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.
The unabashed triflings of Cara Wilson—whose “identification” with Anne Frank can be duplicated by the thousand, though she may be more audacious than most—point to a conundrum. Never mind that the intellectual distance between Wilson and Anne Frank is immeasurable; not every self-conscious young girl will be a prodigy. Did Otto Frank not comprehend that Cara Wilson was deaf to everything the loss of his daughter represented? Did he not see, in Wilson’s letters alone, how a denatured approach to the diary might serve to promote amnesia of what was rapidly turning into history? A protected domestic space, however threatened and endangered, can, from time to time, mimic ordinary life. The young who are encouraged to embrace the diary cannot always be expected to feel the difference between the mimicry and the threat. And (like Cara Wilson) most do not. Natalie Portman, sixteen years old, who will début as Anne Frank in the Broadway revival this December of the famous play based on the diary—a play that has itself influenced the way the diary is read—concludes from her own reading that “it’s funny, it’s hopeful, and she’s a happy person.”
During his time at Auschwitz, Josef Mengele was not the only physician there. It is popularly believed that he was the highest-ranking physician at the camp. This is not the case. That “distinction” belonged to SS captain Dr. Eduard Wirths. Wirths’ position as garrison physician made him responsible in all medical matters for the entire camp complex.
These are notions that are hard to swallow—so they have not been swallowed. There are some, bored beyond toleration and callous enough to admit it, who are sick of hearing—yet again!—about depredations fifty years gone. “These old events,” one of these fellows may complain, “can rake you over only so much. If I’m going to be lashed, I might as well save my skin for more recent troubles in the world.” (I quote from a private letter from a distinguished author.) The more common response respectfully discharges an obligation to pity: it is dutiful. Or it is sometimes less than dutiful. It is sometimes frivolous, or indifferent, or presumptuous. But what even the most exemplary sympathies are likely to evade is the implacable recognition that Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, however sacramentally prodded, can never yield light.
Beginning in late 1941, the Germans began mass transports from the ghettoes in Poland to the concentration camps, starting with those people viewed as the least useful: the sick, old and weak and the very young. The first mass gassings began at the camp of Belzec, near Lublin, on March 17, 1942. Five more mass killing centers were built at camps in occupied Poland, including Chelmno, Sobibor, Treblinka, Majdanek and the largest of all, Auschwitz-Birkenau. From 1942 to 1945, Jews were deported to the camps from all over Europe, including German-controlled territory as well as those countries allied with Germany. The heaviest deportations took place during the summer and fall of 1942, when more than 300,000 people were deported from the Warsaw ghetto alone.
From 1933 onward, anti-Jewish propaganda had flooded Germany. Under the skillful direction of Joseph Goebbels, his Nazi Propaganda Ministry churned out a ceaseless stream of leaflets, posters, newspaper articles, cartoons, newsreels, slides, movies, speeches, records, exhibits and radio pronouncements. As a result, the accusations, denunciations and opinions which Hitler first expressed in his book, Mein Kampf, had become institutionalized, accepted as time-tested beliefs by all Nazis, taught as fact to impressionable youths, and drilled into the minds of eager-to-please SS recruits.
The number of Afro-Germans in Germany when the Nazis came to power is variously estimated at 5,000–25,000. It is not clear whether these figures included Asians. Although blacks, including prisoners of war, in Germany and German-occupied Europe were subjected to incarceration, sterilization, murder, and other abuse, there was no programme to kill them all as there was for the Jews.
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.
^ After the invasion of Poland, the Germans planned to set up a Jewish reservation in southeast Poland around the transit camp in Nisko, but the "Nisko Plan" failed, in part because it was opposed by Hans Frank, the new Governor-General of the General Government territory. Adolf Eichmann was assigned to remove Jews from Germany, Austria, and the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia to the reservation. Although the idea was to remove 80,000 Jews, Eichmann had managed to send only 4,700 by March 1940, and the plan was abandoned in April. By mid-October the idea of a Jewish reservation had been revived by Heinrich Himmler, because of the influx of Germanic settlers into the Warthegau. Resettlement continued until January 1941 under Odilo Globocnik, and included both Jews and Poles. By that time 95,000 Jews were already concentrated in the area, but the plan to deport up to 600,000 additional Jews to the Lublin reservation failed for logistical and political reasons.
Walking the grounds of the memorial site, I arrived with Freund at the lip of the pit that had housed the bunker where Zeidel and the other members of the Burning Brigade had lived. The circumference was tremendous, nearly 200 feet in total. On its grassy floor, the Vilna Gaon Museum had erected a model of a double-sided ramp that the Burning Brigade had used to drop bodies onto the pyres.
In another case in which a mother did not want to be separated from her thirteen-year-old daughter, and bit and scratched the face of the SS man who tried to force her to her assigned line, Mengele drew his gun and shot both the woman and the child. As a blanket punishment, he then sent to the gas all people from that transport who had previously been selected for work, with the comment: "Away with this shit!" (Robert Jay Lifton, The Nazi Doctors.)
The government defined a Jewish person as someone with three or four Jewish grandparents, not someone who had religious convictions. This meant that people who had never practiced, or hadn’t practiced Judaism in many years, or even converted to Christianity were subjected to persecution. Although anti-semitism was pervasive in 1930s Germany, these restrictions frequently extended to any person the Nazis considered to be “non-Aryan”.
Unlike Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, and Lublin-Majdanek, which were built in the occupied General Government territory inhabited by the largest concentrations of Jews, the killing centre at Auschwitz subcamp of Birkenau operated in Polish areas annexed by Nazi Germany directly. The new gas chambers at Bunker I were finished around March 1942 when the Final Solution was officially launched at Belzec. Until mid-June 20,000 Silesian Jews were killed there using Zyklon B. In July 1942, Bunker II became operational. In August, another 10,000–13,000 Polish Jews from Silesia perished, along with 16,000 French Jews declared 'stateless', and 7,700 Jews from Slovakia.
"He grabbed my arm and turned me around," said Freund, now 82. "I was skinny, already. Thank God I didn't have a pimple on my body, because a pimple was all you needed to be sent to the crematorium." (The gas chambers at Auschwitz were located in the crematorium buildings, so that the bodies could be burned immediately after the victims were gassed.)
Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler visited Auschwitz-Birkenau on July 17 and 18, 1942 and watched the gassing of 449 women and children in Bunker No. 1, according to his biographer Peter Padfield. On July 23, 1942, Himmler ordered the quarantine of the Birkenau camp because of a typhus epidemic, but the gassing of the Jews continued. On December 28, 1942, Himmler issued an order that the death rate "must be reduced at all costs" according to document 2172-PS that was introduced at the Nuremberg IMT. He meant the death rate from typhus; the gassing of the Jews did not stop.
After the German invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1939, the Nazis sent many thousands of Czech Jews to ghettos in Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. On 22 June 1941, the German invasion of the Soviet Union brought many more Jews within the German sphere of influence. Some Polish Jews had managed to escape into the Soviet Union during the German invasion of Poland. Now, as the German army rolled into the Soviet Union, they were again trapped.
Doubleday, meanwhile, sensing complications ahead, had withdrawn as Frank’s theatrical agent, finding Levin’s presence—injected by Frank—too intrusive, too maverick, too independent and entrepreneurial: fixed, they believed, only on his own interest, which was to stick to his insistence on the superiority of his work over all potential contenders. Frank, too, had begun—kindly, politely, and with tireless assurances of his gratitude to Levin—to move closer to Doubleday’s cooler views, especially as urged by Barbara Zimmerman. She was twenty-four years old, the age Anne would have been, very intelligent and attentive. Adoring letters flowed back and forth between them, Frank addressing her as “little Barbara” and “dearest little one.” On one occasion he gave her an antique gold pin. About Levin, Zimmerman finally concluded that he was “impossible to deal with in any terms, officially, legally, morally, personally”—a “compulsive neurotic . . . destroying both himself and Anne’s play.” (There was, of course, no such entity as “Anne’s play.”)
“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.”
Although many people responded with obstructionism and doubt, several rescue operations were run throughout Axis-controlled Europe. Some were the work of prominent individuals like Raoul Wallenberg and Carl Lutz who worked largely alone while other operations were far more complex. A network of Catholic bishops and clergymen organized local protests and shelter campaigns throughout much of Europe that are today estimated to have saved 860,000 lives. Danish fishermen clandestinely ferried more than 7,000 Jews into neutral Sweden while the French town of Chambon-sur-Lignon sheltered between 3,000 and 5,000 refugees.
At Auschwitz-Birkenau, new arrivals were told to carefully hang their clothing on numbered hooks in the undressing room and were instructed to remember the numbers for later. They were given a piece of soap and taken into the adjacent gas chamber disguised as a large shower room. In place of carbon monoxide, pellets of the commercial pesticide Zyklon-B (prussic acid) were poured into openings located above the chamber upon the cynical SS command - Na, gib ihnen shon zu fressen (All right, give 'em something to chew on). The gas pellets fell into hollow shafts made of perforated sheet metal and vaporized upon contact with air, giving off lethal cyanide fumes inside the chamber which oozed out at floor level then rose up toward the ceiling. Children died first since they were closer to the floor. Pandemonium usually erupted as the bitter almond-like odor of the gas spread upwards with adults climbing on top of each other forming a tangled heap of dead bodies all the way up to the ceiling.