Zeidel had spent the previous two years in German-occupied Vilnius, in the city’s walled-off Jewish ghetto. He’d watched as the Nazis sent first hundreds and then thousands of Jews by train or truck or on foot to a camp in the forest. A small number of people managed to flee the camp, and they returned with tales of what they’d seen: rows of men and women machine-gunned down at close range. Mothers pleading for the lives of their children. Deep earthen pits piled high with corpses. And a name: Ponar.
The Nazi concentration camps were established beginning in 1933 for the purpose of imprisoning political opponents. After the “Night of the Long Knives” (see Chapter 8, page 65), authority and management of the concentration camps was turned over to the S.S. The S.S. expanded the concentration camp system, and used these facilities to warehouse other “undesirables,” including hundreds of thousands of Jews. Dachau, Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen were among the first concentration camps built by the Nazis near Munich, Weimar, and Berlin respectively.
When exactly Hitler settled on straightforward murder as a means of removal has been harder to pinpoint. As Yale historian Timothy Snyder writes, “It cannot be stressed enough that the Nazis did not know how to eradicate the Jews when they began the war against the Soviet Union [in the summer of 1941]… They could not be confident that SS men would shoot women and children in large numbers.” But as Operation Barbarossa, the name for the Nazi invasion of the U.S.S.R, proved during the mass shootings of June 1941 and the massacres at Kiev in September, the Order Police and Einsatzgrüppen were more than willing to commit mass murders. This meant Hitler could take the solution to the Jewish problem to its “furthest extremes,” in the words of Philipp Bouhler, the senior Nazi official responsible for the euthanasia program that killed more than 70,000 handicapped German people.
Steve Paulsson is a lecturer at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies. His doctoral thesis, 'Hiding in Warsaw: The Jews on the "Aryan side", 1940-1945', was co-winner of the 1998 Fraenkel Prize in Contemporary History, and is published by Yale University Press. He has also published articles on the flight of the Danish Jews to Sweden in 1943, and on Polish-Jewish relations. He was senior historian in the Holocaust Exhibition Project Office at the Imperial War Museum, 1998-2000.
Soon after he became chancellor, Hitler called for new elections in an effort to get full control of the Reichstag, the German parliament, for the Nazis. The Nazis used the government apparatus to terrorize the other parties. They arrested their leaders and banned their political meetings. Then, in the midst of the election campaign, on February 27, 1933, the Reichstag building burned. A Dutchman named Marinus van der Lubbe was arrested for the crime, and he swore he had acted alone. Although many suspected the Nazis were ultimately responsible for the act, the Nazis managed to blame the Communists, thus turning more votes their way.
I knew the story of how she went into hiding with her family for a few years and wrote everything down in a journal. I knew of the fact that she was captured right at the end of the war, when hope was high and peace was nigh, only to die of typhus a mere few weeks before her concentration camp would be liberated. All of this, I knew, I’d been told many a time in history class.
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.
Individuals who are named Righteous Among the Nations receive a medal bearing their name and a certificate of honor. Their name is added to the Wall of Honor in the Garden of Righteous at Yad Vashem. The Yad Vashem Law stipulates that Yad Vashem can award honorary citizenship to Israel to the Righteous Among the Nations. Awards are presented to rescuers in Israel or in their country of residence through Israel's diplomatic representatives. Awards can be given posthumously and, in those cases, relatives of the rescuer will receive the award. As of January 1, 2016, Yad Vashem has bestowed the Righteous Among the Nations to 26,120 individuals and groups from 44 countries.
“In any of these circumstances, what you want—the biggest thing you want, the most important—is to be able to make these places visible,” Freund told me later, back in Vilnius. “Your goal is to mark them in a way that people can come to them with tears in their eyes, come to them as memorials, come to them to say the mourner’s kaddish. Because the worst thing would be to look away. To forget.”
Which made him all the more intrigued to hear, two years ago, about a new research project led by Jon Seligman, of the Israel Antiquities Authority, at the site of Vilnius’s Great Synagogue, a once towering Renaissance-Baroque structure dating to the 1630s. The synagogue, which had also housed a vast library, kosher meat stalls and a communal well, had at one time been the crown jewel of the city, itself a center of Jewish life in Eastern Europe—the “Jerusalem of the North.” By one estimate, at the turn of the 20th century Vilnius was home to some 200,000 people, half of them Jewish. But the synagogue was damaged after Hitler’s army captured the city in June 1941 and herded the Jewish population into a pair of walled ghettos, whom it then sent, in successive waves, to Ponar. After the war the Soviets razed the synagogue entirely; today an elementary school stands in its place.
The Diary of Anne Frank is the first, and sometimes only, exposure many people have to the history of the Holocaust. Meticulously handwritten during her two years in hiding, Anne's diary remains one of the most widely read works of nonfiction in the world. Anne has become a symbol for the lost promise of the more than one million Jewish children who died in the Holocaust.
On May 19th, 1939, the S.S. St. Louis sailed from Hamburg, Germany to Havana, Cuba with 937 passengers; almost all of them were Jews escaping with their lives. This was one of the last ships that left Germany before the outbreak of World War II. Most of the passengers had applied for U.S. visas and were only planning on staying in Cuba until they could enter into the United States. The U.S. State Department in Washington, the U.S. consulate in Havana, and the owner of the St. Louis were aware that they might not be able to enter Cuba, but the passengers were never told.
When did the Nazis decide to kill all the Jews of Europe? Was murder always in the mind of Adolf Hitler? These are some of the most difficult questions historians have to answer. Certainly, up until the invasion of the Soviet Union, Jews did manage to emigrate from Germany. Historians will never know precisely when the order for mass killing was given, but large-scale murders began with the invasion of Russia.
^ Feig, Konnilyn G. (1981). Hitler's death camps: the sanity of madness. Holmes & Meier Publishers. p. 30. ISBN 0841906750 – via Remember.org book excerpt in full screen. On November 4, 1943, Globocnik wrote to Himmler from Trieste: "I have, on Oct. 19, 1943, completed Action Reinhard, and closed all the camps." He asked for special medals for his men in recognition of their "specially difficult task". Himmler responded warmly to 'Globos' on November 30, 1943, thanking him for carrying out Operation Reinhard. Also in: Holocaust Encyclopedia. ""Final Solution": Overview". Washington, DC: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Archived from the original on 2 March 2013.
A unique example of anti-Nazi resistance occurred in the Bialystok ghetto, where several anti-Nazi German and Austrian soldiers were sentenced to death for smuggling weapons and wireless sets to the Jewish resistance. One of these men, Otto Busse, survived and settled in the Kibbutz Nes Amin in 1969, devoting his life to Israel as a concrete example of “Christian atonement.”
Jews at this time composed only about one percent of Germany's population of 55 million persons. German Jews were mostly cosmopolitan in nature and proudly considered themselves to be Germans by nationality and Jews only by religion. They had lived in Germany for centuries, fought bravely for the Fatherland in its wars and prospered in numerous professions.
In June 1941 Germany attacked the Soviet Union and began the "Final Solution." Four mobile killing groups were formed called Einsatzgruppen A, B, C and D. Each group contained several commando units. The Einsatzgruppen gathered Jews town by town, marched them to huge pits dug earlier, stripped them, lined them up, and shot them with automatic weapons. The dead and dying would fall into the pits to be buried in mass graves. In the infamous Babi Yar massacre, near Kiev, 30,000-35,000 Jews were killed in two days. In addition to their operations in the Soviet Union, the Einsatzgruppen conducted mass murder in eastern Poland, Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia. It is estimated that by the end of 1942, the Einsatzgruppen had murdered more than 1.3 million Jews.
In the aftermath of the Holocaust, many of the survivors found shelter in displaced persons camps administered by the Allied powers. Between 1948 and 1951, almost 700,000 Jews emigrated to Israel, including 136,000 Jewish displaced persons from Europe. Other Jewish displaced persons emigrated to the United States and other nations. The last camp for Jewish displaced persons closed in 1957.
'Righteous Gentiles' is the phrase used for those non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. At Yad Vashem Museum in Jerusalem, over 11,000 'Righteous Gentiles' are honored; almost 5,000 are Polish. What follows are profiles and oral histories of ten Polish rescuers of Jews. Their stories reveal what transforms people from indifferent bystanders into heroic saviors
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.”
In Lvov, the Metropolitan Andreas Sheptitsky defended the Jews against the Nazis, and he and his Ukrainian compatriots hid about 150 Jews in monasteries in eastern Galicia. Furthermore, the French Huguenot Pastor Andre Trocme converted the small French Protestant village of Le Chambon into a mountain hideout for 1,000 Jewish persecutees. Le Chambon was as unique as the mass rescue of Danish Jews, because the entire town supported the rescue and accepted arrest and torture rather than betray the Jews they hid.
^ Browning i, Christopher (2007). The Origins of the Final Solution: The Evolution of Nazi Jewish Policy, September 1939 – March 1942. U of Nebraska Press. "In a brief two years between the autumn of 1939 and the autumn of 1941, Nazi Jewish policy escalated rapidly from the pre-war policy of forced emigration to the Final Solution as it is now understood—the systematic attempt to murder every last Jew within the German grasp.
In the decades that followed the Nuremburg Trials, in which Nazi officials, charged with crimes against peace and humanity, hid behind the excuse that they were just following orders, historians grappled with questions of blame and guilt. Had Hitler and top Nazi officials been solely responsible for the genocide? How complicit were lower-level Nazis and members of the Order Police?
Mengele's research subjects were better fed and housed than the other prisoners, and temporarily spared from execution in the gas chambers. He established a kindergarten for children who were the subjects of his experiments, as well as the preschool children from the Romani camp. The facility provided better food and living conditions than other areas of the camp, and included a children's playground. When visiting his young subjects, he introduced himself as "Uncle Mengele" and offered them sweets, while at the same time being personally responsible for the deaths of an unknown number of victims whom he killed via lethal injection, shootings, beatings, and his deadly experiments. In his 1986 book, Lifton describes Mengele as sadistic, lacking empathy, and extremely antisemitic, believing the Jews should be eliminated entirely as an inferior and dangerous race. Rolf Mengele later claimed that his father had shown no remorse for his wartime activities.