To murder the Jews of "Greater Germany" as well as Jews residing in German-occupied or German-influenced areas of western, southern, southeastern and northern Europe, Himmler designated Auschwitz II (Auschwitz-Birkenau) in the spring of 1942 as a killing facility. Auschwitz-Birkenau, along with the Auschwitz main camp, was subordinated to the Inspectorate of Concentration Camps in Berlin. Originally planned as a vast forced-labor camp for Soviet prisoners of war and, later for Jewish forced laborers, Auschwitz-Birkenau began to operate as a killing center in the spring of 1942. The SS authorities murdered approximately one million Jews from various European countries at Auschwitz-Birkenau, including Jews from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Norway, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxemburg, German-occupied western and southwestern Poland, Yugoslavia, Greece, Italy, and Hungary.
It was Yad Vashem—the institution whose name derives from the same passage in Isaiah—that first popularized the term “righteous among the nations” to refer to those Gentiles who rescued Jews during the Holocaust, often risking their own lives in the process. While Isaiah apparently had in mind Gentiles who related to God in a righteous way, and not necessarily through their relations specifically with Jews, the singling-out of Harbonah focuses our attention on those who exert themselves to protect Jews. In commemorating such people, Yad Vashem has given them, too, “a place and a name” in the original sense of that phrase.
“The final solution transcended the bounds of modern historical experience. Never before in modern history had one people made the killing of another the fulfillment of an ideology, in whose pursuit means were identical with ends. History has, to be sure, recorded terrible massacres and destructions that one people perpetrated against another. But all, however cruel and unjustifiable, were intended to achieve an instrumental ends, being means to ends and not ends in and of themselves.” (3)
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.
Medical experiments conducted on camp inmates by the SS were another distinctive feature. At least 7,000 prisoners were subjected to experiments; most died as a result, during the experiments or later. Twenty-three senior physicians and other medical personnel were charged at Nuremberg, after the war, with crimes against humanity. They included the head of the German Red Cross, tenured professors, clinic directors, and biomedical researchers. Experiments took place at Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Dachau, Natzweiler-Struthof, Neuengamme, Ravensbrück, Sachsenhausen, and elsewhere. Some dealt with sterilization of men and women, the treatment of war wounds, ways to counteract chemical weapons, research into new vaccines and drugs, and the survival of harsh conditions.
Polish gentiles who rescued Jews had several obstacles to overcome. The most serious were the German laws against protecting Jews and the corresponding obligation to identify those who violated these laws. On 15 October 1941, the Nazis introduced a widely publicized law making unauthorized Jewish movement outside ghettos a crime punishable by death. The same punishment applied to gentiles who helped Jews escape. Transgressions were promptly followed by executions that were also widely publicized.
The reference to Haman’s wife Zeresh, who plays only a supporting role in the book of Esther, can be chalked up to poetic license—a female villain in counterpoint to the story’s heroine. But what of Harbonah, a decidedly minor character mentioned only once in the entire book, and whose appearance in the poem’s final verse breaks the stanza’s metrical form and rhyme scheme? And what of the epithet “to be remembered for the good”?
On January 20, 1942, Reinhard Heydrich convened the Wannsee Conference at a lakeside villa in Berlin to organize the “final solution to the Jewish question.” Around the table were 15 men representing government agencies necessary to implement so bold and sweeping a policy. The language of the meeting was clear, but the meeting notes were circumspect:
To the Nazi regime, there would have been no doubt that a war against Bolshevism was implicitly a war against the Jewish population of the Soviet Union. A division of Hitler’s SS known as the Einsatzgruppen traveled behind the German army and acted as death squads, exterminating civilian populations in the most efficient way possible. During the early part of Operation Barbarossa these were frequently people who had fled the Nazi’s earlier invasion of Poland.
In response to a typhus epidemic in the women's camp, Mengele cleared one block of six hundred Jewish women and sent them to their deaths in the gas chambers. The building was then cleaned and disinfected, and the occupants of a neighboring block were bathed, de-loused, and given new clothing before being moved into the clean block. This process was repeated until all of the barracks were disinfected. Similar procedures were used for later epidemics of scarlet fever and other diseases, with infected prisoners being killed in the gas chambers. For these actions, Mengele was awarded the War Merit Cross (Second Class with swords) and was promoted in 1944 to First Physician of the Birkenau subcamp.
Resistance movements also helped Jews. Sometimes, this aid was intended to help the Jews; often it was rendered in the context of the general anti-Nazi resistance. In Yugoslavia, Serbian partisans attacked a concentration camp near Nish in 1941, freeing a small number of Jews. On April 19, 1943, the Committee for Jewish Defense, aided by Christian railroad workers, attacked a Belgian transport leaving Malines for Auschwitz. Several hundred Jewish deportees escaped with the help of the Belgian resistance.
Historians differ on the date of the decision to murder Jews systematically, the so-called “final solution to the Jewish question.” There is debate about whether there was one central decision or a series of regional decisions in response to local conditions. In either case, when Germany attacked the Soviet Union, its former ally, in June of 1941, the Nazis began the systematic killing of Jews.
From the earliest years of the Nazi regime, German authorities persecuted homosexuals and others whose behavior did not match prescribed social norms. German police officials targeted thousands of political opponents (including Communists, Socialists, and trade unionists) and religious dissidents (such as Jehovah's Witnesses). Many of these individuals died as a result of incarceration and maltreatment.
There is no postwar institution specializing in either World War II or the Holocaust that has collected systematic data about the righteous or about Christian-Jewish relations during the war years. Postwar historiography has given scant attention to this subject, except for biographies of heroes like Raoul Wallenberg in Budapest. Individual episodes are recorded in numerous published memoirs or hidden within the histories of the Jewish communities under German occupation. Others are found in some survivor testimonies, oral histories, and depositions.
Anne Frank’s final diary entry, written on August 1, 1944, ends introspectively—a meditation on a struggle for moral transcendence set down in a mood of wistful gloom. It speaks of “turning my heart inside out, the bad part on the outside and the good part on the inside,” and of “trying to find a way to become what I’d like to be and what I could be if . . . if only there were no other people in the world.” Those curiously self-subduing ellipses are the diarist’s own; they are more than merely a literary effect—they signify a child’s muffled bleat against confinement, the last whimper of a prisoner in a cage. Her circumscribed world had a population of eleven—the three Dutch protectors who came and went, supplying the necessities of life, and the eight in hiding: the van Daans, their son Peter, Albert Dussel, and the four Franks. Five months earlier, on May 26, 1944, she had railed against the stress of living invisibly—a tension never relieved, she asserted, “not once in the two years we’ve been here. How much longer will this increasingly oppressive, unbearable weight press down on us?” And, several paragraphs on, “What will we do if we’re ever . . . no, I mustn’t write that down. But the question won’t let itself be pushed to the back of my mind today; on the contrary, all the fear I’ve ever felt is looming before me in all its horror. . . . I’ve asked myself again and again whether it wouldn’t have been better if we hadn’t gone into hiding, if we were dead now and didn’t have to go through this misery. . . . Let something happen soon. . . . Nothing can be more crushing than this anxiety. Let the end come, however cruel.” And on April 11, 1944; “We are Jews in chains.”
Upon arrival at a camp, the inmates were usually stripped of all their valuables and clothes. They were then shorn of body hair, disinfected, given a shower, and issued a striped prison uniform without regard to size. Each step of the process was designed to dehumanize the prisoners, both physically and emotionally. Each prisoner was given a number. At Auschwitz, for example, the number was tattooed on the arm, but some camps did not tattoo their inmates.
In June 1941, Mengele was posted to Ukraine, where he was awarded the Iron Cross 2nd Class. In January 1942, he joined the 5th SS Panzer Division Wiking as a battalion medical officer. After rescuing two German soldiers from a burning tank, he was decorated with the Iron Cross 1st Class, the Wound Badge in Black, and the Medal for the Care of the German People. He was declared unfit for further active service in mid-1942, when he was seriously wounded in action near Rostov-on-Don. Following his recovery, he was transferred to the headquarters of the SS Race and Settlement Main Office in Berlin, at which point he resumed his association with von Verschuer, who was now director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Anthropology, Human Heredity, and Eugenics. Mengele was promoted to the rank of SS-Hauptsturmführer (captain) in April 1943.