If Anne Frank had not perished in the criminal malevolence of Bergen-Belsen early in 1945, she would have marked her sixty-eighth birthday last June. And even if she had not kept the extraordinary diary through which we know her it is likely that we would number her among the famous of this century—though perhaps not so dramatically as we do now. She was born to be a writer. At thirteen, she felt her power; at fifteen, she was in command of it. It is easy to imagine—had she been allowed to live—a long row of novels and essays spilling from her fluent and ripening pen. We can be certain (as certain as one can be of anything hypothetical) that her mature prose would today be noted for its wit and acuity, and almost as certain that the trajectory of her work would be closer to that of Nadine Gordimer, say, than to that of Francoise Sagan. As an international literary presence, she would be thick rather than thin. “I want to go on living even after my death!” she exclaimed in the spring of 1944.
But Auschwitz-Birkenau became more than a concentration camp. In the spring of 1942 gas chambers were built at Birkenau and mass transports of Jews began to arrive. Some of the new arrivals were inducted into the camp as registered prisoners, but the great majority were gassed immediately. These gassing operations were greatly expanded in the spring of 1943 with the construction of four purpose-built gas chamber and crematorium complexes, which included such refinements as electric lifts to carry bodies up to the crematoria. Each crematorium could handle 2,000 victims daily. In a nearby group of barracks, nicknamed 'Canada' by the prisoners, victims' belongings were sorted for transportation to the Reich. The victims' hair was used to stuff mattresses; gold teeth were melted down and the gold deposited to an SS account.
The diary is taken to be a Holocaust document; that is overridingly what it is not. Nearly every edition—and there have been innumerable editions—is emblazoned with words like “a song to life” or “a poignant delight in the infinite human spirit.” Such characterizations rise up in the bitter perfume of mockery. A song to life? The diary is incomplete, truncated, broken off—or, rather, it is completed by Westerbork (the hellish transit camp in Holland from which Dutch Jews were deported), and by Auschwitz, and by the fatal winds of Bergen-Belsen. It is here, and not in the “secret annex,” that the crimes we have come to call the Holocaust were enacted. Our entry into those crimes begins with columns of numbers: the meticulous lists of deportations, in handsome bookkeepers’ handwriting, starkly set down in German “transport books.” From these columns—headed, like goods for export, “Ausgangs-Transporte nach dem Osten” (outgoing shipments to the east)—it is possible to learn that Anne Frank and the others were moved to Auschwitz on the night of September 6, 1944, in a collection of a thousand and nineteen Stücke (or “pieces,” another commodities term). That same night, five hundred and forty-nine persons were gassed, including one from the Frank group (the father of Peter van Daan) and every child under fifteen. Anne, at fifteen, and seventeen-year-old Margot were spared, apparently for labor. The end of October, from the twentieth to the twenty-eighth, saw the gassing of more than six thousand human beings within two hours of their arrival, including a thousand boys eighteen and under. In December, two thousand and ninety-three female prisoners perished, from starvation and exhaustion, in the women’s camp; early in January, Edith Frank expired.
There were setbacks. In March, the diggers discovered they were tunneling in the direction of a burial pit and were forced to reroute the passageway, losing days in the process. Not long afterward, Dogim was on burial pit duty when he unearthed the bodies of his wife, mother and two sisters. Every member of the Burning Brigade lived with the knowledge that some of the corpses he was helping to burn belonged to family members. And yet to see one’s wife lying in the pit was something else entirely, and Dogim was consumed with sadness and fury. “[He] said he had a knife, that he was going to stab and kill the Sturmbannführer,” Farber later recalled. Farber told Dogim that he was thinking selfishly—even if he succeeded, the rest of the prisoners would be killed in retribution.
The worst example was the pogrom in the town of Kielce in Poland on July 4th, 1946. When the 200 surviving Jews returned to their village, the local Poles who were upset to see that any had survived instigated a blood libel—accusing the Jews of the kidnap and ritual murder of Polish child. In the ensuing violence 40 of the Jews, all Holocaust survivors, were murdered by the Polish towns people.
On June 6, 1944, also known as D-Day, more than 150,000 Allied soldiers landed in France. In December the Germans started an unsuccessful counterattack in Belgium and northern France, known as the Battle of the Bulge. Continuing to gain momentum, the Soviets began an offensive in January 1945, liberating western Poland and then forcing Hungary to surrender.
The Theresienstadt ghetto was established by the Nazis in an 18th century fortress in Czechoslovakia on November 24, 1941. More than 150,000 Jews passed through the ghetto during its four-year existence, which was used as a holding area for eventual murder in Auschwitz. By 1943, rumors began circulating in the international community that the Nazis were exterminating Jews in gas chambers, and that the conditions of the ghettos did not permit survival. The Nazis rebuilt parts of this ghetto to serve as a “showpiece” for propaganda purposes. Flower gardens were planted in the ghetto. Shops, schools, and a cafe were built. When an investigating commission of the International Red Cross came to visit, they did not see a typical ghetto. In July 1944 the Nazis made a documentary propaganda film about life in this ghetto. After the movie was completed, most of the Jewish “actors” were shipped to their death at Auschwitz.
Anne Frank faced the threat of discovery and death every day while living in the Secret Annex. Despite terrible circumstances, however, her strength of spirit comes through in her diary. "...I still believe, in spite of everything," she wrote while in hiding, "that people are truly good at heart." Anne was one of millions of people during the Holocaust who found the courage to get through each day. Discover other Stories of Courage, and write about what you learn.
The word “Holocaust,” from the Greek words “holos” (whole) and “kaustos” (burned), was historically used to describe a sacrificial offering burned on an altar. Since 1945, the word has taken on a new and horrible meaning: the mass murder of some 6 million European Jews (as well as millions of others, including Gypsies and homosexuals) by the German Nazi regime during the Second World War. To the anti-Semitic Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, Jews were an inferior race, an alien threat to German racial purity and community. After years of Nazi rule in Germany, during which Jews were consistently persecuted, Hitler’s “final solution”–now known as the Holocaust–came to fruition under the cover of world war, with mass killing centers constructed in the concentration camps of occupied Poland.
The twins were then tattooed and given a number from a special sequence. They were then taken to the twins' barracks where they were required to fill out a form. The form asked for a brief history and basic measurements such as age and height. Many of the twins were too young to fill the form out by themselves so the Zwillingsvater (twin's father) helped them. (This inmate was assigned to the job of taking care of the male twins.)
In response to a typhus epidemic in the women's camp, Mengele cleared one block of six hundred Jewish women and sent them to their deaths in the gas chambers. The building was then cleaned and disinfected, and the occupants of a neighboring block were bathed, de-loused, and given new clothing before being moved into the clean block. This process was repeated until all of the barracks were disinfected. Similar procedures were used for later epidemics of scarlet fever and other diseases, with infected prisoners being killed in the gas chambers. For these actions, Mengele was awarded the War Merit Cross (Second Class with swords) and was promoted in 1944 to First Physician of the Birkenau subcamp.