Freund and his colleagues, including Harry Jol, a professor of geology and anthropology from the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire, and Philip Reeder, a geoscientist and mapping expert from Duquesne University, in Pittsburgh, were brought in to explore further. They spent five days scanning the ground beneath the school and the surrounding landscape with ground-penetrating radar, and emerged with a detailed digital map that displayed not just the synagogue’s main altar and seating area but also a separate building that held a bathhouse containing two mikvaot, or ceremonial baths, a well for water and several latrines. Afterward, Freund met with the staff at the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum, named after the famed 18th-century Talmudic scholar from Vilnius, and a partner on the Great Synagogue project. Then, Freund said, “We asked them: ‘What else would you like us to do? We’ll do it for free.’”
Though the circumstances of her final years (she died, at 15, in Bergen-Belsen) were so terrible and extreme, her inner life and her voice seem almost shockingly contemporary, astonishingly similar to the voices of the teenagers we know. We cannot help but be amazed that an adolescent girl could have written so movingly and intelligently about a subject that continues to overwhelm the adult imagination.
Folman and Polonsky depict Anne as a schoolgirl, a friend, a sister, a girlfriend and a reluctantly obedient daughter. But only once, at the close of the book, do they show her in the act of writing. In so doing, they perpetuate the misconception about the book that so many have come to know, love and admire — it was, in truth, not a hastily scribbled private diary, but a carefully composed and considered text. As artists, they ought to understand how important it is to recognize Anne’s achievement on her own terms, as she intended it. Their book is brilliantly conceived and gorgeously realized; sadly, it does a disservice to the remarkable writer at its center.
Although he was raised some 5,000 miles from Lithuania, on Long Island, New York, Freund has deep roots in the area. His great-grandparents fled Vilnius in the early 20th century, during an especially violent series of pogroms undertaken by the Czarist government, when the city still belonged to the Russian Empire. “I’ve always felt a piece of me was there,” Freund told me.
To remain efficient, the SS death factories required a steady supply of humans. To coordinate the flow of people to the gas chambers, Höss and fellow commandants relied on SS-Obersturmbannführer Adolf Eichmann, who became a central figure in the day-to-day management of the Final Solution. Present at the Wannsee Conference, Eichmann assumed the leading role in facilitating the deportation of Jews from every corner of Europe. With boundless enthusiasm for his task and fanatical efficiency, Eichmann traveled the continent, insuring that trainload after trainload departed. "The trains," Eichmann said later, "ran like a dream."
Inside the Soviet Union were an estimated three million Jews, many of whom still lived in tiny isolated villages known as Shtetls. Following behind the invading German armies, four SS special action units known as Einsatzgruppen systematically rounded-up and shot all of the inhabitants of these Shtetls. Einsatz execution squads were aided by German police units, local ethnic Germans, and local anti-Semitic volunteers. Leaders of the Einsatzgruppen also engaged in an informal competition as to which group had the highest tally of murdered Jews.
Righteous Among the Nations (Hebrew: חֲסִידֵי אֻמּוֹת הָעוֹלָם, khasidei umót ha'olám "righteous (plural) of the world's nations") is an honorific used by the State of Israel to describe non-Jews who risked their lives during the Holocaust to save Jews from extermination by the Nazis. The term originates with the concept of "righteous gentiles", a term used in rabbinic Judaism to refer to non-Jews, called ger toshav, who abide by the Seven Laws of Noah.
Within a month of his arrival at Auschwitz, an outbreak of noma erupted in the Gypsy camp. Mengele’s solution was to send over 1000 Gypsies to the gas chamber. A similar event occurred in the women’s camp a month later, and the doctor sent more than 600 women with typhus to the same fate. In one of the most horrific exterminations, Mengele and a group of other officers circled a fire pit before about 10 dump trucks filled with children arrived. The trucks backed up to the fire and Mengele and the other officers started throwing the children into the pit. The children screamed as they were burned alive, while others managed to crawl out of the pit. But the officers walked around the pit with sticks and pushed those who managed to get out back into the fire.
Dr. Mengele was nicknamed the "Angel of Death" by the prisoners because he had the face of an angel, yet he callously made selections for the gas chambers at Birkenau. He was nice to the children in the camp, yet he experimented on them as though they were laboratory rats. He volunteered to do the selections at Birkenau, even when it wasn't his turn, because he wanted to find subjects for his medical research on genetic conditions and hereditary diseases, which he had already begun before the war. He particularly wanted to find twins for the research that he had started before he was posted to Birkenau.
Unlike concentration camps, death camps had no barracks to house prisoners, other than those for workers at the camps. In order to process the murder of thousands of people, great pains were taken to deceive the victims concerning their fate. Jews deported from ghettos and concentration camps to the death camps were unaware of what they were facing. The Nazi planners of the operation told the victims that they were being resettled for labor, issued them work permits, told them to bring along their tools and to exchange their German marks for foreign currency. Food was also used to coax starving Jews onto the trains. Once the trains arrived at the death camps, trucks were available to transport those who were too weak to walk directly to the gas chambers. The others were told that they would have to be deloused and enter the baths. The victims were separated by sex and told to remove their clothes. The baths were in reality the gas chambers. The shower heads in the baths were actually the inlets for poison gas. At Auschwitz, the gas chambers held 2,000 people at a time. With the introduction of a cyanide-based gas called Zyklon B, all 2,000 occupants could be killed in five minutes. As a result of this technological “advancement,” Auschwitz was able to “process” the death of 12,000 victims daily. Before the bodies were removed by workers with gas masks and burned in crematoria, the teeth of the victims were stripped for gold, which was melted down and shipped back to Germany. Innocent victims were exploited and desecrated to a degree unknown in human history.
Some people believe that Hitler always intended to murder the Jews. In a letter dated 16 September 1919, he wrote, “the final objective must be the complete removal of the Jews”. Was the road to the death camps foreseen and planned in advance? Or was it, as others believe, an unplanned response to circumstances that arose? What is certain is that Hitler and his inner circle were obsessed with the Jews. They believed that they were responsible for all the ills of the world.
On the eve of World War II, the Führer (supreme leader) publicly threatened the Jews of Europe during a speech in Berlin: "In the course of my life I have very often been a prophet, and have usually been ridiculed for it. During the time of my struggle for power it was in the first instance only the Jewish race that received my prophecies with laughter when I said that I would one day take over the leadership of the State, and with it that of the whole nation, and that I would then among other things settle the Jewish problem. Their laughter was uproarious, but I think that for some time now they have been laughing on the other side of their face. Today I will once more be a prophet: if the international Jewish financiers in and outside Europe should succeed in plunging the nations once more into a world war, then the result will not be the Bolshevizing of the earth, and thus the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe!"
Like most “scientists” at work in the concentration camp environment, Mengele enlisted the aid of trained medical professionals among the prisoner population to perform the more grisly, or mundane, tasks and to carry out autopsies upon his dead victims. Much of our early knowledge of Mengele's activities at Auschwitz comes from Dr. Miklos Nyiszli, a prisoner-physician who assisted Mengele under duress. Nyiszli published his experiences, initially in his native Hungarian, in 1946. His work Auschwitz: A Doctor's Eyewitness Account appeared in English in 1960.
Victims usually arrived at the camps by freight train. Almost all arrivals at the Operation Reinhard camps of Treblinka, Sobibór, and Bełżec were sent directly to the gas chambers, with individuals occasionally selected to replace dead workers. At Auschwitz, camp officials usually subjected individuals to selections; about 25% of the new arrivals were selected to work. Those selected for death at all camps were told to undress and hand their valuables to camp workers. They were then herded naked into the gas chambers. To prevent panic, they were told the gas chambers were showers or delousing chambers. The procedure at Chełmno was slightly different. Victims there were placed in a mobile gas van and asphyxiated, while being driven to prepared burial pits in the nearby forests. There the corpses were unloaded and buried.
By then, Palestinian terrorism had become Israel’s main security challenge, and the Mossad devoted most of its efforts to that threat. For the next 10 years, backed by Eshkol and his successors as prime minister, Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin, almost nothing was done about Mengele. The surge in terrorism, the surprise Yom Kippur War in 1973 and the Syrian military buildup with Soviet assistance took precedence.
After this night, the German government supported dozens of laws and decrees that took away Jews property and livelihood. By the end of the year, Jews were prohibited from attending school. One billion reichsmarks of Jewish property was seized as collective punishment against the nation’s Jews for the murder of von Rath. Those able to flee the country did. In the year after Kristallnact, more than 100,000 Jews left Germany as the situation deteriorated.
In October 1939 Hitler signed a "euthanasia decree" backdated to 1 September 1939 that authorized Reichsleiter Philipp Bouhler, the chief of Hitler's Chancellery, and Karl Brandt, Hitler's personal physician, to carry out a program of involuntary "euthanasia"; after the war this program was named Aktion T4. It was named after Tiergartenstraße 4, the address of a villa in the Berlin borough of Tiergarten, where the various organizations involved were headquartered. T4 was mainly directed at adults, but the "euthanasia" of children was also carried out. Between 1939 and 1941, 80,000 to 100,000 mentally ill adults in institutions were killed, as were 5,000 children and 1,000 Jews, also in institutions. In addition there were specialized killing centres, where the deaths were estimated at 20,000, according to Georg Renno, the deputy director of Schloss Hartheim, one of the "euthanasia" centers, or 400,000, according to Frank Zeireis, the commandant of the Mauthausen concentration camp. Overall, the number of mentally and physically handicapped murdered was about 150,000.
Historians disagree as to when and how the Nazi leadership decided that the European Jews should be exterminated. The controversy is commonly described as the functionalism versus intentionalism debate which began in the 1960s, and subsided thirty years later. In the 1990s, the attention of mainstream historians moved away from the question of top executive orders triggering the Holocaust, and focused on factors which were overlooked earlier, such as personal initiative and ingenuity of countless functionaries in charge of the killing fields. No written evidence of Hitler ordering the Final Solution has ever been found to serve as a "smoking gun", and therefore, this one particular question remains unanswered.
While Jews began to flee abroad from the first days of the Nazi regime, only after Kristallnacht in November 1938 did Nazi policy switch categorically to the expulsion of all Jews from the Reich as its central aim. Although the Jews were ever-more intensively disemployed, defined as noncitizens, ostracized, stripped of wealth, brutalized, and encouraged to emigrate, they were not being killed by the government, and the majority of Germany’s five hundred thousand Jews managed to escape from the country before the outbreak of the war (though not necessarily to safety, as many wound up trapped in Poland and the Soviet Union). Indeed, so effective were the Nazis at expelling the Jews from their territories that about two-thirds of Austria’s two hundred thousand Jews managed to flee abroad in the short period between the German takeover of Austria in March 1938 and the closing of the borders to further Jewish emigration from the Reich in 1940-1941.
Browning’s account of the evolution of the Nazi genocide is the most comprehensive that has yet appeared, and it is no exaggeration to say that the author, who offers here 110 pages of endnotes, has read and absorbed every available document of relevance. Yet one must continue to wonder whether Hitler really waited until August-October 1941 to decide on a policy of genocide. Hitler habitually thought in demographic and social-Darwinist terms, and from 1939 onwards, he was confronted by a new demographic reality”that he now had many millions of Jews under his thumb, far more than the mere five hundred thousand in Nazi Germany in 1933, a figure itself ever-diminishing through emigration. With the conquest of western Poland in mid-1939, over two million Jews came under his rule, while the invasion and conquest of the Soviet Union would add another five million, entirely apart from the many Jews in Nazi satellite states such as Hungary and Romania. It is very difficult to believe that Hitler did not contemplate genocide along with the invasion of the Soviet Union, given the fact that he would soon have the ability to get rid of all of Europe’s Jews in one fell swoop. As Browning carefully notes, as early as February 1941 Hitler remarked to a number of other top Nazis that towards the Jews “he was thinking of many things in a different way, not exactly more friendly.”
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum defines the Holocaust as the "systematic, bureaucratic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of six million Jews by the Nazi regime and its collaborators", distinguishing between the Holocaust and the targeting of other groups during "the era of the Holocaust". According to Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust memorial, most historians regard the start of the "Holocaust era" as January 1933, when Hitler was named Chancellor of Germany. Other victims of the Holocaust era include those viewed as inferior, including for reasons of race or ethnicity (such as the Roma, ethnic Poles, Russians, and the disabled); and those targeted because of their beliefs or behavior (such as Jehovah's Witnesses, communists, and homosexuals). Hitler came to see the Jews as "uniquely dangerous to Germany", according to Peter Hayes, "and therefore uniquely destined to disappear completely from the Reich and all territories subordinate to it". The persecution and murder of other groups was much less consistent. For example, he writes, the Nazis regarded the Slavs as "sub-human", but their treatment consisted of "enslavement and gradual attrition", while "some Slavs—Slovaks, Croats, Bulgarians, some Ukrainians—[were] allotted a favored place in Hitler's New Order".
At the three Reinhard camps the victims were killed by the exhaust fumes of stationary diesel engines. Gold fillings were pulled from the corpses before burial, but the women's hair was cut before death. At Treblinka, to calm the victims, the arrival platform was made to look like a train station, complete with fake clock. Majdanek used Zyklon-B gas in its gas chambers. In contrast to Auschwitz, the three Reinhard camps were quite small. Most of the victims at these camps were buried in pits at first. Sobibór and Bełżec began exhuming and burning bodies in late 1942, to hide the evidence, as did Treblinka in March 1943. The bodies were burned in open fireplaces and the remaining bones crushed into powder.
Mengele injected chemicals into the eyes of children in an attempt to change their eye color. Unfortunately a strict veil of secrecy over the experiments enabled Mengele to do his work more effectively.The full extent of his gruesome work will never be known because the records he sent to Dr. Von Verschuer at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute were shipped out in two truckloads and destroyed by the latter.
Life in the ghetto was abominable, and thousands died. There was no medicine. The food ration allowed was a quarter of that available for the Germans, barely enough to allow survival. The water supply was contaminated in many ghettos. Epidemics of tuberculosis, typhoid, and lice were common. Bodies of new victims piled up in the streets faster than they could be carted away. In the Warsaw ghetto, more than 70,000 died of exposure, disease, and starvation during the first two winters. Almost all of those who survived the Warsaw ghetto were either killed when the ghetto was razed in 1943 or died in the death camps.
When France fell to Nazi Germany, the mission to resist the Nazis became increasingly important. Following the establishment of the Vichy France regime during the occupation, Trocmé and his church members helped their town develop ways of resisting the dominant evil they faced. Together they established first one, and then a number of "safe houses" where Jewish and other refugees seeking to escape the Nazis could hide. Many refugees were helped to escape to Switzerland following an underground railroad network. Between 1940 and 1944 when World War II ended in Europe, it is estimated that about 3500 Jewish refugees including many children were saved by the small village of Le Chambon and the communities on the surrounding plateau because the people refused to give in to what they considered to be the illegitimate legal, military, and police power of the Nazis.
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.
Photographic comparison between known images of Josef Mengele and images of “Wolfgang Gerhard” found in the Brazilian home of people thought to have sheltered him. These were annotated to find twenty-four matching physical traits. Photos: “Behördengutachten i.S. von § 256 StPO, Lichtbildgutachten MENGELE, Josef, geb. 16.03.11 in Günzburg,” Bundeskriminalamt, Wiesbaden, June 14, 1985. Courtesy of Maja Helmer.
In May 1960, Isser Harel, director of Mossad (the Israeli intelligence agency), personally led the successful effort to capture Adolf Eichmann in Buenos Aires. He was also hoping to track down Mengele, so that he too could be brought to trial in Israel. Under interrogation, Eichmann provided the address of a boarding house that had been used as a safe house for Nazi fugitives. Surveillance of the house did not reveal Mengele or any members of his family, and the neighborhood postman claimed that although Mengele had recently been receiving letters there under his real name, he had since relocated without leaving a forwarding address. Harel's inquiries at a machine shop where Mengele had been part owner also failed to generate any leads, so he was forced to abandon the search.