Before the start of World War II, around 9.5 million Jewish people lived in Europe. By the time the war ended, the Nazis had killed 6 million European Jews in concentration camps, or pogroms, or ghettos, or mass executions in what we refer to today as the Holocaust. The Nazis used the term Endlösung, or Final Solution, as the “answer” to the “Jewish question.” But when did this monstrous plan get put in motion?
Written with insight, humour, and intelligence, the Diary became a classic of war literature, personalizing the Holocaust and offering a moving coming-of-age story. To many, the book was also a source of inspiration and hope. In the midst of such adversity, Anne poignantly wrote, “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are really good at heart.”
Jewish prisoners were concentrated at Bergen-Belsen, hitherto not known as one of the worst camps; but in the chaotic final months of the war conditions were allowed to deteriorate catastrophically. When British troops came across the camp on 15 April 1945, they encountered 10,000 unburied corpses, a raging typhus epidemic and 60,000 sick and dying prisoners crammed into overcrowded barracks without food or water.
By late January, roughly 80 prisoners, known to historians as the Burning Brigade, were living in the camp, in a subterranean wood-walled bunker they’d built themselves. Four were women, who washed laundry in large metal vats and prepared meals, typically a chunk of ice and dirt and potato melted down to stew. The men were divided into groups. The weaker men maintained the pyres that smoldered through the night, filling the air with the heavy smell of burning flesh. The strongest hauled bodies from the earth with bent and hooked iron poles. One prisoner, a Russian named Yuri Farber, later recalled that they could identify the year of death based on the corpse’s level of undress:
The British and American governments were reluctant to publicize the intelligence they had received. A BBC Hungarian Service memo, written by Carlile Macartney, a BBC broadcaster and senior Foreign Office adviser on Hungary, stated in 1942: "We shouldn't mention the Jews at all." The British government's view was that the Hungarian people's antisemitism would make them distrust the Allies if Allied broadcasts focused on the Jews. The US government similarly feared turning the war into one about the Jews; antisemitism and isolationism were common in the US before its entry into the war. Although governments and the German public appear to have understood what was happening, it seems the Jews themselves did not. According to Saul Friedländer, "[t]estimonies left by Jews from all over occupied Europe indicate that, in contradistinction to vast segments of surrounding society, the victims did not understand what was ultimately in store for them." In Western Europe, he writes, Jewish communities seem to have failed to piece the information together, while in Eastern Europe, they could not accept that the stories they heard from elsewhere would end up applying to them too.
This is not about people acting out a crime of passion. This is planned and rationalized violence — a cultural brainwashing. The rationalization is always that the victims are not truly human, not worthy of the same protections of the law. It’s interesting that the Nazis are often linked to Christianity, especially the Catholic Church. But it is precisely the teachings of the Church that stand in the way of such dehumanization. This is something that Mengele himself knew, as he was raised in a Catholic family. In fact, in his post-WWII journal, Mengele specifically wrote, “We had to liberate Germanic history from Roman and Catholic influences.”
After learning of plans to collect diaries and other papers to chronicle people’s wartime experiences, Anne began to rework her journal for possible publication as a novel entitled Het Achterhuis (“The Secret Annex”). She notably created pseudonyms for all the inhabitants, eventually adopting Anne Robin as her alias. Pfeffer—whom Anne had come to dislike as the two often argued over the use of a desk—was named Albert Dussel, the surname of which is German for “idiot.”
Political dissidents, trade unionists, and Social Democrats were among the first to be arrested and incarcerated in concentration camps. Under the Weimar government, centuries-old prohibitions against homosexuality had been overlooked, but this tolerance ended violently when the SA (Storm Troopers) began raiding gay bars in 1933. Homosexual intent became just cause for prosecution. The Nazis arrested German and Austrian male homosexuals—there was no systematic persecution of lesbians—and interned them in concentration camps, where they were forced to wear special yellow armbands and later pink triangles. The goal of persecuting male homosexuals was either for reeducation—what might now be called conversion therapy—or punishment. Jehovah’s Witnesses were a problem for the Nazis because they refused to swear allegiance to the state, register for the draft, or utter the words “Heil Hitler.” As a result, the Nazis imprisoned many of the roughly 20,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses in Germany. They could be released from concentration camps if they signed a document renouncing their faith and promising not to proselytize. Few availed themselves of that option, preferring martyrdom to apostasy. Germans of African descent—many of whom, called “Rhineland bastards” by the Nazis, were the offspring of German mothers and French colonial African troops who had occupied the Rhineland after World War I—were also persecuted by the Nazis. Although their victimization was less systematic, it included forced sterilization and, often, internment in concentration camps. The fear was that they would “further pollute” and thereby diminish the race. The Nazis also singled out the Roma and Sinti, pejoratively known as Gypsies. They were the only other group that the Nazis systematically killed in gas chambers alongside the Jews. For the Roma and Sinti, too, racial pollution and their depiction as asocials was the justification for their persecution and murder.
Today, I am going to refer quite frankly to a very grave chapter. We can mention it now among ourselves quite openly and yet we shall never talk about it in public. I'm referring to the evacuation of the Jews, the extermination of the Jewish people. Most of you will know what it's like to see 100 corpses side by side or 500 corpses or 1,000 of them. To have coped with this and—except for cases of human weakness—to have remained decent, that has made us tough. This is an unwritten—never to be written—and yet glorious page in our history.
And audiences multiplied: the Hacketts’ drama went all over the world—including Israel, where numbers of survivors were remaking their lives—and was everywhere successful. The play’s reception in Germany was especially noteworthy. In an impressive and thorough-going essay entitled “Popularization and Memory,” Alvin Rosenfeld, a professor of English at Indiana University, recounts the development of the Anne Frank phenomenon in the country of her birth. “The theater reviews of the time,” Rosenfeld reports, “tell of audiences sitting in stunned silence at the play and leaving the performance unable to speak or to look one another in the eye.” These were self-conscious and thin-skinned audiences; in the Germany of the fifties, theatregoers still belonged to the generation of the Nazi era. (On Broadway, Kanin had unblinkingly engaged Gusti Huber, of that same generation, to play Anne Frank’s mother. As a member of the Nazi Actors Guild until Germany’s defeat, Huber had early on disparaged “non-Aryan artists.”) But the strange muteness in theatres may have derived not so much from guilt or shame as from an all-encompassing compassion; or call it self-pity. “We see in Anne Frank’s fate,” a German drama critic offered, “our own fate—the tragedy of human existence per se.” Hannah Arendt, philosopher and Hitler refugee, scorned such oceanic expressions, calling it “cheap sentimentality at the expense of a great catastrophe.” And Bruno Bettelheim, a survivor of Dachau and Buchenwald, condemned the play’s most touted line: “If all men are good, there was never an Auschwitz.” A decade after the fall of Nazism, the spirited and sanitized young girl of the play became a vehicle for German communal identification—with the victim, not the persecutors—and, according to Rosenfeld, a continuing “symbol of moral and intellectual convenience.” The Anne Frank whom thousands saw in seven openings in seven cities “spoke affirmatively about life and not accusingly about her torturers.” No German in uniform appeared onstage. “In a word,” Rosenfeld concludes, “Anne Frank has become a ready-at-hand formula for easy forgiveness.”
SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich, head of the Reich Main Security Office (Reichssicherheitshauptamt or RSHA), convened what became known as the Wannsee Conference on 20 January 1942 at Am Großen Wannsee 56–58, a villa in Berlin's Wannsee suburb. The meeting had been scheduled for 9 December 1941, and invitations had been sent on 29 November, but it had been postponed.
I confess to feeling slightly voyeuristic while reading this. It was constantly in the back of my mind that this was no ordinary novel, or even a true-to-life account. This was someone’s diary. Every page written in confidence, each word revealing the thoughts closest to the heart of this young girl. As a journal-keeper myself, I sometimes find myself wondering, “What if someone else were to read this?” which causes me to wonder how much to filter my words. But then, isn’t the purpose of a diary ...more
Gerda Schrage was 24 years old when she was sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944. She had been in hiding in Berlin during the war, until someone betrayed her to the Gestapo and she was arrested. According to Gerda's story, as told in the documentary film "Gerda's Silence," when she arrived at Auschwitz, she was pregnant by a married man with whom she had had an affair while she was in hiding. Her baby died in her arms at Birkenau because Dr. Mengele was conducting yet another cruel experiment and would not allow her to nurse the baby.
The murder industry began in the Chelmno camp, built in December 1941. Work was carried out in special trucks, where the victims were asphyxiated by exhaust fumes, a method that had been tried before on those whose lives were deemed useless (the “Euthanasia Program”). From September 1939, about 100,000 “Aryan” Germans were assassinated in this manner, in what was named “Operation T4.” Two years later, the personnel responsible for the “euthanasia” program were called upon to apply their expertise to murdering Jews. In the single camp of Chelmno, 150,000 human beings were gassed to death, most of them brought to the camp from annexed territories, the Warthegau district of western Poland and the Lodz Ghetto.
The match was perfect. The video image of the photograph was imposed precisely over the video image of the skull. It was a face wrapped over a skull, subject over object, an image of life over an image of death. While the images helped to push the probability calculation further in the direction of a definitive identification, they did more than that, for it was the appearance of a previously unseen image that produced the potential for conviction.
On October 23, 1941, S.S. head Heinrich Himmler issued an order down the Nazi chain of command which heralded a major change in Nazi policy with respect to the “Jewish problem.” Until then, the Nazis worked vigorously to encourage Jews to emigrate. The Madagascar Plan (see below) was one example of strategies which were formulated to remove Jews from Germany and its occupied lands. As is described in more detail in Chapter 11, many countries refused to accept Jewish refugees. This shift in policy resulted in the deportation of Jews to camps and ghettos in the East. The policy to “resettle” Jews to these ghettos and camps was a significant step in what was to become the “Final Solution” the systematic murder of millions of Jews.
Its historical significance makes the term Final Solution the most important example of the ability of Nazi language to integrate potentially different if not divergent approaches towards the so-called Jewish question into a conceptual frame of reference that helped facilitate systematic mass murder and to hide the Third Reich's genocidal policies behind technocratic abstractions, thus providing legitimization for perpetrators and enabling bystanders to claim not to know what was going on. Despite its inherent problems, most notably in evoking the illusion of coordinated planning and systematic implementation, the term Final Solution remains crucial for recognizing the process character of the Holocaust as a key element in a broader history of state-sponsored mass murder during the Nazi era.
Anxious to limit immigration to the United States and to maintain good relations with the Vichy government, the State Department actively discouraged diplomats from helping refugees. However, Bingham cooperated in issuing visas and helping refugees escape France. Hiram Bingham gave about 2,000 visas, most of them to well-known personalities, speaking English, including Max Ernst, André Breton, Hannah Arendt, Marc Chagall, Lion Feuchtwanger and Nobel prize winner Otto Meyerhof.
While these massacres were happening, the Nazis elsewhere were laying plans for an overall 'solution to the Jewish question'. Death camp operations began in December 1941 at Semlin in Serbia and Chelmno in Poland, where people were killed by exhaust fumes in specially modified vans, which were then driven to nearby sites where the bodies were plundered and burnt. 250,000 Jews were killed this way at Chelmno and 15,000 at Semlin.
General Patch's 12th Armored Division, forging their way towards the Austrian border, uncovered horrors at a German prison camp at Schwabmunchen, southwest of Munich. Over 4,000 slave laborers, all Jews of various nationalities, were housed in the prison. The internees were burned alive by guards who set fire to the crude huts in which the prisoners slept, shooting any who tried to escape. Sprawled here in the prison enclosure are the burnt bodies of some of the Jewish slave laborers uncovered by the US 7th Army at Schwabmunchen, May 1, 1945. #
“With respect of the Jewish Question, the Führer has decided to make a clean sweep. He prophesied to the Jews that if they again brought about a world war, they would live to see their annihilation in it. That wasn’t just a catchword… If the German people have now again sacrificed 160,000 dead on the eastern front, then those responsible for this bloody conflict will have to pay with their lives.”
But 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 1200 Jews by moving them from Plaszow labor camp to his hometown of Brunnlitz. The country of Denmark rescued nearly its entire population of Jews, over 7000, by transporting them to safety by sea. Italy and Bulgaria both refused to cooperate with German demands for deportations. Elsewhere in Europe, people generally stood by passively and watched as Jewish families were marched through the streets toward waiting trains, or in some cases, actively participated in Nazi persecutions.
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.