For the man in charge of Auschwitz, the gas chamber was a welcome innovation. “I had always shuddered at the prospect of carrying out executions by shooting,” commandant Rudolf Höss wrote in a lengthy confession while awaiting execution after the war. “Many members of the Einsatzkommandos, unable to endure wading through blood any longer, had committed suicide. Some had even gone mad.”
Following the camp's liberation, the Soviet government issued a statement, on 8 May 1945, that four million people had been killed on the site, a figure based on the capacity of the crematoria and later regarded as too high. Höss told prosecutors at Nuremberg that at least 2,500,000 people had been murdered in Auschwitz by gassing and burning, and that another 500,000 had died of starvation and disease. He testified that the figure of over two million had come from Eichmann.[d] In his memoirs, written in custody, he wrote that he regarded this figure as "far too high. Even Auschwitz had limits to its destructive possibilities." Raul Hilberg's 1961 work, The Destruction of the European Jews, estimated that up to 1,000,000 Jews had died in Auschwitz.
The Nazis seized from the French thousands of locomotives and rolling stock, stockpiles of weapons, and raw materials such as copper, tin, oil, and nickel. Payments for occupation costs were levied upon France, Belgium, and Norway. Barriers to trade led to hoarding, black markets, and uncertainty about the future. Food supplies were precarious; production dropped in most of Europe. Famine was experienced in many occupied countries.
The first concentration camps in Germany were established soon after Hitler's appointment as chancellor in January 1933. In the weeks after the Nazis came to power, The SA (Sturmabteilungen; commonly known as Storm Troopers), the SS (Schutzstaffel; Protection Squadrons—the elite guard of the Nazi party), the police, and local civilian authorities organized numerous detention camps to incarcerate real and perceived political opponents of Nazi policy.
The Soviet troops found grisly evidence of the horror. About 7,000 starving prisoners were found alive in the camp. Millions of items of clothing that once belonged to men, women and children were discovered along with 6,350kg of human hair. The Auschwitz museum holds more than 100,000 pairs of shoes, 12,000 kitchen utensils, 3,800 suitcases and 350 striped camp garments.
Ultimately, three SS guards were killed—one of whom was burned alive by the prisoners in the oven of Crematorium II—and 451 Sonderkommandos were killed. Hundreds of prisoners escaped, but all were soon captured and executed, along with an additional group who had participated in the revolt. Crematorium IV was destroyed in the fighting. A group of prisoners in the gas chamber of Crematorium V was spared in the chaos.
Otto and Edith Frank planned to go into hiding with the children on 16 July 1942, but when Margot received a call-up notice from the Zentralstelle für jüdische Auswanderung (Central Office for Jewish Emigration) on 5 July, ordering her to report for relocation to a work camp, they were forced to move the plan ten days forward. Shortly before going into hiding, Anne gave her friend and neighbour Toosje Kupers a book, a tea set, a tin of marbles, and the family cat for safekeeping. As the Associated Press reports: "'I'm worried about my marbles, because I'm scared they might fall into the wrong hands,' Kupers said Anne told her. 'Could you keep them for me for a little while?'"
The last days of Auschwitz, which was opened by the Nazis in Oswiecim, Poland, in 1940, were marked by chaos, cowardice and an attempt to destroy what was once one of Nazi Germany’s most efficient tools in the quest to eradicate European Jews. By late 1944, as the Allied forces of World War II wrested much of occupied Europe out of Nazi hands, it had become clear that the Nazi military—once a mighty force that had invaded and occupied most of Europe after Hitler’s rise to power in 1933—was headed toward a spectacular defeat.
Thomas Keneally tells in his famous book Schindler's Ark how the women were marched naked to a quartermaster's hut where they were handed the clothes of the dead. Half dead themselves, dressed in rags, they were packed tight into the darkness of freight cars. But the Schindler-women with their heads cropped, many too ill, too hollowed out, to be easily recognised - the Schindler-women giggled like schoolgirls. One of the women, Clara Sternberg, heard an SS guard ask a colleague: 'What's Schindler going to do with all the old women?' 'It's no one's business,' the colleague said. 'Let him open an old people's home if he wants.'
Upon arrival at Auschwitz, the SS forcibly separated the men from the women and children, and Otto Frank was wrenched from his family. Those deemed able to work were admitted into the camp, and those deemed unfit for labour were immediately killed. Of the 1,019 passengers, 549—including all children younger than 15—were sent directly to the gas chambers. Anne Frank, who had turned 15 three months earlier, was one of the youngest people spared from her transport. She was soon made aware that most people were gassed upon arrival and never learned that the entire group from the Achterhuis had survived this selection. She reasoned that her father, in his mid-fifties and not particularly robust, had been killed immediately after they were separated.
To help carry out the "Final Solution" (the genocide or mass destruction of Jews), the Nazis established killing centers in German-occupied Poland, the country with the largest Jewish population. Killing centers were designed for efficient mass murder. The first one, which opened in December 1941, was Chelmno, where Jews and Roma were gassed in mobile gas vans. In 1942, the Nazis opened the Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka killing centers to systematically murder the Jews of the Generalgouvernement (the territory in the interior of German-occupied Poland).
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.
The SA leadership continued to apply pressure for greater political and military power. In response, Hitler used the Schutzstaffel (SS) and Gestapo to purge the entire SA leadership. Hitler targeted SA Stabschef (Chief of Staff) Ernst Röhm and other SA leaders who—along with a number of Hitler's political adversaries (such as Gregor Strasser and former chancellor Kurt von Schleicher)—were arrested and shot. Up to 200 people were killed from 30 June to 2 July 1934 in an event that became known as the Night of the Long Knives.