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.
Bartoszewski was a founder of the Polish resistance who organized an underground organization, comprised mostly of Catholics, to help save Jews. He worked to provide false documents to Jews living outside the Warsaw ghetto. In the fall of 1942, he helped found an organization (Council for Aid to Jews) which successfully saved many Jews from the gas chambers. Bartoszweski was actually imprisoned in the Auschwitz Concentration Camp between 1940 and 1941, and after his release was secured by the Red Cross he reported on the camp.
Their decency exposed them to the dangers of discovery and denunciation. If caught, they faced torture, deportation to concentration camps, or execution. Their behavior was atypical even in their own communities, where the attitude of the majority was characterized by inertia, indifference, and open complicity in the persecution and mass murder of Europe’s Jews.
The digging got underway the first night in February 1944, in a storeroom at the back of the bunker. To disguise their efforts, the prisoners erected a fake wall over the tunnel’s entrance, with “two boards hanging on loose nails that would come out with a good tug, making it possible to pass through,” Farber recalled in The Complete Black Book of Russian Jewry, a compilation of eyewitness testimonies, letters and other documents of the Nazi campaign against Jews in Eastern Europe published in part in 1944 and translated into English in 2001.
Hitler’s understanding of the role of the Jews in the world was not warped. His was, in fact, the traditional Jewish understanding. When the Jews accepted the Torah at Mt. Sinai, they became the chosen people whose role and responsibility was to bring a God-given code of morality to the world. They were to be “the light unto the nations” in the words of prophet Isaiah.
On March 28, 1944, a radio broadcast from the Dutch government-in-exile in London urged the Dutch people to keep diaries, letters, and other items that would document life under German occupation. Prompted by this announcement, Anne began to edit her diary, hoping to publish it after the war under the title "The Secret Annex." From May 20 until her arrest on August 4, 1944, she transferred nearly two-thirds of her diary from her original notebooks to loose pages, making various revisions in the process.
Mengele fled Germany to Argentina in 1948, using false documents given to him by the Red Cross. (According to the Mossad’s file, the organization was aware that it was helping a Nazi criminal escape justice.) In Buenos Aires, he lived at first under an assumed name, but later reverted to his own name. He even had a nameplate on his door: Dr. Josef Mengele.
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:
Zeidel had spent the previous two years in German-occupied Vilnius, in the city’s walled-off Jewish ghetto. He’d watched as the Nazis sent first hundreds and then thousands of Jews by train or truck or on foot to a camp in the forest. A small number of people managed to flee the camp, and they returned with tales of what they’d seen: rows of men and women machine-gunned down at close range. Mothers pleading for the lives of their children. Deep earthen pits piled high with corpses. And a name: Ponar.
Before the “Final Solution” was devised to murder all Jews in Nazi jurisdiction, the scheme the Nazis planned to rid their land of the Jews was forced emigration. In 1940, plans were devised by the Nazis to ship all Jews under Nazi control to Madagascar, an island in the Indian Ocean. It was not until 1941 that Nazi bureaucrats were referring to the “Final Solution” (Gesamtlosung) in the context of genocide rather than a “Territorial Final Solution” (territoriale Endlosung) in the context of forced emigration. Some historians believe that the Madagascar Plan was a smokescreen for Hitler’s desire to murder European Jewry (see page 62 of Marrus’ The Holocaust in History).
After Kristallnacht, Jewish businesses were expropriated, private employers were urged to sack Jewish employees, and offices were set up to speed emigration. Imprisoned Jews could buy freedom if they promised to leave the country, abandoning their assets. By the outbreak of war in September 1939, half of Germany's 500,000 Jews had fled, as had many Jews from Austria and the German-occupied parts of Czechoslovakia.
Of the six million Poles murdered by the Nazis, half were Polish Christians. The Nazis considered the Poles and other Slavic peoples to be sub-human destined to serve as slaves to the Aryan “master race.” The Polish intelligentsia and political leadership was sought out specifically for execution, and other Polish civilians were slaughtered indiscriminately. Among the dead were more than 2,600 Catholic priests.
Throughout Nazi-occupied Europe, relatively few non-Jewish persons were willing to risk their own lives to help the Jews. Notable exceptions included Oskar Schindler, a German who saved 1,200 Jews by moving them from Plaszow labor camp to his hometown of Brunnlitz. The Nazi-occupied nation of Denmark rescued nearly its entire population of Jews, over 7,000, by transporting them to safety by sea. Italy and Bulgaria both refused to cooperate with Nazi demands for deportations. Elsewhere in Europe, people generally stood by passively and watched as their neighbors were marched through the streets toward waiting trains, or in some cases, actively participated in Nazi roundups.
By now, experimental mobile gas vans were being used by the Einsatzgruppen to kill Jews in Russia. Special trucks had been converted by the SS into portable gas chambers. Jews were locked up in the air-tight rear container while exhaust fumes from the truck's engine were fed in to suffocate them. However, this method was found to be somewhat impractical since the average capacity was less than 50 persons. For the time being, the quickest killing method continued to be mass shootings. And as Hitler's troops advanced deep into the Soviet Union, the pace of Einsatz killings accelerated. Over 33,000 Jews in the Ukraine were shot in the Babi Yar ravine near Kiev during two days in September 1941.
After the war, Mengele escaped internment and went underground, serving for four years as a farm stableman near Rosenheim in Bavaria. Then he reportedly escaped, via Genoa, Italy, to South America in 1949. He married (for a second time) under his own name in Uruguay in 1958 and, as “José Mengele,” received citizenship in Paraguay in 1959. In 1961 he apparently moved to Brazil, reportedly becoming friends with an old-time Nazi, Wolfgang Gerhard, and living in a succession of houses owned by a Hungarian couple. In 1985 a team of Brazilian, West German, and American forensic experts determined that Mengele had taken Gerhard’s identity, died in 1979 of a stroke while swimming, and was buried under Gerhard’s name. Dental records later confirmed the forensic conclusion.
In the years of Nazi rule before World War II, policies of persecution and segregation targeting German Jews focused on the goal of expulsion. After the Nazi party seized power in 1933, state-sponsored racism generated anti-Jewish legislation, boycotts, "Aryanization," and massive street violence, as in the Kristallnacht (commonly known as the "Night of Broken Glass") pogroms. With all of these measures, the Nazi leaders sought to drive the Jews out of Germany by systematically isolating them from German society and by eliminating them from the German economy, removing any opportunity for them to make a living in Germany.
Shipments of Jews to the camps had priority over anything but the army's needs on the German railways, and continued even in the face of the increasingly dire military situation at the end of 1942. Army leaders and economic managers complained about this diversion of resources and the killing of skilled Jewish workers, but Nazi leaders rated ideological imperatives above economic considerations.
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.
I confess to feeling slightly voyeuristic while reading this. It was constantly in the back of my mind that this was no ordinary novel, or even a true-to-life account. This was someone’s diary. Every page written in confidence, each word revealing the thoughts closest to the heart of this young girl. As a journal-keeper myself, I sometimes find myself wondering, “What if someone else were to read this?” which causes me to wonder how much to filter my words. But then, isn’t the purpose of a diary ...more
Approximately a half million Gypsies (a dark-skinned, Caucasian ethnic group targeted by the Nazis) were murdered out of approximately 1.6 million who were living in Europe. The Gypsies in Germany and the occupied territories of the German War machine were subjected to many of the same persecutions as the Jews: restrictive, discriminatory laws, isolation and internment, and mass executions at their camp sites, in labor camps and death camps.
“Could the tunnel ever be excavated?” I asked Freund. He told me that the Vilna Gaon Museum, although already planning renovations at the site, was still deciding how to proceed, but that he has counseled against full excavation: He’d invited an architect and tunnel expert named Ken Bensimon to analyze the site, and Bensimon had concluded that even if a rabbi signed off on a dig—a necessity, given the proximity to what amounts to mass graves—the integrity of the passageway would be unlikely to hold.
^ Berkhoff, Karel C. Ray Brandon; Wendy Lower, eds. The Shoah in Ukraine: History, Testimony, Memorialization. Indiana University Press. p. 290. Also in: Barbara N. Łopieńska; Ryszard Kapuściński (2003-07-13). "Człowiek z bagna" [A man from the marshes]. Interview. Przekrój nr 28/3029. Reprint: Ryszard Kapuściński.info. Further info: Virtual Shtetl. "Glossary of 2,077 Jewish towns in Poland". POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews. Archived from the original on 8 February 2016. Gedeon. "Getta Żydowskie". Michael Peters. "Ghetto List". Deathcamps.org.
After obtaining a copy of his birth certificate through the West German embassy in 1956, Mengele was issued with an Argentine foreign residence permit under his real name. He used this document to obtain a West German passport, also using his real name, and embarked on a trip to Europe. He met up with his son Rolf (who was told Mengele was his "Uncle Fritz") and his widowed sister-in-law Martha, for a ski holiday in Switzerland; he also spent a week in his home town of Günzburg. When he returned to Argentina in September 1956, Mengele began living under his real name. Martha and her son Karl Heinz followed about a month later, and the three began living together. Josef and Martha were married in 1958 while on holiday in Uruguay, and they bought a house in Buenos Aires. Mengele's business interests now included part ownership of Fadro Farm, a pharmaceutical company. Along with several other doctors, Mengele was questioned in 1958 on suspicion of practicing medicine without a license when a teenage girl died after an abortion, but he was released without charge. Aware that the publicity would lead to his Nazi background and wartime activities being discovered, he took an extended business trip to Paraguay and was granted citizenship there in 1959 under the name "José Mengele". He returned to Buenos Aires several times to settle his business affairs and visit his family. Martha and Karl lived in a boarding house in the city until December 1960, when they returned to Germany.