Heinrich Himmler witnessed this killing process and decided to develop a cheaper, more effective method of murder that would not be as upsetting for the perpetrators. The Nazis were already using gas to murder the mentally and physically disabled; this was now to be applied to the Jews as well. This section will discuss the the Wannsee Conference and the ‘Final Solution to the Jewish Question’.
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".
But they were gradually shut out of German society by the Nazis through a never-ending series of laws and decrees, culminating in the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 which deprived them of their German citizenship and forbade intermarriage with non-Jews. They were removed from schools, banned from the professions, excluded from military service, and were even forbidden to share a park bench with a non-Jew.
My mother was born in Sofia, Bulgaria, in 1943. The trains were standing by at the stations in Bulgaria’s major cities, waiting to transport Bulgaria’s 50,000 Jews to the death camps. The expulsion order had been given. An unusual coalition of clergy, intellectuals, and politicians, together with large-scale passive resistance by the Bulgarian people, at the last moment prevented Bulgarian Jewry from sharing the tragic fate of Jewish communities in neighboring countries and all over Europe.
The "Final Solution" The origin of the "Final Solution," the Nazi plan to exterminate the Jewish people, remains uncertain. What is clear is that the genocide of the Jews was the culmination of a decade of Nazi policy, under the rule of Adolf Hitler. The "Final Solution" was implemented in stages. After the Nazi party rise to power, state-enforced racism resulted in anti-Jewish legislation, boycotts, "Aryanization," and finally the "Night of Broken Glass" pogrom, all of which aimed to remove the Jews from German society. After the beginning of World War II, anti-Jewish policy evolved into a comprehensive plan to concentrate and eventually annihilate European Jewry.
'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
“Awesome as they are, therefore, numbers do not in themselves prescribe the singularity of the Holocaust. But they provide a clue. For the proportion of European Jews killed during the Second World War, with roughly one of every three civilian deaths in Europe being that of a Jew, was undoubtedly greater than that of any other people, because of the Nazis’ policy toward them. Unlike the case with any other group, and unlike the massacres before or since, every single one of the millions of targeted Jews was to be murdered. Eradication was to be total. In principle, no Jew was to escape. In this important respect, the Nazis’ assault upon Jewry differed from the campaigns against other peoples and groups; Gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, Poles, Ukrainians, and so on. Assaults on these people could indeed be murderous; their victims number in the millions, and their ashes mingle with those of the Jews of Auschwitz and many other camps across Europe. But Nazi ideology did not require their total disappearance. In this respect, the fate of the Jews was unique.”
At Auschwitz, after the chambers were filled, the doors were shut and pellets of Zyklon-B were dropped into the chambers through vents, releasing toxic prussic acid, or hydrogen cyanide. Those inside died within 20 minutes; the speed of death depended on how close the inmate was standing to a gas vent, according to the commandant Rudolf Höss, who estimated that about one-third of the victims died immediately. Johann Kremer, an SS doctor who oversaw the gassings, testified that: "Shouting and screaming of the victims could be heard through the opening and it was clear that they fought for their lives." The gas was then pumped out, the bodies were removed, gold fillings in their teeth were extracted, and women's hair was cut. The work was done by the Sonderkommando, work groups of mostly Jewish prisoners. At Auschwitz, the bodies were at first buried in deep pits and covered with lime, but between September and November 1942, on the orders of Himmler, they were dug up and burned. In early 1943, new gas chambers and crematoria were built to accommodate the numbers.
When exactly Hitler settled on straightforward murder as a means of removal has been harder to pinpoint. As Yale historian Timothy Snyder writes, “It cannot be stressed enough that the Nazis did not know how to eradicate the Jews when they began the war against the Soviet Union [in the summer of 1941]… They could not be confident that SS men would shoot women and children in large numbers.” But as Operation Barbarossa, the name for the Nazi invasion of the U.S.S.R, proved during the mass shootings of June 1941 and the massacres at Kiev in September, the Order Police and Einsatzgrüppen were more than willing to commit mass murders. This meant Hitler could take the solution to the Jewish problem to its “furthest extremes,” in the words of Philipp Bouhler, the senior Nazi official responsible for the euthanasia program that killed more than 70,000 handicapped German people.
Hitler’s worldview revolved around two concepts: territorial expansion (that is, greater Lebensraum—“living space”—for the German people) and racial supremacy. After World War I the Allies denied Germany colonies in Africa, so Hitler sought to expand German territory and secure food and resources—scarce during World War I—in Europe itself. Hitler viewed the Jews as racial polluters, a cancer on German society in what has been termed by Holocaust survivor and historian Saul Friedländer “redemptive anti-Semitism,” focused on redeeming Germany from its ills and ridding it of a cancer on the body politic. Historian Timothy Snyder characterized the struggle as even more elemental, as “zoological,” and “ecological,” a struggle of the species. Hitler opposed Jews for the values they brought into the world. Social justice and compassionate assistance to the weak stood in the way of what he perceived as the natural order, in which the powerful exercise unrestrained power. In Hitler’s view, such restraint on the exercise of power would inevitably lead to the weakening, even the defeat, of the master race.
Himmler assembled a force of about 3,000 men from Security Police, Gestapo, Kripo, SD, and the Waffen-SS, as the so-called "special commandos of the security forces" known as the Einsatzgruppen, to eliminate both communists and Jews in occupied territories. These forces were supported by 21 battalions of Orpo Reserve Police under Kurt Daluege, adding up to 11,000 men. The explicit orders given to the Order Police varied between locations, but for Police Battalion 309 participating in the first mass murder of 5,500 Polish Jews in the Soviet-controlled Białystok (a Polish provincial capital), Major Weiss explained to his officers that Barbarossa is a war of annihilation against Bolshevism, and that his battalions would proceed ruthlessly against all Jews, regardless of age or sex.
Though much about his wartime activities was known, the German government had not requested his extradition, and even supplied him with documents clearing him of a criminal record. The German ambassador in Buenos Aires is quoted in the Mossad file on Mengele as saying he received orders to treat Mengele as an ordinary citizen since there was no arrest warrant for him. When, finally, a warrant was issued in 1959, Mengele caught word. He went into hiding, first in Paraguay and then in Brazil.
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.
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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.
The most notorious physician was Josef Mengele, an SS officer who became the Auschwitz camp doctor on 30 May 1943. Interested in genetics and keen to experiment on twins, he would pick out subjects from the new arrivals during "selection" on the ramp, shouting "Zwillinge heraus!" (twins step forward!). They would be measured, killed, and dissected. One of Mengele's assistants said in 1946 that he was told to send organs of interest to the directors of the "Anthropological Institute in Berlin-Dahlem". This is thought to refer to Mengele's academic supervisor, Otmar Freiherr von Verschuer , director from October 1942 of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Anthropology, Human Heredity, and Eugenics in Berlin-Dahlem.[i] Mengele's experiments included placing subjects in pressure chambers, testing drugs on them, freezing them, attempting to change their eye color by injecting chemicals into children's eyes, and amputations and other surgeries.