Meanwhile, beginning in the fall of 1939, Nazi officials selected around 70,000 Germans institutionalized for mental illness or disabilities to be gassed to death in the so-called Euthanasia Program. After prominent German religious leaders protested, Hitler put an end to the program in August 1941, though killings of the disabled continued in secrecy, and by 1945 some 275,000 people deemed handicapped from all over Europe had been killed. In hindsight, it seems clear that the Euthanasia Program functioned as a pilot for the Holocaust.
Mengele assembled hundreds of pairs of twins and sometimes spent hours measuring various parts of their bodies and taking careful notes. He often injected one twin with mysterious substances and monitored the illness that ensued. He applied painful clamps to children’s limbs to induce gangrene, injected dye into their eyes – which were then shipped back to a pathology lab in Germany – and gave them spinal taps.
Lengyel described how Dr. Mengele would take all the correct medical precautions while delivering a baby at Auschwitz, yet only a half hour later, he would send the mother and baby to be gassed and burned in the crematorium. Lengyel herself was selected for the gas chamber, but managed to break away from the group of women who had been selected, before the truck arrived to take the prisoners to the crematorium.
At the same time, a carefully orchestrated smear campaign under the direction of Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels portrayed Jews as enemies of the German people. Daily anti-Semitic slurs appeared in Nazi newspapers, on posters, the movies, radio, in speeches by Hitler and top Nazis, and in the classroom. As a result, State-sanctioned anti-Semitism became the norm throughout Germany. The Jews lost everything, including their homes and businesses, with no protest or public outcry from non-Jewish Germans. The devastating Nazi propaganda film The Eternal Jew went so far as to compared Jews to plague carrying rats, a foreshadow of things to come.
Historians increasingly view the Holocaust as a pan-European phenomenon, or a series of holocausts impossible to conduct without the help of local collaborators. Over 200,000 people are estimated to have been Holocaust perpetrators; without them, the Germans would not have been able to extend the Holocaust across most of Europe. Some Christian churches tried to defend the Jews by declaring that converted Jews were "part of the flock," according to Saul Friedländer, "but even then only up to a point". Otherwise, Friedländer writes, "[n]ot one social group, not one religious community, not one scholarly institution or professional association in Germany and throughout Europe declared its solidarity with the Jews."
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.
According to the testimony of Rudolf Hoess at the Nuremberg International Military Tribunal in 1946, Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler gave repeated orders that the staff members at the concentration camps were forbidden "to lay violent hands on the prisoners." According to the survivors of Birkenau, Dr. Mengele frequently lost his temper and beat the prisoners, yet he was never punished by his superior officers.
The wounds of the Holocaust–known in Hebrew as Shoah, or catastrophe–were slow to heal. Survivors of the camps found it nearly impossible to return home, as in many cases they had lost their families and been denounced by their non-Jewish neighbors. As a result, the late 1940s saw an unprecedented number of refugees, POWs and other displaced populations moving across Europe.
Although Dr. Josef Mengele did not join the staff at Birkenau until May 1943, survivors testified during the Allied war crimes trials that he did selections in 1942. Besides the initial selection when the transport trains arrived at Birkenau, there were later selections of the women in the camp. Dr. Mengele was the chief doctor for the women's barracks, and he would periodically show up to select women for work or the gas chamber. One of the women who survived one of these selections was Sophia Litwinska, a Polish Jewess who was married to an Aryan man.
Beginning with the British air raids on Cologne in May of 1942, the Allies launched a strategic bombing campaign that would target cities and industrial plants across the Reich for the next three years. In the summer of 1942, Germany and its allies focused on the Soviet Union unsuccessfully. The Soviet Union gained the dominant role, which it would maintain for the rest of the war.
Mengele joined the Nazi Party in 1937 and the Schutzstaffel (SS; protection squadron) in 1938. He received basic training in 1938 with the Gebirgsjäger (light infantry mountain troop) and was called up for service in the Wehrmacht (Nazi armed forces) in June 1940, some months after the outbreak of World War II. He soon volunteered for medical service in the Waffen-SS, the combat arm of the SS, where he served with the rank of SS-Untersturmführer (second lieutenant) in a medical reserve battalion until November 1940. He was next assigned to the SS-Rasse- und Siedlungshauptamt (SS Race and Settlement Main Office) in Poznań, evaluating candidates for Germanization.