In the autumn of 1941, SS chief Heinrich Himmler assigned German General Odilo Globocnik (SS and police leader for the Lublin District) with the implementation of a plan to systematically murder the Jews of the Generalgouvernement. The code name Operation Reinhard was eventually given to this plan, named after Heydrich (who was assassinated by Czech partisans in May 1942). As part of Operation Reinhard, Nazi leaders established three killing centers in Poland—Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka—with the sole purpose of the mass murder of Jews.
'Righteous Gentiles' is the phrase used for those non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. At Yad Vashem Museum in Jerusalem, over 11,000 'Righteous Gentiles' are honored; almost 5,000 are Polish. What follows are profiles and oral histories of ten Polish rescuers of Jews. Their stories reveal what transforms people from indifferent bystanders into heroic saviors
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.
Throughout German-occupied territory the situation of the Jews was desperate. They had meagre resources and few allies and faced impossible choices. A few people came to their rescue, often at the risk of their own lives. Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg arrived in Budapest on July 9, 1944, in an effort to save Hungary’s sole remaining Jewish community. Over the next six months, he worked with other neutral diplomats, the Vatican, and Jews themselves to prevent the deportation of these last Jews. Elsewhere, Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, a French Huguenot village, became a haven for 5,000 Jews. In German-occupied Poland, where it was illegal to aid Jews and where such action was punishable by death, the Zegota (Council for Aid to Jews) rescued a similar number of Jewish men, women, and children. Financed by the London-based Polish government in exile and involving a wide range of clandestine political organizations, Zegota provided hiding places and financial support and forged identity documents.
German forces had begun evacuating many of the death camps in the fall of 1944, sending inmates under guard to march further from the advancing enemy’s front line. These so-called “death marches” continued all the way up to the German surrender, resulting in the deaths of some 250,000 to 375,000 people. In his classic book “Survival in Auschwitz,” the Italian Jewish author Primo Levi described his own state of mind, as well as that of his fellow inmates in Auschwitz on the day before Soviet troops arrived at the camp in January 1945: “We lay in a world of death and phantoms. The last trace of civilization had vanished around and inside us. The work of bestial degradation, begun by the victorious Germans, had been carried to conclusion by the Germans in defeat.”
After invading Poland, the Germans established ghettos in the incorporated territories and General Government to confine Jews. The ghettos were formed and closed off from the outside world at different times and for different reasons. For example, the Łódź ghetto was closed in April 1940, to force the Jews inside to give up money and valuables; the Warsaw ghetto was closed for health considerations (for the people outside, not inside, the ghetto), but this did not happen until November 1940; and the Kraków ghetto was not established until March 1941. The Warsaw Ghetto contained 380,000 people and was the largest ghetto in Poland; the Łódź Ghetto was the second largest, holding between 160,000 to 223,000. Because of the long drawn-out process of establishing ghettos, it is unlikely that they were originally considered part of a systematic attempt to eliminate Jews completely.
The Nazis brought their own strain of radical ruthlessness to these ideas. They glorified war and saw the uncompromising struggle for survival between nations and races as the engine of human progress. They rejected morality as a Jewish idea, which had corrupted and weakened the German people. They maintained that a great nation such as Germany had the right and duty to build an empire based on the subjugation of 'inferior races'. They looked eastwards to Poland and Russia (where, as it happened, the great majority of European Jews lived) for the territorial expansion of their 'living space' (Lebensraum).
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.
In his 1965 essay "Command and Compliance", which originated in his work as an expert witness for the prosecution at the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials, the German historian Hans Buchheim wrote there was no coercion to murder Jews and others, and all who committed such actions did so out of free will. Buchheim wrote that chances to avoid executing criminal orders "were both more numerous and more real than those concerned are generally prepared to admit", and that he found no evidence that SS men who refused to carry out criminal orders were sent to concentration camps or executed. Moreover, SS rules prohibited acts of gratuitous sadism, as Himmler wished for his men to remain "decent"; acts of sadism were carried out on the initiative of those who were either especially cruel or wished to prove themselves ardent National Socialists. Finally, he argued that those of a non-criminal bent who committed crimes did so because they wished to conform to the values of the group they had joined and were afraid of being branded "weak" by their colleagues if they refused.
Seiichi Miyake died in 1982 at age 56, but the popularity of his invention has only grown since his death. In the 1990s, the U.S., the UK, and Canada embraced tactile pavement in their cities. Miyake's initial design has been built upon throughout the years; there are now pill-shaped bumps to indicate changes in direction and raised lines running perpendicular to foot traffic to signal upcoming steps. And even though they're often thought of as tools for blind people, the bright colors used in tactile pavement also make them more visible to pedestrians with visual impairments.
In contemplating a dramatization and pledging no compromise, Levin told Frank he would do it “tenderly and with utmost fidelity.” He was clear about what he meant by fidelity. In his eyes the diary was conscious testimony to Jewish faith and suffering; and it was this, and this nearly alone, that defined for him its psychological, historical, and metaphysical genuineness, and its significance for the world. With these convictions foremost, Levin went in search of a theatrical producer. At the same time, he was unflagging in pressing for publication; but the work was meanwhile slowly gaining independent notice. Janet Flanner, in her “Letter from Paris” in The New Yorker of November 11, 1950, noted the French publication of a book by “a precocious, talented little Frankfurt Jewess”—apparently oblivious of the unpleasant echoes, post-Hitler, of “Jewess.” Sixteen English language publishers on both sides of the Atlantic had already rejected the diary when Levin succeeded in placing it with Valentine Mitchell, a London firm. His negotiations with a Boston house were still incomplete when Doubleday came forward to secure publication rights directly from Frank. Relations between Levin and Frank were, as usual, warm; Frank repeatedly thanked Levin for his efforts to further the fortunes of the diary, and Levin continued under the impression that Frank would support him as the playwright of choice.
Nazi racial policy aimed at forcing Jews to emigrate. Fifty thousand German Jews had left Germany by the end of 1934, and by the end of 1938, approximately half the German Jewish population had left the country. Among the prominent Jews who left was the conductor Bruno Walter, who fled after being told that the hall of the Berlin Philharmonic would be burned down if he conducted a concert there. Albert Einstein, who was in the United States when Hitler came to power, never returned to Germany; he was expelled from the Kaiser Wilhelm Society and the Prussian Academy of Sciences and his citizenship was revoked. Other Jewish scientists, including Gustav Hertz, lost their teaching positions and left the country. On 12 March 1938, Germany annexed Austria. Austrian Nazis broke into Jewish shops, stole from Jewish homes and businesses, and forced Jews to perform humiliating acts such as scrubbing the streets or cleaning toilets. Jewish businesses were "Aryanized", and all the legal restrictions on Jews in Germany were imposed. In August that year, Adolf Eichmann was put in charge of the Central Agency for Jewish Emigration in Vienna (Zentralstelle für jüdische Auswanderung in Wien). About 100,000 Austrian Jews had left the country by May 1939, including Sigmund Freud and his family, who moved to London. The Évian Conference was held in July 1938 by 32 countries as an attempt to help the increased refugees from Germany, but aside from establishing the largely ineffectual Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees, little was accomplished and most countries participating did not increase the number of refugees they would accept.
In the early part of 1939, my father, mother and infant brother were living in Paris, as refugees from the pogroms in Romania. They were illegal immigrants, living modestly with the hope of giving themselves and their son a better future than the one they had. But World War II was approaching, and the citizens of France were in danger of falling prey to the Vichy regime that was collaborating with Germany and Hitler. As Jews and illegal residents, my parents were in an extremely precarious situation. They were poor and had no connections or reasonable way of changing their situation. But a gentile, the wife of an Italian diplomat for whom my mother sewed her clothes, understood what the future of my family would be if they stayed in France. In an act of righteousness, mercy and generosity, she offered my parents tickets: first for the train to Marseilles and then, passage onto a ship bound to Bolivia. I was born in Bolivia, where my family’s life was spared the horrors of the Holocaust. I have eternal gratitude to the woman who saved us.
Inside the Soviet Union were an estimated three million Jews, many of whom still lived in tiny isolated villages known as Shtetls. Following behind the invading German armies, four SS special action units known as Einsatzgruppen systematically rounded-up and shot all of the inhabitants of these Shtetls. Einsatz execution squads were aided by German police units, local ethnic Germans, and local anti-Semitic volunteers. Leaders of the Einsatzgruppen also engaged in an informal competition as to which group had the highest tally of murdered Jews.
Browning also examines the much-debated question of the degree of complicity by ordinary Germans in the “Final Solution.” Here he sensibly steers a middle course between those who see genocide as carried out by the top Nazis, under the smokescreen of the war, secretly and in a way almost totally hidden from Germany’s civilians, and, at the other extreme, historians such as Daniel J. Goldhagen who view virtually the entire German people as complicit in “exterminationist anti-Semitism.” Browning realizes the extent to which anti-Semitism, although always present in German (and, more obviously, in Austrian) culture, had nevertheless been greatly ameliorated down to 1933 by the general and continuous rise of liberalism and “modernity.” But he also understands that Germany’s “special path” to the twentieth century”unlike that of the English-speaking world”involved a reactionary and anti-liberal elite masterminding and benefiting from an extremely rapid industrial revolution while holding to ultranationalism and expansionism as its core values. The attitude of the average German towards the persecution of the Jews by the Nazis (that is, in Nazi Germany itself) was arguably one of reprehensible indifference; but one must not forget also that Nazi Germany was a totalitarian society, where opposition to the regime meant certain imprisonment or death, and that the Nazis kept their killings in Eastern Europe a secret from their own people.
As Siksnianas led Freund through the woods, he told an astonishing story about a group of prisoners who had reportedly tunneled to freedom and joined partisan fighters hiding out in the forest. But when Freund asked to see exactly how they made it out, he got only shrugs. No one could show him; no one knew. Because a tunnel had never been definitively located and documented, the story had come to take on the contours of a fable, and three-quarters of a century on, it seemed destined to remain a legend without any verifiable evidence to back it up—a crucial piece of the historical record, lost to time.
“There is no stopping them [the Jews]. Are there no clear signs that the twilight of the Jews is setting in? No. Jewry’s control of society and politics as well as its domination of religious and ecclesiastical thought is still in the prime of its development. Yes, through the Jewish nation Germany will become a world power, a western new Palestine. And this will happen not through violent revolution but through the compliance of the people. We should not reproach the Jewish nation. It fought against the western world for 1,800 years and finally conquered it. We were vanquished. The Jews were late in their assault on Germany but once started there was no stopping them
Most Holocaust historians define the Holocaust as the enactment, between 1941 and 1945, of the German state policy to exterminate the European Jews.[a] In Teaching the Holocaust (2015), Michael Gray, a specialist in Holocaust education, offers three definitions: (a) "the persecution and murder of Jews by the Nazis and their collaborators between 1933 and 1945", which views the events of Kristallnacht in Germany in 1938 as an early phase of the Holocaust; (b) "the systematic mass murder of the Jews by the Nazi regime and its collaborators between 1941 and 1945", which acknowledges the shift in German policy in 1941 toward the extermination of the Jewish people in Europe; and (c) "the persecution and murder of various groups by the Nazi regime and its collaborators between 1933 and 1945", which includes all the Nazis' victims. The third definition fails, Gray writes, to acknowledge that only the Jewish people were singled out for annihilation.
In the first few decades after the Holocaust, scholars argued that it was unique as a genocide in its reach and specificity. This began to change in the 1980s during the West German Historikerstreit ("historians' dispute"), an attempt to re-position the Holocaust within German historiography. Ernst Nolte triggered the dispute in June 1986 with an article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung: "Vergangenheit, die nicht vergehen will: Eine Rede, die geschrieben, aber nicht mehr gehalten werden konnte" ("The past that will not pass: A speech that could be written but not delivered"), in which he compared Auschwitz to the Gulag and suggested that the Holocaust was a response to Hitler's fear of the Soviet Union: "Was the Bolshevik murder of an entire class not the logical and factual prius of the 'racial murder' of National Socialism? ... Was the source of Auschwitz a past that would not go away?"[aa]
Jews would be “utilised for work in the East… [The] sexes [will be] separated. Jews capable of work will be moved into these areas as they build roads, during which a large proportion will no doubt drop out through natural reduction. The remnant that eventually remains will require suitable treatment…The evacuated Jews will first be taken, group by group, to so-called transit ghettos, in order to be transported further east from there.”
The SS used Sonderkommandos (Jewish slave laborers) during the gassing process to usher people in the undressing room and to clean up the gas chamber afterwards. One such survivor recalled the scene at Auschwitz: "There were all sorts of reactions from all sorts of people. There were disabled people. They would take out their war service cards showing that they had fought in the First World War with all kinds of distinctions and medals which they had from that time. They shouted, what's this? We fought for Germany. Now they're going to burn us, to kill us. This is impossible. We protest against such a thing. But everyone just laughed at them. Because they didn't take it seriously, these SS men. They laughed at the whole thing."
^ Jump up to: a b Eberhard Jäckel (Die Zeit, 1986): "Ich behaupte ... daß der nationalsozialistische Mord an den Juden deswegen einzigartig war, weil noch nie zuvor ein Staat mit der Autorität seines verantwortlichen Führers beschlossen und angekündigt hatte, eine bestimmte Menschengruppe einschließlich der Alten, der Frauen, der Kinder und der Säuglinge möglichst restlos zu töten, und diesen Beschluß mit allen nur möglichen staatlichen Machtmitteln in die Tat umsetzte." ("I maintain ... that the National Socialist killing of the Jews was unique in that never before had a state with the authority of its leader decided and announced that a specific group of humans, including the elderly, the women, the children and the infants, would be killed as quickly as possible, and then carried out this resolution using every possible means of state power.")
One extraordinary aspect of the journey to the death camps was that the Nazis often charged Jews deported from Western Europe train fare as third class passengers under the guise that they were being "resettled in the East." The SS also made new arrivals in the death camps sign picture postcards showing the fictional location "Waldsee" which were sent to relatives back home with the printed greeting: "We are doing very well here. We have work and we are well treated. We await your arrival."
This was upgraded on 31 July 1941, when Hermann Goering sent an order that Heydrich should make “all necessary preparations with regard to organisational, practical and financial aspects for an overall solution to the Jewish question”. Heydrich was to “submit an overall plan… for the execution of the intended ‘Final Solution’ of the Jewish question”.
The Nazis established ghettos in occupied Poland. Polish and western European Jews were deported to these ghettos. During the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, mobile killing squads (Einsatzgruppen) began killing entire Jewish communities. The methods used, mainly shooting or gas vans, were soon regarded as inefficient and as a psychological burden on the killers.
Within a month of his arrival at Auschwitz, an outbreak of noma erupted in the Gypsy camp. Mengele’s solution was to send over 1000 Gypsies to the gas chamber. A similar event occurred in the women’s camp a month later, and the doctor sent more than 600 women with typhus to the same fate. In one of the most horrific exterminations, Mengele and a group of other officers circled a fire pit before about 10 dump trucks filled with children arrived. The trucks backed up to the fire and Mengele and the other officers started throwing the children into the pit. The children screamed as they were burned alive, while others managed to crawl out of the pit. But the officers walked around the pit with sticks and pushed those who managed to get out back into the fire.
Jews in America responded to the various reports by holding a rally at New York's Madison Square Garden in March 1943 to pressure the U.S. government into action. As a result, the Bermuda Conference was held from April 19-30, with representatives from the U.S. and Britain meeting to discuss the problem of refugees from Nazi-occupied countries. But the meeting resulted in complete inaction concerning the ongoing exterminations.
The Diary of a Young Girl, also known as The Diary of Anne Frank, is a book of the writings from the Dutch language diary kept by Anne Frank while she was in hiding for two years with her family during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. The family was apprehended in 1944, and Anne Frank died of typhus in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945. The diary was retrieved by Miep Gies, who gave it to Anne's father, Otto Frank, the family's only known survivor, just after the war was over. The diary has since been published in more than 60 languages.
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.
While Jews began to flee abroad from the first days of the Nazi regime, only after Kristallnacht in November 1938 did Nazi policy switch categorically to the expulsion of all Jews from the Reich as its central aim. Although the Jews were ever-more intensively disemployed, defined as noncitizens, ostracized, stripped of wealth, brutalized, and encouraged to emigrate, they were not being killed by the government, and the majority of Germany’s five hundred thousand Jews managed to escape from the country before the outbreak of the war (though not necessarily to safety, as many wound up trapped in Poland and the Soviet Union). Indeed, so effective were the Nazis at expelling the Jews from their territories that about two-thirds of Austria’s two hundred thousand Jews managed to flee abroad in the short period between the German takeover of Austria in March 1938 and the closing of the borders to further Jewish emigration from the Reich in 1940-1941.
German mobile killing squads, called special duty units (Einsatzgruppen), are assigned to kill Jews during the invasion of the Soviet Union. These squads follow the German army as it advances deep into Soviet territory, and carry out mass-murder operations. At first, the mobile killing squads shoot primarily Jewish men. Soon, wherever the mobile killing squads go, they shoot all Jewish men, women, and children, without regard for age or gender. By the spring of 1943, the mobile killing squads will have killed more than a million Jews and tens of thousands of partisans, Roma (Gypsies), and Soviet political officials.
On Friday, August 4, 1944, the day of the arrest, Miep Gies climbed the stairs to the hiding place and found it ransacked and wrecked. The beleaguered little band had been betrayed by an informer who was paid seven and a half guilders—about a dollar—for each person: sixty guilders for the lot. Miep Gies picked up what she recognized as Anne’s papers and put them away, unread, in her desk drawer. There the diary lay untouched, until Otto Frank emerged alive from Auschwitz. “Had I read it,” she said afterward, “I would have had to burn the diary because it would have been too dangerous for people about whom Anne had written.” It was Miep Gies—the uncommon heroine of this story, a woman profoundly good, a failed savior—who succeeded in rescuing an irreplaceable masterwork. It may be shocking to think this (I am shocked as I think it), but one can imagine a still more salvational outcome: Anne Frank’s diary burned, vanished, lost—saved from a world that made of it all things, some of them true, while floating lightly over the heavier truth of named and inhabited evil. ♦
In the 1960s, Otto Frank recalled his feelings when reading the diary for the first time, "For me, it was a revelation. There, was revealed a completely different Anne to the child that I had lost. I had no idea of the depths of her thoughts and feelings." Michael Berenbaum, former director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, wrote, "Precocious in style and insight, it traces her emotional growth amid adversity. In it, she wrote, 'In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.'"
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.
According to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem, "[a]ll the serious research" confirms that between five and six million Jews died. Early postwar calculations were 4.2 to 4.5 million from Gerald Reitlinger; 5.1 million from Raul Hilberg; and 5.95 million from Jacob Lestschinsky. In 1986 Lucy S. Dawidowicz used the pre-war census figures to estimate 5.934 million. Yehuda Bauer and Robert Rozett in the Encyclopedia of the Holocaust (1990) estimated 5.59–5.86 million. A 1996 study led by Wolfgang Benz suggested 5.29 to 6.2 million, based on comparing pre- and post-war census records and surviving German documentation on deportations and killings. Martin Gilbert arrived at a minimum of 5.75 million. The figures include over one million children.
Of the six million Poles murdered by the Nazis, half were Polish Christians. The Nazis considered the Poles and other Slavic peoples to be sub-human destined to serve as slaves to the Aryan “master race.” The Polish intelligentsia and political leadership was sought out specifically for execution, and other Polish civilians were slaughtered indiscriminately. Among the dead were more than 2,600 Catholic priests.
After the end of World War II, surviving archival documents provided a clear record of the Final Solution policies and actions of Nazi Germany. They included the Wannsee Conference Protocol, which documented the co-operation of various German state agencies in the SS-led Holocaust, as well as some 3,000 tons of original German records captured by Allied armies, including the Einsatzgruppen reports, which documented the progress of the mobile killing units assigned, among other tasks, to kill Jewish civilians during the attack on the Soviet Union in 1941. The evidential proof which documented the mechanism of the Holocaust was submitted at Nuremberg.
Italy introduced some antisemitic measures, but there was less antisemitism there than in Germany, and Italian-occupied countries were generally safer for Jews than German-occupied territories. In some areas, the Italian authorities even tried to protect Jews, such as in the Croatian areas of the Balkans. But while Italian forces in Russia were not as vicious towards Jews as the Germans, they did not try to stop German atrocities either. There were no deportations of Italian Jews to Germany while Italy remained an ally. Several forced labor camps for Jews were established in Italian-controlled Libya. Almost 2,600 Libyan Jews were sent to camps, where 562 died.
Life in the camps was a living hell. As described by Judah Pilch in “Years of the Holocaust: The Factual Story,” which appears in The Jewish Catastrophe in Europe, a typical day in the life of a concentration camp inmate began at dawn, when they were roused from their barracks which housed 300-800 inmates each. Their “beds” were bunks of slatted wood two and three tiers high. Frequently three to four prisoners shared each bunk, not permitting space enough for them to stretch out for normal sleep. The inmates were organized into groups to go to the toilets, marched to a distribution center for a breakfast consisting of some bread and a liquid substitute for tea or coffee, and then sent out to work for 10-14 hours in mines, factories, and road or airfield building, often in sub-zero weather or the severe heat of summer. They were subjected to constant physical and emotional harassment and beating. The inmates’ food rations did not permit survival for very long. Those who resisted orders of the guards were shot on the spot. Numerous roll calls were held to assure that no prisoners had escaped. If one did attempt an escape, all of the inmates suffered for it.
Wounded while on campaign, Mengele returned to Germany in January 1943. He began work at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute (KWI) for Anthropology, Human Genetics, and Eugenics, directed by his former mentor von Verschuer. In April of 1943, he received a promotion to the rank of SS captain. This promotion shortly preceded Mengele's transfer to Auschwitz, on May 30, 1943.