Though the circumstances of her final years (she died, at 15, in Bergen-Belsen) were so terrible and extreme, her inner life and her voice seem almost shockingly contemporary, astonishingly similar to the voices of the teenagers we know. We cannot help but be amazed that an adolescent girl could have written so movingly and intelligently about a subject that continues to overwhelm the adult imagination.
When she was 17, Amir took a class about the Holocaust. “How did you escape, Papa?” she remembers asking afterward. He agreed to explain, but what he recounted were mostly technical details: the size of the bunker, the number of bodies consumed by the flames. He explained that in addition to the five men who had fled with him to the Rudnitsky Woods, six other members of the Burning Brigade had survived the escape. The rest had perished.
According to scholars Christian Gerlach and Peter Monteath, among others, the pivotal moment for Hitler’s decision came on December 12, 1941, at a secret meeting with some 50 Nazi officials, including Joseph Goebbels (Nazi minister of propaganda) and Hans Frank (governor of occupied Poland). Though no written documents of the meeting survive, Goebbels described the meeting in his journal on December 13, 1941:
Trainloads of human cargo arriving at Auschwitz went through a selection process conducted by SS doctors such as Josef Mengele. Young adults considered fit for slave labor were allowed to live and had an ID number tattooed on their left forearm. Everyone else went to the gas chambers. A few inmates, including twin children, were occasionally set aside for participation in human medical experiments.
The term "Final Solution" was a euphemism used by the Nazis to refer to their plan for the annihilation of the Jewish people. Historians have shown that the usual tendency of the German leadership was to be extremely guarded when discussing the Final Solution. Euphemisms were, in Mark Roseman's words, "their normal mode of communicating about murder".
He acted instantly. He sent Otto Frank a copy of “In Search” and in effect offered his services as an unofficial agent to secure British and American publication, asserting his distance from any financial gain; his interest, he said, was purely “one of sympathy.” He saw in the diary the possibility of “a very touching play or film,” and asked Frank’s permission to explore the idea. Frank at first avoided reading Levin’s book, saturated as it was in passions and commitments so foreign to his own susceptibilities. He was not unfamiliar with Levin’s preoccupations; he had seen and liked one of his films. He encouraged Levin to go ahead—though a dramatization, he observed, would perforce “be rather different from the real contents” of the diary. Hardly so, Levin protested: no compromise would be needed; all the diarist’s thoughts could be preserved.
“I am marshalling my last remaining strength in order to die peacefully as one who will not surrender and who will not ask for forgiveness. The historical fact that Israel became the leading social political superpower in the 19th century lies before us. We have amongst us a flexible, tenacious, intelligent foreign tribe that knows how to bring abstract reality into play in many different ways. Not individual Jews but the Jewish spirit and Jewish consciousness have overpowered the world. All this is the consequence of a cultural history so unique in its way, so grand that every day polemic can achieve nothing against it. With the entire force of its armies the proud Roman Empire did not achieve that which Semitism has achieved in the West and particularly in Germany.”
Shortly after Hitler came to power, the Reichstag building, seat of the German parliament, burnt down. Communists were blamed for setting the fire and Hindenburg declared a state of emergency, passing the Reichstag Fire Decree that suspended basic rights like trial by jury. The German Communist Party was suspended and over 4,000 members were detained without trial. The next month, Hitler’s cabinet passed the Enabling Act which allowed him to enact laws without the consent of the parliament for four years, effectively transforming the German government into a de facto Nazi dictatorship.
The first killing center set up in occupied Polish lands was the camp at Chełmno on the Ner; Jews brought in from the ghettos in the Wartheland were being killed there from December 1941. Three more camps, somewhat larger, were opened at Bełżec, Sobibor, and Treblinka (in what was known as “Aktion Reinhard”) somewhat later, between March and July 1942.
The truth is, Alisande, these archaics are a little TOO simple; the vocabulary is too limited, and so, by consequence, descriptions suffer in the matter of variety; they run too much to level Saharas of fact, and not enough to picturesque detail; this throws about them a certain air of the monotonous; in fact the fights are all alike: a couple of people come together with great random -- random is a good word, and so is exegesis, for that matter, and so is holocaust, and de- falcation, and usufruct and a hundred others, but land
Throughout Nazi-occupied Europe, relatively few non-Jewish persons were willing to risk their own lives to help the Jews. Notable exceptions included Oskar Schindler, a German who saved 1,200 Jews by moving them from Plaszow labor camp to his hometown of Brunnlitz. The Nazi-occupied nation of Denmark rescued nearly its entire population of Jews, over 7,000, by transporting them to safety by sea. Italy and Bulgaria both refused to cooperate with Nazi demands for deportations. Elsewhere in Europe, people generally stood by passively and watched as their neighbors were marched through the streets toward waiting trains, or in some cases, actively participated in Nazi roundups.
Szeptycki (also spelled Sheptytskyi) was a member of the Polish Catholic hierarchy who ordered that the clergy reporting to him act to save Jews. At first, Andrey worked with his brother Abbot Kliment to help a Jewish boy, Kurt Lewin, whose parents had been murdered by the Nazi's by keeping him safe in one of their monasteries in western Ukraine. During the course of the Holocaust, Szeptycki saved a number of Jews by allowing them to find shelter within the monasteries affiliated with the Greek Catholic Church.
Sometimes the mere presence of German troops in the vicinity was sufficient to spur a massacre. One example is what happened in the Polish village of Jedwabne, where neighbours murdered their Jewish neighbours. For years the massacre was blamed on the Germans, though many Poles likely knew that the local population had turned against its own Jews. In the Baltics, where the Germans were greeted as liberators by some segments of the population, the lure of political independence and the desire to erase any collaboration with the previous Soviet occupiers led nationalist bands to murder local Jews.
The first systematic selection for the gas chambers at Birkenau was made when a transport of Jews arrived at Auschwitz on July 4, 1942. The train stopped a short distance from the Auschwitz train station at a wooden platform called the "Judenrampe," where the selection process took place. The Jews who were considered fit to work were marched to the Auschwitz main camp, which was close to the Judenrampe. There they were given a shower, their heads were shaved, a number was tattooed on their left forearm, and a registration card was made for them.
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.
Lay Catholics, such as the German Dr. Gertrude Luckner, who headed the Caritas Catholica, also extended help to Jews and non-Aryan Christians in Germany. She was deported to Ravensbruck for her aid to the persecuted. After the war, Dr. Luckner was honored for her courage by the Israeli government. It must be noted that much of this Christian help was actually rendered to fellow Christians (converted Jews), who were classified as Jews due to their descent under Nazi racial laws.
Although the phrase "Righteous Gentiles" has become a general term for any non-Jew who risked their life to save Jews during the Holocaust, it here appears to apply specifically to: Raoul Wallenberg [Swedish, d. 1947] Hiram Bingham IV [d. 1988, American]; Karl Lutz [d. 1975, Swiss]; C. Sujihara [d. 1986, Japanese]; and Andre Trocme [d. 1971, French].
Czeslawa Kwoka, age 14, appears in a prisoner identity photo provided by the Auschwitz Museum, taken by Wilhelm Brasse while working in the photography department at Auschwitz, the Nazi-run death camp where some 1.5 million people, most of them Jewish, died during World War II. Czeslawa was a Polish Catholic girl, from Wolka Zlojecka, Poland, who was sent to Auschwitz with her mother in December of 1942. Within three months, both were dead. Photographer (and fellow prisoner) Brasse recalled photographing Czeslawa in a 2005 documentary: "She was so young and so terrified. The girl didn't understand why she was there and she couldn't understand what was being said to her. So this woman Kapo (a prisoner overseer) took a stick and beat her about the face. This German woman was just taking out her anger on the girl. Such a beautiful young girl, so innocent. She cried but she could do nothing. Before the photograph was taken, the girl dried her tears and the blood from the cut on her lip. To tell you the truth, I felt as if I was being hit myself but I couldn't interfere. It would have been fatal for me." #
Before the “Final Solution” was devised to murder all Jews in Nazi jurisdiction, the scheme the Nazis planned to rid their land of the Jews was forced emigration. In 1940, plans were devised by the Nazis to ship all Jews under Nazi control to Madagascar, an island in the Indian Ocean. It was not until 1941 that Nazi bureaucrats were referring to the “Final Solution” (Gesamtlosung) in the context of genocide rather than a “Territorial Final Solution” (territoriale Endlosung) in the context of forced emigration. Some historians believe that the Madagascar Plan was a smokescreen for Hitler’s desire to murder European Jewry (see page 62 of Marrus’ The Holocaust in History).
In 1953, the Knesset, Israel's parliament, passed a law creating Yad Vashem as the country's Martyrs' and Heroes' Memorial Authority. Its tasks included commemorating the six million Jews killed by the Nazis and their collaborators during the Holocaust, paying tribute to those Jewish resistance fighters, and honoring those "high-minded Gentiles who risked their lives to save Jews." The title Righteous Among the Nations is taken from Jewish tradition (the literature of the Sages) that describes non-Jews who helped the Jewish people in times of need.
Browning wrestles with these and many other related questions in a consistently persuasive and cogent way. He concludes, very sensibly, that it is inconceivable that the Holocaust, unprecedented in history and entailing a massive, counterproductive diversion of resources in wartime, could have taken place without Hitler’s immediate knowledge and approval, although his orders were often, as Browning notes, “vague and inexplicit.” Moreover, Hitler himself was the chief Nazi ideologue of rabid, demented, racialist anti-Semitism, with anti-Semitism at the very center of his worldview and in and of itself a central motivating factor in his foreign and military policies.
The Nazis, under cover of the war, developed the technology, bureaucracy, and psychology of hate to efficiently murder millions of Jews. The details of the “Final Solution” were worked out at the Wannsee Conference. All Jews in Germany and the occupied countries were deported to sealed ghettos as a holding area. Many were then shipped in cattle cars to labor camps where they lived under brutally inhuman conditions. Hundreds of thousands were sent directly to the gas chambers in death camps. As the Allies advanced on the camps, death marches further depleted the ranks of potential camp survivors.
Life in the ghetto was abominable, and thousands died. There was no medicine. The food ration allowed was a quarter of that available for the Germans, barely enough to allow survival. The water supply was contaminated in many ghettos. Epidemics of tuberculosis, typhoid, and lice were common. Bodies of new victims piled up in the streets faster than they could be carted away. In the Warsaw ghetto, more than 70,000 died of exposure, disease, and starvation during the first two winters. Almost all of those who survived the Warsaw ghetto were either killed when the ghetto was razed in 1943 or died in the death camps.
It might be noted that, to a surprising extent, much about Hitler’s precise knowledge of the Holocaust remains unclear. For instance, we do not know if Hitler ever saw photographs or newsreels of the killing process, or, indeed, just how comprehensive and brutally frank were Himmler’s reports to Hitler. We have agendas of face-to-face meetings between Hitler and Himmler, at which the Holocaust was to be discussed, but no memorializations or minutes of such meetings. Most of the senior Nazis who were tried at Nuremberg in 1945-1946 (few of whom had any immediate involvement in the killing of Jews) had apparently never seen photographic evidence of the horrors of the concentration camps until their trials; they appeared to be genuinely shocked when newsreels of Belsen and Buchenwald were shown to the court.
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Who among gentile Poles was most likely to stand up for persecuted Jews? What propelled these rescuers to risk their lives for them? What characteristics, motivations, and circumstances did the rescuers share? Most attempts to answer these questions focus upon standard sociological categories: researchers consider the rescuers’ class, education, political and religious commitments, friendships with Jews, and level of anti-Jewish prejudice. The results of such investigations have not led to clear conclusions. Some studies suggest that economically deprived Christians more readily identified with Jewish suffering. Others conclude that intellectuals were more likely to have been protectors because they had better insight into German aims and were committed to undermining them.
Mengele then moved to experimentation. His work revolved around genetic engineering to eradicate inferior genes from the human population to create a German super-race. He believed that twins held these mysteries, and about 1500 pairs of them were brought to Mengele through the selection process. The twins were provided more comfort than the other prisoners and given extra food rations to keep them healthy. As soon as a pair of twins arrived at Auschwitz, they were tattooed and Mengele would ask them questions about their history. Every morning, they reported for roll call, where they ate a small breakfast. Mengele would then come to talk to them, give them candy, and even play games with some of them. Some of the younger children even called him “Uncle Mengele.” Life wasn’t so bad for twins at the barracks, until it came time for the experiments.
The 15 men present at Wannsee included Adolf Eichmann (head of Jewish affairs for the RSHA and the man who organized the deportation of Jews), Heinrich Müller (head of the Gestapo), and other party leaders and department heads. Thirty copies of the minutes were made. Copy no. 16 was found by American prosecutors in March 1947 in a German Foreign Office folder. Written by Eichmann and stamped "Top Secret", the minutes were written in "euphemistic language" on Heydrich's instructions, according to Eichmann's later testimony. The conference had several purposes. Discussing plans for a "final solution to the Jewish question" ("Endlösung der Judenfrage"), and a "final solution to the Jewish question in Europe" ("Endlösung der europäischen Judenfrage"), it was intended to share information and responsibility, coordinate efforts and policies ("Parallelisierung der Linienführung"), and ensure that authority rested with Heydrich. There was also discussion about whether to include the German Mischlinge (half-Jews). Heydrich told the meeting: "Another possible solution of the problem has now taken the place of emigration, i.e. the evacuation of the Jews to the East, provided that the Fuehrer gives the appropriate approval in advance." He continued:
Hitler’s understanding of the role of the Jews in the world was not warped. His was, in fact, the traditional Jewish understanding. When the Jews accepted the Torah at Mt. Sinai, they became the chosen people whose role and responsibility was to bring a God-given code of morality to the world. They were to be “the light unto the nations” in the words of prophet Isaiah.
Mengele's research subjects were better fed and housed than the other prisoners, and temporarily spared from execution in the gas chambers. He established a kindergarten for children who were the subjects of his experiments, as well as the preschool children from the Romani camp. The facility provided better food and living conditions than other areas of the camp, and included a children's playground. When visiting his young subjects, he introduced himself as "Uncle Mengele" and offered them sweets, while at the same time being personally responsible for the deaths of an unknown number of victims whom he killed via lethal injection, shootings, beatings, and his deadly experiments. In his 1986 book, Lifton describes Mengele as sadistic, lacking empathy, and extremely antisemitic, believing the Jews should be eliminated entirely as an inferior and dangerous race. Rolf Mengele later claimed that his father had shown no remorse for his wartime activities.