To the Nazi regime, there would have been no doubt that a war against Bolshevism was implicitly a war against the Jewish population of the Soviet Union. A division of Hitler’s SS known as the Einsatzgruppen traveled behind the German army and acted as death squads, exterminating civilian populations in the most efficient way possible. During the early part of Operation Barbarossa these were frequently people who had fled the Nazi’s earlier invasion of Poland.
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.
Of the six million Poles murdered by the Nazis, half were Polish Christians. The Nazis considered the Poles and other Slavic peoples to be sub-human destined to serve as slaves to the Aryan “master race.” The Polish intelligentsia and political leadership was sought out specifically for execution, and other Polish civilians were slaughtered indiscriminately. Among the dead were more than 2,600 Catholic priests.
The Germans invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. Leaders of the SS and police and leaders of the German armed forces had concluded pre-invasion agreements. In accordance with these agreements, SS and police units—including Einsatzgruppen of the German Security Police and SD and battalions of the German Order Police—followed German troops into newly occupied Soviet territory. Acting as mobile killing units, they conducted shooting operations aimed at annihilating entire Jewish communities. By autumn 1941, the SS and police introduced mobile gas vans. These paneled trucks had exhaust pipes reconfigured to pump poisonous carbon monoxide gas into sealed spaces, killing those locked within. They were designed to complement ongoing shooting operations.
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.
At the Wannsee Conference on January 20, 1942 in Wannsee, a Berlin suburb, the details of the “Final Solution” were worked out. The meeting was convened by Reinhard Heydrich, who was the head of the S.S. main office and S.S. Chief Heinrich Himmler’s top aide. The purpose of the meeting was to coordinate the Nazi bureaucracy required to carry out the “Final Solution,” which provided for:
In the early part of 1939, my father, mother and infant brother were living in Paris, as refugees from the pogroms in Romania. They were illegal immigrants, living modestly with the hope of giving themselves and their son a better future than the one they had. But World War II was approaching, and the citizens of France were in danger of falling prey to the Vichy regime that was collaborating with Germany and Hitler. As Jews and illegal residents, my parents were in an extremely precarious situation. They were poor and had no connections or reasonable way of changing their situation. But a gentile, the wife of an Italian diplomat for whom my mother sewed her clothes, understood what the future of my family would be if they stayed in France. In an act of righteousness, mercy and generosity, she offered my parents tickets: first for the train to Marseilles and then, passage onto a ship bound to Bolivia. I was born in Bolivia, where my family’s life was spared the horrors of the Holocaust. I have eternal gratitude to the woman who saved us.
In 1944, Josiah DuBois, Jr. wrote a memorandum to then-Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr. entitled “Report to the Secretary on the Acquiescence of This Government in the Murder of the Jews”, which condemned the bureaucratic interference of U.S. State Department policies in obstructing the evacuation of Holocaust Refugees from Romania and Occupied France. The Report would spur the Roosevelt administration to create the War Refugee Board later that year.
More camps opened in the spring and summer of 1942, when the Nazis began systematically clearing the ghettos in Poland and rounding up Jews in western Europe for 'deportation to the East'. The killing of the Polish Jews, code-named 'Project Reinhardt', was carried out in three camps: Treblinka, near Warsaw (850,000 victims); Belzec, in south-eastern Poland (650,000 victims); and Sobibor, in east-central Poland (250,000 victims). Some Jews from western Europe were sometimes taken to these camps as well, but most were killed at the biggest and most advanced of the death camps, Auschwitz.
Mengele's work also involved carrying out selections, a task that he chose to perform even when he was not assigned to do so, in the hope of finding subjects for his experiments, with a particular interest in locating sets of twins. In contrast to most of the other SS doctors, who viewed selections as one of their most stressful and unpleasant duties, he undertook the task with a flamboyant air, often smiling or whistling a tune. He was also one of the SS doctors responsible for supervising the administration of Zyklon B, the cyanide-based pesticide that was used for the mass killings in the Birkenau gas chambers. He served in this capacity at the gas chambers located in crematoria IV and V.