On the two occasions I have returned to Auschwitz, in 1995 and 2011, although I haven’t got memories as such of the time I spent there, something is triggered deep inside me, both physically and in my inner being. I get very nervous and the death, the cold, the expanse and the emptiness of it swamps me – it’s a feeling that it’s hard to explain but it’s everywhere. I can feel the burnt earth everywhere I walk.
The Communist Party of Germany (KPD) was the largest Communist Party in the world outside of the Soviet Union, until it was destroyed by the Nazis in 1933. In the 1920s and early 30s, Communists and Nazis often fought each other directly in street violence, with the Nazi paramilitary organizations being opposed by the Communist Red Front and Anti-Fascist Action. After the beginning of the Great Depression, both Communists and Nazis saw their share of the vote increase. However, while the Nazis were willing to form alliances with other parties of the right, the Communists refused to form an alliance with the Social Democratic Party of Germany, the largest party of the left. After the Nazis came to power, they quickly banned the Communist Party under the allegation that it was preparing for revolution and that it had caused the Reichstag fire. Four thousand KPD officials were arrested in February 1933, and by the end of the year 130,000 communists had been sent to concentration camps.
During the next two months, some fifty thousand people were arrested on this basis, in what turned into a “frenzy” of political purges and score-settling. In the legal murk of the early Nazi regime, it was unclear who had the power to make such arrests, and so it was claimed by everyone: national, state, and local officials, police and civilians, Party leaders. “Everybody is arresting everybody,” a Nazi official complained in the summer of 1933. “Everybody threatens everybody with Dachau.” As this suggests, it was already clear that the most notorious and frightening destination for political detainees was the concentration camp built by Himmler at Dachau, in Bavaria. The prisoners were originally housed in an old munitions factory, but soon Himmler constructed a “model camp,” the architecture and organization of which provided the pattern for most of the later K.L. The camp was guarded not by police but by members of the S.S.—a Nazi Party entity rather than a state force.
Le Porz’s remark was prophetic. The true extent of Nazi barbarity became known to the world in part through the documentary films made by Allied forces after the liberation of other German camps. There have been many atrocities committed before and since, yet to this day, thanks to those images, the Nazi concentration camp stands as the ultimate symbol of evil. The very names of the camps—Dachau, Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald, Auschwitz—have the sound of a malevolent incantation. They have ceased to be ordinary place names—Buchenwald, after all, means simply “beech wood”—and become portals to a terrible other dimension.
Only after the true scope of the Holocaust’s horrors were known did the world begin to react to what had happened at Auschwitz. Though the Nazis fled and tried to cover up their deeds, making it impossible to ever know the complete history of their crimes, the voices of the victims and survivors live on through their testimony. All in all, 6 million Jews perished in the Holocaust. Today, a museum and memorial at Auschwitz preserves the remnants of the Nazis’ crimes—a reminder of the many who were killed and a testament to those who survived.
After the arrival of a transport at the ramp in Birkenau, the process known as selection took place. SS officers decided who would be taken to work, and who would be sent directly to the gas chambers. Often it was mere chance or the mood of the SS officer that decided whether someone died immediately or had a hope of survival. The prisoners selected for slave labour were sent to one of the many auxiliary camps at Auschwitz or elsewhere in the Nazi concentration camp system. Their aim was „Vernichtung durch Arbeit“ - extermination through labour.
The 1930 elections changed the German political landscape by weakening the traditional nationalist parties, the DNVP and the DVP, leaving the Nazis as the chief alternative to the discredited Social Democrats and the Zentrum, whose leader, Heinrich Brüning, headed a weak minority government. The inability of the democratic parties to form a united front, the self-imposed isolation of the Communists and the continued decline of the economy, all played into Hitler's hands. He now came to be seen as de facto leader of the opposition and donations poured into the Nazi Party's coffers. Some major business figures, such as Fritz Thyssen, were Nazi supporters and gave generously and some Wall Street figures were allegedly involved, but many other businessmen were suspicious of the extreme nationalist tendencies of the Nazis and preferred to support the traditional conservative parties instead.
When your relatives die, there’s usually a place you can go to pay your respects, like a cemetery with a grave where you can lay a stone and talk to them. The only place I have is Auschwitz and going back there for the first time will be the first and last chance I have to be able to return to the people I loved who I lost there and in other concentration camps.
The first party that attempted to combine nationalism and socialism was the (Austria-Hungary) German Workers' Party, which predominantly aimed to solve the conflict between the Austrian Germans and the Czechs in the multi-ethnic Austrian Empire, then part of Austria-Hungary. In 1896 the German politician Friedrich Naumann formed the National-Social Association which aimed to combine German nationalism and a non-Marxist form of socialism together; the attempt turned out to be futile and the idea of linking nationalism with socialism quickly became equated with antisemites, extreme German nationalists and the Völkisch movement in general.
Then, on January 27, 1945, the Red Army reached the camp. Inside, they found prisoners covered in excrement and starving to death, children who had been used for medical experiments, and other shocking evidence of the Nazis’ crimes. At Birkenau, the guards had failed to destroy some of the storerooms where prisoners’ stolen belongings were stored before being transported back to the Reich. Among the remainingitems were 7.7 tons of human hair, 370,000 men’s suits and 837,000 women’s coats and dresses.
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.
Hitler took a personal interest in architecture and worked closely with state architects Paul Troost and Albert Speer to create public buildings in a neoclassical style based on Roman architecture. Speer constructed imposing structures such as the Nazi party rally grounds in Nuremberg and a new Reich Chancellery building in Berlin. Hitler's plans for rebuilding Berlin included a gigantic dome based on the Pantheon in Rome and a triumphal arch more than double the height of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Neither structure was built.
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.
Ms. Jastrzebiowska’s husband, Andrzej Jastrzebiowski, 38, is a metal conservator. He spent three months cleaning all the eyeglasses in a vitrine, preserving their distressed state but trying to prevent them from corroding further. “When I saw the eyeglasses in the exhibition, I saw it as one big pile,” he said. But in the lab, he began to examine them one by one. One had a screw replaced by a bent needle; another had a repaired temple. “And then this enormous mass of glasses started becoming people,” Mr. Jastrzebiowski said. This “search for the individual,” he said, helps ensure that the work does not become too routine.
Officials at the camp obeyed Himmler. In late 1944, theydismantled part of the gas chambers, forcing, eyewitnesses would later recall, the Sonderkommando—a group of mostly Jewish prisoners who were made to run the gas chambers—to dismantle the structures piece by piece. Then, as the Russians closed in that January, the remaining buildings were destroyed, blown up completely using dynamite. However, the ruins remained.
On July 15, 1944, three weeks before the hiding place where she lived with her family and several others was discovered, Anne Frank wrote in her diary: “It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.” Anne Frank’s diary, particularly these sentences, became one of the central symbols of the Holocaust and of humanity faced with suffering: the strength of spirit that led a young girl to write such words after two years of imprisonment hidden in a small, crowded attic, decreed on her by senseless evil; and the opening which her words offer for a new era of hope and reconciliation after a world war that claimed tens of millions of victims. These words aroused great admiration for her diary and for the girl herself. Translated into more than fifty languages, the diary sold more than thirty million copies all over the world. Streets and squares, coins and stamps bear Anne’s name, along with prizes, conventions, exhibits, memorials, schools and youth institutions, to say nothing of films and plays that bring her diary to life, and thorough research of various kinds into her character and her diary, its translations and the different uses that have been made and still are being made of it.
The first gassings at Auschwitz took place in early September 1941, when around 850 inmates—Soviet prisoners of war and sick Polish inmates—were killed with Zyklon B in the basement of block 11 in Auschwitz I. The building proved unsuitable, so gassings were conducted instead in crematorium I, also in at Auschwitz I, which operated until December 1942. There, more than 700 victims could be killed at once. Tens of thousands were killed in crematorium I. To keep the victims calm, they were told they were to undergo disinfection and de-lousing; they were ordered to undress outside, then were locked in the building and gassed. After its decommissioning as a gas chamber, the building was converted to a storage facility and later served as an SS air raid shelter. The gas chamber and crematorium were reconstructed after the war. Dwork and van Pelt write that a chimney was recreated; four openings in the roof were installed to show where the Zyklon B had entered; and two of the three furnaces were rebuilt with the original components.
The only people left behind in the camp were people deemed unfit for labor—those who were too ill or weak. An SS order came down to murder any prisoners who were left, and the SS killed about 700 prisoners in response. However, order at the camp was breaking down. SS officers began escaping themselves, and the strict hierarchy that had kept prisoners in line disappeared. Those officers who stayedburned documents in a last-ditch attempt to hide their crimes. Meanwhile, the prisoners who remained huddled in hospital beds and bunks and waited. A few others escaped as the remaining guards fled.
Estimates of the total German war dead range from 5.5 to 6.9 million persons. A study by German historian Rüdiger Overmans puts the number of German military dead and missing at 5.3 million, including 900,000 men conscripted from outside of Germany's 1937 borders. Richard Overy estimated in 2014 that about 353,000 civilians were killed in Allied air raids. Other civilian deaths include 300,000 Germans (including Jews) who were victims of Nazi political, racial, and religious persecution and 200,000 who were murdered in the Nazi euthanasia program. Political courts called Sondergerichte sentenced some 12,000 members of the German resistance to death, and civil courts sentenced an additional 40,000 Germans. Mass rapes of German women also took place.
After moving to Amsterdam, Anne and Margot Frank were enrolled in school—Margot in public school and Anne in a Montessori school. Margot demonstrated ability in arithmetic, and Anne showed aptitude for reading and writing. Anne's friend, Hanneli Goslar, later recalled that from early childhood, Frank frequently wrote, although she shielded her work with her hands and refused to discuss the content of her writing.
Long before the Nazis took power, concentration camps had featured in their imagination. Wachsmann finds Hitler threatening to put Jews in camps as early as 1921. But there were no detailed plans for building such camps when Hitler was named Chancellor of Germany, in January, 1933. A few weeks later, on February 27th, he seized on the burning of the Reichstag—by Communists, he alleged—to launch a full-scale crackdown on his political opponents. The next day, he implemented a decree, “For the Protection of People and State,” that authorized the government to place just about anyone in “protective custody,” a euphemism for indefinite detention. (Euphemism, too, was to be a durable feature of the K.L. universe: the killing of prisoners was referred to as Sonderbehandlung, “special treatment.”)
The NSDAP was a far-right political party which arose during the social and financial upheavals that occurred following the end of World War I. The NSDAP remained small and marginalised, receiving 2.6% of the federal vote in 1928, prior to the onset of the Great Depression in 1929. By 1930 the NSDAP won 18.3% of the federal vote, making it the Reichstag's second largest political party. While in prison after the failed Beer Hall Putsch of 1923, Hitler wrote Mein Kampf, which laid out his plan for transforming German society into one based on race. Nazi ideology brought together elements of antisemitism, racial hygiene, and eugenics, and combined them with pan-Germanism and territorial expansionism with the goal of obtaining more Lebensraum for the Germanic people. The regime attempted to obtain this new territory by attacking Poland and the Soviet Union, intending to deport or kill the Jews and Slavs living there, who were viewed as being inferior to the Aryan master race and part of a Jewish-Bolshevik conspiracy. The Nazi regime believed that only Germany could defeat the forces of Bolshevism and save humanity from world domination by International Jewry. Other people deemed life unworthy of life by the Nazis included the mentally and physically disabled, Romani people, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, and social misfits.
Addressing her diary entries to an imaginary friend she called Kitty, Anne Frank wrote about life in hiding, including her impressions of the other inhabitants of the Secret Annex, her feelings of loneliness and her frustration over the lack of privacy. While she detailed typical teenage issues such as crushes on boys, arguments with her mother and resentments toward her sister, Frank also displayed keen insight and maturity when she wrote about the war, humanity and her own identity. She also penned short stories and essays during her time in hiding.
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.
Otto Frank gave the diary to the historian Annie Romein-Verschoor, who tried unsuccessfully to have it published. She then gave it to her husband Jan Romein, who wrote an article about it, titled "Kinderstem" ("A Child's Voice"), which was published in the newspaper Het Parool on 3 April 1946. He wrote that the diary "stammered out in a child's voice, embodies all the hideousness of fascism, more so than all the evidence at Nuremberg put together." His article attracted attention from publishers, and the diary was published in the Netherlands as Het Achterhuis (The Annex) in 1947, followed by five more printings by 1950.
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With its sections separated by barbed-wire fences, Auschwitz II had the largest prisoner population of any of the three main camps. In January 1942, the first chamber using lethal Zyklon B gas was built on the camp. This building was judged inadequate for killing on the scale the Nazis wanted, and four further chambers were built. These were used for systematic genocide right up until November 1944, two months before the camp was liberated.
During the Röhm Purge of 30 June to 2 July 1934 (also known as the "Night of the Long Knives"), Hitler disempowered the SA's leadership—most of whom belonged to the Strasserist (national revolutionary) faction within the NSDAP—and ordered them killed. He accused them of having conspired to stage a coup d'état, but it is believed that this was only a pretence to justify the suppression of any intraparty opposition. The purge was executed by the SS, assisted by the Gestapo and Reichswehr units. Aside from Strasserist Nazis, they also murdered anti-Nazi conservative figures like former chancellor Kurt von Schleicher. After this, the SA continued to exist but lost much of its importance, while the role of the SS grew significantly. Formerly only a sub-organisation of the SA, it was made into a separate organisation of the NSDAP in July 1934.
The first gas chamber at Birkenau was in what prisoners called the "little red house" (known as bunker 1 by the SS), a brick cottage that had been converted into a gassing facility. The windows were bricked up and its four rooms converted into two insulated rooms, the doors of which said "Zur Desinfektion" ("to disinfection"). It was operational by March 1942. A second brick cottage, the "little white house" or bunker 2, was converted and operational by June 1942. When Himmler visited the camp on 17 and 18 July 1942, he was given a demonstration of a selection of Dutch Jews, a mass killing in a gas chamber in bunker 2, and a tour of the building site of the new IG Farben plant being constructed at the nearby town of Monowitz.
Steven Spielberg's famous film Schindler's List focused attention on people like Oscar Schindler and his wife Emilie Schindler, who - at great risk to themselves and their families - helped Jews escape the Nazi genocide. In those years, millions of Jews died in Nazi death camps like Auschwitz, but Oscar Schindler's Jews miraculously survived. Schindler spent millions to protect and save his Jews, everything he possessed. He died penniless.
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. Some Jews assaulted Nazi guards, even at the entrance to the gas chambers. In October 1944, the Sonderkommando crew at crematoria IV revolted and destroyed the crematoria. It was never used again.
The first German concentration camps were established in 1933 for the confinement of opponents of the Nazi Party—Communists and Social Democrats. Political opposition soon was enlarged to include minority groups, chiefly Jews, but by the end of World War II many Roma, homosexuals, and anti-Nazi civilians from the occupied territories had also been liquidated. After the outbreak of World War II the camp inmates were used as a supplementary labour supply, and such camps mushroomed throughout Europe. Inmates were required to work for their wages in food; those unable to work usually died of starvation, and those who did not starve often died of overwork. The most shocking extension of this system was the establishment after 1940 of extermination centres, or “death camps.” They were located primarily in Poland, which Adolf Hitler had selected as the setting for his “final solution” to the “Jewish problem.” The most notorious were Auschwitz, Majdanek, and Treblinka. (See extermination camp.) At some camps, notably Buchenwald, medical experimentation was conducted. New toxins and antitoxins were tried out, new surgical techniques devised, and studies made of the effects of artificially induced diseases, all by experimenting on living human beings.