The murder industry began in the Chelmno camp, built in December 1941. Work was carried out in special trucks, where the victims were asphyxiated by exhaust fumes, a method that had been tried before on those whose lives were deemed useless (the “Euthanasia Program”). From September 1939, about 100,000 “Aryan” Germans were assassinated in this manner, in what was named “Operation T4.” Two years later, the personnel responsible for the “euthanasia” program were called upon to apply their expertise to murdering Jews. In the single camp of Chelmno, 150,000 human beings were gassed to death, most of them brought to the camp from annexed territories, the Warthegau district of western Poland and the Lodz Ghetto.
Life in the ghetto was abominable, and thousands died. There was no medicine. The food ration allowed was a quarter of that available for the Germans, barely enough to allow survival. The water supply was contaminated in many ghettos. Epidemics of tuberculosis, typhoid, and lice were common. Bodies of new victims piled up in the streets faster than they could be carted away. In the Warsaw ghetto, more than 70,000 died of exposure, disease, and starvation during the first two winters. Almost all of those who survived the Warsaw ghetto were either killed when the ghetto was razed in 1943 or died in the death camps.
Inside the Soviet Union were an estimated three million Jews, many of whom still lived in tiny isolated villages known as Shtetls. Following behind the invading German armies, four SS special action units known as Einsatzgruppen systematically rounded-up and shot all of the inhabitants of these Shtetls. Einsatz execution squads were aided by German police units, local ethnic Germans, and local anti-Semitic volunteers. Leaders of the Einsatzgruppen also engaged in an informal competition as to which group had the highest tally of murdered Jews.
Frank’s inclusion of sexual material in her diaries makes sense—during her 25 months of hiding, she matured from a young girl into a young woman and even conducted a brief romantic relationship with Peter van Pels, a boy who hid with the Frank family. But to those who have read Frank’s diary, the real surprise is not that she addressed sexual topics—it’s that there’s more to discover about a 15-year-old murdered 73 years ago.
The Nazis regarded the Slavs as subhuman, or Untermenschen. In a secret memorandum dated 25 May 1940, Himmler stated that it was in German interests to foster divisions between the ethnic groups in the East. He wanted to restrict non-Germans in the conquered territories to schools that would only teach them how to write their own name, count up to 500, and obey Germans.[y] In November 1939 German planners called for "the complete destruction" of all Poles and resettlement of the land by German colonists. The Polish political leadership was the target of a campaign of murder (Intelligenzaktion and AB-Aktion). Between 1.8 and 1.9 million non-Jewish Polish citizens perished at German hands during the course of the war; about four-fifths were ethnic Poles and the rest Ukrainians and Belarusians. At least 200,000 died in concentration camps, around 146,000 in Auschwitz. Others died in massacres or in uprisings such as the Warsaw Uprising, where 120,000–200,000 were killed. During the occupation, the Germans adopted a policy of restricting food and medical services, as well as degrading sanitation and public hygiene. The death rate rose from 13 per 1000 before the war to 18 per 1000 during the war. Around 6 million of World War II victims were Polish citizens; half the death toll were Jews. Over the course of the war Poland lost 20 percent of its pre-war population. Over 90 percent of the death toll came through non-military losses, through various deliberate actions by Germany and the Soviet Union. Polish children were also kidnapped by Germans to be "Germanized", with perhaps as many as 200,000 children stolen from their families.
If a front-page review in the New York Times Book Review can rocket a book to instant sanctity, that is what Meyer Levin, in the spring of 1952, achieved for “Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl.” It was an assignment he had gone after avidly. Barbara Zimmerman (afterward Barbara Epstein, a founder of The New York Review of Books), the diary’s young editor at Doubleday, had earlier recognized its potential as “a minor classic,” and had enlisted Eleanor Roosevelt to supply an introduction. (According to Levin, it was ghostwritten by Zimmerman.) Levin now joined Zimmerman and Doubleday in the project of choosing a producer. Doubleday was to take over as Frank’s official agent, with the stipulation that Levin would have an active hand in the adaptation. “I think that I can honestly say,” Levin wrote Frank, “that I am as well qualified as any other writer for this particular task.” In a cable to Doubleday, Frank appeared to agree: “DESIRE LEVIN AS WRITER OR COLLABORATOR IN ANY TREATMENT TO GUARANTEE IDEA OF BOOK.” The catch, it would develop, lurked in a perilous contingency: Whose idea? Levin’s? Frank’s? The producer’s? The director’s? In any case, Doubleday was already doubtful about Levin’s ambiguous role: What if an interested producer decided on another playwright?
In most ghettos, Nazis ordered the Jews to establish a Judenrat (Jewish council) to administer Nazi demands and to regulate the internal life of the ghetto. The Nazis routinely ordered deportations from the ghettos. In some of the large ghettos, 1,000 people per day were sent by rail to concentration and extermination camps. To get them to cooperate, the Nazis told the Jews they were being transported elsewhere for labor.
The passengers had landing certificates and transit visas by the Cuban Director-General of Immigration, Manuel Benitez Gonzalez. But, a week before the ship left, Cuban President Federico Laredo Bru published a decree that overturned all recent landing certificates. For them to land in Cuba, they needed written authorization from the Cuban Secretaries of State and Labor and a $500 bond. Most of the passengers were not prepared for the bureaucratic mess they were about to face in Cuba.
Following the invasion of Poland, German occupation policy especially targeted the Jews but also brutalized non-Jewish Poles. In pursuit of lebensraum, Germany sought systematically to destroy Polish society and nationhood. The Nazis killed Polish priests and politicians, decimated the Polish leadership, and kidnapped the children of the Polish elite, who were raised as “voluntary Aryans” by their new German “parents.” Many Poles were also forced to perform hard labour on survival diets, were deprived of property and uprooted, and were interned in concentration camps.
Mengele's eye experiments included attempts to change the eye color by injecting chemicals into the eyes of living subjects, and he killed people with heterochromatic eyes so that the eyes could be removed and sent to Berlin for study. His experiments on dwarfs and people with physical abnormalities included taking physical measurements, drawing blood, extracting healthy teeth, and treatment with unnecessary drugs and X-rays. Many of his victims were dispatched to the gas chambers after about two weeks, and their skeletons sent to Berlin for further analysis. Mengele sought out pregnant women, on whom he would perform experiments before sending them to the gas chambers. Witness Vera Alexander described how he sewed two Romani twins together, back to back, in a crude attempt to create conjoined twins; both children died of gangrene after several days of suffering.
After the December 12 meeting, these proclamations took a more precise tone: the Nazis needed to kill all Jews, including German Jews and Western European Jews, and they needed to do so systematically. What had started as uncertain and sporadic violence quickly turned into wholesale slaughter, complete with gas chambers and concentration camps. Six weeks later, SS chief Heinrich Himmler, the Nazi official responsible for the implementation of the Final Solution, ordered the first Jews of Europe to Auschwitz.
Historians disagree as to when and how the Nazi leadership decided that the European Jews should be exterminated. The controversy is commonly described as the functionalism versus intentionalism debate which began in the 1960s, and subsided thirty years later. In the 1990s, the attention of mainstream historians moved away from the question of top executive orders triggering the Holocaust, and focused on factors which were overlooked earlier, such as personal initiative and ingenuity of countless functionaries in charge of the killing fields. No written evidence of Hitler ordering the Final Solution has ever been found to serve as a "smoking gun", and therefore, this one particular question remains unanswered.
“Awesome as they are, therefore, numbers do not in themselves prescribe the singularity of the Holocaust. But they provide a clue. For the proportion of European Jews killed during the Second World War, with roughly one of every three civilian deaths in Europe being that of a Jew, was undoubtedly greater than that of any other people, because of the Nazis’ policy toward them. Unlike the case with any other group, and unlike the massacres before or since, every single one of the millions of targeted Jews was to be murdered. Eradication was to be total. In principle, no Jew was to escape. In this important respect, the Nazis’ assault upon Jewry differed from the campaigns against other peoples and groups; Gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, Poles, Ukrainians, and so on. Assaults on these people could indeed be murderous; their victims number in the millions, and their ashes mingle with those of the Jews of Auschwitz and many other camps across Europe. But Nazi ideology did not require their total disappearance. In this respect, the fate of the Jews was unique.”
After Kristallnacht, Jewish businesses were expropriated, private employers were urged to sack Jewish employees, and offices were set up to speed emigration. Imprisoned Jews could buy freedom if they promised to leave the country, abandoning their assets. By the outbreak of war in September 1939, half of Germany's 500,000 Jews had fled, as had many Jews from Austria and the German-occupied parts of Czechoslovakia.
The digging got underway the first night in February 1944, in a storeroom at the back of the bunker. To disguise their efforts, the prisoners erected a fake wall over the tunnel’s entrance, with “two boards hanging on loose nails that would come out with a good tug, making it possible to pass through,” Farber recalled in The Complete Black Book of Russian Jewry, a compilation of eyewitness testimonies, letters and other documents of the Nazi campaign against Jews in Eastern Europe published in part in 1944 and translated into English in 2001.
On 31 May 1985, acting on intelligence received by the West German prosecutor's office, police raided the house of Hans Sedlmeier, a lifelong friend of Mengele and sales manager of the family firm in Günzburg. They found a coded address book and copies of letters sent to and received from Mengele. Among the papers was a letter from Wolfram Bossert notifying Sedlmeier of Mengele's death. German authorities alerted the police in São Paulo, who then contacted the Bosserts. Under interrogation, they revealed the location of Mengele's grave, and the remains were exhumed on 6 June 1985. Extensive forensic examination indicated with a high degree of probability that the body was indeed that of Josef Mengele. Rolf Mengele issued a statement on 10 June confirming that the body was his father's, and he admitted that the news of his father's death had been concealed in order to protect the people who had sheltered him for many years.
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.
SS Officer Hosler, under arrest, stands in front of a truck which is loaded with corpses at Belsen concentration camp © The Final Solution moved into its last stages as Allied forces began to close in on Germany in 1944. The Project Reinhardt camps were razed. A prisoner work-gang called the Blobel Commando began digging up and burning the bodies of those killed by the Einsatzgruppen. Prisoners remaining in Auschwitz and other concentration camps were transported or force-marched to camps within Germany. Hardly fit for such an effort, thousands of prisoners on these death marches succumbed to starvation, exhaustion and cold, or were shot for not keeping up the pace.
In the first few decades after the Holocaust, scholars argued that it was unique as a genocide in its reach and specificity. This began to change in the 1980s during the West German Historikerstreit ("historians' dispute"), an attempt to re-position the Holocaust within German historiography. Ernst Nolte triggered the dispute in June 1986 with an article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung: "Vergangenheit, die nicht vergehen will: Eine Rede, die geschrieben, aber nicht mehr gehalten werden konnte" ("The past that will not pass: A speech that could be written but not delivered"), in which he compared Auschwitz to the Gulag and suggested that the Holocaust was a response to Hitler's fear of the Soviet Union: "Was the Bolshevik murder of an entire class not the logical and factual prius of the 'racial murder' of National Socialism? ... Was the source of Auschwitz a past that would not go away?"[aa]
In October 1941 the Nazis began turning the concentration camp at Majdanek into a death camp as well. They then began the construction of killing centres at Bełżec, Treblinka, near Warsaw, and at Sobibór. The first mass gassing of Jews began in Chelmno on 8 December 1941, when the Nazis used gas vans to murder people from the Łódź ghetto. The Nazis also ordered the expansion of the Auschwitz camp complex to increase the capacity for murder.
Life within Nazi concentration camps was horrible. Prisoners were forced to do hard physical labor and given little food. Prisoners slept three or more to a crowded wooden bunk; bedding was unheard of. Torture within the concentration camps was common and deaths were frequent. At a number of concentration camps, Nazi doctors conducted medical experiments on prisoners against their will.
The Third Reich first used concentration camps as places of unlawful incarceration of political opponents and other "enemies of the state". Large numbers of Jews were not sent there until after Kristallnacht in November 1938. Although death rates were high, the camps were not designed as killing centers. After war broke out in 1939, new camps were established, some outside Germany in occupied Europe. In January 1945, the SS reports had over 700,000 prisoners in their control, of which close to half had died by the end of May 1945 according to most historians. Most wartime prisoners of the camps were not Germans but belonged to countries under German occupation.
Executions by the Einsatzgruppen, mobile killing squads,were abandoned for practical reasons. Although approximately 1.5 million Jews had been shot by the winter of 1941, the Nazis felt that the efficiency of this slow and cumbersome method left much to be desired. Moreover, they found it was bad for the soldiers’ morale. Himmler himself, commander of the SS and as such responsible for the annihilation of the Jews, was persuaded, after having witnessed such an execution, that it badly affected the mental health of those carrying out the execution. The institutionalization of organized murder, founded on a division of labor and carried out in special installations expressly designed for this purpose, distanced the executioner from the victim, an indispensable psychological advantage in an enterprise of annihilation of such a huge scale.
The German occupation authorities carried out shooting operations of Jews and others they deemed to be potential enemies of permanent German rule in the east; these operations lasted until the Germans evacuated the Soviet Union in the first half of 1944. The SS and police often did not have sufficient manpower to carry out these operations, so they were assisted whenever necessary by local auxiliaries whom they recruited and by units of the German armed forces. The Germans and their collaborators killed between 1.0 and 1.5 million Jews in shooting operations or in gas vans in the occupied Soviet Union
With this police infrastructure in place, opponents of the Nazis were terrorized, beaten, or sent to one of the concentration camps the Germans built to incarcerate them. Dachau, just outside of Munich, was the first such camp built for political prisoners. Dachau's purpose changed over time and eventually became another brutal concentration camp for Jews.