Gerda Schrage was 24 years old when she was sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944. She had been in hiding in Berlin during the war, until someone betrayed her to the Gestapo and she was arrested. According to Gerda's story, as told in the documentary film "Gerda's Silence," when she arrived at Auschwitz, she was pregnant by a married man with whom she had had an affair while she was in hiding. Her baby died in her arms at Birkenau because Dr. Mengele was conducting yet another cruel experiment and would not allow her to nurse the baby.
The murderous events in the occupied Soviet Union had – as envisaged in a directive by Alfred Rosenberg's Reich Ministry for the Occupied Eastern Territories – provided the German leadership with experiences on how to arrive at a "solution to the overall problem" ("für die Loesung des Gesamt-Problems richtungsweisend") that could be applied elsewhere. On July 31, 1941, Goering signed a document that charged Heydrich with "making all necessary preparations with regard to organizational, practical and material aspects for an overall solution ("Gesamtloesung") of the Jewish question in the German sphere of influence in Europe" and to draw up a plan "for the implementation of the intended final solution ("Endloesung") of the Jewish question." By the time of the Wannsee Conference held on January 20, 1942, the term Final Solution had become a common phrase among German government and party officials. Now reduced in its actual meaning to mass murder, its geographical scope expanded beyond German-dominated Europe: the protocol of the conference listed 11 million Jews in different countries to be engulfed in the "Final Solution of the European Jewish question," including England and neutrals like Sweden and Switzerland. The culmination of the Final Solution in mass deportations from various parts of Europe to the killing centers and death camps in Eastern Europe resulted, like earlier stages of the process, not from one single top-level decision, but from a complex mix of factors, with the Berlin center reacting as much as it was actively shaping events.
G. Aly, "Final Solution": Nazi Population Policy and the Murder of the European Jews (1999); C.R. Browning (with contributions by J. Matthäus), The Origins of the Final Solution: The Evolution of Nazi Jewish Policy, September 1939- March 1942 (2004); R. Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews (20033); P. Longerich, Politik der Vernichtung. Eine Gesamtdarstellung der nationalsozialistischen Judenverfolgung (1998).
Defined by the religion of their grandparents rather than by their own beliefs, Jews were viewed as having impure blood lines. The new laws were taught in schools, cementing anti-Semitism in German culture. Most Germans kept quiet, often benefiting when Jews lost jobs and businesses. Persecution of other minorities also escalated: the police were given new powers to arrest homosexuals and compulsory abortions were administered to women considered to be ‘hereditarily ill’.
Browning also notes that the destruction of the Jews went hand-in-hand with a much wider attempt at “ethnic cleansing” throughout Eastern Europe. The Nazis had well-advanced plans, which might have been realized had they won the war, to remove by force millions of Poles and other Slavs to Siberia, with vast numbers certain to die en route. One of the major merits of Browning’s book is its detailed discussion of these plans, as well as Nazi policies towards the gypsies. Browning notes, correctly, that the Nazis killed large numbers of gypsies even though Hitler hardly ever mentioned them and certainly did not have anti-gypsy hostility at the heart of his ideology. Browning also offers a detailed consideration of the Nazi program of murdering the physically and mentally handicapped among “Aryan” Germans (the “T4 program”), which began in mid-1939 and eventually claimed seventy thousand victims before it was stopped in mid-1941, and he reports that many of the killers in the T4 program went on to be directly involved with the extermination of the Jews in Eastern Europe.
The Jews of Kiev were rounded up by the Einsatzgruppen for “resettlement” in late September 1941. Thousands of Jews were brought to a ravine on the outskirts of Kiev and mowed down by machine guns. Many who were not wounded, including thousands of children, were thrown into the pit of bodies and were buried alive. According to an account in The Holocaust by Martin Gilbert, Ukrainian militia men joined in the slaughter. The records of the Einsatzgruppen unit which participated in the executions recorded 33,771 Jews killed at Babi Yar on September 29-30. In all, more than 100,000 persons, most of them Jews, were executed at Babi Yar between 1941-1943 by the Nazis. In the summer of 1943, the bodies were dug out by slave labor and burned to hide the evidence of the slaughter.
Cesarani notes that by 1943, as the military position of the German forces deteriorated, the Nazi leadership became more openly explicit about the Final Solution. In March, Goebbels confided to his diary: "On the Jewish question especially, we are in it so deeply that there is no getting out any longer. And that is a good thing. Experience teaches that a movement and a people who have burned their bridges fight with much greater determination and fewer constraints than those that have a chance of retreat."
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.
All these appropriations, whether cheaply personal or densely ideological, whether seen as exalting or denigrating, have contributed to the conversion of Anne Frank into usable goods. There is no authorized version other than the diary itself, and even this has been brought into question by the Holocaust denial industry—in part a spinoff of the Anne Frank industry—which labels the diary a forgery. One charge is that Otto Frank wrote it himself, to make money. (Scurrilities like these necessitated the issuance, in 1986, of a Critical Edition by the Netherlands State Institute for War Documentation, including forensic evidence of handwriting and ink—a defensive hence sorrowful volume.)
AT AUSCHWITZ, on 24th December, 1942, I was paraded in company with about 19,000 other prisoners, all of them women. Present on parade were Doctors Mengele and Konig and Rapportfuhrer Tauber. I was one of the 3000 prisoners picked out of the 19,000 by the doctors and taken to our huts, where we were stripped naked by other prisoners and our clothes taken away. We were then taken by tipper-type lorries to the gas chamber chute. They were large lorries, about eight in all and about 300 persons on each lorry. On arrival at the gas chamber the lorry tipped up and we slid down the chute through some doors into a large room. The room had showers all around, towels and soap and large numbers of benches. There were also small windows high up near the roof. Many were injured coming down the chute and lay where they fell. Those of us who could sat down on the benches provided and immediately afterwards the doors of the room were closed. My eyes then began to water, I started to coughing and had a pain in my chest and throat. Some of the other people fell down and others coughed and foamed at the mouth. After being in the room for about two minutes the door was opened and an S.S. man came in wearing a respirator. He called my name and then pulled me out of the room and quickly shut the door again. When I got outside I saw S.S man Franz Hoessler, whom I identify as No. 1 on photograph 9. He took me to hospital, where I stayed for about six weeks, receiving special treatment from Dr. Mengele. For the first few days I was at the hospital I found it impossible to eat anything without vomiting. I can only think that I was taken out of the gas chamber because I had an Aryan husband and therefore was in a different category from the other prisoners, who were all Jews. I now suffer from a weak heart and had two attacks since being at Belsen. I do not know the names of any persons who went into the gas chamber with me.
However, the capital of this bureaucratized and industrialized world of mass murders was Auschwitz. An operative concentration camp since May 1940, in the autumn of 1941 it was equipped with gas chambers. According to the latest estimates, the number of Jews killed in this camp approximated 1.5 million. In Auschwitz II (Birkenau), symbol and synonym of the Holocaust, the Nazi program of mass extermination reached its highest level of “perfection.”
Before the war, Mengele had received doctorates in anthropology and medicine, and began a career as a researcher. He joined the Nazi Party in 1937 and the SS in 1938. He was assigned as a battalion medical officer at the start of World War II, then transferred to the Nazi concentration camps service in early 1943 and assigned to Auschwitz, where he saw the opportunity to conduct genetic research on human subjects. His subsequent experiments focused primarily on twins, with little regard for the health or safety of the victims.