As Siksnianas led Freund through the woods, he told an astonishing story about a group of prisoners who had reportedly tunneled to freedom and joined partisan fighters hiding out in the forest. But when Freund asked to see exactly how they made it out, he got only shrugs. No one could show him; no one knew. Because a tunnel had never been definitively located and documented, the story had come to take on the contours of a fable, and three-quarters of a century on, it seemed destined to remain a legend without any verifiable evidence to back it up—a crucial piece of the historical record, lost to time.
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.
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.
There are so many wonderful juxtapositions of text and imagery that it feels cruel to focus on only a few, but another consistent standout is the way the graphic novel conveys Anne’s fantasies and emotions — so crucial to the “Diary.” In a line taken almost verbatim from the book, Folman’s Anne wonders, “How can we, whose every possession, from my panties to Father’s shaving brush, is so old and worn, ever hope to regain the position we had before the war?” Polonsky’s accompanying illustration depicts the Franks as beggars huddled on the side of an elegant street lined with cafes and restaurants, while passers-by in fancy clothes — including the van Daans — ignore them. In a page illustrating Anne’s most tumultuous inner thoughts, Polonsky draws her as the figure in Munch’s “The Scream”; for a calmer moment, she’s Adele Bloch-Bauer in Klimt’s “Portrait.” When 16-year-old Peter van Daan and Anne first begin to fall in love, Polonsky depicts their faces reflected in each other’s pupils, as if to indicate the depth of their feelings.
In 1942, Auschwitz II (Birkenau), originally intended to house slave laborers, began to be used instead as a combined labor camp and extermination camp. Prisoners were transported there by rail from all over German-occupied Europe, arriving in daily convoys. By July 1942, SS doctors were conducting "selections" where incoming Jews were segregated, and those considered able to work were admitted into the camp while those deemed unfit for labor were immediately killed in the gas chambers. The arrivals that were selected to die, about three-quarters of the total,[a] included almost all children, women with small children, pregnant women, all the elderly, and all of those who appeared (in a brief and superficial inspection by an SS doctor) to be not completely fit and healthy.
The Majdanek camp served from time to time as a killing site for Jews residing in the Generalgouvernement. In its gas chambers, the SS killed tens of thousands of Jews, primarily forced laborers too weak to work. The SS and police killed at least 152,000 people, mostly Jews, but also a few thousand Roma (Gypsies), in gas vans at the Chelmno killing center about thirty miles northwest of Lodz. In the spring of 1942, Himmler designated Auschwitz II (Auschwitz-Birkenau) as a killing facility. SS authorities murdered approximately one million Jews from various European countries at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Assistant coroner José António de Mello displays a skull to press photographers at the exhumation site in the Nossa Senhora do Rosário Cemetery, Embu das Artes, Brazil, June 6, 1985. Romeu Tuma, the chief of the federal police in São Paulo, shown standing over the site of the grave as the skull and bones were exhibited to the cameras, told the assembled reporters that Mengele “was well and truly dead.” But this statement was immediately contested, for not everyone was convinced that the bones were Mengele’s.
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.
For the most part, these individuals did not plan to become heroes; the names of the rescuers are largely unrecorded, and their good deeds remain anonymous and unrewarded, except in the emotions of those they saved. They helped by providing hiding places, false papers, food, clothing, money, contact with the outside world, underground escape routes and sometimes even weapons.
Polish gentiles who rescued Jews had several obstacles to overcome. The most serious were the German laws against protecting Jews and the corresponding obligation to identify those who violated these laws. On 15 October 1941, the Nazis introduced a widely publicized law making unauthorized Jewish movement outside ghettos a crime punishable by death. The same punishment applied to gentiles who helped Jews escape. Transgressions were promptly followed by executions that were also widely publicized.
Mengele was born on 16 March 1911 to Walburga (née Hupfauer) and Karl Mengele in Günzburg, Bavaria, Germany. He was the oldest of three children; his two younger brothers were Karl Jr. and Alois. Their father was founder of the Karl Mengele & Sons company, producers of farm machinery. Josef was successful at school and developed an interest in music, art, and skiing. He completed high school in April 1930 and went on to study philosophy in Munich, where the headquarters of the Nazi Party were located. In 1931, Mengele joined the Stahlhelm, Bund der Frontsoldaten, a paramilitary organization that was absorbed into the Nazi Sturmabteilung (Storm Detachment; SA) in 1934.