Serena now lives in New Jersey with her family, including three children and grandchildren. We’ve both managed to hang on in there, but she can’t come to Auschwitz because her elderly husband is sick. For years when we talked about our experience she’d say to me: “You probably don’t remember, you were too young,” as I was four years younger, but some things I remembered even more sharply than her and my aunt.
By early 1934, the focus shifted towards rearmament. By 1935, military expenditures accounted for 73 percent of the government's purchases of goods and services. On 18 October 1936, Hitler named Göring as Plenipotentiary of the Four Year Plan, intended to speed up rearmament. In addition to calling for the rapid construction of steel mills, synthetic rubber plants, and other factories, Göring instituted wage and price controls and restricted the issuance of stock dividends. Large expenditures were made on rearmament in spite of growing deficits. Plans unveiled in late 1938 for massive increases to the navy and air force were impossible to fulfil, as Germany lacked the finances and material resources to build the planned units, as well as the necessary fuel required to keep them running. With the introduction of compulsory military service in 1935, the Reichswehr, which had been limited to 100,000 by the terms of the Versailles Treaty, expanded to 750,000 on active service at the start of World War II, with a million more in the reserve. By January 1939, unemployment was down to 301,800 and it dropped to only 77,500 by September.
Remarkably, there were instances of individual resistance and collective efforts at fighting back inside Auschwitz. Poles, Communists and other national groups established networks in the main camp. A few Jews escaped from Birkenau, and there were recorded assaults on Nazi guards even at the entrance to the gas chambers. The 'Sonderkommando' revolt in October 1944 was the extraordinary example of physical resistance.
When the day of release came we were at first searched most carefully for any sort of written notes. Notes from our family—a short, well-watched exchange was allowed every week—had to be left behind. Then we were permitted to put on our civilian clothes, but how they looked! They had been disinfected under high steam pressure and had been wrapped in bundles. They looked like the outfits of tramps, all creased and out of shape. Soft felt hats had turned into cardboard-like monsters no longer usable, and even on our short trip back they could not be worn.
After less than a year at Auschwitz, Lasker-Wallfisch and Renate were among the tens of thousands of prisoners transported to camps in Germany. Lasker-Wallfisch had no idea where she was being sent, but it didn’t matter. “The gas chambers were still working when we left,” she says. “I was very pleased to be rolling out of Auschwitz. We figured anything was better than the gas chamber.” On April 15, 1945, British troops liberated Lasker-Wallfisch and Renate from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp near Hamburg. Lasker-Wallfisch emigrated to England after the war and became a professional cellist. Her sister Renate worked for the BBC, and is now living in France.
The history of Nazism after 1934 can be divided into two periods of about equal length. Between 1934 and 1939 the party established full control of all phases of life in Germany. With many Germans weary of party conflicts, economic and political instability, and the disorderly freedom that characterized the last years of the Weimar Republic (1919–33), Hitler and his movement gained the support and even the enthusiasm of a majority of the German population. In particular, the public welcomed the strong, decisive, and apparently effective government provided by the Nazis. Germany’s endless ranks of unemployed rapidly dwindled as the jobless were put to work in extensive public-works projects and in rapidly multiplying armaments factories. Germans were swept up in this orderly, intensely purposeful mass movement bent on restoring their country to its dignity, pride, and grandeur, as well as to dominance on the European stage. Economic recovery from the effects of the Great Depression and the forceful assertion of German nationalism were key factors in Nazism’s appeal to the German population. Further, Hitler’s continuous string of diplomatic successes and foreign conquests from 1934 through the early years of World War II secured the unqualified support of most Germans, including many who had previously opposed him.
Notable memoirists of the camp include Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel, and Tadeusz Borowski. Levi's If This is a Man, first published in Italy in 1947 as Se questo è un uomo, became a classic of Holocaust literature, an "imperishable masterpiece".[h] Wiesel wrote about his imprisonment at Auschwitz in Night (1960) and other works, and became a prominent spokesman against ethnic violence; in 1986, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Camp survivor Simone Veil was later elected President of the European Parliament, serving from 1979 to 1982. Two Auschwitz victims—Maximilian Kolbe, a priest who volunteered to die by starvation in place of a stranger, and Edith Stein, a Jewish convert to Catholicism—were later named saints of the Catholic Church.
Peterson, who is researching the long history of the Rivesaltes camp, also told me that the camp remained more or less in operation from 1939 through 1967 and then after 1985. Prisoners and refugees after the war included POWs, collaborators, Algerians and, in the 1980s, migrants waiting to be expelled from the country. The French government did little in the meantime to improve facilities from their wartime conditions.
The Nazi regime promoted a liberal code of conduct regarding sexual matters and was sympathetic to women who bore children out of wedlock. Promiscuity increased as the war progressed, with unmarried soldiers often intimately involved with several women simultaneously. Soldier's wives were frequently involved in extramarital relationships. Sex was sometimes used as a commodity to obtain better work from a foreign labourer. Pamphlets enjoined German women to avoid sexual relations with foreign workers as a danger to their blood.
When Otto Frank returned to Amsterdam following his release from Auschwitz, Miep Gies gave him five notebooks and some 300 loose papers containing Anne’s writings. Gies had recovered the materials from the Secret Annex shortly after the Franks’ arrest by the Nazis and had hidden them in her desk. (Margot Frank also kept a diary, but it was never found.) Otto Frank knew that Anne wanted to become an author or journalist, and had hoped her wartime writings would one day be published. Anne had even been inspired to edit her diary for posterity after hearing a March 1944 radio broadcast from an exiled Dutch government official who urged the Dutch people to keep journals and letters that would help provide a record of what life was like under the Nazis.
The two largest groups of prisoners in the camps, both numbering in the millions, were the Polish Jews and the Soviet prisoners of war (POWs) held without trial or judicial process. There were also large numbers of Romani people, ethnic Poles, Serbs, political prisoners, homosexuals, people with disabilities, Jehovah's Witnesses, Catholic clergy, Eastern European intellectuals and others (including common criminals, as the Nazis declared). In addition, a small number of Western Allied aviators were sent to concentration camps as punishment for spying. Western Allied POWs who were Jews, or who were suspected of being Jews by the Nazis, were usually sent to ordinary POW camps; however, a small number of them were sent to concentration camps because of antisemitic policies.