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.
One of the most horrific terms in history was used by Nazi Germany to designate human beings whose lives were unimportant, or those who should be killed outright: Lebensunwertes Leben, or "life unworthy of life". The phrase was applied to the mentally impaired and later to the "racially inferior," or "sexually deviant," as well as to "enemies of the state" both internal and external. From very early in the war, part of Nazi policy was to murder civilians en masse, especially targeting Jews. Later in the war, this policy grew into Hitler's "final solution", the complete extermination of the Jews. It began with Einsatzgruppen death squads in the East, which killed some 1,000,000 people in numerous massacres, and continued in concentration camps where prisoners were actively denied proper food and health care. It culminated in the construction of extermination camps -- government facilities whose entire purpose was the systematic murder and disposal of massive numbers of people. In 1945, as advancing Allied troops began discovering these camps, they found the results of these policies: hundreds of thousands of starving and sick prisoners locked in with thousands of dead bodies. They encountered evidence of gas chambers and high-volume crematoriums, as well as thousands of mass graves, documentation of awful medical experimentation, and much more. The Nazis killed more than 10 million people in this manner, including 6 million Jews. (This entry is Part 18 of a weekly 20-part retrospective of World War II)
Following the invasion of Poland, German occupation policy especially targeted the Jews but also brutalized non-Jewish Poles. In pursuit of lebensraum, Germany sought systematically to destroy Polish society and nationhood. The Nazis killed Polish priests and politicians, decimated the Polish leadership, and kidnapped the children of the Polish elite, who were raised as “voluntary Aryans” by their new German “parents.” Many Poles were also forced to perform hard labour on survival diets, were deprived of property and uprooted, and were interned in concentration camps.
"For the survivor who chooses to testify, it is clear: his duty is to bear witness for the dead and the living. He has no right to deprive future generations of a past that belongs to our collective memory. To forget would be not only dangerous but offensive; to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time. The witness has forced himself to testify. For the youth of today, for the children who will be born tomorrow. He does not want his past to become their future." Elie Wiesel, Night, Preface to the New Translation (New York: Hill and Wang, c2006), page xv.
In the first phase of the experiments, pairs of twins and persons with inherited anomalies were put at the disposal of Dr. Mengele and subjected to all imaginable specialist medical examinations. They were also photographed, plaster casts were made of their jaws and teeth, and they were toe- and fingerprinted. As soon as these examinations were finished, they were killed with lethal injections of phenol to the heart so that the next phase of the experimentation could begin: autopsies and the comparative analysis of their internal organs.
Death: Dr. Miklos Nyiszli was Mengele's prisoner pathologist. The autopsies became the final experiment. Nyiszli performed autopsies on twins who had died from the experiments or who had been purposely killed just for after-death measurements and examination. Some of the twins had been stabbed with a needle that pierced their heart and then was injected with chloroform or phenol, which caused near immediate blood coagulation and death. Some of the organs, eyes, blood samples and tissues would be sent to Verschuer for further study.
More camps opened in the spring and summer of 1942, when the Nazis began systematically clearing the ghettos in Poland and rounding up Jews in western Europe for 'deportation to the East'. The killing of the Polish Jews, code-named 'Project Reinhardt', was carried out in three camps: Treblinka, near Warsaw (850,000 victims); Belzec, in south-eastern Poland (650,000 victims); and Sobibor, in east-central Poland (250,000 victims). Some Jews from western Europe were sometimes taken to these camps as well, but most were killed at the biggest and most advanced of the death camps, Auschwitz.
Twins were subjected to weekly examinations and measurements of their physical attributes by Mengele or one of his assistants. The experiments he performed on twins included unnecessary amputation of limbs, intentionally infecting one twin with typhus or some other disease, and transfusing the blood of one twin into the other. Many of the victims died while undergoing these procedures, and those who survived the experiments were sometimes killed and their bodies dissected once Mengele had no further use for them. Nyiszli recalled one occasion on which Mengele personally killed fourteen twins in one night by injecting their hearts with chloroform. If one twin died from disease, he would kill the other twin to allow comparative post-mortem reports to be produced for research purposes.
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.
Because that day never came, both Miep Gies, the selflessly courageous woman who devoted herself to the sustenance of those in hiding, and Hannah Goslar, Anne’s Jewish schoolmate and the last to hear her tremulous cries in Bergen-Belsen, objected to Otto Frank’s emphasis on the diary’s “truly good at heart” utterance. That single sentence has become, universally, Anne Frank’s message, virtually her motto—whether or not such a credo could have survived the camps. Why should this sentence be taken as emblematic, and not, for example, another? “There’s a destructive urge in people, the urge to rage, murder, and kill,” Anne wrote on May 3, 1944, pondering the spread of guilt. These are words that do not soften, ameliorate, or give the lie to the pervasive horror of her time. Nor do they pull the wool over the eyes of history.
After several months on the run, including a trip back to the Soviet-occupied area to recover his Auschwitz records, Mengele found work near Rosenheim as a farmhand. He eventually escaped from Germany on 17 April 1949, convinced that his capture would mean a trial and death sentence. Assisted by a network of former SS members, he used the ratline to travel to Genoa, where he obtained a passport from the International Committee of the Red Cross under the alias "Helmut Gregor", and sailed to Argentina in July 1949. His wife refused to accompany him, and they divorced in 1954.
The Nuremberg Laws, issued on Sept. 15, 1935, was designed to exclude Jews from public life. The Nuremberg Laws stripped German Jews of their citizenship and prohibited marriages and extramarital sex between Jews and Gentiles. These measures set the legal precedent for anti-Jewish legislation that followed. Nazis issued numerous anti-Jewish laws over the next several years. Jews were banned from public parks, fired from civil service jobs, and forced to register their property. Other laws barred Jewish doctors from treating anyone other than Jewish patients, expelled Jewish children from public schools, and placed severe travel restrictions on Jews.
By this time, news of the mass murders had leaked out of occupied Europe via first-hand accounts from eyewitnesses, escapees and other informed persons. Newspapers such as The London Daily Telegraph and The New York Times also published occasional reports of executions along with death toll estimates. World reaction to the reports changed little from what it had been to prewar reports of Nazi persecution – a few political speeches from Britain and America.
Ghettos were intended to be temporary until the Jews were deported to other locations, which never happened. Instead, the inhabitants were sent to extermination camps. The ghettos were, in effect, immensely crowded prisons serving as instruments of "slow, passive murder." Though the Warsaw Ghetto contained 30% of Warsaw's population, it occupied only 2.5% of the city's area, averaging over 9 people per room. Between 1940 and 1942, starvation and disease, especially typhoid, killed many in the ghettos. Over 43,000 Warsaw ghetto residents, or one in ten of the total population, died in 1941; in Theresienstadt, more than half the residents died in 1942.
Of the children involved, only about 200 were alive when the camp was liberated by the Soviet Army on January 27, 1945. These are the children shown so often in documentaries walking between the wires of the Auschwitz I camp. Today they reside all over the world and they seek information on what was done to them. Their files have never been located and what was done to them remains a mystery today.
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.
Mengele firmly endorsed Nazi racial theory and engaged in a wide spectrum of experiments which aimed to illustrate the lack of resistance among Jews or Roma to various diseases. He also attempted to demonstrate the “degeneration” of Jewish and “Gypsy” blood through the documentation of physical oddities and the collection and harvesting of tissue samples and body parts. Many of his “test subjects” died as a result of the experimentation or were murdered in order to facilitate post-mortem examination.
The superior race was the "Aryans," the Germans. The word Aryan, "derived from the study of linguistics, which started in the eighteenth century and at some point determined that the Indo-Germanic (also known as Aryan) languages were superior in their structures, variety, and vocabulary to the Semitic languages that had evolved in the Near East. This judgment led to a certain conjecture about the character of the peoples who spoke these languages; the conclusion was that the 'Aryan' peoples were likewise superior to the 'Semitic' ones" (Leni Yahil, The Holocaust: The Fate of European Jewry, New York: Oxford University Press, 1990, p. 36).
Like most “scientists” at work in the concentration camp environment, Mengele enlisted the aid of trained medical professionals among the prisoner population to perform the more grisly, or mundane, tasks and to carry out autopsies upon his dead victims. Much of our early knowledge of Mengele's activities at Auschwitz comes from Dr. Miklos Nyiszli, a prisoner-physician who assisted Mengele under duress. Nyiszli published his experiences, initially in his native Hungarian, in 1946. His work Auschwitz: A Doctor's Eyewitness Account appeared in English in 1960.
When the Nazis occupied western Poland in 1939, two-thirds of Polish Jews - Europe's largest Jewish community - fell into their hands. The Polish Jews were rounded up and placed in ghettos, where it is estimated that 500,000 people died of starvation and disease. Nazi policy at this point was aimed at forced emigration and isolation of the Jews rather than mass murder, but large numbers were to die through attrition.
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.
“Who has made us Jews different from all other people? Who has allowed us to suffer so terribly up until now? It is God who has made us as we are, but it will be God, too, who will raise us up again. Who knows? It might even be our religion from which the world and all peoples learn good, and for that reason and only that reason do we suffer. We can never become just Netherlanders, or just English or representatives of any country for that matter. We will always remain Jews, but we want to, too.” – April 11, 1944
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.
Dr. Karski was the contact between the Polish resistance and the Polish government in exile. He repeatedly crossed enemy lines to act as a courier between his occupied nation and the West. Prior to his last departure from Poland, he was smuggled into the Warsaw Ghetto by the Jewish underground in order to witness the horrendous conditions. Asked to tell the story to the rest of the world, he reported on his experience to many world leaders, including American President Franklin Roosevelt.
At the same time, the Germans set about liquidating the ghettos in occupied Poland. July 22, 1942, when the deportation of Jews from Warsaw to the death camp in Treblinka began, is regarded as a symbolic date. A decided majority of the Polish Jews were killed in a little over half a year, after which the SS began liquidating the Aktion Reinhard camps. However, the last great death camp—Auschwitz—remained in existence until the beginning of 1945. It was mainly Jews from Western and Southern Europe, from the liquidated labor camps, and the ghettos in Sosnowiec and Łódź, who died in the gas chambers there.
Prior to his arrival at Auschwitz, he had published three articles, one of which was his dissertation in the Anthropological Institute at the University of Munich and which was entitled "Racial-Morphological Examination of the Anterior Portion of the Lower Jaw in Four Racial Groups". His medical dissertation, published in 1938, was entitled "Genealogical Studies in the Cases of Cleft Lip-Jaw-Palate". This was a predecessor to his work on genetic abnormalities and indirectly on twins which was to take place at Auschwitz. The third article - entitled "Hereditary Transmission of Fistulae Auris" was published in conjunction with research done on the Lenz-Vershuer principle of "irregular, dominant hereditary process". It appeared in 1928 that Mengele was destined for the academia.
On November 12, 1938, Field Marshal Hermann Göring convened a meeting of Nazi officials to discuss the damage to the German economy from pogroms. The Jewish community was fined one billion Reichsmarks. Moreover, Jews were made responsible for cleaning up the damage. German Jews, but not foreign Jews, were barred from collecting insurance. In addition, Jews were soon denied entry to theatres, forced to travel in separate compartments on trains, and excluded from German schools. These new restrictions were added to earlier prohibitions, such as those barring Jews from earning university degrees, from owning businesses, or from practicing law or medicine in the service of non-Jews. The Nazis would continue to confiscate Jewish property in a program called “Aryanization.” Göring concluded the November meeting with a note of irony: “I would not like to be a Jew in Germany!”
By then, Palestinian terrorism had become Israel’s main security challenge, and the Mossad devoted most of its efforts to that threat. For the next 10 years, backed by Eshkol and his successors as prime minister, Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin, almost nothing was done about Mengele. The surge in terrorism, the surprise Yom Kippur War in 1973 and the Syrian military buildup with Soviet assistance took precedence.
By mid-1944 those Jewish communities within easy reach of the Nazi regime had been largely exterminated, in proportions ranging from about 25 percent in France to more than 90 percent in Poland. On 5 May Himmler claimed in a speech that "the Jewish question has in general been solved in Germany and in the countries occupied by Germany". As the Soviet armed forces advanced, the camps in eastern Poland were closed down, with surviving inmates shipped to camps closer to Germany. Efforts were made to conceal evidence of what had happened. The gas chambers were dismantled, the crematoria dynamited, and the mass graves dug up and the corpses cremated. Local commanders continued to kill Jews, and to shuttle them from camp to camp by forced "death marches". Already sick after months or years of violence and starvation, some were marched to train stations and transported for days at a time without food or shelter in open freight cars, then forced to march again at the other end to the new camp. Others were marched the entire distance to the new camp. Those who lagged behind or fell were shot. Around 250,000 Jews died during these marches.
In 1935, Mengele earned a PhD in anthropology from the University of Munich. In January 1937, he joined the Institute for Hereditary Biology and Racial Hygiene in Frankfurt, where he worked for Dr. Otmar Freiherr von Verschuer, a German geneticist with a particular interest in researching twins. As von Verschuer's assistant, Mengele focused on the genetic factors that result in a cleft lip and palate, or a cleft chin. His thesis on the subject earned him a cum laude doctorate in medicine (MD) from the University of Frankfurt in 1938. (Both of his degrees were revoked by the issuing universities in the 1960s.) In a letter of recommendation, von Verschuer praised Mengele's reliability and his ability to verbally present complex material in a clear manner. The American author Robert Jay Lifton notes that Mengele's published works were in keeping with the scientific mainstream of the time, and would probably have been viewed as valid scientific efforts even outside Nazi Germany.