Between April and June of 1940, Germany invaded Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg consolidating power across neutral Western Europe. On June 22, 1940, France signed an armistice with Germany, which divided France between the German-occupied territory in the north and the Vichy regime in the south. Although officially neutral, the French state during this time was generally pro-Nazi and cooperated with Germany’s racial policies.
“I am marshalling my last remaining strength in order to die peacefully as one who will not surrender and who will not ask for forgiveness. The historical fact that Israel became the leading social political superpower in the 19th century lies before us. We have amongst us a flexible, tenacious, intelligent foreign tribe that knows how to bring abstract reality into play in many different ways. Not individual Jews but the Jewish spirit and Jewish consciousness have overpowered the world. All this is the consequence of a cultural history so unique in its way, so grand that every day polemic can achieve nothing against it. With the entire force of its armies the proud Roman Empire did not achieve that which Semitism has achieved in the West and particularly in Germany.”
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.
Alone and against seemingly impossible odds, Jewish men and women struck back on occasion. In April 1943, Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto staged an armed battle against SS troops lasting five weeks. In October 1943, nearly 300 Jews and Soviet POWs overpowered guards and broke out of Sobibor death camp, which was then shut down by the SS. A year later, a revolt by Jewish slave laborers at Auschwitz-Birkenau resulted in the destruction of one of the main gas chamber-crematories. Elsewhere, Jews who eluded capture became partisans, particularly in Russia, where some 30,000 Jews fought alongside the Soviets to disrupt Hitler's armies.
The Wannsee Conference, a meeting between the SS (the elite guard of the Nazi state) and German government agencies, opens in Berlin. They discuss and coordinate the implementation of the "Final Solution," which is already under way. At Wannsee, the SS estimates that the "Final Solution" will involve 11 million European Jews, including those from non-occupied countries such as Ireland, Sweden, Turkey, and Great Britain. Between the fall of 1941 and the fall of 1944, the German railways transport millions of people to their deaths in killing centers in occupied Poland.
Entering conquered Soviet territories alongside the Wehrmacht (the German armed forces) were 3,000 men of the Einsatzgruppen (“Deployment Groups”), special mobile killing units. Their task was to murder Jews, Soviet commissars, and Roma in the areas conquered by the army. Alone or with the help of local police, native anti-Semitic populations, and accompanying Axis troops, the Einsatzgruppen would enter a town, round up their victims, herd them to the outskirts of the town, and shoot them. They killed Jews in family units. Just outside Kiev, Ukraine, in the ravine of Babi Yar, an Einsatzgruppe killed 33,771 Jews on September 28–29, 1941. In the Rumbula Forest outside the ghetto in Riga, Latvia, 25,000–28,000 Jews were shot on November 30 and December 8–9. Beginning in the summer of 1941, Einsatzgruppen murdered more than 70,000 Jews at Ponary, outside Vilna (now Vilnius) in Lithuania. They slaughtered 9,000 Jews, half of them children, at the Ninth Fort, adjacent to Kovno (now Kaunas), Lithuania, on October 28.
Our many Jewish friends and acquaintances are being taken away in droves. The Gestapo is treating them very roughly and transporting them in cattle cars to Westerbork. . . .The people get almost nothing to eat, much less to drink, as water is available only one hour a day, and there’s only one toilet and sink for several thousand people. Men and women sleep in the same room, and women and children often have their heads shaved. . . . If it’s that bad in Holland, what must it be like in those faraway and uncivilized places where the Germans are sending them? We assume that most of them are being murdered. The English radio says they’re being gassed.
But they were gradually shut out of German society by the Nazis through a never-ending series of laws and decrees, culminating in the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 which deprived them of their German citizenship and forbade intermarriage with non-Jews. They were removed from schools, banned from the professions, excluded from military service, and were even forbidden to share a park bench with a non-Jew.
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.
After crossing the Soviet demarcation line in 1941, what had been regarded as exceptional in the Greater Germanic Reich became a normal way of operating in the east. The crucial taboo against the killing of women and children was breached not only in Białystok, but also in Gargždai in late June. By July, significant numbers of women and children were being killed behind all front-lines not only by the Germans, but also by the local Ukrainian and Lithuanian auxiliary forces. On 29 July 1941, at a meeting of SS officers in Vileyka (Polish Wilejka, now Belarus), the Einsatzgruppen had been given a dressing-down for their low execution figures. Heydrich himself issued an order to include the Jewish women and children in all subsequent shooting operations. Accordingly, by the end of July the entire Jewish population of Vileyka, men, women and children were murdered. Around 12 August, no less than two-thirds of the Jews shot in Surazh were women and children of all ages. In late August 1941 the Einsatzgruppen murdered 23,600 Jews in the Kamianets-Podilskyi massacre. A month later, the largest mass shooting of Soviet Jews took place on 29–30 September in the ravine of Babi Yar, near Kiev, where more than 33,000 Jewish people of all ages were systematically machine-gunned. In mid-October 1941, HSSPF South, under the command of Friedrich Jeckeln, had reported the indiscriminate killing of more than 100,000 people.
In response to this new “resettlement” policy, the first death camps were designed. Chelmno was the site of the first gassing of Jews, which occurred on December 8, 1941. The Nazi war machine had limited resources, including slave labor, much of it Jewish. Even so, the Nazis made a decision that the annihilation of the Jews of Europe was a more important achievement than the value of their labor. Similarly, the Nazis made a decision not to let the need for transport for the war effort interfere with the need for trucks and rail cars to carry the Jews to concentration camps and death centers. It was Adolf Eichmann who masterminded the logistics of the deportation of Jews. (1)
But there is a note that drills deeper than commemoration: it goes to the idea of identification. To “identify with” is to become what one is not, to become what one is not is to usurp, to usurp is to own—and who, after all, in the half century since Miep Gies retrieved the scattered pages of the diary, really owns Anne Frank? Who can speak for her? Her father, who, after reading the diary and confessing that he “did not know” her, went on to tell us what he thought she meant? Meyer Levin, who claimed to be her authentic voice—so much so that he dared to equate the dismissal of his work, however ignobly motivated, with Holocaust annihilation? Hellman, Bloomgarden, Kanin, whose interpretations clung to a collective ideology of human interchangeability? (In discounting the significance of the Jewish element, Kanin had asserted that “people have suffered because of being English, French, German, Italian, Ethiopian, Mohammedan, Negro, and so on”—as if this were not all the more reason to comprehend and particularize each history.) And what of Cara Wilson and “the children of the world,” who have reduced the persecution of a people to the trials of adolescence?
The killing grounds at Ponar are today part of a memorial site run by the Vilna Gaon Museum, in Vilnius. There is a granite obelisk inscribed with the date of the Soviet liberation of the region, and clusters of candles smoldering in the small shrines on the edge of the burial pits, in honor of the tens of thousands who perished here. A small museum near the entrance to the site collects photographs and testimonies from the camp. One enters the museum prepared to weep, and leaves insensate: The black-and-white images of tangled human limbs in a ditch, the crumpled corpses of children, the disinterred dead piled in wheelbarrows, waiting to be brought to the pyres—the effect of the material is deeply physical and hard to shake.
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 Chelmno killing center begins operation. The Nazis later establish five other such camps: Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, Auschwitz-Birkenau (part of the Auschwitz complex), and Majdanek. Victims at Chelmno are killed in gas vans (hermetically sealed trucks with engine exhaust diverted to the interior compartments). The Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka camps use carbon monoxide gas generated by stationary engines attached to gas chambers. Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest of the killing centers, has four large gas chambers using Zyklon B (crystalline hydrogen cyanide) as the killing agent. The gas chambers at Majdanek use both carbon monoxide and Zyklon B. Millions of Jews are killed in the gas chambers in the killing centers as part of the "Final Solution."
Into this quagmire bravely wade Ari Folman and David Polonsky, the creators of “Anne Frank’s Diary: The Graphic Adaptation,” a stunning, haunting work of art that is unfortunately marred by some questionable interpretive choices. As Folman acknowledges in an adapter’s note, the text, preserved in its entirety, would have resulted in a graphic novel of 3,500 pages. At times he reproduces whole entries verbatim, but more often he diverges freely from the original, collapsing multiple entries onto a single page and replacing Anne’s droll commentary with more accessible (and often more dramatic) language. Polonsky’s illustrations, richly detailed and sensitively rendered, work marvelously to fill in the gaps, allowing an image or a facial expression to stand in for the missing text and also providing context about Anne’s historical circumstances that is, for obvious reasons, absent from the original. The tightly packed panels that result, in which a line or two adapted from the “Diary” might be juxtaposed with a bit of invented dialogue between the Annex inhabitants or a dream vision of Anne’s, do wonders at fitting complex emotions and ideas into a tiny space — a metaphor for the Secret Annex itself.
But the diary in itself, richly crammed though it is with incident and passion, cannot count as Anne Frank’s story. A story may not be said to be a story if the end is missing. And because the end is missing, the story of Anne Frank in the fifty years since “The Diary of a Young Girl” was first published has been bowdlerized, distorted, transmuted, traduced, reduced; it has been infantilized, Americanized, homogenized, sentimentalized; falsified, kitschified, and, in fact, blatantly and arrogantly denied. Among the falsifiers have been dramatists and directors, translators and litigators, Anne Frank’s own father, and even—or especially—the public, both readers and theatregoers, all over the world. A deeply truth-telling work has been turned into an instrument of partial truth, surrogate truth, or anti-truth. The pure has been made impure—sometimes in the name of the reverse. Almost every hand that has approached the diary with the well-meaning intention of publicizing it has contributed to the subversion of history.
The hero, or irritant (depending on which side of the controversy one favors), in the genesis of the diary’s dramatization was Meyer Levin, a Chicago-born novelist of the social-realist school, the author of such fairly successful works as “The Old Bunch,” “Compulsion,” and “The Settlers.” Levin began as a man of the left, though a strong anti-Stalinist: he was drawn to proletarian fiction (“Citizens,” about steelworkers), and had gone to Spain in the thirties to report on the Civil War. In 1945, as a war correspondent attached to the Fourth Armored Division, he was among the first Americans to enter Buchenwald, Dachau, and Bergen-Belsen. What he saw there was ungraspable and unendurable. “As I groped in the first weeks, beginning to apprehend the monstrous shape of the story I would have to tell,” he wrote, “I knew already that I would never penetrate its heart of bile, for the magnitude of this horror seemed beyond human register.” The truest telling, he affirmed, would have to rise up out of the mouth of a victim.
Hitler also believed the very presence of Jews in Germany and Nazi-occupied Europe posed a threat to German victory in the war. This was based on his experience during the First World War, when Germany had experienced a meltdown of civilian morale. In 1916, as a young soldier on sick leave in Munich, Hitler had been appalled at the apathy and anti-war sentiment he witnessed among German civilians. At the time, he concluded disloyal Jews had banded together and conspired to undermine the German war effort. And he was convinced they would do it again now if given the chance.
I expect you will be interested to hear what it feels like to hide; well, all I can say is that I don't know myself yet. I don't think I shall ever feel really at home in this house but that does not mean that I loathe it here, it is more like being on vacation in a very peculiar boardinghouse. Rather a mad way of looking at being in hiding perhaps but that is how it strikes me.
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.
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.
From the Kristallnacht pogrom onwards, Nazi policy toward the Jews radicalized relentlessly, reaching deliberate continental genocide of a kind never before seen in history by 1941-1942. It is here, however, that considerable difference of opinion among historians begins. Over the past twenty years or so, a consensus has emerged that Hitler did not embark on his campaign of killing all Jews in the Soviet Union, including women and children, immediately after the invasion began in June 1941, but only several months later. At first, it seems, only adult male Jews and “commissars” (Soviet state operatives) were killed; one of the best-known recent expositions of this viewpoint is Philippe Burrin’s 1994 Hitler and the Jews: The Genesis of the Holocaust . Nearly all of the detailed documentation of the Holocaust, including recently discovered records, points to this conclusion. Nonetheless, by the end of 1941, Nazi killing squads ( Einsatzgruppen ) had killed hundreds of thousands of Jews in the western Soviet Union, murdering men, women, and children indiscriminately. Beginning in early 1942, the extermination camps (all located in conquered Poland) began to murder Jews, and others, brought in from all parts of Europe.
“Could the tunnel ever be excavated?” I asked Freund. He told me that the Vilna Gaon Museum, although already planning renovations at the site, was still deciding how to proceed, but that he has counseled against full excavation: He’d invited an architect and tunnel expert named Ken Bensimon to analyze the site, and Bensimon had concluded that even if a rabbi signed off on a dig—a necessity, given the proximity to what amounts to mass graves—the integrity of the passageway would be unlikely to hold.
The forest burst orange with gunfire. “I looked around: Our entire path was filled with people crawling,” Farber has written. “Some jumped up and started running in various directions.” Farber and Dogim cut through the fence and tore off into the woods, with Zeidel and three others in tow. The men ran all night, through rivers, through forests, past villages. After a week, the escapees were deep inside the Rudnitsky Woods. Farber introduced himself to the partisan leader. “Where do you come from?” the man asked.
In response to a typhus epidemic in the women's camp, Mengele cleared one block of six hundred Jewish women and sent them to their deaths in the gas chambers. The building was then cleaned and disinfected, and the occupants of a neighboring block were bathed, de-loused, and given new clothing before being moved into the clean block. This process was repeated until all of the barracks were disinfected. Similar procedures were used for later epidemics of scarlet fever and other diseases, with infected prisoners being killed in the gas chambers. For these actions, Mengele was awarded the War Merit Cross (Second Class with swords) and was promoted in 1944 to First Physician of the Birkenau subcamp.