This past fall, I reached out to Hana Amir, Zeidel’s daughter, and we spoke several times over Skype. From her home in Tel Aviv, Amir, who is slight and spectacled, with a gray bob, told me about how she learned of her father’s story. When Amir was young, Zeidel worked as a truck driver, and he was gone for long stretches at a time. At home, he was withholding with his daughter and two sons. “My father was of a generation that didn’t talk about their emotions, didn’t talk about how they felt about what they’d been through,” Amir told me. “This was their coping mechanism: If you’re so busy with moving forward, you can disconnect from your memories.” But there were signs that the past wasn’t done with Zeidel: Amir believes he suffered from recurrent nightmares, and he was fastidious about his personal hygiene—he washed his hands many times a day.
With the beginning of war and the organized murder of "undesirable" non-Jewish groups among the German population in the so-called Euthanasia program, hazy declarations of intent and expectation from the top leadership – most prominently Hitler's Reichstag statement of January 30, 1939, that a new world war would bring about "the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe" – provided legitimization and incentive for violent, on occasion already murderous measures adopted at the periphery that would in turn radicalize decision making in Berlin. Heydrich's Schnellbrief to the Einsatzgruppen commanders in Poland dated September 21, 1939, on the "Jewish question" refers to secret "planned total measures" (thus the final aim) ("die geplanten Gesamtmaßnahmen (also das Endziel")); nevertheless, most Holocaust historians today agree that at the time this solution was still perceived in terms of repression and removal, not annihilation. The more frequent use of the term Final Solution in German documents beginning in 1941 indicates gradual movement toward the idea of physical elimination in the context of shattered plans for large-scale population resettlement (including the "Madagascar plan") and megalomanic hopes of imperial aggrandizement in Eastern Europe. American scholar Christopher Browning notes that "a 'big bang' theory" fails to adequately describe German decision making; instead, the process was prolonged and incremental, driven by "a vague vision of implied genocide."
At Auschwitz-Birkenau, new arrivals were told to carefully hang their clothing on numbered hooks in the undressing room and were instructed to remember the numbers for later. They were given a piece of soap and taken into the adjacent gas chamber disguised as a large shower room. In place of carbon monoxide, pellets of the commercial pesticide Zyklon-B (prussic acid) were poured into openings located above the chamber upon the cynical SS command - Na, gib ihnen shon zu fressen (All right, give 'em something to chew on). The gas pellets fell into hollow shafts made of perforated sheet metal and vaporized upon contact with air, giving off lethal cyanide fumes inside the chamber which oozed out at floor level then rose up toward the ceiling. Children died first since they were closer to the floor. Pandemonium usually erupted as the bitter almond-like odor of the gas spread upwards with adults climbing on top of each other forming a tangled heap of dead bodies all the way up to the ceiling.
One of the Auschwitz survivors who was selected by Dr. Josef Mengele for his cruel and horrific experiments was Yitzchak Ganon, a Greek Jew who was deported, along with his parents and 5 brothers and sisters to Auschwitz in 1944, according to a news article by Alan Hall, published on December 11, 2009. Ganon told reporter Alan Hall that he was selected for an experiment in which Dr. Mengele removed one of his kidneys without an anesthetic: "He cut into me without an anesthetic. The pain was indescribable. I felt every slice of the knife. Then I saw my kidney pulsating in his hand. [...] After the operation I was given no painkillers and put to work. I cleaned up after the bloody operations carried out by Mengele."
By 1943 it was evident to the armed forces leadership that Germany was losing the war. The mass murder continued nevertheless, reaching a "frenetic" pace in 1944. Auschwitz was gassing up to 6,000 Jews a day by spring that year. On 19 March 1944, Hitler ordered the military occupation of Hungary and dispatched Eichmann to Budapest to supervise the deportation of the country's Jews. From 22 March, Jews were required to wear the yellow star; forbidden from owning cars, bicycles, radios or telephones; then forced into ghettos. From 15 May to 9 July, 440,000 Jews were deported from Hungary to Auschwitz-Birkenau, almost all to the gas chambers.[v] A month before the deportations began, Eichmann offered to exchange one million Jews for 10,000 trucks and other goods from the Allies, the so-called "blood for goods" proposal. The Times called it "a new level of fantasy and self-deception".
The SS: The SS was a military-style group of Nazis, founded in 1925, who were like Hitler's personal bodyguards. They were in charge of overseeing the killing of people in the camps. Part of the SS called the Einsatzgruppen were put in charge of killing many people, before the extermination camps were opened to carry this out on a much greater scale. The SS also took control of intelligence, security and the police force.
Beginning in late 1941, the Germans began mass transports from the ghettoes in Poland to the concentration camps, starting with those people viewed as the least useful: the sick, old and weak and the very young. The first mass gassings began at the camp of Belzec, near Lublin, on March 17, 1942. Five more mass killing centers were built at camps in occupied Poland, including Chelmno, Sobibor, Treblinka, Majdanek and the largest of all, Auschwitz-Birkenau. From 1942 to 1945, Jews were deported to the camps from all over Europe, including German-controlled territory as well as those countries allied with Germany. The heaviest deportations took place during the summer and fall of 1942, when more than 300,000 people were deported from the Warsaw ghetto alone.
In June 1941, Mengele was posted to Ukraine, where he was awarded the Iron Cross 2nd Class. In January 1942, he joined the 5th SS Panzer Division Wiking as a battalion medical officer. After rescuing two German soldiers from a burning tank, he was decorated with the Iron Cross 1st Class, the Wound Badge in Black, and the Medal for the Care of the German People. He was declared unfit for further active service in mid-1942, when he was seriously wounded in action near Rostov-on-Don. Following his recovery, he was transferred to the headquarters of the SS Race and Settlement Main Office in Berlin, at which point he resumed his association with von Verschuer, who was now director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Anthropology, Human Heredity, and Eugenics. Mengele was promoted to the rank of SS-Hauptsturmführer (captain) in April 1943.