The plans to exterminate all the Jews of Europe was formalized at the Wannsee Conference, held at an SS guesthouse near Berlin, on 20 January 1942. The conference was chaired by Heydrich and attended by 15 senior officials of the Nazi Party and the German government. Most of those attending were representatives of the Interior Ministry, the Foreign Ministry, and the Justice Ministry, including Ministers for the Eastern Territories. At the conference, Heydrich indicated that approximately 11,000,000 Jews in Europe would fall under the provisions of the "Final Solution". This figure included not only Jews residing in Axis-controlled Europe, but also the Jewish populations of the United Kingdom and of neutral nations (Switzerland, Ireland, Sweden, Spain, Portugal, and European Turkey). Eichmann's biographer David Cesarani wrote that Heydrich's main purpose in convening the conference was to assert his authority over the various agencies dealing with Jewish issues. "The simplest, most decisive way that Heydrich could ensure the smooth flow of deportations" to death camps, according to Cesarani, "was by asserting his total control over the fate of the Jews in the Reich and the east" under the single authority of the RSHA. A copy of the minutes of this meeting was found by the Allies in March 1947; it was too late to serve as evidence during the first Nuremberg Trial, but was used by prosecutor General Telford Taylor in the subsequent Nuremberg Trials.
Resistance movements also helped Jews. Sometimes, this aid was intended to help the Jews; often it was rendered in the context of the general anti-Nazi resistance. In Yugoslavia, Serbian partisans attacked a concentration camp near Nish in 1941, freeing a small number of Jews. On April 19, 1943, the Committee for Jewish Defense, aided by Christian railroad workers, attacked a Belgian transport leaving Malines for Auschwitz. Several hundred Jewish deportees escaped with the help of the Belgian resistance.
While the Righteous Among the Nations went to different lengths to save Jews, Yad Vashem outlines four distinct ways these individuals helped the Jewish community. The first was by hiding Jews in the rescuer's home or on their property and providing food and other necessities to the Jews while in hiding. Secondly, some of the Righteous obtained false papers and false identities for those they saved. The third type of rescuer specified by Yad Vashem were those who helped Jews escape from Nazi occupied territory or to a less dangerous area. Finally, some rescuers saved children after their parents had been taken to concentration camps or killed.
The Holocaust was the systematic, bureaucratic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of six million Jews by the Nazi regime and its collaborators. Holocaust is a word of Greek origin meaning “sacrifice by fire.” The Nazis, who came to power in Germany in January 1933, believed that Germans were “racially superior” and that the Jews, deemed “inferior,” were an alien threat to the so-called German racial community.
Encouraged by von Verschuer, Mengele applied for transfer to the concentration camp service to take advantage of the opportunity to conduct genetic research on human subjects. His application was accepted and he was posted to Auschwitz in the spring of 1943. Mengele first gained notoriety for supervising the selection of arriving prisoners to the camp, determining who would be sent to the gas chambers and who would become a forced laborer. This earned him the reputation as the “Angel of Death.” Whereas most of the other doctors viewed the selection process as one of the most horrible duties and had to get drunk in order to endure it, Mengele had no problem with the task. He often arrived smiling and whistling a tune, and even showed up for selections he wasn’t assigned to.
According to the drawings done by Walter Dejaco, one of the architects of the Krema II building, the original blueprint showed a corpse slide for rolling bodies down into the vestibule between the two morgues, which were later converted into an undressing room and a gas chamber. The corpse slide was never built. Dejaco was acquitted by a court in Austria in 1972; at his trial, the drawings of the corpse slide were entered as evidence. (The morgue at the Sachsenhausen camp has a corpse slide which can still be seen today.)
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.
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.
But this week the Israeli courts waded into the process of selecting who to include on the list of righteous gentiles at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem amid a campaign to add two Germans - one of them a convicted war criminal who was at the centre of a recent Hollywood film - and to strike off a Ukrainian who Jewish survivors say has no place among heroes.
Trainloads of human cargo arriving at Auschwitz went through a selection process conducted by SS doctors such as Josef Mengele. Young adults considered fit for slave labor were allowed to live and had an ID number tattooed on their left forearm. Everyone else went to the gas chambers. A few inmates, including twin children, were occasionally set aside for participation in human medical experiments.
A subsequent bowdlerization, in 1950, was still more programmatic, and crossed over even more seriously into the area of Levin’s concern for uncompromised faithfulness. The German edition’s translator, Anneliese Schütz, in order to mask or soft-pedal German culpability, went about methodically blurring every hostile reference to Germans and German. Anne’s parodic list of house rules, for instance, included “Use of language: It is necessary to speak softly at all times. Only the language of civilized people may be spoken, thus no German.” The German translation reads, “Alle Kultursprachen . . . aber leise!”—“all civilized languages . . . but softly!” “Heroism in the war or when confronting the Germans” is dissolved into “heroism in the war and in the struggle against oppression.” (“A book intended after all for sale in Germany,” Schütz explained, “cannot abuse the Germans.”) The diarist’s honest cry, in the midst of a vast persecution, that “there is no greater hostility than exists between Germans and Jews” became, in Schütz’s version, “there is no greater hostility in the world than between these Germans and Jews!” Frank agreed to the latter change because, he said, it was what his daughter had really meant: she “by no means measured all Germans by the same yardstick. For, as she knew so well, even in those days we had many good friends among the Germans.” But this guarded accommodationist view is Otto Frank’s own; it is nowhere in the diary. Even more striking than Frank’s readiness to accede to such misrepresentations is the fact that for forty-one years (until a more accurate translation appeared) no reader of the diary in German had ever known an intact text.
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.
A major tool of the Nazis' propaganda assault was the weekly Nazi newspaper Der Stürmer (The Attacker). At the bottom of the front page of each issue, in bold letters, the paper proclaimed, "The Jews are our misfortune!" Der Stürmer also regularly featured cartoons of Jews in which they were caricatured as hooked-nosed and apelike. The influence of the newspaper was far-reaching: by 1938 about a half million copies were distributed weekly.
My friend and colleague, Rani Jaeger, one of the founders of Beit Tefila Israeli, tells a story of his family’s rescue through the generosity and courage of gentiles in Bulgaria. Unfortunately, there are far fewer stories like mine and Rani’s than there are of callousness, bigotry and racism during the Holocaust. We need to tell the story of the perpetrators and the victims. It is essential to remember, to keep the memory alive of those who suffered and perished. We cannot let this happen again, not to the Jewish people and not to any other people.
'Righteous Gentiles' is the phrase used for those non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. At Yad Vashem Museum in Jerusalem, over 11,000 'Righteous Gentiles' are honored; almost 5,000 are Polish. What follows are profiles and oral histories of ten Polish rescuers of Jews. Their stories reveal what transforms people from indifferent bystanders into heroic saviors