Many Jews were fortunate to receive kindness and help from non-Jews. Some of these Righteous Gentiles as they have become known, risked and even lost their lives for helping Jews. Some were able to show great humanity, to share food and shelter. It is to their credit that thousands of Jews survived.
How could it happen that six million Jews were murdered? Many of the memoir writers, and those about whom they wrote, became a Witness to mass murder. By multiplying the incidents and the eyewitnesses it is possible to begin to understand that it did in fact happen.
Drancy in France, Malines in Belgium, Westerbork in Holland, Fossoli in Italy, these were among the main Transit camps where Jews were taken for a short period of time and then deported, in most cases, to their deaths.
German factory owners took advantage of the plentiful labour supply and built factories and labour camps with slave-like conditions close to the ghettos and camps, described in Slave Labour camps and factories. Those who were able to work had a better chance of survival; most memoir writers survived as slave labourers.
When the Nazi Party came to power in Germany in 1933, it immediately established concentration camps for political prisoners. These camps were run by the black-uniformed SS. Dachau, outside Munich, and Sachsenhausen, north of Berlin, date from this period. The concentration camps were used for political prisoners, clergymen, homosexuals, common criminals, and later, prisoners of war, particularly Russians. Towards the end of the war, tens of thousands of Jews on death marches were dumped into these Concentration camps in Germany, among them Dachau, Bergen-Belsen, and Buchenwald.
December 1941 saw the first systematic gassing of Jews. The method used was exhaust fumes forced into a van carrying Jews, at Chelmno, which became the first death camp. Belzec (pronounced Belzhets), Maly Trostenets, Sobibor, and Treblinka were Death camps to which Jews were deported and killed. The only Jews who were allowed to survive in these death camps were slave labourers forced to dispose of the bodies, usually in mass graves where the bodies were then burned. The labourers were also used to sort the clothing and belongings of the victims for redistribution among the SS, the German armed forces, and the German people. Very few of these slave labourers survived.
In June 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union. Four “commandos” of specially trained SS killing squads, the Einsatzgruppen, rounded up Jews in hundreds of towns and villages, and forced them to nearby ditches, ravines, and forests where they were shot. The largest of these Mass murder sites were located near cities which had sizeable populations of Jews, among them, Babi Yar outside Kiev, Ponar outside Vilnius, and the Ninth Fort outside Kaunas.
While mass murder by shooting continued in the East, in German-occupied Poland experimental means were investigated to make killing more efficient. What began at Chelmno with exhaust fumes, was “perfected” at Auschwitz-Birkenau where Zyclon B gas pellets were thrown into sealed “shower” rooms. The bodies were then burned in crematoria. This method of killing began in the summer of 1942, and by the autumn of 1944, five crematoria were operating. Although “Auschwitz” has come to mean the whole facility, in fact it consisted of three large camps in close proximity. The original and Main Camp was known as Auschwitz I. Birkenau, where four of the crematoria were located, was known as Auschwitz II. Auschwitz also contained several satellite slave labour camps in the vicinity, the largest of which was attached to the Buna synthetic rubber and oil factory at Monowitz, and was known as Buna-Monowitz, or Auschwitz III. For the purpose of the Digest, these labour camps are to be found in the category of Slave Labour camps and factories.
The deception practiced by the SS in their killing operations depended on secrecy and their complete control of information. Northwest of Prague, the SS established a ghetto in the former garrison town of Theresienstadt, (Terezin in Czech). It was here that the Red Cross was to be shown what was “happening” to the Jews during what was in fact a massive deception operation complete with Jewish children at play. Much of the art, poetry, and music created by the Jews during the Holocaust came from Theresienstadt. However, most of those who survived the privations of Theresienstadt were deported to Auschwitz and killed.
In January 1945 as the Soviet army approached the Auschwitz region, the SS evacuated the camp and surrounding slave labour camps, and moved the surviving Jews westward, mainly on foot. Amid terrible brutality by their guards, many of them were to “march” with little food, water, or shelter, until April. The toll from these Death marches was large.
The category of Liberation denotes the time when Soviet, American, British, Canadian, and other Allied troops liberated the camps and areas where Jews had been in hiding. For the Jews, liberation meant an end to their physical suffering, and the beginning of their quest to try to find family members, and to try to find a country that would give them safe haven. Many eventually made their way to Palestine, (later Israel); many went to Britain, the United States, Canada, Australia, and Argentina.
The category of Post-war life and career focuses not only on the achievements of the survivors after liberation, but on their search to explore their past. The section on Personal Reflections is an opportunity to gain an understanding of how the survivors view the world. To learn through their own words of their experiences, their philosophy, their psychology, their connection to religion, and what is important to them.
Because the borders of the countries of Europe have changed so much in the twentieth century, the names of Places also changed. For example, the capital of Lithuania is today Vilnius. It was a part of Poland between the two world wars when Poles called it Wilno. To the Jews it was always Vilna. The Digest shows these various spellings of towns and cities. Also, by locating each place on maps specially prepared by the Digest for each memoir, the student can have a sense of the breadth of the destruction.