By the beginning of 1942 the Germans had close to 9 million Jews under their control (out of a total of 11 million Jews living in Europe and the Soviet Union). And, of course, it was their plan to murder them all.
Already, the Einsatzgruppen killing squads had machine-gunned 1.5 million Jews, (as we saw in Part 60) but this was not an efficient way of killing so many more millions of people ― it was too messy, too slow, and it wasted too many bullets.
So the Germans embarked on a policy called the "Final Solution" which was decided upon at a conference held in Wannsee, near Berlin, on January 20, 1942:
"Instead of immigration there is now a further possible solution to which the Fuhrer has already signified his consent. Namely deportation to the East. Although this should be regarded merely as an interim measure, it will provide us with the practical experience which will be especially valuable in connection with the future final solution. In the course of the practical implementation of the final solution Europe will be combed from West to East."
The Final Solution ― the systematic gassing of millions of Jews ― was put into place primarily by the top Gestapo brass, namely Adolph Eichmann and Reinhardt Heidrich.
Of the 24 concentration camps (besides countless labor camps), six specific death camps were set up. They were:
- Auschwitz ― 1,500,000 murdered
- Chelmno ― 320,000 murdered
- Treblinka ― 870,000 murdered
- Sobibor ― 250,000 murdered
- Maidenek ― 360,000 murdered
- Belzec ― 600,000 murdered (1)
Auschwitz is the most famous because there the killing machine was the most efficient. There, between the end of 1941 and 1944, as many as 12,000 Jews a day could be gassed to death and cremated. In addition to the Jews, hundreds of thousands of others deemed threats to the Nazi regime or considered racially inferior or socially deviant were also murdered.
As if cold-blooded murder of millions of Jews was not enough, it was done with extreme, perverse cruelty. The victims were packed into cattle trains with standing-room only and without food or water, or heat in the winter, or toilet facilities. Many did not arrive at the camps alive. Those who did arrive at their destination had their heads shaved, with the hair to be used for stuffing mattresses. Stripped of all clothing, most were herded naked into the gas chambers. Dr Johann Kremer, a German SS surgeon, described the gassing of a group of French Jews including 150 boys and girls under the age of 15:
These mass murders took place in small cottages situated outside the Birkenau camp in the woods...All the SS physicians on duty in the camp took turns to participate in the gassing, which were called Sonderaction, "special action"....When the transport with the people who were destined to be gassed arrived as the railway ramp, the SS officer selected, from among the new arrivals, persons fit to work, while the rest – old people, all children, women with children in their arms and other persons not deemed fit to work ― were loaded on to lorries and driven to the gas chamber.
There people were first driven into the barracks huts where the victims undress and then went naked into the gas chambers. Very often no incident occurred, as the SS men kept people quiet, maintaining that they were to bathe and be deloused.
After driving all the victims into the gas chamber, the door was closed and an SS man in a gas mask threw contents of a Zyklon-B (cyanide gas) tin through an opening in the side wall. The shouting and screaming of the victims could be heard through the opening and it was clear that they were fighting for their lives. (2)
Bizarre and sadistic "medical experiments" were done on many victims without the use of anesthetics. Some people were sewn together to make artificial Siamese twins. Others were submerged in freezing water to test the limits of human endurance.
The Jews were even debased in death. Gold fillings were torn from the mouths of the corpses. In some instances soap was made from their rendered bodies and lampshades from their skins.
Some of those deemed strong enough were used as slave labor for the Nazi war effort. On starvation rations, they were pushed to their physical limit and then killed or sent to the death camps.
Any attempt at escape or resistance was met with brutal reprisals. For example, on March 14,1942 a number of Jews escaped from a work detail in Ilja, Ukraine, and joined the partisans. In revenge, all old and sick Jews were shot in the street and 900 more herded into a building and burned alive.
Sam Halpern, a survivor of the Kamionka labor camp explained: "I would never consider escaping. I will not have others killed because of my decision."
Nevertheless, in at least five camps and twenty ghettos, there were uprisings.
The most famous attempt was the Warsaw Ghetto rebellion. On April 19, 1943 the Nazis began the liquidation of the ghetto ― that is, shipping off Jews to Auschwitz ― and were met with armed resistance.
Mordechai Anielewicz, who was 23 years old and one of the leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, wrote in his last letter (dated April 23, 1943):
What happened is beyond our wildest dreams. Twice the Germans fled from our ghetto. One of our companies held out for forty minutes and the other, for over six hours ... I have no words to describe to you the conditions in which Jews are living. Only a few chosen ones will hold out; all the rest will perish sooner or later. The die is cast. In the bunkers in which our comrades are hiding, no candle can be lit for lack of air ... The main thing is: My life's dream has come true; I have lived to see Jewish resistance in the ghetto in all its greatness and glory.
But in the end, the Jews were no match for the artillery, machine guns, and troops of the Germans. (Compare 1,358 German rifles against 17 among the Jews). The end result was that the entire ghetto was destroyed with those hiding in bunkers burned alive.
The Nazi attempt to deliberately, systematically eliminate an entire people from the planet was unprecedented in human history.
Hitler targeted the Jews for a specific reason, which was not just racial. The elimination of the Jews had a unique "status" in Hitler's master plan. While he certainly killed millions of others (gypsies, communists, homosexuals, etc.) he made exceptions for all these groups. The only group for which no exception was made was the Jews ― they all had to die.
Writes Lucy Dawidowicz in The War Against the Jews:
"The final solution transcended the bounds of modern historical experience. Never before in modern history had one people made the killing of another the fulfillment of an ideology, in whose pursuit means were identical with ends. History has, to be sure, recorded terrible massacres and destructions that one people perpetrated against another. But all, however cruel and unjustifiable, were intended to achieve an instrumental ends, being means to ends and not ends in and of themselves." (3)
In other words, the elimination of the Jews was not the means to an end. It was an end in itself. What that end was Hitler explained himself in his writings and speeches.
Hitler believed that before monotheism and the Jewish ethical vision came along, the world operated according to the laws of nature and evolution: survival of the fittest. The strong survived and the weak perished. When the lion hunts the herd the young, the sick and weak are always the first victims. Nature is brutal but nature is balanced. There is no mercy. So too in antiquity, the great empires ― the Babylonians, Greeks and Romans conquered, subjugated and destroyed other peoples. They respected no borders and showed no mercy. This too Hitler viewed as natural and correct. But in a world operating according to a Divinely-dictated ethical system ― where a God-given standard applies and not anyone's might ― the weak did not need to fear the strong. As Hitler saw it, the strong were emasculated ― this was neither normal nor natural and in Hitler's eyes, the Jews were to blame.
His plan was to take over the world, set up a pagan master race and return the world to what he viewed was its ideal natural state; a world "unpolluted" by Jewish ideas and Jewish offshoots such as Christianity. The words of the Hitler Youth song make this very clear:
We are the joyous Hitler youth
We do not need any Christian virtue
Our leader is our savior
The Pope and Rabbi shall be gone
We want to be pagans once again...
But to implement his plan he had to get rid of the Jews first. As he said:
The Ten Commandments have lost their validity... Conscience is a Jewish invention. It is a blemish like circumcision ... The struggle for world domination is fought entirely between us, between the Germans and the Jews. (Hermann Rauschning, Hitler Speaks, pp. 220, 242.)
Everything in his war machine was set up for this purpose. At the very end, when the Allies were destroying the German Army, he was not so much bothered by this as he was by the fact that there were Jews still alive.
One of the clearest examples of Hitler's single-minded (and seemingly suicidal) desire to rid the world of the Jews can be seen in the extermination of the Jews of Hungary. Until March of 1944, the Hungarian government had refused to allow the deportation of Hungarian Jews. It March 1944 the Germans occupied Hungary and by mid-May (two weeks before D-Day) the mass deportations to Auschwitz. The Nazi leadership worked with particular intensity. The Soviet army was rapidly approaching Hungary and the Germans knew that they were going to lose the war. But there was no way that Hitler could allow such a large Jewish community to survive. He diverted trains that were badly needed to transport more soldiers to the Russian front just to send more Jews to Auschwitz. To him, the greater enemy was the Jew.
Between May 15th and July 8th approximately 400,000 Hungarian Jews were sent to their deaths in Auschwitz which was working at peak capacity and receiving an average of 12,000 Jews a day.
Hitler's obsession with the Jews was his primary focus even in the last moments of his life. The last thing Hitler said before committing suicide in his bunker in April 30, 1945 was to urge that the fight continue against the enemy of all humanity ― the Jews. His last dispatch read:
Above all, I enjoin the leaders of the nation and those under them to uphold the racial laws of their full extent and to oppose mercilessly the universal poisoner of all peoples, International Jewry.
It is important to note here that the anti-Semitism which drove the Nazis to understate the unthinkable did not exist in isolation. It was not even Hitler's personal philosophy.
We might recall (see Part 53) that it was one of Germany's biggest thinkers of the 19th century ― Wilhelm Marr ― who coined the term "anti-Semitism." In so doing he wanted to distinguish hatred of the Jews as members of a religion (anti-Judaism) from hatred of the Jews as members of a race/nation (anti-Semitism). In 1879, he wrote a book called The Victory of Judaism over Germandom, a runaway best-seller; in it Marr warned:
There is no stopping them [the Jews]. Are there no clear signs that the twilight of the Jews is setting in? No. Jewry's control of society and politics as well as its domination of religious and ecclesiastical thought is still in the prime of its development. Yes, through the Jewish nation Germany will become a world power, a western new Palestine. And this will happen not through violent revolution but through the compliance of the people. We should not reproach the Jewish nation. It fought against the western world for 1,800 years and finally conquered it. We were vanquished. The Jews were late in their assault on Germany but once started there was no stopping them
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.
Keep in mind that when Marr wrote these words, the State of Israel did not exist, nor was there even a hint in the geo-political situation that it might come into being anytime soon. Marr, in speaking of the Jewish national threat, was speaking about the great ideological struggle of Jewish worldview versus paganism, which had been playing out throughout Jewish history. We saw it between the Greeks and the Jews (Part 27) and between the Romans and the Jews (Part 33).
Hitler saw it as continuing between the Germans and the Jews.
Light Unto The Nations
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.
And this is what Hitler wanted to bring an end to, because as long as there were even a few Jews left on earth, they were going to continue that God-given mission:
If only one country, for whatever reason, tolerates a Jewish family in it, that family will become the germ center for fresh sedition. If one little Jewish boy survives without any Jewish education, with no synagogue and no Hebrew school, it [Judaism] is in his soul. Even if there had never been a synagogue or a Jewish school or an Old Testament, the Jewish spirit would still exist and exert its influence. It has been there from the beginning and there is no Jew, not a single one, who does not personify it. (Hitler's Apocalypse by Robert Wistrich, p. 122.)
When we look at it from that perspective we get a completely different view of what the Holocaust was about. Traditional Judaism says that it is part of the ultimate struggle between good and evil which had been going on since the beginning of time. Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin summed it up beautifully when they wrote:
From its earliest days the raison d'etre of Judaism has been to change the world for the better... This attempt to change the world, to challenge the gods, religious or secular, of the societies around them, and to make moral demands upon others... has constantly been a source of tension between Jews and non Jews...
We now understand why so many non Jews have regarded the mere existence of Jews – no matter how few – as terribly threatening. The mere existence of Jews, with their different values and allegiances, constituted a threat to the prevailing order.(4)
In the end, Hitler did not succeed in his plan to completely eliminate the Jews. He succeeded however in murdering over one third of the world's Jewish population ― and teaching the world the meaning of evil.
When the Allied armies (Russians from the east and the Americans and British from the west) liberated the camps at the close of the war, they were met with scenes of unspeakable horror.
The films made by the Allied forces upon entering the camps were so horrible that they were not publicly shown for many years.
Liberation did not end the deaths of Jews.
In spite of Allied efforts to save them, many victims perished after liberation from weakness and illness. In the Belson camp, 13,000 died after the British liberators arrived.
Some who did survive met death at the hands of non-Jewish partisans or peasants when they left the camps. Some tried to reach their old homes, but found nothing left or that they now had new tenants who were very opposed to the return of the original owners.
The worst example was the pogrom in the town of Kielce in Poland on July 4th, 1946. When the 200 surviving Jews returned to their village, the local Poles who were upset to see that any had survived instigated a blood libel ― accusing the Jews of the kidnap and ritual murder of Polish child. In the ensuing violence 40 of the Jews, all Holocaust survivors, were murdered by the Polish towns people.
The post-Holocaust death total in Europe was unimaginable.
Intentionally using minimum figures and probable underestimates, Sir Martin Gilbert (in his work The Holocaust) finds that at least 5,950,000 Jews were murdered between 1939 and 1945.
This figure represents 69 percent of the entire Jewish population of Europe. Hundreds of communities, some of which were a thousand years old were completely obliterated.
Eastern European Jewry had been virtually wiped out.
But while the Holocaust brought an end to the Jewish community of Eastern Europe, it brought about ― in an indirect way ― the rebirth of the Land of Israel, as a Jewish state for the first time in 2,000 years. How it became the great refuge for the Jews in the modern period we will take up in the next installment.
To learn more, go to: Aish.com's Holocaust Studies.
1) Estimated number of victims killed in these concentration camps from www.yadvashem.org
2) Martin Gilbert, The Holocaust (Henry Holt and Co., 1985), p. 438.
3) Lucy S. Dawidowicz, The War Against the Jews 1933-1945. (Bantam Books, 1975.), p. xxiii.
4) Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin, Why the Jews ― The Reason for Anti-Semitism (Simon and Schuster inc, 1983), 23.