On May 19th, 1939, the S.S. St. Louis sailed from Hamburg, Germany to Havana, Cuba with 937 passengers; almost all of them were Jews escaping with their lives. This was one of the last ships that left Germany before the outbreak of World War II. Most of the passengers had applied for U.S. visas and were only planning on staying in Cuba until they could enter into the United States. The U.S. State Department in Washington, the U.S. consulate in Havana, and the owner of the St. Louis were aware that they might not be able to enter Cuba, but the passengers were never told.
The following year, 1941, would be the turning point. In June, Hitler took a tremendous military gamble by invading the Soviet Union. Before the invasion he had summoned his top generals and told them the attack on Russia would be a ruthless "war of annihilation" targeting Communists and Jews and that normal rules of military conflict were to be utterly ignored.
The hero, or irritant (depending on which side of the controversy one favors), in the genesis of the diary’s dramatization was Meyer Levin, a Chicago-born novelist of the social-realist school, the author of such fairly successful works as “The Old Bunch,” “Compulsion,” and “The Settlers.” Levin began as a man of the left, though a strong anti-Stalinist: he was drawn to proletarian fiction (“Citizens,” about steelworkers), and had gone to Spain in the thirties to report on the Civil War. In 1945, as a war correspondent attached to the Fourth Armored Division, he was among the first Americans to enter Buchenwald, Dachau, and Bergen-Belsen. What he saw there was ungraspable and unendurable. “As I groped in the first weeks, beginning to apprehend the monstrous shape of the story I would have to tell,” he wrote, “I knew already that I would never penetrate its heart of bile, for the magnitude of this horror seemed beyond human register.” The truest telling, he affirmed, would have to rise up out of the mouth of a victim.
Several resistance groups were formed, such as the Jewish Combat Organization in the Warsaw Ghetto and the United Partisan Organization in Vilna. Over 100 revolts and uprisings occurred in at least 19 ghettos and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. The best known is the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943, when around 1,000 poorly armed Jewish fighters held the SS at bay for four weeks.[q] During a revolt in Treblinka on 2 August 1943, inmates killed five or six guards and set fire to camp buildings; several managed to escape. In the Białystok Ghetto on 16 August 1943, Jewish insurgents fought for five days when the Germans announced mass deportations. On 14 October 1943, Jewish prisoners in Sobibór, including Jewish-Soviet prisoners of war, attempted an escape, killing 11 SS officers and a couple of Ukrainian camp guards. Around 300 escaped, but 100 were recaptured and shot. On 7 October 1944, 300 Jewish members of the Sonderkommando at Auschwitz, who learned they were about to be killed, attacked their guards and blew up crematorium IV. Three SS officers were killed, one of whom was stuffed into an oven, as was a German kapo. None of the Sonderkommando rebels survived the uprising.
The Germans' overwhelming repression and the presence of many collaborators in the various local populations severely limited the ability of the Jews to resist. Jewish resistance did occur, however, in several forms. Staying alive, clean, and observing Jewish religious traditions constituted resistance under the dehumanizing conditions imposed by the Nazis. Other forms of resistance involved escape attempts from the ghettos and camps. Many who succeeded in escaping the ghettos lived in the forests and mountains in family camps and in fighting partisan units. Once free, though, the Jews had to contend with local residents and partisan groups who were often openly hostile. Jews also staged armed revolts in the ghettos of Vilna, Bialystok, Bedzin-Sosnowiec, krakow, and Warsaw.
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.
Further trials at Nuremberg took place between 1946 and 1949, which tried another 185 defendants. West Germany initially tried few ex-Nazis, but after the 1958 Ulm Einsatzkommando trial, the government set up a governmental agency to investigate crimes. Other trials of Nazis and collaborators took place in Western and Eastern Europe. In 1960, Mossad agents captured Adolf Eichmann in Argentina and brought him to Israel to stand trial on 15 indictments, including war crimes, crimes against humanity, and crimes against the Jewish people. He was convicted in December 1961 and executed in June 1962. Eichmann's trial and death revived interest in war criminals and the Holocaust in general.
Most of the book is about the privations and hardship of living hidden away in the "annex". There is very little coverage of the violence of the times or much that is going on in the outside world because they had little knowledge of it since they were hidden. I think this is partly why some schoolchildren report the diary is boring. It does get repetitive at times, which reflects the feelings of those living in hiding. They had to wait and wait in fear, not knowing what the next day would bring.
In 1944, Josiah DuBois, Jr. wrote a memorandum to then-Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr. entitled “Report to the Secretary on the Acquiescence of This Government in the Murder of the Jews”, which condemned the bureaucratic interference of U.S. State Department policies in obstructing the evacuation of Holocaust Refugees from Romania and Occupied France. The Report would spur the Roosevelt administration to create the War Refugee Board later that year.
We might recall (see Part 53) that it was one of Germany’s biggest thinkers of the 19th century—Wilhelm Marr—who coined the term “anti-Semitism.” In so doing he wanted to distinguish hatred of the Jews as members of a religion (anti-Judaism) from hatred of the Jews as members of a race/nation (anti-Semitism). In 1879, he wrote a book called The Victory of Judaism over Germandom, a runaway best-seller; in it Marr warned:
As the war continued, the rescuers learned to adapt and work around the Nazi network of informers and collaborators. However, they were never able to develop effective strategies to combat the Nazis’ rapid organization of mass deportations and population transfers. As the war progressed, rescuers were able to identify sympathetic local groups, individuals, and organizations in every country of occupied Europe; for example, low-level clergymen, Socialists, Communists, and nationalist anti-Nazis. At all times, however, the success of Jewish rescue depended upon fate and chance.
Over the decades that followed, ordinary Germans struggled with the Holocaust’s bitter legacy, as survivors and the families of victims sought restitution of wealth and property confiscated during the Nazi years. Beginning in 1953, the German government made payments to individual Jews and to the Jewish people as a way of acknowledging the German people’s responsibility for the crimes committed in their name.
Walking the grounds of the memorial site, I arrived with Freund at the lip of the pit that had housed the bunker where Zeidel and the other members of the Burning Brigade had lived. The circumference was tremendous, nearly 200 feet in total. On its grassy floor, the Vilna Gaon Museum had erected a model of a double-sided ramp that the Burning Brigade had used to drop bodies onto the pyres.
Ghettos were intended to be temporary until the Jews were deported to other locations, which never happened. Instead, the inhabitants were sent to extermination camps. The ghettos were, in effect, immensely crowded prisons serving as instruments of "slow, passive murder." Though the Warsaw Ghetto contained 30% of Warsaw's population, it occupied only 2.5% of the city's area, averaging over 9 people per room. Between 1940 and 1942, starvation and disease, especially typhoid, killed many in the ghettos. Over 43,000 Warsaw ghetto residents, or one in ten of the total population, died in 1941; in Theresienstadt, more than half the residents died in 1942.
No doubt exists that Mengele was a very active commandant of the Auschwitz camp after he arrived there in 1943. Most doctors who have testified and prisoners who have testified have indicated he was ubiquitous, and, indeed, stories do exist of his selection activities and of his medical involvement. The Frankfurt Court which indicted him charged him with "hideous crimes" committed alone or with others "willfully and with bloodlust". Included in the crimes against humanity were selections, lethal injections, shootings, beatings and other forms of deliberate killing. He was religiously involved in all aspects, but particularly in the twins experiments, according to members of C.A.N.D.L.E.S., twins who survived the experiments.
The unstoppable Allied military advance continued and on July 24, 1944, Soviet troops liberated the first camp, Majdanek in eastern Poland, where over 360,000 had died. As the Soviet Army neared Auschwitz, Himmler ordered the complete destruction of the gas chambers. Throughout Hitler's crumbling Reich, the SS now began conducting death marches of surviving concentration camp inmates away from outlying areas, including some 66,000 from Auschwitz. Most of the inmates on these marches either dropped dead from exertion or were shot by the SS when they failed to keep up with the column.
Following the invasion of Poland, German occupation policy especially targeted the Jews but also brutalized non-Jewish Poles. In pursuit of lebensraum, Germany sought systematically to destroy Polish society and nationhood. The Nazis killed Polish priests and politicians, decimated the Polish leadership, and kidnapped the children of the Polish elite, who were raised as “voluntary Aryans” by their new German “parents.” Many Poles were also forced to perform hard labour on survival diets, were deprived of property and uprooted, and were interned in concentration camps.
His grip on German society tightened and those who publicly objected to Nazi policies were often sentenced to hard labour in the rapidly expanding concentration camp system. Jews were subjected to further laws restricting their rights, but rising anti-Semitism in Europe wasn’t limited to Germany. In the UK, Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists gained support from sections of the public and press, even filling the Royal Albert Hall in April.
Jewish refugees were the subject of two international conferences, at Evian in 1938 and Bermuda in 1943. Neither conference resulted in any concrete action. In general, Britain treated refugees from Nazi Germany as economic migrants, and took in only those who would be of economic benefit to the country. About 10,000 Jewish children were brought to Britain in 1939 under the Kindertransport scheme, and placed with British families, but their parents were excluded and had to pay for their children's support. The best that can be said for Britain's refugee policy is that it was less ungenerous than that of most other European states at the time.
Mengele's work also involved carrying out selections, a task that he chose to perform even when he was not assigned to do so, in the hope of finding subjects for his experiments, with a particular interest in locating sets of twins. In contrast to most of the other SS doctors, who viewed selections as one of their most stressful and unpleasant duties, he undertook the task with a flamboyant air, often smiling or whistling a tune. He was also one of the SS doctors responsible for supervising the administration of Zyklon B, the cyanide-based pesticide that was used for the mass killings in the Birkenau gas chambers. He served in this capacity at the gas chambers located in crematoria IV and V.