In 2017 a Körber Foundation survey found that 40 percent of 14-year-olds in Germany did not know what Auschwitz was. The following year a survey organized by the Claims Conference, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and others found that 41 percent of 1,350 American adults surveyed, and 66 percent of millennials, did not know what Auschwitz was, while 22 percent said they had never heard of the Holocaust. A CNN-ComRes poll in 2018 found a similar situation in Europe.
“Those of us who went through the war and tried to write about it...became messengers,” wrote Elie Wiesel, shown as a young man at left. “We have given the message and nothing changed.” Right: Buchenwald in April 1945. Elie Wiesel is in the second row, seventh from left. Bergen-Belsen, where Anne Frank died, was also liberated that week. (Chicago Public Library; BuyEnlarge Archive / UIG / Bridgeman Images)
"It's utterly impossible for me to build my life on a foundation of chaos, suffering and death," she wrote on July 15, 1944. "I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness; I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too. I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquility will return once more."
On October 7, 1944, several hundred prisoners assigned to Crematorium IV at Auschwitz-Birkenau rebelled after learning that they were going to be killed. During the uprising, the prisoners killed three guards and blew up the crematorium and adjacent gas chamber. The prisoners used explosives smuggled into the camp by Jewish women who had been assigned to forced labor in a nearby armaments factory.
Auschwitz, the largest and arguably the most notorious of all the Nazi death camps, opened in the spring of 1940. Its first commandant was Rudolf Höss (1900-47), who previously had helped run the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Oranienburg, Germany. Auschwitz was located on a former military base outside OÅ›wiÄ™cim, a town in southern Poland situated near Krakow, one of the country’s largest cities. During the camp’s construction, nearby factories were appropriated and all those living in the area were forcibly ejected from their homes, which were bulldozed by the Nazis.
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.
And for that purpose it is necessary not to think of the camps simply as a hellscape. Reading Wachsmann’s deeply researched, groundbreaking history of the entire camp system makes clear that Dachau and Buchenwald were the products of institutional and ideological forces that we can understand, perhaps all too well. Indeed, it’s possible to think of the camps as what happens when you cross three disciplinary institutions that all societies possess—the prison, the army, and the factory. Over the several phases of their existence, the Nazi camps took on the aspects of all of these, so that prisoners were treated simultaneously as inmates to be corrected, enemies to be combatted, and workers to be exploited. When these forms of dehumanization were combined, and amplified to the maximum by ideology and war, the result was the Konzentrationlager, or K.L.
Political concentration camps instituted primarily to reinforce the state’s control have been established in various forms under many totalitarian regimes—most extensively in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. To a considerable extent, the camps served as the special prisons of the secret police. Nazi concentration camps were under the administration of the SS; forced-labour camps of the Soviet Union were operated by a succession of organizations beginning in 1917 with the Cheka and ending in the early 1990s with the KGB.
Adolf Hitler envisioned the eventual extermination of what he called “the Jewish plague,” but the Führer didn’t draw up the plans for the gas chambers or the timetables for the transports. And while it was senior SS officials who gave general instructions about how the camps should function, it was ordinary Germans, soldiers and civilians alike, who worked out the deadly details. “There wasn’t a grand strategy in 1940 that the camp would accrue a number of functions and ultimately become a death camp,” Dwork says. “I do not see it as planned at all. Way led to way, and step led to step.”
Slovak rabbi Michael Dov Weissmandl was the first to suggest, in May 1944, that the Allies bomb the rails leading to Auschwitz. At one point British Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered that such a plan be prepared, but he was told that precision bombing the camp to free the prisoners or disrupt the railway was not technically feasible.[not in citation given] In 1978, historian David Wyman published an essay in Commentary entitled "Why Auschwitz Was Never Bombed", arguing that the United States Army Air Forces had the capability to attack Auschwitz and should have done so; he expanded his arguments in his book The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust 1941–1945 (1984). Wyman argued that, since the IG Farben plant at Auschwitz III had been bombed three times between August and December 1944 by the US Fifteenth Air Force in Italy, it would have been feasible for the other camps or railway lines to be bombed too. Bernard Wasserstein's Britain and the Jews of Europe (1979) and Martin Gilbert's Auschwitz and the Allies (1981) raised similar questions about British inaction. Since the 1990s, other historians have argued that Allied bombing accuracy was not sufficient for Wyman's proposed attack, and that counterfactual history is an inherently problematic endeavor.
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 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.
Once the selections had been concluded, a select group of Auschwitz prisoners (part of "Kanada") gathered up all the belongings that had been left on the train and sorted them into huge piles, which were then stored in warehouses. These items (including clothing, eyeglasses, medicine, shoes, books, pictures, jewelry, and prayer shawls) would periodically be bundled and shipped back to Germany.
German doctors performed a variety of experiments on prisoners at Auschwitz. SS doctors tested the efficacy of X-rays as a sterilization device by administering large doses to female prisoners. Carl Clauberg injected chemicals into women's uteruses in an effort to glue them shut. Prisoners were infected with spotted fever for vaccination research and exposed to toxic substances to study the effects. In one experiment Bayer, then part of IG Farben, paid RM 150 each for 150 female inmates from Auschwitz (the camp had asked for RM 200 per woman), who were transferred to a Bayer facility to test an anesthetic. A Bayer employee wrote to Rudolf Höss: "The transport of 150 women arrived in good condition. However, we were unable to obtain conclusive results because they died during the experiments. We would kindly request that you send us another group of women to the same number and at the same price." The Bayer research was led at Auschwitz by Helmuth Vetter of Bayer/IG Farben, who was also an Auschwitz physician and SS captain, and by Auschwitz physicians Friedrich Entress and Eduard Wirths.
Between 1933 and the fall of Nazi Germany in 1945, more than 3.5 million Germans were forced to spend time in concentration camps and prisons for political reasons, and approximately 77,000 Germans were executed for one or another form of resistance by Special Courts, courts-martial, and the civil justice system. Many of these Germans had served in government, the military, or in civil positions, which enabled them to engage in subversion and conspiracy against the Nazis.