A talk I gave at the Holocaust Centre on May 14, 2017, as part of an Adult Education series.
The invasion of Poland and the murder of Jews
To this day, imagining the murder of so many people, by mass shooting and gassing with carbon monoxide or rat poison gas is unbelievable. You know that it happened, but cannot imagine how it could have happened. Though the Germans did their best to conceal the evidence, they used language that obscured the true facts, 'final solution' for mass murder, 'resettlement' for concentration camps, but eye-witness accounts of the atrocities emerged. People knew what was happening, but refused to believe it. How could these things happened in enlightened Europe, in the middle of the twentieth century, perpetrated by civilised, educated Germans, and why these happen not only in Poland, Russia, Roumania, Lithuania and Latvia, but in Central or Western Europe?
People today visit Auschwitz and see a theme park of atrocities, but they can't smell the smoke of burning bodies, can't sense the fear, hear the dogs barking. You have to put yourselves into the shoes of the victims, however hard this is, to gain some understanding.
Hitler talks of Jewish annihilation
January 30, 1939
“Today I will be once more a prophet. If the international Jewish financiers in and outside Europe should succeed in plunging the nations once more into a world war, then then result will not be the Bolshevization of the earth, and thus the victory of the Jews, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe”
Sources:N.H. Baynes, ed., The Speeches of Adolf Hitler, I, London, 1942, pp. 737-741; Yad Vashem
There was much in common between Nazi Germany and right wing nationalist Poland, anti-communism, Antisemitism. For years the Nazis tried to form an alliance with Poland but the Poles rejected these overtures. They didn't like Jews, but the Jews they didn't like were the real Jews living among them, one of the ethnic minorities that made up the Polish state that diluted the Polish national unity. It was not the mythical imaginary Jew that the Nazis wanted to get rid of. The Poles appreciated the problems of getting rid of large numbers of Jews. As to the antagonism towards the Soviet Union, they realised that any war fought between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union would be fought on Polish soil.
Jewish population of Europe 1933
US Holocaust Memorial Museum
Almost immediately after the invasion of Poland, the Germans established the first ghetto.
To get rid of Jews, Jews had to be identified and separated from the rest of the population. Yellow stars or arm bands were introduced to mark out Jews. Then Jews were concentrated into urban ghettos. This destroyed the small shtetls, Jewish communities scattered through the countryside that had existed for many generations, in some cases, for hundreds of years. Notably, at the time, there were no ghettos in Western Europe.
Ghettos were planned to be temporary. Jews were to be exiled
1. to Madagascar, an island in the Indian Ocean, a French colony. This was contingent on an understanding with France and the defeat of Britain, who controlled the sea routes.
2. to some unspecified remote place in the east, beyond the Urals, perhaps somewhere in Siberia. This was contingent on the defeat of the Soviet Union.
Largest ghettos in Poland
April 1940, Lodz ghetto (pop. 164,000)
November 1940, Warsaw ghetto (pop. 445,000)
March 1941, Lublin and Krakow ghettos
Altogether, the Germans created at least 1,000 ghettos in occupied territories. Many ghettos were set up in cities and towns where Jews were already concentrated.
The vast majority of Jews lived in Eastern Europe. The Jews of Western and Central Europe were largely assimilated, but the Jews of Eastern Europe had their own language, Yiddish, their own culture and distinctive customs. They were a readily identifiable ethnic minority.
Right from the beginning, from the time Hitler and the Nazis assumed power, their clearly stated aim was to get rid of all Jews, with no exceptions.
How to do this went through four stages of planning:
The fate of the German Jews was to be decided after the triumphant victory, but by the end of 1941 Hitler was so confident of winning the war that he authorised the deportation of the Jews of the Reich. This put great pressure on the existing ghettos in Poland, and in particular, the Lodz ghetto. To accommodate the new arrival, they had to get rid of, murder some of the Jews already there.
The Wannsee conference and the final solution
By the end of January 1942 over a million Jew had been murdered by the Einsatzgruppen, mobile killing units. But these killings were not centrally coordinated. They were, to some degree, haphazard. They were not governed by a centralised clear policy. Reinhard Heydrich, chief of the Security Service, (SD), and Nazi governor of Bohemia and Moravia convened a conference of high ranking Nazi Party and government officials in a villa in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee to discuss and implement the 'Final solution', the mass murder of Jews. The fifteen officials who attended the conference did not touch on the rightness of the policy, they only discussed the means. The entire session lasted only about an hour.
Extermination of the Jews of the Reich
OCTOBER 15, 1941
After Adolf Hitler's authorisation in September 1941, German authorities began deporting German, Austrian, and Czech Jews from the Greater German Reich
From October 15, 1941, until October 29, 1942, German authorities deport approximately 183,000 German, Austrian, and Czech Jews to ghettos, transit ghettos, killing centres, and killing sites in the Baltic States, in Belarus, in the Generalgovernement, and the Lodz ghetto.
Beginning in September 1941, with the deportation of German Jews, Jews were transported country by country to the newly established killing camps. By 1944 the only significant Jewish community left in Europe was the Hungarian Jewish community. After the German occupation of Hungary, between May and July, 1944, in 56 days, 437,000 Jews were transported, mainly to Auschwitz, and about 360,000 were murdered immediately on arrival there. There were four trains, with 3000 on each, 12,000 a day leaving for Auschwitz. The concentration camp had trouble killing and cremating such a large number. People had to wait in the birch forest - waiting for their turn to be killed.
October 15, 1941
Heinrich Himmler tasks the SS and Police Leader in Lublin District, SS General Odilo Globocnik, with implementing what later becomes known as
“Operation Reinhard,” the physical annihilation of the Jews residing in the Generalgovernement. The Operation Reinhard team is ultimately responsible for the murder of approximately 1.7 million Jews, most of them Polish Jews.
Killing Jews by shooting was an inefficient means of murder. The numbers to kill were just too great. The killings took a toll on the troops who had to shoot men, women, young and old, and in particular, children. It was also impossible to keep it secret. To find a more efficient way of killing large numbers, the Germans drew on experience they gained from the by then abandoned euthanasia programme. They murdered intellectually and physically handicapped who were not deemed to be worthy of life, but this programme was terminated due to public and Church opposition and pressure. However, the techniques developed for the euthanasia programme could be used to murder large numbers of Jews. First they were killed by carbon monoxide fed into moving trucks full of prisoners,then by feeding carbon monoxide into sealed gas chambers, and finally they found that using Cyclone B, a gas used for pest eradication, the most efficient.
Killing operations begin at the Chelmno killing centre, located about 30 miles north-west of Lodz.
German authorities begin the deportation of Jews and Roma (Gypsies) from the Lodz ghetto to Chelmno. Between January 1942 and March 1943, the SS Special Detachment Lange kills at least 145,000 Jews and a few thousand Roma (Gypsies).
The Reinhard camps were located in isolated places near railway lines. There were no barracks to house the inmates. They were all killed on arrival. These camps later were all levelled to destroy the evidence.
March 17, 1942
First deportations of Jews, from the ghettos in Lublin and Lvov, to the Belzec killing centre. At least 434,508 Jews were killed in gas chambers with carbon monoxide gas between March 17 and December 31, 1942.
May 7, 1942
Sobibor begins gassing operations at the Sobibor killing centre. By November 1943, the special detachment killed at least 170,000 Jews and an undetermined number of Poles, Roma, and Soviet prisoners of war at Sobibor by means of carbon monoxide gas or by shooting.
July 23, 1942
SS Special Detachment Treblinka begins gassing operations at the Treblinka killing centre. Between July 1942 and November 1943, the SS special detachment at Treblinka murders an estimated 925,000 Jews and an unknown number of Poles, Roma, and Soviet prisoners of war.
Auschwitz - Birkenau
Auschwitz – Birkenau camp opens. It was originally designated for the incarceration of large numbers of Soviet prisoners of war. Although it continued to serve as a concentration camp, it also functioned as a killing centre from March 1942 until November 1944.
Auschwitz was originally set up for Polish political prisoners and Soviet prisoners of war. Once it was expanded with the addition of Birkenau and a network of sub-camps it realised the main objectives of the Nazis:
- Expropriate, i.e. steal Jewish property
- Exploit Jewish manpower; work them while there is value in their labour
- Kill them
- Make use of their hair, the gold in their teeth, their spectacles, shoes whatever was left of their belongings.
After the war it was evident that not only were a large number of Jews murdered, but that an entire Jewish world, with its own traditions, culture, customs and values was destroyed. But the liberal humanist tradition going back to the 17th and 18th centuries was also called into question. The great German sociologist and philosopher, Theodor W. Adorno said 'to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric',
The great centres of European learning, arts and creativity were scattered, with its focus moving to America, but Britain, South Africa, Australia, Latin America, and to a limited extent, New Zealand also benefited from this dispersal of talent.