The Avenue of the Righteous, a place where trees are planted to commemorate rescuers, was inaugurated on Holocaust Remembrance Day 1962. The following year, a commission chaired by a member of Israel's Supreme Court was set up to decide upon criteria for awarding the Righteous Among the Nations. On February 1, Justice Moshe Landau chaired the commission's first meeting.
As if cold-blooded murder of millions of Jews was not enough, it was done with extreme, perverse cruelty. The victims were packed into cattle trains with standing-room only and without food or water, or heat in the winter, or toilet facilities. Many did not arrive at the camps alive. Those who did arrive at their destination had their heads shaved, with the hair to be used for stuffing mattresses. Stripped of all clothing, most were herded naked into the gas chambers. Dr Johann Kremer, a German SS surgeon, described the gassing of a group of French Jews including 150 boys and girls under the age of 15:
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.
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.
And so, at the behest of their Führer, a handful of Nazi bureaucrats conspired to bring about the demise of millions. On January 20, 1942, they attended the Wannsee Conference in Berlin, organized by SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich, who told them, “In the course of the practical execution of the Final Solution, Europe will be combed through from west to east.”
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.
The Nazis brought their own strain of radical ruthlessness to these ideas. They glorified war and saw the uncompromising struggle for survival between nations and races as the engine of human progress. They rejected morality as a Jewish idea, which had corrupted and weakened the German people. They maintained that a great nation such as Germany had the right and duty to build an empire based on the subjugation of 'inferior races'. They looked eastwards to Poland and Russia (where, as it happened, the great majority of European Jews lived) for the territorial expansion of their 'living space' (Lebensraum).
Sometimes the mere presence of German troops in the vicinity was sufficient to spur a massacre. One example is what happened in the Polish village of Jedwabne, where neighbours murdered their Jewish neighbours. For years the massacre was blamed on the Germans, though many Poles likely knew that the local population had turned against its own Jews. In the Baltics, where the Germans were greeted as liberators by some segments of the population, the lure of political independence and the desire to erase any collaboration with the previous Soviet occupiers led nationalist bands to murder local Jews.
Mengele firmly endorsed Nazi racial theory and engaged in a wide spectrum of experiments which aimed to illustrate the lack of resistance among Jews or Roma to various diseases. He also attempted to demonstrate the “degeneration” of Jewish and “Gypsy” blood through the documentation of physical oddities and the collection and harvesting of tissue samples and body parts. Many of his “test subjects” died as a result of the experimentation or were murdered in order to facilitate post-mortem examination.
One extraordinary aspect of the journey to the death camps was that the Nazis often charged Jews deported from Western Europe train fare as third class passengers under the guise that they were being "resettled in the East." The SS also made new arrivals in the death camps sign picture postcards showing the fictional location "Waldsee" which were sent to relatives back home with the printed greeting: "We are doing very well here. We have work and we are well treated. We await your arrival."
Though the Nazis tried to keep operation of camps secret, the scale of the killing made this virtually impossible. Eyewitnesses brought reports of Nazi atrocities in Poland to the Allied governments, who were harshly criticized after the war for their failure to respond, or to publicize news of the mass slaughter. This lack of action was likely mostly due to the Allied focus on winning the war at hand, but was also a result of the general incomprehension with which news of the Holocaust was met and the denial and disbelief that such atrocities could be occurring on such a scale.
Jews in America responded to the various reports by holding a rally at New York's Madison Square Garden in March 1943 to pressure the U.S. government into action. As a result, the Bermuda Conference was held from April 19-30, with representatives from the U.S. and Britain meeting to discuss the problem of refugees from Nazi-occupied countries. But the meeting resulted in complete inaction concerning the ongoing exterminations.
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.