Historians find it difficult to determine precisely when the first concerted effort at annihilation of all Jews began in the last weeks of June 1941 during Operation Barbarossa. Dr. Samuel Drix (Witness to Annihilation), Jochaim Schoenfeld (Holocaust Memoirs), and several survivors of the Janowska concentration camp, who were interviewed in the film Janovska Camp at Lvov, among other witnesses, have argued that the Final Solution began in Lwów (Lemberg) in Distrikt Galizien of the General Government during the German advance across Soviet-occupied Poland. Statements and memoirs of survivors emphasize that, when Ukrainian nationalists and ad hoc Ukrainian People's Militia (soon reorganized as the Ukrainian Auxiliary Police) began to murder women and children, rather than only male Jews, the "Final Solution" had begun. Witnesses have said that such murders happened both prior to and during the pogroms reportedly triggered by the NKVD prisoner massacre. The question of whether there was some coordination between the Lithuanian and Ukrainian militias remains open (i.e. collaborating for a joint assault in Kovno, Wilno, and Lwów).
The Germans began World War II by invading Poland in September 1939. The Nazi leaders then shifted priorities in anti-Jewish policy from expulsion from German-controlled territory to concentration of European Jewish populations in locations suited to future permanent removal. It is not clear that the Nazi leaders were already envisioning mass murder as their "solution" to their so-called Jewish problem.
I bought this book to prepare for a trip to the Anne Frank Museum. It was a sad but fascinating read - and when I got to the Franks' hiding place in Amsterdam, I knew exactly what I was looking at, who slept where - and who all the individuals were that helped Anne, her family, and their companions survive for as long as they did. I think I got more out of the visit than I would have without reading this book.
In his bunker, in the Chancellory building in Berlin, knowing that the war was lost and that the “1,000 Year Reich” had lasted only a few years, Hitler committed suicide hours after marrying Eva Braun. Germany formally surrendered to the Allies on May 7, 1945. By the end of the war, more than 55 million had died and 35 million wounded. Only 17 million of the dead were soldiers.
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.
After Germany’s loss in WWI, the Treaty of Versailles punished Germany by placing tough restrictions on the country. The treaty made Germany take full responsibility for the war, reduced the extent of German territory, severely limited the size and placement of their armed forces, and forced Germany to pay the allied powers reparations. These restrictions not only increased social unrest but, combined with the start of the Great Depression, collapsed the German economy as inflation rose alongside unemployment.
A sampling of Wilson’s concerns as she matured appears in the interstices of her exchanges with Otto Frank, which, remarkably, date from 1959 until his death, in 1980. For instance: “The year was 1968—etched in my mind. I can’t ever forget it. Otis Redding was ‘Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay’ . . . while we hummed along to ‘Hey Jude’ by the Beatles.” “In 1973-74,” she reports, “I was wearing headbands, pukka-shell necklaces, and American Indian anything. Tattoos were a rage”—but enough. Tattoos were the rage, she neglects to recall, in Auschwitz; and of the Auschwitz survivor who was her patient correspondent for more than two decades, Wilson remarks, “Well, what choice did the poor man have? Whenever an attack of ‘I-can’t-take-this-any-longer’ would hit me, I’d put it all into lengthy diatribes to my distant guru, Otto Frank.”
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.
But for all that this book has been set up as a work of Christian ethics and in that I think the book fails there is next to no specifically Christian ethical content. Why should one risk the lives of oneself and one's family for a stranger? Is the fact that so many didn't amount, as Eliezer Berkovits put it to "the moral bankruptcy of Christian civilization and the spiritual bankruptcy of Christian religion"? On these points Gushee is silent. And so, this book does not offer an account of the moral obligation the disciple of Christ owe to the persecuted Jew in particular or the persecuted stranger in general. It does however ask a very important question, and that alone makes this a book worth taking seriously.
The photo below shows Dr. Josef Mengele with Rudolf Hoess and Josef Kramer relaxing at Solahuette, the SS retreat near Birkenau. Kramer was the Commandant at Birkenau in 1944 when this photo was taken. In December 1944, he was transferred to Bergen-Belsen, which then became a concentration camp. The Bergen-Belsen camp had previously been a holding camp for Jews who were available for exchange with the Allies for German civilians held in British and American prisons. Hoess was the Commander of the SS garrison at Auschwitz in 1944.
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.
Once the Nazis took over Budapest in 1944 and began deporting Jews to the death camps, Lutz negotiated a special deal with the Hungarian government and the Nazis: he had permission to issue protective letters to 8,000 Hungarian Jews for emigration to Palestine. Lutz then deliberately misinterpreted his permission for 8,000 as applying to families rather than individuals, and proceeded to issue tens of thousands of additional protective letters, all of them bearing a number between one and 8,000. He also set up some 76 safe houses around Budapest, declaring them annexes of the Swiss legation. Among the safe houses was the now well-known "Glass House" (Üvegház) at Vadász Street 29. About 3,000 Jews found refuge at the Glass House and in a neighboring building.
The twin goals of racial purity and spatial expansion were the core of Hitler’s worldview, and from 1933 onward they would combine to form the driving force behind his foreign and domestic policy. At first, the Nazis reserved their harshest persecution for political opponents such as Communists or Social Democrats. The first official concentration camp opened at Dachau (near Munich) in March 1933, and many of the first prisoners sent there were Communists.
At the end of the war, between 50,000 and 100,000 Jewish survivors were living in three zones of occupation: American, British and Soviet. Within a year, that figure grew to about 200,000. The American zone of occupation contained more than 90 percent of the Jewish displaced persons (DPs). The Jewish DPs would not and could not return to their homes, which brought back such horrible memories and still held the threat of danger from anti-Semitic neighbors. Thus, they languished in DP camps until emigration could be arranged to Palestine, and later Israel, the United States, South America and other countries. The last DP camp closed in 1957 (David S. Wyman, "The United States," in David S. Wyman, ed., The World Reacts to the Holocaust, Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996, pp. 70710).
Otto Frank’s own childhood, in Frankfurt, Germany, was wholly unclouded. A banker’s son, he lived untrammelled until the rise of the Nazi regime, when he was already forty-four. At nineteen, in order to acquire training in business, he went to New York with Nathan Straus, a fellow student and an heir to the Macy’s department-store fortune. During the First World War, Frank was an officer in the German military, and in 1925 he married Edith Holländer, a manufacturer’s daughter. Margot was born in 1926 and Anneliese Marie, called Anne, in 1929. His characteristically secular world view belonged to an era of quiet assimilation, or, more accurately, accommodation (which includes a modicum of deference), when German Jews had become, at least in their own minds, well integrated into German society. From birth, Otto Frank had breathed the free air of the affluent bourgeoisie.
At Auschwitz, Yanina survived the gas chamber when adult bodies fell on top of her, protecting her from inhaling a lethal amount of poison gas. Found moaning by Jewish slave laborers who were forced to remove the bodies from the gas chambers, Yanina was resuscitated, given a uniform and told to blend in. Prisoners under the age of 15 were routinely gassed at Auschwitz, but Yanina was able to escape detection after her remarkable rescue.
As the tide of World War II turned against the Nazis, they began a systematic plan to eliminate or "liquidate" the ghettos they had established, by a combination of mass murder on the spot and transferring the remaining residents to extermination camps. When the Nazis attempted to liquidate the Warsaw Ghetto on April 13, 1943, the remaining Jews fought back in what has become known as the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The Jewish resistance fighters held out against the entire Nazi regime for 28 days, longer than many European countries had been able to withstand Nazi conquest.
After the arrest of the eight people in hiding, helpers Miep Gies and Bep Voskuijl found Anne's writings in the Secret Annex. Miep held on to Anne's diaries and papers and kept them in a drawer of her desk. She hoped that she would one day be able to return them to Anne. When she learned that Anne had died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, she gave all the notebooks and papers to Anne's father, Otto Frank.
According to the testimony of Rudolf Hoess at the Nuremberg International Military Tribunal in 1946, Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler gave repeated orders that the staff members at the concentration camps were forbidden "to lay violent hands on the prisoners." According to the survivors of Birkenau, Dr. Mengele frequently lost his temper and beat the prisoners, yet he was never punished by his superior officers.
Thus although the Nazi 'Final Solution' was one genocide among many, it had features that made it stand out from all the rest as well. Unlike all the others it was bounded neither by space nor by time. It was launched not against a local or regional obstacle, but at a world-enemy seen as operating on a global scale. It was bound to an even larger plan of racial reordering and reconstruction involving further genocidal killing on an almost unimaginable scale, aimed, however, at clearing the way in a particular region – Eastern Europe – for a further struggle against the Jews and those the Nazis regarded as their puppets. It was set in motion by ideologues who saw world history in racial terms. It was, in part, carried out by industrial methods. These things all make it unique.
The Nazi killing site at Ponar is today known to scholars as one of the first examples of the “Holocaust by bullets”—the mass shootings that claimed the lives of upwards of two million Jews across Eastern Europe. Unlike the infamous gas chambers at places like Auschwitz, these murders were carried out at close range, with rifles and machine guns. Significantly, the killings at Ponar marked the transition to the Final Solution, the Nazi policy under which Jews would no longer be imprisoned in labor camps or expelled from Europe but exterminated.
We were faced with the question: what about the women and children? – I have decided on a solution to this problem. I did not consider myself justified to exterminate the men only – in other words, to kill them or have them killed while allowing the avengers, in the form of their children, to grow up in the midst of our sons and grandsons. The difficult decision had to be made to have this people disappear from the earth.
It was Yad Vashem—the institution whose name derives from the same passage in Isaiah—that first popularized the term “righteous among the nations” to refer to those Gentiles who rescued Jews during the Holocaust, often risking their own lives in the process. While Isaiah apparently had in mind Gentiles who related to God in a righteous way, and not necessarily through their relations specifically with Jews, the singling-out of Harbonah focuses our attention on those who exert themselves to protect Jews. In commemorating such people, Yad Vashem has given them, too, “a place and a name” in the original sense of that phrase.
Meanwhile, Zvi Aharoni, one of the Mossad agents who had been involved in the Eichmann capture, was placed in charge of a team of agents tasked with tracking down Mengele and bringing him to trial in Israel. Their inquiries in Paraguay revealed no clues to his whereabouts, and they were unable to intercept any correspondence between Mengele and his wife Martha, who was then living in Italy. Agents that were following Rudel's movements also failed to produce any leads. Aharoni and his team followed Gerhard to a rural area near São Paulo, where they identified a European man whom they believed to be Mengele. This potential breakthrough was reported to Harel, but the logistics of staging a capture, the budgetary constraints of the search operation, and the priority of focusing on Israel's deteriorating relationship with Egypt led the Mossad chief to call off the hunt for Mengele in 1962.