Mindful that no mere visit can convey what the concentration camp was like when the Nazis ran it, I met with survivors. The week before I arrived in Krakow, I had called Jozef Stos, 89, to ask if he would discuss his years in captivity. “If I’m still alive then, sure—it’s my civic responsibility,” he said with a laugh. “But I’m pretty darn old, you know.”
When the Soviet army entered Auschwitz on January 27, they found approximately 7,600 sick or emaciated detainees who had been left behind. The liberators also discovered mounds of corpses, hundreds of thousands of pieces of clothing and pairs of shoes and seven tons of human hair that had been shaved from detainees before their liquidation. According to some estimates, between 1.1 million to 1.5 million people, the vast majority of them Jews, died at Auschwitz during its years of operation. An estimated 70,000 to 80,000 Poles perished at the camp, along with 19,000 to 20,000 Gypsies and smaller numbers of Soviet prisoners of war and other individuals.
Though the Russians had just come across the Holocaust’s deadliest camp, the liberation of Auschwitz didn’t even make front page news. A communiquépublished in the New York Times on January 28, 1945, doesn’t even mention the camp, just the city; on February 3, the paper devotedtwo paragraphs to the “murder factory” at Oswiecim but gave few details. As World War II raced to its end, few people could even grasp the horror that was found in the camps.
During the Battle of Berlin (16 April 1945 – 2 May 1945), Hitler and his staff lived in the underground Führerbunker while the Red Army approached. On 30 April, when Soviet troops were within two blocks of the Reich Chancellery, Hitler, along with his girlfriend and by then wife Eva Braun committed suicide. On 2 May, General Helmuth Weidling unconditionally surrendered Berlin to Soviet General Vasily Chuikov. Hitler was succeeded by Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz as Reich President and Goebbels as Reich Chancellor. Goebbels and his wife Magda committed suicide the next day after murdering their six children. Between 4 and 8 May 1945, most of the remaining German armed forces unconditionally surrendered. The German Instrument of Surrender was signed 8 May, marking the end of the Nazi regime and the end of World War II in Europe.
^ Hitler stated: "Today our left-wing politicians in particular are constantly insisting that their craven-hearted and obsequious foreign policy necessarily results from the disarmament of Germany, whereas the truth is that this is the policy of traitors […] But the politicians of the Right deserve exactly the same reproach. It was through their miserable cowardice that those ruffians of Jews who came into power in 1918 were able to rob the nation of its arms." Adolf Hitler. Mein Kampf. Bottom of the Hill Publishing, 2010. p. 287.
On 20 July 1932, the Prussian government was ousted by a coup, the Preussenschlag; a few days later at the July 1932 Reichstag election the Nazis made another leap forward, polling 37.4% and becoming the largest party in parliament by a wide margin. Furthermore, the Nazis and the Communists between them won 52% of the vote and a majority of seats. Since both parties opposed the established political system and neither would join or support any ministry, this made the formation of a majority government impossible. The result was weak ministries governing by decree. Under Comintern directives, the Communists maintained their policy of treating the Social Democrats as the main enemy, calling them "social fascists", thereby splintering opposition to the Nazis. Later, both the Social Democrats and the Communists accused each other of having facilitated Hitler's rise to power by their unwillingness to compromise.
When the Nazis realized that the Russians were successfully pushing their way toward Germany in late 1944, they decided to start destroying evidence of their atrocities at Auschwitz. Himmler ordered the destruction of the crematoria and the human ashes were buried in huge pits and covered with grass. Many of the warehouses were emptied, with their contents shipped back to Germany.
The first prisoners at Auschwitz included German prisoners transferred from Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Germany, where they had been incarcerated as repeat criminal offenders, and Polish political prisoners from Lodz via Dachau concentration camp and from Tarnow in Krakow District of the Generalgouvernement (that part of German-occupied Poland not annexed to Nazi Germany, linked administratively to German East Prussia, or incorporated into the German-occupied Soviet Union).
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.
Hitler's peace overtures to the new British Prime Minister Winston Churchill were rejected in July 1940. Grand Admiral Erich Raeder had advised Hitler in June that air superiority was a pre-condition for a successful invasion of Britain, so Hitler ordered a series of aerial attacks on Royal Air Force (RAF) airbases and radar stations, as well as nightly air raids on British cities, including London, Plymouth, and Coventry. The German Luftwaffe failed to defeat the RAF in what became known as the Battle of Britain, and by the end of October, Hitler realised that air superiority would not be achieved. He permanently postponed the invasion, a plan which the commanders of the German army had never taken entirely seriously.[e] Several historians, including Andrew Gordon, believe the primary reason for the failure of the invasion plan was due to the superiority of the Royal Navy, not the actions of the RAF.
One exchange Jew was Eve, daughter of Hans and Rita Oppenheimer. The family was German–Jewish. Eve’s father had moved to Holland from Germany to escape Nazi persecution. Eve was born in June 1936 during a visit to England by her mother and brothers, Paul and Rudi; she therefore had British nationality. The mother, brothers and sister then joined the father in Holland.
Probably my earliest memories of anything at all are of walking through the streets of Trenčín and people stopping in their tracks and saying with amazement: “You’re back!” “What a miracle that you’re alive!” I understood as a three-and-a-half to four-year-old that I was a miracle because I got to hear it so many times, but I didn’t really understand what the word meant. Only much later could I recognise what a miracle it really was that I had survived, when I learned that of the thousands of Slovak men and women who were deported to Auschwitz, only a few hundred returned.
I remember the night of the packing very well. Things went in the suitcase, things were taken out of the suitcase. In the end my mother filled it with food she had cooked and warm clothing and bedding. Then it was full. Plus we took a watch, some earrings, a wedding ring with us to exchange for food if necessary. The next day my father was forced to hand over his remaining money to a delegation that included the mayor and the school principal as they rounded us up at the town hall.
At the end of 1944 and early in 1945, a complete deterioration of living conditions set in as thousands of survivors of death marches began to arrive at the camp. The large numbers arriving at the camp soon overwhelmed the meagre resources available. The camp administration did not attempt to house them. Serious overcrowding and a lack of sanitary facilities resulted in the break-out of a typhus epidemic. From January to mid-April 1945, some 35,000 prisoners died due to typhus, starvation and the terrible conditions within the camp.
Initially a small bodyguard unit under the auspices of the SA, the Schutzstaffel (SS; Protection Squadron) grew to become one of the largest and most powerful groups in Nazi Germany. Led by Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler from 1929, the SS had over a quarter million members by 1938. Himmler initially envisioned the SS as being an elite group of guards, Hitler's last line of defence. The Waffen-SS, the military branch of the SS, evolved into a second army. It was dependent on the regular army for heavy weaponry and equipment, and most units were under tactical control of the High Command of the Armed Forces (OKW). By the end of 1942, the stringent selection and racial requirements that had initially been in place were no longer followed. With recruitment and conscription based only on expansion, by 1943 the Waffen-SS could not longer claim to be an elite fighting force.
Large segments of the Nazi Party, particularly among the members of the Sturmabteilung (SA), were committed to the party's official socialist, revolutionary and anti-capitalist positions and expected both a social and an economic revolution when the party gained power in 1933. In the period immediately before the Nazi seizure of power, there were even Social Democrats and Communists who switched sides and became known as "Beefsteak Nazis": brown on the outside and red inside. The leader of the SA, Ernst Röhm, pushed for a "second revolution" (the "first revolution" being the Nazis' seizure of power) that would enact socialist policies. Furthermore, Röhm desired that the SA absorb the much smaller German Army into its ranks under his leadership. Once the Nazis achieved power, Röhm's SA was directed by Hitler to violently suppress the parties of the left, but they also began attacks against individuals deemed to be associated with conservative reaction. Hitler saw Röhm's independent actions as violating and possibly threatening his leadership, as well as jeopardising the regime by alienating the conservative President Paul von Hindenburg and the conservative-oriented German Army. This resulted in Hitler purging Röhm and other radical members of the SA in 1934, in what came to be known as the Night of the Long Knives.
Auschwitz-Birkenau was the largest Nazi extermination and concentration camp, located in the Polish town of Oswiecim, 37 miles west of Cracow. One sixth of all Jews murdered by the Nazis were gassed at Auschwitz. In April 1940 SS chief Heinrich Himmler ordered the establishment of a new concentration camp in Oswiecim, a town located within the portion of Poland that was annexed to Germany at the beginning of World War II. The first Polish political prisoners arrived in Auschwitz in June 1940, and by March 1941 there were 10,900 prisoners, the majority of whom were Polish. Auschwitz soon became known as the most brutal of the Nazi concentration camps.
The majority of scholars identify Nazism in both theory and practice as a form of far-right politics. Far-right themes in Nazism include the argument that superior people have a right to dominate other people and purge society of supposed inferior elements. Adolf Hitler and other proponents denied that Nazism was either left-wing or right-wing, instead they officially portrayed Nazism as a syncretic movement. In Mein Kampf, Hitler directly attacked both left-wing and right-wing politics in Germany, saying:
Mendelian inheritance, or Mendelism, was supported by the Nazis, as well as by mainstream eugenicists of the time. The Mendelian theory of inheritance declared that genetic traits and attributes were passed from one generation to another. Eugenicists used Mendelian inheritance theory to demonstrate the transfer of biological illness and impairments from parents to children, including mental disability, whereas others also utilised Mendelian theory to demonstrate the inheritance of social traits, with racialists claiming a racial nature behind certain general traits such as inventiveness or criminal behaviour.
As the German leader (Führer) of Nazi Germany, Hitler began moving Nazi armies into neighboring countries. When Germany attacked Poland, World War II started. Western countries like France, Belgium, and the Netherlands were occupied and to be treated by Germany as colonies. However, in Eastern countries, such as Poland and the Soviet Union, the Nazis planned to kill or enslave the Slavic peoples, so that German settlers could take their land.
Völkisch nationalism denounced soulless materialism, individualism and secularised urban industrial society, while advocating a "superior" society based on ethnic German "folk" culture and German "blood". It denounced foreigners and foreign ideas and declared that Jews, Freemasons and others were "traitors to the nation" and unworthy of inclusion. Völkisch nationalism saw the world in terms of natural law and romanticism and it viewed societies as organic, extolling the virtues of rural life, condemning the neglect of tradition and the decay of morals, denounced the destruction of the natural environment and condemned "cosmopolitan" cultures such as Jews and Romani.
Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany by the President of the Weimar Republic, Paul von Hindenburg, on 30 January 1933. The NSDAP then began to eliminate all political opposition and consolidate its power. Hindenburg died on 2 August 1934 and Hitler became dictator of Germany by merging the offices and powers of the Chancellery and Presidency. A national referendum held 19 August 1934 confirmed Hitler as sole Führer (leader) of Germany. All power was centralised in Hitler's person and his word became the highest law. The government was not a coordinated, co-operating body, but a collection of factions struggling for power and Hitler's favour. In the midst of the Great Depression, the Nazis restored economic stability and ended mass unemployment using heavy military spending and a mixed economy. Extensive public works were undertaken, including the construction of Autobahnen (motorways). The return to economic stability boosted the regime's popularity.
It was founded as the German Workers’ Party by Anton Drexler, a Munich locksmith, in 1919. Hitler attended one of its meetings that year, and before long his energy and oratorical skills would enable him to take over the party, which was renamed National Socialist German Workers’ Party in 1920. That year Hitler also formulated a 25-point program that became the permanent basis for the party. The program called for German abandonment of the Treaty of Versailles and for the expansion of German territory. These appeals for national aggrandizement were accompanied by a strident anti-Semitic rhetoric. The party’s socialist orientation was basically a demagogic gambit designed to attract support from the working class. By 1921 Hitler had ousted the party’s other leaders and taken over.
In 1938, Otto Frank started a second company, Pectacon, which was a wholesaler of herbs, pickling salts, and mixed spices, used in the production of sausages. Hermann van Pels was employed by Pectacon as an advisor about spices. A Jewish butcher, he had fled Osnabrück with his family. In 1939, Edith Frank's mother came to live with the Franks, and remained with them until her death in January 1942.
On August 4, 1944, the Gestapo (German Secret State Police) discovered the hiding place. It has been long thought that the authorities acted after being tipped off by an anonymous Dutch caller. But a more recent theory is that the German SD discovered the hiding place by chance, while investigating reports that illegal work and fraud with ration coupons were occurring at the house.
Adolf Hitler, the party's leader since 1921, was appointed Chancellor of Germany by President Paul von Hindenburg on 30 January 1933. Hitler rapidly established a totalitarian regime known as the Third Reich. Following the defeat of the Third Reich at the conclusion of World War II in Europe, the party was "declared to be illegal" by the Allied powers, who carried out denazification in the years after the war.
Prior to the Nazi ascension to power, Hitler often blamed moral degradation on Rassenschande ("racial defilement"), a way to assure his followers of his continuing antisemitism, which had been toned down for popular consumption. Prior to the induction of the Nuremberg Race Laws in 1935 by the Nazis, many German nationalists such as Roland Freisler strongly supported laws to ban Rassenschande between Aryans and Jews as racial treason. Even before the laws were officially passed, the Nazis banned sexual relations and marriages between party members and Jews. Party members found guilty of Rassenschande were severely punished; some party members were even sentenced to death.
Surely there is nothing left to say about Anne Frank, except that there is everything left to say about her: all the books she never lived to write. For she was unquestionably a talented writer, possessed of both the ability and the commitment that real literature requires. Quite the opposite of how an influential Dutch historian described her work in the article that spurred her diary’s publication—a “diary by a child, this de profundis stammered out in a child’s voice”—Frank’s diary was not the work of a naif, but rather of a writer already planning future publication. Frank had begun the diary casually, but later sensed its potential; upon hearing a radio broadcast in March of 1944 calling on Dutch civilians to preserve diaries and other personal wartime documents, she immediately began to revise two years of previous entries, with a title (Het Achterhuis, or The House Behind) already in mind, along with pseudonyms for the hiding place’s residents. Nor were her revisions simple corrections or substitutions. They were thoughtful edits designed to draw the reader in, intentional and sophisticated. Her first entry in the original diary, for instance, begins with a long description of her birthday gifts (the blank diary being one of them), an entirely unself-conscious record by a 13-year-old girl. The first entry in her revised version, on the other hand, begins with a deeply self-aware and ironic pose: “It’s an odd idea for someone like me to keep a diary; not only because I have never done so before, but because it seems to me that neither I—nor for that matter anyone else—will be interested in the unbosomings of a 13-year-old schoolgirl.”
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.
Our British liberators were amazing – they were heroes for me in the real sense of the word. After their long battle to reach Belsen, they had a campaign to organise a rescue mission. To this day I’m aghast that they were so saintly. They brought little ambulances in and drove around picking us up. I was trembling and virtually lifeless, lying near the barracks, the stench of corpses everywhere, and unable to walk or lift myself up, when they arrived with a little ambulance. I don’t think I was able to talk to the soldier who approached me, my comprehension had long gone, but I remember the gentleness in him. We couldn’t eat and I remember fainting when I tried to get out of bed. Gradually they administered the food, but I didn’t trust anyone and I hid the food in my bed, afraid that they would suddenly take it away. Even now I feel that sense at every meal time of how lucky I am, and I often say to those at the table: “Isn’t this wonderful?” and “ Aren’t we lucky?”
Created by the Government of Poland in 1947 at the request of survivors, the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum comprises almost 472 acres (191 hectares) and was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1979. The Memorial today consists of Collections, Archives, a research, education, conservation and publishing center. Millions of people have visited the complex to learn its crucial significance, honor survivors and victims, and carry forward the memory of Auschwitz and the Holocaust.
In early November 1944, Anne was put on transport again. Together with her sister, she was deported to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Her parents stayed behind in Auschwitz. The conditions in Bergen-Belsen were horrible, too, there was a lack of food, it was cold, and Anne, like her sister, contracted typhus. In February 1945 they both died owing to its effects, Margot first, Anne shortly afterwards.
Friends who searched the hiding place after the family’s capture later gave Otto Frank the papers left behind by the Gestapo. Among them he found Anne’s diary, which was published as Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl (originally in Dutch, 1947). Precocious in style and insight, it traces her emotional growth amid adversity. In it she wrote, “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are really good at heart.”
Another prisoner, Max Drimmer, devised an escape plan and brought it to Shine. Thanks to the help of a Polish partisan, they managed to break out of Auschwitz and hide on the Pole’s farm for three months. Later, they hid in the home of Marianne’s family. Both men immigrated to the United States and Shine married Marianne. Their story was told in the documentary, “Escape from Auschwitz: Portrait of a Friendship.”
In April 1940, Rudolph Höss, who become the first commandant, identified the Silesian town of Oswiecim as a possible site for a concentration camp. The function of the camp was initially to intimidate Poles and prevent resistance to German rule. It was also perceived as a cornerstone of the policy to re-colonize Upper Silesia, which had once been a German region, with 'pure Aryans'. On April 27th, Himmler ordered construction of the camp.
Realistically, the Polish government and the proponents of preserving Auschwitz are not about to abandon the place, but at times during my visit I had some appreciation for van Pelt’s perspective. I arrived on the September day the camp counted its millionth visitor of the year. Cellphone-wielding visitors snapped pictures of the sign at the main gate, Arbeit Macht Frei (Work Will Set You Free). Tour group members wearing headphones stood shoulder to shoulder with their guides speaking into wireless microphones.
It was first published in Germany and France in 1950, and after being rejected by several publishers, was first published in the United Kingdom in 1952. The first American edition, published in 1952 under the title Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, was positively reviewed. The book was successful in France, Germany, and the United States, but in the United Kingdom it failed to attract an audience and by 1953 was out of print. Its most noteworthy success was in Japan, where it received critical acclaim and sold more than 100,000 copies in its first edition. In Japan, Anne Frank quickly was identified as an important cultural figure who represented the destruction of youth during the war.
I still drive my car, though not at night any more. I get jumpy when someone honks their horn, and occasionally I have bad dreams and wake up at night, my wife asking me: “What’s up?”, and I tell her I’m being chased by Germans. But that’s the story of my life. I still can’t believe it happened. When I sit down and watch programmes on the Holocaust on the History Channel it’s as if I’m watching some made-up horror film.
Though we tend to think of Hitler’s Germany as a highly regimented dictatorship, in practice Nazi rule was chaotic and improvisatory. Rival power bases in the Party and the German state competed to carry out what they believed to be Hitler’s wishes. This system of “working towards the Fuhrer,” as it was called by Hitler’s biographer Ian Kershaw, was clearly in evidence when it came to the concentration camps. The K.L. system, during its twelve years of existence, included twenty-seven main camps and more than a thousand subcamps. At its peak, in early 1945, it housed more than seven hundred thousand inmates. In addition to being a major penal and economic institution, it was a central symbol of Hitler’s rule. Yet Hitler plays almost no role in Wachsmann’s book, and Wachsmann writes that Hitler was never seen to visit a camp. It was Heinrich Himmler, the head of the S.S., who was in charge of the camp system, and its growth was due in part to his ambition to make the S.S. the most powerful force in Germany.
Nazi flags: The Nazi Party used a right-facing swastika as their symbol and the red and black colours were said to represent Blut und Boden ("blood and soil"). Another definition of the flag describes the colours as representing the ideology of National Socialism, the swastika representing the Aryan race and the Aryan nationalist agenda of the movement; white representing Aryan racial purity; and red representing the socialist agenda of the movement. Black, white and red were in fact the colours of the old North German Confederation flag (invented by Otto von Bismarck, based on the Prussian colours black and white and the red used by northern German states). In 1871, with the foundation of the German Reich the flag of the North German Confederation became the German Reichsflagge ("Reich flag"). Black, white and red became the colours of the nationalists through the following history (for example World War I and the Weimar Republic).
Hitler quickly became the party's most active orator, appearing in public as a speaker 31 times within the first year after his self-discovery. Crowds began to flock to hear his speeches. Hitler always spoke about the same subjects: the Treaty of Versailles and the Jewish question. This deliberate technique and effective publicising of the party contributed significantly to his early success, about which a contemporary poster wrote: "Since Herr Hitler is a brilliant speaker, we can hold out the prospect of an extremely exciting evening". Over the following months, the party continued to attract new members, while remaining too small to have any real significance in German politics. By the end of the year, party membership was recorded at 2,000, many of whom Hitler and Röhm had brought into the party personally, or for whom Hitler's oratory had been their reason for joining.
Some Auschwitz prisoners were subjected to inhumane medical experimentation. The chief perpetrator of this barbaric research was Josef Mengele (1911-79), a German physician who began working at Auschwitz in 1943. Mengele, who came to be known as the “Angel of Death,” performed a range of experiments on detainees. For example, in an effort to study eye color, he injected serum into the eyeballs of dozens of children, causing them excruciating pain. He also injected chloroform into the hearts of twins, to determine if both siblings would die at the same time and in the same manner.
While top officials reported to Hitler and followed his policies, they had considerable autonomy. He expected officials to "work towards the Führer" – to take the initiative in promoting policies and actions in line with party goals and Hitler's wishes, without his involvement in day-to-day decision-making. The government was a disorganised collection of factions led by the party elite, who struggled to amass power and gain the Führer's favour. Hitler's leadership style was to give contradictory orders to his subordinates and to place them in positions where their duties and responsibilities overlapped. In this way he fostered distrust, competition, and infighting among his subordinates to consolidate and maximise his own power.
After a fortnight we were able to use the money which we had brought in or was sent to us, and it became possible to complete and improve our diet from the canteen at our own expense. We were lined up in rows exactly in the order of our prison numbers, which had been sewed in black on white on our clothes. (This also is penitentiary procedure, for an inmate of the penitentiary is not an individual any more, but only a numbered being without a name.) Then we were led into the barracks where an S.S. man sitting behind a sort of teller's window disbursed the desired sum, up to fifteen marks a week. Somehow I must have transgressed against the military discipline in this procedure. I presume that I had my cap in the wrong hand. Instead of the money I received a violent blow on the back of my hand with a heavy stick which was lying next to the paymaster on his table, obviously for such purposes. Many weeks after this experience the back of my hand was still painful and swollen.
Birkenau was the largest camp in the Auschwitz complex. It became primarily a centre for the mass murder of Jews brought there for extermination, and of Roma and Sinti prisoners during its final period. Sick prisoners and those selected for death from the whole Auschwitz complex – and, to a smaller extent, from other camps – were also gathered and systematically killed here. It ultimately became a place for the concentration of prisoners before they were transferred inside the Third Reich to work for German industry. Most of the victims of the Auschwitz complex, probably about 90%, were killed in the Birkenau camp.
As Soviet troops closed in on Auschwitz in late January 1945, the SS hurriedly evacuated some 56,000 prisoners on death marches to the west, then blew up the Birkenau gas chambers and crematoria to erase evidence of the mass murders. The Red Army liberated Auschwitz on January 27, 1945. Some 6,000 people were still alive at Birkenau. Another 1,000 were found at the main camp.
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.