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Holocaust--search words: Rossel, Seymour Rossel, Holocaust, Genocide, Hitler, anti-Semitism, prejudice, ladder of prejudice, war crimes, war crimes trials, World War II, Second World War, Himmler, Eichmann, concentration, concentration camps, ghetto, ghettos, shtetl, Nazi, Nazis, Nazism, Nuremberg, Kristallnacht, boat people, revolts, Warsaw ghetto, death camps, Heydrich, rescue, escape, slavery, discrimination, racism, racist, racists, Shoah, aftermath, roundup, roundups, transport, transports, selection, selections, medical experiments, Nazi hunters, echoes of Holocaust


In the late nineteenth century, the British historian Lord Acton observed, "Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely." From Hitler himself down through all the Nazi leaders who were given power over the Jews, any personal sense of right and wrong was forsaken in favor of official government policy.

Hitler had chosen Heinrich Himmler to command the SS (which had originally been Hitler's personal bodyguard). Now the assignment to destroy the Jews was given to Himmler. For this task, Himmler used security police called the SD (Sicherheitsdienst), a branch of the SS. And Himmler placed Reinhard Heydrich directly in charge of the "Jewish question." Since the SD operated mainly within the borders of Hitler's Germany, Heydrich also worked in cooperation with the Gestapo police to control the Jews in the lands that Germany had conquered.

It was Heydrich who "discovered" SS major Adolf Eichmann and brought Eichmann to Berlin. Eichmann had been tested in Austria. He had proved his abilities by setting up a remarkably efficient central office for Jewish emigration. Through the work of his office, Eichmann had "evacuated" 145,000 Austrian Jews from their homeland. ("Evacuation" was a term the Germans used for "forced emigration.")

Eichmann was considered a kind of specialist. Before the war, he had visited Palestine and studied Jewish religion and the Hebrew language. His report to the leaders of the SS concerning his travels in the Holy Land convinced them that Eichmann was an expert on the subject of Zionism. Heydrich and Himmler chose Eichmann to become the head of the "Jewish desk" in Berlin, and gave him extraordinary power--nearly absolute power--over the fate of the Jewish people in Germany and in all the conquered lands. From his small office in Berlin, Adolf Eichmann pulled the strings and made the decisions that cost nearly six million Jewish lives.

Executing Government Policy

Together, Eichmann and Heydrich planned the ghettos, intending them to be just stopping-off places for the Jews. They planned the transport of the Jews out of the ghettos, and they also set up a system in which large German industries could "rent" Jewish slaves from the Gestapo. Eichmann even carefully mapped out the tactics of blackmail and deception to be used against the Judenrate and the Jewish populations in the ghettos. He felt sure that the methods he had used so well in Austria could be used again in Poland and in Russia. As long as the official Nazi policy was to expel the Jews from German soil, Eichmann and Heydrich worked to do just that. They were no less efficient and no less devoted to their tasks when government policy turned murderous.

Scholars are still unsure as to the exact date of the Nazi decision to exterminate the Jews, but most agree that the decision had already been taken by January of 1942 when a meeting of high government officials was held in the Berlin suburb called Wannsee. At that meeting, Heydrich read a report prepared by Eichmann announcing the "Final Solution of the Jewish Problem." From the recollections of those who were present at this conference, and from records of the discussion which followed the report, it was clear that everyone present understood what this "Final Solution" was--the Jews were to be killed.

Defining a Jew

A crucial question raised in the discussions at the Wannsee Conference was how exactly to define a "Jew." According to Jewish religious law a Jew is any person born of a Jewish mother or any person who chooses to become a Jew by converting to the Jewish religion. This definition did not go far enough to satisfy the Nazis, for they were concerned with keeping Aryan blood "pure."

What about the child of a marriage between a Jewish male and an Aryan female? According to Jewish law the child would not be Jewish. But for the Nazis, the blood of such a child was impure. The Nazis agreed that such a child was a more dangerous enemy than the child of two Jewish parents. Aryan blood, they pointed out, made this child a born leader, while Jewish blood made the same child an enemy. The Nazis called these half-Jews Mischlinge.

At last a Nazi definition of a Jew was set down. A Jew was defined as anyone who had one or more Jewish grandparents. Many Christians were thus identified as Jews--even though they had been practicing Christianity for two generations.

The Einsatzgruppen

Even as the Wannsee Conference was taking place, Russian Jews were being murdered in special "actions." Groups of handpicked SS men called Einsatzgruppen followed the German army as it marched into Russian territory. They were the mobile "killing units" of the SS. In each town the Einsatzgruppe called on the local rabbi or Jewish town council, demanded a list of all Jews living there, and rounded up the entire Jewish community. Men, women, and children were marched or sent by train, truck, or bus to a nearby forest.

A ditch was dug to serve as a mass grave. The Jews were ordered to remove their clothing, place it in neat piles, and wait. Small groups were then taken down into the pit. One German witness later recalled:

The pit was already two-thirds full. I estimated that it held a thousand people. I looked for the man who did the shooting. He was an SS man who sat at the edge of the narrow end of the pit, his feet dangling into it. He had a tommy gun on his knees and was smoking a cigarette. The people--they were completely naked--went down some steps ... to the place where the SS man directed them. They lay down in front of the dead and wounded. Some caressed the living and spoke to them in a low voice. Then I heard a series of shots. [Testimony given at Nuremberg]

The Einsatzgruppen put about eight hundred thousand Russian Jews to death. In one of these SS "actions," some thirty-three thousand Jews were gunned down in the Babi Yar ravine near Kiev. It was the largest single massacre of the war. Yet Heydrich and Eichmann both felt that the destruction was going too slowly. They began the search for a quicker way.

Death by Gas

It was Hitler himself who made the suggestion. As a soldier in World War I, Hitler had been caught in a gas attack. He still remembered the bitter, choking feeling of the gas and the fear that had gripped him. Gas was the perfect answer, he said.

In 1939 Hitler had initiated a program of putting to death "imperfect Aryans," German children who were mentally ill or physically deformed. German doctors gave these children lethal injections in what was called euthanasia, or "mercy-killing." Now the doctors were told to experiment with gas. Several German chemical companies competed, each trying to make the most efficient gas for putting human beings to death quickly.

At last a gas was chosen to be tested at Auschwitz: hydrogen cyanide, called Zyklon B. It was manufactured by a company that specialized in pesticides and poisons for rats and verminous insects such as lice. The company now entered the additional business of equipping gas chambers for the Nazi government.

Concentration Camps

The industry of death was now ready. All that remained was to bring the Jews to it. Throughout Poland and the rest of Europe, concentration camps were set up along the railroad lines. Jews were rounded up in all the ghettos and told that they were being shipped out to work in "the east." The program began slowly, but after Heydrich's death in May 1942, Eichmann proceeded more quickly. In Heydrich's honor, the project was named Operation Reinhard.

The concentration camps were more horrible than the ghettos had been. But the Jews were always told to have hope--it was Eichmann’s promise to them, a lie repeated to each one of the millions who died.

Transports often arrived at the camps carrying Jews who had traveled for days without food or water. One train arrived at Auschwitz filled with people herded into cattle cars so tightly that there was only room to stand. Loudspeakers blared, ordering people to get off the train and prepare to go to work. It would be good, the officers shouted, for the Jews to do something constructive with their lives. Men would labor; women would keep house or work with the men; children would go to school.

On the train, the dead and the living, many sick or wounded, stood closely packed together, refusing to move. German guards opened fire on them. Some Jews tried to run while others still huddled on the train. The guards shouted, "We know you want to die, but nothing will save you; you will have to go to work." Many of the Jews were convinced by these words. Surely there really was work, not death, in store. When they got off the train, forming a line, the guards opened fire. Of that trainload, few survived even long enough to enter the camp. Hope and terror were arts the Nazis used skillfully to keep Jews under control until they could be destroyed.

Survival in the Camps

Inside the concentration camps there were Jewish police, prisoners known as "kapos." In return for special privileges, kapos forced other Jews to obey Nazi orders, just as the Jewish police had done in the ghettos. In the concentration camps, however, there were also German guards (and sometimes Polish and Ukranian guards) always present, ready and willing to beat or shoot anyone who did not obey orders.

The concentration camps all operated in about the same way. At the entrance to the Auschwitz camp, for example, doctors sat behind a table. One by one, the prisoners, fresh off the train, were brought up to a doctor. The doctor would raise his thumb and point to the right or to the left. To the left meant immediate death. For those who looked stronger, and were sent to the right, there was the concentration camp. Of course the Jews did not know what fate awaited them--they only knew that a selection was being made.

At Bergen-Belsen camp, tens of thousands of prisoners were crowded into barracks designed for a few thousand.

The sanitary conditions were indescribable. There was one bathroom, always out of order, for a hut of four hundred people. ... From time to time we would get what they called "soup." Then they almost cut off the food supply altogether. ... Dead people lay outside on the paths of the camp. ... Women fought in the gutter for scraps of food garbage. [Testimony given at the Eichmann trial]

At roll call we had to stand about for hours and hours in snow or rain, in heat or cold. The standing alone exhausted us entirely.    
     If anyone was late for roll call, the whole camp had to stand on parade for many hours, and he, the culprit, was beaten so badly that he sometimes died of it. ... We had 2,200 patients in the hospital, and, in addition, 15,000 sick women in camp, but for a whole week we received only 300 aspirin tablets. [Testimony given at the Belsen trial]

Within their first few days, thousands died of hunger, starvation, and disease. Some "ran into the wire," that is, they threw themselves against the electrified fences of the camps. Still others died of cruelty--beatings, torture, and worse. One who lived told of a Nazi game at the Janowska camp:

A shooting competition was begun between [two Nazi officers]. They would shoot out of their windows at the people marching back and forth loaded with stones, aiming at the tip of a nose or a finger. The injured people were "no good" any more and they would finish them off with a shot. [Testimony given at the Eichmann trial]

Diseases--particularly typhus--spread through the camps, but sick people pretended that they were still healthy enough to work. They knew that being sick meant death. Even escape meant death, for if any one escaped, all the other prisoners in that group were immediately shot. The only resistance possible for most Jews was the effort simply to stay alive. To help them survive, the prisoners looked for ways of staying human, of not descending to the level of animals. They began to live an inner life, one that the guards and the camp could not reach to destroy. For many it was a life of religion--it had been their mainstay on the outside, before the camps; and now it became their inner treasure. For others there was the chance to do some of the work they had done before--if they were doctors, they could help the sick as best they were able; scientists watched and memorized what they saw; historians and writers kept notes in their minds. Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist, wrote of his efforts to help his fellow prisoners:

The thought of suicide was entertained by nearly everyone, if only for a brief time. It was born of the hopelessness of the situation, the constant danger of death looming over us daily and hourly, and the closeness of the deaths suffered by many of the others. 
     I spoke of the many opportunities of giving life a meaning. I told my comrades that human life, under any circumstances, never ceases to have a meaning.    
     ... They must not lose hope but should keep up their courage in the certainty that the hopelessness of our struggle did not detract from its dignity and meaning. I said that someone looks down on each of us in difficult hours--a friend, a wife, somebody alive or dead, or a God--and he would not expect us to disappoint him. He would hope to find us suffering proudly. ... [Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning]


For those sent to the left at the first selection, the next stop was a death camp. Sometimes it was nearby. At Auschwitz, the death camp was called Birkenau and it was just on the other side of the electrified fence. Sometimes there was another ghastly train journey to be made from the concentration camp to one of the death camps. Sometimes the prisoners were gassed in trucks or in trains and never reached a death camp at all.

The prisoners sent to the death camps were divided. Men went to one side, while women had their hair shaved off. Men, women, and children were all told to strip. Naked, they were led to the "showers." As they passed through the doorway, they were given bars of soap to make them believe that there was still hope. Some believed it. Most smelled the stench of the camp and knew the truth. Mothers held their babies close to them. People began to pray; some sang. The SS men shoved them into the gas chambers, packing them in so closely they stood on each other’s feet.

The doors and windows were tightly shut. At Birkenau, Zyklon B crystals were poured down perforated shafts. Some other camps used diesel engines to force carbon monoxide into the crowded room. The dead had no place to fall. They stood in death as they had stood in life: families pressed together, holding hands; strangers with their arms around each other. Jewish workers had to pry the dead apart and place the corpses on conveyor belts.

At Birkenau the door over the gas chamber had these words written on it: "This Is the Gate of the Lord into Which the Righteous Shall Enter." No doubt, this represented Eichmann's sense of humor.

The bodies were placed in huge furnaces to be burned. The smell of death rose with the smoke and ashes. It pumped out of the chimneys and could be seen and smelled for miles around. From time to time Eichmann, or even Himmler himself, came to make an inspection--to see that the gas was working properly, the machinery was in order, and the furnaces were still operating. There was a special gate for the Nazi SS to enter at Auschwitz. Above it was written, "Entrance to the Jewish State."

About 5,730,000 Jews passed through the doors of the death camps. At Auschwitz-Birkenau alone, some two million people were murdered.

Order The Holocaust at Amazon

The newly revised and updated edition of
The Holocaust: An End to Innocence is now available
in paperback and Kindle.

“Seymour Rossel, a long-experienced and gifted educator, here gives yet another important contribution for readers of every age and background. This book is a rare and valuable overview of an enormously challenging subject. Every chapter is accessible, intelligent, and compelling.”David Altshuler, PhD, Founding Director, Museum of Jewish Heritage, New York

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