Every detail of the actual extermination process was meticulously planned. Jews arriving in trains at Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka were falsely informed by the SS that they had come to a transit stop and would be moving on to their true destination after delousing. They were told their clothes were going to be disinfected and that they would all be taken to shower rooms for a good washing. Men were then split up from the women and children. Everyone was taken to undressing barracks and told to remove all of their clothing. Women and girls next had their hair cut off. First the men, and then the women and children, were hustled in the nude along a narrow fenced-in pathway nicknamed by the SS as the Himmelstrasse (road to Heaven). At the end of the path was a bathhouse with tiled shower rooms. As soon as the people were all crammed inside, the main door was slammed shut, creating an air-tight seal. Deadly carbon monoxide fumes were then fed in from a stationary diesel engine located outside the chamber.
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.
The photo below shows Dr. Josef Mengele with Rudolf Hoess and Josef Kramer relaxing at Solahuette, the SS retreat near Birkenau. Kramer was the Commandant at Birkenau in 1944 when this photo was taken. In December 1944, he was transferred to Bergen-Belsen, which then became a concentration camp. The Bergen-Belsen camp had previously been a holding camp for Jews who were available for exchange with the Allies for German civilians held in British and American prisons. Hoess was the Commander of the SS garrison at Auschwitz in 1944.
Always delicately respectful of Frank’s dignity and rights—and always mindful of the older man’s earlier travail—Levin had promised that he would step aside if a more prominent playwright, someone “world famous,” should appear. Stubbornly and confidently, he went on toiling over his own version. As a novelist, he was under suspicion of being unable to write drama. (In after years, when he had grown deeply bitter, he listed, in retaliation, “Sartre, Gorky, Galsworthy, Steinbeck, Wilder!”) Though there are many extant drafts of Levin’s play, no definitive script is available; both publication and performance were proscribed by Frank’s attorneys. A script staged without authorization by the Israel Soldiers’ Theatre in 1966 sometimes passes from hand to hand, and reads well: moving, theatrical, actable, professional. This later work was not, however, the script submitted in the summer of 1952 to Cheryl Crawford, one of a number of Broadway producers who rushed in with bids in the wake of the diary’s acclaim. Crawford, an eminent co-founder of the Actors Studio, initially encouraged Levin, offering him first consideration and, if his script was not entirely satisfactory, the aid of a more experienced collaborator. Then—virtually overnight—she rejected his draft outright. Levin was bewildered and infuriated, and from then on he became an intractable and indefatigable warrior on behalf of his play—and on behalf, he contended, of the diary’s true meaning. In his Times review he had summed it up stirringly as the voice of “six million vanished Jewish souls.”
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.
There are different methods of execution. People are shot by firing squads, killed by an "air hammer", and poisoned by gas in special gas chambers. Prisoners condemned to death by the Gestapo are murdered by the first two methods. The third method, the gas chamber, is employed for those who are ill or incapable of work and those who have been brought in transports especially for the purpose/Soviet prisoners of war, and, recently Jews.
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 Nazi concentration camps were established beginning in 1933 for the purpose of imprisoning political opponents. After the “Night of the Long Knives” (see Chapter 8, page 65), authority and management of the concentration camps was turned over to the S.S. The S.S. expanded the concentration camp system, and used these facilities to warehouse other “undesirables,” including hundreds of thousands of Jews. Dachau, Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen were among the first concentration camps built by the Nazis near Munich, Weimar, and Berlin respectively.
On October 23, 1941, S.S. head Heinrich Himmler issued an order down the Nazi chain of command which heralded a major change in Nazi policy with respect to the “Jewish problem.” Until then, the Nazis worked vigorously to encourage Jews to emigrate. The Madagascar Plan (see below) was one example of strategies which were formulated to remove Jews from Germany and its occupied lands. As is described in more detail in Chapter 11, many countries refused to accept Jewish refugees. This shift in policy resulted in the deportation of Jews to camps and ghettos in the East. The policy to “resettle” Jews to these ghettos and camps was a significant step in what was to become the “Final Solution” the systematic murder of millions of Jews.
Ruth Elias and her husband had conceived a child while she was a prisoner in the Theresienstadt camp, and when she arrived at Birkenau on a transport of Czech prisoners in December 1943, she was three months pregnant. Ruth passed several selections for the gas chamber even though she was obviously pregnant; she and her husband were assigned to the Czech "family camp." On July 11, 1944, after a selection made by Dr. Mengele, 3,000 prisoners in the Czech family camp, who were not considered fit to work, were sent to the gas chamber, but Ruth passed the selection even though she was in her eighth month of pregnancy. On July 14, 1944, Ruth was sent to Hamburg, Germany to work in clearing rubble from Allied bombing raids.
The ideology of Nazism brought together elements of antisemitism, racial hygiene, and eugenics, and combined them with pan-Germanism and territorial expansionism with the goal of obtaining more Lebensraum (living space) for the Germanic people. Nazi Germany attempted to obtain this new territory by attacking Poland and the Soviet Union, intending to deport or kill the Jews and Slavs living there, who were considered by the Nazis to be inferior to the Aryan master race.