CONCENTRATION AND DEATH
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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“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