Eight hundred to a thousand people were crammed into the superimposed compartments of each barracks. Unable to stretch out completely, they slept there both lengthwise and crosswise, with one man's feet on another's head, neck, or chest. Stripped of all human dignity, they pushed and shoved and bit and kicked each other in an effort to get a few more inches' space on which to sleep a little more comfortably. For they did not have long to sleep.
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.”
In June 1945 the Soviet authorities took over Auschwitz I and converted it into a POW camp for German prisoners. The hospital had to move beyond the camp perimeter into former administrative buildings, where it functioned until October 1945. Many of the barracks at Birkenau were taken apart by civilians, who used the materials to rebuild their own homes, which had been levelled out in the construction of Auschwitz II. The poorest residents sifted the crematoria ashes in search of nuggets from melted gold, before warning shots were fired. The POW camp for German prisoners of war was used until 1947 by the Soviet NKVD (People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs). The NKVD and its Polish counterpart, the MBP, used the Auschwitz Neu-Dachs sub-camp at Jaworzno to the north of Oświęcim as a concentration camp from 1945 to 1956. The Soviets dismantled and exported the IG Farben factories to the USSR. Meanwhile, Soviet and Polish investigators worked to document the war crimes of the SS. After the site became a museum in 1947, exhumation work lasted for more than a decade.
In most of the camps discovered by the Soviets, almost all the prisoners had already been removed, leaving only a few thousand alive—7,000 inmates were found in Auschwitz, including 180 children who had been experimented on by doctors. Some 60,000 prisoners were discovered at Bergen-Belsen by the British 11th Armoured Division, 13,000 corpses lay unburied, and another 10,000 died from typhus or malnutrition over the following weeks. The British forced the remaining SS guards to gather up the corpses and place them in mass graves.
In December 1942, Professor Carl Clauberg came to the deathcamp Auschwitz and started his medical experimental activities. He injected chemical substances into wombs during his experiments. Thousands of Jewish and Gypsy women were subjected to this treatment. They were sterilized by the injections, producing horrible pain, inflamed ovaries, bursting spasms in the stomach, and bleeding. The injections seriously damaged the ovaries of the victims, which were then removed and sent to Berlin.
Hitler ruled Germany autocratically by asserting the Führerprinzip ("leader principle"), which called for absolute obedience of all subordinates. He viewed the government structure as a pyramid, with himself—the infallible leader—at the apex. Party rank was not determined by elections, and positions were filled through appointment by those of higher rank. The party used propaganda to develop a cult of personality around Hitler. Historians such as Kershaw emphasise the psychological impact of Hitler's skill as an orator. Roger Gill states: "His moving speeches captured the minds and hearts of a vast number of the German people: he virtually hypnotized his audiences".
Polished boots slightly apart, his thumb resting on his pistol belt, Mengele surveyed his prey with those dead gimlet eyes. Death to the left, life to the right. Four hundred thousand souls - babies, small children, young girls, mothers, fathers, and grandparents - are said to have been casually waved to the lefthand side with a flick of the cane clasped in a gloved hand.
A second roll call took place at seven in the evening after the long day's work. Prisoners might be hanged or flogged in the course of it. If a prisoner was missing, the others had to remain standing until he or she was found or the reason for the absence discovered, even if it took hours. On 6 July 1940, roll call lasted 19 or 20 hours because of the escape of a Polish prisoner, Tadeusz Wiejowski; following another escape in 1941, a group of prisoners was sent to block 11 to be starved to death. After roll call, prisoners were allowed to retire to their blocks for the night and receive their bread rations and water. Curfew was at nine o'clock. Inmates slept in long rows of brick or wooden bunks, lying in and on their clothes and shoes to prevent them from being stolen. The wooden bunks had blankets and paper mattresses filled with wood shavings; in the brick barracks, inmates lay on straw. According to Nyiszli:
Otto Frank mounted a lawsuit in 1976 against Ernst Römer, who distributed a pamphlet titled "The Diary of Anne Frank, Bestseller, A Lie". When a man named Edgar Geiss distributed the same pamphlet in the courtroom, he too was prosecuted. Römer was fined 1,500 Deutschmarks, and Geiss was sentenced to six months' imprisonment. The sentence of Geiss was reduced on appeal, and the case was eventually dropped following a subsequent appeal because the time limit for filing a libel case had expired.
Popular support for Hitler almost completely disappeared as the war drew to a close. Suicide rates in Germany increased, particularly in areas where the Red Army was advancing. Among soldiers and party personnel, suicide was often deemed an honourable and heroic alternative to surrender. First-hand accounts and propaganda about the uncivilised behaviour of the advancing Soviet troops caused panic among civilians on the Eastern Front, especially women, who feared being raped. More than a thousand people (out of a population of around 16,000) committed suicide in Demmin on and around 1 May 1945 as the 65th Army of 2nd Belorussian Front first broke into a distillery and then rampaged through the town, committing mass rapes, arbitrarily executing civilians, and setting fire to buildings. High numbers of suicides took place in many other locations, including Neubrandenburg (600 dead), Stolp in Pommern (1,000 dead), and Berlin, where at least 7,057 people committed suicide in 1945.
The process of selection and murder was carefully planned and organized. When a train stopped at the platform, veteran prisoners received the victims and gathered their belongings in several barracks in an area known as “Kanada.” The arrivals were lined up in two columns – men and boys in one, women and girls in the other – and SS physicians performed a selection. The criterion was the appearance of the prisoners, whose fate, for labor or for death, was determined at will. Before they entered the chamber, they were told that they were about to be disinfected and ordered to undress. The doors of the chamber were locked and the gas was introduced. After the victims were murdered, their gold teeth were extracted and women’s hair was shorn by the Sonderkommando – groups of Jews forced to work in the crematoria. The bodies were hauled to the crematorium furnaces for incineration, the bones were pulverized and the ashes were scattered in the fields.
We lived in a white-painted brick house on Kodur Street in Dej, which had a population of about 15,000, around a quarter of whom were Jewish. I was the youngest of five, and we spoke Yiddish within the community and Hungarian and Romanian outside. We had a garden and backyard, full of plums, peaches, cherries and apples. Among the smells of my childhood were my mother’s goulash and the scent of Shabbat candles. My father was a merchant, a travelling salesman. My mother had the full-time job of keeping the house and family. I remember the lullaby she used to sing me, Schaefeleh, schluf mein tier kind (Sleep well, my precious little child). The synagogue or shul was the centre of communal life, and the centre of my life from three years upwards. I don’t remember any overt antisemitism, just my parents warning me to be inside before dark: “Lest some Christian kids decide they don’t like the look of your sidelocks and pick on you.” I just thought my parents were being overprotective.
Poles were viewed by Nazis as subhuman non-Aryans, and during the German occupation of Poland 2.7 million ethnic Poles were killed. Polish civilians were subject to forced labour in German industry, internment, wholesale expulsions to make way for German colonists, and mass executions. The German authorities engaged in a systematic effort to destroy Polish culture and national identity. During operation AB-Aktion, many university professors and members of the Polish intelligentsia were arrested, transported to concentration camps, or executed. During the war, Poland lost an estimated 39 to 45 percent of its physicians and dentists, 26 to 57 percent of its lawyers, 15 to 30 percent of its teachers, 30 to 40 percent of its scientists and university professors, and 18 to 28 percent of its clergy.
This is not the limit of the horrors of Auschwitz I. It was also the site of disturbing medical experimentation on Jewish and Roma prisoners, including castration, sterilisation and testing how they were affected by contagious diseases. The infamous “Angel of Death”, SS captain Dr Josef Mengele, was one of the physicians practising here. His particular interest was experimenting on twins.
Since the prisoners were now needed for their labour, living conditions improved for a short time. From the end of 1943 onwards, inmates were also deployed in the construction of underground factories, for example those in Melk, Ebensee and St. Georgen an der Gusen. The murderous working conditions that prevailed at these sites soon led to a dramatic rise in the number of victims.
When the Nazis came to power in Germany, they quickly moved to suppress all real and potential opposition. The general public was intimidated by the arbitrary psychological terror that was used by the special courts (Sondergerichte). Especially during the first years of their existence when these courts "had a strong deterrent effect" against any form of political protest.