Though the Nazis tried to keep operation of camps secret, the scale of the killing made this virtually impossible. Eyewitnesses brought reports of Nazi atrocities in Poland to the Allied governments, who were harshly criticized after the war for their failure to respond, or to publicize news of the mass slaughter. This lack of action was likely mostly due to the Allied focus on winning the war at hand, but was also a result of the general incomprehension with which news of the Holocaust was met and the denial and disbelief that such atrocities could be occurring on such a scale.
“If only one country, for whatever reason, tolerates a Jewish family in it, that family will become the germ center for fresh sedition. If one little Jewish boy survives without any Jewish education, with no synagogue and no Hebrew school, it [Judaism] is in his soul. Even if there had never been a synagogue or a Jewish school or an Old Testament, the Jewish spirit would still exist and exert its influence. It has been there from the beginning and there is no Jew, not a single one, who does not personify it.”
Eichmann received various levels of cooperation from each of the various occupied governments. But in countries such as Holland, Belgium, Albania, Denmark, Finland and Bulgaria, some Jews were saved from their deaths by the action of the sympathetic populace and government officials. Denmark’s government and populace were exemplary in their heroism in saving Jews. In other countries such as Poland, Greece, France, and Yugoslavia, the deportation of Jews to the death camps was facilitated by the cooperation of the government.
Dr. Mengele was known by all the prisoners because of his good looks and charm. According to Gerald L. Posner and John Ware, the authors of "Mengele, the Complete Story," many of the children in the Birkenau camp "adored Mengele" and called him "Uncle Pepi." This information came from Vera Alexander, a survivor of Birkenau, who said that Dr. Mengele brought chocolate and the most beautiful clothes for the children, including hair ribbons for the little girls.
When an outbreak of noma (a gangrenous bacterial disease of the mouth and face) struck the Romani camp in 1943, Mengele initiated a study to determine the cause of the disease and develop a treatment. He enlisted the assistance of prisoner Dr. Berthold Epstein, a Jewish pediatrician and professor at Prague University. The patients were isolated in a separate barracks and several afflicted children were killed so that their preserved heads and organs could be sent to the SS Medical Academy in Graz and other facilities for study. This research was still ongoing when the Romani camp was liquidated and its remaining occupants killed in 1944.
These programmes are best seen as a series of linked genocides, each having its own history, background, purpose and significance in the Nazi scheme of things. The Holocaust was the biggest of the killing programmes and, in certain important ways, different from the others. The Jews figured in Nazi ideology as the arch-enemy of the 'Aryan race', and were targeted not merely for terror and repression but for complete extinction. The Nazis failed in this aim because they ran out of time, but they pursued it fanatically until their defeat in 1945. The Holocaust led to widespread public awareness of genocide and to modern efforts to prevent it, such as the 1948 UN Convention on Genocide.
To murder the Jews of "Greater Germany" as well as Jews residing in German-occupied or German-influenced areas of western, southern, southeastern and northern Europe, Himmler designated Auschwitz II (Auschwitz-Birkenau) in the spring of 1942 as a killing facility. Auschwitz-Birkenau, along with the Auschwitz main camp, was subordinated to the Inspectorate of Concentration Camps in Berlin. Originally planned as a vast forced-labor camp for Soviet prisoners of war and, later for Jewish forced laborers, Auschwitz-Birkenau began to operate as a killing center in the spring of 1942. The SS authorities murdered approximately one million Jews from various European countries at Auschwitz-Birkenau, including Jews from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Norway, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxemburg, German-occupied western and southwestern Poland, Yugoslavia, Greece, Italy, and Hungary.
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.
Otto Frank grew up with a social need to please his environment and not to offend it; that was the condition of entering the mainstream, a bargain German Jews negotiated with themselves. It was more dignified, and safer, to praise than to blame. Far better, then, in facing the larger postwar world that the diary had opened to him, to speak of goodness rather than destruction: so much of that larger world had participated in the urge to rage. (The diary notes how Dutch anti-Semitism, “to our great sorrow and dismay,” was increasing even as the Jews were being hauled away.) After the liberation of the camps, the heaps of emaciated corpses were accusation enough. Postwar sensibility hastened to migrate elsewhere, away from the cruel and the culpable. It was a tone and a mood that affected the diary’s reception; it was a mood and a tone that, with cautious yet crucial excisions, the diary itself could be made to support. And so the diarist’s dread came to be described as hope, her terror as courage, her prayers of despair as inspiring. And since the diary was now defined as a Holocaust document, the perception of the cataclysm itself was being subtly accommodated to expressions like “man’s inhumanity to man,” diluting and befogging specific historical events and their motives. “We must not flog the past,” Frank insisted in 1969. His concrete response to the past was the establishment, in 1957, of the Anne Frank Foundation and its offshoot the International Youth Center, situated in the Amsterdam house where the diary was composed, to foster “as many contacts as possible between young people of different nationalities, races and religions”—a civilized and tenderhearted goal that nevertheless washed away into do-gooder abstraction the explicit urge to rage that had devoured his daughter.
By now, experimental mobile gas vans were being used by the Einsatzgruppen to kill Jews in Russia. Special trucks had been converted by the SS into portable gas chambers. Jews were locked up in the air-tight rear container while exhaust fumes from the truck's engine were fed in to suffocate them. However, this method was found to be somewhat impractical since the average capacity was less than 50 persons. For the time being, the quickest killing method continued to be mass shootings. And as Hitler's troops advanced deep into the Soviet Union, the pace of Einsatz killings accelerated. Over 33,000 Jews in the Ukraine were shot in the Babi Yar ravine near Kiev during two days in September 1941.
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.
^ 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.
These evacuations were regarded as provisional or "temporary solutions" ("Ausweichmöglichkeiten").[p] The final solution would encompass the 11 million Jews living not only in territories controlled by Germany, but elsewhere in Europe and adjacent territories, such as Britain, Ireland, Switzerland, Turkey, Sweden, Portugal, Spain, and Hungary, "dependent on military developments". There was little doubt what the final solution was, writes Peter Longerich: "the Jews were to be annihilated by a combination of forced labour and mass murder".
One of the clearest examples of Hitler’s single-minded (and seemingly suicidal) desire to rid the world of the Jews can be seen in the extermination of the Jews of Hungary. Until March of 1944, the Hungarian government had refused to allow the deportation of Hungarian Jews. It March 1944 the Germans occupied Hungary and by mid May ( two weeks before D Day) the mass deportations to Auschwitz. The Nazi leadership worked with particular intensity. The Soviet army was rapidly approaching Hungary and the Germans knew that they were going to lose the war. But there was no way that Hitler could allow such a large Jewish community to survive. He diverted trains that were badly needed to transport more soldiers to the Russian front just to send more Jews to Auschwitz. To him, the greater enemy was the Jew.
Richard Freund, an American archaeologist at the University of Hartford, in Connecticut, specializes in Jewish history, modern and ancient. He has been traversing the globe for almost three decades, working at sites as varied as Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, and at Sobibor, a Nazi extermination camp in eastern Poland. Unusually for a man in his profession, he rarely puts trowel to earth. Instead, Freund, who is rumpled and stout, with eyes that seem locked in a perpetual squint, practices what he calls “noninvasive archaeology,” which uses ground-penetrating radar and other types of computerized electronic technology to discover and describe structures hidden underground.
^ French Jews were active in the French Resistance. Zionist Jews formed the Armee Juive (Jewish Army), which participated in armed resistance under a Zionist flag, smuggled Jews out of the country, and participated in the liberation of Paris and other cities. As many as 1.5 million Jewish soldiers fought in the Allied armies, including 500,000 in the Red Army, 550,000 in the U.S. Army, 100,000 in the Polish army, and 30,000 in the British army. About 200,000 Jewish soldiers serving in the Red Army died in the war, either in combat or after capture. The Jewish Brigade, a unit of 5,000 Jewish volunteers from the British Mandate of Palestine, fought in the British Army.
Klempner, Mark (2017). "Heart Has Reasons: Holocaust Rescuers and Their Stories of Courage" (Website portal of resources for the book and lectures of the same name, with PDF and audio excerpts). hearthasreasons.com. The site includes extensive lists of articles, books and film/video/DVDs about Holocaust rescuers and related heroes, plus a reading group guide and book excerpts such as:
Assistant coroner José António de Mello displays a skull to press photographers at the exhumation site in the Nossa Senhora do Rosário Cemetery, Embu das Artes, Brazil, June 6, 1985. Romeu Tuma, the chief of the federal police in São Paulo, shown standing over the site of the grave as the skull and bones were exhibited to the cameras, told the assembled reporters that Mengele “was well and truly dead.” But this statement was immediately contested, for not everyone was convinced that the bones were Mengele’s.
Gentiles whose status placed them on the periphery of a community generally had fewer social constraints and a higher level of independence. This sense of independence, in turn, seems to have made many rescuers more likely to act in accordance with their personal values and moral precepts, even when these standards were in opposition to societal norms. Such rescuers were propelled by values connected to self-approval. In interviews, they insisted again and again that they had to be at peace with themselves, with their ideas of what was right or wrong.
“With respect of the Jewish Question, the Führer has decided to make a clean sweep. He prophesied to the Jews that if they again brought about a world war, they would live to see their annihilation in it. That wasn’t just a catchword… If the German people have now again sacrificed 160,000 dead on the eastern front, then those responsible for this bloody conflict will have to pay with their lives.”
Steve Paulsson is a lecturer at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies. His doctoral thesis, 'Hiding in Warsaw: The Jews on the "Aryan side", 1940-1945', was co-winner of the 1998 Fraenkel Prize in Contemporary History, and is published by Yale University Press. He has also published articles on the flight of the Danish Jews to Sweden in 1943, and on Polish-Jewish relations. He was senior historian in the Holocaust Exhibition Project Office at the Imperial War Museum, 1998-2000.
After crossing the Soviet demarcation line in 1941, what had been regarded as exceptional in the Greater Germanic Reich became a normal way of operating in the east. The crucial taboo against the killing of women and children was breached not only in Białystok, but also in Gargždai in late June. By July, significant numbers of women and children were being killed behind all front-lines not only by the Germans, but also by the local Ukrainian and Lithuanian auxiliary forces. On 29 July 1941, at a meeting of SS officers in Vileyka (Polish Wilejka, now Belarus), the Einsatzgruppen had been given a dressing-down for their low execution figures. Heydrich himself issued an order to include the Jewish women and children in all subsequent shooting operations. Accordingly, by the end of July the entire Jewish population of Vileyka, men, women and children were murdered. Around 12 August, no less than two-thirds of the Jews shot in Surazh were women and children of all ages. In late August 1941 the Einsatzgruppen murdered 23,600 Jews in the Kamianets-Podilskyi massacre. A month later, the largest mass shooting of Soviet Jews took place on 29–30 September in the ravine of Babi Yar, near Kiev, where more than 33,000 Jewish people of all ages were systematically machine-gunned. In mid-October 1941, HSSPF South, under the command of Friedrich Jeckeln, had reported the indiscriminate killing of more than 100,000 people.
On 19 October 1943, five days after the prisoner revolt in Sobibór, Operation Reinhard was terminated by Odilo Globocnik on behalf of Himmler. The camps responsible for the killing of nearly 2,700,000 Jews were soon closed. Bełżec, Sobibór, and Treblinka were dismantled and ploughed over before spring. The operation was followed by the single largest German massacre of Jews in the entire war carried out on 3 November 1943; with approximately 43,000 prisoners shot one-by-one simultaneously in three nearby locations by the Reserve Police Battalion 101 hand-in-hand with the Trawniki men from Ukraine. Auschwitz alone had enough capacity to fulfill the Nazis' remaining extermination needs.
Browning concludes that Hitler ordered the genocide of the Jews in the Soviet Union during the period of what he terms “euphoria” just after the invasion of Russia, when victory appeared to be easily within Germany’s grasp. Browning dates this, as most recent historians do, to August-October 1941, in the context of a general “war of destruction” in the Soviet Union. Browning’s timetable thus reflects today’s consensus, although he does present a comprehensive array of evidence in support of this conclusion. With the failure of the German armies to gain a decisive victory in Russia, a failure that was becoming evident by October or November 1941, Nazi genocide began to turn toward the Jews under German control throughout Europe, beginning with the Jews of Poland, and employing the assembly-line techniques of the gas chambers in extermination camps like Treblinka and Auschwitz rather than the open-air shootings that the Einsatzgruppen invariably used during the first days of the invasion.
As reported in The New York Times in 2015, "When Otto Frank first published his daughter's red-checked diary and notebooks, he wrote a prologue assuring readers that the book mostly contained her words". Although many Holocaust deniers, such as Robert Faurisson, have claimed that Anne Frank's diary was fabricated, critical and forensic studies of the text and the original manuscript have supported its authenticity.
But the exhortations of both Isaiah and the Jerusalem Talmud would also seem to apply, collectively and individually, to the thousands of Poles who saved Jews, often exposing themselves to considerably greater danger than those who acted similarly in Nazi-occupied Western Europe. Nor is the message of these passages limited to acts of heroic selflessness during the Shoah. Think, for instance, of Zidan Saif, the Druze policeman who gave his life defending a Jerusalem synagogue against terrorists in 2014—or, in the realm of power politics, of those many Gentiles, from Arthur Balfour to Harry Truman to Daniel P. Moynihan, who at decisive moments in history have spoken up for the Jewish people and the Jewish state.
The ghettos, and the slow death they brought, were only part of the overall plan. In the months following the Wannsee Conference, three specialized killing centers, Belzec, Treblinka and Sobibor, were constructed in southeast Poland, featuring large gas chambers with adjacent crematories or burial pits for the disposal of corpses. After they became operational, the ghettos were bypassed and Jews went directly by train to the new death camps.
Just imagine how interesting it would be if I were to publish a romance of the "Secret Annex." The title alone would be enough to make people think it was a detective story. But, seriously, it would be quite funny 10 years after the war if we Jews were to tell how we lived and what we ate and talked about here. Although I tell you a lot, still, even so, you only know very little of our lives.
Meanwhile, sightings of Josef Mengele were being reported all over the world. Wiesenthal claimed to have information that placed Mengele on the Greek island of Kythnos in 1960, in Cairo in 1961, in Spain in 1971, and in Paraguay in 1978, eighteen years after he had left the country. He insisted as late as 1985 that Mengele was still alive—six years after he had died—having previously offered a reward of US$100,000 in 1982 for the fugitive's capture. Worldwide interest in the case was heightened by a mock trial held in Jerusalem in February 1985, featuring the testimonies of over one hundred victims of Mengele's experiments. Shortly afterwards, the West German, Israeli, and U.S. governments launched a coordinated effort to determine Mengele's whereabouts. The West German and Israeli governments offered rewards for his capture, as did The Washington Times and the Simon Wiesenthal Center.