THE LAST ACT
On June 6, 1944, the Allied forces landed in France on
the beaches of Normandy. By midnight the Germans had lost the battle there, and
the Allies had a firm foothold in Europe. In July the Russian troops pushed
forward toward Poland. Again the Germans were forced to retreat before them. By
September American troops stood on German soil in the west. Hitler's world was
slowly closing in around him.
In one last desperate attack Hitler sent his troops into
the Ardennes forest of France, trying to separate the American and British
armies. This was the Battle of the Bulge, the fiercest and bloodiest battle of
the Second World War. It was over by January 16, 1945. No one really won this
battle, but Hitler's army had suffered heavy losses, from which the Germans
Hitler went into hiding in a bunker designed and built
for him beneath Berlin. In April most of the Nazi leaders left Berlin as it was
being encircled by the Allied troops. Hitler refused to leave his bunker.
Indeed, he never again left it alive. On April 30, broken by his defeats, Adolf
Hitler shot himself. By his own orders, his body was taken just outside the
bunker and burned. Hitler was dead, and with him Nazi Germany had died.
On the day before he died, Hitler wrote out a final
statement to the German people. Nothing had changed for him, he said; he
believed to the end all that he had repeated in speech after speech:
It is not true
that I or anybody else in Ger many wanted war in 1939. It was wanted and
provoked exclusively by those international statesmen who either were of Jewish
origin or worked for Jewish interests ... Disloyalty and betrayal have
undermined resistance throughout the war. It was therefore not granted to me to
lead the people to victory. ... Above all, I enjoin the leaders of the nation
and those under them to uphold the racial laws to their full extent and to
oppose mercilessly the universal poisoner of all peoples, International Jewry.
For Hitler the war had always been fought in these two
ways: against the armies of other nations, and against the Jews everywhere
within his reach. In his last hours he continued to urge the struggle against
the Jews. The Holocaust was no accident of history; it was the plan of a racist
who made himself an emperor.
But no one man could have carried out the murder of six
million people. Thousands of Germans had taken part, and they had been helped by
scores of other Europeans.
After the war such people would say that they did not
know what was happening in the camps, behind those barbed wire fences. Germans
would claim that the slaughter had all been done in faraway places. How could
they know about the Einsatzgruppen murdering
thousands behind the Russian front? How could they know what was happening to
the Jews of Austria, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, France, Belgium,
Luxembourg, Italy, Romania, Greece, and Yugoslavia?
Even in these countries non-Jews grew silent about what
they had seen and what they knew. Yet the truth was all around--in big city and
in small town alike. During the war they had seen Jews being marched out of the
ghettos to work in the factories, to clean the streets, to work in the mines and
quarries. In many a home there was some piece of clothing, some painting or
sculpture, some piece of furniture, some bedding or blanket that had come from a
Jewish neighbor. What was happening was hardly hidden from view. And when it was
over, it could not be covered up.
Those who lived in the small towns near the death camps,
those who owned or ran huge factories employing Jewish slave labor, those who
had served as guards at the ghetto gates and in the concentration camps, and
those who had been assigned to work in the Einsatzgruppen
in "actions" against the Jews of Russia--all tried to forget what
At the very last the Nazis had tried to hide what they
had done to the Jews. They made an effort to plow the camps under, to destroy
the careful lists kept in the "books of the dead," and hastily to bury
the thousands of corpses that lay piled high beside the camps. Eichmann worked
feverishly to destroy the records that had been kept in his central office.
But the Allied troops came too quickly. Records were
captured. Camps were still standing. The Nazi lists of the dead had not all been
burned. Corpses still lay in the sunlight exposing the truth of what had been
done. And there were still survivors to tell the story.
For more than a generation, scholars have been piecing
this story together and still not everything about it is known. One thing,
however, has become clear. Many of the problems and attitudes that gave rise to
the Holocaust are still with us today.
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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