Political dissidents, trade unionists, and Social Democrats were among the first to be arrested and incarcerated in concentration camps. Under the Weimar government, centuries-old prohibitions against homosexuality had been overlooked, but this tolerance ended violently when the SA (Storm Troopers) began raiding gay bars in 1933. Homosexual intent became just cause for prosecution. The Nazis arrested German and Austrian male homosexuals—there was no systematic persecution of lesbians—and interned them in concentration camps, where they were forced to wear special yellow armbands and later pink triangles. The goal of persecuting male homosexuals was either for reeducation—what might now be called conversion therapy—or punishment. Jehovah’s Witnesses were a problem for the Nazis because they refused to swear allegiance to the state, register for the draft, or utter the words “Heil Hitler.” As a result, the Nazis imprisoned many of the roughly 20,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses in Germany. They could be released from concentration camps if they signed a document renouncing their faith and promising not to proselytize. Few availed themselves of that option, preferring martyrdom to apostasy. Germans of African descent—many of whom, called “Rhineland bastards” by the Nazis, were the offspring of German mothers and French colonial African troops who had occupied the Rhineland after World War I—were also persecuted by the Nazis. Although their victimization was less systematic, it included forced sterilization and, often, internment in concentration camps. The fear was that they would “further pollute” and thereby diminish the race. The Nazis also singled out the Roma and Sinti, pejoratively known as Gypsies. They were the only other group that the Nazis systematically killed in gas chambers alongside the Jews. For the Roma and Sinti, too, racial pollution and their depiction as asocials was the justification for their persecution and murder.
After 1942, the economic functions of the camps, previously secondary to their penal and terror functions, came to the fore. Forced labor of camp prisoners became commonplace. The guards became much more brutal, and the death rate increased as the guards not only beat and starved prisoners, but killed them more frequently. Vernichtung durch Arbeit ("extermination through labor") was a policy—camp inmates would literally be worked to death, or to physical exhaustion, at which point they would be gassed or shot. The Germans estimated the average prisoner's lifespan in a concentration camp at three months, due to lack of food and clothing, constant epidemics, and frequent punishments for the most minor transgressions. The shifts were long and often involved exposure to dangerous materials.
One of the most horrific terms in history was used by Nazi Germany to designate human beings whose lives were unimportant, or those who should be killed outright: Lebensunwertes Leben, or "life unworthy of life". The phrase was applied to the mentally impaired and later to the "racially inferior," or "sexually deviant," as well as to "enemies of the state" both internal and external. From very early in the war, part of Nazi policy was to murder civilians en masse, especially targeting Jews. Later in the war, this policy grew into Hitler's "final solution", the complete extermination of the Jews. It began with Einsatzgruppen death squads in the East, which killed some 1,000,000 people in numerous massacres, and continued in concentration camps where prisoners were actively denied proper food and health care. It culminated in the construction of extermination camps -- government facilities whose entire purpose was the systematic murder and disposal of massive numbers of people. In 1945, as advancing Allied troops began discovering these camps, they found the results of these policies: hundreds of thousands of starving and sick prisoners locked in with thousands of dead bodies. They encountered evidence of gas chambers and high-volume crematoriums, as well as thousands of mass graves, documentation of awful medical experimentation, and much more. The Nazis killed more than 10 million people in this manner, including 6 million Jews. (This entry is Part 18 of a weekly 20-part retrospective of World War II)
“I would do it all again.” Edeltrud Posiles uttered these words in 2011 when she was the last surviving Righteous Gentile who had hid Jews in Nazi Austria. When Posiles – then Becher – heard a knock on the door in 1942, she opened it to find her Jewish fiancé and his two brothers on her doorstep. As described at the DailyMail.com, “Hiding Jews was punishable by death. But the feisty 94-year old [said] ‘there was never a moment’s doubt in my mind,’ when asked if she hesitated as she was asked by the brothers for sanctuary.”
Of the eight people in the secret annex, only Otto Frank survived the war. He subsequently returned to Amsterdam, where Gies gave him various documents she had saved from the annex. Among the papers was Anne’s diary, though some of the notebooks were missing, notably most of those from 1943. To fulfill Anne’s dream of publication, Otto began sorting through her writings. The original red-and-white checkered journal became known as the “A” version, while her revised entries, written on loose sheets of paper, were known as the “B” version. The diary that Otto ultimately compiled was the “C” version, which omitted approximately 30 percent of her entries. Much of the excluded text was sexual-related or concerned Anne’s difficulties with her mother.
Anne's already budding literary ambitions were galvanized on 29 March 1944 when she heard a London radio broadcast made by the exiled Dutch Minister for Education, Art, and Science, Gerrit Bolkestein, calling for the preservation of "ordinary documents—a diary, letters ... simple everyday material" to create an archive for posterity as testimony to the suffering of civilians during the Nazi occupation. On May 20, 1944, she notes that she started re-drafting her diary with future readers in mind. She expanded entries and standardized them by addressing all of them to Kitty, clarified situations, prepared a list of pseudonyms, and cut scenes she thought would be of little interest or too intimate for general consumption. By the time she started the second existing volume, she was writing only to Kitty.
The deportation of Jews to the ghettos culminated in the policy of extermination the Nazis called the "Final Solution to the Jewish Question", discussed by senior Nazi officials at the Wannsee Conference in Berlin in January 1942. As German forces captured territories in the East, all anti-Jewish measures were radicalized. Under the coordination of the SS, with directions from the highest leadership of the Nazi Party, killings were committed within Germany itself, throughout occupied Europe, and across all territories controlled by the Axis powers. Paramilitary death squads called Einsatzgruppen, in cooperation with Wehrmacht police battalions and local collaborators, murdered around 1.3 million Jews in mass shootings between 1941 and 1945. By mid-1942, victims were being deported from the ghettos in sealed freight trains to extermination camps where, if they survived the journey, they were killed in gas chambers. The killing continued until the end of World War II in Europe in May 1945.
Meanwhile, Hitler continued his conquest of Europe, invading Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg and France, placing ever-increasing numbers of Jews under Nazi control. The Nazis then began carefully tallying up the actual figures and also required Jews to register all of their assets. But the overall question remained as to what to do with the millions of Jews now under Nazi control - referred to by the Nazis themselves as the Judenfrage (Jewish question).
Defined by the religion of their grandparents rather than by their own beliefs, Jews were viewed as having impure blood lines. The new laws were taught in schools, cementing anti-Semitism in German culture. Most Germans kept quiet, often benefiting when Jews lost jobs and businesses. Persecution of other minorities also escalated: the police were given new powers to arrest homosexuals and compulsory abortions were administered to women considered to be ‘hereditarily ill’.
The British and American governments were reluctant to publicize the intelligence they had received. A BBC Hungarian Service memo, written by Carlile Macartney, a BBC broadcaster and senior Foreign Office adviser on Hungary, stated in 1942: "We shouldn't mention the Jews at all." The British government's view was that the Hungarian people's antisemitism would make them distrust the Allies if Allied broadcasts focused on the Jews. The US government similarly feared turning the war into one about the Jews; antisemitism and isolationism were common in the US before its entry into the war. Although governments and the German public appear to have understood what was happening, it seems the Jews themselves did not. According to Saul Friedländer, "[t]estimonies left by Jews from all over occupied Europe indicate that, in contradistinction to vast segments of surrounding society, the victims did not understand what was ultimately in store for them." In Western Europe, he writes, Jewish communities seem to have failed to piece the information together, while in Eastern Europe, they could not accept that the stories they heard from elsewhere would end up applying to them too.
The superior race was the "Aryans," the Germans. The word Aryan, "derived from the study of linguistics, which started in the eighteenth century and at some point determined that the Indo-Germanic (also known as Aryan) languages were superior in their structures, variety, and vocabulary to the Semitic languages that had evolved in the Near East. This judgment led to a certain conjecture about the character of the peoples who spoke these languages; the conclusion was that the 'Aryan' peoples were likewise superior to the 'Semitic' ones" (Leni Yahil, The Holocaust: The Fate of European Jewry, New York: Oxford University Press, 1990, p. 36).
Life in the ghetto was abominable, and thousands died. There was no medicine. The food ration allowed was a quarter of that available for the Germans, barely enough to allow survival. The water supply was contaminated in many ghettos. Epidemics of tuberculosis, typhoid, and lice were common. Bodies of new victims piled up in the streets faster than they could be carted away. In the Warsaw ghetto, more than 70,000 died of exposure, disease, and starvation during the first two winters. Almost all of those who survived the Warsaw ghetto were either killed when the ghetto was razed in 1943 or died in the death camps.
In one of the most affecting scenes from Out of the Forest, Zeidel circles the area of the old bunker, looking for the entrance. “Everything was demolished,” he tells the camera, finally, shaking his head in frustration. “Everything. Not that I care it was demolished, but I was certain there would be an opening, even if a blocked one, so I could show you the tunnel.” As it turned out, Zeidel had been standing very close to the tunnel; he just couldn’t know it.
The men selected April 15, the darkest night of the month, for the escape. Dogim, the unofficial leader of the group, was first—once he emerged from the tunnel, he would cut a hole in the nearby fence and mark it with a white cloth, so the others would know which direction to run. Farber was second. Motke Zeidel was sixth. The prisoners knew that a group of partisan fighters were holed up nearby, in the Rudnitsky Woods, in a secret camp from which they launched attacks on the Nazi occupiers. “Remember, there is no going back under any circumstances,” Farber reminded his friends. “It is better to die fighting, so just keep moving forward.”
Dr. Mengele was known by all the prisoners because of his good looks and charm. According to Gerald L. Posner and John Ware, the authors of "Mengele, the Complete Story," many of the children in the Birkenau camp "adored Mengele" and called him "Uncle Pepi." This information came from Vera Alexander, a survivor of Birkenau, who said that Dr. Mengele brought chocolate and the most beautiful clothes for the children, including hair ribbons for the little girls.
According to Dr. Hans Münch, a colleague of Mengele’s at Auschwitz, Mengele arrived at the camp in a somewhat privileged position - he had been wounded on the Eastern front and was the recipient of an array of medals, including the Iron Cross. It would also appear that Mengele selected Auschwitz because of the opportunities there to continue his research. According to one source (Lifton, The Nazi Doctors) he did receive financial support for his work there. Support for continuing his professional career in genetics appears in another book, And the Violins Stopped Playing written by Alexander Ramati, where it is reported that a Professor Epstein told a comrade that "he (Mengele) has offered to prolong my life. Mind you, not to save it, just to prolong it, if I prepare a scientific paper on noma, which he would publish under his own name. It will keep him away from the front, he said, and justify his presence here as a scientist."
Olga Lengyel, a prisoner at the Birkenau camp, wrote in her book entitled "Five Chimneys" that she had heard about Dr. Mengele from the other inmates before she saw him. Lengyel wrote that she had heard that Dr. Mengele was "good-looking" but she was surprised by how "really handsome" he was. Lengyel wrote, regarding Dr. Mengele: "Though he was making decisions that meant extermination, he was as pleasantly smug as any man could be."
Unlike the death camps of Treblinka, Chelmno, Sobibor, and Belzec, which were built and operated solely to kill Jews, the two death camps of Maidanek and Auschwitz also had a work camp attached. Upon arrival at these two camps, a selection was made at the train station concerning which Jews (about 10 percent of the arrivals) would be permitted to live and escape immediate gassing in the gas chambers. These “lucky” survivors were permitted to live only to the extent that they endured the physical and emotional trauma inflicted upon them. They were given a food ration that permitted them to survive for only three months. As they died from exhaustion, beatings, and starvation, they were replaced with newly arrived victims. Auschwitz was also used as the site for medical experimentation. Many of these experiments had little scientific value but were only exercises to discover how much torture a victim could endure until death. By the end of 1944, an estimated two-and-a-half million Jews had died at Auschwitz. More than a quarter of a million Gypsies also died there.
As reported in The New York Times in 2015, "When Otto Frank first published his daughter's red-checked diary and notebooks, he wrote a prologue assuring readers that the book mostly contained her words". Although many Holocaust deniers, such as Robert Faurisson, have claimed that Anne Frank's diary was fabricated, critical and forensic studies of the text and the original manuscript have supported its authenticity.
“There is no stopping them [the Jews]. Are there no clear signs that the twilight of the Jews is setting in? No. Jewry’s control of society and politics as well as its domination of religious and ecclesiastical thought is still in the prime of its development. Yes, through the Jewish nation Germany will become a world power, a western new Palestine. And this will happen not through violent revolution but through the compliance of the people. We should not reproach the Jewish nation. It fought against the western world for 1,800 years and finally conquered it. We were vanquished. The Jews were late in their assault on Germany but once started there was no stopping them
While Clauberg and Schumann were busy with experiments designed to develop methods for the biological destruction of people regarded by the Nazis as undesirable, another medical criminal, SS-Hauptsturmführer Josef Mengele, M.D., Ph.D., was researching the issues of twins and the physiology and pathology of dwarfism in close cooperation with the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Anthropology, Genetics, and Eugenics in Berlin-Dahlem. He was also interested in people with different colored irises (heterochromia iridii), and in the etiology and treatment of the gangrenous disease of the face known as noma Faciei (cancrum oris, gangrenous stomatitis), a little understood disease endemic to the Gypsy prisoners in Auschwitz.
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 book of Esther, it has often been remarked, is a quintessentially diasporic text. It takes place entirely outside the Land of Israel and deals with themes that are staples of the diaspora experience: anti-Semitism, Jews passing as Gentiles, the need for a special kind of politics, the issue of Jews who obtain influence in non-Jewish societies, and so forth. The phenomenon of the righteous Gentile is part of this experience, too.
Soviet civilian populations in the occupied areas were heavily persecuted. Villages throughout the Soviet Union were destroyed by German troops. Germans rounded up civilians for forced labor in Germany and caused famine by taking foodstuffs. In Belarus, Germany imposed a regime that deported some 380,000 people for slave labor and killed hundreds of thousands of civilians. Over 600 villages had their entire populations killed, and at least 5,295 Belarusian settlements were destroyed by the Germans. According to Timothy Snyder, of "the nine million people who were in the territory of Soviet Belarus in 1941, some 1.6 million were killed by the Germans in actions away from battlefields, including about 700,000 prisoners of war, 500,000 Jews, and 320,000 people counted as partisans (the vast majority of whom were unarmed civilians)". The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has estimated that 3.3 million of 5.7 million Soviet POWs died in German custody. The death rates decreased as the POWs were needed to help the German war effort; by 1943, half a million had been deployed as slave labor.
To come to the diary without having earlier assimilated Elie Wiesel’s “Night” and Primo Levi’s “The Drowned and the Saved” (to mention two witnesses only), or the columns of figures in the transport books, is to allow oneself to stew in an implausible and ugly innocence. The litany of blurbs—“a lasting testament to the indestructible nobility of the human spirit,” “an everlasting source of courage and inspiration”—is no more substantial than any other display of self-delusion. The success—the triumph—of Bergen-Belsen was precisely that it blotted out the possibility of courage, that it proved to be a lasting testament to the human spirit’s easy destructibility. “Hier ist kein Warum,” a guard at Auschwitz warned: here there is no “why,” neither question nor answer, only the dark of unreason. Anne Frank’s story, truthfully told, is unredeemed and unredeemable.
In the view of Christian Gerlach, Hitler announced his decision to annihilate the Jews on or around 12 December 1941, probably on 12 December during a speech to the Gauleiters, part of the Nazi Party leadership. This was one day after the German declaration of war against the United States, which followed the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour on 7 December and the United States declaration of war on Japan on 8 December. According to Deborah Dwork and Robert Jan van Pelt, Hitler had trusted American Jews, whom he assumed were all-powerful, to keep their government out of the war in the interests of German Jews. When America declared war, the Jews were blamed. Joseph Goebbels, the Reich Minister of Propaganda, noted of Hitler's speech: "He warned the Jews that if they were to cause another world war, it would lead to their destruction. ... Now the world war has come. The destruction of the Jews must be its necessary consequence."[o]
Amit withstood pressure from many members of his staff who were Holocaust survivors or relatives of victims. But others thought he was right. Rafi Eitan, an Israel-born Mossad operative who led the team that caught Eichmann, told me: “Because of the need for foreign-language speakers, many of the Mossad’s recruits were from Europe, and therefore had gone through the Holocaust or lost their families in it. One can definitely understand their need for vengeance. However, there was huge pressure to deal with current requirements, and with the resources being as meager as they were, in no way would it have been right to give the Nazi matter priority.”
At Auschwitz-Birkenau, new arrivals were told to carefully hang their clothing on numbered hooks in the undressing room and were instructed to remember the numbers for later. They were given a piece of soap and taken into the adjacent gas chamber disguised as a large shower room. In place of carbon monoxide, pellets of the commercial pesticide Zyklon-B (prussic acid) were poured into openings located above the chamber upon the cynical SS command - Na, gib ihnen shon zu fressen (All right, give 'em something to chew on). The gas pellets fell into hollow shafts made of perforated sheet metal and vaporized upon contact with air, giving off lethal cyanide fumes inside the chamber which oozed out at floor level then rose up toward the ceiling. Children died first since they were closer to the floor. Pandemonium usually erupted as the bitter almond-like odor of the gas spread upwards with adults climbing on top of each other forming a tangled heap of dead bodies all the way up to the ceiling.
In May 1960, Isser Harel, director of Mossad (the Israeli intelligence agency), personally led the successful effort to capture Adolf Eichmann in Buenos Aires. He was also hoping to track down Mengele, so that he too could be brought to trial in Israel. Under interrogation, Eichmann provided the address of a boarding house that had been used as a safe house for Nazi fugitives. Surveillance of the house did not reveal Mengele or any members of his family, and the neighborhood postman claimed that although Mengele had recently been receiving letters there under his real name, he had since relocated without leaving a forwarding address. Harel's inquiries at a machine shop where Mengele had been part owner also failed to generate any leads, so he was forced to abandon the search.