3) The proposed text ends with a quote from Proverbs, “The righteous is an everlasting foundation.” The deeds of the Righteous Gentiles, saving people from persecution and death, are their great memorial. But beyond those individuals who were saved, those deeds present us with an opportunity for a further tikkun. Much has been said and written on the Holocaust’s cataclysmic effect in all aspects of human life – in religion, politics, philosophy, art, in the very term “culture.” Those people who stood up for the persecuted provide a window of hope – the hope that, despite everything, individuals and groups who do good can break through the walls of evil. A “Yizkor for the Righteous Gentiles” expresses the demand to remember this option and the personal obligations it entails.
Hitler targeted the Jews for a specific reason, which was not just racial. The elimination of the Jews had a unique “status” in Hitler’s master plan. While he certainly killed millions of others (gypsies, communists, homosexuals, etc.) he made exceptions for all these groups. The only group for which no exception was made was the Jews—they all had to die.
Seven months later, November 1943, the U.S. Congress held hearings concerning the U.S. State Department's total inaction regarding the plight of European Jews. President Franklin Roosevelt responded to the mounting political pressure by creating the War Refugee Board (WRB) in January 1944 to aid neutral countries in the rescue of Jews. The WRB helped save about 200,000 Jews from death camps through the heroic efforts of persons such as Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg working tirelessly in occupied countries.
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.
I followed Freund up a short slope and past a trench where prisoners had been lined up and shot. It was now a barely perceptible dip in the loam. Freund stepped gingerly around it. In the distance, a train whistle howled, followed by the huff of a train, shuddering over tracks that had carried prisoners to their deaths decades earlier. Freund waited for it to pass. He recalled that he’d spent nearly a month researching the site—but “a few days,” he said, “is plenty of time to think about how many people died here, the amount of blood spilled.”
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.
The wounds of the Holocaust–known in Hebrew as Shoah, or catastrophe–were slow to heal. Survivors of the camps found it nearly impossible to return home, as in many cases they had lost their families and been denounced by their non-Jewish neighbors. As a result, the late 1940s saw an unprecedented number of refugees, POWs and other displaced populations moving across Europe.
Three SS officers socialize at Auschwitz in 1944. From left to right: Richard Baer (commandant), Dr. Josef Mengele and Rudolf Höss (former commandant). Baer escaped but was captured in 1960; he died in 1963 while awaiting trial. Höss was executed for his crimes in 1947, shortly after receiving the sacrament of penance and Holy Communion as Viaticum. Mengele died while swimming at a seaside resort in 1979, after having lived to see his work at Auschwitz vindicated by the legalization of abortion in the U.S. and elsewhere. (Karl-Friedrich Höcker, public domain, via Yad Vashem and Wikimedia Commons)
Germany implemented the persecution of the Jews in stages. Following Adolf Hitler's appointment as German Chancellor in January 1933, the regime built a network of concentration camps in Germany for political opponents and those deemed "undesirable", starting with Dachau on 22 March 1933. After the passing of the Enabling Act on 24 March, which gave Hitler plenary powers, the government began isolating Jews from civil society, which included a boycott of Jewish businesses in April 1933 and enacting the Nuremberg Laws in September 1935. On 9–10 November 1938, during Kristallnacht (the "Night of Broken Glass"), Jewish businesses and other buildings were ransacked, smashed or set on fire throughout Germany and Austria, which Germany had annexed in March that year. After Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, triggering World War II, the regime set up ghettos to segregate Jews. Eventually thousands of camps and other detention sites were established across German-occupied Europe.
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.
On January 20, 1942, Reinhard Heydrich convened the Wannsee Conference at a lakeside villa in Berlin to organize the “final solution to the Jewish question.” Around the table were 15 men representing government agencies necessary to implement so bold and sweeping a policy. The language of the meeting was clear, but the meeting notes were circumspect:
At the same time, the Germans set about liquidating the ghettos in occupied Poland. July 22, 1942, when the deportation of Jews from Warsaw to the death camp in Treblinka began, is regarded as a symbolic date. A decided majority of the Polish Jews were killed in a little over half a year, after which the SS began liquidating the Aktion Reinhard camps. However, the last great death camp—Auschwitz—remained in existence until the beginning of 1945. It was mainly Jews from Western and Southern Europe, from the liquidated labor camps, and the ghettos in Sosnowiec and Łódź, who died in the gas chambers there.
After the Wannsee Conference in January 1942, the Nazis began the systematic deportation of Jews from all over Europe to six extermination camps established in former Polish territory -- Chelmno , Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, Auschwitz-Birkenau, and Majdanek. Extermination camps were killing centers designed to carry out genocide. About three million Jews were gassed in extermination camps.
American soldiers stare down at a mass grave in Nordhausen concentration camp © Originally a concentration camp for Polish political prisoners, Auschwitz was greatly expanded in 1941 with the addition of a much larger camp at nearby Birkenau. In all, Auschwitz-Birkenau and its sub-camps held 400,000 registered prisoners including 205,000 Jews, 137,000 Poles, 21,000 Gypsies, 12,000 Soviet POWs and 25,000 others (including a few British POWs). In this largest and worst of all the Nazi concentration camps, 210,000 prisoners died of starvation and abuse.
While concentration camps were meant to work and starve prisoners to death, extermination camps (also known as death camps) were built for the sole purpose of killing large groups of people quickly and efficiently. The Nazis built six extermination camps, all in Poland: Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, Auschwitz, and Majdanek. (Auschwitz and Majdanek were both concentration and extermination camps.)
Mengele used Auschwitz as an opportunity to continue his anthropological studies and research into heredity, using inmates for human experimentation. His medical procedures showed no consideration for the health, safety, or physical and emotional suffering of the victims. He was particularly interested in identical twins, people with heterochromia iridum (eyes of two different colors), dwarfs, and people with physical abnormalities. A grant was provided by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (German Research Foundation), at the request of von Verschuer, who received regular reports and shipments of specimens from Mengele. The grant was used to build a pathology laboratory attached to Crematorium II at Auschwitz II-Birkenau. Dr. Miklós Nyiszli, a Hungarian Jewish pathologist who arrived in Auschwitz on 29 May 1944, performed dissections and prepared specimens for shipment in this laboratory. The twin research was in part intended to prove the supremacy of heredity over environment and thus strengthen the Nazi premise of the superiority of the Aryan race. Nyiszli and others reported that the twin studies may also have been motivated by an intention to increase the reproduction rate of the German race by improving the chances of racially desirable people having twins.