The Murder of European JewryIn 2019 we visited Poland. In part 1 of this discussion, we provided some background, and discussed the devastation of the synagogues, the cities and the ghettoization of Poland. The next part is how and why did the Germans kill six million Jews? How could people simply let themselves be transported to an unknown future? And what happened to these people when they were transported out of their cities and towns?

Background

The Holocaust/ Shoah did not start in 1939 with the invasion of Poland. In fact it did not even start in Nazi Germany in 1935 with the Nuremburg Laws that limited what Jews could do in society. It did not even start in 1933 with German state policy aimed at the elimination of Jews from German ‘living space’. What needs to be understood is that Hitler had always intended to annihilate the Jews. His antisemitism was set forth in his autobiography,”Mein Kampf”, first published in 1925. Clearly, antisemitism did not start with Hitler; Amalekites, Haman – always there has been someone who wants to wipe out the Jews.

At first Hitler’s position was regarded as a slogan that need not be taken seriously. After all, prior to Hitler there had been no successful government attempt to eliminate all Jews simply because they were Jews. Germany, however, slowly developed a system that would turn the idea of murdering Jews into a reality. They began first in the areas of German domination, with the intention of expanding it worldwide. Every place that Germany’s authority extended, also implemented all of its policies with regard to the Jews.

How did it start? Like cooking a frog in water, you start with it cold and slowly turn up the temperature; before the frog knows it, the water is hot and he cannot get out. The freedoms of the Jews were eradicated, step by step. Because the Jews had lived with so many restrictions over the years, it was easy to say, well we can live with this – and then the next step was imposed. From 1933 on, the Nazis defined who was a Jew (at least one Jewish grandparent), limited the rights to speak, assemble and protest, did away with due process, limited their occupations, took away their property, and otherwise did away with their civil rights and liberties. But beyond that, it was not immediately evident that the Jews alone were to be the focal point. Indeed, many of the initial steps taken, which were to consolidate control in the Nazi party and Hitler, were not focused on Jews. In fact, in 1933, communists, labor union leaders, and other political dissidents began to be imprisoned in Dachau, the first Nazi concentration camp. A year later, Hitler continued his consolidation of power by having all his rivals (including many who had supported him) killed. In any event, by 1938, all the steps needed to deprive the Jews of all their rights and liberties had been put in place.

One thing to note, is that much of this was initially done under the aegis of the law (see, e.g. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anti-Jewish_legislation_in_pre-war_Nazi_Germany); It appears that they thought it best to look “civilized” or be able to argue that everything was done in an appropriate manner, so as to maintain the support both of the people and other countries. This point is not to be overlooked: it is clear from much that was done by the Nazis in the destruction of the Jews that they KNEW what they did was wrong, and, as we note below, took steps to cover it up. [As an aside, just as Hitler should have been taken seriously from the beginning, we need to believe the radical Islamists when they say that they plan to destroy Israel and all the Jews, and to follow it with the destruction of the United States and all Christians. AND, unlike Nazi Germany, Hamas has not tried to hide the evil they are engaged in and have planned; instead Hamas has openly bragged about its operations.]

In 1938 and 1939, Austria, the Sudetenland, and Bohemia-Moravia had all been taken over by the Germans, who imposed all the same policies applicable to Jews. But it was not until they got to Poland that the plan began to be implemented in earnest, due to the large concentration of Jews in that country.

World War II officially started on September 1, 1939, with the invasion of Poland. Poland stood no chance; Germany invaded from the west; Russia from the east. At that time Germany and Russia were working together. For the Jews it was a mixed bag, but they had a somewhat better chance of staying alive in the Russian occupied Poland, as Russia, despite not having an great affection for the Jews, was not out to kill them all. This changed in June, 1941, when Germany invaded Russian occupied Poland.

In Part 1 we discussed the ghettos in various cities. There were many ghettos (the emphasis has been on the large ones; however, research done by Yad Vashem has documented more than 1,100 ghettos, principally throughout Eastern Europe – see “The Yad Vashem Encyclopedia of the Ghettos During the Holocaust,” published in 2009). But even these were primarily way stations. Thus the Jews were concentrated in ghettos, and those who did not die in the ghetto, were subsequently deported to other facilities.

On January 19, 1942, there was a conference held to address one issue: how to find a Final Solution to the Jewish question. Hitler’s “Final Solution” was NOT to win the war, but to figure out how to kill all the Jews. Ghettos were already in place, small food portions had already been implemented, and people were dying from hunger and disease. But the 1942 conference decided that all Jews should simply be killed. The question was, how?

How Long Can You Live? Auschwitz-Birkenau

In 1940, the Germans opened a new concentration camp in Oswecism, Poland – Auschwitz (also Auschwitz 1)- which was similar to its other concentration camps and, in fact, initially held Polish political prisoners. It continued as a concentration camp even when, in 1942 it became a focal point of the Nazi’s solution to their Jewish problem. The number of prisoners at any given time apparently ranged from 15,000 to 20,000. Because it used the grounds and buildings of prewar Polish barracks, most of the buildings are brick.

It had administrative offices, was also used to carry out cruel medical experiments, and also contained a gas chamber and crematorium. There was also a spot where executions were regularly carried out.

Gas chamber/ crematorium

“Death wall”

When the prisoners arrived, all of their possessions were put in a pile (to be sorted by other prisoners and ultimately sent back to Germany)

Examples of possessions taken from the prisoners: Shoes

Glasses

Medical equipment

Brushes

The prisoners were also sorted, with those who would be allowed to live and work sent to one line; the others (old, infirm, children, etc.) would be immediately sent to the crematorium. However, in accordance with the the Germans fastidious record keeping, the information for each prisoner was carefully recorded, and a number was tatooed on each person’s arm that was selected to live.

Looking through the pages of names to find someone

Birkenau/ Auschwitz II. The second part of Auschwitz was the Birkenau camp, which the Nazis began building in 1941, after evicting the Polish civilians, and demolishing their homes. It is immense. It is hard to convey how big it is. Most of the buildings housing the prisoners were wood (an example has been rebuilt); you can see many of the chimneys that are still standing off in the distance.

In 1944 Birkenau had over 90,000 prisoners. Even with this large population, it is estimated that 80% of those arriving by train were sent directly to the gas chambers. Although still a labor camp, our guide said the estimated life expectancy was two weeks.

Birkenau was built for mass extermination, and the majority of the victims were murdered here.

The crematoriums were mostly destroyed, I believe by the Russians.

Mobile Killing Units.

Initially, as the German troops would invade an area, especially the further east they went, they would be followed by Mobile Killing Units. The Jews would be rounded up, and taken out to the forest and shot (they also used mobile gas vans). Often they concentrated on the men; the women and children were then left for the general populace to deal with. There were three, maybe four problems with this solution: 1. It took too long; 2. It wasted ammunition that could be used in the war; and 3. The men doing the killing were ultimately adversely impacted by the process, and many could not deal with shooting unarmed men every day. Further, it was not secretive. As noted earlier, the Germans realized that their method of dealing with the problem would not be universally accepted. Therefore, they had to develop other methods to deal with the “Jewish problem”.

I’ve Got A Name – Belzec

I need to tell you that as devastating as Aushwitz was, Belzec was ten times worse. Belzek is about 10 miles from the Ukraine border. The area is principally farmland and forest. Unlike the big cities, where the Jews could be forced into ghettos, and then shipped out, there were many small towns, each with their own Jews.

Belzec, (along with Sobibor and Treblinka), were set up as small secret death camps near major railway lines each having their defined area of Poland and the surrounding countries, with one purpose: to gather and murder the Jews. Very few barracks, very few prisoners. They became operational from the beginning of 1942 complete with gas chambers. The majority of prisoners were murdered right away. These were not work camps; there was no actual record kept of the prisoners. The only record was the name of each town or city and when it was deemed to be “Judenrein” – free of Jews or Jewish blood. This operation was carried out completely. None of these three places exist today; when they were done (finished by the end of 1943), everything was torn down, plowed under, and the forests replanted. People of the local town were able to see what happened; except for Belzec they were located in an area remote from major population centers. Sobibor and Treblinka had some revelations and escapes so were not completely secret but all were hidden very well.

What is at Belzec is a monument the actual size of the camp. At the entrance is a small museum with information and some photos. Around the rim of the monument are stones (like gravestones) with the names of the towns that were emptied and when that occurred. Examples below. I took photos of many as I wept, crying for them to be remembered.

The Germans regarded this as a complete Nazi triumph – in less than a year, they murdered some 500,000 Jews (even the Germans do not know exactly how many were killed there), covered it up, and walked away. Heinrich Himmler, at a speech of 55 generals in Posen, October 4, 1943 stated: “This is a never-written and never-to-be-written page of glory in our history.”

It is written, and it shall not be forgotten.