The Final Solution
|Hermann Goering's memo to Reinhard Heydrich mandating the Holocaust. "Endlösung der Judenfrage" in the lowest line translates as "Final solution to the Jewish question."|
The Holocaust is such a huge subject that it is impossible to do it justice in any kind of reasonable space. Every one of the six million victims and many more had a story, and each such story is as important as anyone else's. No matter what is put here, it will never be enough. For every camp that has attained, shall we say, "celebrity" or perhaps "notoriety" for lack of better words, such as Auschwitz, there is another, such as Sobibor or Maly Trostinets, where countless people also died in historical obscurity. Most of those poor souls are barely even remembered except by students of the war. However, it is important that at least some of the camps received enough focus to become household names, because they become symbols for all the others.
Let me caution: this page is not for the squeamish.
As the saying goes, never let the perfect be the enemy of the good. While this page can't do justice to such a massive enterprise, a little analysis is better than nothing. Hopefully this page will stimulate a little thought and remembrance. I get a little deeper into individual camps elsewhere, such as my discussion of Mauthausen, the most brutal concentration camp, but this article will not go into that kind of detail. Instead, it will simply serve as an overview of the machinery of death so that we have a moment to honor the victims.
|The paths of the four main Einsatzgruppen operations during Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union.|
The Holocaust did not just "happen," like dropping your phone on concrete or getting in a car accident. It was meticulously planned by the best brains in the German administration. It was not just death camps for "undesirables"; the Germans actively sent out teams to hunt down people they didn't want around and liquidate them. The SS would assemble the "undesirable" people of some little nothing village in the middle of nowhere, march them out to a nearby field, have them dig a hole, shoot them in it, then bury them there. That's a lot different than just having a jail and throwing people in it for a reason, however valid or not. The soldiers at the front would move forward, pushing the enemy back, and the Einsatzgruppen eventually would move in silently behind them.
|This is not all of the concentration camps - but it shows the main ones in Germany and Poland. The Germans held all of this territory through the end of 1944.|
It is important to remember these events. They happened. Remembrance, after all, is what we are after. As a brutal crime against humanity, the holocaust will live in infamy as long as any other crime by the Axis Powers or anything else done during the 20th Century.
|Adolf Hitler authorized and inspired the Holocaust|
The Germans rose to power by appealing to the baser instincts of certain elements of the German population. Deep resentment against successful Jews which had lingered for centuries became intertwined with red-hot anger about the loss of World War I and the peace terms imposed in the Treaty of Versailles (which, in retrospect, were not all that harsh). Hitler managed to combine those two strains of resentment to create an edifice of overwhelming hate, a feeling that "others" were trying to ruin Germany. That the Jews really had nothing to do with the outcome of World War I or the terms of the subsequent peace was irrelevant to Hitler. He just manipulated the fierce emotions toward both targets and managed to fuse them to ignite fanatical devotion in his followers.
Discrimination against and murder of Jews had been building for years in Germany when Hermann Goering set forth in a July 1941 memo that there be implemented a "final solution" of the "Jewish question." The order was to his principal deputy, Reinhard Heydrich, who was a back-office type who got things done. The memo is reproduced at the top of this article. This instruction led in due course to Heydrich chairing the so-called Wannsee Conference (named after the Berlin suburb where it was held) in January 1942.
|A picture from an Einsatzgruppen soldier’s personal album, labelled on the back as “Last Jew of Vinnitsa.” A member of Einsatzgruppe D is about to shoot a Jewish man kneeling before a filled mass grave in Vinnitsa, Ukraine, in 1941.|
The Wannsee Conference was a major link in the chain of the Holocaust, but systematic extermination of Jews was already underway with the Einsatzgruppen (German for "task forces", "deployment groups," singular Einsatzgruppe; official full name Einsatzgruppen der Sicherheitspolizei und des SD). The Wannsee Conference just began the systematization of the killings, making them more efficient, quicker, and easier for the authorities. This, in turn, enabled the paramilitary Schutzstaffel (SS), who ran the process, to kill more and more people with less and less effort.
|Hermann Goering ordered the Holocaust|
There's no point going over the numbers of this or that. The number 6 million was invented, and it works, but the actual figure was likely much higher. It wasn't just Jews, but it was primarily Jews, so we use "Jews" in an inclusive sense to represent all victims.
|Heinrich Himmler inspected the camps personally - the only top government official who did - to make sure it was being done right.|
This is a pictorial history, and the numbers are cold and lifeless and stupid on their own because they insensible, too large to grasp. There was an awful lot of people who perished, more than in your town or city or county.
Imagine everyone you ever knew or even saw being slaughtered, and that would barely scratch the surface. Lots of victims, too many for you to ever appreciate any more than you can appreciate the number of grains of sand on a beach.
|Reinhard Heydrich organized the Holocaust. Part of it ultimately was named after him internally as a sort of testimonial, "Operation Reinhard" (German: Aktion Reinhard).|
Entire libraries have been written on this topic. We are not trying to re-write them. We are trying to present something manageable. Rather than just inundate this page with repetitive pictures - because there are endless pictures of dead and dying people, of killers and sadists, of heroes and villains - we'll just try to give a few representative pictures on each salient point and let them serve as an appropriate marker.
Prologue: Boycott and Ostracization - "Jews Are Our Misfortune"
The Holocaust per se did not begin until the Wannsee conference in January 1942. However, there was absolutely no question where things were headed from the very beginning after the Germans took over. They worked assiduously to separate and dehumanize and destroy the image of Jews from the very start.
The process was not in the slightest bit subtle.
|A billboard in France advertising an exhibition about Jews.|
Some would say the Holocaust actually began earlier than the 1942 Wannsee Conference, and it is difficult to disagree. That was a major turning point, so it always needs to be highlighted. But skipping over the earlier steps that got the government - and public - to the Wannsee Conference would be a major downplaying of the vicious route that German society took along the way.
|An anti-Semitic photomontage entitled, "The Scourge of God, Polish Jews." It was used as a title page for a brochure issued by Der Stürmer. This image was presented as evidence at the Nuremberg trials.|
The dehumanization of the Jews took many forms: books, film, billboards, even parades.
Kristallnacht (Crystal night) was a pogrom (a series of coordinated attacks) against Jews throughout Germany and Austria on 9–10 November 1938.
It was carried out by SA paramilitary forces, the SS, the Gestapo and non-Jewish civilians. It earned the name because of the huge amount of storefront plate glass broken - very expensive glass that was a Belgian monopoly.
|SA men singing to encourage a boycott of F.W. Woolworth, 1933.|
Hermann Goering, administrator of the Four-Year Plan, was furious - he was going to have to come up with an awful lot of hard currency to replace all that broken plate glass.
Some would say the Holocaust began on Kristallnacht. Any particular date is arbitrary and subject to dispute, 1933 is a good date as well.
Kristallnacht was a disaster on multiple levels for the Jews. Ostensibly a retaliation against the Jewish community as a whole for the murder of a German diplomat by a Jew, Kristallnacht in fact was Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels' idea derived from his own personal motivations and using the murder entirely as a pretext.
|Germany. Burning Synagogue in Bielefeld during Kristallnacht, 10/11/1938|
Goebbels wanted to look good to the Fuhrer because of his own scandalous infidelities (his wife reportedly was cheating on him, too), so he set up the pogrom with the SS and the Gestapo as a kind of bravura act. That's how these folks thought, the ruination of millions of people was nothing if it improved their own position in Hitler's court. Reinhard Heydrich, the Gestapo chief, as usual was the sinister go-to man when this sort of dirty work was required. A reported 35 people died that night, as did the German soul.
|Kristallnacht - cleaning up the next morning.|
Ultimately, Kristallnacht backfired on Germany on many levels. The Jewish shopkeepers generally rented their stores and sold on consignment, with non-Jews the ones left holding the financial bag from all the destruction. Everything was insured, so the loss fell on the German insurance industry - also owned largely by non-Jews. Goering stepped in and, to avoid the financial hit to the economy, passed laws fining the entire Jewish community for the diplomat's murder and outlawing them from the economy. It was a crude and huge step down in the spiral toward the Holocaust.
|Etty Hillesum was a Dutch Jewish woman who wrote about beauty and meaning and forgiveness. She died in a concentration camp in 1943.|
1. Herding the Victims
In a sense, this is the most horrifying aspect of the Holocaust. The Germans and their helpers and enablers went out and rounded people up, as though the victims were little nothings. It was no different than an animal control officer rounding up feral cats or stray dogs. The profound hatred displayed is stupefying.
|A Jewish woman being chased to her doom by children beating sticks|
|Jews being rounded up in the Warsaw Ghetto|
|A random street sweep of Jews, Warsaw 1941|
|Measuring the victims to identify the Jews|
2. Child Victims
Age was no barrier to execution. Anyone could be killed for any reason or no reason. If there was a system, it devolved to killing the oldest and the youngest first, because they would be less useful in the factories and the quarries.
|A 14 year old Auschwitz victim, Czestawa Kowka, in 1942 or 1943|
|Children awaiting their fate|
At some point, the incoming people went before a man sitting at a desk, usually with uniformed SS and perhaps Dobermans behind him. He looked directly into the inmate's eyes - a cold, lifeless stare devoid of humanity or emotion - and then nodded either right or left. One direction led to the barracks. The other direction led to the gas chambers, disguised as showers.
|Jews await selection - life or death, though they don't know it - at Auschwitz Birkenau|
Part of the sadistic glee with which the captors exercised their power was derived from the humiliation they could inflict on people they identified with various past humiliations against themselves or people they knew. Foreign occupation of the Rhineland under the Treaty of Versailles? A global Jewish stab-in-the-back plot to rob good Aryans of their dignity. Perhaps they lost their savings or home in the hyper-inflation of the 1920s - blame the Jewish bankers. Or, maybe their family business went under or their stocks tanked during the recent Great Depression - those darned Jews who control finance. Lost their job, lost a court case before a Jewish judge, saw a Jewish child do better at school than theirs, saw them dress differently, observed them buy more stylish clothes or not eat what they ate - there is an unlimited supply of fuel for hatred if you want to blame others who are different for your own misfortune.
You hear the same kinds of things today about the bankers and the media and Hollywood. In truth, the German Jews had been disliked and disparaged by the majority non-Jews since the Middle Ages. It was no great leap for Hitler to channel the underlying public hatred that he himself felt and focus it, increasing the intensity like a laser beam. There was no equivalency between what Jews ever did to the Germans and what they did to the Jews under their control, of course, except in the twisted minds of the low-life sadists given unlimited power over others. Public displays of pointless humiliation reveal what was really at work.
|Rabbi Moshe Hegerman being abused by amused guards, Olkusz, Poland, July 31, 1940. Shoes have been removed, now he's undressing. Note the line of dead beside him, he's being readied to take his place, but not in his fancy clothes.|
|Klooga, Estonia: cutting of the beard and sidelocks of Jews in captured territory. The quality of some of the most telling photos is poor, they were often found by chance on the persons of dead Germans, kept as mementos.|
|Women shorn of their hair prior to execution. Human hair has a variety of uses. They wouldn't need theirs any longer.|
Starvation was the norm. Very, very few concentration camp inmates got sufficient food. During the last days of the war, rations became especially rare and inmates either died of starvation outright or perished from diseases that ravaged impaired immune systems. Many of the pictures of skeleton-like inmates were taken right after the liberation, following a period when rations were especially scarce. Many survivors died of their treatment well after the liberation, nothing could be done to return them to health and sometimes even the return to normalcy happened too quickly for their systems to handle.
Russian prisoners of war were treated horribly right from the start because the Soviet Union was not a signatory to the Geneva Convention, which provided for humane treatment of prisoners. So many millions of Soviet prisoners died from maltreatment that it is not out-of-line to consider them part of the Holocaust, though technically they are not included. Naturally, they were not given much food. The commandant of Stalag 318, Colonel Falkenberg, noted on September 11, 1941:
These cursed Untermenschen [sub-humans] have been observed eating grass, flowers and raw potatoes. Once they can’t find anything edible in the camp they turn to cannibalism.Hermann Goering saw or heard of this report, found it insanely amusing, and liked to repeat it at dinner parties with certain embellishments - he said something along the lines of, "The poor devils are so hungry they eat anything, including grass, but more seriously, they have eaten a German sentry!"
Children were not exempt from starvation, they were in the same area as everyone else.
|This is an 18-year-old Russian girl|
The Jews, like anyone else, had many useful pieces of property. Part of the death camp process was removing anything useful from them either before their death, or while gathering up and disposing of the remains. Some victims would be marked on the face before they entered the gas chambers ("showers") to indicate if they had gold teeth. That made extraction afterwards easier.
|Majdanek Holocaust Shoes|
Expropriation went far, far beyond simply taking whatever was on their person. It also involved dissolving and taking over their businesses, stealing their valuables such as money, stock and art, and taking over their land and homes. However, taking what was on their person - their artificial limbs, their gold teeth, their eyeglasses - was the crudest and most devastating part of the process, and often to little purpose. There are rooms-full at some of the former concentration camps of what was taken off the prisoners' persons, such as eyeglasses and suitcases.
|Artificial limbs of dead holocaust victims|
Many of the valuable items such as painting appropriated from Jewish victims were never found after the war and remain in private hands, handed down in some fashion from the people who stole them originally. Caches of them are found regularly and restitution of some sort made either to the victims themselves or to the families of the deceased.
7. Working. Them. To. Death.
There are so many good quotes about how the Germans saw the Jews as helping the Third Reich against their will, it is difficult to pick out the best ones. Let's let Heinrich Himmler (Posen speech) speak for them. Himmler is speaking in terms of nationalities, but everyone knew what he really meant when he spoke about 'our own blood':
That just about sums up the entire Hitler philosophy. It also happens to be a key reason why they lost the war, but I get into that elsewhere.
So, in essence, it was a matter of supreme indifference what happened to the Jews, as long as German production goals were met. However, those goals could only be met by working the Jews, and killing them. The labor could involve anything from forced carrying of rocks up hills to no purpose, until everyone carrying them was dead, or relatively gentle work in subterranean missile factories.
|Women's Slave Labor at Ravensbruck Concentration Camp|
|Women prisoners at work in the shoe repair workshop of Ravensbruck. Holocaust Research Project. These were the lucky ones.|
|Roller to level ground at Ravensbrück Death Camp. There's no engine, none was needed: slave labor was forced to pull it.|
Disposal was the fundamental constraint upon extermination. Early in the process, the SS didn't know what to do with all the bodies. You could only dig so many mass graves - that was hard work! The institution of ovens made the whole thing a lot easier.
|The result of one day of killing in Buchenwald, April 25, 1945. The ovens were fired up right to the end.|
|Soviet soldiers inspecting a pile of human ashes, Majdanek, 1944.|
|Holocaust oven. Dead body. The silver lining? You're looking at the last one.|
|Former inmates demonstrate how corpses were brought to the ovens|
|Rare photo of a burning oven being tended, still full of burning dead people|
9. Special Execution Squads
As mentioned earlier, Einsatzgruppen were sent out to track down whoever the Party bosses wanted eliminated: Jews, Poles, Gypsies, whoever it was. These SS death squads generally worked alone, without the help of regular army units (though sometimes, despite the denials of many, the regular army did help - it depended upon the local commander). They were "special" detachments sent into occupied territories to cleanse the newly recovered territories of undesirables.
While the Einsatzgruppen are a truly horrible concept, the amount of people they could kill was small compared to later, in the camps, when things were systematized and operated with assembly-line precision. But this killing was up close and personal.
A typical Einsatzgruppe would cover a territory, within which it would visit the towns. The Jews of a town would be identified, rounded up and brought out into a field. There, they typically would be given shovels and told to dig a huge hole. Sometimes, the hole was already dug, or it was simply a ravine that could be filled in. Then... well, the pictures show what happened then.
|Not sure if this is from the same incident as the photo above, but it looks like it is. The deed is done. Einsatzgruppe officer now are finishing off some victims with head shots|
|In mid-December, 1941, the edge of the ditch is the killing site on Skede beach, near Liepaja, Latvia. Once shot in the back of the head, the victims fall into the mass grave.|
|Polish Jews - kept alive longer than the others so they could do a little more work - literally digging their own graves|
The war came to a close, and the camps were liberated. Those inmates who survived often were given a chance to exact vengeance on their tormenters. It was hardly equivalent to what had been dispensed by the guards, but it was something.
|Generals Eisenhower and Patton insisted on photographing, filming and documenting everything, showing exceptional foresight to forestall later attempts to deny what had occurred. They brought villagers to the camps on sightseeing tours.|
The first step was to eliminate the conceit that the locals "knew nothing," as Sergeant Schultz from "Hogan's Heroes" would say. The villagers who lived basically just down the street from the camps were brought in and shown what had been going on - as if they hadn't known all along. General Dwight D. Eisenhower thought this would be instructive, and it was one of the smarter things that he ever did. It was very difficult later to deny the facts when you saw them up close and personal and, more impressively, smelled them.
But the retribution did not stop there. Oh, no. People took out their feelings in a quite personal fashion.
|Russian slave laborer among prisoners liberated by 3rd Armored Division points out former guard who brutally beat prisoners. Germany, April 14, 1945, possibly Mittelbau-Dora Concentration Camp, Nordhausen, Germany.|
Some concentration camp officers just disappeared upon liberation - the Americans may have just given them over to the inmates, then put the bodies in with the victims and never notified anyone of anything.
|A freed Jewish prisoner expresses his rage and beats down a German guard at the liberated Dachau Concentration Camp. An American soldier looks on and does not interfere. Germany, 1945|
That was almost certainly the case now and then. But that's just supposition, nobody kept records of any such occurrences.
|When American troops liberated prisoners in the Dachau concentration camp, Germany, in 1945, many German SS guards were killed by the prisoners who then threw their bodies into the moat surrounding the camp.|
There were many female concentration camp guards, presumably to tend to the female prisoners (but not always). They were not given leniency. Anyone who assumes that women are automatically kinder and more compassionate than men when in position of ultimate power should look up Ilse Koch and Jenny Wanda Barkmann and think about it.
|SS Guard at Buchenwald, April 1945|
Usually, there weren't any trials. The guard was taken to a wall, stood up, and shot without any formality. Or, perhaps the GIs let the released inmates do whatever they liked to them, in which case the guards would probably wish they had been shot outright. The guards' families were left to wonder what happened to them, just as with all the people taken away without notice under Nacht und Nebel, some of whose bones the now-dead camp guards joined.
|These are Buchenwald concentration camp guards who received a beating from the prisoners when the camp was liberated by the Americans. The picture was taken in April 1945, by the U.S. military photographer Elizabeth Miller.|
|Unknown Buchenwald concentration camp guard, beaten and hanged by the prisoners upon liberation of camp. The picture was taken by the American military photographer Elizabeth Miller.|
|Ilse Koch, witch of Buchenwald|
|Death camp guard Jenny Barkmann|
|Prison camp guards executed at Dachau by US GIs|
|Executed German soldiers and camp guards at Dachau|
Some Jews escaped before the Holocaust in the 1930s, some escaped after. Nobody really wanted to stick around, one way or the other. Very few escaped from concentration camps themselves, though it happened now and then. That's one reason the camps were such a surprise to the Allies upon the invasion of Germany.
|Jewish refugees aboard the St Louis, 1939. Some refugees made it - and some ships were turned back. It's not as if the whole world was anxiously awaiting shiploads of Jewish immigrants.|
|Jewish survivors of Buchenwald arrive in Haifa, 1945. An extremely uncertain future awaits, but they sure weren't staying in Germany.|
The Allies had plenty of information about the death camps well before their liberation from several different sources. They even intentionally placed at least one agent inside of a camp, who escaped and gave a full report. However, the grunts in the field certainly did not know what to expect, and they rightly were horrified by what they found.
The Germans were still fighting, and there were still (incredibly) guards at the camps who did not have the good sense to scram as the Allies approached. Those who remained until the camp was captured lived to regret it - though often not much longer than that.
Russian women and children recently liberated from a concentration camp lay flowers at the bodies of four dead American soldiers. Eyewitnesses reported the Americans were murdered by German officers after they had surrendered in Hilden, Germany (1945).
|Liberators pushing liberated concentration camp inmates on swings. Outwardly, life returned to normal, but for many, the emotional scars never left.|
|Bergen Belsen, Germany, Survivors and liberators watching the camp burning, after liberation, May 1945. British soldiers hung a photograph of Hitler on barrack 44 before setting it on fire. He was already dead, and they were alive. A small victory.|
13. Dead Bodies
It may seem redundant - dead bodies at an extermination camp - but in fact the camps were kept very neat and tidy until the very end. Himmler would inspect them personally, and they had darn well be in order or, you know, he might get upset or something.
|Mauthausen, Austria. An American soldier looking at corpses of children in a mass grave, after the liberation.|
Liberation or no liberation, the dead bodies remained. The camps were full of dead bodies when the Americans and Russian arrived, which actually was not the normal state of affairs at the camps. The Germans had organized the system so that dead bodies were quickly burned or buried. However, epidemics broke out in the closing days, and food ran out or wasn't dispensed to incarcerated inmates, causing sudden mass starvation to already deprived prisoners. The German defendants at Nuremberg attempted to use that as some kind of justification for the deaths, but that argument went nowhere.
Plus, the Germans killed as many inmates as they could right before liberation, and they couldn't all be disposed of in time. Thus, there was an unusually large disposal problem upon liberation, which the liberators happily had the former German concentration camp guards help with before prosecuting or simply hanging them outright.
|Dead bodies in Dachau|
|The Americans were a day too late to save this lot. Funeral services being held after the liberation.|
|A British Army chaplain holds a service over a massed grave before it is filled in at Bergen-Belsen|
14. A Day at the MoviesGeneral George Patton was in charge of the US Third Army that liberated many of the concentration camps in Southern Germany. He had this to say about the Holocaust, with remarkable foresight:
"Document everything, leave nothing to chance... because one day, some cockroach will crawl up out of the latrine and deny all this ever happened, Damn Them." - Gen. George Patton, spoken during visit to Buchenwald.The documentation that the General spoke of came in handy very quickly, at the Nuremberg trials held during the late 1940s. However, it has had continuing usefulness down through the years, both as a way to remember what occurred, and as an educational tool for those who, well, needed an education.
German soldiers, in an American prison, forced to watch a film of German concentration camp. The same films helped convict the German leaders at the Nuremberg trials. These fellows were lucky; the Soviets would not have bothered to show them the films. Instead, they would simply have mistreated them until 95% were dead, with the rest released with no job, no home and no future.
|Allied authorities required local farmers to drive their loaded carts through the town of Dachau. Residents were required to watch.|
|Picture of the funeral for inmates of Auschwitz who could not be saved or were killed by the SS as the liberating Soviet army approached.|