Tag Archives: Auschwitz

Survivors Club: A Family’s Legendary Tale

 

Survivors Club: A Family’s Legendary Tale

Michael Bornstein’s Holocaust survival story is the stuff that legends are made of. A few years ago, Bornstein ran across a photo of footage taken by Soviet troops of the recently liberated child survivors at Auschwitz. The documentary wasn’t actually from the day of liberation of the concentration camp. It was filmed as a reenactment a few days later. The children were asked to put on for the last time the striped, threadbare dingy clothes they wore in the concentration camp: only this time they wore them on top of the regular clothes they found in the “Canada” warehouse at Auschwitz, where the Nazis deposited the belongings of prisoners upon arrival. To his own surprise, Michael Bornstein, by now a grandfather, recognized himself in that photograph. He is the gaunt four-year-old boy with wispy, short hair standing in the front. It was miraculous that he had survived. The odds were heavily stacked against him.

Out of the millions of inmates at Auschwitz, fewer than 3000 were liberated by the Soviets and only 52 of them were children under the age of eight. Seeing this picture stirred something in him: not so much full-fledged memories, since Michael had been too young to remember the horrors of the Holocaust, as the desire to record his family’s incredible survival story. With the help of archival research, his father’s documents and interviews with neighbors and surviving relatives, Michael Bornstein and his daughter, NBC and MSNBC News producer Debbie Bornstein Holinstat, co-wrote his Holocaust memoir, aptly calling it Survivors Club: The True Story of a Very Young Prisoner of Auschwitz (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017). Although the title alludes primarily to the handful of children who survived Auschwitz, it also refers to Michael’s family. Out of the 3,200 Jews living in Zarki at the time of the Nazi invasion in September 1939, about 30 survived. Most of the survivors were members of the Bornstein family.

Historically, Michael Bornstein’s family and their neighbors experienced first-hand almost every stage of Nazi atrocities in Poland. Upon invading their little town, Zarki, the Wehrmacht burned it to the ground. They rounded up hundreds of Jews and shot them in nearby forests, in the streets and even in their own homes. Soon thereafter, the Nazis set up a Jewish Ghetto. Unlike larger ghettos throughout Poland, however, for most of its existence, the one in Zarki remained open, allowing some life-sustaining trade and interaction with the local Polish population. Michael’s father, Israel Bornstein, was elected Jewish Council President, a heavy responsibility that he reluctantly accepted. He and his resilient and courageous wife, Sophie, did their best to protect not only their own nuclear family—their older son Samuel and Michael, who was still a baby—but also the entire Jewish community of their town.

As in the case of the other Jewish ghettos in Poland, life for Jews in Zarki was a constant struggle to ward off hunger, forced labor, and the relentless waves of deportations to death camps. For awhile, Israel Bornstein managed to round up the resources to bribe the local Gestapo chief, Officer Schmitt, into giving their community more food and occasionally decreasing their burdens. Schmitt, though a callous man and a true Nazi believer was, fortunately, also venal. But small-scale bribery proved to be no match for the immense Nazi killing machine. By the end of September 1942, most of the Jewish inhabitants of Zarki were sent to die at Treblinka. Perhaps wishing to demonstrate his “humanity,” Schmitt made one exception. He spared Israel Bornstein and his nuclear family from death. They, along with Israel’s mother (Dora), were sent to a more lenient labor camp until they, too, were eventually dispatched to Auschwitz. As Michael was to find out later, his father and older brother both perished there.

Michael, by now a toddler, was placed in a children’s section of the concentration camp. Had his mother not managed to sneak him into the women’s camp after a few weeks, he most likely wouldn’t have made it. The older children, themselves starving, were constantly stealing most of his meager portions of daily gruel. Under the wing of his mother and grandmother, Michael managed to live in hiding from day to day. When his mother was reassigned to another labor camp, the little boy was left under the sole protection of his paternal grandmother. Ironically, it was illness that ultimately saved his life. Suffering from high fever, he was placed in the infirmary around the time the Nazis began to force the Auschwitz prisoners on the fatal death marches. From the infirmary window, Michael watched the beleaguered, freezing prisoners file away from the camp under the blows of the Nazi guards. The story of his liberation by the Allies a few days later is captured by the Soviet footage. But the inspiring tale of his survival—Survivors Club–has only now been told.

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The concentration camp commandants: Review of Soldiers of Evil by Thomas Segev

concentrationcampcommandantsjapantimes.co.jp

Thomas Segev’s dissertation, Soldiers of Evil (Jerusalem: Domino Press, 1987), goes a long way in explaining the psychology and social background of the Holocaust’s most ruthless mass murderers: the concentration camp Commandants. The book relies upon eyewitness accounts, victim testimonials, court documents as well as interviews with some of the Commandants themselves, their acquaintances, colleagues and family members who were willing to talk about the past. Segev notes that during Oswald Pohl’s trial (he was the SS Commander in charge of administering the entire Nazi concentration camp system) it was estimated that the Nazis imprisoned about 10 million people. (Soldiers of Evil, 15) By the end of the war, in January 1945, only 700,000 were found alive by the Allies. Of those, tens of thousands died shortly after liberation. Close to one million non-Jewish prisoners and 6 million Jewish prisoners were killed in the Nazi extermination camps.

One might expect that those who directed the mass murder of millions of innocent people would be prone to sadism. In his study, Segev observes that this was true only in some cases, but not most. Certainly men like Amon Goth, the Commandant of Plascow (so vividly described by Thomas Keneally in Schindler’s List), qualifies as sadistic. Goth would notoriously go on random shooting sprees of the defenseless inmates weakened by hard labor and hunger. Sometimes he would sick his dogs upon them to tear them apart limb by limb. He enjoyed the process of selecting his victims and witnessing their torment. His widow, Ruth Kalder, a woman with sadistic predispositions herself, became enchanted with Goth’s cruelty. In her eyes, it gave Goth an aura of a God, as he wielded the power of life and death over Plascow’s helpless inmates. After the war, she described her life with Goth in the concentration camp with longing and in idyllic terms, comparing her husband and herself to the King and Queen of a fiefdom. Like Goth, she showed no empathy for the prisoners, particularly the Jews, whom she considered subhuman. In an interview she gave in 1975, Kalder stated, “They were not human like us. … They were so foul” (Soldiers of Evil, 201).

Likewise, Arthur Rodl, Deputy Commandant to Karl Koch at the Buchenwald concentration camp, enjoyed killing inmates with his own bare hands. Segev recounts that on January 1, 1939, Rodl forced several thousands prisoners to line up, selected five among them, ordered them to strip and then proceeded to whip them until the morning to the sound of the camp orchestra. (Soldiers of Evil, 133) The Commandant of Buchenwald, Karl Koch, and his wife, Isle, who herself was known as “the monster of Buchenwald,” were equally notorious for their cruelty to inmates. They lived at Buchenwald in a gorgeous mansion known as “Villa Koch”, like royalty in the midst of the squalor of the concentration camp. Both took great pleasure in abusing and killing prisoners. Segev recounts that Isle would dress up in a provocative manner and ride around the camp on horseback. If any of the inmates looked at her, she would sometimes beat them with her own hands or, more commonly, ask her husband or the SS men to savagely attack them while she watched. There were rumors that Isle Koch even had lampshades made out of tattooed prisoners’ skin. Eventually the Nazi government tried Karl Koch not for his cruelty to prisoners (which was extreme even by Nazi standards), but for stealing stolen goods—the money, jewelry, clothes and extracted gold teeth—that the Nazi regime took from the Jews.

Despite such examples of sadistic behavior, Segev’s research indicates that the Nazi Commandants of concentration camps had a diverse background. Most of them were not predisposed to sadism, he found. However, all of them had a strong ideological background, the propensity to dehumanize others and lacked basic human empathy. As Segev observes, “There were among them men of different types: bureaucrats, opportunists, sadists, and criminals. The great majority of them were political soldiers” (Soldiers of Evil, 124). He further notes that most of the Nazi concentration camp Commandants “saw themselves first and foremost as soldiers: two thirds of them had served in the army before joining the Nazi party and the SS. Most of them had volunteered for the army before, during, and after the First World War” (Soldiers of Evil, 60). For many, the experiences of the war served to desensitize them to human suffering and to habituate them to the act of killing. Some of them received special ideological training in Theodor Eicke’s Death’s Head squads, an elite formation in which Eicke, described by Segev as a “Nazi grand seigneur,” recruited very young men with Aryan features whom he indoctrinated with a toxic combination of Romantic nationalism, Nazi ideology and rabid anti-Semitism.

Perhaps the most revealing inside look into the concentration camps’ Commandants’ mentality are the testimonies of Rudolf Hoss, the Commandant of Auschwitz, and of Franz Stangl, the Commandant of Treblinka. Neither of them was particularly drawn to sadism yet both of them could kill hundreds of thousands of human beings as easily as one kills a gnat. In his 1971 interview with the British writer and historian Gitta Sereny, Stangl is asked how he could kill so many human beings. He nonchalantly compares the Jewish inmates to a herd of cattle trapped in their pins and headed for slaughter. Sereny asks him: “So you didn’t feel they were human beings?” Stagl responds: “Cargo. They were cargo” (Soldiers of Evil, 201-2).

Rudolf Hoss, responsible for the deaths of nearly 2 million Jews at Auschwitz, dehumanized his victims in a similar fashion. In a conversation with his brother-in-law, Fritz Hensel, during the latter’s 4-week visit to Auschwitz, Hensel asks him how he could kill human beings. Hoss responds that the Jews were subhuman (Untermensch). Hensel asks for a clarification of the term “subhuman”. According to his account, Hoss sighs and replies: “You always ask and ask… Look, you can see for yourself. They are not like you and me. They are different. They look different. They do not behave like human beings. They have numbers on their arms. They are here in order to die” (Soldiers of Evil, 211). Using circular reasoning, the concentration camp Commandants dehumanized human beings through extremely cruel and inhumane treatment, then saw the results of their dehumanization as proof that their victims weren’t really human. Most of them were not prone to cruelty but could be exceptionally callous and cruel for ideological and political reasons.

Segev’s research indicates that sadistic Commandants like Goth and Koch did not in fact meet the SS ideal. Their evil could not be controlled and channeled in service to the Nazis. They killed for their own pleasure; stole for their own profit. The most successful concentration camp Commandants were those like Hoss and Stangl: “political soldiers” who killed millions of innocent human beings without conscience or remorse in order to fulfill the needs and ideals of the Nazi regime.

Claudia Moscovici

Holocaust Memory

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The Auschwitz Kommandant: a daughter’s memoirs about Arthur Wilhelm Liebehenschel

ArthurWilhelmLiebehenschelWikipedia 

Arthur Wilhelm Liebehenschel is often contrasted to Rudolf Höss, to indicate that he was the “good” or “more humane” Commandant of Auschwitz, who ruled the notorious concentration camp from December 1943 to May 1944. His daughter from his first marriage, Barbara Cherish, does everything to exonerate her father’s tarnished image and to confirm a rosier picture of his deeds in her memoir, The Auschwitz Kommandant: A Daughter’s Search for the Father She Never Knew (United Kingdom: The History Press, 2009). There is no doubt that Liebehenschel was widely regarded as less brutal than Höss. Once he took over Auschwitz concentration camp from Höss, he eliminated the notorious “standing cells”, where prisoners were punished by standing for days without food and water in rooms smaller than a closet. He also put a stop to the selections for regular prisoners who were already in the concentration camp. While the sadistic punishment of inmates, particularly of Jews, was (at the very least) tolerated by Höss, Liebehenschel took steps to discourage the severe punishments and forms of torture of camp inmates. According to Hermann Langbein, a prisoner in the Auschwitz infirmary, “in general one could establish that even those SS members who were very bloodthirsty before became a bit more reserved because they realized that their fanaticism would not necessarily be tolerated anymore”.

Perhaps Liebehenschel’s reputation for relative “leniency” played a role in his transfer from Auschwitz in the spring of 1944 and replacement with the previous commandant, Rudolf Höss. Known for his callousness and efficiency, Höss was called back to Auschwitz to facilitate the extermination of nearly 500,000 Hungarian Jews deported to the concentration camp during the spring and summer of 1944. Liebehenschel was put in charge of the Majdanek extermination camp (outside Lublin) in May of 1944. Although initially a labor rather than a death camp, Majdanek was transformed into an extermination camp of enormous proportions once Operation Reinhard (October 1941-November 1943), which stipulated the mass murder of all Jews in occupied (General Government) Poland, was put into effect. At the end of WWII, Liebehenschel was arrested by the American Army and imprisoned for a short while in Dachau (under conditions he himself described as humane). He was then extradited to Krakow to stand trial for crimes against humanity. Like Höss, the other Auschwitz Commandant, he was found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging on January 28, 1948. Evidently, the law didn’t distinguish between his crimes and those of Höss. Should we?

For me, reading the obviously biased memoirs of a daughter in search of her own identity by exploring her father’s dark past, raises the following question: is there a real difference between men like Rudolf Höss and men like Arthur Liebehenschel; between “harsh” and “more humane” SS leaders? Although this memoir is meant to raise such a question in its readers’ minds, in my opinion, the answers it provides won’t be that satisfying. Exonerating her father, making apologies for his murderous deeds and, to some extent, even covering up the outright lies he tells the court in Krakow—testifying during the trial that he didn’t know about the crematoria in either Auschwitz or Majdanek and wasn’t in any way involved in either–this memoir offers an extremely partial version of the facts and a deeply flawed moral perspective. There really was no way one could be a so-called “humane” Auschwitz commander. This is a contradiction in terms. There was nothing humane about life in a Nazi concentration camp.

However, I do believe that just as there were differences in attitude and behavior among the SS officers at the camp—some of whom did their “job” with relish and sadism in punishing the prisoners, others who tried to avoid or minimize the punishments—the same can be said about the differences between Höss and Liebehenschel. This doesn’t in any way excuse the mass murders committed by either man. If we draw a distinction between the two Auschwitz commandants it’s to better understand Hannah Arendt’s notion of the “banality of evil,” which plays a big role in our attempts to understand Nazi behavior. Unlike Arendt, however, I believe that there was nothing commonplace or “banal” about the evil of men like Eichmann, whom she uses as her main example of this concept in Eichmann in Jerusalem, or of men like Höss. These two Nazi leaders exemplified extraordinary evil, going far and beyond the call of duty. Both, in fact, played a big role in masterminding the deportation and extermination of almost half a million of Hungarian Jews during a time when it was evident Germany had already lost the war.

In my estimation, the concept of “the banality of evil” as elaborated by Arendt applies much better to ordinary men such as Arthur Liebehenschel. His daughter’s claims that Liebehenschel didn’t like to see death and violence, learned mostly second-hand from her correspondence with Anneliesse, her father’s second wife, are corroborated to some extent by Auschwitz survivors’ testimonies. At the same time, the Auschwitz Kommandant still oversaw the deaths of thousands of innocent human beings, who spent their last days in conditions that were, in themselves, sheer torture even if actual physical torture was discouraged.

Furthermore, according to Cherish’s own account, Liebehenschel was a loyal German and a fervent Nazi: without these qualities he couldn’t have risen in the ranks of the SS. In different times, Arthur Liebehenschel could have played a role in better causes. In Nazi Germany, however, his ambition and misplaced loyalty to Hitler’s regime led him to play a significant role in “the banality of evil”: namely, in committing gravely immoral acts against tens of thousands of innocent human beings, without any particular hatred for the victims or zest for violence.

 

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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The gas chambers: Filip Muller’s Eyewitness Auschwitz

EyewitnessAuschwitztabletmag

Philip Muller’s Eyewitness Auschwitz: Three Years in the Gas Chambers (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1979) is one of the most disturbing and valuable books about the Holocaust I’ve read. This testimony offers in gruesome detail an eyewitness account of what actually happened in the gas chambers: from the moment hundreds of thousands of Auschwitz prisoners arrived hungry, thirsty and terrified on cattle trains; to the separation of families and the selection process; to the brutal beatings and threats by SS officers; to the lies intended to induce prisoners to think that they were about to be “disinfected” in public showers rather than killed; to the sadistic torture of some; to the gassing of the terrified victims and the desecration and pillaging of corpses, and finally to their cremation by fellow prisoners condemned to the Sonderkommandos: prisoners like Filip Muller.

The members of Sonderkommando, composed almost entirely of Jewish inmates, were forced under threat of death to do the most disturbing work for the SS: dispose of the countless corpses of the victims killed in the gas chambers. They did not themselves commit the murders. That task was left to the SS soldiers, who often did their job zealously. Mass murder was daily business at Auschwitz, but it was also “top secret”.

Although information had leaked about the mass gassing of prisoners, the Nazis tried to cover up their massacres. They kept the members of the Sonderkommando isolated from other prisoners, to reduce the chances of reports about the mass gassing of prisoners with Zyklon B reaching other Auschwitz inmates and the outside world. Usually, after having removed and incinerated the bodies of the victims, the members of the Sonderkommando were themselves killed in the gas chambers, so that there would be no prisoner eyewitnesses to the Nazi atrocities.

The author, Filip Muller, is one of the rare survivors among those condemned to work in the Sonderkommando. Born in 1922 in a small town (Sered) in Slovakia, Muller was only twenty years old when he was brought to Auschwitz in April 1942. After a short while, as punishment, he was assigned to dispose of the corpses of the victims. Many of them had wasted away to skin and bones in Auschwitz or in Polish ghettos; others had died of typhus and other diseases in the concentration camp; some had been brutally beaten and shot by the SS, others were hung to set an example for other prisoners, but by far most—hundreds of thousands of men, women, children and babies–were collectively massacred in the gas chambers. As Muller recalls, the sadism and brutality of the SS soldiers knew no bounds: “Shouting and wielding their truncheons, like beaters at a hunt, the remaining SS men chased the naked men, women and children into the large room inside the crematorium. All that was left in the yard were the pathetic heaps of clothing which we had to gather together to clear the yard for the second half of the transport” (33).

Although vicious and violent, the SS officers would sometimes pretend courtesy towards incoming Jewish inmates to persuade the victims to cooperate and expedite the extermination process. The Nazis adapted their behavior to the circumstances. In some cases, when the prisoners already knew they were doomed to death—as was the case with many of the groups arriving from nearby ghettos in Poland—the SS soldiers would beat them into submission in order to force them into the gas chambers. At other times, when prisoners arriving from far away locations falsely believed that they would live, the SS would set up an elaborate ruse to cultivate false hopes. They even went so far as to place hooks with numbers inside the gas chambers, to suggest that the prisoners would retrieve their clothes after the “showers” and be sent off elsewhere to work.

This was the case, for instance, with the “Family Camp”, made up of prisoners from Theresienstadt, Czechoslovakia. They were the only Jewish prisoners at Auschwitz who were allowed to wear civilian clothes, whose hair was not shaved off and who, as the name of their group suggests, were not separated from their family members. The Family Camp was subject to less abuse not out of any Nazi kindness, of course, but to provide to the outside world a false model of what life in Auschwitz was like for Jewish inmates. Although Muller and other prisoners from the Sondercommando tried to warn some of the leaders of the Family Camp that they’d be soon exterminated and encouraged them to rebel, by the time the victims believed these dire warnings it was too late. In the end, every last man, woman and child from the group was gassed by the SS, many of them after having been beaten by soldiers or bitten by dogs to the point of disfiguration: “The people,” Muller recounts, “crowded together on one side of the room, were shaking with terror. Almost all of them were now sobbing: their weeping sounded like a heart-breaking dirge. Most of them were badly hurt from truncheon blows as well as from the sharp teeth of the dogs” (109).

Muller heard countless times the heart wrenching attempts of the doomed prisoners to escape, once the SS officers pushed them into the gas chambers, bolted shut the door and dropped in from above the canisters of poison gas: “The prelude to death was repeated with equal brutality and with the same ending. Finally there were about 600 desperate people crammed into the crematorium. A few SS men were leaving the building and the last one locked the entrance door from the outside. Before long the increasing sound of coughing, screaming and shouting for help could be heard from behind the door. I was unable to make out individual words, for the shouts were drowned by knocking and banging against the door, intermingled with sobbing and crying. Only now and then there was a moan, a rattle, or the sound of muffled knocking against the door. But soon even that ceased and in the sudden silence each of us felt the horror of this terrible mass death” (33-34).

The horrific spectacle of death, repeated several times a week, and at times several times a day—particularly during the deportation of almost 440,000 Jews from Hungary in the spring and summer of 1944–did not destroy Muller’s humanity. It only strengthened his resolve to survive the Nazi nightmare in order to provide testimony about this unprecedented genocide, which the Nazis tried to erase from history and which some so-called “revisionist historians” continue to deny today.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

 

 

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Total annihilation: The death factories

I.G. Farben at Auschwitz/Monowitz-Buna from Wikipedia

I.G. Farben at Auschwitz/Monowitz-Buna from Wikipedia

Total annihilation: The death factories

by Claudia Moscovici

Hitler’s explicit goal, formulated as early as Mein Kampf in the mid 1920’s, was to annihilate the Jewish people. What did total annihilation mean for the Nazis? It wasn’t enough to deport the Jews from Germany and other German-controlled countries to concentration camps. It wasn’t enough to isolate them in ghettos. It wasn’t enough to take their property and assets. It wasn’t enough to send them to labor and death camps in Poland.  It wasn’t enough to shoot them in the back of the head and pile them up, dead or alive, into mass graves. It wasn’t enough to burn their corpses, after gassing them, in crematoria. The Nazi regime wanted to destroy the evidence that their victims had ever existed. To do so, they had to hide or cover up their immense crimes against humanity. Each shred of evidence of Jewish existence—even the victims’ hair–was either destroyed or transformed and reused by German industry.

To accomplish the goal of exterminating millions of innocent civilians, the Nazis had to first invert the concepts of right and wrong: not only in their ideology, but also in the minds of party members. Hitler used the phrases “the Jewish question” and “the Final Solution” to outline his plans for mass murder. He rarely issued written orders concerning the fate of the Jews. Instead, he allowed his subordinates—Heinrich Himmler, the Nazi Minister of Interior; Reinhard Heydrich, the Chief of Police and of the Gestapo; Joseph Goebbels, the Minister of Propaganda, and Oswald Ludwig Pohl, the Financial Administrator of the SS in charge of the concentration and labor camps–to state explicitly, as well as to carry out, his implicit yet crystal clear orders of deportation and extermination of the Jews.

The concentration camps became, quite literally, death factories. The existence of these camps had to be kept, for the most part, secret from the German public, who might disapprove of it. Hitler had learned a lesson from the vocal protests against Action T4, the “euthanasia” program he instituted in 1939 in several German mental hospitals. While being more or less hidden from the German public, however, the extermination of the Jews was also loudly proclaimed as a point of pride for the initiated SS soldiers. Addressing SS leaders at Posen in 1943, Himmler describes acts of cowardice and of unspeakable cruelty against defenseless civilians—men, women, children and even babies–as acts of great civic courage, “decency” and heroism:

“We can talk about it quite frankly among ourselves and yet we will never speak of it publicly. It appalled everyone, and yet everyone was certain that he would do it next time if such orders should be issued…. I am referring to the Jewish evacuation program, the extermination of the Jews. … Most of you will know what it means when a hundred corpses are lying side by side, or five hundred or a thousand are lying there. To have stuck it out and to have remained decent, that is what has made us tough. This is a glorious page in our history that has never and can never be written.” (see Jeremy Noakes and Geoffrey Pridham, Eds., Nazism 1919-1945, volume 3: Foreign Policy, War and Racial Extermination, Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, University of Exeter Series, 2001).

Due to the demands of the German economy during the war, the question arose how to make maximal use of Jewish prisoners before killing them. Oswald Ludwig Pohl came up with the solution of doubling the role of some of the extermination camps—including the largest, the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex–as labor camps. This generated Monowitz-Buna, also called Auschwitz III, a slave labor camp established in October 1942 in collaboration with the German chemical company I. G. Farben. The company produced butadiene-based synthetic rubber (in Buna Works) as well as, more notoriously, Zyklon B, the toxic chemical used to gas millions of victims. Rewarded for his ingenuity, Pohl rose to power in the Nazi regime, serving as the financial administrator of the SS in charge of 20 concentration camps and 165 labor camps.

Although supportive of Pohl’s utilization of Jewish slave labor for the German economy, Himmler insisted that the Nazis must never subordinate their main goal—the eradication of the Jewish race—to economic objectives: not even during the war, when there was a labor shortage. The solution, for the Nazi regime, became the infamous death factories: selecting (most) prisoners deemed unfit for work for immediate extermination in the gas chambers, while working to death those deemed capable of labor. Even those who were chosen for immediate extermination were exploited to the very last. The Nazis extricated from their victims every possession: even the clothes on their backs, which were given to other prisoners, and their hair, which was shaved or cut off and used as stuffing for mattresses. The death factories thus fulfilled their intended role of total annihilation: by exterminating the Jewish people while also removing the last trace of their existence from the face of the Earth.

Claudia Moscovici, Holocaust Memory

 

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Action T4: From “Euthanasia” to the Final Solution

Christian_Wirth:WikipediaCommons

Action T4: From “Euthanasia” to the Final Solution

by Claudia Moscovici 

Since the late 5th century BC up to current times, the Hippocratic Oath has been taken by doctors to ensure the ethics of the medical profession. Above all, the Hippocratic Oath forbids doctors from causing deliberate harm to their patients. Doctors pledge: “I will prescribe regiments for the good of my patients according to my ability and my judgment and never do harm to anyone. I will give no deadly medicine to anyone if asked, nor suggest any such council.” The most egregious violation of medical ethics was perpetrated by Nazi doctors. “Euthanasia,” as practiced by Third Reich physicians, set the precedent for the Final Solution. From September 1939 to August 1941, when he began facing objections from German religious leaders, Hitler started experimenting in Germany with Action T4. The program was euphemistically described as “euthanasia”. In practice, however, it entailed the extermination of individuals in psychiatric institutions deemed “mentally incurable”. Over 70,000 patients in mental hospitals were killed under this program. Even when Hitler officially ended it in 1941, the practice continued until the end of the war. In concentration camps, it took an even more dangerous and deadly form.

“T4” is an abbreviation of Tiergarten Street Number 4 in Berlin, the address of the Charitable Foundation for Curative and Institutional Care, directed by Philipp Bouhler and Karl Brandt, Hitler’s personal physician. As Robert Jay Lifton explains in The Nazi Doctors, the “euthanasia” program initially employed lethal injection. Later, in order to kill people in greater numbers and more efficiently, Nazi physicians began using carbon monoxide. This method of killing was also implemented later to kill Jews, Gypsies and Poles in concentration camps.

In 1939, Christian Wirth (featured in the picture), one of the SS officers in charge of exterminating the Jews in Poland, designed a gas chamber that was disguised as a public shower. Instead of water, patients were inundated by a toxic gas. Witnesses describe Wirth as a malicious sadist, similar to Dr. Josef Mengele, the notorious “Angel of Death”. Corporal Franz Suchomel recalls: “From my activity in the camps of Treblinka and Sobibor, I remember that Wirth in brutality, meanness, and ruthlessness could not be surpassed. We therefore called him ‘Christian the Terrible…” (Arad Ytzhak, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Death Camps, p 183-186).

The gas used at first was carbon monoxide, but that was deemed as too slow acting. The Nazis then turned to Zyklon B—a cyanide based pesticide—to murder 1.2 million people in gas chambers. The process, deemed a quicker and “more humane” method of killing (compared to shooting or carbon monoxide), in actuality caused a slow and excruciating death. In The Diary of Petr Ginz: 1941-1942, Chava Pressburger pays homage to her brother Petr, who died in Auschwitz at the tender age of 16. She is particularly pained by the thought that her brother died such a gruesome death:

“I ask readers to forgive me for returning to that terrible description. The witness in question worked in the gas chambers. His task was to wait for the people shoved into the gas chamber to suffocate; then he had to open the chamber and transport the heaps of corpses to the ovens, where they were to be burned. This man could barely speak for tears. He testified that the position of corpses suggested what went on inside the hermetically sealed chamber, when it began to be filled with toxic gas. The stronger ones, led by an overpowering instinct for self-preservation, tried to get to the top, where there was still some air left, so that the weaker ones were trampled to death” (131).

Conceptually, the distance between the Action T4 program practiced in German mental hospitals and the mass murder in concentration camps was not so great.  The T4 program offered the framework for the killing machine implemented in the Final Solution. As Allan Bullock observes in Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives, Action T4 set the following precedents for mass extermination:

1)    it established an atmosphere of secrecy, shrouded in a language filled with codes and euphemisms to describe torture and murder;

2)    it implicated doctors in murder through a procedural façade of professionalism (including physical examinations, diagnoses, and the administration of “medicines” or “operations”);

3)    from the very beginning, it set Jewish patients apart from others for “special treatment”. Jews did not have to meet the T4 criteria—namely, of being diagnosed with incurable diseases or mental disorders—in order to be killed. They could be killed simply because they were Jewish. (Hitler and Stalin, 746)

Perhaps the most valuable lesson Hitler learned from the T4 program was to take the killing machine outside of his own country. Following vocal protests by the Protestant pastors Paul-Gerhard Braune and Fritz von Bodelschwingh and by Cardinal August Count von Galen, Hitler decided to bide his time and kill more covertly: not on German territory, where he wanted to remain popular, but elsewhere. The opportunity presented itself when he attacked Russia in Operation Barbarossa, beginning on June 22, 1941. With the onset of war, all bets were off. The Nazis used war against “the Bolshevik empire” as a justification for putting into practice everything they had learned from the more limited Action T4 “euthanasia” program: this time to kill Jews, Gypsies and Poles on an unprecedented mass scale.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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