The word “Holocaust,” from the Greek words “holos” (whole) and “kaustos” (burned), was historically used to describe a sacrificial offering burned on an altar. Since 1945, the word has taken on a new and horrible meaning: the mass murder of some 6 million European Jews (as well as millions of others, including Gypsies and homosexuals) by the German Nazi regime during the Second World War. To the anti-Semitic Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, Jews were an inferior race, an alien threat to German racial purity and community. After years of Nazi rule in Germany, during which Jews were consistently persecuted, Hitler’s “final solution”–now known as the Holocaust–came to fruition under the cover of world war, with mass killing centers constructed in the concentration camps of occupied Poland.
To those whose knowledge of the Holocaust consists, essentially, of the fact that Hitler killed the Jews, it often comes as a surprise to learn that, in the first seven and a half years of Nazi rule in Germany, he did no such killing: Jews were not deliberately murdered by the Nazi regime until the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. In Karl Schleunes’ famous phrase, there was a “twisted road to Auschwitz,” with a gradual but by no means direct path to continental genocide. For the first few years of Nazi rule in Germany”Hitler came to power in January 1933 as chancellor and consolidated his rule after the death of President von Hindenburg a year later”Nazi policy aimed “merely” at the removal of Jews from positions of authority, especially in the state sector, with such removal constantly reinforced by the totalitarian regime’s propaganda and its police terrorism.
British troops guard Alex Pickowski, Camp Commandant of Dechau concentration camp © The discovery of Belsen brought home the shocking truth about Nazi atrocities, but the facts had been known for some time. As early as the summer of 1941, British signals intelligence had intercepted and decoded radio messages from German police units co-operating with the Einsatzgruppen, and details of the killings of Jews were included in the monthly summaries that were sent to Churchill. Churchill responded with a speech on August 24 1941 in which he called the massacres 'a crime without a name' but erroneously identified the victims as 'Russian patriots defending their native soil'. Otherwise, these facts were not made public.
Browning believes that the "Final Solution as it is now understood—the systematic attempt to murder every last Jew within the German grasp" took shape during a five-week period, from 18 September to 25 October 1941. During this time: the sites of the first extermination camps were selected, different methods of killing were tested, Jewish emigration from the Third Reich was forbidden, and 11 transports departed for Łódź as a temporary holding station. During this period, Browning writes, "The vision of the Final Solution had crystallised in the minds of the Nazi leadership, and was being turned into reality." This period was the peak of Nazi victories against the Soviet Army on the Eastern Front, and, according to Browning, the stunning series of German victories led to both an expectation that the war would soon be won, and the planning of the final destruction of the "Jewish-Bolshevik enemy".
Polish gentiles who rescued Jews had several obstacles to overcome. The most serious were the German laws against protecting Jews and the corresponding obligation to identify those who violated these laws. On 15 October 1941, the Nazis introduced a widely publicized law making unauthorized Jewish movement outside ghettos a crime punishable by death. The same punishment applied to gentiles who helped Jews escape. Transgressions were promptly followed by executions that were also widely publicized.
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."
There is no postwar institution specializing in either World War II or the Holocaust that has collected systematic data about the righteous or about Christian-Jewish relations during the war years. Postwar historiography has given scant attention to this subject, except for biographies of heroes like Raoul Wallenberg in Budapest. Individual episodes are recorded in numerous published memoirs or hidden within the histories of the Jewish communities under German occupation. Others are found in some survivor testimonies, oral histories, and depositions.
To come to the diary without having earlier assimilated Elie Wiesel’s “Night” and Primo Levi’s “The Drowned and the Saved” (to mention two witnesses only), or the columns of figures in the transport books, is to allow oneself to stew in an implausible and ugly innocence. The litany of blurbs—“a lasting testament to the indestructible nobility of the human spirit,” “an everlasting source of courage and inspiration”—is no more substantial than any other display of self-delusion. The success—the triumph—of Bergen-Belsen was precisely that it blotted out the possibility of courage, that it proved to be a lasting testament to the human spirit’s easy destructibility. “Hier ist kein Warum,” a guard at Auschwitz warned: here there is no “why,” neither question nor answer, only the dark of unreason. Anne Frank’s story, truthfully told, is unredeemed and unredeemable.
Nazi persecution, arrests, and deportations were directed against all members of Jewish families, as well as many Gypsy families, without concern for age. Homeless, often orphaned, many children had frequently witnessed the murder of parents, siblings, and relatives. They faced starvation, illness, brutal labor, and other indignities until they were consigned to the gas chambers.
Similar smaller rescue operations occurred in Greece, where Jews were hidden in the mountains or on islands. Later, Greek Jews were smuggled into Turkey. Similar popular aid to the Jews was rendered in Finland and in Holland there was a protest strike in February 1941, against the deportation of Dutch Jews. The Italian army also helped Jews in their occupation zones in France and Yugoslavia, and they played an important role in rescuing Italian Jews before the Germans occupied Italy in September 1943.
Anne Frank escaped gassing. One month before liberation, not yet sixteen, she died of typhus fever, an acute infectious disease carried by lice. The precise date of her death has never been determined. She and her sister, Margot, were among three thousand six hundred and fifty-nine women transported by cattle car from Auschwitz to the merciless conditions of Bergen-Belsen, a barren tract of mud. In a cold, wet autumn, they suffered through nights on flooded straw in overcrowded tents, without light, surrounded by latrine ditches, until a violent hailstorm tore away what had passed for shelter. Weakened by brutality, chaos, and hunger, fifty thousand men and women—insufficiently clothed, tormented by lice—succumbed, many to the typhus epidemic.
Political dissidents, trade unionists, and Social Democrats were among the first to be arrested and incarcerated in concentration camps. Under the Weimar government, centuries-old prohibitions against homosexuality had been overlooked, but this tolerance ended violently when the SA (Storm Troopers) began raiding gay bars in 1933. Homosexual intent became just cause for prosecution. The Nazis arrested German and Austrian male homosexuals—there was no systematic persecution of lesbians—and interned them in concentration camps, where they were forced to wear special yellow armbands and later pink triangles. The goal of persecuting male homosexuals was either for reeducation—what might now be called conversion therapy—or punishment. Jehovah’s Witnesses were a problem for the Nazis because they refused to swear allegiance to the state, register for the draft, or utter the words “Heil Hitler.” As a result, the Nazis imprisoned many of the roughly 20,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses in Germany. They could be released from concentration camps if they signed a document renouncing their faith and promising not to proselytize. Few availed themselves of that option, preferring martyrdom to apostasy. Germans of African descent—many of whom, called “Rhineland bastards” by the Nazis, were the offspring of German mothers and French colonial African troops who had occupied the Rhineland after World War I—were also persecuted by the Nazis. Although their victimization was less systematic, it included forced sterilization and, often, internment in concentration camps. The fear was that they would “further pollute” and thereby diminish the race. The Nazis also singled out the Roma and Sinti, pejoratively known as Gypsies. They were the only other group that the Nazis systematically killed in gas chambers alongside the Jews. For the Roma and Sinti, too, racial pollution and their depiction as asocials was the justification for their persecution and murder.
The main event of the upcoming holiday of Purim is the reading of the Megillah, which tells the story of how brave Esther and pious Mordecai saved Persian Jewry from the genocidal schemes of the wicked Haman. In the Ashkenazi tradition, the public reading of the scroll is followed by reciting a poem whose unknown author lived no later than the 11th century. The concluding lines are usually sung to an up-beat tune:
Soviet civilian populations in the occupied areas were heavily persecuted. Villages throughout the Soviet Union were destroyed by German troops. Germans rounded up civilians for forced labor in Germany and caused famine by taking foodstuffs. In Belarus, Germany imposed a regime that deported some 380,000 people for slave labor and killed hundreds of thousands of civilians. Over 600 villages had their entire populations killed, and at least 5,295 Belarusian settlements were destroyed by the Germans. According to Timothy Snyder, of "the nine million people who were in the territory of Soviet Belarus in 1941, some 1.6 million were killed by the Germans in actions away from battlefields, including about 700,000 prisoners of war, 500,000 Jews, and 320,000 people counted as partisans (the vast majority of whom were unarmed civilians)". The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has estimated that 3.3 million of 5.7 million Soviet POWs died in German custody. The death rates decreased as the POWs were needed to help the German war effort; by 1943, half a million had been deployed as slave labor.
After the war, Mengele escaped internment and went underground, serving for four years as a farm stableman near Rosenheim in Bavaria. Then he reportedly escaped, via Genoa, Italy, to South America in 1949. He married (for a second time) under his own name in Uruguay in 1958 and, as “José Mengele,” received citizenship in Paraguay in 1959. In 1961 he apparently moved to Brazil, reportedly becoming friends with an old-time Nazi, Wolfgang Gerhard, and living in a succession of houses owned by a Hungarian couple. In 1985 a team of Brazilian, West German, and American forensic experts determined that Mengele had taken Gerhard’s identity, died in 1979 of a stroke while swimming, and was buried under Gerhard’s name. Dental records later confirmed the forensic conclusion.
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.
Himmler ordered the closure of ghettos in Poland in mid-July 1942; most inhabitants were sent to extermination camps. Those Jews needed for war production would be confined in concentration camps. The deportations from the Warsaw Ghetto began on 22 July; over the almost two months of the Aktion, until 12 September, the population was reduced from 350,000 to 65,000. Those deported were transported in freight trains to the Treblinka extermination camp. Similar deportations happened in other ghettos, with many ghettos totally emptied. The first ghetto uprisings occurred in mid-1942 in small community ghettos. Although there were armed resistance attempts in both the larger and smaller ghettos in 1943, in every case they failed against the overwhelming German military force, and the remaining Jews were either killed or deported to the death camps.
Folman and Polonsky’s greatest missed opportunity, however, is their representation of Anne. As readers have been aware since the Definitive Edition appeared more than 20 years ago, the “Diary” as we know it, despite its misleading title, isn’t a literal diary. In spring 1944, the inhabitants of the Annex heard a radio broadcast in which a Dutch cabinet minister called for citizens to preserve their diaries and letters as a record of the war years — a moment depicted in the graphic adaptation. Afterward, Anne began to revise what she had written for eventual publication as an autobiographical novel, working at the furious rate of up to a dozen pages a day. She rewrote and standardized early entries and also created new ones to fill in gaps in her story, such as the history of her family. What we have come to think of as Anne’s diary, as Francine Prose and others have written, would be more accurately described as a memoir in the form of diary entries. But myths die slow deaths, and most readers still aren’t aware of the complexities behind the book’s creation.
Into this quagmire bravely wade Ari Folman and David Polonsky, the creators of “Anne Frank’s Diary: The Graphic Adaptation,” a stunning, haunting work of art that is unfortunately marred by some questionable interpretive choices. As Folman acknowledges in an adapter’s note, the text, preserved in its entirety, would have resulted in a graphic novel of 3,500 pages. At times he reproduces whole entries verbatim, but more often he diverges freely from the original, collapsing multiple entries onto a single page and replacing Anne’s droll commentary with more accessible (and often more dramatic) language. Polonsky’s illustrations, richly detailed and sensitively rendered, work marvelously to fill in the gaps, allowing an image or a facial expression to stand in for the missing text and also providing context about Anne’s historical circumstances that is, for obvious reasons, absent from the original. The tightly packed panels that result, in which a line or two adapted from the “Diary” might be juxtaposed with a bit of invented dialogue between the Annex inhabitants or a dream vision of Anne’s, do wonders at fitting complex emotions and ideas into a tiny space — a metaphor for the Secret Annex itself.
Similarly, in Ordinary Men (1992), Christopher Browning examined the deeds of German Reserve Police Battalion 101 of the Ordnungspolizei ("order police"), used to commit massacres and round-ups of Jews, as well as mass deportations to the death camps. The members of the battalion were middle-aged men of working-class background from Hamburg, who were too old for regular military duty. They were given no special training. During the murder of 1,500 Jews from Józefów in Poland, their commander allowed them to opt out of direct participation. Fewer than 12 men out of a battalion of 500 did so. Influenced by the Milgram experiment on obedience, Browning argued that the men killed out of peer pressure, not bloodlust.
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.
But this week the Israeli courts waded into the process of selecting who to include on the list of righteous gentiles at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem amid a campaign to add two Germans - one of them a convicted war criminal who was at the centre of a recent Hollywood film - and to strike off a Ukrainian who Jewish survivors say has no place among heroes.
Mengele was born on 16 March 1911 to Walburga (née Hupfauer) and Karl Mengele in Günzburg, Bavaria, Germany. He was the oldest of three children; his two younger brothers were Karl Jr. and Alois. Their father was founder of the Karl Mengele & Sons company, producers of farm machinery. Josef was successful at school and developed an interest in music, art, and skiing. He completed high school in April 1930 and went on to study philosophy in Munich, where the headquarters of the Nazi Party were located. In 1931, Mengele joined the Stahlhelm, Bund der Frontsoldaten, a paramilitary organization that was absorbed into the Nazi Sturmabteilung (Storm Detachment; SA) in 1934.