On January 20, 1942 and after two prior postponements, SS-Obergruppenfuehrer Reinhard Heydrich finally was able to convene the infamous Wannsee Conference in the suburbs of Berlin. It was this particular inter-governmental, strategy session that became the major smoking gun in the postwar Nuremburg War Crimes Tribunal which held the Nazi regime culpable for the state-sponsored, criminal conspiracy that engendered the planned genocide of the Jewish race in Europe. But the significance of the Wannsee Conference is given a far more prominent role by historians in posterity than it would to the Nazi SS and the fifteen German government officials who attended the meeting in that winter of 42’. That’s because most of those German officials already knew well beforehand what the regime’s ultimate objective was in implementing its policy toward the Jews of Europe. In fact, at least ten of these officials were already intimately involved in the Final Solution program in one role or another and many of them were quite aware that substantial numbers of Jews had already been murdered. To them Wannsee was just an outlet to validate their subjection of the Jews in the east hitherto and to propagate that policy further by ensnaring the rest of European Jewry into their iniquitous trap.
It now seems quite likely that the decision to initiate the genocide of European Jewry came down from Adolf Hitler sometime in the spring of 1941. It is here during the run-up to Operation Barbarossa that we start hearing the first cryptic references to a resolving of the ‘Jewish question’ among high Nazi and SS officials. Yet by May 20, 1941 it seems the ‘Jewish question’ had already been answered; if we are to assume that the correspondence between Eichmann’s Jewish Affairs section and the office of Hermann Goering, which makes note of an ‘imminent final solution’ to the Jewish question was more than just conjecture by two overzealous officials. Goering would later go on to use these same words in his infamous memo to Heydrich later in the summer for which the SS boss was advised to begin preparations for the final solution. So it stands to reason that the Final Solution program was already well in an advanced state of progression before Heydrich took the lectern at Wannsee to welcome the new state ministries aboard.
|Gas chamber at Treblinka|
Rather than using the Wannsee Conference as the perennial start line for which the Nazi regime became actively involved in resolving the Final Solution question, most historians simply identify it as a watershed moment in the genocide process that separated the unrestrained slaughter by mass execution and firearms from the more controlled and industrialized mass murder in extermination camps and gas chambers. The one overarching achievement Wannsee accomplished was its introduction of the extermination camp to the genocide process. These truly hideous facilities were wholly distinct and clandestine compounds independent of the forced labor and concentration camp system throughout the Reich. The SS constructed six solely extermination camps in Poland and several other smaller camps in the occupied Soviet Union. Heydrich’s conference at Wannsee, although it never alluded to the use of these camps in the Final Solution program, nevertheless developed them as a way to expedite the slaughter of the Jews remanded in the General Government of Poland and then to deal with those Jews being deported from the rest of Nazi-occupied Europe.
|Deportees arriving at Auschwitz-Birkenau|
One of the fundamental precepts debated at Heydrich’s conference and later adopted in the Wannsee Protocol was the determining factor to what classified one as a Jew, thus fated for extermination. Mixed-marriage Jews, mixed-race couples, Christian-converts and half-Jews were given little leeway to escape selection if they had more than one Jewish grandparent and in the rare cases where exemptions were originally authorized, such as German-Jewish war veterans of WWI and elderly Jews over 65, seldom were they acted upon by the Gestapo or the other SS police forces charged with organizing the local deportations. In any event, Heydrich’s ambiguous translation of this decorum did little to alter the Jew’s plight and the momentum of the mass murder process swiftly absorbed nearly everyone even faintly connected to the Jewish community. With this issue being feebly adjudicated, most of the remaining minutes of the conference were occupied by organizing transit schedules; settling logistical requirements and inserting language into official correspondence between the various ministries involved which would camouflage the basic purpose of the Final Solution program.
|Einsatzgruppen mass murder in Southern Russia|
However the Nazis’ advancement to industrialized mass murder did nothing to alleviate the murderous brutality of the einsatzgruppen. On the contrary, Heydrich’s execution squads went right back to work after the winter thaw had softened the ground and enabled another bevy of doomed Jewish laborers to excavate newer and larger mass burial pits outside the ghettos and labor camps. All four einsatzgruppen stationed in the occupied Soviet Union continued their sinister rampage through far Eastern Europe; even reaching the frontier of Asia before the end of 1942 and decimating the ancient Jewish communities in the Caucasus and the vast Russian steppe. Although the einsatzgruppen had resorted to recruiting mostly native peoples to fill most of the rolls in the execution squads, the same demented SS leaders continued to plan and organize most of the mass murders. And the killings of Jews, communists and Soviet POWs in the labor camps went unabated throughout 1942 and 1943 as the einsatzgruppen accelerated their pace to complete the Final Solution in the former Soviet lands before the Red Army could turn the tide of battle. By the end of 1942 there were already visible signs that the German war machine was receding from the high water mark it had reached along the Volga River.
The Final Solution Begins
In the period between the German invasion of Poland in Sep. 39’ to their invasion of the Soviet Union in June of 41’, the Jew’s plight in Europe took a drastic turn for the worst; quickly progressing from mass expulsions, transfer to the ghettos and compulsory forced labor to random acts of violence, summary execution and mass murder. In the six months since the invasion of the Soviet Union their plight had turned catastrophic. The cases of violence and mass murder against the Jews had increased in both volume and frequency to the point where everyday life had become increasingly unbearable and perilous. But at the beginning of 1942 the stakes were raised even further and as incomprehensible as their suffering had become, it still was about to get far worse! Now the first rumblings of extermination and genocide began to slowly permeate through the ghettos and forced labor camps as the wiser mavens in Jewish society began to realize the purpose of the Nazi’s resettlement policy.
|Bodies & other debris leftover from deportation journey|
Even when they weren’t being mowed down in front of the execution squads or being worked to death in the labor camps, Jews were still dying by the thousands every day in the ghettos mostly by starvation, disease or neglect. In January 42’ alone the death rate in the Warsaw ghetto from malnourishment was more than 2,500 and that number increased every month right up until the ghetto’s complete liquidation in May of 43’. Another horrendous derivative from the Final Solution program was the number of Jews that perished in the jam-packed, railroad boxcars during the deportations. With each train’s arrival at the labor camps or near the ghettos, a whole slew of Jewish ‘sonderkommando’ work crews were needed to pull out tens and hundreds of corpses from the transports and disinfect the carriages for their return voyage. This death rate also exploded later on as the Jews got wise to their ultimate destination and began leaping from the trains in a bid for freedom, only to be raked by machine-gun fire by the guards positioned on the roofs of the train.
|burial ground at Janowska labor camp outside of Lvov|
While the SS was putting the finishing touches on Belzec and Sobibor—the first of the Aktion Reinhard death-camps—several of the more brutal labor camps in the east were being utilized as temporary extermination facilities by the einsatzgruppen and their Higher SS and Police accomplices. During the early months of 1942’ upwards of 40,000 Jewish deportees were murdered at the Bogdanovka labor camp in Southern Ukraine. These were the surviving Jews from the Odessa district that escaped execution by the Romanians months earlier. At the Janowska camp outside of Lvov thousands of Jews deported from Galicia arrived at the facility expecting to be put to work in the armaments factory on site; only to undergo the dreaded selection process wherein more than 5,000 elderly, female and juvenile deportees were brought to the adjacent Piaski ravine and summarily executed. Many of the Jews in Janowska would be the first victims gassed at the Belzec extermination camp. Over in Latvia a similar facility at Salaspils was already culling the Jews in the Riga and Daugavpils ghettos, many of them recently-arrived deportees from Western Europe, and then marching them off to the death pits by the thousands.
|Artist rendition of Belzec extermination camp|
In March 1942, the extermination camp at Belzec came on line ostensibly to destroy the remaining Jews in Zamosc and Galicia. Belzec was the first facility utilized by the Aktion Reinhard directive; an order entrusted to SS-General Odilo Globocnik to carry out the mass extermination of all the Jews in the General Government of Poland. Its three wooden gas chambers were fed by carbon monoxide gas entered directly from the exhaust pipes of captured Soviet tanks. There were no crematoriums at Belzec, only mass burial pits and later massive funeral pyres from which the victims were interred after their bodies were removed from the gas chambers by Jewish sonderkommandos’. Eventually even the sonderkommandos’ were gassed after their place had been taken by newer and healthier arrivals. The camp itself was small by Nazi labor-camp standards and consisted of a false, main railroad station where new arrivals were duped into believing that it was a regular labor camp. Barber shops and sorting facilities were close by to process all the confiscated belongings of the new arrivals and to collect women’s hair for use on German U-boats. Aside from the usual guard barracks and sleeping quarters for the sonderkommando, the one noticeable feature of the camp was the gas chamber and fortified entranceway; where Jews were lined up in anticipation of delousing showers. The whole process from transport to gas chamber usually took less than three hours.
|Hartheim Euthanasia Center in Germany. 18,000 murdered|
In executing the ghastly Aktion Reinhard directive, Globocnik called upon several of the key operatives from the Nazis’ T4 euthanasia program to oversee the day-to-day running of the extermination facilities. SS-Major Christian Wirth was appointed as the first commandant of Belzec and then went on to oversee all three extermination camps in the directive as inspector general of Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka. Wirth then recommended his T4 colleagues Franz Stangl and Dr. Irmfried Eberl to run the camps at Sobibor and Treblinka. Many of the senior SS officers and NCOs in the camps were also graduates of the T4 program and became interchangeable parts of the whole system; able to move from camp to camp wherever their particular skills were needed, thus entrusting the knowledge of these sites to a mere handful of loyal and demented underlings keenly adaptive to the grisly tasks at hand. At all three extermination facilities Globocnik employed mostly Ukrainian, ‘Trawniki guards’ to carry out the more sinister and mundane tasks of the extermination process. These were mostly castoffs or deserters from the Soviet Red Army that were eager to put their fervent anti-Semitism to work for their new German masters. Many of these inherently cruel and sadistic Ukrainian nationals were hardened criminals and outcasts specifically selected by the SS for their desire to perform the most depraved and insensitive acts against their Jewish victims.
|Rudolf Reder 1of2 survivors Belzec|
Belzec might not have been the most destructive of all the extermination camps but it certainly was the most thorough. In its fifteen month run of operations only two inmates ever escaped its ghoulish confines. These two Polish Jews, Chaim Hirszman and Rudolf Reder were the only camp survivors that could positively confirm the camp’s existence, yet attest to the amount of slaughter that went on inside the facility. Barely one month after Belzec commenced operations had the second extermination camp opened its doors at Sobibor by processing the mass murder of thousands of Jewish deportees from the various ghettos in Zamosc. Both Belzec and Sobibor were situated in the so-called Lublin Reservation and tasked to be the final destination for most of the more than one million Jews then residing in and around Lublin and Zamosc. Yet hundreds of thousands of Jews from all over Europe ultimately met their deaths in these two camps after being deported to the ghettos and labor camps throughout the Lublin Reservation. Sobibor was actually the least destructive of the six purely extermination camps that went on line in occupied-Poland; meeting a premature end to its seventeen-month run after 600 inmates rebelled against their oppressors, leading to the escape of some fifty Jewish internees.
|Architects model of Treblinka|
By the end of 1942 the camp at Belzec could lay claim to having murdered nearly 600,000 Jews, mostly from Galicia and Zamosc. Its sister camp, Sobibor was responsible for the deaths of more than 250,000 Jews during its seventeen month existence. In June of 42’ the third Aktion Reinhard death camp came on line at Treblinka. The extermination camp at Treblinka was the worst of the three Aktion Reinhard camps. Its sole purpose was to act as the clearinghouse for the liquidation of the Warsaw, Bialystok and Radom ghettos. For seventeen months between June 42’ and Nov. 43’ transports would arrive daily at the Treblinka Station where upwards of 2000-4000 deportees per train would be led to their deaths in the six concrete gas chambers on site. At its peak period of operations Treblinka could process four or five train transports per day and was nominally considered in SS jargon to be the workhorse of the Aktion Reinhard directive. From the time of Treblinka’s inception the 500,000 Jews in the Warsaw ghetto were systematically purged from existence in twice daily resettlement transports that they were led to believe were harmlessly heading to Ukraine and other points in far Eastern Europe.
Aktion Reinhard: Revenge on a Grand Scale
The death camps that came on line as a result of the Nazis’ rush to wholesale genocide were originally unknown commodities of the SS Final Solution program. They were just one network in a vast system that Reinhard Heydrich had implemented to expedite the eradication of the Jewish race in Europe. Up till the spring of 1942’ the SS chief Heinrich Himmler could relax comfortably, knowing that his evil yet highly astute underling had the Nazis’ Jewish policy under tight control. Heydrich’s administrative talents and his uncanny flair for stealth and precision had established a good measure of distance between the regime’s upper echelons and the dastardly deeds their SS minions were perpetrating all over Europe. But all that changed on May 27, 1942 when Heydrich was assassinated in Prague by Czech agents working under the auspices of British intelligence. Suddenly Himmler was thrust into the key operational role in the Final Solution program; the genocide program he had theoretically created yet up till then had merely overseen from afar. And Himmler’s first line of business, other than exacting revenge on the Czechs by destroying the villages of Lidice and Lezaky along with all the inhabitants that resided there, was to push the Jewish genocide into overdrive by ordering the implementation of Aktion Reinhard; the decree that levied a death sentence on all the remaining Jews in Poland.
Aktion Reinhard was essentially the codename given to finish the plan that Heydrich had started, which aimed to gather all the remaining Jews in Europe in one convenient location where they could be handily transported to their deaths in the nearby extermination camps. Himmler appointed Globocnik to supervise the operation since he was already culpably tied in with many of Heydrich’s more dissolute orders regarding the SS pogroms performed in the Lublin Reservation. Heydrich had already entrusted Globocnik with overseeing the death camps so what Aktion Reinhard essentially did was to place a name on the face which was the Jewish genocide. In essence what Himmler had done after Heydrich’s demise was to split the murderous fraternity in half by allocating responsibility for the Jews in Poland to Globocnik while the einsatzgruppen continued to cull the numbers in the occupied Soviet Union. Additionally it became Adolf Eichmann’s job to transport the Jews from all over Europe to the assigned killing factories while Christian Wirth and his henchmen became ultimately responsible for killing them and disposing of their bodies. Thus Himmler’s directive gave the Aktion Reinhard administrators the official leverage they needed to overrule anyone who attempted to forestall or avert the Jew’s fate. From here on out the Jew’s could no longer be preserved simply for slave labor because their ultimate survival had already been predetermined.
Once Aktion Reinhard was implemented the mass murder of the Jews accelerated at a rapid pace. In the first half of 1942 the einsatzgruppen renewed their butchery across the Soviet Union with extreme vigor. The execution squads stormed through Ukraine and Southern Russia leaving a trail of death and destruction everywhere they went. Some 70,000 Jews from the Kherson region of Southern Russia were dispatched in a three month span between April and June; another 30,000 Jews were murdered in Volhynia during May and 20,000 more were corralled to their deaths in the Donets Basin. By the start of the summer Einsatzgruppen-D could lay claim to having liquidated every last Jew out of the 90,000 that resided in the Crimea. The northern einsatzgruppen had done such a thorough job during their initial sweep of the Baltic States that they were now actively hunting down stragglers and holdout groups in every tiny village and hamlet in Lithuania and Latvia. Not surprisingly, the SS renewed the mass executions at Ponary and Kovno’s Ninth Fort when the ghettos in the Baltic States began to overflow with new deportees from Western Europe and Theresienstadt. And of course, the slow murder of hundreds of thousands of Soviet POWs continued unabated inside the labor camps between the Baltic and Black Seas.
|charred remains of victims at Maly Trostenets|
In Poland the mobile death vans of Chelmno were working overtime to cull the Jewish numbers in the overflowing Lodz ghetto. Many of these victims were deportees from Belgium and Holland and presented a much easier quarry for the SS than the more hardened and wary Polish Jews who had stood eyewitness to many of the Nazis’ duplicitous arrangements. For the first half of 1942 Chelmno’s gas vans had slaughtered thousands of Polish Jews residing in the towns and villages of the German-annexed province of Warthegau and in the latter half of the year they went after the Jews in Lodz with a vengeance. By June and July the gas vans were at the apex of their murderous efficiency with more than 25,000 victims per month succumbing to their lethal emissions. The gas vans became so effective that the SS sent a whole fleet of them out to faraway Belarus where another death camp at Maly Trostenets was established to deal with the influx of Jews arriving at the ghetto in Minsk. This gruesome facility was fashioned on the likes of Chelmno and used a fleet of gas vans to murder a select number of Jewish and Soviet laborers every day before it was specifically chartered by the SS to effect the liquidation of the Minsk ghetto.
|remaining barracks at Auschwitz-Birkenau today|
While thousands of western deportees were arriving every day in the notorious transit camps of Theresienstadt, Drancy and Westerboork for the first leg of their journey which would ultimately terminate at Belzec, Chelmno, Sobibor and Treblinka, the SS was fast at work testing the killing compound Zyklon-B on Soviet POWs at the brand new death camp of Birkenau, inside the Auschwitz concentration camp. Up until the spring of 1942, Auschwitz was just another sprawling Nazi labor camp albeit with one carbon monoxide gas chamber and accompanying crematorium inside the main camp. This was Auschwitz I, a notoriously harsh and insufferable Nazi labor camp that regularly gassed those inmates who had expended their bodies during the excruciating 125-hour work week. In 1941 the Nazis’ expropriated the adjacent village of Brzezinka to enlarge the Auschwitz complex and built up an extensive camp compound which soon became Auschwitz II or more appropriately, the extermination camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau. In its nearly three year run as a Nazi extermination camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau swiftly became Nazi Germany’s premier killing facility in all of Europe and the greatest purveyor of death in the history of the Holocaust.
Industrialized Genocide: 1942 and the End of Humanity
|Herman Hofle at his arrest in 1961|
With SS-Reichsfuehrer Heinrich Himmler now in full operational control of the Final Solution program the slaughter of the Jews in Europe wafted into a macabre and cataclysmic carnage. Europe now swiftly descended into the darkest period of its civilized history. There were now five fully operational extermination camps in Poland, three or four others in the occupied Soviet Union and three more in Yugoslavia, in addition to the murderous einsatzgruppen still conducting their sinister rituals in the far off reaches of Eastern Europe. Himmler now declared the time ripe to place the Final Solution program into maximum overdrive. Midway through the summer he ordered SS-Gen. Friederich Wilhelm Krueger—the Higher SS and Police leader in the General Government in Poland—to expedite the deportations in the Polish ghettos with the goal of eliminating the whole prewar population of Polish Jews before the end of the year. This unprecedented order instantly levied a death sentence on two and a half million people and brought the full apparatus of the extermination camp system up to its peak performance level. Krueger in turn appointed SS-Major Hermann Hofle, a mid-level administrator in Globocnik’s Lublin office, to coordinate all the deportations with Eichmann’s Jewish Affairs department at the Gestapo headquarters in Berlin.
Barely two weeks after Himmler’s mandate to Krueger hundreds of fully laden transport trains were arriving in Belzec, Birkenau, Chelmno, Sobibor and Treblinka almost daily for the next ten months. Eichmann and Hofle created a near uniform system that allocated each death camp a specific volume of humanity to dispose of from every region in Poland. Jews residing in and around Krakow, Lvov and other areas of Galicia were allotted to Belzec, while the labor camps of Zamosc and an occasional trainload from Theresienstadt were apportioned to Sobibor. The Jews in Lodz and the surrounding environs were packed off in boxcars and forcibly crammed into the mobile gas vans of Chelmno. In August wholesale deportations to Treblinka were begun from the Warsaw ghetto and the smaller ghettos at Radom and Pyortrkow. Hofle tasked the Jewish Council in Warsaw to provide him with the names of 5,000 deportees per day for the next seven weeks, in which time 265,000 Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto were gassed and subsequently buried on the grounds of Treblinka. For the time being, Auschwitz-Birkenau became the main depository for the Jews of Upper Silesia and Northern Bohemia as well as the clearinghouse for Jews from France, Holland and Germany.
|Sajmiste labor camp outside of Belgrade|
The fevered pitch of the extermination camps in chorus with the violent travails of the einsatzgruppen made 1942 the worst year by far of the Jewish Holocaust. In the nine month interval from the time the first extermination camp at Belzec came on line to the end of the year, upwards of two million Jews had been murdered as a result of the Aktion Reinhard directive and this astonishing number did not take into account the ghastly results of the einsatzgruppen. But if the corresponding numbers from the einsatzgruppen’s own archives from August to October are tallied; numbers that denote 100,000 victims in August, 32,000 in September and 80,000 in October; than it’s probably safe to assume that close to 40% of the six million Jews that died in the Holocaust were to fall victim in 1942. In Belarus the extermination camp at Maly Trostenets became fully operational in the summer, bringing imminent peril to the lives of the 700,000 Jews in the western Soviet Union that had escaped death in the first sweep of the einsatzgruppen in 1941. Two other camps in the former Yugoslavia, Jasenovac and Sajmiste, had been turned into full-time extermination facilities; leaving no place in Nazi-occupied Europe free from the racist bloodletting. In fact by the end of the year Eichmann’s office proudly reported that the whole of Yugoslavia had been declared “Juden frei”, meaning all of the country’s 60,000 Jews had been eliminated.
|remaining gas chamber and crematorium at Majdanek|
During the fall of 1942 and after Himmler voiced his disapproval about the slow pace of the Polish deportations, Globocnik brought the sixth extermination camp in Poland on line at the hitherto labor camp of Majdanek, in Lublin. The urban facility at Majdanek made a quick transition from labor to extermination camp ostensibly to augment the slaughter going on at Belzec and Sobibor because of the dense concentration of Jewish deportees residing in the Lublin Reservation. With upwards of one million Jews now concentrated in the lands between the Vistula and Bug Rivers and Belzec currently preoccupied with the killing of the Jewish populations in Galicia; Majdanek offered Globocnik an efficient and cost-effective way to supplement the slaughter going on at Belzec and Sobibor without having to construct a whole new extermination facility so late in the mission. Majdanek was unique as an extermination camp because it offered the Nazis’ four ways to murder their quarries: a carbon monoxide gas chamber; one industrial-size shower stall fed with Zyklon-B pellets; an eager and never-idle, permanent firing-squad made up of brutal Ukrainian Trawniki guards and row upon row of gallows replete with an ample supply of hangmen. Both Jews and Soviet POWs were incessantly massacred throughout Majdanek’s more than two-year run as an extermination camp.
With the Nazis’ expending such a monumental effort to complete the Final Solution program naturally it begs the question to be asked; why wasn’t any incriminating evidence reaching the Western Allied capitals in Washington and London? But the truth was that in 1942 the information available to the west was sketchy at best and in many leadership circles the news about Jewish massacres and other heinous atrocities were judged to be overdramatic or perhaps unbelievable. News filtering back to London spoke of isolated incidents of mass murder and summary executions of the Jews in Poland but nothing that suggested an organized attempt at genocide was in fact underway. However in the fall of 1942 a group of Jewish advocacy groups in Switzerland published the first comprehensive report which intimated that the Nazis’ indeed were attempting to annihilate the Jewish race in Europe. They were the first group of intellectuals that attempted to correlate the deportations and mass expulsions from Western Europe to the east as a coordinated effort to engender ethnic cleansing at best and more than likely, aggravated genocide at the worst. The Swiss report cited the deportation of the elderly, children and sick or handicap Jews as irrefutable proof that would rebuke the Nazi’s official claims that the Jews were only being deported for the purpose of labor.
|Jewish partisans of the Bielski Brothers Brigade|
Consequently, as the Swiss report filtered back to the ghettos in Poland and began to coalesce with other heartrending tales and eyewitness accounts being brought back firsthand by the few Jews who had escaped the slaughter; Jewish resistance to their oppressors began to escalate far beyond what the Nazis’ would normally tolerate. Isolated attempts at resistance swiftly manifested into full-scale rebellion in several ghettos and labor camps when the Jews were rounded up for deportation. Most of these localized revolts were swiftly and ruthlessly suppressed since most of the rebels had neither weapons nor the physical strength to combat their tormentors and many of those that succeeded in escaping the camps were eventually hunted down and murdered. Yet a small percentage of successful escapees did manage to reach the forests and swamps of Eastern Europe where they quickly took up arms with Soviet partisan groups or banded together to form Jewish resistance circles. By 1943 there was believed to be between 30,000-50,000 Jewish guerrillas active with the Soviet partisans. Aid to the Jewish escapees from indigenous Poles or Ukrainian collaborators was usually scarce considering that Nazi reprisals against those that harbored the Jews were equally harsh and atrocious.
Throughout the whole ordeal the Jews were forced to endure in 1942 there were still many that held out hope that the worst had all but escaped them. Many still believed that their valuable function as workers or slave-laborers would ensure their ultimate survival while others were still not ready to accept the iniquity of their cunning Nazi masters. Still there were other Jews who believed that their torment would end soon as the Wehrmacht had been defeated in battle, since the first German setbacks on the Eastern Front were just beginning to reach the ghettos and labor camps. The overarching assumption for many Jews was simply to endure and persevere; that their own survival now outweighed the collective health of the whole Jewish community was a theme that many had now come to accept and believe. Each surviving ghetto became afflicted with the fatal notion that its own importance had somehow hoisted the plight of its inhabitants onto a far more favorable position than that which had affected the others. And those that were still eking out an existence in the Lodz, Warsaw or Bialystok ghettos remained dutifully committed to their menial duties in the textile mills and metallurgy shops as if corporate pride would delay the fate that awaited them.
But what little hope remained for the Jews in 1942 was all but extinguished less than one year later as the once vibrant Jewish community in Poland had been virtually erased from existence. That incomprehensible truth began to hit home for the surviving Jews of Europe when the extermination camps in Poland began to shutter their doors for good midway through 1943. But the sad fact was that the murders and massacres continued right on going even as Nazi Germany’s military gains began receding and American and British forces reentered the continent not far from where the bodies were being buried. There was to be no respite for the murderous SS in 1943 even when the Aktion Reinhard camps were decommissioned and the einsatzgruppen gradually dispersed. Besides the few million Jews yet to be ‘processed’, there remained the mighty task of suppressing all the evidence that could link the Nazis’ to their abominable crimes before the allied armies moved within striking distance of their monstrous feats. And as Himmler’s SS underlings stoically moved on to finalize every last formality intrinsic to the Final Solution program, the Nazi regime’s attention was invariably drawn to Auschwitz where the stage was being set for the culminating phase of the Jewish Holocaust.
(stay tuned for the fifth and final part of our series next week)