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.
As of 1 January 2006, Yad Vashem had recognized 21,310 persons as Righteous Gentiles. Poles formed the largest group, with 5,941 having been recognized. Other East Europeans came from Ukraine (2,139), Hungary (671), Lithuania (630), Belarus (564), Slovakia (460), Russia (120), Czech Republic (115), Latvia (100), Moldova (71), Romania (52), and Estonia (3). Yad Vashem cautions, however, that its figures do not represent the actual number of people who rescued Jews in each country. For example, gentiles who saved Jews for financial gain are excluded. Thus many more people rescued Jews than are officially recognized. Because Poles constitute by far the largest group of Righteous Gentiles, they have been the most extensively studied, and most of the following observations are based on data concerning them.
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.
As an act of honor to those gentiles, Rani composed a Yizkor prayer in their memory. It is unique and breaks new ground. It extends the understanding of relationships between Jews and non-Jews. It remembers that “righteousness is an everlasting foundation” that breaks boundaries. May we reach a day where the example set by those righteous people will not be an extraordinary courageous act, but simply, the norm.
What could be more "useful" than to view that era through the mind and eyes -- and in the words -- of a girl who wanted us to know who she was and what happened to her. And what could be more necessary than the story of a girl who wanted to grow up, to become a writer, to lead a full and normal life -- and was prevented from doing so, by the forces of prejudice and hatred, on a beautiful and otherwise ordinary August morning.
But Auschwitz-Birkenau became more than a concentration camp. In the spring of 1942 gas chambers were built at Birkenau and mass transports of Jews began to arrive. Some of the new arrivals were inducted into the camp as registered prisoners, but the great majority were gassed immediately. These gassing operations were greatly expanded in the spring of 1943 with the construction of four purpose-built gas chamber and crematorium complexes, which included such refinements as electric lifts to carry bodies up to the crematoria. Each crematorium could handle 2,000 victims daily. In a nearby group of barracks, nicknamed 'Canada' by the prisoners, victims' belongings were sorted for transportation to the Reich. The victims' hair was used to stuff mattresses; gold teeth were melted down and the gold deposited to an SS account.
Perhaps the main area of dispute about this process concerns Hitler’s precise role in ordering the killing of the Jews. Remarkably, we simply do not know, in an unequivocal way, what Hitler’s precise role was. The dictator often gave oral orders to senior henchmen such as Heinrich Himmler that were never written down, and historians can only infer Hitler’s precise role and intentions from evidence which is infuriatingly inadequate and contradictory. Because of the lack of unambiguous evidence, historians have been divided for decades, rather misleadingly, into so-called “intentionalists,” who argue that Hitler always intended to kill the Jews, and “functionalists,” who claim that the killing process somehow, as it were, welled up from local SS units in Russia until it became general Nazi policy.
Upon arrival at a camp, the inmates were usually stripped of all their valuables and clothes. They were then shorn of body hair, disinfected, given a shower, and issued a striped prison uniform without regard to size. Each step of the process was designed to dehumanize the prisoners, both physically and emotionally. Each prisoner was given a number. At Auschwitz, for example, the number was tattooed on the arm, but some camps did not tattoo their inmates.
Whereas Christopher Browning places the Nazi plan to exterminate the Jews in the context of the Wehrmacht victories on the Eastern front, Cesarani argues that the German subsequent realisation that there would be no swift victory over the Soviet Union "scuppered the last territorial 'solution' still on the table: expulsion to Siberia". Germany's declaration of war on the United States on December 11, 1941, "meant that holding European Jews hostage to deter the US from entering the conflict was now pointless. As Joseph Goebbels put it when he summarised a secret speech Hitler made on 12 December 1941: 'The world war is here, the destruction of the Jews must be the inevitable consequence'." Cesarani concludes, the Holocaust "was rooted in anti-Semitism, but it was shaped by war". The fact that the Nazis were, ultimately, so successful in killing between five and six million Jews was not due to the efficiency of the Third Reich or the clarity of their policies. "Rather, the catastrophic rate of killing was due to German persistence … and the duration of the murderous campaigns. This last factor was largely a consequence of allied military failure."
Rooted in 19th-century antisemitic discourse on the "Jewish question," "Final Solution" as a Nazi cover term denotes the last stage in the evolution of the Third Reich's anti-Jewish policies from persecution to physical annihilation on a European scale. Currently, Final Solution is used interchangeably with other, broader terms that refer to German extermination policies during World War II, as well as more specifically to describe German intent and the decision-making process leading up to the beginning of systematic mass murder.
Despite the Vatican failure to act, many priests, nuns, and laymen hid Jews in monasteries, convents, schools, and hospitals and protected them with false baptismal certificates. However, as Saul Friedlander’s memoirs show, many Catholic priests proselytized and converted their “guests.” Moreover, after the war, many Jewish children were never returned to Jewish families, even after lengthy court battles.
After only four days of working in Hamburg, Ruth Elias was escorted by an SS man, in a private compartment on a passenger train, to the infirmary at Ravensbrück, the women's concentration camp near Berlin. From there, Ruth and Berta Reich, another prisoner who was nine months pregnant, were soon sent back to Auschwitz on another passenger train. Ruth gave birth to a baby girl at Auschwitz, but Dr. Mengele cruelly ordered her to bind her breasts and not to nurse her child because he wanted to see how long it would take for a baby to die without its mother's milk. Mercifully, a woman dentist named Maca Steinberg, who was a prisoner at Auschwitz, obtained some morphine and gave it to Ruth so that she could inject her baby and end its life, after Ruth told her that Dr. Mengele was due to arrive the next morning to take Ruth and her child to the gas chamber.
In addition to active help, many clergymen also protested the mistreatment and deportations of Jews as violations of divine and human laws. The Catholic pastor of St. Hedwig’s Cathedral in Berlin, Bernard Lichtenburg, prayed publicly for the Jews until his arrest and death on the way to Dachau. The rescue work of priests of all Christian denominations is well-documented in postwar literature.
At the end of the war, between 50,000 and 100,000 Jewish survivors were living in three zones of occupation: American, British and Soviet. Within a year, that figure grew to about 200,000. The American zone of occupation contained more than 90 percent of the Jewish displaced persons (DPs). The Jewish DPs would not and could not return to their homes, which brought back such horrible memories and still held the threat of danger from anti-Semitic neighbors. Thus, they languished in DP camps until emigration could be arranged to Palestine, and later Israel, the United States, South America and other countries. The last DP camp closed in 1957 (David S. Wyman, "The United States," in David S. Wyman, ed., The World Reacts to the Holocaust, Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996, pp. 70710).
Mengele sailed to Argentina in July 1949, assisted by a network of former SS members. He initially lived in and around Buenos Aires, then fled to Paraguay in 1959 and Brazil in 1960, while being sought by West Germany, Israel, and Nazi hunters such as Simon Wiesenthal who wanted to bring him to trial. He eluded capture in spite of extradition requests by the West German government and clandestine operations by the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad. He drowned in 1979 after suffering a stroke while swimming off the Brazilian coast, and was buried under a false name. His remains were disinterred and positively identified by forensic examination in 1985.