The killing grounds at Ponar are today part of a memorial site run by the Vilna Gaon Museum, in Vilnius. There is a granite obelisk inscribed with the date of the Soviet liberation of the region, and clusters of candles smoldering in the small shrines on the edge of the burial pits, in honor of the tens of thousands who perished here. A small museum near the entrance to the site collects photographs and testimonies from the camp. One enters the museum prepared to weep, and leaves insensate: The black-and-white images of tangled human limbs in a ditch, the crumpled corpses of children, the disinterred dead piled in wheelbarrows, waiting to be brought to the pyres—the effect of the material is deeply physical and hard to shake.
Killing on a mass scale using gas chambers or gas vans was the main difference between the extermination and concentration camps. From the end of 1941, the Germans built six extermination camps in occupied Poland: Auschwitz II-Birkenau, Majdanek, Chełmno, and the three Operation Reinhard camps at Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka II. Maly Trostenets, a concentration camp in the Reichskommissariat Ostland, became a killing centre in 1942. Gerlach writes that over three million Jews were murdered in 1942, the year that "marked the peak" of the mass murder of Jews. At least 1.4 million of these were in the General Government area of Poland.
This meeting, which would be followed by the January 1942 Wannsee Conference (where the decision on exterminating all European Jews was further reinforced), was hardly the start of violence against Jews. Attacks had been happening in Nazi Germany’s occupied territories for years. What differentiated this period from earlier attacks was “an escalation of murder,” says Elizabeth White, historian at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
In the final months of the war, SS guards moved camp inmates by train or on forced marches, often called “death marches,” in an attempt to prevent the Allied liberation of large numbers of prisoners. As Allied forces moved across Europe in a series of offensives against Germany, they began to encounter and liberate concentration camp prisoners, as well as prisoners en route by forced march from one camp to another. The marches continued until May 7, 1945, the day the German armed forces surrendered unconditionally to the Allies.
Systematic examinations of rescuers have actually shown a high degree of heterogeneity among individuals. Rescuers came from divergent social backgrounds, varied widely in terms of political and religious involvements, and displayed different levels of friendship and animosity toward Jews. None of these variables has turned out to be a reliable predictor of the sort of person who was more or less likely to rescue Jews.
After Otto was unable to find a publisher, the work was given to historian Jan Romein, who was so impressed that he wrote about the diary in a front-page article for the newspaper Het Parool in 1946. The resulting attention led to a publishing deal with Contact, and Het Achterhuis was released on June 25, 1947. An immediate best seller in the Netherlands, the work began to appear elsewhere. In 1952 the first American edition was published under the title Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl; it included an introduction by Eleanor Roosevelt. The work was eventually translated into more than 65 languages, and it was later adapted for the stage and screen. All proceeds went to a foundation established in Anne’s honour. In 1995, 15 years after Otto’s death, a new English version of the Diary was published. It contained material that had been previously omitted. In an effort to extend the copyright date—which was to begin expiring in various European countries in 2016—Otto was added as a coauthor in 2015.
By then, Palestinian terrorism had become Israel’s main security challenge, and the Mossad devoted most of its efforts to that threat. For the next 10 years, backed by Eshkol and his successors as prime minister, Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin, almost nothing was done about Mengele. The surge in terrorism, the surprise Yom Kippur War in 1973 and the Syrian military buildup with Soviet assistance took precedence.
But Auschwitz-Birkenau became more than a concentration camp. In the spring of 1942 gas chambers were built at Birkenau and mass transports of Jews began to arrive. Some of the new arrivals were inducted into the camp as registered prisoners, but the great majority were gassed immediately. These gassing operations were greatly expanded in the spring of 1943 with the construction of four purpose-built gas chamber and crematorium complexes, which included such refinements as electric lifts to carry bodies up to the crematoria. Each crematorium could handle 2,000 victims daily. In a nearby group of barracks, nicknamed 'Canada' by the prisoners, victims' belongings were sorted for transportation to the Reich. The victims' hair was used to stuff mattresses; gold teeth were melted down and the gold deposited to an SS account.
The Holocaust, also known as the Shoah,[b] was a genocide during World War II in which Nazi Germany, aided by local collaborators, systematically murdered some six million European Jews—around two-thirds of the Jewish population of Europe—between 1941 and 1945.[a][c] Jews were targeted for extermination as part of a larger event during the Holocaust era, in which Germany and its collaborators persecuted and murdered other groups, including Slavs (chiefly ethnic Poles, Soviet prisoners of war, and Soviet citizens), the Roma, the "incurably sick", political and religious dissenters such as communists and Jehovah's Witnesses, and gay men.[d] Taking into account all the victims of Nazi persecution, the death toll rises to over 17 million.
“If only one country, for whatever reason, tolerates a Jewish family in it, that family will become the germ center for fresh sedition. If one little Jewish boy survives without any Jewish education, with no synagogue and no Hebrew school, it [Judaism] is in his soul. Even if there had never been a synagogue or a Jewish school or an Old Testament, the Jewish spirit would still exist and exert its influence. It has been there from the beginning and there is no Jew, not a single one, who does not personify it.”
Shipments of Jews to the camps had priority over anything but the army's needs on the German railways, and continued even in the face of the increasingly dire military situation at the end of 1942. Army leaders and economic managers complained about this diversion of resources and the killing of skilled Jewish workers, but Nazi leaders rated ideological imperatives above economic considerations.
The German view of the Roma as hereditary criminals and "asocials" was reflected in their classification in the concentration camps, where they were usually counted among the asocials and given black triangles to wear. According to Niewyk and Nicosia, at least 130,000 died out of nearly one million in German-occupied Europe. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum calculates at least 220,000. Ian Hancock, who specializes in Romani history and culture, argues for between 500,000 and 1,500,000. The treatment of the Roma was not consistent across German-occupied territories. Those in France and the Low Countries were subject to restrictions on movement and some confinement to collection camps, while those in Central and Eastern Europe were sent to concentration camps and murdered by soldiers and execution squads. Before being sent to the camps, the Roma were herded into ghettos, including several hundred into the Warsaw Ghetto. Further east, teams of Einsatzgruppen tracked down Romani encampments and murdered the inhabitants on the spot, leaving no records of the victims. After the Germans occupied Hungary, 1,000 Roma were deported to Auschwitz.[x]
In his 1965 essay "Command and Compliance", which originated in his work as an expert witness for the prosecution at the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials, the German historian Hans Buchheim wrote there was no coercion to murder Jews and others, and all who committed such actions did so out of free will. Buchheim wrote that chances to avoid executing criminal orders "were both more numerous and more real than those concerned are generally prepared to admit", and that he found no evidence that SS men who refused to carry out criminal orders were sent to concentration camps or executed. Moreover, SS rules prohibited acts of gratuitous sadism, as Himmler wished for his men to remain "decent"; acts of sadism were carried out on the initiative of those who were either especially cruel or wished to prove themselves ardent National Socialists. Finally, he argued that those of a non-criminal bent who committed crimes did so because they wished to conform to the values of the group they had joined and were afraid of being branded "weak" by their colleagues if they refused.
But Soviet forces were hurtling toward Auschwitz, and in November the order went out to conceal all evidences of gassing and to blow up the crematoria. Tens of thousands of inmates, debilitated and already near extinction, were driven out in bitter cold on death marches. Many were shot. In an evacuation that occurred either on October 28th or on November 2nd, Anne and Margot were dispatched to Bergen-Belsen. Margot was the first to succumb. A survivor recalled that she fell dead to the ground from the wooden slab on which she lay, eaten by lice, and that Anne, heartbroken and skeletal, naked under a bit of rag, died a day or two later.
Jews at this time composed only about one percent of Germany's population of 55 million persons. German Jews were mostly cosmopolitan in nature and proudly considered themselves to be Germans by nationality and Jews only by religion. They had lived in Germany for centuries, fought bravely for the Fatherland in its wars and prospered in numerous professions.
In the eyes of the world, we’re doomed, but if after all this suffering, there are still Jews left, the Jewish people will be held up as an example. Who knows, maybe our religion will teach the world and all the people in it about goodness, and that’s the reason, the only reason, we have to suffer. . . . God has never deserted our people. Through the ages Jews have had to suffer, but through the ages they’ve gone on living, and the centuries of suffering have only made them stronger.
In her diary, Anne wrote of her very close relationship with her father, lack of daughterly love for her mother (with whom she felt she had nothing in common), and admiration for her sister's intelligence and sweet nature. She did not like the others much initially, particularly Auguste van Pels and Fritz Pfeffer (the latter shared her room). She was at first unimpressed by the quiet Peter; she herself was something of a self-admitted chatterbox (a source of irritation to some of the others). As time went on, however, she and Peter became very close, though she remained uncertain in what direction their relationship would develop.
Anti-Semitism in Europe did not begin with Adolf Hitler. Though use of the term itself dates only to the 1870s, there is evidence of hostility toward Jews long before the Holocaust–even as far back as the ancient world, when Roman authorities destroyed the Jewish temple in Jerusalem and forced Jews to leave Palestine. The Enlightenment, during the 17th and 18th centuries, emphasized religious toleration, and in the 19th century Napoleon and other European rulers enacted legislation that ended long-standing restrictions on Jews. Anti-Semitic feeling endured, however, in many cases taking on a racial character rather than a religious one.
In October 1939 Hitler signed a "euthanasia decree" backdated to 1 September 1939 that authorized Reichsleiter Philipp Bouhler, the chief of Hitler's Chancellery, and Karl Brandt, Hitler's personal physician, to carry out a program of involuntary "euthanasia"; after the war this program was named Aktion T4. It was named after Tiergartenstraße 4, the address of a villa in the Berlin borough of Tiergarten, where the various organizations involved were headquartered. T4 was mainly directed at adults, but the "euthanasia" of children was also carried out. Between 1939 and 1941, 80,000 to 100,000 mentally ill adults in institutions were killed, as were 5,000 children and 1,000 Jews, also in institutions. In addition there were specialized killing centres, where the deaths were estimated at 20,000, according to Georg Renno, the deputy director of Schloss Hartheim, one of the "euthanasia" centers, or 400,000, according to Frank Zeireis, the commandant of the Mauthausen concentration camp. Overall, the number of mentally and physically handicapped murdered was about 150,000.
One day this past fall I walked the grounds of the Ponar forest with Freund and a couple of his colleagues, who had recently completed a surveying project of the area. Snow had been forecast, but by late morning the only precipitation was icy rain, driven sideways by the wind. The forest was mostly empty, save for a group of ten Israelis who had arrived that morning; they all had family from Vilnius, one of the men explained, and were honoring them by visiting local Holocaust sites.
Many healthy, young strong Jews were not killed immediately. The Germans' war effort and the “Final Solution” required a great deal of manpower, so the Germans reserved large pools of Jews for slave labor. These people, imprisoned in concentration and labor camps, were forced to work in German munitions and other factories, such as I.G. Farben and Krupps, and wherever the Nazis needed laborers. They were worked from dawn until dark without adequate food and shelter. Thousands perished, literally worked to death by the Germans and their collaborators.
If there was a caesura towards the implementation of the Final Solution through mass murder, it is marked by the German "war of destruction" waged against the Soviet Union from June 22, 1941. Provided with instructions that called for the rapid pacification of conquered areas and that stressed the "sub-human" nature of broad strata of the population as well as the need for drastic measures to fight the deadly threat posed by "Judeo-Bolshevism" to the Nazi grand design, German soldiers, SS-men, and policemen murdered Jews from the first days of the campaign. Regionally different patterns of persecution unfolded until the end of 1941; its most prominent feature – the broadening scope of the killings from male Jews of military age (Heydrich's notorious letter to the higher SS- and Police heads in the occupied Soviet Union dated July 2, 1941, listed "Jews in party and state positions" and "other radical elements" among those to be executed) to women and children – underscores the absence of a central order and the preference of the Berlin authorities for controlled escalation.
In his 1983 book, Popular Opinion and Political Dissent in the Third Reich, Ian Kershaw examined the Alltagsgeschichte (history of everyday life) in Bavaria during the Nazi period. The most common viewpoint of Bavarians was indifference towards what was happening to the Jews, he wrote. Most Bavarians were vaguely aware of the genocide, but they were vastly more concerned about the war. Kershaw argued that "the road to Auschwitz was built by hate, but paved with indifference". His assessment faced criticism from historians Otto Dov Kulka and Michael Kater. Kater maintained that Kershaw had downplayed the extent of popular antisemitism. Although most of the "spontaneous" antisemitic actions of Nazi Germany had been staged, Kater argued that these had involved substantial numbers of Germans, and therefore it was wrong to view the extreme antisemitism of the Nazis as coming solely from above. Kulka argued that "passive complicity" would be a better term than "indifference". Focusing on the views of Germans opposed to the Nazi regime, the German historian Christof Dipper, in his essay "Der Deutsche Widerstand und die Juden" (1983), argued that the majority of the anti-Nazi national-conservatives were antisemitic. No one in the German resistance supported the Holocaust, but Dipper wrote that the national conservatives did not intend to restore civil rights to the Jews after the planned overthrow of Hitler.