"The fight will be very different from the fight in the West. In the East, harshness is kindness toward the future. The commanders must demand of themselves the sacrifice of overcoming their scruples."
Adolf Hitler, March 30, 1941
A Soviet Jew and his son at the assembly center
in Uman-Miropol, July 1941. CL:BPK
The fate of the Jews in occupied territories often varied according to local attitude. In the Baltic countries (Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia) as well as in the Ukraine, local populations collaborated in the persecution of Jews. Confiscation of property, slave labor, random violence, and murder were commonplace.
On June 22, 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union. In the months preceding this invasion, Nazi leadership had decided to destroy all the Jews of the Soviet Union. Immediately behind the invading forces, specially trained mobile assault units of the SS (Einsatzgruppen), with the assistance of the local populations, police and civil authorities, began the systematic murder of Jews. Mass shootings in open trenches or pits were often carried out in full view of local populations, Wehrmacht soldiers and military officials. A policy of annihilation was visible fact by 1941.
"The place of the execution was isolated in order to avoid that the civilian population would unnecessarily become witness of a spectacle....The execution commando (Exekutionskommando)...was posted on the other side of the antitank ditch and the persons which were designated to be executed were shot dead from behind as quickly as possible." Dr. Werner Braune, Head of Einsatzgruppe D, Nuremberg, July 8, 1947
Mass Execution. CL:BPK
In the spring of 1941, the SS organized four mobile killing squads (Einsatzqruppen) for the occupied Soviet Union and Baltic regions. These specifically trained murder units followed invading troops to capture and eliminate "Jews, communists, and other Soviet officials." Hitler, distrustful of the will of his generals to carry out his intended "war of annihilation," appointed Heinrich Himmler to carry out "special tasks" on the eastern front.
The procedure was similar throughout German-occupied Soviet territory. Local populations were encouraged to murder Jews and seize their abandoned property. At the same time, the Waffen SS and local collaborators rounded up groups of Jews and removed them to mass burial pits where they were shot dead.
By 1943, over 1,400,000 Jews were executed in the occupied Soviet Union
"Let us not be led like sheep to the slaughter!...Better to fall in the fight for human dignity than to live at the mercy of the murderer."
Abba Kovner, Vilna Ghetto, January, 1942
Abba Kovner (center, standing) with partisan unit. CL: Yad Vashem
The Nazi policy of brutal reprisals against the whole ghetto community for any individual act of Jewish resistance, combined with a lack of weapons and the continued hope of surviving the war and occupation, initially repressed armed resistance in the ghettos. In addition, fake Nazi promises of resettlement encouraged false hopes of survival. However, once it became clear that the Nazi intent was total annihilation of all Jews, resistance fighters in the ghettos prepared for the fight to survive, to avenge the murdered, or at least to die fighting.
Hangings in Minsk, October 1941, in which the Lithuanian battalions participated. CL:SWC
Desperate and with few weapons, the remaining Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto rose in revolt on the eve of Passover, April 19, 1943. For the first time, the entire ghetto resisted the Nazis--those who had arms fought, and even those without arms refused to surrender and improvised Molotov cocktails and other weapons. For three weeks the ghetto's inhabitants held out, until SS General Stroop ordered the burning of the ghetto to force out all resisters and remaining inhabitants. After the war, Stroop was tried, sentenced and hanged for "crimes against humanity" committed during the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto.
Women and children surrender after the Warsaw Ghetto uprising is suppressed in May 1943. CL:NARA
"Not rarely, the Jews stayed in the burning houses until the heat and fear of being burned to death caused them to jump from the upper floors....With broken bones they would then try to crawl across the street into buildings which were not yet. or only partially, in flames...we succeeded in capturing altogether 56.065 Jews. i.e. definitely destroying them. To this figure should be added Jews who lost their lives in explosions, fires, etc."
SS General Stroop, Warsaw Report, May 16, 1943
SS Major General Juergen Stroop commanded the German troops in the Warsaw Ghetto in April and May 1943. CL.NARA
"The sick, the aged, and babies in arms were crushed into barred cattle trucks....They had been aboard the train for two days and had only once received food. She (a Jewish passenger) said that some babies had suffocated in the crush and that the SS guards had even then forced in more people and bolted the door."
Dutch Witness, Eichmann:
The Man and His Crimes
Deportation of Jews to concentration camp.CL:Wiener Library, London
After 1941, the mass murder of Jews, Gypsies, Slavs, and prisoners of war became a mandate for the Nazis From 1942 to 1945, the Nazis implemented mass murder with a cold industrial efficiency.
Crematorium at Dachau. CL:SWC
After 1939, the concentration camp system expanded dramatically, permeating every corner of occupied Europe. The system included slave labor as well as killing centers, designed for mass murder. For the most part, the camps resembled each other in layout and structure; they had assembly areas and barracks surrounded by guard towers and electrified barbed wire.
Transit camps and assembly centers were holding and distribution centers, where prisoners were held temporarily, prior to the journey East.
Theresienstadt, an eighteenth century fortress town near Prague, was chosen as the site for a sinister scheme to cover up the mass murder of Europe's Jews. Here the Nazis developed their "model" ghetto. Foreign governments, international relief agencies and even some Jews were deceived by this propaganda campaign, since no one wished to believe the horrible stories emerging about transports to the East.
Far from a benevolent, decent place to live out their lives, it was a temporary stopping point en route to Auschwitz. 150,000 Jews passed through Tneresienstadt; 33,000 died of hunger or disease while in the ghetto, and 90,000 were transported to Auschwitz.
Inside one of the men's barracks. CL:Yad Vashem
The Nazis tried to use Theresienstadt to hide the truth of the murder of the Jews. Amidst the horror of the reality, they tolerated a semblance of a cultural life: theater, music, lectures and art.
A soccer game staged for the propaganda film, "The Fuehrer Gives the Jews a City," August 1944. CL:BPK
In the summer of 1944, the SS produced a propaganda film about Theresienstadt, showing happy Jews in a Jewish city; after the completion most of the actors were sent to Auschwitz.
"We stood there. shivering, trembling, cropped and ragged. And only then did we look at each other. Not even the closest relatives were recognizable...Fortunately, we couldn't see ourselves, but some, looking at their companions.burst into hysterical 1auqhter or uncontrollable weeping." Reska Weiss, Survivor, Journey Through Hell
Hungarian Jewish women are selected for slave labor in Birkenau, Summer 1944. CL:Archives of the State Museum in Qswlecim
Brutal and dehumanizing, the concentration camp system's main product was death. For those fit enough to work, their misfortune was slave labor, where murder occurred through work. The cycle of the day in such camps was work, hunger, and pain, always in the shadow of the sadistic violence of guards and instant execution for the slightest infraction.
"You get up at 3 am....For the slightest irregularity in bed-making the punishment was 25 lashes after which it was impossible to lie or sit for a whole month."
"At 12 noon there was a break for a meal...half a litre of soup, or some watery liquid, without fats, tasteless... No spoons were allowed....One had to drink the soup out of the bowl and lick it like a dog...I must emphasize that if we were lucky we got a noon meal."
"There were 'days of punishment'...when our stomach was empty for the whole day."
Inmates work in the stone quarries at Flossenbuerg concentration camp in 1942/1943. CL:BPK
Disposal of corpses at Auschwitz-Birkenau. CL:Archives of the State Museum in Oswiecim
"Men, women, young girls, children, babies, cripples all stark naked. filed by. At the corner stood a burly SS man. with a loud priestlike voice. 'Nothing terrible is going to happen to you!' he told the poor wretches. 'All you have to do is breathe deeply.'" Kurt Gerstein, Nazi officer, Belzec Witness
Despite the conditions in the camps, the human imagination found expression in art and poetry. Much of Holocaust art was documentary: art for history, to record what had been experienced. The artists were simultaneously victim and commentator, forced to steal paper, ink, and color from food dyes and rust.
Felix Nussbaum, a self-portrait with Jewish star and identity card, completed in hiding in 1943. CL:Kulturqeschichtliches Museum. Osnabrueck
Odd Nansen, deported to Sachsenhausen, depicts prisoners at hard labor, 1944. CL:National Mahn und Gedenkstaette Sachsenhausen, Oranienburg
"Nightmare." a watercolor by Norbert Troller, painted in Theresienstadt, 1942, symbolizes many aspects of daily life in the camp. CL:LBI/NY
"At Auschwitz, I used Zyklon B, which was a crystallized prussic acid which we dropped into the death chamber from a small opening. It took from 3 to 15 minutes to kill the people in the death chamber, depending on the climatic conditions. We knew the people were dead because their screaming stopped."
Rudolf Hoess, Nuremberg, 1946
The gates and railway lines of Auschwitz-Birkenau
after liberation by Soviet troops, January 1945. CL:BPK
With the introduction of Zyklon B at Auschwitz- Birkenau and Maidahek, death became a diabolical industry. This more efficient method rapidly spread to the other killing centers.
Located in Upper Silesia, Auschwitz-Birkenau was the largest Nazi camp combining the functions of concentration camp and killing center. Originally designed by the Nazis for Polish prisoners, the camp opened in May 1940. However, with implementation of the "Final Solution" in 1941, it became the largest center for the murder of millions of European Jews.
Birkenau housed Gypsies and women, while Monowitz, the third camp in the Auschwitz complex, held male prisoners used as slave labor for the I.G. Farben Buna works.
Selection at Birkenau. CL:Archives of the State Museum in Oswiecim
"When the Reichsfuehrer SS modified his original Extermination Order of 1941, by which all Jews without exception were to be destroyed. and ordered instead that those capable of work were to be separated from the rest and employed in the armaments industry. Auschwitz became a Jewish camp. It was a collecting place for Jews, exceeding in scale anything previously known...They knew, without exception, that they were condemned to death ,that they would live only so long as they could work." Rudolf Hoess, Autobiography Captions
"The women lived in a constant state of fear and uncertainty. They knew they had to submit to some kind of experiments invented by the SS doctors, and that when their role ends--the role of guinea pigs-- they will be sent to Birkenau, where the gas chamber would be waiting for them....I had the feeling that I was in a place which was half hell and half lunatic asylum." Dr. Dora Klein, Inmate/Nurse, Auschwitz
On the way to the gas chambers. CL:Archives of the State Museum in Oswiecim
Sadistic and brutal medical experiments were conducted at Auschwitz-Birkenau by Josef Mengele and other "physicians" like Johann Paul Kremer, Horst Schumann, Fritz Klein, and Carl Clauberg. Twins, dwarfs, pregnant women and other selected prisoners were used for gruesome "genetic" studies.
A ten-year-old female inmate after liberation; 1945. CL:Archives of the State Museum in Oswiecim
Living in filth and struggling against starvation, the people who could still work had the most likely chance for survival, a slim hope at best. An injury, often the result of the casual brutality of the guards, was synonymous with a death warrant.
At Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Nazis manufactured death with cold, industrial efficiency. Between April 1942 and November 1944, 2,000,000 Jews were gassed. In addition hundreds of thousands of non-Jews, including Poles, Soviet P.O.W.'s and Gypsies were murdered. To erase all signs of their horrific deeds, the Nazis reduced corpses to ashes in the crematoria. Operating day and night, the five Auchwitz-Birkenau gas chambers and ovens murdered and cremated as many as 9,000 individuals per day.
A women's barracks. CL:Archives of the State Museum in Oswiecim
In November 1944, the Auschwitz gas chambers were dismantled. The mass murder was to remain a secret. On January 18, 1945, those inmates capable of walking were evacuated in a "death march" which became the final struggle for thousands of Jews. When the Russians arrived only several thousand ill prisoners remained at Auschwitz. This tragic pattern--last- minute mass murder, death marches, starvation or death from exposure in overcrowded camps in the interior of the Reich--typified the last days of the Nazi terror. Despite valiant medical efforts many camp inmates died after liberation. Those who survived had to deal with both the psychological and physical legacy of their imprisonment in the camps.
Surviving children show their tattoos. January 1945. CL:Archives of the State Museum in Oswiecim
"A few days later the camp was evacuated....And then we sent out on our march....After only a few kilometers the first few collapsed. Anybody unable to get up was immediately shot. Even now, when their time was so obviously almost up. the SS took care to remove every last trace of their crimes."
Filip Mueller, Survivor
"'Freedom'-we repeated to ourselves and yet we could not grasp it. We had said this word so often during all the years we dreamed about it. that it had lost its meaning....We could not grasp the fact that freedom was ours." Victor Frankl, Survivor
The Soviet Army enters Auschwitz, January 27, 1945. CL:Archives Of the State Museum in Oswiecim
"This moment, on which all my thought and secret wishes had been concentrated for three years, evoked neither gladness nor, for that matter, any other feelings inside me. I let myself drop down...and crawled on all fours to the door." Filip Mueller, Survivor
|A woman and a child survive. CL:Archives of the State Museum in Oswiecim|
"Someone cared someone thought we were human beings worth saving." Susan Tabor, Survivor
Danish Jews on their way to safety in Sweden. In early October 1943, over 90% of Denmark's Jews were saved with the help of thousands of their countrymen. CL:Museum of Denmark's Fight for Freedom, 1940-1945, Copenhagen
Many ordinary but Courageous men and women in every country of occupied Europe showed compassion in helping Jewish victims of the Nazis. The names of such rescuers are largely unrecorded except in the memories of those they saved. Their decency often exposed them to death. Their behavior was atypical in their communities, where the majority of people were indifferent or collaborated in the persecution and murder of their Jewish neighbors.
Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat, printed Swedish passports and handed them to Hungarian Jews being transported to the East in the summer and fall of 1944. The Swedish blue and gold protective passport, Schutzpass saved the lives of tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews.
A young Danish Jew arrives in Sweden escorted by a Swedish policeman.CL:Museum of Denmark's Fight for Freedom. 1940-1945. Copenhagen
Despite overwhelming odds, more than 4,000 Jews survived in hiding in Berlin; several thousand in the Netherlands; and tens of thousands in occupied Poland, where millions were murdered. Statistics on the number of rescuers and the number of those saved are very incomplete, but more than 100,000 Jews were assisted or saved by these courageous men and women in occupied Europe. While world leaders, popes, presidents, and prime ministers remained silent on the fate of millions, these courageous individuals risked their lives to shelter the persecuted.
"In late October...Arrow-Cross gangs rounded up Jews from the ghetto houses between the ages of 14 and 65. My mother and I were taken on that first round- up...The armed guards forced us to march quickly: those who could not keep up were shot...We were herded into a brick factory...Armed Nazis walked around stepping on people, abusing them, cursing and shooting...Then suddenly, at one end of the building, we saw people in civilian clothes with a loudspeaker and flashlights-and there was Raoul Wallenberg...Can you fathom the impact of what his being there meant to us?" Susan Tabor, Survivor
"The smell of death overwhelmed us even before we passed through the stockade....More than 3,200 naked, emaciated bodies had been flung into shallow graves. Others lay in the streets where they had fallen. Lice crawled over the yellowed skin of their sharp, bony frames." Gen. Omar Bradley, U.S. Army, On remembering seeing Ohrdruf, April 12, 1945
Liberated prisoners at Ebensee, May 7, 1945. CL:U.S. Army Signal Corps
By May 1945, the war in Europe had ended. The liberators reached the camps, and the brutality of Nazi crimes was visible to the shocked Allied troops. "It was like stepping into the dark ages," said one stunned American sergeant. Only 250,000 prisoners were liberated from the camps. Tragically, twice that number died in the last months before liberation. The SS evacuated the camps almost within sight of the advancing Allies. Mercilessly, they marched their prisoners to the interior of the collapsing Reich. Those who lagged behind or fell were shot. Those who survived evacuation arrived in overcrowded camps without food, water or facilities. Those who had any strength remaining were worked to death building futile fortifications to defend the Reich. Over 400,000 died in these last days.