“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.”
The house here is the Temple, and the mountain the Temple Mount. Although nothing in the book of Esther suggests explicitly that Harbonah joined himself to God or kept the Sabbath, by standing up for God’s people he, too, found himself an “everlasting name.” This is the meaning of the rabbinic phrase “to be remembered for the good,” and the reason it was important to our poet to make room for Harbonah prominently at the end of his poem.
On September 21, 1939, Reinhard Heydrich ordered the establishment of the Judenräte (“Jewish Councils”), comprising up to 24 men—rabbis and Jewish leaders. Heydrich’s order made these councils personally responsible in “the literal sense of the term” for carrying out German orders. When the Nazis sealed the Warsaw Ghetto, the largest of German-occupied Poland’s 400 ghettos, in the fall of 1940, the Jews—then 30 percent of Warsaw’s population—were forced into 2.4 percent of the city’s area. The ghetto’s population reached a density of more than 200,000 persons per square mile (77,000 per square km) and 9.2 per room. Disease, malnutrition, hunger, and poverty took their toll even before the first bullet was fired.
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.
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.
Peter Longerich argues that the search for a finite date on which the Nazis embarked upon the extermination of the Jews is futile, in his book Holocaust: The Nazi Persecution and Murder of the Jews (2011). Longerich writes: "We should abandon the notion that it is historically meaningful to try to filter the wealth of available historical material and pick out a single decision" that led to the Holocaust.
The Holocaust began in 1933 when Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany and ended in 1945 when the Nazis were defeated by the Allied powers. The term Holocaust is derived from the Greek word holokauston, which means sacrifice by fire. It refers to the Nazi persecution and planned slaughter of the Jewish people and others considered inferior to "true" Germans. The Hebrew word Shoah, which means devastation, ruin or waste, also refers to this genocide.
However, an examination of other variables suggests that rescuers shared a cluster of common personal characteristics. One of these can be called individuality or separateness. Polish rescuers often did not quite fit into their social environments. To illustrate, the peasant Jan Rybak, who helped save both Jews and Russian prisoners of war during the German occupation, had little formal education but was nonetheless a compulsive reader. His knowledge and love for learning gained him the nickname philosopher. Moreover, he avoided alcohol and did not follow the local custom of wife beating.
The story is based on a stageplay which was in turn based on the actual diary of Anne Frank, whose family (being Jewish) went into hiding in Nazi-occupied Holland in 1942, sharing a very small space with several others. As the title implies, the movie is largely about Anne. We watch her grow up in this claustrophobic setting - starting at age 13 and spending more than two years there until the group was discovered. Starting out as a child with a natural rebellious streak, Anne grows into a young woman, falling in love with a young man sharing the living quarters. Millie Perkins was excellent as young Anne, and I was impressed with Joseph Schildkraut as her father Otto, who was in the end the only survivor. The movie begins and ends with his post-war visit to the place where they were hidden, and his grief at being the only survivor among his family is powerfully portrayed. In general, all the performances in this were quite good, and there was a believable portrayal of the difficulties involved in so many people sharing so little space under such stressful circumstances, and there are a number of very suspenseful moments involved. It's a very moving story.
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".
Throughout Nazi-occupied Europe, relatively few non-Jewish persons were willing to risk their own lives to help the Jews. Notable exceptions included Oskar Schindler, a German who saved 1,200 Jews by moving them from Plaszow labor camp to his hometown of Brunnlitz. The Nazi-occupied nation of Denmark rescued nearly its entire population of Jews, over 7,000, by transporting them to safety by sea. Italy and Bulgaria both refused to cooperate with Nazi demands for deportations. Elsewhere in Europe, people generally stood by passively and watched as their neighbors were marched through the streets toward waiting trains, or in some cases, actively participated in Nazi roundups.
2) Our inner duty: a “Yizkor for the Righteous Gentiles” inserts this heroic chapter into the memory of the Holocaust, as reflected in ceremonies across Israel. Ceremonies are indeed too narrow a tool to hold the spectrum of questions and meanings raised by the Holocaust. And yet their very existence testifies to our need for them, precisely because it is within them that we experience a temporary unity of time, place, and meaning. Through them we find essential meaning for ourselves and for our children in the myriad messages arising from the Holocaust at any given moment. This is why it is so important that in this capsulated message, there will be room also for those people who chose to do good, risking life and limb, within an impossibly evil reality.
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.
In response to a typhus epidemic in the women's camp, Mengele cleared one block of six hundred Jewish women and sent them to their deaths in the gas chambers. The building was then cleaned and disinfected, and the occupants of a neighboring block were bathed, de-loused, and given new clothing before being moved into the clean block. This process was repeated until all of the barracks were disinfected. Similar procedures were used for later epidemics of scarlet fever and other diseases, with infected prisoners being killed in the gas chambers. For these actions, Mengele was awarded the War Merit Cross (Second Class with swords) and was promoted in 1944 to First Physician of the Birkenau subcamp.