When we think of the crimes of Nazi doctors, what comes to mind are their cruel and sometimes fatal experiments… Yet when we turn to the Nazi doctors’ role in Auschwitz, it was not the experiments that were most significant. Rather, it was his participation in the killing process—indeed his supervision of Auschwitz mass murder from beginning to end. 1
A Project Beauty poster that was posted throughout the Uyghur neighborhoods of Ürümchi at the beginning of the People’s War on Terror. The posters were often accompanied by notices that rewards of up to 100,000 yuan would be given to those who reported unauthorized religious practice to the police. (Photo by Timothy Grose, translation by Darren Byler)
Due in large part to the harsh sanctions imposed on Germany by the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I, the German economy struggled terribly in the 1920s. During the late 1920s and early 1930s, the virulently anti-Semitic National German Socialist Workers Party (Nazi Party) led by Adolf Hitler became Germany's leading political force, winning control of the government in 1933.
We know this because there is no shortage of texts from victims and survivors who chronicled the fact in vivid detail, and none of those documents has achieved anything like the fame of Frank’s diary. Those that have come close have only done so by observing the same rules of hiding, the ones that insist on polite victims who don’t insult their persecutors. The work that came closest to achieving Frank’s international fame might be Elie Wiesel’s Night, a memoir that could be thought of as a continuation of Frank’s experience, recounting the tortures of a 15-year-old imprisoned in Auschwitz. As the scholar Naomi Seidman has discussed, Wiesel first published his memoir in Yiddish, under the title And the World Kept Silent. The Yiddish book told the same story, but it exploded with rage against his family’s murderers and, as the title implies, the entire world whose indifference (or active hatred) made those murders possible. With the help of the French Catholic Nobel laureate François Mauriac, Wiesel later published a French version of the book under the title Night—a work that repositioned the young survivor’s rage into theological angst. After all, what reader would want to hear about how his society had failed, how he was guilty? Better to blame God. This approach did earn Wiesel a Nobel Peace Prize, as well as a spot in Oprah’s Book Club, the American epitome of grace. It did not, however, make teenage girls read his book in Japan, the way they read Frank’s. For that he would have had to hide much, much more.
Before Auschwitz became the ultimate symbol of the Holocaust, it was an ordinary Polish town known as Oświęcim, where Jews made their home from the early 16th century until the Holocaust, when most of them were murdered. In the pre-war years, the majority of Oświęcim’s citizens were Jewish, and for generations they raised families here and contributed to a richly textured culture. The Holocaust suddenly ended the vibrant Jewish life of the town.
Auschwitz II (or "Birkenau") was completed in early 1942. Birkenau was built approximately 1.9 miles (3 km) away from Auschwitz I and was the real killing center of the Auschwitz death camp. It was in Birkenau where the dreaded selections were carried out on the ramp and where the sophisticated and camouflaged gas chambers laid in waiting. Birkenau, much larger than Auschwitz I, housed the most prisoners and included areas for women and Gypsies.
After Kristallnacht (the ‘Night of broken glass’) in November 1938, the Nazis and their supporters arrested many thousands of male Jews above the age of 14 years. They imprisoned them in camps for days or sometimes weeks. They were kept in poor conditions, given little food or water and subjected to brutal treatment and torture. When the German army invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, the SS set up many concentration camps to house Polish political prisoners and many thousands of Polish Jews. Many of the inmates of these camps were subjected to increasingly poor conditions. In addition they were subjected to forced labour, the result of which was often death.
On 2 August 1934, Hindenburg died. The previous day, the cabinet had enacted the "Law Concerning the Highest State Office of the Reich", which stated that upon Hindenburg's death the office of president would be abolished and its powers merged with those of the chancellor. Hitler thus became head of state as well as head of government and was formally named as Führer und Reichskanzler ("Leader and Chancellor") – although eventually Reichskanzler was dropped. Germany was now a totalitarian state with Hitler at its head. As head of state, Hitler became Supreme Commander of the armed forces. The new law provided an altered loyalty oath for servicemen so that they affirmed loyalty to Hitler personally rather than the office of supreme commander or the state. On 19 August, the merger of the presidency with the chancellorship was approved by 90 percent of the electorate in a plebiscite.
Under Nazism, with its emphasis on the nation, individualism was denounced and instead importance was placed upon Germans belonging to the German Volk and "people's community" (Volksgemeinschaft). Hitler declared that "every activity and every need of every individual will be regulated by the collectivity represented by the party" and that "there are no longer any free realms in which the individual belongs to himself". Himmler justified the establishment of a repressive police state, in which the security forces could exercise power arbitrarily, by claiming that national security and order should take precedence over the needs of the individual.
This disturbing idea was suggested by an incident this past spring at the Anne Frank House, the blockbuster Amsterdam museum built out of Frank’s “Secret Annex,” or in Dutch, “Het Achterhuis [The House Behind],” a series of tiny hidden rooms where the teenage Jewish diarist lived with her family and four other persecuted Jews for over two years, before being captured by Nazis and deported to Auschwitz in 1944. Here’s how much people love dead Jews: Anne Frank’s diary, first published in Dutch in 1947 via her surviving father, Otto Frank, has been translated into 70 languages and has sold over 30 million copies worldwide, and the Anne Frank House now hosts well over a million visitors each year, with reserved tickets selling out months in advance. But when a young employee at the Anne Frank House in 2017 tried to wear his yarmulke to work, his employers told him to hide it under a baseball cap. The museum’s managing director told newspapers that a live Jew in a yarmulke might “interfere” with the museum’s “independent position.” The museum finally relented after deliberating for six months, which seems like a rather long time for the Anne Frank House to ponder whether it was a good idea to force a Jew into hiding.
All of their clothes and any remaining personal belongings were taken from them and their hair was shorn completely off. They were given striped prison outfits and a pair of shoes, all of which were usually the wrong size. They were then registered, had their arms tattooed with a number, and transferred to one of Auschwitz's camps for forced labor.
The courtyard between blocks 10 and 11, known as the "death wall" served as an execution area for Poles not in Auschwitz who had been sentenced to death by a criminal court—presided over by German judges—including for petty crimes such as stealing food. Several rooms in block 11 were deemed the Polizei-Ersatz-Gefängnis Myslowitz in Auschwitz ("Alternative jail of the police station at Mysłowice"). There were also Sonderbehandlung cases ("special treatment") for Poles and others regarded as dangerous to the Third Reich. Members of the camp resistance were shot there, as were 200 of the Sonderkommandos who took part in the Sonderkommando revolt in October 1944. Thousands of Poles were executed at the death wall; Höss wrote that "execution orders arrived in an unbroken stream".
During the Holocaust, concentration camp prisoners received tattoos only at one location, Auschwitz. Incoming prisoners were assigned a camp serial number which was sewn to their prison uniforms. Only those prisoners selected for work were issued serial numbers; those prisoners sent directly to the gas chambers were not registered and received no tattoos.
What would it mean for a writer not to hide the horror? There is no mystery here, only a lack of interest. To understand what we are missing, consider the work of another young murdered Jewish chronicler of the same moment, Zalmen Gradowski. Like Frank’s, Gradowski’s work was written under duress and discovered only after his death—except that Gradowski’s work was written in Auschwitz, and you have probably never heard of it.
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.
This debacle did not discourage Himmler and Pohl. On the contrary, with the coming of war, in 1939, S.S. ambitions for the camps grew rapidly, along with their prisoner population. On the eve of the war, the entire K.L. system contained only about twenty-one thousand prisoners; three years later, the number had grown to a hundred and ten thousand, and by January, 1945, it was more than seven hundred thousand. New camps were built to accommodate the influx of prisoners from conquered countries and then the tens of thousands of Red Army soldiers taken prisoner in the first months after Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the U.S.S.R.
After September 1939, with the beginning of the Second World War, concentration camps became places where millions of ordinary people were enslaved as part of the war effort, often starved, tortured and killed. During the war, new Nazi concentration camps for "undesirables" spread throughout the continent. According to statistics by the German Ministry of Justice, about 1,200 camps and subcamps were run in countries occupied by Nazi Germany, while the Jewish Virtual Library estimates that the number of Nazi camps was closer to 15,000 in all of occupied Europe and that many of these camps were run for a limited amount of time before they were closed. Camps were being created near the centers of dense populations, often focusing on areas with large communities of Jews, Polish intelligentsia, Communists or Romani. Since millions of Jews lived in pre-war Poland, most camps were located in the area of the General Government in occupied Poland, for logistical reasons. The location also allowed the Nazis to quickly remove the German Jews from within Germany proper.