Before Auschwitz became the ultimate symbol of the Holocaust, it was an ordinary Polish town known as Oświęcim, where Jews made their home from the early 16th century until the Holocaust, when most of them were murdered. In the pre-war years, the majority of Oświęcim’s citizens were Jewish, and for generations they raised families here and contributed to a richly textured culture. The Holocaust suddenly ended the vibrant Jewish life of the town.
Lt.-Col. Anatoly Shapiro, Ukrainian Jew, commanded the Red Army’s 1085th ‘Tarnopol’ Rifle Regiment that liberated Auschwitz on January 27, 1945. The soldiers found about 650 corpses inside the barracks and near them — mostly women who died of exhaustion or were shot by the SS the night before. Altogether, the Soviet troops found at least 1,200 emaciated survivors in Auschwitz and another 5,800 at Birkenau. They fed them but most could not eat because they were too malnourished. Ultimately, another soldier said the Red Army managed to save 2,819 inmates in Red Army Military Hospital 2962.
There were factions within the Nazi Party, both conservative and radical. The conservative Nazi Hermann Göring urged Hitler to conciliate with capitalists and reactionaries. Other prominent conservative Nazis included Heinrich Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich. Meanwhile, the radical Nazi Joseph Goebbels opposed capitalism, viewing it as having Jews at its core and he stressed the need for the party to emphasize both a proletarian and a national character. Those views were shared by Otto Strasser, who later left the Nazi Party in the belief that Hitler had allegedly betrayed the party's socialist goals by endorsing capitalism.
A week after they had gone into hiding, the Franks were joined by Otto’s business associate Hermann van Pels (1898-1944), along with his wife Auguste (1900-45) and their son Peter (1926-45), who were also Jewish. A small group of Otto Frank’s employees, including his Austrian-born secretary, Miep Gies (1909-2010), risked their own lives to smuggle food, supplies and news of the outside world into the secret apartment, whose entrance was situated behind a movable bookcase. In November 1942, the Franks and Van Pels were joined by Fritz Pfeffer (1889-1944), Miep Gies’ Jewish dentist.
During the German invasion of the Soviet Union the Nazis began the first mass killings of Jews. Between June and September 1941, the Einsatzgruppen supported by local collaborators murdered hundreds of thousands of Jews across Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and the Soviet Union. Having observed the killings, Adolf Eichmann ordered a more efficient method of killing the Jews of Europe be developed.
Then, the marches began. The remaining prisoners deemed healthy enough to march were told to assemble into columns and leave Auschwitz. About 7,000 were left behind as 60,000 marched. Nazi guards led them through the forests and fields of southern Poland on their way to Germany. The Germans called the march an “evacuation”; prisoners immediately dubbed it the “death march.”
A typical concentration camp consisted of barracks that were secured from escape by barbed wire, watchtowers and guards. The inmates usually lived in overcrowded barracks and slept in bunk ”beds”. In the forced labour camps, for instance, the inmates usually worked 12 hours a day with hard physical work, clothed in rags, eating too little and always living under the risk of corporal punishment.
The first German concentration camps were established in 1933 for the confinement of opponents of the Nazi Party—Communists and Social Democrats. Political opposition soon was enlarged to include minority groups, chiefly Jews, but by the end of World War II many Roma, homosexuals, and anti-Nazi civilians from the occupied territories had also been liquidated. After the outbreak of World War II the camp inmates were used as a supplementary labour supply, and such camps mushroomed throughout Europe. Inmates were required to work for their wages in food; those unable to work usually died of starvation, and those who did not starve often died of overwork. The most shocking extension of this system was the establishment after 1940 of extermination centres, or “death camps.” They were located primarily in Poland, which Adolf Hitler had selected as the setting for his “final solution” to the “Jewish problem.” The most notorious were Auschwitz, Majdanek, and Treblinka. (See extermination camp.) At some camps, notably Buchenwald, medical experimentation was conducted. New toxins and antitoxins were tried out, new surgical techniques devised, and studies made of the effects of artificially induced diseases, all by experimenting on living human beings.
Many of the prisoners died in the concentration camps due to deliberate maltreatment, disease, starvation, and overwork, or they were executed as unfit for labor. Prisoners were transported in inhumane conditions by rail freight cars, in which many died before reaching their final destination. The prisoners were confined in the boxcars for days or even weeks, with little or no food or water. Many died of dehydration in the intense heat of summer or froze to death in winter. Concentration camps also existed in Germany itself, and while they were not specifically designed for systematic extermination, many of their inmates perished because of harsh conditions or they were executed.
In the decades since its liberation, Auschwitz has become a primary symbol of the Holocaust. Historian Timothy D. Snyder attributes this to the camp's high death toll and "unusual combination of an industrial camp complex and a killing facility", which left behind far more witnesses than single-purpose killing facilities such as Chełmno or Treblinka. In 2005 the United Nations General Assembly designated 27 January, the date of the camp's liberation, as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Helmut Schmidt visited the site in November 1977, the first West German chancellor to do so, followed by his successor, Helmut Kohl, in November 1989. In a written statement on the fiftieth anniversary of the liberation, Kohl described Auschwitz as the "darkest and most horrific chapter of German history".
In November 2015 the Swiss foundation which owns the rights to The Diary of Anne Frank, the Anne Frank Fonds, added Frank's father, Otto, as a co-author. Otto was added as an author to extend the copyright of the work, which would have expired on December 31, 2015, 70 years after Anne's death. If the authorship change goes unchallenged, the new copyright will allow Anne Frank Fonds to retain control of publication of the diary until 2050. Legal experts advised officials at the Anne Frank Fonds that adding Frank's father Otto as a co-author was justified, because he helped put together the final draft of the diary and “created new work” by editing and reshaping it.
Hitler was not influenced by the United States alone. “Let’s learn from the English,” Hitler said repeatedly, “who, with two hundred and fifty thousand men in all, including fifty thousand soldiers, govern four hundred million Indians.” According to multiple sources, Hitler was also fascinated by Islam, which he saw as a muscular, militant religion in contrast to the meek faith of suffering that was Christianity—despite the fact that Arabs were Semites, and that non-Arab Muslims were considered racially inferior. Even closer to Hitler’s mind was Mustafa Kemal Pasha, or Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, who had resisted the Versailles Treaty and whose regime’s genocide of the Armenians was an early example of exterminationist policy.
Auschwitz was probably chosen to play a central role in the “final solution” because it was located at a railway junction with 44 parallel tracks—rail lines that were used to transport Jews from throughout Europe to their death. Heinrich Himmler, chief of the SS, the Nazi paramilitary corps, ordered the establishment of the first camp, the prison camp, on April 27, 1940, and the first transport of Polish political prisoners arrived on June 14. This small camp, Auschwitz I, was reserved throughout its history for political prisoners, mainly Poles and Germans.
Women were encouraged to leave the workforce, and the creation of large families by racially suitable women was promoted through a propaganda campaign. Women received a bronze award—known as the Ehrenkreuz der Deutschen Mutter (Cross of Honour of the German Mother)—for giving birth to four children, silver for six, and gold for eight or more. Large families received subsidies to help with expenses. Though the measures led to increases in the birth rate, the number of families having four or more children declined by five percent between 1935 and 1940. Removing women from the workforce did not have the intended effect of freeing up jobs for men, as women were for the most part employed as domestic servants, weavers, or in the food and drink industries—jobs that were not of interest to men. Nazi philosophy prevented large numbers of women from being hired to work in munitions factories in the build-up to the war, so foreign labourers were brought in. After the war started, slave labourers were extensively used. In January 1943, Hitler signed a decree requiring all women under the age of fifty to report for work assignments to help the war effort. Thereafter women were funnelled into agricultural and industrial jobs, and by September 1944 14.9 million women were working in munitions production.
In the spring of 1941, the SS—along with doctors and officials of the T-4 Euthanasia Program—introduced the Action 14f13 programme meant for extermination of selected concentration camp prisoners. The Inspectorate of the Concentration Camps categorized all files dealing with the death of prisoners as 14f, and those of prisoners sent to the T-4 gas chambers as 14f13. Under the language regulations of the SS, selected prisoners were designated for "special treatment (German: Sonderbehandlung) 14f13". Prisoners were officially selected based on their medical condition; namely, those permanently unfit for labor due to illness. Unofficially, racial and eugenic criteria were used: Jews, the handicapped, and those with criminal or antisocial records were selected.:p.144 For Jewish prisoners there was not even the pretense of a medical examination: the arrest record was listed as a physician's "diagnosis".:pp. 147–148 In early 1943, as the need for labor increased and the gas chambers at Auschwitz became operational, Heinrich Himmler ordered the end of Action 14f13.:p.150