One of the clearest examples of Hitler’s single-minded (and seemingly suicidal) desire to rid the world of the Jews can be seen in the extermination of the Jews of Hungary. Until March of 1944, the Hungarian government had refused to allow the deportation of Hungarian Jews. It March 1944 the Germans occupied Hungary and by mid May ( two weeks before D Day) the mass deportations to Auschwitz. The Nazi leadership worked with particular intensity. The Soviet army was rapidly approaching Hungary and the Germans knew that they were going to lose the war. But there was no way that Hitler could allow such a large Jewish community to survive. He diverted trains that were badly needed to transport more soldiers to the Russian front just to send more Jews to Auschwitz. To him, the greater enemy was the Jew.
When Menachem Begin came to power in 1977, he wanted a change. He made that clear in an early meeting with Yitzhak Hofi, who was then the director of the Mossad. “When Begin came in, he thought that not enough was being done and that there was a need to go on hunting Nazis,” Hofi later said in a classified interview with the Menachem Begin Heritage Center. “I told him, ‘Prime minister, today the Mossad has other missions that concern the national security of the people of Israel today and tomorrow, and I give preference to today and tomorrow over yesterday.’ ” Begin didn’t appreciate that response. “In the end we decided that we would focus on one more target, Mengele, but Begin, who was a very emotional man, was disappointed,” Hofi said.
Nearby, at Auschwitz in adjacent Upper Silesia, a much larger killing complex was constructed. Auschwitz Commandant Rudolf Höss later testified that SS-Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler instructed: “The Führer has ordered the Final Solution of the Jewish question. We, the SS, have to carry out this order. I have therefore chosen Auschwitz for this purpose.”
Defined by the religion of their grandparents rather than by their own beliefs, Jews were viewed as having impure blood lines. The new laws were taught in schools, cementing anti-Semitism in German culture. Most Germans kept quiet, often benefiting when Jews lost jobs and businesses. Persecution of other minorities also escalated: the police were given new powers to arrest homosexuals and compulsory abortions were administered to women considered to be ‘hereditarily ill’.
In the photo below, Captain Franz Hoessler is standing in front of a load of corpses of prisoners who died from typhus at Bergen-Belsen. He is speaking into a microphone for a documentary film made by the British after the Bergen-Belsen camp was turned over to them by Heinrich Himmler on April 15, 1945. He is wearing his SS uniform, but the insignia of his military rank has been removed. Hoessler was convicted by the British and hanged on December 13, 1945 for war crimes that he had committed at Auschwitz-Birkenau, including his participation in the selection of prisoners to be gassed.
The German occupation authorities carried out shooting operations of Jews and others they deemed to be potential enemies of permanent German rule in the east; these operations lasted until the Germans evacuated the Soviet Union in the first half of 1944. The SS and police often did not have sufficient manpower to carry out these operations, so they were assisted whenever necessary by local auxiliaries whom they recruited and by units of the German armed forces. The Germans and their collaborators killed between 1.0 and 1.5 million Jews in shooting operations or in gas vans in the occupied Soviet Union
These three extermination factories — with Belzec responsible for about 600,000 victims, Sobibor 200,000, Treblinka 900,000 — shared certain features. Like Auschwitz at a later stage, they were equipped with railroad terminals that the trains entered in reverse. The victims were ordered to undress and then led through a corridor to the gas chambers; the gas was composed of carbon monoxide produced by diesel motors. At first, the corpses were buried in mass graves, later they were burnt in crematoria. The similarity to the “euthanasia” program was evident here too. In August 1941, the camps inspector was SS Sturmbannfiihrer Christian Wirth who, like dozens of other specialists of “Operation T4,” was placed under Odilo Globocnik, the commander of the SS for the region of Lublin.
Overnight on November 9-10, 1938, the Nazis incited a pogrom against Jews in Austria and Germany called Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass, or literally translated from German, "Crystal Night"). This included the pillaging and burning of synagogues, the breaking of windows of Jewish-owned businesses and the looting of those stores. In the morning, broken glass littered the ground. Many Jews were physically attacked or harassed, and approximately 30,000 were arrested and sent to concentration camps.
I knew the story of how she went into hiding with her family for a few years and wrote everything down in a journal. I knew of the fact that she was captured right at the end of the war, when hope was high and peace was nigh, only to die of typhus a mere few weeks before her concentration camp would be liberated. All of this, I knew, I’d been told many a time in history class.
Using gas vans, Chełmno had its roots in the Aktion T4 euthanasia program. Majdanek began as a POW camp, but in August 1942 it had gas chambers installed. A few other camps are occasionally named as extermination camps, but there is no scholarly agreement on the additional camps; commonly mentioned are Mauthausen in Austria and Stutthof. There may also have been plans for camps at Mogilev and Lvov.
Although Yad Vashem (Israel’s Memorial to the Six Million) has honored over 1,200 Righteous Among the Nations since 1953, it is impossible to generalize about the motives, deeds, and actual numbers of these rescuers. Some rescuers acted within the planned context of guerrilla units and resistance movements, others used the buildings and funds of the Roman Catholic church to aid Jews.
By the end of December 1941, before the Wannsee Conference, over 439,800 Jewish people had been murdered, and the Final Solution policy in the east became common knowledge within the SS. Entire regions were reported "free of Jews" by the Einsatzgruppen. Addressing his district governors in the General Government on 16 December 1941, Governor-General Hans Frank said: "But what will happen to the Jews? Do you believe they will be lodged in settlements in Ostland? In Berlin, we were told: why all this trouble; we cannot use them in the Ostland or the Reichskommissariat either; liquidate them yourselves!" Two days later, Himmler recorded the outcome of his discussion with Hitler. The result was: "als Partisanen auszurotten" ("exterminate them as partisans"). Israeli historian Yehuda Bauer wrote that the remark is probably as close as historians will ever get to a definitive order from Hitler for the genocide carried out during the Holocaust. Within two years, the total number of shooting victims in the east had risen to between 618,000 and 800,000 Jews.
While the Nazis murdered other national and ethnic groups, such as a number of Soviet prisoners of war, Polish intellectuals, and gypsies, only the Jews were marked for systematic and total annihilation. Jews were singled out for "Special Treatment" (Sonderbehandlung), which meant that Jewish men, women and children were to be methodically killed with poisonous gas. In the exacting records kept at the Auschwitz death camp, the cause of death of Jews who had been gassed was indicated by "SB," the first letters of the two words that form the German term for "Special Treatment."
Jews would be “utilised for work in the East… [The] sexes [will be] separated. Jews capable of work will be moved into these areas as they build roads, during which a large proportion will no doubt drop out through natural reduction. The remnant that eventually remains will require suitable treatment…The evacuated Jews will first be taken, group by group, to so-called transit ghettos, in order to be transported further east from there.”
After obtaining a copy of his birth certificate through the West German embassy in 1956, Mengele was issued with an Argentine foreign residence permit under his real name. He used this document to obtain a West German passport, also using his real name, and embarked on a trip to Europe. He met up with his son Rolf (who was told Mengele was his "Uncle Fritz") and his widowed sister-in-law Martha, for a ski holiday in Switzerland; he also spent a week in his home town of Günzburg. When he returned to Argentina in September 1956, Mengele began living under his real name. Martha and her son Karl Heinz followed about a month later, and the three began living together. Josef and Martha were married in 1958 while on holiday in Uruguay, and they bought a house in Buenos Aires. Mengele's business interests now included part ownership of Fadro Farm, a pharmaceutical company. Along with several other doctors, Mengele was questioned in 1958 on suspicion of practicing medicine without a license when a teenage girl died after an abortion, but he was released without charge. Aware that the publicity would lead to his Nazi background and wartime activities being discovered, he took an extended business trip to Paraguay and was granted citizenship there in 1959 under the name "José Mengele". He returned to Buenos Aires several times to settle his business affairs and visit his family. Martha and Karl lived in a boarding house in the city until December 1960, when they returned to Germany.
In addition to active help, many clergymen also protested the mistreatment and deportations of Jews as violations of divine and human laws. The Catholic pastor of St. Hedwig’s Cathedral in Berlin, Bernard Lichtenburg, prayed publicly for the Jews until his arrest and death on the way to Dachau. The rescue work of priests of all Christian denominations is well-documented in postwar literature.
Along with several other Auschwitz doctors, Mengele transferred to Gross-Rosen concentration camp in Lower Silesia on 17 January 1945, taking with him two boxes of specimens and the records of his experiments at Auschwitz. Most of the camp medical records had already been destroyed by the SS by the time the Red Army liberated Auschwitz on 27 January. Mengele fled Gross-Rosen on 18 February, a week before the Soviets arrived there, and traveled westward to Žatec in Czechoslovakia, disguised as a Wehrmacht officer. There he temporarily entrusted his incriminating documents to a nurse with whom he had struck up a relationship. He and his unit then hurried west to avoid being captured by the Soviets, but were taken prisoners of war by the Americans in June 1945. Although Mengele was initially registered under his own name, he was not identified as being on the major war criminal list due to the disorganization of the Allies regarding the distribution of wanted lists, and the fact that he did not have the usual SS blood group tattoo. He was released at the end of July and obtained false papers under the name "Fritz Ullman", documents he later altered to read "Fritz Hollmann".