On January 20, 1942, fourteen such functionaries assembled at a lakeside villa outside Berlin to discuss a “Final Solution” to what was called “the Jewish problem.” What we now know as the Wannsee Conference put on paper plans that Hitler and his subordinates had been talking about for months. Of Europe’s 11 million Jews, those who could work would be worked to death, following the model already created at Auschwitz and other camps. Jews who were not selected for useful labor would be eliminated.
The conference led to a dramatic increase in activity at the Nazi death camps. In a massive campaign code-named Operation Reinhard, Germans killed 1.5 million Jews at small camps deep in the forests of eastern Poland from March 1942 to October 1943. Treblinka and the now nearly forgotten camps Sobibor and Belzec consisted of little more than gas chambers and train tracks. There were virtually no survivors, no witnesses.
Auschwitz is enshrined in history in part because, as a work camp, there were survivors. Anita Lasker-Wallfisch was a 14-year-old Jewish cello student living in the German city of Breslau (now Wroclaw in Poland) when the war broke out. Two years later, she and her sister Renate were sent to work in a nearby paper factory. In 1942, after the Germans deported her parents to a death camp, the sisters doctored their identity papers and tried to escape.
They never made it beyond the Breslau train station. The Gestapo arrested them on the platform. The Lasker sisters were accused of forgery, aiding the enemy and attempted escape. After a perfunctory trial and months in a prison, they were sent to Auschwitz in separate transports as convicted felons in late 1943.
By then, Auschwitz was serving as both a slave labor facility and a death camp. As the Germans brought more and more Jews from all over Europe to the sprawling complex, SS doctors selected the fittest for work. Other prisoners were sent directly to Birkenau’s gas chambers for what was euphemistically known as a special action. “Was present for first time at a special action at 3 a.m. By comparison Dante’s Inferno seems almost a comedy,” SS doctor Johann Paul Kremer wrote in his diary on September 2, 1942. Camp records show the transport he observed contained 957 Jews from France; only 12 men and 27 women were selected for work.
When I met her at her house in London, Lasker-Wallfisch, 84, explained that she and her sister avoided the dreaded selection process because they went to Birkenau as convicts. “People shipped from prisons weren’t shipped in huge trainloads of Jews,” Lasker-Wallfisch said. “They were shipped as individuals, which was an advantage. It’s not worth turning the gas on for one Jew, I suppose.” Instead, Lasker-Wallfisch was stripped, guards shaved her head and an inmate tattooed her with an identification number (a practice unique to Auschwitz).
Lighting a cigarette in her airy, light-filled London living room, she shows me the blurred, faded number high up on her left forearm: 69388.
At some point during her induction, Lasker-Wallfisch mentioned she played the cello. “That is fantastic,” the inmate processing her said. “You will be saved.” The Birkenau women’s orchestra, responsible for keeping prisoners in step as they marched to work assignments, needed a cellist. “It was a complete coincidence,” Lasker-Wallfisch said, shaking her head. “The whole thing was complete insanity from beginning to end.”
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.
As Soviet troops closed in on Auschwitz in late January 1945, the SS hurriedly evacuated some 56,000 prisoners on death marches to the west, then blew up the Birkenau gas chambers and crematoria to erase evidence of the mass murders. The Red Army liberated Auschwitz on January 27, 1945. Some 6,000 people were still alive at Birkenau. Another 1,000 were found at the main camp.