Yet any projection of Anne Frank as a contemporary figure is an unholy speculation: it tampers with history, with reality, with deadly truth. “When I write,” she confided, “I can shake off all my cares. My sorrow disappears, my spirits are revived!” But she could not shake off her capture and annihilation, and there are no diary entries to register and memorialize the snuffing of her spirit. Anne Frank was discovered, seized, and deported; she and her mother and sister and millions of others were extinguished in a program calculated to assure the cruellest and most demonically inventive human degradation. The atrocities she endured were ruthlessly and purposefully devised, from indexing by tattoo through systematic starvation to factory-efficient murder. She was designated to be erased from the living, to leave no grave, no sign, no physical trace of any kind. Her fault—her crime—was having been born a Jew, and as such she was classified among those who had no right to exist: not as a subject people, not as an inferior breed, not even as usable slaves. The military and civilian apparatus of an entire society was organized to obliterate her as a contaminant, in the way of a noxious and repellent insect. Zyklon B, the lethal fumigant poured into the gas chambers, was, pointedly, a roach poison.
The most notorious physician was Josef Mengele, an SS officer who became the Auschwitz camp doctor on 30 May 1943. Interested in genetics and keen to experiment on twins, he would pick out subjects from the new arrivals during "selection" on the ramp, shouting "Zwillinge heraus!" (twins step forward!). They would be measured, killed, and dissected. One of Mengele's assistants said in 1946 that he was told to send organs of interest to the directors of the "Anthropological Institute in Berlin-Dahlem". This is thought to refer to Mengele's academic supervisor, Otmar Freiherr von Verschuer , director from October 1942 of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Anthropology, Human Heredity, and Eugenics in Berlin-Dahlem.[i] Mengele's experiments included placing subjects in pressure chambers, testing drugs on them, freezing them, attempting to change their eye color by injecting chemicals into children's eyes, and amputations and other surgeries.
Among the survivors of Auschwitz-Birkenau was Philip Riteman, a Polish Jew sent to the camp in 1941, who had the presence of mind to lie about his age in order to be selected for the line that was destined for slave labor. In a speech which Riteman gave to Riverview and Central Collegiate students in Moose Jaw, Canada in May 2008, as reported by Lacey Sheppy in the Moose Jaw Times Herald on May 23, 2008, Riteman said that he grew up in Szereszow, Poland, a town of about 25,000 people - not unlike Moose Jaw. He was in Grade 5 when the war began in 1939. The Ritemans were rounded up and sent to the Pruzhany ghetto, where they lived for nine months in a 10-foot by 12-foot room with two other families.
Browning believes that the "Final Solution as it is now understood—the systematic attempt to murder every last Jew within the German grasp" took shape during a five-week period, from 18 September to 25 October 1941. During this time: the sites of the first extermination camps were selected, different methods of killing were tested, Jewish emigration from the Third Reich was forbidden, and 11 transports departed for Łódź as a temporary holding station. During this period, Browning writes, "The vision of the Final Solution had crystallised in the minds of the Nazi leadership, and was being turned into reality." This period was the peak of Nazi victories against the Soviet Army on the Eastern Front, and, according to Browning, the stunning series of German victories led to both an expectation that the war would soon be won, and the planning of the final destruction of the "Jewish-Bolshevik enemy".
After WWII had ended, photographs of the Holocaust stunned the public. Newspapers in the United States had reported on the oppression of the Jews in Germany during the war. In 1942, many newspapers were writing details of the Holocaust, but these stories were short and were not widely read. In 1943, after sources had confirmed the killings of at least two million Jews in concentration camps across Europe a Gallup poll found that less than half of Americans believed these reports to be true; 28% thought they were “just a rumor”. The reports were unconfirmed and sometimes denied by the United States government.
During the era of the Holocaust, German authorities also targeted other groups because of their perceived racial and biological inferiority: Roma (Gypsies), people with disabilities, and some of the Slavic peoples (Poles, Russians, and others). Other groups were persecuted on political, ideological, and behavioral grounds, among them Communists, Socialists, Jehovah's Witnesses, and homosexuals.
The Avenue of the Righteous, a place where trees are planted to commemorate rescuers, was inaugurated on Holocaust Remembrance Day 1962. The following year, a commission chaired by a member of Israel's Supreme Court was set up to decide upon criteria for awarding the Righteous Among the Nations. On February 1, Justice Moshe Landau chaired the commission's first meeting.
Hitler was obsessed with the idea of the superiority of the “pure” German race, which he called “Aryan,” and with the need for “Lebensraum,” or living space, for that race to expand. In the decade after he was released from prison, Hitler took advantage of the weakness of his rivals to enhance his party’s status and rise from obscurity to power. On January 30, 1933, he was named chancellor of Germany. After President Paul von Hindenburg’s death in 1934, Hitler anointed himself as “Fuhrer,” becoming Germany’s supreme ruler.
Because that day never came, both Miep Gies, the selflessly courageous woman who devoted herself to the sustenance of those in hiding, and Hannah Goslar, Anne’s Jewish schoolmate and the last to hear her tremulous cries in Bergen-Belsen, objected to Otto Frank’s emphasis on the diary’s “truly good at heart” utterance. That single sentence has become, universally, Anne Frank’s message, virtually her motto—whether or not such a credo could have survived the camps. Why should this sentence be taken as emblematic, and not, for example, another? “There’s a destructive urge in people, the urge to rage, murder, and kill,” Anne wrote on May 3, 1944, pondering the spread of guilt. These are words that do not soften, ameliorate, or give the lie to the pervasive horror of her time. Nor do they pull the wool over the eyes of history.
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.
Resistance also occurred inside the death camps. At Treblinka, Jewish inmates staged a revolt in August 1943, after which Himmler ordered the camp dismantled. At Sobibor, a big escape occurred in October 1943, as Jews and Soviet POWs killed 11 SS men and broke out, with 300 making it safely into nearby woods. Of those 300, most were hunted down and only fifty survived. Himmler then closed Sobibor. At Auschwitz-Birkenau, Jewish Sonderkommandos managed to destroy crematory number four in October 1944.
It happened. That thing, the reason I have put off reading this, happened. My heart broke. And I knew it would. Sure, I had heard of Anne Frank, I knew who she was, what she did, what happened. She is a historic figure, and a tragic one certainly. But I didn't make the really personal connection until I read her words, this diary. Her words bring her to life again. What a precocious young girl, so smart, so full of life; a life with so much promise, so much hope. She thinks, even writes, very mu ...more
If there was a caesura towards the implementation of the Final Solution through mass murder, it is marked by the German "war of destruction" waged against the Soviet Union from June 22, 1941. Provided with instructions that called for the rapid pacification of conquered areas and that stressed the "sub-human" nature of broad strata of the population as well as the need for drastic measures to fight the deadly threat posed by "Judeo-Bolshevism" to the Nazi grand design, German soldiers, SS-men, and policemen murdered Jews from the first days of the campaign. Regionally different patterns of persecution unfolded until the end of 1941; its most prominent feature – the broadening scope of the killings from male Jews of military age (Heydrich's notorious letter to the higher SS- and Police heads in the occupied Soviet Union dated July 2, 1941, listed "Jews in party and state positions" and "other radical elements" among those to be executed) to women and children – underscores the absence of a central order and the preference of the Berlin authorities for controlled escalation.
The forest burst orange with gunfire. “I looked around: Our entire path was filled with people crawling,” Farber has written. “Some jumped up and started running in various directions.” Farber and Dogim cut through the fence and tore off into the woods, with Zeidel and three others in tow. The men ran all night, through rivers, through forests, past villages. After a week, the escapees were deep inside the Rudnitsky Woods. Farber introduced himself to the partisan leader. “Where do you come from?” the man asked.
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.
The hero, or irritant (depending on which side of the controversy one favors), in the genesis of the diary’s dramatization was Meyer Levin, a Chicago-born novelist of the social-realist school, the author of such fairly successful works as “The Old Bunch,” “Compulsion,” and “The Settlers.” Levin began as a man of the left, though a strong anti-Stalinist: he was drawn to proletarian fiction (“Citizens,” about steelworkers), and had gone to Spain in the thirties to report on the Civil War. In 1945, as a war correspondent attached to the Fourth Armored Division, he was among the first Americans to enter Buchenwald, Dachau, and Bergen-Belsen. What he saw there was ungraspable and unendurable. “As I groped in the first weeks, beginning to apprehend the monstrous shape of the story I would have to tell,” he wrote, “I knew already that I would never penetrate its heart of bile, for the magnitude of this horror seemed beyond human register.” The truest telling, he affirmed, would have to rise up out of the mouth of a victim.
In the years of Nazi rule before World War II, policies of persecution and segregation targeting German Jews focused on the goal of expulsion. After the Nazi party seized power in 1933, state-sponsored racism generated anti-Jewish legislation, boycotts, "Aryanization," and massive street violence, as in the Kristallnacht (commonly known as the "Night of Broken Glass") pogroms. With all of these measures, the Nazi leaders sought to drive the Jews out of Germany by systematically isolating them from German society and by eliminating them from the German economy, removing any opportunity for them to make a living in Germany.
Nolte's views were widely denounced. The debate between the "specifists" and "universalists" was acrimonious; the former feared debasement of the Holocaust and the latter considered it immoral to hold the Holocaust as beyond compare. In her book Denying the Holocaust (1993), Deborah Lipstadt viewed Nolte's position as a form of Holocaust denial, or at least "the same triumph of ideology over truth". Addressing Nolte's argument, Eberhard Jäckel wrote in Die Zeit in September 1986 that "never before had a state, with the authority of its leader, decided and announced that a specific group of humans, including the elderly, women, children and infants, would be killed as quickly as possible, then carried out this resolution using every possible means of state power".[h] Despite the criticism of Nolte, Dan Stone wrote in 2010 that the Historikerstreit put "the question of comparison" on the agenda. He argued that the idea of the Holocaust as unique has been overtaken by attempts to place it within the context of early-20th-century Stalinism, ethnic cleansing, and the Nazis' intentions for post-war "demographic reordering", particularly the Generalplan Ost, the plan to kill tens of millions of Slavs to create living space for Germans. The specifist position continued nevertheless to inform the views of many specialists. Richard J. Evans argued in 2015:
^ Eikel, Markus (2013). "The local administration under German occupation in central and eastern Ukraine, 1941–1944". The Holocaust in Ukraine: New Sources and Perspectives (PDF). Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Pages 110–122 in PDF. Ukraine differs from other parts of the Nazi-occupied Soviet Union, whereas the local administrators have formed the Hilfsverwaltung in support of extermination policies in 1941 and 1942, and in providing assistance for the deportations to camps in Germany mainly in 1942 and 1943.
Yugoslavia and Greece were invaded in April 1941 and surrendered before the end of the month. Germany and Italy divided Greece into occupation zones but did not eliminate it as a country. Yugoslavia, home to around 80,000 Jews, was dismembered; regions in the north were annexed by Germany and regions along the coast made part of Italy. The rest of the country was divided into the Independent State of Croatia, nominally an ally of Germany, and Serbia, which was governed by a combination of military and police administrators. According to historian Jeremy Black, Serbia was declared free of Jews in August 1942. Croatia's ruling party, the Ustashe, killed the country's Jews, and killed or expelled Orthodox Christian Serbs and Muslims. Jews and Serbs alike were "hacked to death and burned in barns", according to Black. One difference between the Germans and Croatians was that the Ustashe allowed its Jewish and Serbian victims to convert to Catholicism so they could escape death.
On July 5, 1942, Anne's older sister Margot received an official summons to report to a Nazi work camp in Germany, and on July 6, Margot and Anne went into hiding with their father Otto and mother Edith. They were joined by Hermann van Pels, Otto's business partner, including his wife Auguste and their teenage son Peter. Their hiding place was in the sealed-off upper rooms of the annex at the back of Otto's company building in Amsterdam. Otto Frank started his business, named Opekta, in 1933. He was licensed to manufacture and sell pectin, a substance used to make jam. He stopped running his business while everybody was in hiding. But once he returned, he found his employees running it. The rooms that everyone hid in were concealed behind a movable bookcase in the same building as Opekta. Mrs. van Pels's dentist, Fritz Pfeffer, joined them four months later. In the published version, names were changed: The van Pelses are known as the Van Daans, and Fritz Pfeffer as Albert Dussel. With the assistance of a group of Otto Frank's trusted colleagues, they remained hidden for two years and one month.
In October 1942, Jan Karski met clandestinely with Jewish leaders at the height of the destruction of Polish Jewry. As a courier for the underground, he delivered their dire message to the Polish government-in-exile in London. “The Jews were abandoned by governments, by church hierarchies, by existing societal structures. But they were not abandoned by all of humanity,” said Karski. “There were thousands upon thousands of people in Europe who risked their life for the Jews. They were priests, nuns, workers, peasants, enlightened ones, simpletons, from all walks of life. They were good people, very simply. We have more good people than probably we think we have in humanity.” Karski was recognized by Yad Vashem as a Righteous Gentile among the Gentiles on June 2, 1982
Almost all Jews within areas occupied by the Germans were killed. There were 3,020,000 Jews in the Soviet Union in 1939, and the losses were 1–1.1 million. Around one million Jews were killed by the Einsatzgruppen in the occupied Soviet territories. Of Poland's 3.3 million Jews, about 90 percent were killed. Many more died in the ghettos of Poland before they could be deported. The death camps accounted for half the number of Jews killed; 80–90 percent of death-camp victims are estimated to have been Jews. At Auschwitz-Birkenau the Jewish death toll was 1.1 million; Treblinka 870,000–925,000; Bełżec 434,000–600,000; Chełmno 152,000–320,000; Sobibór 170,000–250,000; and Majdanek 79,000.
12 million people were killed by the nazi party, But there was no trace of written order and many questions still remain unanswered. Half a million Gypsies were murdered by the Nazis. Nazis thought Jews to be as low as Jews. They were worked to death or gassed. Nazis murdered 5-6 million Jews two thirds of European Jewry one third of their population. 55 million perished in all 20 million Soviet citizens 5 million Germans and three million non-Jewish poles.
Dogim backed down; the diggers pressed on. On April 9, Farber announced that they’d reached the roots of a tree near the barbed-wire fence that encircled the camp’s perimeter. Three days later, he made a tentative stab with a makeshift probe he’d fashioned out of copper tubing. Gone was the stench of the pits. “We could feel the fresh April air, and it gave us strength,” he later recalled. “We saw with our own eyes that freedom was near.”
With the invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22 1941, the Nazis launched a crusade against 'Judaeo-Bolshevism', the supposed Jewish-Communist conspiracy. Behind the front lines, four police battalions called Einsatzgruppen (operations groups) moved from town to town in the newly occupied Soviet territories, rounding up Jewish men and suspected Soviet collaborators and shooting them. In subsequent sweeps, making heavy use of local volunteers, the Einsatzgruppen targeted Jewish women and children as well. In total, the Einsaztgruppen murdered some two million people, almost all Jews.
I suffered from all these symptoms, together with a tight feeling at the throat. I was half conscious when my number was called out by Dr. Mengele and I was led from the chamber. I attribute my escape to the fact that the daughter of a friend of mine who was an Aryan and a doctor at Auschwitz had seen me being transported to the chamber and had told her mother, who immediately appealed to Dr. Mengele.
Methods of mass murder evolved at local levels as well as being decreed from Nazi high command. Killing squads rounded up and shot entire Jewish communities. Over two days in Kiev, 33,771 Jews were shot. The murder of Jews rapidly escalated, in part because local Nazi leaders didn’t have enough room to place them in the ghettos. By the end of the year, plans to implement the systematic slaughter of Jews by using gas in mobile trucks and gas chambers were well underway.
Hitler’s worldview revolved around two concepts: territorial expansion (that is, greater Lebensraum—“living space”—for the German people) and racial supremacy. After World War I the Allies denied Germany colonies in Africa, so Hitler sought to expand German territory and secure food and resources—scarce during World War I—in Europe itself. Hitler viewed the Jews as racial polluters, a cancer on German society in what has been termed by Holocaust survivor and historian Saul Friedländer “redemptive anti-Semitism,” focused on redeeming Germany from its ills and ridding it of a cancer on the body politic. Historian Timothy Snyder characterized the struggle as even more elemental, as “zoological,” and “ecological,” a struggle of the species. Hitler opposed Jews for the values they brought into the world. Social justice and compassionate assistance to the weak stood in the way of what he perceived as the natural order, in which the powerful exercise unrestrained power. In Hitler’s view, such restraint on the exercise of power would inevitably lead to the weakening, even the defeat, of the master race.
Josef Mengele left Auschwitz disguised as a member of the regular German infantry. He turned up at the Gross-Rosen work camp and left well before it was liberated on February 11, 1945. He was then seen at Matthausen and shortly after he was captured as a POW and held near Munich. He was released by the allies, who had no idea that he was in their midst.
In October 1941 the Nazis began turning the concentration camp at Majdanek into a death camp as well. They then began the construction of killing centres at Bełżec, Treblinka, near Warsaw, and at Sobibór. The first mass gassing of Jews began in Chelmno on 8 December 1941, when the Nazis used gas vans to murder people from the Łódź ghetto. The Nazis also ordered the expansion of the Auschwitz camp complex to increase the capacity for murder.
Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka formed part of what the Nazis called “Operation Reinhard,” whose sole purpose was the systematic massacre of Jews. A labor camp existing in Belzec since 1940 was turned into an extermination camp in the autumn of 1941, becoming operative in March 1942. In the same month, the camp at Sobibor was set up to alleviate the overburdened camp of Belzec. The third, Treblinka, received the Jews from Warsaw and the Radom district.
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.
The Nuremberg trials were a series of military tribunals, held by the Allied forces after World War II in Nuremberg, Germany, to prosecute prominent members of the political, military, and economic leadership of Nazi Germany. The first of these trials was the 1945–1946 trial of the major war criminals before the International Military Tribunal (IMT). This tribunal tried 22 political and military leaders of the Third Reich, except for Adolf Hitler, Heinrich Himmler, and Joseph Goebbels, all of whom had committed suicide several months before.
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 murderous events in the occupied Soviet Union had – as envisaged in a directive by Alfred Rosenberg's Reich Ministry for the Occupied Eastern Territories – provided the German leadership with experiences on how to arrive at a "solution to the overall problem" ("für die Loesung des Gesamt-Problems richtungsweisend") that could be applied elsewhere. On July 31, 1941, Goering signed a document that charged Heydrich with "making all necessary preparations with regard to organizational, practical and material aspects for an overall solution ("Gesamtloesung") of the Jewish question in the German sphere of influence in Europe" and to draw up a plan "for the implementation of the intended final solution ("Endloesung") of the Jewish question." By the time of the Wannsee Conference held on January 20, 1942, the term Final Solution had become a common phrase among German government and party officials. Now reduced in its actual meaning to mass murder, its geographical scope expanded beyond German-dominated Europe: the protocol of the conference listed 11 million Jews in different countries to be engulfed in the "Final Solution of the European Jewish question," including England and neutrals like Sweden and Switzerland. The culmination of the Final Solution in mass deportations from various parts of Europe to the killing centers and death camps in Eastern Europe resulted, like earlier stages of the process, not from one single top-level decision, but from a complex mix of factors, with the Berlin center reacting as much as it was actively shaping events.
Systematic examinations of rescuers have actually shown a high degree of heterogeneity among individuals. Rescuers came from divergent social backgrounds, varied widely in terms of political and religious involvements, and displayed different levels of friendship and animosity toward Jews. None of these variables has turned out to be a reliable predictor of the sort of person who was more or less likely to rescue Jews.
Her exceptional scholarship has included such insightful books as Beyond Belief: The American Press and the Coming of the Holocaust, 1933-1945 (1986), Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory (1993), History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier (2006), The Eichmann Trial (2011), and now, Holocaust: An American Understanding (2016), published as a part of Rutgers University's Key Words in Jewish Studies series.
Sources: C.A.N.D.L.E.S; Kor, Eva Mozes. Echoes from Auschwitz. IN.: C.A.N.D.L.E.S. 1995; Lifton, Robert Jay. The Nazi Doctors. The United States: Basic Books. 1986; Nyiszli., Dr. Miklos. Auschwitz: A Doctor's Eyewitness Account. New York: Fawcett Crest. 1960; Posner, Gerald L. and John Ware. Mengele: The Complete Story. New York: Dell Publishing. 1986; Ramati, Alexander. And the Violins Stopped Playing
Anne Frank and her family fled Germany after the Nazis seized power in 1933 and resettled in the Netherlands, where her father, Otto, had business connections. The Germans occupied Amsterdam in May 1940, and two years later German authorities with help from their Dutch collaborators began rounding up Jews and ultimately deported them to killing centers.
My mother was born in Sofia, Bulgaria, in 1943. The trains were standing by at the stations in Bulgaria’s major cities, waiting to transport Bulgaria’s 50,000 Jews to the death camps. The expulsion order had been given. An unusual coalition of clergy, intellectuals, and politicians, together with large-scale passive resistance by the Bulgarian people, at the last moment prevented Bulgarian Jewry from sharing the tragic fate of Jewish communities in neighboring countries and all over Europe.
Auschwitz, perhaps the most notorious and lethal of the concentration camps, was actually three camps in one: a prison camp (Auschwitz I), an extermination camp (Auschwitz II–Birkenau), and a slave labour camp (Auschwitz III–Buna-Monowitz). Upon arrival, Jewish prisoners faced what was called a Selektion. A German doctor presided over the selection of pregnant women, young children, the elderly, handicapped, sick, and infirm for immediate death in the gas chambers. As necessary, the Germans selected able-bodied prisoners for forced labour in the factories adjacent to Auschwitz, where one German company, IG Farben, invested 700 million Reichsmarks in 1942 alone to take advantage of forced labour, a capital investment. The conglomerate presumed that slave labour would be a permanent part of the German economy. Deprived of adequate food, shelter, clothing, and medical care, these prisoners were literally worked to death. Periodically, they would face another Selektion. The Nazis would transfer those unable to work to the gas chambers of Birkenau.
However, the route to a professorship was interrupted in 1938-1939 when he began his military experience by serving six months with a specially trained mountain light-infantry regiment. In 1940 he was placed in the reserve medical corps, following which he served three years with a Waffen SS unit. It was during this time period he was wounded and declared medically unfit for combat. Because he had acquitted himself brilliantly in the face of the enemy during the Eastern Campaign, he was promoted to the rank of captain.
An ardent Nazi, In 1943 Josef Mengele was appointed by Heinrich Himmler to be chief doctor at Birkenau, the supplementary extermination camp at Auschwitz, where he and his staff selected incoming Jews for labor or extermination and where he supervised medical experiments on inmates to discover means of increasing fertility (to increase the German “race”).
On January 20, 1942, several top officials of the German government met to officially coordinate the military and civilian administrative branches of the Nazi system to organize a system of mass murder of the Jews. This meeting, called the Wannsee Conference, "marked the beinning of the full-scale, comprehensive extermination operation [of the Jews] and laid the foundations for its organization, which started immediately after the conference ended" (Yahil, The Holocaust, p. 318).
Following the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, Einsatzgruppen and, later, militarized battalions of Order Police officials, moved behind German lines to carry out mass-murder operations against Jews, Roma, and Soviet state and Communist Party officials. German SS and police units, supported by units of the Wehrmacht and the Waffen SS, murdered more than a million Jewish men, women, and children, and hundreds of thousands of others.
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.
But Auschwitz-Birkenau became more than a concentration camp. In the spring of 1942 gas chambers were built at Birkenau and mass transports of Jews began to arrive. Some of the new arrivals were inducted into the camp as registered prisoners, but the great majority were gassed immediately. These gassing operations were greatly expanded in the spring of 1943 with the construction of four purpose-built gas chamber and crematorium complexes, which included such refinements as electric lifts to carry bodies up to the crematoria. Each crematorium could handle 2,000 victims daily. In a nearby group of barracks, nicknamed 'Canada' by the prisoners, victims' belongings were sorted for transportation to the Reich. The victims' hair was used to stuff mattresses; gold teeth were melted down and the gold deposited to an SS account.
The worst example was the pogrom in the town of Kielce in Poland on July 4th, 1946. When the 200 surviving Jews returned to their village, the local Poles who were upset to see that any had survived instigated a blood libel—accusing the Jews of the kidnap and ritual murder of Polish child. In the ensuing violence 40 of the Jews, all Holocaust survivors, were murdered by the Polish towns people.
Mengele's work also involved carrying out selections, a task that he chose to perform even when he was not assigned to do so, in the hope of finding subjects for his experiments, with a particular interest in locating sets of twins. In contrast to most of the other SS doctors, who viewed selections as one of their most stressful and unpleasant duties, he undertook the task with a flamboyant air, often smiling or whistling a tune. He was also one of the SS doctors responsible for supervising the administration of Zyklon B, the cyanide-based pesticide that was used for the mass killings in the Birkenau gas chambers. He served in this capacity at the gas chambers located in crematoria IV and V.