Who among gentile Poles was most likely to stand up for persecuted Jews? What propelled these rescuers to risk their lives for them? What characteristics, motivations, and circumstances did the rescuers share? Most attempts to answer these questions focus upon standard sociological categories: researchers consider the rescuers’ class, education, political and religious commitments, friendships with Jews, and level of anti-Jewish prejudice. The results of such investigations have not led to clear conclusions. Some studies suggest that economically deprived Christians more readily identified with Jewish suffering. Others conclude that intellectuals were more likely to have been protectors because they had better insight into German aims and were committed to undermining them.
On 7 November 1938, Herschel Grynszpan, a Polish Jew, shot the German diplomat Ernst vom Rath in the German Embassy in Paris, in retaliation for the expulsion of his parents and siblings from Germany.[k] When vom Rath died on 9 November, the government used his death as a pretext to instigate a pogrom against the Jews throughout the Third Reich. The government claimed it was spontaneous, but in fact it had been ordered and planned by Hitler and Goebbels, although with no clear goals, according to David Cesarani; the result, he writes, was "murder, rape, looting, destruction of property, and terror on an unprecedented scale".
In Auschwitz, the murdering of prisoners in gas chambers began even earlier, when 575 sick and disabled prisoners were sent to their deaths at the euthanasia center in Germany at the end of June 1941. At the beginning of September, the SS used Zyklon B gas in the cellars of block 11 to kill about 600 Soviet POWs and another group of patients from the camp hospital. Soviet POWs and Jews brought from Upper Silesia were killed in the gas chamber in crematorium I over the following months. It was probably at the end of March or in April 1942 that the Germans began killing sick prisoners and Jews in a provisional gas chamber in Birkenau (the so-called “little red house”). The tempo of atrocities increased in June and July 1942, with transports of Jews sent to Auschwitz being subjected to systematic “selections” during which SS doctors sentenced people classified as unfit for labor to death.
To be sure, the names of these latter figures would be remembered regardless of what good they have done the Jews. Part of the message of singling out Harbonah, then, lies precisely in the fact that unlike them, he is a minor character. Today, not everyone who writes a small check to Christians United for Israel, or shares an article on Facebook criticizing the anti-Semitism of Ilhan Omar or Jeremy Corbyn, can be known to posterity. But in the midst of the Purim celebrations of Jewish redemption, they, too, deserve to be remembered for the good.
One day this past fall I walked the grounds of the Ponar forest with Freund and a couple of his colleagues, who had recently completed a surveying project of the area. Snow had been forecast, but by late morning the only precipitation was icy rain, driven sideways by the wind. The forest was mostly empty, save for a group of ten Israelis who had arrived that morning; they all had family from Vilnius, one of the men explained, and were honoring them by visiting local Holocaust sites.
He sent one entire Jewish block of 600 women to the gas chamber and cleared the block. He then had it disinfected from top to bottom. Then he put bath tubs between this block and the next, and the women from the next block came out to be disinfected and then transferred to the clean block. Here they were given a clean new nightshirt. The next block was cleaned in this way and so on until all the blocks were disinfected. End of typhus! The awful thing was that he could not put those first 600 somewhere.
There is no postwar institution specializing in either World War II or the Holocaust that has collected systematic data about the righteous or about Christian-Jewish relations during the war years. Postwar historiography has given scant attention to this subject, except for biographies of heroes like Raoul Wallenberg in Budapest. Individual episodes are recorded in numerous published memoirs or hidden within the histories of the Jewish communities under German occupation. Others are found in some survivor testimonies, oral histories, and depositions.
It might be noted that, to a surprising extent, much about Hitler’s precise knowledge of the Holocaust remains unclear. For instance, we do not know if Hitler ever saw photographs or newsreels of the killing process, or, indeed, just how comprehensive and brutally frank were Himmler’s reports to Hitler. We have agendas of face-to-face meetings between Hitler and Himmler, at which the Holocaust was to be discussed, but no memorializations or minutes of such meetings. Most of the senior Nazis who were tried at Nuremberg in 1945-1946 (few of whom had any immediate involvement in the killing of Jews) had apparently never seen photographic evidence of the horrors of the concentration camps until their trials; they appeared to be genuinely shocked when newsreels of Belsen and Buchenwald were shown to the court.
The prosecution entered indictments against 24 major war criminals[z] and seven organizations—the leadership of the Nazi party, the Reich Cabinet, the Schutzstaffel (SS), Sicherheitsdienst (SD), the Gestapo, the Sturmabteilung (SA) and the "General Staff and High Command". The indictments were for: participation in a common plan or conspiracy for the accomplishment of a crime against peace; planning, initiating and waging wars of aggression and other crimes against peace; war crimes; and crimes against humanity. The tribunal passed judgements ranging from acquittal to death by hanging. Eleven defendants were executed, including Joachim von Ribbentrop, Wilhelm Keitel, Alfred Rosenberg, and Alfred Jodl. Ribbentrop, the judgement declared, "played an important part in Hitler's 'final solution of the Jewish question'".
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.
Browning also examines the much-debated question of the degree of complicity by ordinary Germans in the “Final Solution.” Here he sensibly steers a middle course between those who see genocide as carried out by the top Nazis, under the smokescreen of the war, secretly and in a way almost totally hidden from Germany’s civilians, and, at the other extreme, historians such as Daniel J. Goldhagen who view virtually the entire German people as complicit in “exterminationist anti-Semitism.” Browning realizes the extent to which anti-Semitism, although always present in German (and, more obviously, in Austrian) culture, had nevertheless been greatly ameliorated down to 1933 by the general and continuous rise of liberalism and “modernity.” But he also understands that Germany’s “special path” to the twentieth century”unlike that of the English-speaking world”involved a reactionary and anti-liberal elite masterminding and benefiting from an extremely rapid industrial revolution while holding to ultranationalism and expansionism as its core values. The attitude of the average German towards the persecution of the Jews by the Nazis (that is, in Nazi Germany itself) was arguably one of reprehensible indifference; but one must not forget also that Nazi Germany was a totalitarian society, where opposition to the regime meant certain imprisonment or death, and that the Nazis kept their killings in Eastern Europe a secret from their own people.
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.
On November 12, 1938, Field Marshal Hermann Göring convened a meeting of Nazi officials to discuss the damage to the German economy from pogroms. The Jewish community was fined one billion Reichsmarks. Moreover, Jews were made responsible for cleaning up the damage. German Jews, but not foreign Jews, were barred from collecting insurance. In addition, Jews were soon denied entry to theatres, forced to travel in separate compartments on trains, and excluded from German schools. These new restrictions were added to earlier prohibitions, such as those barring Jews from earning university degrees, from owning businesses, or from practicing law or medicine in the service of non-Jews. The Nazis would continue to confiscate Jewish property in a program called “Aryanization.” Göring concluded the November meeting with a note of irony: “I would not like to be a Jew in Germany!”
Eva Fogelman, Conscience and Courage: Rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust (New York, 1994); Philip Friedman, Their Brothers’ Keepers (New York, 1957); Martin Gilbert, The Righteous: The Unsung Heroes of the Holocaust (New York, 2003); Philip Paul Hallie, Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed: The Story of the Village of Le Chambon, and How Goodness Happened There (New York, 1979); Samuel Oliner and Pearl Oliner, The Altruistic Personality: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe (New York, 1988); Mordecai Paldiel, The Path of the Righteous: Gentile Rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust (Hoboken, N.J., 1993); Michael Phayer and Eva Fleischner, Cries in the Night: Women Who Challenged the Holocaust (Kansas City, Mo., 1997); Nechama Tec, When Light Pierced the Darkness: Christian Rescue of Jews in Nazi-Occupied Poland (New York, 1986); Nechama Tec, In the Lion’s Den: The Life of Oswald Rufeisen (New York, 1990); Nechama Tec, Defiance: The Bielski Partisans (New York, 1993).
In April 1944, two Jewish inmates escaped from Auschwitz and made it safely into Czechoslovakia. One of them, Rudolf Vrba, submitted a detailed report to the Papal Nuncio in Slovakia which was then forwarded to the Vatican, received there in mid-June. Thus far, Pope Pius XII had not issued a public condemnation of Nazi maltreatment and subsequent mass murder of Jews, and he chose to continue his silence.
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.
Although not ordered to take part, psychiatrists and many psychiatric institutions were involved in the planning and carrying out of Aktion T4 at every stage. After protests from the German Catholic and Protestant churches, Hitler ordered the cancellation of the T4 program in August 1941, although the disabled and mentally ill continued to be killed until the end of the war. The medical community regularly received bodies and body parts for research. Eberhard Karl University received 1,077 bodies from executions between 1933 and 1945. The neuroscientist Julius Hallervorden received 697 brains from one hospital between 1940 and 1944: "I accepted these brains of course. Where they came from and how they came to me was really none of my business."
The possible final remnant will, since it will undoubtedly consist of the most resistant portion, have to be treated accordingly because it is the product of natural selection and would, if released, act as the seed of a new Jewish revival (see the experience of history.) In the course of the practical execution of the final solution, Europe will be combed through from west to east. Germany proper, including the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, will have to be handled first due to the housing problem and additional social and political necessities. The evacuated Jews will first be sent, group by group, to so-called transit ghettos, from which they will be transported to the East.
The "Final Solution" The origin of the "Final Solution," the Nazi plan to exterminate the Jewish people, remains uncertain. What is clear is that the genocide of the Jews was the culmination of a decade of Nazi policy, under the rule of Adolf Hitler. The "Final Solution" was implemented in stages. After the Nazi party rise to power, state-enforced racism resulted in anti-Jewish legislation, boycotts, "Aryanization," and finally the "Night of Broken Glass" pogrom, all of which aimed to remove the Jews from German society. After the beginning of World War II, anti-Jewish policy evolved into a comprehensive plan to concentrate and eventually annihilate European Jewry.
Jews were forced to move, often to different cities or countries, and live in designated areas, referred to as ghettos. Most of the ghettos were “open” which meant Jews were free to come and go during the daytime. As time past, more and more ghettos became “closed” meaning that Jews were trapped and not allowed to leave. No ghettos were ever established within the borders of Germany and most were only meant as a temporary means of isolating Jews from the German population until they could be moved elsewhere.
The first killing center set up in occupied Polish lands was the camp at Chełmno on the Ner; Jews brought in from the ghettos in the Wartheland were being killed there from December 1941. Three more camps, somewhat larger, were opened at Bełżec, Sobibor, and Treblinka (in what was known as “Aktion Reinhard”) somewhat later, between March and July 1942.
According to the report, a young woman died after a botched abortion at the hands of Mengele. For that crime he was detained “briefly” by a Buenos Aires judge and was released when he appeared in the courtroom with a “package presumably filled with a large amount of money.” Argentina strongly resisted extradition requests for many Nazi War criminals, Mengele included. In fact, he eluded capture for over 30 years and died after suffering a stroke while swimming off the coast of Brazil at 68 years old. His body was exhumed in 1985 and DNA evidence confirmed the remains to be those of Mengele.
In February 2010, a 180-page volume of Mengele's diary was sold by Alexander Autographs at auction for an undisclosed sum to the grandson of a Holocaust survivor. The unidentified previous owner, who acquired the journals in Brazil, was reported to be close to the Mengele family. A Holocaust survivors' organization described the sale as "a cynical act of exploitation aimed at profiting from the writings of one of the most heinous Nazi criminals". Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center was glad to see the diary fall into Jewish hands. "At a time when Ahmadinejad's Iran regularly denies the Holocaust and anti-Semitism and hatred of Jews is back in vogue, this acquisition is especially significant", he said. In 2011, a further 31 volumes of Mengele's diaries were sold—again amidst protests—by the same auction house to an undisclosed collector of World War II memorabilia for $245,000 USD.
Similarly, in Ordinary Men (1992), Christopher Browning examined the deeds of German Reserve Police Battalion 101 of the Ordnungspolizei ("order police"), used to commit massacres and round-ups of Jews, as well as mass deportations to the death camps. The members of the battalion were middle-aged men of working-class background from Hamburg, who were too old for regular military duty. They were given no special training. During the murder of 1,500 Jews from Józefów in Poland, their commander allowed them to opt out of direct participation. Fewer than 12 men out of a battalion of 500 did so. Influenced by the Milgram experiment on obedience, Browning argued that the men killed out of peer pressure, not bloodlust.
On Friday, August 4, 1944, the day of the arrest, Miep Gies climbed the stairs to the hiding place and found it ransacked and wrecked. The beleaguered little band had been betrayed by an informer who was paid seven and a half guilders—about a dollar—for each person: sixty guilders for the lot. Miep Gies picked up what she recognized as Anne’s papers and put them away, unread, in her desk drawer. There the diary lay untouched, until Otto Frank emerged alive from Auschwitz. “Had I read it,” she said afterward, “I would have had to burn the diary because it would have been too dangerous for people about whom Anne had written.” It was Miep Gies—the uncommon heroine of this story, a woman profoundly good, a failed savior—who succeeded in rescuing an irreplaceable masterwork. It may be shocking to think this (I am shocked as I think it), but one can imagine a still more salvational outcome: Anne Frank’s diary burned, vanished, lost—saved from a world that made of it all things, some of them true, while floating lightly over the heavier truth of named and inhabited evil. ♦
"Despite decades of Holocaust studies and even mass media attention (e.g., Shindler's List), no full-length treatment of the Righteous Gentiles has appeared in and for Christian ethics. Who were these people? Why did they do what they did? What kind of Christianity was theirs, if any? How do we assess them, from a moral point of view? And what does it all mean for Christian ethics? Finally, with this book the lacuna has been filled, and David Gushess does it so very, very well." ―Larry L. Rasmussen, Union Theological Seminary
A person who is recognized as Righteous for having taken risks to help Jews during the Holocaust is awarded a medal in their name, a certificate of honor, and the privilege of having the name added to those on the Wall of Honor in the Garden of the Righteous at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem (the last is in lieu of a tree planting, which was discontinued for lack of space). The awards are distributed to the rescuers or their next-of-kin during ceremonies in Israel, or in their countries of residence through the offices of Israel's diplomatic representatives. These ceremonies are attended by local government representatives and are given wide media coverage.
After the war, Mengele escaped internment and went underground, serving for four years as a farm stableman near Rosenheim in Bavaria. Then he reportedly escaped, via Genoa, Italy, to South America in 1949. He married (for a second time) under his own name in Uruguay in 1958 and, as “José Mengele,” received citizenship in Paraguay in 1959. In 1961 he apparently moved to Brazil, reportedly becoming friends with an old-time Nazi, Wolfgang Gerhard, and living in a succession of houses owned by a Hungarian couple. In 1985 a team of Brazilian, West German, and American forensic experts determined that Mengele had taken Gerhard’s identity, died in 1979 of a stroke while swimming, and was buried under Gerhard’s name. Dental records later confirmed the forensic conclusion.
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.
In July 1938, representatives of 32 countries met in the French town of Evian to discuss the refugee and immigration problems created by the Nazis in Germany. Nothing substantial was done or decided at the Evian Conference, and it became apparent to Hitler that no one wanted the Jews and that he would not meet resistance in instituting his Jewish policies. By the autumn of 1941, Europe was in effect sealed to most legal emigration. The Jews were trapped.
In 1942, fifteen Nazi leaders met at a conference in Wannsee, Germany to discuss the “Jewish Question”. Their job was to decide the most efficient way to exterminate the Jews. They decided that Jews would be sent to extermination camps where they would be sent to showers. But instead of water coming out of the faucet, they faced their death when poisonous Zyklon-B gas leaked through the showerheads to suffocate them. This decision at the conference is called the “Final Solution.”
“You want to know about my motivation, don't you? Well. It is the kind of sentiments anyone would have when he actually sees refugees face to face, begging with tears in their eyes. He just cannot help but sympathize with them. Among the refugees were the elderly and women. They were so desperate that they went so far as to kiss my shoes, Yes, I actually witnessed such scenes with my own eyes. Also, I felt at that time, that the Japanese government did not have any uniform opinion in Tokyo. Some Japanese military leaders were just scared because of the pressure from the Nazis; while other officials in the Home Ministry were simply ambivalent.
The Wannsee Conference, a meeting between the SS (the elite guard of the Nazi state) and German government agencies, opens in Berlin. They discuss and coordinate the implementation of the "Final Solution," which is already under way. At Wannsee, the SS estimates that the "Final Solution" will involve 11 million European Jews, including those from non-occupied countries such as Ireland, Sweden, Turkey, and Great Britain. Between the fall of 1941 and the fall of 1944, the German railways transport millions of people to their deaths in killing centers in occupied Poland.
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.
On 31 May 1985, acting on intelligence received by the West German prosecutor's office, police raided the house of Hans Sedlmeier, a lifelong friend of Mengele and sales manager of the family firm in Günzburg. They found a coded address book and copies of letters sent to and received from Mengele. Among the papers was a letter from Wolfram Bossert notifying Sedlmeier of Mengele's death. German authorities alerted the police in São Paulo, who then contacted the Bosserts. Under interrogation, they revealed the location of Mengele's grave, and the remains were exhumed on 6 June 1985. Extensive forensic examination indicated with a high degree of probability that the body was indeed that of Josef Mengele. Rolf Mengele issued a statement on 10 June confirming that the body was his father's, and he admitted that the news of his father's death had been concealed in order to protect the people who had sheltered him for many years.