He was capable of being so kind to the children, to have them become fond of him, to bring them sugar, to think of small details in their daily lives, and to do things we would genuinely admire ... And then, next to that, ... the crematoria smoke, and these children, tomorrow or in a half-hour, he is going to send them there. Well, that is where the anomaly lay.
An Israeli historian Dina Porat claimed that the Final Solution, i.e.: "the systematic overall physical extermination of Jewish communities one after the other – began in Lithuania" during the massive German chase after the Red Army across the Baltic states in Reichskommissariat Ostland. The subject of the Holocaust in Lithuania has been analysed by Konrad Kweit from USHMM who wrote: "Lithuanian Jews were among the first victims of the Holocaust [beyond the eastern borders of occupied Poland]. The Germans carried out the mass executions [...] signaling the beginning of the 'Final Solution'." About 80,000 Jews were killed in Lithuania by October (including in formerly Polish Wilno) and about 175,000 by the end of 1941 according to official reports.
DAVID P. GUSHEE is Graves Professor of Moral Philosophy at Union University. Prior to joining Union's faculty in 1996, Dr. Gushee served on the staff of Evangelicals for Social Action and then for three years on the faculty of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. At 40, Dr. Gushee is one of the leading evangelical voices in the field of Christian ethics at both a scholarly and popular level. He has written or edited seven books, with two more forthcoming in 2003-2004, and has published dozens of articles, book chapters, and reviews. His groundbreaking work on Christian behavior in Europe during the Holocaust--including his book, The Righteous Gentiles of the Holocaust--established him as a leader in that critical field of study. Besides this work on the Holocaust, he has written widely on a variety of subjects, especially in the areas of social ethics and public policy. His most recent book is Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context, with Glen Stassen (IVP). Dr. Gushee's articles and reviews have appeared in such diverse publications as Christianity Today, Christian Century, Books & Culture, Sojourners, the Journal of Church and State, the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, the Annals of the Society of Christian Ethics, the Journal of Family Ministry, Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Catholic Digest, and Theology Today.
The deportation of Jews to the ghettos culminated in the policy of extermination the Nazis called the "Final Solution to the Jewish Question", discussed by senior Nazi officials at the Wannsee Conference in Berlin in January 1942. As German forces captured territories in the East, all anti-Jewish measures were radicalized. Under the coordination of the SS, with directions from the highest leadership of the Nazi Party, killings were committed within Germany itself, throughout occupied Europe, and across all territories controlled by the Axis powers. Paramilitary death squads called Einsatzgruppen, in cooperation with Wehrmacht police battalions and local collaborators, murdered around 1.3 million Jews in mass shootings between 1941 and 1945. By mid-1942, victims were being deported from the ghettos in sealed freight trains to extermination camps where, if they survived the journey, they were killed in gas chambers. The killing continued until the end of World War II in Europe in May 1945.
Hitler also believed the very presence of Jews in Germany and Nazi-occupied Europe posed a threat to German victory in the war. This was based on his experience during the First World War, when Germany had experienced a meltdown of civilian morale. In 1916, as a young soldier on sick leave in Munich, Hitler had been appalled at the apathy and anti-war sentiment he witnessed among German civilians. At the time, he concluded disloyal Jews had banded together and conspired to undermine the German war effort. And he was convinced they would do it again now if given the chance.
With this police infrastructure in place, opponents of the Nazis were terrorized, beaten, or sent to one of the concentration camps the Germans built to incarcerate them. Dachau, just outside of Munich, was the first such camp built for political prisoners. Dachau's purpose changed over time and eventually became another brutal concentration camp for Jews.
Those who were not considered fit for work were taken immediately by truck from the Judenrampe to two make-shift gas chambers at Birkenau, which were located in two converted farm houses called "the little red house" and "the little white house." At least 75% of the Jews in each transport of 2,000 to 3,000 prisoners were deemed unfit for work and were destined for the gas chamber. The little red house, also known as Bunker 1, had a capacity of 800 people in two rooms and the little white house, called Bunker 2, had a capacity of 1,200 in four rooms.
Overnight on November 9-10, 1938, the Nazis incited a pogrom against Jews in Austria and Germany called Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass, or literally translated from German, "Crystal Night"). This included the pillaging and burning of synagogues, the breaking of windows of Jewish-owned businesses and the looting of those stores. In the morning, broken glass littered the ground. Many Jews were physically attacked or harassed, and approximately 30,000 were arrested and sent to concentration camps.
Executions by the Einsatzgruppen, mobile killing squads,were abandoned for practical reasons. Although approximately 1.5 million Jews had been shot by the winter of 1941, the Nazis felt that the efficiency of this slow and cumbersome method left much to be desired. Moreover, they found it was bad for the soldiers’ morale. Himmler himself, commander of the SS and as such responsible for the annihilation of the Jews, was persuaded, after having witnessed such an execution, that it badly affected the mental health of those carrying out the execution. The institutionalization of organized murder, founded on a division of labor and carried out in special installations expressly designed for this purpose, distanced the executioner from the victim, an indispensable psychological advantage in an enterprise of annihilation of such a huge scale.
Jews in America responded to the various reports by holding a rally at New York's Madison Square Garden in March 1943 to pressure the U.S. government into action. As a result, the Bermuda Conference was held from April 19-30, with representatives from the U.S. and Britain meeting to discuss the problem of refugees from Nazi-occupied countries. But the meeting resulted in complete inaction concerning the ongoing exterminations.
On June 29, the Times of Israel reported on the discovery: “New tech reveals forgotten Holocaust escape tunnel in Lithuania.” News media around the world picked up the story, including the BBC and the New York Times. To Freund, finding the tunnel finally made it possible to fully comprehend the perseverance the escapees had demonstrated. “What people were so captivated by, I think, was that this was a tale of hope,” he told me. “It proved how resilient humans can be.”
Antisemitism, the new racist version of the old Jew-hatred, viewed the Jews as not simply a religious group but as members of a 'Semitic race', which strove to dominate its 'Aryan' rivals. Among the leading ideologues of this theory were a French aristocrat, the Comte Joseph de Gobineau, and an Englishman, Houston Stewart Chamberlain. Antisemitism proved a convenient glue for conspiracy theories - since Jews were involved in all sorts of ventures and political movements, they could be accused of manipulating all of them behind the scenes. Thus Jews were held responsible for Communism and capitalism, liberalism, socialism, moral decline, revolutions, wars, plagues and economic crises. As the Jews had once been demonised in medieval Europe, so the new antisemites (including many Christians) found new, secular ways of demonising them.
Gentiles whose status placed them on the periphery of a community generally had fewer social constraints and a higher level of independence. This sense of independence, in turn, seems to have made many rescuers more likely to act in accordance with their personal values and moral precepts, even when these standards were in opposition to societal norms. Such rescuers were propelled by values connected to self-approval. In interviews, they insisted again and again that they had to be at peace with themselves, with their ideas of what was right or wrong.
Mengele sailed to Argentina in July 1949, assisted by a network of former SS members. He initially lived in and around Buenos Aires, then fled to Paraguay in 1959 and Brazil in 1960, while being sought by West Germany, Israel, and Nazi hunters such as Simon Wiesenthal who wanted to bring him to trial. He eluded capture in spite of extradition requests by the West German government and clandestine operations by the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad. He drowned in 1979 after suffering a stroke while swimming off the Brazilian coast, and was buried under a false name. His remains were disinterred and positively identified by forensic examination in 1985.