The Auschwitz Jewish Center (AJC) in Oświęcim, operated by the Museum of Jewish Heritage — A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, is just two miles from the Auschwitz–Birkenau death camps. The only Jewish presence in the vicinity of Auschwitz, the Center opened its doors in September 2000 so that people from around the world could gather to learn, pray, and remember the victims of the Holocaust.
My sister was sent with my mother, while I went to the opposite side. That was the first chance I had to survive. Unbeknown to any of us at the time, two Nazi soldiers had been asked to make a photographic document of the deportation of Hungarian Jews from the moment they got off the train – through the entire system of arriving, going to the bath house and getting their prison clothes – so I ended up in a picture at the very moment I was separated from my sister. It captures me standing alone without my family on the Auschwitz platform, and I’m leaning inwards to see where my little sister has gone.
Auschwitz inmates were employed on huge farms, including the experimental agricultural station at Rajsko. They were also forced to work in coal mines, in stone quarries, in fisheries, and especially in armaments industries such as the SS-owned German Equipment Works (established in 1941). Periodically, prisoners underwent selection. If the SS judged them too weak or sick to continue working, they were transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau and killed.
The rise of Nazism in Germany during the 1930s—and the conviction that Hitler could be defeated only by military force—prompted Einstein rethink his strict pacifist views. Increasing numbers of Jewish refugees were fleeing Germany, bringing with them horrific tales of Nazi persecution; Einstein, who was also Jewish, left for the United States in 1932.
Repeat selections took place several times during the day in roll calls. Inmates who had become weak or ill were separated from the ranks and sent to the gas chambers. A brutal regimen based on a set of punishments and torture was invoked in the camp. Few managed to survive. In Auschwitz-Birkenau, more than 1,100,000 Jews, 70,000 Poles, 25,000 Sinti and Roma (Gypsies) and some 15,000 prisoners of war from the USSR and other countries were murdered.
The site was first suggested as a concentration camp for Polish prisoners by SS-Oberführer Arpad Wigand, an aide to Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski, Higher SS and Police Leader for Silesia. After this part of Poland was annexed by Nazi Germany, Oświęcim (Auschwitz) was located administratively in Germany, in the Province of Upper Silesia, Regierungsbezirk Kattowitz, Landkreis Bielitz. Bach-Zelewski had been searching for a site to hold prisoners in the Silesia region, as the local prisons were filled to capacity. Richard Glücks, head of the Concentration Camps Inspectorate, sent former Sachsenhausen concentration camp commandant Walter Eisfeld to inspect the site, which housed 16 dilapidated one-story buildings that had served as an Austrian and later Polish Army barracks and a camp for transient workers. German citizens were offered tax concessions and other benefits if they would relocate to the area. By October 1943, more than 6,000 Reich Germans had arrived. The Nazis planned to build a model modern residential area for incoming Germans, including schools, playing fields, and other amenities. Some of the plans went forward, including the construction of several hundred apartments, but many were never fully implemented. Basic amenities such as water and sewage disposal were inadequate, and water-borne illnesses were commonplace.
Women were a cornerstone of Nazi social policy. The Nazis opposed the feminist movement, claiming that it was the creation of Jewish intellectuals, instead advocating a patriarchal society in which the German woman would recognise that her "world is her husband, her family, her children, and her home". Feminist groups were shut down or incorporated into the National Socialist Women's League, which coordinated groups throughout the country to promote motherhood and household activities. Courses were offered on childrearing, sewing, and cooking. Prominent feminists, including Anita Augspurg, Lida Gustava Heymann, and Helene Stöcker, felt forced to live in exile. The League published the NS-Frauen-Warte, the only NSDAP-approved women's magazine in Nazi Germany; despite some propaganda aspects, it was predominantly an ordinary woman's magazine.
The crematoria consisted of a dressing room, gas chamber, and furnace room. In crematoria II and III, the dressing room and gas chamber were underground; in IV and V, they were on the ground floor. The dressing room had numbered hooks on the wall to hang clothes. In crematorium II, there was also a dissection room (Sezierraum). SS officers told the victims they were to take a shower and undergo delousing. The victims undressed in the dressing room and walked into the gas chamber, which was disguised as a shower facility; signs in German said "To the baths" and "To disinfection". Some inmates were even given soap and a towel.
From its rise to power in 1933, the Nazi regime built a series of incarceration sites to imprison and eliminate so-called "enemies of the state." Most prisoners in the early concentration camps were German Communists, Socialists, Social Democrats, Roma (Gypsies), Jehovah's Witnesses, homosexuals, and persons accused of "asocial" or socially deviant behavior. Some of these facilities were called “concentration camps” because those imprisoned there were physically “concentrated” in one location.
Auschwitz didn’t long remain a camp exclusively for Poles. In June 1941, Germany launched a surprise invasion of the Soviet Union, taking three million prisoners over the next seven months. Many were starved to death. Others were sent to occupied Poland or Germany as slave laborers. In the fall of 1941, ten thousand prisoners of war arrived at Auschwitz and began building the Birkenau camp.
The Polish government in 2009 asked European nations, the United States and Israel to contribute to a fund from which the Auschwitz museum could draw $6 million to $7 million a year for restoration projects, on top of its more than $10 million annual operating budget. Last December, the German government pledged $87 million—about half of the $170 million target endowment. (Auschwitz officials had not received a U.S. pledge by the time this magazine went to press.)
In most camps, prisoners were forced to wear identifying overalls with colored badges according to their categorization: red triangles for Communists and other political prisoners, green triangles for common criminals, pink triangles for homosexual men, purple triangles for Jehovah's Witnesses, black triangles for asocials and the "work shy", yellow triangle for Jews, and later the brown triangle for Romanis.