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.
The Diary of Anne Frank is the first, and sometimes only, exposure many people have to the history of the Holocaust. Meticulously handwritten during her two years in hiding, Anne's diary remains one of the most widely read works of nonfiction in the world. Anne has become a symbol for the lost promise of the more than one million Jewish children who died in the Holocaust.
Even before the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, they had made no secret of their anti-Semitism. As early as 1919 Adolf Hitler had written, “Rational anti-Semitism, however, must lead to systematic legal opposition.…Its final objective must unswervingly be the removal of the Jews altogether.” In Mein Kampf (“My Struggle”; 1925–27), Hitler further developed the idea of the Jews as an evil race struggling for world domination. Nazi anti-Semitism was rooted in religious anti-Semitism and enhanced by political anti-Semitism. To this the Nazis added a further dimension: racial anti-Semitism. Nazi racial ideology characterized the Jews as Untermenschen (German: “subhumans”). The Nazis portrayed the Jews as a race and not as a religious group. Religious anti-Semitism could be resolved by conversion, political anti-Semitism by expulsion. Ultimately, the logic of Nazi racial anti-Semitism led to annihilation.
Once Germany took over Poland in 1939, it created forced-labor camps. Thousands of prisoners died from working conditions, exhaustion, and starvation. After the outbreak of World War II, the number of concentration camps increased exponentially. The number of prisoners of war camps also rose, but after the first years of the war most were converted into concentration camps. Nazis forcibly relocated Jews from ghettos to concentration camps.
As the unsuspecting people were herded off the train and ordered into separate lines, SS officers shouted in German, "Zwillinge!" (Twins!). Parents were forced to make a quick decision. Unsure of their situation, already being separated from family members when forced to form lines, seeing barbed wire, smelling an unfamiliar stench -- was it good or bad to be a twin?
No play can be judged wholly from what is on the page; a play has evocative powers beyond the words. Still, the Hacketts’ work, read today, is very much a conventionally well made Broadway product of the fifties, alternating comical beats with scenes of alarm, a love story with a theft, wisdom with buffoonery. The writing is skilled and mediocre, not unlike much of contemporary commercial theatre. Yet this is the play that electrified audiences everywhere, that became a reverential if robotlike film, and that—far more than the diary—invented the world’s Anne Frank. Was it the play, or was it the times? The upcoming revival of the Hacketts’ dramatization—promising revisions incorporating passages Otto Frank deleted from the diary—will no doubt stimulate all the old quarrelsome issues yet again. But with the Second World War and the Holocaust receding, especially for the young, into distant fable—no different from tales, say, of Attila the Hun—the revival enters an environment psychologically altered from that of the 1955 production. At the same time, Holocaust scholarship survivor memoirs, oral histories, wave after wave of fresh documentation and analysis—has increased prodigiously. At Harvard, for instance, under the rubric “reception studies,” a young scholar named Alex Sagan, a relative of the late astronomer, is examining the ways Anne Frank has been transmuted into, among other cultural manifestations, a heavenly body. And Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List,” about a Nazi industrialist as savior, has left its mark.
A memorandum dated July 31, 1941, from Hitler’s top commander Hermann Goering to Reinhard Heydrich, chief of the SD (the security service of the SS), referred to the need for an Endlösung (final solution) to “the Jewish question.” Beginning in September 1941, every person designated as a Jew in German-held territory was marked with a yellow star, making them open targets. Tens of thousands were soon being deported to the Polish ghettoes and German-occupied cities in the USSR.
By the spring of 1945, German leadership was dissolving amid internal dissent, with Goering and Himmler both seeking to distance themselves from Hitler and take power. In his last will and political testament, dictated in a German bunker that April 29, Hitler blamed the war on “International Jewry and its helpers” and urged the German leaders and people to follow “the strict observance of the racial laws and with merciless resistance against the universal poisoners of all peoples”–the Jews. The following day, he committed suicide. Germany’s formal surrender in World War II came barely a week later, on May 8, 1945.
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)
A victim of Nazi medical experimentation. A victim's arm shows a deep burn from phosphorus at Ravensbrueck, Germany, in November of 1943. The photograph shows the results of a medical experiment dealing with phosphorous that was carried out by doctors at Ravensbrueck. In the experiment, a mixture of phosphorus and rubber was applied to the skin and ignited. After twenty seconds, the fire was extinguished with water. After three days, the burn was treated with Echinacin in liquid form. After two weeks the wound had healed. This photograph, taken by a camp physician, was entered as evidence during the Doctors Trial at Nuremberg. #
For the first time, it’s possible to say why the Mossad failed to apprehend the man who was perhaps the most wanted Nazi to survive World War II. Documents and interviews reveal that contrary to popular belief, for most of the time that Mengele was in hiding, the Mossad wasn’t looking for him at all — or placed finding him far down its to-do list. My new research sheds light on a time when realism and maturity shaped the agency’s priorities, rather than an understandable desire to spill Nazi blood.
In October 1941, Himmler authorized SS General Odilo Globocnik (SS and police leader for the Lublin District of the Generalgouvernement) to implement a plan to systematically murder all Jews residing in the Generalgouvernement. In 1942, this project received the code name "Operation Reinhard" (Einsatz Reinhard), a reference to Heydrich (who had been authorized to manage the implementation of the "Final Solution" and who was assassinated by Czech agents in May 1942 in Prague).
In Lvov, the Metropolitan Andreas Sheptitsky defended the Jews against the Nazis, and he and his Ukrainian compatriots hid about 150 Jews in monasteries in eastern Galicia. Furthermore, the French Huguenot Pastor Andre Trocme converted the small French Protestant village of Le Chambon into a mountain hideout for 1,000 Jewish persecutees. Le Chambon was as unique as the mass rescue of Danish Jews, because the entire town supported the rescue and accepted arrest and torture rather than betray the Jews they hid.
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When she was 17, Amir took a class about the Holocaust. “How did you escape, Papa?” she remembers asking afterward. He agreed to explain, but what he recounted were mostly technical details: the size of the bunker, the number of bodies consumed by the flames. He explained that in addition to the five men who had fled with him to the Rudnitsky Woods, six other members of the Burning Brigade had survived the escape. The rest had perished.
Although many people responded with obstructionism and doubt, several rescue operations were run throughout Axis-controlled Europe. Some were the work of prominent individuals like Raoul Wallenberg and Carl Lutz who worked largely alone while other operations were far more complex. A network of Catholic bishops and clergymen organized local protests and shelter campaigns throughout much of Europe that are today estimated to have saved 860,000 lives. Danish fishermen clandestinely ferried more than 7,000 Jews into neutral Sweden while the French town of Chambon-sur-Lignon sheltered between 3,000 and 5,000 refugees.
One of the clearest examples of Hitler’s single-minded (and seemingly suicidal) desire to rid the world of the Jews can be seen in the extermination of the Jews of Hungary. Until March of 1944, the Hungarian government had refused to allow the deportation of Hungarian Jews. It March 1944 the Germans occupied Hungary and by mid May ( two weeks before D Day) the mass deportations to Auschwitz. The Nazi leadership worked with particular intensity. The Soviet army was rapidly approaching Hungary and the Germans knew that they were going to lose the war. But there was no way that Hitler could allow such a large Jewish community to survive. He diverted trains that were badly needed to transport more soldiers to the Russian front just to send more Jews to Auschwitz. To him, the greater enemy was the Jew.
3. On 25th December 1943, I was sick with typhus and was picked out at a selection made by doctors Mengele and Tauber along with about 350 other women. I was made to undress and taken by lorry to a gas chamber. There were seven gas chambers at Auschwitz. This particular one was underground and the lorry was able to run down the slope and straight into the chamber.
Some Germans, even some Nazis, dissented from the murder of the Jews and came to their aid. The most famous was Oskar Schindler, a Nazi businessman, who had set up operations using involuntary labour in German-occupied Poland in order to profit from the war. Eventually, he moved to protect his Jewish workers from deportation to extermination camps. In all occupied countries, there were individuals who came to the rescue of Jews, offering a place to hide, some food, or shelter for days or weeks or even for the duration of the war. Most of the rescuers did not see their actions as heroic but felt bound to the Jews by a common sense of humanity. Israel later recognized rescuers with honorary citizenship and commemoration at Yad Vashem, Israel’s memorial to the Holocaust.
The Majdanek camp served from time to time as a killing site for Jews residing in the Generalgouvernement. In its gas chambers, the SS killed tens of thousands of Jews, primarily forced laborers too weak to work. The SS and police killed at least 152,000 people, mostly Jews, but also a few thousand Roma (Gypsies), in gas vans at the Chelmno killing center about thirty miles northwest of Lodz. In the spring of 1942, Himmler designated Auschwitz II (Auschwitz-Birkenau) as a killing facility. SS authorities murdered approximately one million Jews from various European countries at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
The Third Reich first used concentration camps as places of unlawful incarceration of political opponents and other "enemies of the state". Large numbers of Jews were not sent there until after Kristallnacht in November 1938. Although death rates were high, the camps were not designed as killing centers. After war broke out in 1939, new camps were established, some outside Germany in occupied Europe. In January 1945, the SS reports had over 700,000 prisoners in their control, of which close to half had died by the end of May 1945 according to most historians. Most wartime prisoners of the camps were not Germans but belonged to countries under German occupation.
The twin goals of racial purity and spatial expansion were the core of Hitler’s worldview, and from 1933 onward they would combine to form the driving force behind his foreign and domestic policy. At first, the Nazis reserved their harshest persecution for political opponents such as Communists or Social Democrats. The first official concentration camp opened at Dachau (near Munich) in March 1933, and many of the first prisoners sent there were Communists.
When exactly Hitler settled on straightforward murder as a means of removal has been harder to pinpoint. As Yale historian Timothy Snyder writes, “It cannot be stressed enough that the Nazis did not know how to eradicate the Jews when they began the war against the Soviet Union [in the summer of 1941]… They could not be confident that SS men would shoot women and children in large numbers.” But as Operation Barbarossa, the name for the Nazi invasion of the U.S.S.R, proved during the mass shootings of June 1941 and the massacres at Kiev in September, the Order Police and Einsatzgrüppen were more than willing to commit mass murders. This meant Hitler could take the solution to the Jewish problem to its “furthest extremes,” in the words of Philipp Bouhler, the senior Nazi official responsible for the euthanasia program that killed more than 70,000 handicapped German people.
Another survivor of Auschwitz-Birkenau was Regina Bialek, a Polish political prisoner, who was saved from the gas chamber at the last moment by Dr. Josef Mengele. Bialek gave a deposition which was entered into the British Trial of Josef Kramer and Forty-Four Others, also known as The Belsen Trial, which took place in 1945 after the end of World War II. According to Bialek's testimony, the gassing of the Jews at Birkenau did not stop, even on Christmas day.
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".
Mengele sailed to Argentina in July 1949, assisted by a network of former SS members. He initially lived in and around Buenos Aires, then fled to Paraguay in 1959 and Brazil in 1960, while being sought by West Germany, Israel, and Nazi hunters such as Simon Wiesenthal who wanted to bring him to trial. He eluded capture in spite of extradition requests by the West German government and clandestine operations by the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad. He drowned in 1979 after suffering a stroke while swimming off the Brazilian coast, and was buried under a false name. His remains were disinterred and positively identified by forensic examination in 1985.