After the September 1939 German invasion of Poland (the beginning of World War II), anti-Jewish policy escalated to the imprisonment and eventual murder of European Jewry. The Nazis first established ghettos (enclosed areas designed to isolate and control the Jews) in the Generalgouvernement (a territory in central and eastern Poland overseen by a German civilian government) and the Warthegau (an area of western Poland annexed to Germany). Polish and western European Jews were deported to these ghettos where they lived in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions with inadequate food.
Anne also wrote short stories, fairy tales, and essays. In her diary, she reflected on her "pen children," as she called her writings. On September 2, 1943, she began to meticulously copy them into a notebook and added a table of contents so that it would resemble a published book. She gave it the title "Stories and Events from the Annex." Occasionally she read a story to the inhabitants of the annex, and she wrote about her intention to send one of her fairy tales to a Dutch magazine. Increasingly, she expressed her desire to be an author or journalist.
However, the capital of this bureaucratized and industrialized world of mass murders was Auschwitz. An operative concentration camp since May 1940, in the autumn of 1941 it was equipped with gas chambers. According to the latest estimates, the number of Jews killed in this camp approximated 1.5 million. In Auschwitz II (Birkenau), symbol and synonym of the Holocaust, the Nazi program of mass extermination reached its highest level of “perfection.”
In October 1941, Himmler authorized SS General Odilo Globocnik (SS and police leader for the Lublin District of the Generalgouvernement) to implement a plan to systematically murder all Jews residing in the Generalgouvernement. In 1942, this project received the code name "Operation Reinhard" (Einsatz Reinhard), a reference to Heydrich (who had been authorized to manage the implementation of the "Final Solution" and who was assassinated by Czech agents in May 1942 in Prague).
The diary is taken to be a Holocaust document; that is overridingly what it is not. Nearly every edition—and there have been innumerable editions—is emblazoned with words like “a song to life” or “a poignant delight in the infinite human spirit.” Such characterizations rise up in the bitter perfume of mockery. A song to life? The diary is incomplete, truncated, broken off—or, rather, it is completed by Westerbork (the hellish transit camp in Holland from which Dutch Jews were deported), and by Auschwitz, and by the fatal winds of Bergen-Belsen. It is here, and not in the “secret annex,” that the crimes we have come to call the Holocaust were enacted. Our entry into those crimes begins with columns of numbers: the meticulous lists of deportations, in handsome bookkeepers’ handwriting, starkly set down in German “transport books.” From these columns—headed, like goods for export, “Ausgangs-Transporte nach dem Osten” (outgoing shipments to the east)—it is possible to learn that Anne Frank and the others were moved to Auschwitz on the night of September 6, 1944, in a collection of a thousand and nineteen Stücke (or “pieces,” another commodities term). That same night, five hundred and forty-nine persons were gassed, including one from the Frank group (the father of Peter van Daan) and every child under fifteen. Anne, at fifteen, and seventeen-year-old Margot were spared, apparently for labor. The end of October, from the twentieth to the twenty-eighth, saw the gassing of more than six thousand human beings within two hours of their arrival, including a thousand boys eighteen and under. In December, two thousand and ninety-three female prisoners perished, from starvation and exhaustion, in the women’s camp; early in January, Edith Frank expired.
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."
The Nazis then combined their racial theories with the evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin to justify their treatment of the Jews. The Germans, as the strongest and fittest, were destined to rule, while the weak and racially adulterated Jews were doomed to extinction. Hitler began to restrict the Jews with legislation and terror, which entailed burning books written by Jews, removing Jews from their professions and public schools, confiscating their businesses and property and excluding them from public events. The most infamous of the anti-Jewish legislation were the Nuremberg Laws, enacted on September 15, 1935. They formed the legal basis for the Jews' exclusion from German society and the progressively restrictive Jewish policies of the Germans.
His “obsession,” as he afterward called it—partly in mockery of the opposition his later views evoked—had its beginning in those repeated scenes of piled-up bodies as he investigated camp after camp. From then on, he could be said to carry the mark of Abel. He dedicated himself to helping the survivors get to Mandate Palestine, a goal that Britain had made illegal. In 1946, he reported from Tel Aviv on the uprising against British rule, and during the next two years he produced a pair of films on the struggles of the survivors to reach Palestine. In 1950, he published “In Search,” an examination of the effects of the European cataclysm on his experience and sensibility as an American Jew. (Thomas Mann acclaimed the book as “a human document of high order, written by a witness of our fantastic epoch whose gaze remained both clear and steady.”) Levin’s intensifying focus on the Jewish condition in the twentieth century grew more and more heated, and when his wife, the novelist Tereska Torres, handed him the French edition of the diary (it had previously appeared only in Dutch) he felt he had found what he had thirsted after: a voice crying up from the ground, an authentic witness to the German onslaught.
Despite the Vatican failure to act, many priests, nuns, and laymen hid Jews in monasteries, convents, schools, and hospitals and protected them with false baptismal certificates. However, as Saul Friedlander’s memoirs show, many Catholic priests proselytized and converted their “guests.” Moreover, after the war, many Jewish children were never returned to Jewish families, even after lengthy court battles.
Anne’s childhood, by contrast, fell into shadows almost immediately. She was not yet four when the German persecutions of Jews began, and from then until the anguished close of her days she lived as a refugee and a victim. In 1933, the family fled from Germany to Holland, where Frank had commercial connections, and where he established a pectin business. By 1940, the Germans had occupied the Netherlands. In Amsterdam, Jewish children, Anne among them, were thrown out of the public-school system and made to wear the yellow star. At thirteen, on November 19, 1942, already in hiding, Anne Frank could write:
Treatment inside the concentration camps were horrible. Prisoners were given tiny rations of food and forced into physical labor. They often slept more than three to a bed without pillows or blankets, even in the winter months. In many concentration camps, Nazi doctors conducted medical experiments on prisoners against their will, in many cases killing the prisoners in the process.
The men worked in shifts throughout the night, with saws, files and spoons stolen from the burial pits. Under the cover of darkness, they smuggled wood planks into the lengthening tunnel to serve as struts; as they dug, they brought sandy earth back out and spread it across the bunker floor. Any noise was concealed by the singing of the other prisoners, who were frequently forced to perform for the Sturmbannführer—arias from The Gypsy Baron, by the Austrian composer Johann Strauss II, were a favorite.
The Sturmabteilung (S.A., Storm Troopers), a grassroots organization, helped Hitler undermine the German democracy. The Gestapo (Geheime Staatspolizei, Secret State Police), a force recruited from professional police officers, was given complete freedom to arrest anyone after February 28. The Schutzstaffel (SS, Protection Squad) served as Hitler’s personal bodyguard and eventually controlled the concentration camps and the Gestapo. The Sicherheitsdienst des ReichsführersSS (S.D., Security Service of the SS) functioned as the Nazis' intelligence service, uncovering enemies and keeping them under surveillance.
The wounds of the Holocaust–known in Hebrew as Shoah, or catastrophe–were slow to heal. Survivors of the camps found it nearly impossible to return home, as in many cases they had lost their families and been denounced by their non-Jewish neighbors. As a result, the late 1940s saw an unprecedented number of refugees, POWs and other displaced populations moving across Europe.
When an outbreak of noma (a gangrenous bacterial disease of the mouth and face) struck the Romani camp in 1943, Mengele initiated a study to determine the cause of the disease and develop a treatment. He enlisted the assistance of prisoner Dr. Berthold Epstein, a Jewish pediatrician and professor at Prague University. The patients were isolated in a separate barracks and several afflicted children were killed so that their preserved heads and organs could be sent to the SS Medical Academy in Graz and other facilities for study. This research was still ongoing when the Romani camp was liquidated and its remaining occupants killed in 1944.