Between May 15 and July 9, 1944, some 438,000 Hungarian Jews were shipped on 147 trains to Birkenau, stretching the camp’s resources for killing beyond all limits. Because the crematoria were overcrowded, bodies were burned in pyres fueled partly by the victims’ own fat. Just prior to the deportation of Hungarian Jewry, two prisoners escaped with plans of the camp. They met with resistance leaders in Slovakia and compiled a detailed report including maps. As this report made its way to Western intelligence services in the summer of 1944, there were requests to bomb Auschwitz. Although the industrial complex adjacent to Auschwitz was bombed, the death camp and its crematoria were left untouched, a subject of controversy more than 50 years later. (See Why Wasn’t Auschwitz Bombed?)
The fortified walls, barbed wire, railway sidings, platforms, barracks, gallows, gas chambers and crematoria at Auschwitz Birkenau show clearly how the Holocaust, as well as the Nazi German policy of mass murder and forced labour took place. The collections at the site preserve the evidence of those who were premeditatedly murdered, as well as presenting the systematic mechanism by which this was done. The personal items in the collections are testimony to the lives of the victims before they were brought to the extermination camps, as well as to the cynical use of their possessions and remains. The site and its landscape have high levels of authenticity and integrity since the original evidence has been carefully conserved without any unnecessary restoration.
The orders for the final evacuation and liquidation of the camp were issued in mid-January 1945. The Germans left behind in the main Auschwitz camp, Birkenau and in Monowitz about 7,000 sick or incapacitated who they did not expect would live for long; the rest, approximately 58,000 people, were evacuated by foot into the depths of the Third Reich.
The first 'bunker', with two sealed rooms, operated from January 1942 to the end of that year. The second, with four air tight rooms, became redundant in the spring of 1943, but remained standing and was used again in the autumn of 1944 when extra 'capacity' was needed for the murder of Hungarian Jews and the liquidation of the ghettos. The second measured about 1.134 square feet. The victims murdered in the 'bunkers' were first obliged to undress in temporary wooden barracks erected nearby. Their bodies were taken out of the gas chambers and pushed to pits where they were burned in the open. Between January 1942 and March 1943, 175,000 Jews were gassed to death here, of whom 105,000 were killed from January to March 1943.
We had a quiet life until the day they took 1,000 Jews away from my village of Czemierniki, a typical Polish village with a big square around which community life took place. My father was a bootmaker, my mother was a seamstress and everyone worked hard. There was always some antisemitism, but it was mainly fairly harmless, consisting of kids at our school who during religious education taunted the five or six Jewish kids in the class with “Jews killed Jesus.”
After Germany's annexation of Austria in March 1938, the Nazis arrested German and Austrian Jews and imprisoned them in the Dachau, Buchenwald, and Sachsenhausen concentration camps, all located in Germany. Following the violent Kristallnacht ("Night of Broken Glass") pogroms in November 1938, the Nazis conducted mass arrests of adult male Jews and incarcerated them in camps for brief periods.
Of course, there were aspects of Nazism which were reactionary, such as their attitude toward the role of women in society, which was completely traditionalist, calling for the return of women to the home as wives, mothers and homemakers, although ironically this ideological policy was undermined in reality by the growing labor shortages and need for more workers. The number of women in the workplace climbed throughout the period of Nazi control of Germany, from 4.24 million in 1933 to 4.52 million in 1936 and 5.2 million in 1938, numbers that far exceeded those of the Weimar Republic.
In Italy I joined the Irgun, the Zionist underground organisation fighting for Israeli independence led by Menachem Begin (later prime minister of Israel), and travelled with an arms smuggling ship, the Altalena, to Tel Aviv. All the time I kept with me my prison uniform, as proof of what had happened to me. We arrived on the shores of Tel Aviv on 20 June 1948 and I found myself at a pivotal moment in Israeli history, in a boat full of weapons that Ben-Gurion would not let on shore. It could easily have turned into a civil war. I was shot at by Israel Defence Force troopers as I jumped into the water and the Altalena was set ablaze and sunk by the IDF. With it sank my suitcase of clothes and my striped prisoner uniform, including my hat, coat, shirt and a knife.