When she was 17, Amir took a class about the Holocaust. “How did you escape, Papa?” she remembers asking afterward. He agreed to explain, but what he recounted were mostly technical details: the size of the bunker, the number of bodies consumed by the flames. He explained that in addition to the five men who had fled with him to the Rudnitsky Woods, six other members of the Burning Brigade had survived the escape. The rest had perished.
Hitler’s worldview revolved around two concepts: territorial expansion (that is, greater Lebensraum—“living space”—for the German people) and racial supremacy. After World War I the Allies denied Germany colonies in Africa, so Hitler sought to expand German territory and secure food and resources—scarce during World War I—in Europe itself. Hitler viewed the Jews as racial polluters, a cancer on German society in what has been termed by Holocaust survivor and historian Saul Friedländer “redemptive anti-Semitism,” focused on redeeming Germany from its ills and ridding it of a cancer on the body politic. Historian Timothy Snyder characterized the struggle as even more elemental, as “zoological,” and “ecological,” a struggle of the species. Hitler opposed Jews for the values they brought into the world. Social justice and compassionate assistance to the weak stood in the way of what he perceived as the natural order, in which the powerful exercise unrestrained power. In Hitler’s view, such restraint on the exercise of power would inevitably lead to the weakening, even the defeat, of the master race.
In Germany, the Nazis had been murdering mentally and physically disabled people as part of its euthanasia programme since 1939. In the beginning, doctors killed them by lethal injection. This was not considered fast enough, so they developed a new process of gassing that was faster and more effective in killing large numbers of people. Over 70,000 people were killed as part of the euthanasia programme.
By mid-1944 those Jewish communities within easy reach of the Nazi regime had been largely exterminated, in proportions ranging from about 25 percent in France to more than 90 percent in Poland. On 5 May Himmler claimed in a speech that "the Jewish question has in general been solved in Germany and in the countries occupied by Germany". As the Soviet armed forces advanced, the camps in eastern Poland were closed down, with surviving inmates shipped to camps closer to Germany. Efforts were made to conceal evidence of what had happened. The gas chambers were dismantled, the crematoria dynamited, and the mass graves dug up and the corpses cremated. Local commanders continued to kill Jews, and to shuttle them from camp to camp by forced "death marches". Already sick after months or years of violence and starvation, some were marched to train stations and transported for days at a time without food or shelter in open freight cars, then forced to march again at the other end to the new camp. Others were marched the entire distance to the new camp. Those who lagged behind or fell were shot. Around 250,000 Jews died during these marches.
“With respect of the Jewish Question, the Führer has decided to make a clean sweep. He prophesied to the Jews that if they again brought about a world war, they would live to see their annihilation in it. That wasn’t just a catchword… If the German people have now again sacrificed 160,000 dead on the eastern front, then those responsible for this bloody conflict will have to pay with their lives.”
By the late 1930s there was a desperate search for countries of refuge. Those who could obtain visas and qualify under stringent quotas emigrated to the United States. Many went to Palestine, where the small Jewish community was willing to receive refugees. Still others sought refuge in neighbouring European countries. Most countries, however, were unwilling to receive large numbers of refugees.
Frank apparently began an entry on September 28, 1942, then ruined the pages. “I’ll use this spoiled page to write down ‘dirty’ jokes,” she wrote—then listed four, along with an imagined lesson on sex education and some information on prostitutes. “At the end she explicitly names her father, Otto, who had been in Paris and saw houses with prostitutes,” the Anne Frank Housewrites.
In addition to active help, many clergymen also protested the mistreatment and deportations of Jews as violations of divine and human laws. The Catholic pastor of St. Hedwig’s Cathedral in Berlin, Bernard Lichtenburg, prayed publicly for the Jews until his arrest and death on the way to Dachau. The rescue work of priests of all Christian denominations is well-documented in postwar literature.
To remain efficient, the SS death factories required a steady supply of humans. To coordinate the flow of people to the gas chambers, Höss and fellow commandants relied on SS-Obersturmbannführer Adolf Eichmann, who became a central figure in the day-to-day management of the Final Solution. Present at the Wannsee Conference, Eichmann assumed the leading role in facilitating the deportation of Jews from every corner of Europe. With boundless enthusiasm for his task and fanatical efficiency, Eichmann traveled the continent, insuring that trainload after trainload departed. "The trains," Eichmann said later, "ran like a dream."
Mengele earned his first doctorate in anthropology from the University of Munich in 1935. He did his post-doctoral work at Frankfurt under Dr. Otmar Freiherr von Verschuer, who was a fully indoctrinated Nazi eugenicist. National Socialism always held that individuals were the product of their heredity, and von Verschuer was one of the Nazi-aligned scientists whose work seemed to legitimize that assertion.
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.
Ghettos were intended to be temporary until the Jews were deported to other locations, which never happened. Instead, the inhabitants were sent to extermination camps. The ghettos were, in effect, immensely crowded prisons serving as instruments of "slow, passive murder." Though the Warsaw Ghetto contained 30% of Warsaw's population, it occupied only 2.5% of the city's area, averaging over 9 people per room. Between 1940 and 1942, starvation and disease, especially typhoid, killed many in the ghettos. Over 43,000 Warsaw ghetto residents, or one in ten of the total population, died in 1941; in Theresienstadt, more than half the residents died in 1942.
Below are figures for the number of Jews murdered in each country that came under German domination. They are estimates, as are all figures relating to Holocaust victims. The numbers given here for Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Romania are based on their territorial borders before the 1938 Munich agreement. The total number of six million Jews murdered during the Holocaust, which emerged from the Nuremberg trials, is also an estimate. Numbers have ranged between five and seven million killed.
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.
Many German and Austrian Jews now attempted to flee Hitler's Reich. However, most Western countries maintained strict immigration quotas and showed little interest in receiving large numbers of Jewish refugees. This was exemplified by the plight of the St. Louis, a ship crowded with 930 Jews that was turned away by Cuba, the United States and other countries and returned back to Europe, soon to be under Hitler's control.
It's impossible to overstate how phenomenally influential The Diary of a Young Girl is. It was first published in 1947 in Dutch as Het Achterhius (Secret Annex), but later became the most translated Dutch book ever—it's been translated into seventy languages in sixty countries. So far, it's sold 30 million copies. It's also been produced as a play and has been adapted into several films.
As the war continued, the rescuers learned to adapt and work around the Nazi network of informers and collaborators. However, they were never able to develop effective strategies to combat the Nazis’ rapid organization of mass deportations and population transfers. As the war progressed, rescuers were able to identify sympathetic local groups, individuals, and organizations in every country of occupied Europe; for example, low-level clergymen, Socialists, Communists, and nationalist anti-Nazis. At all times, however, the success of Jewish rescue depended upon fate and chance.
Prisoners transported to these extermination camps were told to undress so they could shower. Rather than a shower, the prisoners were herded into gas chambers and killed. (At Chelmno, the prisoners were herded into gas vans instead of gas chambers.) Auschwitz was the largest concentration and extermination camp built. It is estimated that 1.1 million people were killed at Auschwitz.
Although not ordered to take part, psychiatrists and many psychiatric institutions were involved in the planning and carrying out of Aktion T4 at every stage. After protests from the German Catholic and Protestant churches, Hitler ordered the cancellation of the T4 program in August 1941, although the disabled and mentally ill continued to be killed until the end of the war. The medical community regularly received bodies and body parts for research. Eberhard Karl University received 1,077 bodies from executions between 1933 and 1945. The neuroscientist Julius Hallervorden received 697 brains from one hospital between 1940 and 1944: "I accepted these brains of course. Where they came from and how they came to me was really none of my business."
Throughout the Middle Ages in Europe, Jews were subjected to antisemitism based on Christian theology, which blamed them for killing Jesus. Even after the Reformation, Catholicism and Lutheranism continued to persecute Jews, accusing them of blood libels and subjecting them to pogroms and expulsions. The second half of the 19th century saw the emergence in the German empire and Austria-Hungary of the völkisch movement, which was developed by such thinkers as Houston Stewart Chamberlain and Paul de Lagarde. The movement embraced a pseudo-scientific racism that viewed Jews as a race whose members were locked in mortal combat with the Aryan race for world domination. These ideas became commonplace throughout Germany, with the professional classes adopting an ideology that did not see humans as racial equals with equal hereditary value. Although the völkisch parties had support in elections at first, by 1914 they were no longer influential. This did not mean that antisemitism had disappeared; instead it was incorporated into the platforms of several mainstream political parties.
Several scholars have suggested that the Final Solution began in the newly formed district of Bezirk Bialystok. The German army took over Białystok within days. On Friday, 27 June 1941, the Reserve Police Battalion 309 arrived in the city and set the Great Synagogue on fire with hundreds of Jewish men locked inside. The burning of the synagogue was followed by a frenzy of killings both inside the homes around the Jewish neighbourhood of Chanajki, and in the city park, lasting until night time. The next day, some 30 wagons of dead bodies were taken to mass graves. As noted by Browning, the killings were led by a commander "who correctly intuited and anticipated the wishes of his Führer" without direct orders. For reasons unknown, the number of victims in the official report by Major Weis was cut in half. The next mass shooting of Polish Jews within the newly formed Reichskommissariat Ostland took place in two days of 5–7 August in occupied Pińsk, where over 12,000 Jews died at the hands of Waffen SS, not the Einsatzgruppen. An additional 17,000 Jews perished there in a ghetto uprising crushed a year later with the aid of Belarusian Auxiliary Police.
When in 1941 the Wehrmacht forces attacked the Soviet positions in eastern Poland during the initially successful Operation Barbarossa, the area of the General Government was enlarged by the inclusion of regions that had been occupied by the Red Army since 1939. The killings of Jews from the Łódź Ghetto in the Warthegau district began in early December 1941 with the use of gas vans [approved by Heydrich] at the Kulmhof extermination camp. The deceptive guise of "Resettlement in the East" organised by SS Commissioners, was also tried and tested at Chełmno. By the time the European-wide Final Solution was formulated two months later, Heydrich's RSHA had already confirmed the effectiveness of industrial killing by exhaust fumes, and the strength of deception.
Killing on a mass scale using gas chambers or gas vans was the main difference between the extermination and concentration camps. From the end of 1941, the Germans built six extermination camps in occupied Poland: Auschwitz II-Birkenau, Majdanek, Chełmno, and the three Operation Reinhard camps at Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka II. Maly Trostenets, a concentration camp in the Reichskommissariat Ostland, became a killing centre in 1942. Gerlach writes that over three million Jews were murdered in 1942, the year that "marked the peak" of the mass murder of Jews. At least 1.4 million of these were in the General Government area of Poland.
Transportation between camps was often carried out in freight cars with prisoners packed tightly. Long delays would take place; prisoners might be confined in the cars on sidings for days. In mid-1942 work camps began requiring newly arrived prisoners to be placed in quarantine for four weeks. Prisoners wore colored triangles on their uniforms, the color of the triangle denoting the reason for their incarceration. Red signified a political prisoner, Jehovah's Witnesses had purple triangles, "asocials" and criminals wore black and green. Badges were pink for gay men and yellow for Jews. Jews had a second yellow triangle worn with their original triangle, the two forming a six-pointed star. In Auschwitz, prisoners were tattooed with an identification number on arrival.
The match was perfect. The video image of the photograph was imposed precisely over the video image of the skull. It was a face wrapped over a skull, subject over object, an image of life over an image of death. While the images helped to push the probability calculation further in the direction of a definitive identification, they did more than that, for it was the appearance of a previously unseen image that produced the potential for conviction.
To prosecute the leaders of the Holocaust, the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg was formed in 1946. The U.S., the UK, the Soviet Union and France each supplied two judges (a primary and an alternate) and a prosecution team for the trial. Twelve leading Nazi officials were sentenced to death for the crimes they had committed, while three received life sentences in prison, and four had prison terms for up to twenty years.
Wounded while on campaign, Mengele returned to Germany in January 1943. He began work at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute (KWI) for Anthropology, Human Genetics, and Eugenics, directed by his former mentor von Verschuer. In April of 1943, he received a promotion to the rank of SS captain. This promotion shortly preceded Mengele's transfer to Auschwitz, on May 30, 1943.
When the Nazi’s rose to power they built facilities to hold and, eventually kill, their enemies. When the first concentration camps were built in 1933, this primarily meant political dissidents and opponents of the Nazi government, such as German Communists, Socialists, Social Democrats but would grow to include asocial groups – Gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the homeless, the mentally ill and homosexuals. It was not until Kristallnacht that the prisoners became primarily Jewish.
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.
The rescuers were able to use the national humiliation caused by the German occupation to build limited popular support and help the Jews. They were few in number but ethically and morally strong. Although the number of Jews they saved was small, they provide a beacon of victory for posterity, a victory over the capitulation and collaboration of the majority of their compatriots.
Anne’s last diary entry was written on August 1, 1944. Three days later the secret annex was discovered by the Gestapo, which had received a tip from Dutch informers. All of the inhabitants were taken into custody. In September the Frank family arrived at Auschwitz, though Anne and Margot were transferred to Bergen-Belsen the following month. In 1945 Anne as well as her mother and sister died.
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.
And audiences multiplied: the Hacketts’ drama went all over the world—including Israel, where numbers of survivors were remaking their lives—and was everywhere successful. The play’s reception in Germany was especially noteworthy. In an impressive and thorough-going essay entitled “Popularization and Memory,” Alvin Rosenfeld, a professor of English at Indiana University, recounts the development of the Anne Frank phenomenon in the country of her birth. “The theater reviews of the time,” Rosenfeld reports, “tell of audiences sitting in stunned silence at the play and leaving the performance unable to speak or to look one another in the eye.” These were self-conscious and thin-skinned audiences; in the Germany of the fifties, theatregoers still belonged to the generation of the Nazi era. (On Broadway, Kanin had unblinkingly engaged Gusti Huber, of that same generation, to play Anne Frank’s mother. As a member of the Nazi Actors Guild until Germany’s defeat, Huber had early on disparaged “non-Aryan artists.”) But the strange muteness in theatres may have derived not so much from guilt or shame as from an all-encompassing compassion; or call it self-pity. “We see in Anne Frank’s fate,” a German drama critic offered, “our own fate—the tragedy of human existence per se.” Hannah Arendt, philosopher and Hitler refugee, scorned such oceanic expressions, calling it “cheap sentimentality at the expense of a great catastrophe.” And Bruno Bettelheim, a survivor of Dachau and Buchenwald, condemned the play’s most touted line: “If all men are good, there was never an Auschwitz.” A decade after the fall of Nazism, the spirited and sanitized young girl of the play became a vehicle for German communal identification—with the victim, not the persecutors—and, according to Rosenfeld, a continuing “symbol of moral and intellectual convenience.” The Anne Frank whom thousands saw in seven openings in seven cities “spoke affirmatively about life and not accusingly about her torturers.” No German in uniform appeared onstage. “In a word,” Rosenfeld concludes, “Anne Frank has become a ready-at-hand formula for easy forgiveness.”
Nearby, at Auschwitz in adjacent Upper Silesia, a much larger killing complex was constructed. Auschwitz Commandant Rudolf Höss later testified that SS-Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler instructed: “The Führer has ordered the Final Solution of the Jewish question. We, the SS, have to carry out this order. I have therefore chosen Auschwitz for this purpose.”
Similar smaller rescue operations occurred in Greece, where Jews were hidden in the mountains or on islands. Later, Greek Jews were smuggled into Turkey. Similar popular aid to the Jews was rendered in Finland and in Holland there was a protest strike in February 1941, against the deportation of Dutch Jews. The Italian army also helped Jews in their occupation zones in France and Yugoslavia, and they played an important role in rescuing Italian Jews before the Germans occupied Italy in September 1943.
If Anne Frank had not perished in the criminal malevolence of Bergen-Belsen early in 1945, she would have marked her sixty-eighth birthday last June. And even if she had not kept the extraordinary diary through which we know her it is likely that we would number her among the famous of this century—though perhaps not so dramatically as we do now. She was born to be a writer. At thirteen, she felt her power; at fifteen, she was in command of it. It is easy to imagine—had she been allowed to live—a long row of novels and essays spilling from her fluent and ripening pen. We can be certain (as certain as one can be of anything hypothetical) that her mature prose would today be noted for its wit and acuity, and almost as certain that the trajectory of her work would be closer to that of Nadine Gordimer, say, than to that of Francoise Sagan. As an international literary presence, she would be thick rather than thin. “I want to go on living even after my death!” she exclaimed in the spring of 1944.
Mengele is known as the “Angel of Death,” or sometimes as the “White Angel,” for his coldly cruel demeanor on the ramp. He is associated more closely with this “selection duty” than any other medical officer at Auschwitz, although by most accounts he performed this task no more often than any of his colleagues. The association is partially explained by his postwar notoriety. The pervasive image of Mengele at the ramp in so many survivors' accounts has also to do with the fact that Mengele often appeared “off-duty” in the selection area whenever trainloads of new prisoners arrived at Auschwitz, searching for twins.
Four weeks after the invasion of the Soviet Union, on July 17, 1941, Hitler tasked SS chief Heinrich Himmler with responsibility for all security matters in the occupied Soviet Union. Hitler gave Himmler broad authority to physically eliminate any perceived threats to permanent German rule. Two weeks later, on July 31, Reich Marshall Hermann Göring, acting as Hitler's second-in-command, authorized Reinhard Heydrich, the chief of the Reich Main Office for Security (Reichssicherheitshauptamt; RSHA) and Himmler's direct subordinate, to make preparations for the implementation of a "complete solution of the Jewish question." Henceforth, the SS in general and the RSHA in particular enjoyed Hitler's decision-making authority to manage the implementation of the "Final Solution." [The RSHA consisted of the Security Police (Gestapo and Criminal Police) and the Security Service (Sicherheitsdienst-SD)]
In 1935, Mengele earned a PhD in anthropology from the University of Munich. In January 1937, he joined the Institute for Hereditary Biology and Racial Hygiene in Frankfurt, where he worked for Dr. Otmar Freiherr von Verschuer, a German geneticist with a particular interest in researching twins. As von Verschuer's assistant, Mengele focused on the genetic factors that result in a cleft lip and palate, or a cleft chin. His thesis on the subject earned him a cum laude doctorate in medicine (MD) from the University of Frankfurt in 1938. (Both of his degrees were revoked by the issuing universities in the 1960s.) In a letter of recommendation, von Verschuer praised Mengele's reliability and his ability to verbally present complex material in a clear manner. The American author Robert Jay Lifton notes that Mengele's published works were in keeping with the scientific mainstream of the time, and would probably have been viewed as valid scientific efforts even outside Nazi Germany.