Nearby, at Auschwitz in adjacent Upper Silesia, a much larger killing complex was constructed. Auschwitz Commandant Rudolf Höss later testified that SS-Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler instructed: “The Führer has ordered the Final Solution of the Jewish question. We, the SS, have to carry out this order. I have therefore chosen Auschwitz for this purpose.”
With the appointment in January 1933 of Adolf Hitler as Chancellor of Germany, and the establishment of the Third Reich, German leaders proclaimed the rebirth of the Volksgemeinschaft ("people's community"). Nazi policies divided the population into two groups: the Volksgenossen ("national comrades") who belonged to the Volksgemeinschaft, and the Gemeinschaftsfremde ("community aliens") who did not. Enemies were divided into three groups: the "racial" or "blood" enemies, such as the Jews and Roma; political opponents of Nazism, such as Marxists, liberals, Christians, and the "reactionaries" viewed as wayward "national comrades"; and moral opponents, such as gay men, the work shy, and habitual criminals. The latter two groups were to be sent to concentration camps for "re-education", with the aim of eventual absorption into the Volksgemeinschaft. "Racial" enemies could never belong to the Volksgemeinschaft; they were to be removed from society.
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.”
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.
Ultimately, one must surely conclude that the unparalleled enormities carried out by the Nazis took place because the First World War destroyed Germany’s traditional elite structure, permitting, in the context of the Depression, the rise of an extremist movement at the absolute fringes of political life which would never otherwise have come to power. Almost precisely the same thing occurred, for the same reasons, in Russia with the Bolshevik revolution and the rise of Stalin to supreme power just over a decade later. In the English-speaking world, fortunately, the legacy of internalized liberalism, enhanced by the fact that its nations were victorious in the First World War and their institutions left intact, kept the traditional governing structures viable and gave radical fringe groups no opportunity to gather political power. Arguably, too, the deep wound of 1914-1918, which caused so many horrors in Europe, was not fully healed until the fall of Communism in 1990, if even then.
On July 17, 1941, four weeks after the invasion of the Soviet Union, Hitler tasked SS chief Heinrich Himmler with responsibility for all security matters in the occupied Soviet Union. Hitler gave Himmler broad authority to physically eliminate any perceived threats to permanent German rule. Two weeks later, on July 31, 1941, Nazi leader Hermann Goering authorized SS General Reinhard Heydrich to make preparations for the implementation of a "complete solution of the Jewish question."
Meanwhile, Zvi Aharoni, one of the Mossad agents who had been involved in the Eichmann capture, was placed in charge of a team of agents tasked with tracking down Mengele and bringing him to trial in Israel. Their inquiries in Paraguay revealed no clues to his whereabouts, and they were unable to intercept any correspondence between Mengele and his wife Martha, who was then living in Italy. Agents that were following Rudel's movements also failed to produce any leads. Aharoni and his team followed Gerhard to a rural area near São Paulo, where they identified a European man whom they believed to be Mengele. This potential breakthrough was reported to Harel, but the logistics of staging a capture, the budgetary constraints of the search operation, and the priority of focusing on Israel's deteriorating relationship with Egypt led the Mossad chief to call off the hunt for Mengele in 1962.
In 1942, Auschwitz II (Birkenau), originally intended to house slave laborers, began to be used instead as a combined labor camp and extermination camp. Prisoners were transported there by rail from all over German-occupied Europe, arriving in daily convoys. By July 1942, SS doctors were conducting "selections" where incoming Jews were segregated, and those considered able to work were admitted into the camp while those deemed unfit for labor were immediately killed in the gas chambers. The arrivals that were selected to die, about three-quarters of the total,[a] included almost all children, women with small children, pregnant women, all the elderly, and all of those who appeared (in a brief and superficial inspection by an SS doctor) to be not completely fit and healthy.