker reached the end of her usefulness, she was sent back to the camp, most likely to be killed. It was in this phase of the camp’s life that sights like the one Loulou Le Porz saw at Ravensbrück—a truck full of prisoners’ corpses—became commonplace.
After the war, laws were made in Germany and other countries, especially countries in Europe, that make it illegal to say the Holocaust never happened. Sometimes they also ban questioning the number of people affected by it, which is saying that not so many people were killed as most people think. There has been some controversy over whether this affects people's free speech. Certain countries, such as Germany, Austria, and France also ban the use of Nazi symbols to stop Nazis from using them.
There is a serious anachronism at work: the coverage that speaks to Schneidermann on an emotional level now was largely ineffective at the time it was printed. He muses that the journalists in the thirties needed to invent a new language, but he doesn’t quite define what that language should have looked like—dry facts didn’t allow an audience truly to comprehend the incomprehensible, but irony didn’t work, either, and neither did outcry. He faults the news outlets, above all, for not publishing vivid portraits of the victims. “Facts. Raw facts,” Schneidermann writes of press descriptions of Jewish refugees in 1939. “We can’t accuse the New York Times of having avoided the raw facts. Except that the raw facts don’t suffice. They never suffice. In order for a piece of news to touch consciences and hearts, there must be emotion running through it.”
SS formations committed many war crimes against civilians and allied servicemen. From 1935 onward, the SS spearheaded the persecution of Jews, who were rounded up into ghettos and concentration camps. With the outbreak of World War II, the SS Einsatzgruppen units followed the army into Poland and the Soviet Union, where from 1941 to 1945 they killed more than two million people, including 1.3 million Jews. A third of the Einsatzgruppen members were recruited from Waffen-SS personnel. The SS-Totenkopfverbände (death's head units) ran the concentration camps and extermination camps, where millions more were killed. Up to 60,000 Waffen-SS men served in the camps.
SS officers, including the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele, would conduct selections among these lines, sending most victims to one side and thus condemning them to death in the gas chambers. A minority was sent to the other side, destined for forced labor. Those who were sent to their deaths were killed that same day and their corpses were burnt in the crematoria. Those not sent to the gas chambers were taken to “quarantine,” where their hair was shaved, striped prison uniforms distributed, and registration took place. Prisoners’ individual registration numbers were tattooed onto their left arm.
Although the Nazis won the greatest share of the popular vote in the two Reichstag general elections of 1932, they did not have a majority. Hitler therefore led a short-lived coalition government formed with the German National People's Party. Under pressure from politicians, industrialists, and the business community, President Paul von Hindenburg appointed Hitler as Chancellor of Germany on 30 January 1933. This event is known as the Machtergreifung ("seizure of power").
The victories of Operation Barbarossa in the summer and fall of 1941 against Hitler's new enemy, the Soviet Union, led to dramatic changes in Nazi anti-Jewish ideology and the profile of prisoners brought to Auschwitz. Construction on Auschwitz II-Birkenau began in October 1941 to ease congestion at the main camp. Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler, head of the Schutzstaffel (SS), intended the camp to house 50,000 prisoners of war, who would be interned as forced laborers. Plans called for the expansion of the camp first to house 150,000 and eventually as many as 200,000 inmates. An initial contingent of 10,000 Soviet prisoners of war arrived at Auschwitz I in October 1941, but by March 1942 only 945 were still alive, and these were transferred to Birkenau, where most of them died from disease or starvation by May. By this time the Nazis had decided to annihilate the Jewish people, so Birkenau became a labor and extermination camp.
Hitler found this common denominator in the Jews, whom he identified with both Bolshevism and a kind of cosmic evil. The Jews were to be discriminated against not according to their religion but according to their “race.” Nazism declared the Jews—whatever their educational and social development—to be forever fundamentally different from and inimical to Germans.
From the start of the war, a British blockade on shipments to Germany affected its economy. Germany was particularly dependent on foreign supplies of oil, coal, and grain. Thanks to trade embargoes and the blockade, imports into Germany declined by 80 per cent. To safeguard Swedish iron ore shipments to Germany, Hitler ordered the invasion of Denmark and Norway, which began on 9 April. Denmark fell after less than a day, while most of Norway followed by the end of the month. By early June, Germany occupied all of Norway.
Auschwitz is enshrined in history in part because, as a work camp, there were survivors. Anita Lasker-Wallfisch was a 14-year-old Jewish cello student living in the German city of Breslau (now Wroclaw in Poland) when the war broke out. Two years later, she and her sister Renate were sent to work in a nearby paper factory. In 1942, after the Germans deported her parents to a death camp, the sisters doctored their identity papers and tried to escape.
In chambers II and III, the killings took place in underground rooms, and the corpses were carried to the five ovens by an electrically operated lift. Before cremation gold teeth and any other valuables, such as rings, were removed from the corpses. In IV and V the gas chambers and ovens were on the same level, but the ovens were so poorly built and the usage was so great that they repeatedly malfunctioned and had to be abandoned. The corpses were finally burned outside, in the open, as in 1943. Jewish Sonderkommandos worked the crematoria under SS supervision.
Discrimination against Jews began immediately after the seizure of power. Following a month-long series of attacks by members of the SA on Jewish businesses and synagogues, on 1 April 1933 Hitler declared a national boycott of Jewish businesses. The Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service passed on 7 April forced all non-Aryan civil servants to retire from the legal profession and civil service. Similar legislation soon deprived other Jewish professionals of their right to practise, and on 11 April a decree was promulgated that stated anyone who had even one Jewish parent or grandparent was considered non-Aryan. As part of the drive to remove Jewish influence from cultural life, members of the National Socialist Student League removed from libraries any books considered un-German, and a nationwide book burning was held on 10 May.
Cornelis Suijk—a former director of the Anne Frank Foundation and president of the U.S. Center for Holocaust Education Foundation—announced in 1999 that he was in the possession of five pages that had been removed by Otto Frank from the diary prior to publication; Suijk claimed that Otto Frank gave these pages to him shortly before his death in 1980. The missing diary entries contain critical remarks by Anne Frank about her parents' strained marriage and discuss Frank's lack of affection for her mother. Some controversy ensued when Suijk claimed publishing rights over the five pages; he intended to sell them to raise money for his foundation. The Netherlands Institute for War Documentation, the formal owner of the manuscript, demanded the pages be handed over. In 2000 the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science agreed to donate US$300,000 to Suijk's foundation, and the pages were returned in 2001. Since then, they have been included in new editions of the diary.
Banas introduces me to conservators working to preserve evidence of camp life: fragments of a mural depicting an idealized German family that once decorated the SS canteen, floor tiles from a prisoners barrack. In one room, a team wielding erasers, brushes and purified water clean and scan 39,000 yellowing medical records written on everything from card stock to toilet paper.
The regime promoted the concept of Volksgemeinschaft, a national German ethnic community. The goal was to build a classless society based on racial purity and the perceived need to prepare for warfare, conquest and a struggle against Marxism. The German Labour Front founded the Kraft durch Freude (KdF; Strength Through Joy) organisation in 1933. As well as taking control of tens of thousands of privately run recreational clubs, it offered highly regimented holidays and entertainment such as cruises, vacation destinations and concerts.
“It may be that these, the lines that I am now writing, will be the sole witness to what was my life,” Gradowski writes. “But I shall be happy if only my writings should reach you, citizen of the free world. Perhaps a spark of my inner fire will ignite in you, and even should you sense only part of what we lived for, you will be compelled to avenge us—avenge our deaths! Dear discoverer of these writings! I have a request of you: This is the real reason why I write, that my doomed life may attain some meaning, that my hellish days and hopeless tomorrows may find a purpose in the future.” And then Gradowski tells us what he has seen.
Germany's wartime foreign policy involved the creation of allied governments controlled directly or indirectly from Berlin. They intended to obtain soldiers from allies such as Italy and Hungary and workers and food supplies from allies such as Vichy France. Hungary was the fourth nation to join the Axis, signing the Tripartite Pact on 27 September 1940. Bulgaria signed the pact on 17 November. German efforts to secure oil included negotiating a supply from their new ally, Romania, who signed the Pact on 23 November, alongside the Slovak Republic. By late 1942, there were 24 divisions from Romania on the Eastern Front, 10 from Italy, and 10 from Hungary. Germany assumed full control in France in 1942, Italy in 1943, and Hungary in 1944. Although Japan was a powerful ally, the relationship was distant, with little co-ordination or co-operation. For example, Germany refused to share their formula for synthetic oil from coal until late in the war.
Ultimately, three SS guards were killed—one of whom was burned alive by the prisoners in the oven of Crematorium II—and 451 Sonderkommandos were killed. Hundreds of prisoners escaped, but all were soon captured and executed, along with an additional group who had participated in the revolt. Crematorium IV was destroyed in the fighting. A group of prisoners in the gas chamber of Crematorium V was spared in the chaos.