January 20, 1942. A pretty, snowy winter's day. On the outskirts of Berlin, in the suburb of Wannsee, sits a mansion sequestered behind a wooded area near a lake. Inside the ornate villa, a phalanx of butlers and maids scurry about preparing a sumptuous buffet.
This picturesque image betrays the true purpose: a top-secret meeting of high-ranking Nazi brass to implement the most diabolical plan in human history, the Final Solution to the Jewish Question.
Evil at Work
As the butlers and maids finish their preparations, Obersturmbannfuehrer Adolf Eichmann makes sure every last detail is in place, including information packets at each seat for every scheduled participant, as well as a stenographer to record the meeting's minutes. Eichmann will later make 30 top-secret copies of the meeting's minutes, all but one of which will be destroyed before the fall of the Third Reich. It's that one copy, however, that allows us to glimpse the mind of evil at work.
One by one, the attending Nazis -- some in uniform, some in civilian clothes -- arrive in chauffeured vehicles. The last to make his entrance is Reinhard Heydrich, director of Reich Central Office Security (RSHA), the highest-ranking member of the group. Heydrich has been appointed by Reichmarshal Goring to initiate this meeting and map out the details of the Final Solution.
The Gestapo became known by initials that spell out rasha, the Hebrew word for evil.
[It was remarkable that RSHA, this den of evil, became known by initials that spell out rasha, the Hebrew word for evil. RSHA was the part of the SS (Schutzaftaffel, literally, guard detachment -- the umbrella organization of Heinrich Himmler) that controlled the Gestapo, the secret police and the SD.]
Wannsee was not a decision-making conference. Hitler had already made the decision for the Final Solution. Goring, in a memo drafted by Eichmann dated July 31, 1941 -- one day before Tisha B'Av -- had authorized the General Solution of the Jewish Question. The purpose of the 1942 meeting was to streamline the systematic extermination of all the Jews of Europe.
Let Us Deal Wisely
The meeting in Wannsee eerily parallels Pharaoh’s plan for the extermination of the Jews 3,500 years ago in Egypt. Pharaoh told his people: Come, let us deal wisely with them... (Exodus 1:10).
The Nazis, too, realized they had to “deal wisely” with the Jews. They needed a systematic, well-thought-out plan designed by their best minds. Of the 16 attending Nazis, eight held PhD's. This wasn't really surprising since all six of the German officials in Poland after the Nazi takeover held PhD's. Among concentration camp officers, over 40 percent had either MD's or PhD's. Goebbels, the propaganda minister, held three PhD's.
Moreover, just as the Egyptian master plan took place in stages, so was the Nazi Holocaust. The Midrash teaches that prior to the biblical enslavement, the Jews were paid to build cities for Pharaoh. Then the money was withdrawn and they were encouraged to work for the sake of patriotism. Then voluntary labor became forced labor. Then cruel taskmasters, often recruited from their own people, were placed over the Jews to literally whip them to work. Outright slavery turned into bitter affliction and finally murder of all Jewish male babies.
Jews often out-Germaned the Germans in patriotism.
In the modern era, Jews fought valiantly for Germany in World War One, and often out-Germaned the Germans when it came to patriotism. When the Nazis took over in 1933 their first act was to exclude Jews from government and attack them financially, culminating with the outrage five years later of charging the Jewish community billions of marks for the damage done by the German-Nazi mob during the pogrom known as Kirstallnacht.
The next stage, after the Nazis started World War Two and captured Poland in September 1939, was the re-establishment of the Ghetto, as it had existed in the Middle Ages. Able-bodied Jews were to be put to work in slave labor camps, reminiscent of Pharaoh's time.
At the same time, the Nazis appointed kapos -- Jewish taskmasters -- to carry out their decrees. This included a Jewish police force, as well as Jewish intelligentsia forming Jewish administrative councils known as Judenrat. It was through the various Judenrat that Nazi decrees, either through forceful coercion or false assurances, were carried out.
Before and after Wannsee, the Nazis held conferences and conducted experiments to explore the possibility of sterilizing Jews. Although at least one Nazi doctor carried out the experiments and claimed to have perfected a method that could sterilize thousands at a time, this aspect of the plan never materialized. This is reminiscent of Pharaoh’s failed attempt to abort all Jewish babies (Exodus 1:15-19).
And of course, the next and final stage in both Egypt and Germany was extermination. Exodus 1:22 describes Pharaoh's decree to kill all Jewish male newborns. The Nazis were more democratic; they didn't differentiate between male and female or young and old. At Wannsee, Heydrich spoke of how Jews will be “transported further to the East -- code words for sending the Jews to extermination camps like Auschwitz.
The Wannsee Conference took little more than two hours. As the attendees filed out, and the butlers and maids cleaned up, Heydrich and Eichmann could feel satisfied that the meeting was a success. Though Auschwitz and the other killing centers would not become fully operational for several months (by which time Heydrich himself would be dead, the victim of an assassination), nevertheless at Wannsee the wheels had been set irrevocably in motion. Ten days after the conference, Hitler publicly declared that “the result of this war will be the complete annihilation of the Jews.
Of course, some three years later Hitler would be dead, and his thousand-year Reich finished -- while Am Yisrael Chai, the Jewish people live. Yet not before 6 million kedoshim -- holy souls -- had perished.
When the Romans tortured Rabbi Yishmael, the highest angels asked incredulously, This is the reward for Your Torah?!
A heavenly voice responded, It is a decree before Me.
Nazi atrocities are a crude reminder of the fallacies of relying on human intellect alone.
It is a decree that only the infinite mind of God can comprehend. Even the most lucid angels cannot perceive it. This doesn't mean there is no answer; rather, that only God knows the answer. For as the height of the heavens compared to the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts (Isaiah 55:9).
Seminal events often remind us of this distance, which we tend to forget. When the tsunamis wiped out 150,000 people and entire communities in a matter of minutes, we were reminded of how powerless human beings are in the face of nature. When Germany, considered the height of human intellect, bred a Nazi culture that used its “wisdom” to carry out the most unspeakable atrocities, it was a crude reminder of the fallacies of relying on human intellect alone.
This is the beginning of wisdom: knowing that God is as far from us and the farthest heavens from the earth (even farther). Such knowledge does not mean we should be passive, or are powerless. To the contrary, it means that we potentially have infinite power; however, whatever actions we can and should take must be done with the awareness that only the Almighty will make them successful or not. Wise people keep that in mind, humbly accept it, and do what's needed to be done in the most moral and spiritual way possible.