Her exceptional scholarship has included such insightful books as Beyond Belief: The American Press and the Coming of the Holocaust, 1933-1945 (1986), Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory (1993), History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier (2006), The Eichmann Trial (2011), and now, Holocaust: An American Understanding (2016), published as a part of Rutgers University's Key Words in Jewish Studies series.
Life in the camps was a living hell. As described by Judah Pilch in “Years of the Holocaust: The Factual Story,” which appears in The Jewish Catastrophe in Europe, a typical day in the life of a concentration camp inmate began at dawn, when they were roused from their barracks which housed 300-800 inmates each. Their “beds” were bunks of slatted wood two and three tiers high. Frequently three to four prisoners shared each bunk, not permitting space enough for them to stretch out for normal sleep. The inmates were organized into groups to go to the toilets, marched to a distribution center for a breakfast consisting of some bread and a liquid substitute for tea or coffee, and then sent out to work for 10-14 hours in mines, factories, and road or airfield building, often in sub-zero weather or the severe heat of summer. They were subjected to constant physical and emotional harassment and beating. The inmates’ food rations did not permit survival for very long. Those who resisted orders of the guards were shot on the spot. Numerous roll calls were held to assure that no prisoners had escaped. If one did attempt an escape, all of the inmates suffered for it.
The political situation in Germany and elsewhere in Europe after World War I (1914–1918) contributed to the rise of virulent antisemitism. Many Germans did not accept that their country had been defeated, which gave birth to the stab-in-the-back myth. This insinuated that it was disloyal politicians, chiefly Jews and communists, who had orchestrated Germany's surrender. Inflaming the anti-Jewish sentiment was the apparent over-representation of Jews in the leadership of communist revolutionary governments in Europe, such as Ernst Toller, head of a short-lived revolutionary government in Bavaria. This perception contributed to the canard of Jewish Bolshevism.
Gerda Schrage was 24 years old when she was sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944. She had been in hiding in Berlin during the war, until someone betrayed her to the Gestapo and she was arrested. According to Gerda's story, as told in the documentary film "Gerda's Silence," when she arrived at Auschwitz, she was pregnant by a married man with whom she had had an affair while she was in hiding. Her baby died in her arms at Birkenau because Dr. Mengele was conducting yet another cruel experiment and would not allow her to nurse the baby.
Approximately 30 physicians served at Auschwitz while Mengele was assigned to the camp. As a required part feature of their “rounds,” medical staff performed “selections” of prisoners on the ramp. These selections determined who from among the mass of humanity arriving at Auschwitz would be retained for work and who would perish immediately in the gas chambers.
The murder industry began in the Chelmno camp, built in December 1941. Work was carried out in special trucks, where the victims were asphyxiated by exhaust fumes, a method that had been tried before on those whose lives were deemed useless (the “Euthanasia Program”). From September 1939, about 100,000 “Aryan” Germans were assassinated in this manner, in what was named “Operation T4.” Two years later, the personnel responsible for the “euthanasia” program were called upon to apply their expertise to murdering Jews. In the single camp of Chelmno, 150,000 human beings were gassed to death, most of them brought to the camp from annexed territories, the Warthegau district of western Poland and the Lodz Ghetto.
These three extermination factories — with Belzec responsible for about 600,000 victims, Sobibor 200,000, Treblinka 900,000 — shared certain features. Like Auschwitz at a later stage, they were equipped with railroad terminals that the trains entered in reverse. The victims were ordered to undress and then led through a corridor to the gas chambers; the gas was composed of carbon monoxide produced by diesel motors. At first, the corpses were buried in mass graves, later they were burnt in crematoria. The similarity to the “euthanasia” program was evident here too. In August 1941, the camps inspector was SS Sturmbannfiihrer Christian Wirth who, like dozens of other specialists of “Operation T4,” was placed under Odilo Globocnik, the commander of the SS for the region of Lublin.
On July 17, 1941, four weeks after the invasion of the Soviet Union, Hitler tasked SS chief Heinrich Himmler with responsibility for all security matters in the occupied Soviet Union. Hitler gave Himmler broad authority to physically eliminate any perceived threats to permanent German rule. Two weeks later, on July 31, 1941, Nazi leader Hermann Goering authorized SS General Reinhard Heydrich to make preparations for the implementation of a "complete solution of the Jewish question."
Lay Catholics, such as the German Dr. Gertrude Luckner, who headed the Caritas Catholica, also extended help to Jews and non-Aryan Christians in Germany. She was deported to Ravensbruck for her aid to the persecuted. After the war, Dr. Luckner was honored for her courage by the Israeli government. It must be noted that much of this Christian help was actually rendered to fellow Christians (converted Jews), who were classified as Jews due to their descent under Nazi racial laws.
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.