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The “Final Solution”
The Nazis, under cover of the war, developed the technology, bureaucracy, and psychology of hate to efficiently murder millions of Jews. The details of the “Final Solution” were worked out at the Wannsee Conference. All Jews in Germany and the occupied countries were deported to sealed ghettos as a holding area. Many were then shipped in cattle cars to labor camps where they lived under brutally inhuman conditions. Hundreds of thousands were sent directly to the gas chambers in death camps. As the Allies advanced on the camps, death marches further depleted the ranks of potential camp survivors.
Students will learn that:
1. An entire state bureaucracy was mobilized solely for the purpose of annihilating Jews.
2. German technological expertise was harnessed to make the mass murder as efficient and low-cost as possible.
3. Special camps were created solely for the purpose of killing Jews and other “undesirables.”
4. The conditions in these death camps and other concentration camps were brutal, and designed purposely to make survival only temporary.
On October 23, 1941, S.S. head Heinrich Himmler issued an order down the Nazi chain of command which heralded a major change in Nazi policy with respect to the “Jewish problem.” Until then, the Nazis worked vigorously to encourage Jews to emigrate. The Madagascar Plan (see below) was one example of strategies which were formulated to remove Jews from Germany and its occupied lands. As is described in more detail in Chapter 11, many countries refused to accept Jewish refugees. This shift in policy resulted in the deportation of Jews to camps and ghettos in the East. The policy to “resettle” Jews to these ghettos and camps was a significant step in what was to become the “Final Solution” the systematic murder of millions of Jews.
Before the “Final Solution” was devised to murder all Jews in Nazi jurisdiction, the scheme the Nazis planned to rid their land of the Jews was forced emigration. In 1940, plans were devised by the Nazis to ship all Jews under Nazi control to Madagascar, an island in the Indian Ocean. It was not until 1941 that Nazi bureaucrats were referring to the “Final Solution” (Gesamtlosung) in the context of genocide rather than a “Territorial Final Solution” (territoriale Endlosung) in the context of forced emigration. Some historians believe that the Madagascar Plan was a smokescreen for Hitler’s desire to murder European Jewry (see page 62 of Marrus’ The Holocaust in History).
In response to this new “resettlement” policy, the first death camps were designed. Chelmno was the site of the first gassing of Jews, which occurred on December 8, 1941. The Nazi war machine had limited resources, including slave labor, much of it Jewish. Even so, the Nazis made a decision that the annihilation of the Jews of Europe was a more important achievement than the value of their labor. Similarly, the Nazis made a decision not to let the need for transport for the war effort interfere with the need for trucks and rail cars to carry the Jews to concentration camps and death centers. It was Adolf Eichmann who masterminded the logistics of the deportation of Jews. (1)
Deportation was the first step in the “Final Solution.” Typically, the Jews were informed that they were going to be resettled for work. Each was told to take some clothing, blankets, shoes, eating utensils (but no knife), a bowl, and some money. Rounded up, they were herded into trucks for the trip to the rail station, or were forced to walk. The rail cars were often strategically located at a distance from the passenger terminals, so that this scene would not arouse the ire of the local populace. Many who did see chose not to protest.
The deportees were forced into rail cars, most of which were windowless, unheated cattle cars, and squeezed in so tightly that most were forced to stand. The doors were then sealed shut from the outside. Neither drinking water nor sanitary facilities were available. Each car held more than 120 people, and many froze or suffocated to death or succumbed to disease during the trip to the camps. The dead were not removed from the cars during the journey because the Nazi bureaucracy insisted that each body entering a car be accounted for at the destination.
(1) Adolph Eichmann
Transporting enough Jews to feed the death camps was a major logistical undertaking. The Nazi officer in charge of this duty was Adolph Eichmann, who traveled from country to country that was under German occupation to systematically plan the deportation of the local Jewish population to the death camps.
Eichmann received various levels of cooperation from each of the various occupied governments. But in countries such as Holland, Belgium, Albania, Denmark, Finland and Bulgaria, some Jews were saved from their deaths by the action of the sympathetic populace and government officials. Denmark’s government and populace were exemplary in their heroism in saving Jews. In other countries such as Poland, Greece, France, and Yugoslavia, the deportation of Jews to the death camps was facilitated by the cooperation of the government.
Ghettoization (December 1939 to March 1942)
Although the Nazis were successful in isolating Jews socially and economically, the actual physical isolation of the Eastern European population did not begin until December 1939. Jews had known the ghetto since the Middle Ages, although Jews were then permitted to leave the ghetto during the day and participate in the business of the general community. The purpose of the Nazi ghetto, however, was to create a total confinement for the Jewish population, turning entire neighborhoods into a prison unlike the ghettos of centuries past.
The Nazis hoped that the wretched ghetto conditions would deplete the Jewish population quickly and naturally through starvation, disease and cold. The ghetto also served as the holding area for eventual transport to the death camps for those who were able to survive.
Ghetto inhabitants in many areas were forced to become slaves for German industry. Factories were built alongside or within ghetto walls so that industries could take advantage of this free labor. The administration of Jewish life was the responsibility of the Jewish Councils, the Judenröte (see Chapter 11).
Life in the ghetto was abominable, and thousands died. There was no medicine. The food ration allowed was a quarter of that available for the Germans, barely enough to allow survival. The water supply was contaminated in many ghettos. Epidemics of tuberculosis, typhoid, and lice were common. Bodies of new victims piled up in the streets faster than they could be carted away. In the Warsaw ghetto, more than 70,000 died of exposure, disease, and starvation during the first two winters. Almost all of those who survived the Warsaw ghetto were either killed when the ghetto was razed in 1943 or died in the death camps.
The Theresienstadt ghetto was established by the Nazis in an 18th century fortress in Czechoslovakia on November 24, 1941. More than 150,000 Jews passed through the ghetto during its four-year existence, which was used as a holding area for eventual murder in Auschwitz. By 1943, rumors began circulating in the international community that the Nazis were exterminating Jews in gas chambers, and that the conditions of the ghettos did not permit survival. The Nazis rebuilt parts of this ghetto to serve as a “showpiece” for propaganda purposes. Flower gardens were planted in the ghetto. Shops, schools, and a cafe were built. When an investigating commission of the International Red Cross came to visit, they did not see a typical ghetto. In July 1944 the Nazis made a documentary propaganda film about life in this ghetto. After the movie was completed, most of the Jewish “actors” were shipped to their death at Auschwitz.
At the Wannsee Conference on January 20, 1942 in Wannsee, a Berlin suburb, the details of the “Final Solution” were worked out. The meeting was convened by Reinhard Heydrich, who was the head of the S.S. main office and S.S. Chief Heinrich Himmler’s top aide. The purpose of the meeting was to coordinate the Nazi bureaucracy required to carry out the “Final Solution,” which provided for:
- Deportation of Jews to killing centers.
- Immediate death for those who were unable to work or the very young, the old, and the weak.
- Segregation by gender of the remaining Jews.
- Decimation through forced labor with insufficient nourishment.
- Eventual death for the remnant.
The Nazi concentration camps were established beginning in 1933 for the purpose of imprisoning political opponents. After the “Night of the Long Knives” (see Chapter 8, page 65), authority and management of the concentration camps was turned over to the S.S. The S.S. expanded the concentration camp system, and used these facilities to warehouse other “undesirables,” including hundreds of thousands of Jews. Dachau, Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen were among the first concentration camps built by the Nazis near Munich, Weimar, and Berlin respectively.
Upon arrival at a camp, the inmates were usually stripped of all their valuables and clothes. They were then shorn of body hair, disinfected, given a shower, and issued a striped prison uniform without regard to size. Each step of the process was designed to dehumanize the prisoners, both physically and emotionally. Each prisoner was given a number. At Auschwitz, for example, the number was tattooed on the arm, but some camps did not tattoo their inmates.
Life in the camps was a living hell. As described by Judah Pilch in “Years of the Holocaust: The Factual Story,” which appears in The Jewish Catastrophe in Europe, a typical day in the life of a concentration camp inmate began at dawn, when they were roused from their barracks which housed 300-800 inmates each. Their “beds” were bunks of slatted wood two and three tiers high. Frequently three to four prisoners shared each bunk, not permitting space enough for them to stretch out for normal sleep. The inmates were organized into groups to go to the toilets, marched to a distribution center for a breakfast consisting of some bread and a liquid substitute for tea or coffee, and then sent out to work for 10-14 hours in mines, factories, and road or airfield building, often in sub-zero weather or the severe heat of summer. They were subjected to constant physical and emotional harassment and beating. The inmates’ food rations did not permit survival for very long. Those who resisted orders of the guards were shot on the spot. Numerous roll calls were held to assure that no prisoners had escaped. If one did attempt an escape, all of the inmates suffered for it.
The German skill in adapting the 20th century techniques of mass production was applied in engineering the “Final Solution.” In 1941, the engineers of the “Final Solution” utilized these same principles to cheaply and efficiently murder millions of Jews and other “undesirables.” The plants established to carry out this mass murder were the death camps.
Unlike concentration camps, death camps had no barracks to house prisoners, other than those for workers at the camps. In order to process the murder of thousands of people, great pains were taken to deceive the victims concerning their fate. Jews deported from ghettos and concentration camps to the death camps were unaware of what they were facing. The Nazi planners of the operation told the victims that they were being resettled for labor, issued them work permits, told them to bring along their tools and to exchange their German marks for foreign currency. Food was also used to coax starving Jews onto the trains. Once the trains arrived at the death camps, trucks were available to transport those who were too weak to walk directly to the gas chambers. The others were told that they would have to be deloused and enter the baths. The victims were separated by sex and told to remove their clothes. The baths were in reality the gas chambers. The shower heads in the baths were actually the inlets for poison gas. At Auschwitz, the gas chambers held 2,000 people at a time. With the introduction of a cyanide-based gas called Zyklon B, all 2,000 occupants could be killed in five minutes. As a result of this technological “advancement,” Auschwitz was able to “process” the death of 12,000 victims daily. Before the bodies were removed by workers with gas masks and burned in crematoria, the teeth of the victims were stripped for gold, which was melted down and shipped back to Germany. Innocent victims were exploited and desecrated to a degree unknown in human history.
Unlike the death camps of Treblinka, Chelmno, Sobibor, and Belzec, which were built and operated solely to kill Jews, the two death camps of Maidanek and Auschwitz also had a work camp attached. Upon arrival at these two camps, a selection was made at the train station concerning which Jews (about 10 percent of the arrivals) would be permitted to live and escape immediate gassing in the gas chambers. These “lucky” survivors were permitted to live only to the extent that they endured the physical and emotional trauma inflicted upon them. They were given a food ration that permitted them to survive for only three months. As they died from exhaustion, beatings, and starvation, they were replaced with newly arrived victims. Auschwitz was also used as the site for medical experimentation. Many of these experiments had little scientific value but were only exercises to discover how much torture a victim could endure until death. By the end of 1944, an estimated two-and-a-half million Jews had died at Auschwitz. More than a quarter of a million Gypsies also died there.
Einsatzgruppen or “Special Action Squads”
Specially trained units of the S.S. followed the first wave of German army troops in the invasion of the Soviet Union (June 1941). Their orders were to execute on the spot all Communists, Jews, and Gypsies.
It is estimated that by the end of 1942, they had killed more than a million Soviet Jews. These victims were shot or loaded into enclosed trucks modified for the introduction of carbon monoxide to asphyxiate its victims. An additional 400,000 were killed by other S.S. units, anti-Semitic native civilians, police units, and the German army.
The Jews of Kiev were rounded up by the Einsatzgruppen for “resettlement” in late September 1941. Thousands of Jews were brought to a ravine on the outskirts of Kiev and mowed down by machine guns. Many who were not wounded, including thousands of children, were thrown into the pit of bodies and were buried alive. According to an account in The Holocaust by Martin Gilbert, Ukrainian militia men joined in the slaughter. The records of the Einsatzgruppen unit which participated in the executions recorded 33,771 Jews killed at Babi Yar on September 29-30. In all, more than 100,000 persons, most of them Jews, were executed at Babi Yar between 1941-1943 by the Nazis. In the summer of 1943, the bodies were dug out by slave labor and burned to hide the evidence of the slaughter.
Nazi Murder of Non-Jews
While the focus of Nazi genocide was unquestionably targeted toward Jews, the Third Reich’s policy of mass murder was not restricted to Jews but devastated the ranks of other non-Aryans.
Michael R. Marrus, in his book, The Holocaust in History, writes about the targets of Nazi murder:
“The Nazis murdered between five million and six million Jews during the Holocaust, two-thirds of European Jewry and about one-third of the entire Jewish people. But a staggering 55 million may have perished in all theaters during the Second World War including some 20 million Soviet citizens…five million Germans, and three million non-Jewish Poles…In all, some 18 million European civilians may have died as a result of famine, disease, persecution, and more conventional acts of war.
“Awesome as they are, therefore, numbers do not in themselves prescribe the singularity of the Holocaust. But they provide a clue. For the proportion of European Jews killed during the Second World War, with roughly one of every three civilian deaths in Europe being that of a Jew, was undoubtedly greater than that of any other people, because of the Nazis’ policy toward them. Unlike the case with any other group, and unlike the massacres before or since, every single one of the millions of targeted Jews was to be murdered. Eradication was to be total. In principle, no Jew was to escape. In this important respect, the Nazis’ assault upon Jewry differed from the campaigns against other peoples and groups; Gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, Poles, Ukrainians, and so on. Assaults on these people could indeed be murderous; their victims number in the millions, and their ashes mingle with those of the Jews of Auschwitz and many other camps across Europe. But Nazi ideology did not require their total disappearance. In this respect, the fate of the Jews was unique.”
Approximately a half million Gypsies (a dark-skinned, Caucasian ethnic group targeted by the Nazis) were murdered out of approximately 1.6 million who were living in Europe. The Gypsies in Germany and the occupied territories of the German War machine were subjected to many of the same persecutions as the Jews: restrictive, discriminatory laws, isolation and internment, and mass executions at their camp sites, in labor camps and death camps.
Of the six million Poles murdered by the Nazis, half were Polish Christians. The Nazis considered the Poles and other Slavic peoples to be sub-human destined to serve as slaves to the Aryan “master race.” The Polish intelligentsia and political leadership was sought out specifically for execution, and other Polish civilians were slaughtered indiscriminately. Among the dead were more than 2,600 Catholic priests.
Almost four million Ukrainians fell victim to Nazi slaughter, through combat, starvation, and terror, particularly as a result of the efficient Einsatzgruppen. Of these, 900,000 were Jews, according to Bohdan Wytwychky’s The Other Holocaust: Many Circles of Hell.
Other Victims of Nazi Genocide
The Germans rounded up thousands of Jehovah’s Witnesses and homosexuals and sent them to the death camps for extermination. Homosexuals were forced to wear pink triangles on their clothing paralleling the yellow Star of David for Jews.
By the beginning of 1945, the Soviet troops were advancing through Poland. The retreating Germans forced all remaining Auschwitz prisoners to march toward Germany under indescribably cruel conditions. Approximately 20,000 of 58,000 prisoners died en route, from exhaustion, starvation, cold, beatings, and executions by guards.
In his bunker, in the Chancellory building in Berlin, knowing that the war was lost and that the “1,000 Year Reich” had lasted only a few years, Hitler committed suicide hours after marrying Eva Braun. Germany formally surrendered to the Allies on May 7, 1945. By the end of the war, more than 55 million had died and 35 million wounded. Only 17 million of the dead were soldiers.
Historical Events Listing
April 9, 1940 – Germany invaded and occupied Denmark.
April 27, 1940 – Himmler ordered the establishment of a concentration camp at Auschwitz.
April 30, 1940 – The ghetto at Lodz, Poland, was sealed off.
June 4, 1940 – Germany invaded Holland, Belgium, and France.
June 29, 1940 – Marshal Petain surrenders France to the Germans.
September 27, 1940 – The Berlin-Rome-Tokyo Axis was established.
September 27, 1940 – The Warsaw Ghetto was sealed off, making thousands of Jews inside virtual prisoners under house arrest.
June 22, 1941 – Germany invaded Greece and Yugoslavia.
June 22, 1941 – The Germans attacked and declared war on the Soviet Union.
July 8, 1941 – Wearing of the Jewish Star was decreed in the German-occupied Baltic states.
July 31, 1941 – S.S. Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich was appointed by Goering to carry out the “Final Solution”, the murder of all the Jews in Europe.
September 1, 1941 – Wearing of the Jewish “Star of David” was decreed throughout the Greater Reich.
October 1, 1941 – All Jewish emigration was halted.
October 14, 1941 – Mass deportation to concentration camps of Jews from all over Nazi-controlled Europe began.
December 8, 1941 – 27,000 were massacred in Riga.
October 23, 1941 – 34,000 were massacred in Odessa.
October 28, 1941 – 34,000 were massacred in Kiev.
November 6, 1941 – 15,000 were massacred in Rovno.
December 7, 1941 – The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. The United States entered the war.
December 8, 1941 – Chelmno death camp on the Ner River in Poland opened and the first gassing took place.
December 11, 1941 – Germany declared war on the United States.
October 17, 1942 – The Allied Nations pledged to punish the Germans for their policy of genocide.
Winter of 1943 – The tattered and frozen German army on the Eastern front surrendered to the Soviets at Stalingrad.
April 1943 – The Bermuda Conference on Refugees was convened. The agenda was to discuss action by the Allies to rescue refugees in Europe under Nazi control. No formal action was agreed to.
October 7, 1943 – Hitler ordered that all Jews of Denmark be deported to the death camps in Poland. Almost 95% of Danish Jews were whisked to Sweden, escaping the S.S.
March 18, 1944 – The Germans invaded and occupied Hungary. Deportations of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz followed under the direction of Adolf Eichmann. Mostly all of the half-million Hungarian Jews were sent to the gas chambers.
June 1, 1944 – D-Day. The Allies invaded France at Normandy.
Auschwitz – The most infamous and largest of the Nazi death camps, located near Cracow in Southwestern Poland.
Babi Yar – An area in the Soviet Union near Kiev, where thousands of civilians, most of whom were Jews, were murdered by the Nazis.
crematorium – An oven where the bodies of newly murdered prisoners of camps, and those who died from other causes, were incinerated.
death camps – Centers established in mostly rural areas designed specifically for mass murder. Six death camps (Auschwitz, Treblinka, Sobibor, Maidanek, Chelmno and Belzec) were established solely for the extermination of European Jewry.
death marches – Forced marches under brutal conditions required of death camp and concentration camp inmates by the Nazis to avoid liberation by advancing Allied forces.
Einsatzgruppen – “Special Action Squads” of the S.S. which had as their mission to seek out and murder Jews, Communists and Gypsies.
extermination – Mass murder, in the context of the killing of Jews in a manner which would be no less heinous than the killing of insects.
Final Solution – The term used by the Nazis to describe their program of mass murder of the Jewish people.
gas chamber – Rooms constructed to be air-tight so that poison gas introduced into the room would kill large numbers of people.
Gypsies – A dark-skinned, Caucasian ethnic group with origins in India who had, in many cases in Europe, a migratory way of life.
labor camp – A prison camp where the prisoners were used as slave labor for German industry and war machine.
tuberculosis – An infectious disease which can affect any organ, but particularly attacks the lungs.
typhus – Disease transmitted by lice or fleas which was epidemic in concentration camps.
zyklon B – A cyanide gas developed to kill Jews at Auschwitz in a manner which was more efficient than using carbon monoxide gas.
- Research the average daily calorie intake of people in the United States and the developing world, and compare this to the average intake of a concentration camp inmate.
- Research why the Nazis kept detailed chronicles of all aspects of their genocide.
- Research the story of “The Precious Legacy.” What did the Nazis have in mind by creating this exhibit?
- Define the following words using their dictionary definition, and construct another definition, using the Nazi context if appropriate:
murder massacre euthanasia mass-murder slaughter liquidation
deportation assassination pogrom decimation execution terrorism
killing extermination persecution genocide holocaust
- What do these words have in common? Which words above are interchangeable?
- Which are euphemisms? Which may be condoned (and under what circumstances) and which may not? Why is there sensitivity among scholars and survivors of the Holocaust on how these words are used?
- Discuss what you would have taken into a ghetto had you been deported to one.
- How did the Nazis succeed in carrying out the Final Solution? Why were the orders from the top obeyed all the way down the chain of command?
1. Define the following:
- zyklon B
- “special treatment”
- labor camp
- gas chamber
- Final Solution
2. Describe life in the Nazi ghettos for the Jews and the major differences between these ghettos and those of the Middle Ages.
3. What was the mission of the Einsatzgruppen? Who were their targets? What methods did they use to accomplish their mission?
4. Who was Adolf Eichmann, and what was his job?
5. How was the Theresienstadt ghetto in Czechoslovakia different than any other ghetto?
6. Name three death camps, and briefly describe typical conditions in one.
7. What was the Wannsee Conference? Who convened it? What was its purpose?
8. What prompted the Nazis to order the “death marches” of 1945?
9. Why were experiments performed on inmates of the death camps?
- Show the class the book and filmstrip, I Never Saw Another Butterfly.
- Recreate the discussions on human nature and values from previous chapters. Let the students describe if their views on human nature have changed as a result of learning about what occurred during the “Final Solution.”
- Have students view the film, The Wannsee Conference. Study guides on this film are available (contact the Holocaust Resource Center nearest you).
- Read to the class poignant excerpts from Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank.
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Copyright 1990 Gary M. Grobman