On 7 November 1938, Herschel Grynszpan, a Polish Jew, shot the German diplomat Ernst vom Rath in the German Embassy in Paris, in retaliation for the expulsion of his parents and siblings from Germany.[k] When vom Rath died on 9 November, the government used his death as a pretext to instigate a pogrom against the Jews throughout the Third Reich. The government claimed it was spontaneous, but in fact it had been ordered and planned by Hitler and Goebbels, although with no clear goals, according to David Cesarani; the result, he writes, was "murder, rape, looting, destruction of property, and terror on an unprecedented scale".
In the final months of the war, SS guards moved camp inmates by train or on forced marches, often called “death marches,” in an attempt to prevent the Allied liberation of large numbers of prisoners. As Allied forces moved across Europe in a series of offensives against Germany, they began to encounter and liberate concentration camp prisoners, as well as prisoners en route by forced march from one camp to another. The marches continued until May 7, 1945, the day the German armed forces surrendered unconditionally to the Allies.
Hitler targeted the Jews for a specific reason, which was not just racial. The elimination of the Jews had a unique “status” in Hitler’s master plan. While he certainly killed millions of others (gypsies, communists, homosexuals, etc.) he made exceptions for all these groups. The only group for which no exception was made was the Jews—they all had to die.
The nature and timing of the decisions that led to the Final Solution is an intensely researched and debated aspect of the Holocaust. The program evolved during the first 25 months of war leading to the attempt at "murdering every last Jew in the German grasp". Most historians agree, wrote Christopher Browning, that the Final Solution cannot be attributed to a single decision made at one particular point in time. "It is generally accepted the decision-making process was prolonged and incremental." In 1940, following the Fall of France, Adolf Eichmann devised the Madagascar Plan to move Europe's Jewish population to the French colony, but the plan was abandoned for logistical reasons, mainly a naval blockade. There were also preliminary plans to deport Jews to Palestine and Siberia. In 1941, wrote Raul Hilberg, in the first phase of the mass murder of Jews, the mobile killing units began to pursue their victims across occupied eastern territories; in the second phase, stretching across all of German-occupied Europe, the Jewish victims were sent on death trains to centralized extermination camps built for the purpose of systematic implementation of the Final Solution.
While the Righteous Among the Nations went to different lengths to save Jews, Yad Vashem outlines four distinct ways these individuals helped the Jewish community. The first was by hiding Jews in the rescuer's home or on their property and providing food and other necessities to the Jews while in hiding. Secondly, some of the Righteous obtained false papers and false identities for those they saved. The third type of rescuer specified by Yad Vashem were those who helped Jews escape from Nazi occupied territory or to a less dangerous area. Finally, some rescuers saved children after their parents had been taken to concentration camps or killed.
Dan Stone, a specialist in the historiography of the Holocaust, lists ethnic Poles, Ukrainians, Soviet prisoners of war, Jehovah's Witnesses, black Germans, and homosexuals as among the groups persecuted by the Nazis; he writes that the occupation of eastern Europe can also be viewed as genocidal. But the German attitude toward the Jews was different in kind, he argues. The Nazis regarded the Jews not as racially inferior, deviant, or enemy nationals, as they did other groups, but as a "Gegenrasse: a 'counter-race', that is to say, not really human at all". The Holocaust, for Stone, is therefore defined as the genocide of the Jews, although he argues that it cannot be "properly historically situated without understanding the 'Nazi empire' with its grandiose demographic plans".[d] Donald Niewyk and Francis Nicosia, in The Columbia Guide to the Holocaust (2000), favour a definition that focuses on the Jews, Roma, and Aktion T4 victims: "The Holocaust—that is, Nazi genocide—was the systematic, state-sponsored murder of entire groups determined by heredity. This applied to Jews, Gypsies, and the handicapped."
^ Markiewicz, Marcin. "Bezirk Białystok (in) Represje hitlerowskie wobec wsi białostockiej" [Bezirk Białystok (in) Nazi repressions against the Białystok countryside]. Komentarze Historyczne. Biuletyn Instytutu Pamięci Narodowej. Biuro Edukacji Publicznej IPN. Nr 35-36 (12/2003-1/2004). 68/96 in PDF. ISSN 1641-9561. Archived from the original on 11 June 2011. Retrieved 9 February 2016 – via direct download 873 KB from the Internet Archive. Also in: Roseman, Mark (2002). The Villa, the Lake, the Meeting: Wannsee and the Final Solution. Penguin Press. p. 111. ISBN 071399570X. During the Wannsee meeting, the number of Jews in Białystok (i. e., in Bezirk Bialystok) – subject to Final Solution – was estimated by Heydrich at 400,000. In Lithuania: 34,000. In Latvia: 3,500. In White Russia (excluding Bialystok): 446,484, and in USSR: 5,000,000. Estonia was listed in the minutes as being already Judenfrei (see Wannsee Protocol, Nuremberg).
German mobile killing squads, called special duty units (Einsatzgruppen), are assigned to kill Jews during the invasion of the Soviet Union. These squads follow the German army as it advances deep into Soviet territory, and carry out mass-murder operations. At first, the mobile killing squads shoot primarily Jewish men. Soon, wherever the mobile killing squads go, they shoot all Jewish men, women, and children, without regard for age or gender. By the spring of 1943, the mobile killing squads will have killed more than a million Jews and tens of thousands of partisans, Roma (Gypsies), and Soviet political officials.
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.
The British and American governments were reluctant to publicize the intelligence they had received. A BBC Hungarian Service memo, written by Carlile Macartney, a BBC broadcaster and senior Foreign Office adviser on Hungary, stated in 1942: "We shouldn't mention the Jews at all." The British government's view was that the Hungarian people's antisemitism would make them distrust the Allies if Allied broadcasts focused on the Jews. The US government similarly feared turning the war into one about the Jews; antisemitism and isolationism were common in the US before its entry into the war. Although governments and the German public appear to have understood what was happening, it seems the Jews themselves did not. According to Saul Friedländer, "[t]estimonies left by Jews from all over occupied Europe indicate that, in contradistinction to vast segments of surrounding society, the victims did not understand what was ultimately in store for them." In Western Europe, he writes, Jewish communities seem to have failed to piece the information together, while in Eastern Europe, they could not accept that the stories they heard from elsewhere would end up applying to them too.
Mengele used Auschwitz as an opportunity to continue his anthropological studies and research into heredity, using inmates for human experimentation. His medical procedures showed no consideration for the health, safety, or physical and emotional suffering of the victims. He was particularly interested in identical twins, people with heterochromia iridum (eyes of two different colors), dwarfs, and people with physical abnormalities. A grant was provided by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (German Research Foundation), at the request of von Verschuer, who received regular reports and shipments of specimens from Mengele. The grant was used to build a pathology laboratory attached to Crematorium II at Auschwitz II-Birkenau. Dr. Miklós Nyiszli, a Hungarian Jewish pathologist who arrived in Auschwitz on 29 May 1944, performed dissections and prepared specimens for shipment in this laboratory. The twin research was in part intended to prove the supremacy of heredity over environment and thus strengthen the Nazi premise of the superiority of the Aryan race. Nyiszli and others reported that the twin studies may also have been motivated by an intention to increase the reproduction rate of the German race by improving the chances of racially desirable people having twins.