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:
Many Jews were saved by hiding and also by illegal frontier crossings. Anne Frank‘s family hid in the concealed annex of an Amsterdam office building with the help of a Christian friend, and the family of Emmanuel Ringelblum (the Warsaw ghetto historian) hid in Warsaw in a specially prepared underground bunker camouflaged by a Polish gardener’s greenhouse. Both the Franks and the Ringelblums were caught and perished. About 20,000 Polish Jews, however, did survive hidden in Aryan Warsaw. Likewise, 5,000 Dutch Jews and several thousand German Jews were hidden in the heart of the Nazi empire, in Berlin and Hamburg.
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’.
The industrialization and scale of the murder was unprecedented. Killings were systematically conducted in virtually all areas of occupied Europe—more than 20 occupied countries. Close to three million Jews in occupied Poland and between 700,000 and 2.5 million Jews in the Soviet Union were killed. Hundreds of thousands more died in the rest of Europe. Victims were transported in sealed freight trains from all over Europe to extermination camps equipped with gas chambers. The stationary facilities grew out of Nazi experiments with poison gas during the Aktion T4 mass murder ("euthanasia") programme against the disabled and mentally ill, which began in 1939. The Germans set up six extermination camps in Poland: Auschwitz II-Birkenau (established October 1941); Majdanek (October 1941); Chełmno (December 1941); and the three Operation Reinhard camps, Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka, in 1942. A seventh death camp, Maly Trostenets, was established near Minsk in Belarus, then part of the Reichskommissariat Ostland. Discussions at the Wannsee Conference in January 1942 made it clear that the German "final solution of the Jewish question" was intended eventually to include Britain and all the neutral states in Europe, including Ireland, Switzerland, Turkey, Sweden, Portugal, and Spain.
A subsequent bowdlerization, in 1950, was still more programmatic, and crossed over even more seriously into the area of Levin’s concern for uncompromised faithfulness. The German edition’s translator, Anneliese Schütz, in order to mask or soft-pedal German culpability, went about methodically blurring every hostile reference to Germans and German. Anne’s parodic list of house rules, for instance, included “Use of language: It is necessary to speak softly at all times. Only the language of civilized people may be spoken, thus no German.” The German translation reads, “Alle Kultursprachen . . . aber leise!”—“all civilized languages . . . but softly!” “Heroism in the war or when confronting the Germans” is dissolved into “heroism in the war and in the struggle against oppression.” (“A book intended after all for sale in Germany,” Schütz explained, “cannot abuse the Germans.”) The diarist’s honest cry, in the midst of a vast persecution, that “there is no greater hostility than exists between Germans and Jews” became, in Schütz’s version, “there is no greater hostility in the world than between these Germans and Jews!” Frank agreed to the latter change because, he said, it was what his daughter had really meant: she “by no means measured all Germans by the same yardstick. For, as she knew so well, even in those days we had many good friends among the Germans.” But this guarded accommodationist view is Otto Frank’s own; it is nowhere in the diary. Even more striking than Frank’s readiness to accede to such misrepresentations is the fact that for forty-one years (until a more accurate translation appeared) no reader of the diary in German had ever known an intact text.
“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.
By the end of December 1941, before the Wannsee Conference, over 439,800 Jewish people had been murdered, and the Final Solution policy in the east became common knowledge within the SS. Entire regions were reported "free of Jews" by the Einsatzgruppen. Addressing his district governors in the General Government on 16 December 1941, Governor-General Hans Frank said: "But what will happen to the Jews? Do you believe they will be lodged in settlements in Ostland? In Berlin, we were told: why all this trouble; we cannot use them in the Ostland or the Reichskommissariat either; liquidate them yourselves!" Two days later, Himmler recorded the outcome of his discussion with Hitler. The result was: "als Partisanen auszurotten" ("exterminate them as partisans"). Israeli historian Yehuda Bauer wrote that the remark is probably as close as historians will ever get to a definitive order from Hitler for the genocide carried out during the Holocaust. Within two years, the total number of shooting victims in the east had risen to between 618,000 and 800,000 Jews.
Concentration camps began to incarcerate ‘habitual criminals’ in addition to political prisoners. Goebbels stepped up anti-Semitic propaganda with a traveling exhibition which cast Jews as the enemy. Nearly half a million people attended. Some guessed worse would come. Winston Churchill criticised British relations with Germany, warning of ‘great evils of racial and religious intolerance’, though many colleagues complained of his ‘harping on’ about Jews.
According to the report, a young woman died after a botched abortion at the hands of Mengele. For that crime he was detained “briefly” by a Buenos Aires judge and was released when he appeared in the courtroom with a “package presumably filled with a large amount of money.” Argentina strongly resisted extradition requests for many Nazi War criminals, Mengele included. In fact, he eluded capture for over 30 years and died after suffering a stroke while swimming off the coast of Brazil at 68 years old. His body was exhumed in 1985 and DNA evidence confirmed the remains to be those of Mengele.
Begin thought settling the score with Mengele would show Palestinian leaders (and the Israeli public) that they would have to pay a price for harming Israelis. His attitude was reflected in a message he sent to President Ronald Reagan when he sent the Israeli Army into Lebanon in 1982, saying that he felt as if “I have sent an army to Berlin to wipe out Hitler in the bunker.”
Keep in mind that when Marr wrote these words, the State of Israel did not exist, nor was there even a hint in the geo-political situation that it might come into being anytime soon. Marr, in speaking of the Jewish national threat, was speaking about the great ideological struggle of Jewish worldview versus paganism, which had been playing out throughout Jewish history. We saw it between the Greeks and the Jews (Part 27) and between the Romans and the Jews (Part 33).
By the spring of 1942, the Nazis had established six killing centers (death camps) in Poland: Chelmno (Kulmhof), Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, Maidanek and Auschwitz. All were located near railway lines so that Jews could be easily transported daily. A vast system of camps (called Lagersystem) supported the death camps. The purpose of these camps varied: some were slave labor camps, some transit camps, others concentration camps and their subcamps, and still others the notorious death camps. Some camps combined all of these functions or a few of them. All the camps were intolerably brutal.
He had a wide variety of other research interests. Among these was a fascination with heterochromia, a condition in which the irises of an individual's eyes differ in coloration. Throughout his stay in Auschwitz, Mengele collected the eyes of his murdered victims, in part to furnish “research material” to colleague Karin Magnussen, a KWI researcher of eye pigmentation. He himself also conducted several experiments in an attempt to unlock the secret of artificially changing eye color. He also zealously documented in camp inmates the progression of the disease Noma, a type of gangrene which destroys the mucous membrane of the mouth and other tissues.
The Soviet Army reached Auschwitz on January 27, 1945. By that time, an estimated 1,500,000 Jews, along with 500,000 Polish prisoners, Soviet POWs and Gypsies, had perished there. As the Western Allies pushed into Germany in the spring of 1945, they liberated Buchenwald, Bergen-Belsen, and Dachau. Now the full horror of the twelve-year Nazi regime became apparent as British and American soldiers, including Supreme Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower, viewed piles of emaciated corpses and listened to vivid accounts given by survivors.
Prisoners transported to these extermination camps were told to undress so they could shower. Rather than a shower, the prisoners were herded into gas chambers and killed. (At Chelmno, the prisoners were herded into gas vans instead of gas chambers.) Auschwitz was the largest concentration and extermination camp built. It is estimated that 1.1 million people were killed at Auschwitz.
How, when, and why the Nazis’ decision to exterminate Europe’s Jews was made remains one of the most vexed and disputed of all important questions concerning the Holocaust. There was not simply an order from Hitler commanding the killing of the Jews, and there is general agreement that the genocide evolved in stages, steadily becoming more comprehensive. The Origins of the Final Solution by the universally respected historian Christopher R. Browning, now at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is a magisterial examination of this subject in the wider context of the overall evolution of Nazi policy towards the Jews between the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939 and the opening of the first extermination camps early in 1942.
“One of the things that I always say is you leave room for the next generation of technology to do things that you can’t fathom,” Freund said. “Look, I’m doing things that my teachers never thought of. I don’t have the chutzpah to think that I know all the answers, and maybe in another generation the technology will improve, people will have better ideas, you know?”
Ultimately, one must surely conclude that the unparalleled enormities carried out by the Nazis took place because the First World War destroyed Germany’s traditional elite structure, permitting, in the context of the Depression, the rise of an extremist movement at the absolute fringes of political life which would never otherwise have come to power. Almost precisely the same thing occurred, for the same reasons, in Russia with the Bolshevik revolution and the rise of Stalin to supreme power just over a decade later. In the English-speaking world, fortunately, the legacy of internalized liberalism, enhanced by the fact that its nations were victorious in the First World War and their institutions left intact, kept the traditional governing structures viable and gave radical fringe groups no opportunity to gather political power. Arguably, too, the deep wound of 1914-1918, which caused so many horrors in Europe, was not fully healed until the fall of Communism in 1990, if even then.
No doubt exists that Mengele was a very active commandant of the Auschwitz camp after he arrived there in 1943. Most doctors who have testified and prisoners who have testified have indicated he was ubiquitous, and, indeed, stories do exist of his selection activities and of his medical involvement. The Frankfurt Court which indicted him charged him with "hideous crimes" committed alone or with others "willfully and with bloodlust". Included in the crimes against humanity were selections, lethal injections, shootings, beatings and other forms of deliberate killing. He was religiously involved in all aspects, but particularly in the twins experiments, according to members of C.A.N.D.L.E.S., twins who survived the experiments.
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.
Meanwhile, beginning in the fall of 1939, Nazi officials selected around 70,000 Germans institutionalized for mental illness or disabilities to be gassed to death in the so-called Euthanasia Program. After prominent German religious leaders protested, Hitler put an end to the program in August 1941, though killings of the disabled continued in secrecy, and by 1945 some 275,000 people deemed handicapped from all over Europe had been killed. In hindsight, it seems clear that the Euthanasia Program functioned as a pilot for the Holocaust.
With this police infrastructure in place, opponents of the Nazis were terrorized, beaten, or sent to one of the concentration camps the Germans built to incarcerate them. Dachau, just outside of Munich, was the first such camp built for political prisoners. Dachau's purpose changed over time and eventually became another brutal concentration camp for Jews.
After several months on the run, including a trip back to the Soviet-occupied area to recover his Auschwitz records, Mengele found work near Rosenheim as a farmhand. He eventually escaped from Germany on 17 April 1949, convinced that his capture would mean a trial and death sentence. Assisted by a network of former SS members, he used the ratline to travel to Genoa, where he obtained a passport from the International Committee of the Red Cross under the alias "Helmut Gregor", and sailed to Argentina in July 1949. His wife refused to accompany him, and they divorced in 1954.