The first killing center set up in occupied Polish lands was the camp at Chełmno on the Ner; Jews brought in from the ghettos in the Wartheland were being killed there from December 1941. Three more camps, somewhat larger, were opened at Bełżec, Sobibor, and Treblinka (in what was known as “Aktion Reinhard”) somewhat later, between March and July 1942.
Three SS officers socialize at Auschwitz in 1944. From left to right: Richard Baer (commandant), Dr. Josef Mengele and Rudolf Höss (former commandant). Baer escaped but was captured in 1960; he died in 1963 while awaiting trial. Höss was executed for his crimes in 1947, shortly after receiving the sacrament of penance and Holy Communion as Viaticum. Mengele died while swimming at a seaside resort in 1979, after having lived to see his work at Auschwitz vindicated by the legalization of abortion in the U.S. and elsewhere. (Karl-Friedrich Höcker, public domain, via Yad Vashem and Wikimedia Commons)
From 1933 until 1938, most of the people held in concentration camps were political prisoners and people the Nazis labeled as "asocial." These included the disabled, the homeless, and the mentally ill. After Kristallnacht in 1938, the persecution of Jews became more organized. This led to the exponential increase in the number of Jews sent to concentration camps.
In one of the most affecting scenes from Out of the Forest, Zeidel circles the area of the old bunker, looking for the entrance. “Everything was demolished,” he tells the camera, finally, shaking his head in frustration. “Everything. Not that I care it was demolished, but I was certain there would be an opening, even if a blocked one, so I could show you the tunnel.” As it turned out, Zeidel had been standing very close to the tunnel; he just couldn’t know it.
Just imagine how interesting it would be if I were to publish a romance of the "Secret Annex." The title alone would be enough to make people think it was a detective story. But, seriously, it would be quite funny 10 years after the war if we Jews were to tell how we lived and what we ate and talked about here. Although I tell you a lot, still, even so, you only know very little of our lives.
Although many people responded with obstructionism and doubt, several rescue operations were run throughout Axis-controlled Europe. Some were the work of prominent individuals like Raoul Wallenberg and Carl Lutz who worked largely alone while other operations were far more complex. A network of Catholic bishops and clergymen organized local protests and shelter campaigns throughout much of Europe that are today estimated to have saved 860,000 lives. Danish fishermen clandestinely ferried more than 7,000 Jews into neutral Sweden while the French town of Chambon-sur-Lignon sheltered between 3,000 and 5,000 refugees.
In the summer of 1941, Rudolf Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz, received orders from Heinrich Himmler to begin experimenting with Zyklon B gas. On 3 September 1941, the Auschwitz deputy camp commandant Karl Fritzsch experimented on 600 Russian prisoners of war and 250 Polish inmates by gathering them in the basement of Block 11 and gassing them with Zyklon B.
Some ghettos were initially open, which meant that Jews could leave the area during the daytime but had to be back by a curfew. Later, all ghettos became closed, meaning that Jews were not allowed to leave under any circumstances. Major ghettos were located in the cities of Polish cities of Bialystok, Lodz, and Warsaw. Other ghettos were found in present-day Minsk, Belarus; Riga, Latvia; and Vilna, Lithuania. The largest ghetto was in Warsaw. At its peak in March 1941, some 445,000 were crammed into an area just 1.3 square miles in size.
Historians are divided about the motivations of the members of these mobile killing units. American historian Christopher Browning described one such unit, Police Battalion 101, as ordinary men in extraordinary circumstances in which conformity, peer pressure, careerism, obedience to orders, and group solidarity gradually overcame moral inhibitions. American writer Daniel Goldhagen viewed the very same unit as “willing executioners,” sharing Hitler’s vision of genocidal anti-Semitism and finding their tasks unpleasant but necessary. The diversity of the killers has challenged Goldhagen’s view that the motivation was a distinct form of German anti-Semitism. Yet both Browning and Goldhagen concurred that none of these killers faced punishment if he asked to be excused. Individuals had a choice whether to participate or not. Almost all chose to become killers.
The SS organization also found it could profit financially from the human traffic. Upon arrival in the camps, all belongings were taken from the Jews. Foreign currency, gold, jewels and other valuables were sent to SS Headquarters of the Economic Administration. Wedding rings, eye glasses, shoes, gold fillings, clothing and even hair shorn from women also served to enrich the SS, with the proceeds funneled into secret Reichsbank accounts. Watches, clocks and pens were distributed to soldiers at the Front while clothing was given to German families.
Before the war, Mengele had received doctorates in anthropology and medicine, and began a career as a researcher. He joined the Nazi Party in 1937 and the SS in 1938. He was assigned as a battalion medical officer at the start of World War II, then transferred to the Nazi concentration camps service in early 1943 and assigned to Auschwitz, where he saw the opportunity to conduct genetic research on human subjects. His subsequent experiments focused primarily on twins, with little regard for the health or safety of the victims.