A new book from author and poet Michael Rosen looks at the awful impact of the Holocaust on his family. In it Michael details how his father’s uncles, Oscar and Martin, were rounded up in France and sent to the Auschwitz death camp.
The Missing—The True Story of My Family in World War Two was published ahead of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz this month.
The Nazis murdered more than six million Jews in the Holocaust, two thirds of Europe’s Jewish population, between 1941 and 1945.
Another five million people deemed to be “untermenschen” or subhuman were killed.
Auschwitz, the site of the biggest mass murder in history, was at the centre of it. Michael said the Holocaust is “unique”.
“At the core of it was an industrial killing system,” he told Socialist Worker.
“It was scientific and worked out, and it gives an extraordinarily chilling view of a particular type of regime. It represents that scientific genocide.” The Holocaust, an industrialised effort to wipe out an entire group of people, was a genocide like no other.
Auschwitz, in occupied southern Poland, was the size of a small town.
Jewish people from across Nazi-occupied Europe—from Slovakia and Hungary to France and the British Channel Islands—were crammed into cattle trucks and transported there.
From May 1944, a branch from the main railway line brought people right into the Auschwitz II-Birkenau site of the camp.
The line was constructed in anticipation of the arrival of over 400,000 Jewish people from Hungary, a puppet state that had recently been occupied by the Nazis.
At the end of the line were gas chambers and crematoria 2 and 3. Today only ruins remain as the Nazis blew up the two buildings in January 1945 to try and hide the crimes they had committed.
Rows of brick and wooden prison blocks line either side of the railway line. They housed anywhere between 400 and 700 people at a time. Paramilitary SS “Death’s Head Units” decided who would be worked to death and who would be gassed immediately.
Families were separated into two columns—women and children in one, men and older boys in the other. SS “doctors” arbitrarily chose people’s fate. Children, older people, and anyone who looked too ill went straight to the gas chamber.
Only about 20 percent of people on average would be selected for work.
People were stripped and told they would have a shower. Doors to an underground room were closed behind them. Then from hatches in the roof, blue pellets of the insecticide Zyklon B were dropped inside and turned into a deadly gas as they came into contact with the air.
It would take between ten and 20 minutes for everyone to suffocate.
Afterwards special units of prisoners, known as the Sonnderkommando, would hose down the rooms and take the bodies to be burnt.
Michael has been holding lessons in schools in the run-up to Holocaust Memorial Day on 27 January.
“It is hard to describe and explain because it is so beyond our experience,” he said. “You’re describing premeditated killing in rooms—that’s what these gas chambers were.”
He added, “Auschwitz is symbolic for Jews, but many other people were killed there. Auschwitz in particular shows the range of people who were in the sights of the Nazis.”
Yet antisemitism remained key to the Nazi regime. And the growth of Auschwitz helps to tell the history of how the regime’s antisemitism developed from discrimination to the death camp.
Auschwitz was a huge complex made up of 45 sub camps, two of which form part of a museum and memorial today.
Auschwitz 1, a former army barracks, was opened in 1940 to house prisoners of war (POWs) and political prisoners after the German invasion of Poland.
The Nazis experimented with a gas chamber to kill prisoners at the Auschwitz 1 site. Prisoners were seen as a source of forced labour and worked in the armaments and chemicals plants of the various sub camps.
The infamous and sinister sign above Auschwitz 1 reads,”Arbeit Macht Frei,” or, “Work sets you free.”
Construction on the Auschwitz 2-Birkenau camp had begun in 1941 as a place for Russian POWs. From 1942 it became the site of genocide against Jews. From their seizure of power in 1933, the Nazis had opened concentration camps to imprison their political opponents.
They rounded up communists, socialists and trade unionists, liberals, conservative and religious opponents.
The Nazi state had run campaigns to whip up antisemitism. The Nuremberg Laws of 1935 had codified antisemitism into law. For instance it banned marriages and relationships between what the Nazis classified as Jews and Germans, and barred Jews from German citizenship.
And Kristallnacht, “The night of the broken glass,” saw regime thugs destroy Jewish shops on 9 November 1938.
Antisemitism was a key part of Nazi ideology—and grew in importance after the Second World War began. From 1939 the Nazi regime took over large swathes of territory across eastern Europe.
In areas that fell under their control, the Nazis forced local Jews into over 270 ghettos in Warsaw, Lodz and other towns and cities.
Meanwhile the SS’s “Einsatzgruppen,” or deployment units, organised mass murder in the wake of the German Army’s advance into Poland and Russia. In the 1941 Babi Yar Massacre in the Ukrainian capital Kiev, for instance, they shot over 30,000 Jewish people and threw them into a ravine.
As Michael explained, “Auschwitz is not the whole Holocaust.
“A lot of the killing was done by troops turning up in a village, rounding Jews up and shooting them in the square.
“There are many ways genocide can take place. The importance is to get across the horror of Auschwitz. This machine was the summit of the mania of the Nazi regime.”
As the war dragged on, the regime ran into setbacks. It turned more and more to antisemitism to try and hold together its support.
“You are seeing the climax of supremacism,” said Michael. “At its height in 1943 and 1944 it was grab and kill, grab and kill. One of my father’s uncles was rounded up as late as January 1944. You look at the state of the Nazi regime then, but it’s still rounding up Jews in France.”
Michael described the horror of “the way in which the net closed around” victims of the Holocaust, including his family members. Some were close to escaping but didn’t. “It’s the idea of the arbitrariness of genocide,” he said.
Michael said this also “gives an insight into the way in which the government operated”.
“In France you’re talking about collaboration by the Vichy regime,” he said.
“We’re used to the idea that governments act against people because they have done ‘something wrong’. But they had been given the J word, they could describe someone as Jewish, so they’d done something wrong.”
His father’s uncle was arrested on 31 January 1944. Michael has a piece of paper from the time instructing police to “arrest all Jews”.
He explained how the targeting of Jews came “from the Nazis to the Vichy regime and down to the police”. Michael said what struck him is “what Hannah Arendt called the banality of evil”. “The police report is quite staggering,” he said.
“It says of one victim 1 metre, 61cm, brown hair, and regular nose. The banality of that—and that’s state sanctioned murder.”
As anti-racists mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the far right, antisemitism and racism are on the rise.
To make “Never Again” more than a slogan we have to fight against the forces stoking antisemitism and racism.
A carefully drawn-up plan to commit mass murder
Decisions in the Nazi regime came through a combination of orders from the top and initiatives from its competing parts.
SS officer Herbert Langer pioneered the first death camp in Chelmno in central Poland from 1941. The murder operation consisted of three vans where opponents were gassed with carbon monoxide. Over 800 Jews and 4,000 Romani people were killed before February 1942.
A key turning point came with the Wannsee Conference in Berlin on 20 January 1942. SS chief Reinhard Heydrich and various officials planned the deportation and mass murder of the Jews.
In the Spring of 1942 the first Jews sent to Auschwitz were from Slovakia, which had a Jewish population of 90,000 people before the war.
It was a puppet state run by Catholic priest Joseph Tiso and the Slovak People’s Party, a nationalist party with a fanatical fascist wing. Its paramilitary wing, the Hlinka Guard, had run antisemitic campaigns of boycotts of Jewish businesses.
When the Nazis requested 20,000 slave labourers, the Slovak regime wanted to make sure women and children went with the men. They eventually drew up a deal that saw the Slovak government pay 500 Reich Marks for each Jew deported.
Over the course of nine months the Hlinka Guard rounded up some 60,000 Slovak Jews into internment camps ahead of transportation to Auschwitz.
At that time when the Slovak Jews arrived in Auschwitz, the railway platform was two miles away from the killing zone. They were marched to a building, known as The Red Bunker, where gas pellets would be dropped through the roof. The bodies were then wheeled down a makeshift railway into a mass grave.
After them Jewish people from across Europe were sent to Auschwitz.