Although Yad Vashem (Israel’s Memorial to the Six Million) has honored over 1,200 Righteous Among the Nations since 1953, it is impossible to generalize about the motives, deeds, and actual numbers of these rescuers. Some rescuers acted within the planned context of guerrilla units and resistance movements, others used the buildings and funds of the Roman Catholic church to aid Jews.
Rooted in 19th-century antisemitic discourse on the "Jewish question," "Final Solution" as a Nazi cover term denotes the last stage in the evolution of the Third Reich's anti-Jewish policies from persecution to physical annihilation on a European scale. Currently, Final Solution is used interchangeably with other, broader terms that refer to German extermination policies during World War II, as well as more specifically to describe German intent and the decision-making process leading up to the beginning of systematic mass murder.
German SS and police murdered nearly 2,700,000 Jews in the killing centers either by asphyxiation with poison gas or by shooting. In its entirety, the "Final Solution" called for the murder of all European Jews by gassing, shooting, and other means. Six million Jewish men, women, and children were killed during the Holocaust—two-thirds of the Jews living in Europe before World War II.
Otto Frank later described what it was like when the Nazis entered the annex in which he had been hiding. He said an SS man picked up a portfolio and asked whether there were any jewels in it. When Otto Frank said it only contained papers, the SS man threw the papers (and Anne Frank’s diary) on the floor, walking away with silverware and a candlestick in his briefcase. “If he had taken the diary with him,” Otto Frank recalled, “no one would ever have heard of my daughter.”
Additional barriers stemmed from antisemitism, which was rampant in the cultural climate of Eastern Europe. Gentile rescuers thus often feared censure from their fellow citizens. Moreover, significant numbers of gentiles had to confront their own personal, sometimes unconscious, anti-Jewish feelings. Indeed, postwar interviews with rescuers have shown that although they tended to describe the Jews they saved as fine people, many characterized Jews in general as dirty, loud, greedy, aggressive, dishonest, deceitful, or underhanded.
The rioting was triggered by the assassination of Ernst vom Rath, a German diplomat in Paris, by a Polish Jewish teenager, Herschel Grynszpan, on November 7th. Grynszpan did not attempt to escape and claimed that the assassination was motivated by the persecution of the Jewish people. Despite being attended to by Hitler’s personal physician, vom Rath died two days later.
By 1943 it was evident to the armed forces leadership that Germany was losing the war. The mass murder continued nevertheless, reaching a "frenetic" pace in 1944. Auschwitz was gassing up to 6,000 Jews a day by spring that year. On 19 March 1944, Hitler ordered the military occupation of Hungary and dispatched Eichmann to Budapest to supervise the deportation of the country's Jews. From 22 March, Jews were required to wear the yellow star; forbidden from owning cars, bicycles, radios or telephones; then forced into ghettos. From 15 May to 9 July, 440,000 Jews were deported from Hungary to Auschwitz-Birkenau, almost all to the gas chambers.[v] A month before the deportations began, Eichmann offered to exchange one million Jews for 10,000 trucks and other goods from the Allies, the so-called "blood for goods" proposal. The Times called it "a new level of fantasy and self-deception".
The Soviets found 7,600 inmates in Auschwitz. Some 60,000 prisoners were discovered at Bergen-Belsen by the British 11th Armoured Division; 13,000 corpses lay unburied, and another 10,000 people died from typhus or malnutrition over the following weeks. The BBC's war correspondent, Richard Dimbleby, described the scenes that greeted him and the British Army at Belsen, in a report so graphic the BBC declined to broadcast it for four days, and did so, on 19 April, only after Dimbleby had threatened to resign.
Amir told me that Zeidel made several pilgrimages back to Ponar. And yet he was never able to locate the passageway that carried him to freedom. What Zeidel didn’t know was that three years before he died, a Lithuanian archaeologist named Vytautas Urbanavicius had quietly excavated what turned out to be the tunnel’s entrance. But after taking a few photographs and a notebook’s worth of measurements, he sealed up the hole with fresh mortar and stone without pressing any farther or prominently marking the area.
In early 1943, encouraged by von Verschuer, Mengele applied to transfer to the concentration camp service. His application was accepted and he was posted to Auschwitz, where he was appointed by SS-Standortarzt Eduard Wirths, chief medical officer at Auschwitz, to the position of chief physician of the Zigeunerfamilienlager (Romani family camp) at Birkenau, a subcamp located on the main Auschwitz complex. The SS doctors did not administer treatment to the Auschwitz inmates, but supervised the activities of inmate doctors who had been forced to work in the camp medical service. As part of his duties, Mengele made weekly visits to the hospital barracks and ordered any prisoners who had not recovered after two weeks in bed to be sent to the gas chambers.