The Third Reich was filled with people who were nothing less than monsters. Klaus Barbie, the former Nazi Gestapo chief of German-occupied Lyon, France, was one of them. As chief of the secret police in Lyon, Barbie sent 7,500 French Jews and French Resistance partisans to concentration camps, and executed some 4,000 others. He, like the other Nazi officers had no compassion…just a heart filled with hatred. Barbie wasn’t happy with just having them killed, he personally tortured and executed many of his prisoners himself. In 1943, he captured Jean Moulin, the leader of the French Resistance, and had him slowly beaten to death. He took pleasure in the suffering of that good man. In 1944, Barbie rounded up 44 young Jewish children and their seven teachers hiding in a boarding house in Izieu and deported them to the Auschwitz extermination camp. Of the 51 people deported, only one teacher survived. In August 1944, as the Germans prepared to retreat from Lyon, he organized one last deportation train that took hundreds of people to the death camps. He didn’t want to “lose” a single one to the liberation.
Like all cowards, Barbie returned to Germany after the war, and began his disguise. He burned off his SS identification tattoo and assumed a new identity. This was planned as the Germans began to realize that they had lost the war. The plan was to smuggle these former SS officers out of the country, so they could “regroup later, and start the Third Reich or a facsimile of it in the future. After the Americans offered him money and protection in exchange for his intelligence services, Barbie surrendered himself to the US Counter-Intelligence Corps (CIC) and engaged in underground anti-communist activity in June 1947. Barbie worked as a US agent in Germany for two years, and the Americans shielded him from French prosecutors trying to track him down. That frustrates me, but I suppose they figured it was the lesser of the two evils. They could go after the “bigger fish” in the organization. In 1949, Barbie and his family were smuggled by the Americans to South America.
Once he was in Bolivia, Barbie assumed the name of Klaus Altmann. He settled in Bolivia and continued his work as a US agent. He became a successful businessman and advised the military regimes of Bolivia. In 1971, the oppressive dictator Hugo Banzer Suarez came to power, and Barbie helped him set up brutal internment camps for his many political opponents. During his 32 years in Bolivia, Barbie also served as an officer in the Bolivian secret police, participated in drug-running schemes, and founded a rightist death squad. He regularly traveled to Europe, and even visited France, where he had been tried in absentia in 1952 and 1954 for his war crimes and sentenced to death. He was so bold, thinking that he was invincible, but as it is in most criminals, they get careless. In 1972, the Nazi hunters Serge Klarsfeld and Beatte Kunzel discovered Barbie’s whereabouts in Bolivia, but Banzer Suarez refused to extradite him to France.
In the early 1980s, a liberal Bolivian regime came to power and agreed to extradite Barbie in exchange for French aid. His protection gone, on January 19, 1983, Barbie was arrested. He arrived in France on February 7, 1983. Unfortunately, the statute of limitations had expired on his in-absentia convictions from the 1950s. He was going to have to be tried again. At this point, the United States government formally apologized to France for its conduct in the Barbie case later that year. Even then, because of legal wrangling between the groups representing his victims, the trial was delayed for four years. Finally, on May 11, 1987, the “Butcher of Lyon,” as he was known in France, went on trial for his crimes against humanity. His defense attorneys, three minority lawyers…an Asian, an African, and an Arab, actually made the dramatic case that the French and the Jews were as guilty of crimes against humanity as Barbie or any other Nazi. That was a completely unbelievable atrocity of a defense. Barbie’s lawyers seemed more intent on putting France and Israel on trial than in proving their client’s innocence. Their efforts failed and on July 4, 1987, he was found guilty. For his crimes, the 73-year-old Barbie was sentenced to France’s highest punishment…to spend the rest of his life in prison. He died of cancer in a prison hospital in 1991.
When we look at the events of the Holocaust, we find ourselves looking through the eyes of those who were resigned to their fate. Some even felt like this was what they were born for and nothing could possibly change that. One Holocaust survivor, Eliezer “Elie” Wiesel, who was born in Sighet, Romania, on September 30, 1928 expressed that very sentiment concerning his time as a prisoner of the Nazi Regime. Wiesel’s early life was fairly normal, as it was a fairly peaceful time for the Jewish people. He was part of an average Jewish family consisting of his mother, father, and three sisters, but all that came to a screeching halt in 1944, when they were shipped off to the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland. The Holocaust experience was so horrific and such an assault on both his body and mind, that it defined his life. He couldn’t even stand to talk about much of it for over 60 years.
Wiesel, when he could finally speak of the atrocious acts he and others were subjected to, told of how the Nazi Regime conditioned the prisoners in the camps to believe that their future was what it was, and that they had no say in it. When his own father was beaten in front of him, Wiesel just stood there. He was horrified, but he didn’t move…he didn’t dare. For years that life moment haunted him. His father told him that it wasn’t so bad, but as his father’s son, Wiesel knew he should have done something. Nevertheless, he like so many other Jewish prisoners of the Nazi Regime, was made to understand that the killer (Nazis) came to kill, and the victim (Jews) came to be killed…like it was their destiny from the beginning of time. Somehow they were taught that this was the reason they were born. They are expected to believe that that their life had no other purpose, and that their voice didn’t matter…that their lives didn’t matter.
Wiesel’s ordeal really began in 1940, at age 12, when Hungary, which was in alliance with Nazi Germany, annexed his hometown of Sighet, Romania…although he didn’t know it then. At first things seemed ok, but then all the Jews in the city were forced into a ghetto. This was the story so many Jews shared. By 1944, when Elie was 15, Hungary colluded with Germany to deport all residents of the ghetto to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, in Poland. They were trucked out of their homes, their possessions stolen, and then they were packed into a cattle car on a train. It was so tight that they had to stand up the whole trip. They had no food or water, and no restroom facilities. It was terribly degrading. Upon arrival at Auschwitz, Elie’s mother, Sarah, and youngest sister, Tzipora, were killed, and he and his father, Shlomo, were separated from his other sisters, Hilda and Beatrice. Elie and Shlomo were transferred to Buchenwald concentration camp, where his father died.
Then came some of the worst scenes he can remember. Wiesel describes it this way: “Not far from us, flames, huge flames, were rising from a ditch. Something was being burned there. A truck drew close and unloaded its hold: small children. Babies! Yes, I did see this, with my own eyes…children thrown into the flames. (Is it any wonder that ever since then, sleep tends to elude me?)” Wiesel battled with immense guilt and the ugliness of humanity for most of his life after surviving the Holocaust. Nevertheless, Wiesel was devoted to combating indifference, intolerance, and injustice. He became an accomplished writer, professor, and overall champion for human rights. Finally on April 16, 1945, American military personnel liberated the Buchenwald concentration camp. The survivors were barely alive, and even solid food ran the risk of causing their death, because their digestive systems were not prepared for much food, even though they were starving. The soldiers didn’t know the consequences, and gave them chocolate bars. The results were disastrous. They finally had to stop giving them anything, which was just as hard, if not harder than the problems caused by feeding them.
Thinking his family was gone, Wiesel eventually made his way to Paris, where he enrolled in the Sorbonne to study literature, philosophy, and psychology. By age 19, he was working as a journalist for a French newspaper, earing $16 per month…a pretty goo wage in those days. A few years later, in 1949, he was sent to Israel, to cover the early days of the new nation. Wiesel found out that two of his sisters survived, when his sister, Hilda saw his picture in a newspaper. While Elie was living in a French orphanage in 1947, a journalist took his photo, and it was published in the French newspaper where Hilda saw it. In an interview in 2000, Wiesel admitted he thought all his sisters had died in the Holocaust. “When I was still in Buchenwald, I studied the lists of survivors, and my sisters’ names were not there. That’s why I went to France…otherwise I would have gone back to my hometown of Sighet. In France, a clerk in an office at the orphanage told me that he had talked with my sister, who was looking for me. ‘That’s impossible!’ I told him. ‘How would she even know I am in France?’ But he insisted that she’d told him that she would be waiting for me in Paris the next day. I didn’t sleep that night. The next day, I went to Paris, and there was my older sister! After our liberation, she had gotten engaged and gone to France, because she thought I was dead too. Then one day she opened the paper and saw my picture [a journalist had come to the orphanage to take pictures and write a story]. If it hadn’t been for that, it may have been years before we met. My other sister had gone back to our hometown after our release, thinking that I might be there.” The following year, Elie reunited with Beatrice, in Antwerp, Belgium. She eventually emigrated to Canada, where she lived for the rest of her life. Elie Wiesel passed away on July 2, 2016.
Primo Levi was an Italian Jew born on July 31, 1919 at Corso Re Umberto 75 in Turin, Italy, to Jewish parents Cesare and Esther “Rina” Levi. His father worked for the manufacturing firm Ganz and spent much of his time working abroad in Hungary, where Ganz was based. Levi’s mother was well educated, having attended the Istituto Maria Letizia. Rina and Cesare’s marriage was arranged by Rina’s father, Cesare Luzzati, who gave the young couple the apartment at Corso Re Umberto as a wedding gift. Primo Levi lived there for almost his entire life.
Primo Levi was an intelligent young man who excelled in school. In September 1930 he entered the Massimo d’Azeglio Royal Gymnasium a year ahead of normal entrance requirements. In class he was the youngest, the shortest and the most clever…he was also the only Jew. All this brought as its reward constant bullying. In August 1932, following two years at the Talmud Torah school in Turin, he sang in the local synagogue for his Bar Mitzvah. In 1933, he joined the Avanguardisti movement for young Fascists, as was expected of all young Italian schoolboys. He never wanted to be a soldier, so he avoided rifle drill by joining the ski division, and spent every Saturday during the season on the slopes above Turin. As a young boy Levi was plagued by illness, particularly chest infections, but he was keen to participate in physical activity. In his teens, Levi and a few friends would sneak into a disused sports stadium and conduct athletic competitions.
Levi later became a scientist, and it was this decision that would save his life during the Holocaust years…so to speak. When the deportations began, Levi found himself on a train to Auschwitz…the notorious death camp. The prisoners were put through a rigorous selection process. Those who didn’t make the cut, went directly to the gas chambers. The rest were placed into forced labor…a harsh back-breaking labor with starvation level rations.
Surviving the initial selection process at Auschwitz merely qualified a prisoner to be assigned to extremely harsh conditions involving back-breaking labor and intentionally miniscule amounts of nourishment. Levi was different. He was considered “useful” to the Nazis. His expertise as a scientist got him assigned in the camp laboratory. It also got him better food rations. Many would consider him lucky, but there was a price to pay for such luck. Levi was spared the horrific treatment his fellow prisoners were subjected to, but his protection from actually being subjected to such treatment did not save him from the horrors of witnessing such treatment. Levi tells the story of how prisoners at Auschwitz were treated in the books he has written on the subject. He tells of periodic selections, in which prisoners were forced to strip naked. These inspections were to “weed out” prisoners who were too exhausted or sick to provide meaningful labor. These prisoners were designated for transport to Auschwitz-Birkenau and the gas chamber. The prisoners who had been at Auschwitz…unlike newer prisoners, knew exactly what awaited them.
Levi’s description of this process from his work “The Drowned and the Saved” explains how most were already too mentally defeated and humiliated to resist: “The day in the [camp] was studded with innumerable harsh strippings – checking for lice, searching one’s clothes, examining for scabies and then the morning wash-up – as well as for the periodic selections, during which a ‘commission’ decided who was still fit for work and who, on the contrary, was marked for elimination. Now a naked and barefoot man feels that all his nerves and tendons are severed: He is helpless prey. Clothes, even the foul clothes distributed, even the crude clogs with their wooden soles, are a tenuous but indispensable defense. Anyone who does not have them no longer perceives himself as a human being but rather as a worm: naked, slow, ignoble, prone on the ground. He knows that he can be crushed at any moment.”
Levi survived his ordeal in Auschwitz, one of the few that did, but that did not ensure a quiet peaceful life for him. On April 11, 1987, Primo Levi died after a fall from a three-story building. His death was ruled a suicide, which would not be surprising with “survivor’s guilt” syndrome, but there are many who don’t believe that Levi would have committed suicide, and they think his death was an accident. I don’t suppose we will ever know, but I believe that whatever happened, Primo Levi is finally at peace.
Many people have tattoos these days, and the shops that perform their arts for people, have to comply with strict and sanitary working conditions. A tattoo performed in unsanitary conditions can become infected, and cause the loss of limb or even life, if it is not caught in time. The artwork these days is intricate and very elaborate. People can customize their tattoo so as to reflect their own personality. These days a tattoo is something lots of people use to express themselves, but tattoos were not always considered a thing of beauty, and was often forced upon people. Never was this more forced than during the Holocaust against the Jews.
Maria Ossowski was a Polish member of the Resistance imprisoned in Auschwitz in 1943. So many people did not survive, but those who did have lived to tell the truth about the Final Solution…Hitler’s most evil plot and crimes against humanity. Ossowski later recalled the horrible first few minutes of captivity and the tattooing process in the camp. Those people who did not die on the trains, or who were not herded straight to the gas chambers were herded into what they were told was their washroom. Ossowski says, “It was a huge barrack, with the water running, cold water I must add, from the top, there were men in already prison garb, which we never seen before. We were made to strip, we were made to go in front – each one of us – in front of that man, that man or the other one, they were all standing in the line, and we were shaven – we were shaven – our heads were shaven, our private parts were shaven and we were pushed then under that water. And after a while we were pushed out of it into another part of that big block, where the huge amount of terrible-looking – and already smelling terrible – clothes were prepared for us.”
Then they were given one dress with three-quarter sleeves that was put on over their heads. Once they were dressed, they were herded into another part, where female prisoners were sitting by little tables. Each had a job to do. They were to tattoo numbers on each prisoner’s arm. The tattoo process was not done in sanitary conditions, but it was done with an instrument that basically “wrote” the number into their arm. The instrument cut the skin and pushed ink under the skin. Ballpoint pens were not invented then, but the tool used acted in a similar way. The process continued until the point and ink formed the shape of a number. Originally a sharp stamp was used, but it was impractical, and so they used the needle and ink method. Those who did receive a tattoo on arrival at Auschwitz might actually be considered “lucky” in that only those deemed fit for work were tattooed. The others were sent off for immediate execution. I doubt anyone who carried this forced tattoo considered it lucky.
When Hitler decided that the time in his “final solution” had come to transport the Jews, Gypsies, and other “undesirables” to the death camps, he chose to transport them in cattle cars on a train. Hitler had so little compassion for human life, that when the people were loaded into the cattle cars, they were packed in tightly with as many 80 people to a car. They couldn’t sit down. The air was stifling. The trains didn’t stop for bathroom breaks or food. The people had to stand there hour after hour, for up to four very long days. Hitler and his men didn’t care, they didn’t even consider the people to be human, and to make matters worse, they thought it a good thing if the people just died en route, because it would save them the hassle, ammunition, and poison needed to kill them later.
I suppose that for Hitler and the Nazis, the plan was one of simple logistics of transporting millions of people to southern Poland. Some of the people came from as far away as the Netherlands, France, Italy, and Greece. Transportation was done occasionally in passenger trains, in which wealthy Jews were encouraged to bring as much of their wealth with them as possible. Oh course, the Jews thought they would be able to keep their belongings, but in reality, this was railway robbery, because their wealth was soon to be transferred to the Nazis. Where they were going, they would not need their property.
The transports of the Jews to Auschwitz went of daily, on schedule. They leave from the ghetto embarkation depots, on schedule. The process was very methodical…almost mechanical, or robotic. Those in charge had no compassion for the people being herded into the cattle cars. The conductors signaled, “All aboard.” The brakemen waved lanterns. Anyone who resisted was shot by German and Hungarian guards. Guards used clubs and bayonets to herd a last group of mothers into the compartments. Finally, the engineer opens the throttle, and right on schedule, the train is off for Auschwitz.
Eighty Jews in every compartment was the average, but Eichmann boasted that the Germans could do better where there were more children. With the children in the groups, they could jam 120 into each train room. The Jews had to stand all the way to Auschwitz…with their hands raised in the air…because that made room for the maximum number of passengers. Each compartment had two buckets…one containing water, and the other to use as a toilet, to be shoved by foot, if possible, from user to user, not that anyone could use their hands to facilitate waste elimination. Many just had to relieve themselves where they stood, through their clothing. The water buckets made no sense either, because one water bucket for over eighty people for four days, would never be enough, if they could figure out a way to get the water from the bucket to their mouths. Still, no one could say the Nazis were cruel…after all, the buckets were there, right? In the four days that it took to get to Auschwitz, many, if not all of the prisoners were dead, standing up, because in the tight quarters, the dead could not even fall. Those who survived were to face an worse fate than dying on the train. They faced slavery, forced experimentation, and finally the gas chambers. Children were separated from parents, men from women, and the elderly simply sent straight to the gas chambers. People were mutilated, poisoned, beaten, forced to stand outside naked in the bitter cold of winter or in the heat of summer, crammed into quarters with no heat or blankets, and starved to death on a mere 700 calories or less a day. Death was the best option.
I’ve heard that in some cases, inmates who have proven themselves can become an inmate guard. I don’t know of the validity of this practice, but I do know that during the reigning Third Reich, many Jewish prisoners were forced to become guards, or Sonderkommandos, in the camps that housed the Jews. It wasn’t a paid position, or even one with added security or benefits. It was a force position…one for which the penalty of failure was death.
For almost three years, 2,000 Sonderkommandos did such work under threat of execution. Their fellow prisoners despised them. Everyone knew who they were, and what they did. The Sonderkommandos were both feared and hated by their fellow prisoners!! The horrors they had to endure new no bounds. Some even had to dispose of the corpses of their relatives and neighbors. I can’t imagine having to carry off a dead relative to be thrown into a mass grave without even so much as a few words said over them. The Sonderkommandos no only had to do that, but then they had to either go back to, or continue working, as if nothing had happened at all.
Being a Sonderkommando did nothing to ensure that they would survive the war, or even the next month, because the Germans either out of necessity, or just brutality, replace the Sonderkommandos every six months. I’m sure these people knew, when they were placed in the position, that their days were numbered. The problem with being a Sonderkommando was not that they fought against doing their jobs, or tried to escape, it was that they simply knew too much. These people were eyewitnesses to the atrocities of the Holocaust, and therefore a liability. They could put the Germans in prison for crimes against humanity. The Nazis could not let that happen, so they used the Sonderkommandos for six months, then killed them and replaced them with another one.
Because of this practice, only a hundred or so survived the war. These survivors were eyewitnesses to the exterminations that Holocaust deniers challenge. They were to become some of the Nazis worst nightmares. One man…Dario Gabbai, a Greek Jew, who was imprisoned at Auschwitz, is quite possibly the last of the Sonderkommandos, and certainly one of the most prominent. Gabbai settled in California after the war and described the grim work he did in a handful of Holocaust documentaries…including “The Last Days,” which won an Academy Award for best documentary in 1999. The things Gabbai had to while he was a Sonderkommando at Auschwitz would haunt him for the rest of his life. People who have been forced to participate in horrible atrocities often blame themselves for the participation. Somehow, while logic tells us that there was nothing he could have done to stop the nightmare, he thinks he should have refused to do it, even if it meant his own death. He thinks himself a coward for being afraid to die, or for wanting desperately to live.
Of course, he wasn’t a coward. The very fact that he did survive makes him a hero. He was able to document the Holocaust and later relate what he witnessed. When his family reached Auschwitz, Dario’s father, mother, and younger brother were sent to the gas chambers. His sister had died as an infant, before Auschwitz. Dario and his brother, Jakob, were young…in their 20’s and strong, so they were made Sonderkommandos. He recalls seeing the doomed Jewish people taken into the gas chambers, under pretense of having a shower. Then, he remembers hearing the screams of the women and children…the crying and scratching on the walls as they desperately tried to get out…and the desperate gasping efforts to keep breathing, and then…the deathly silence. When the doors opened, the Sonderkommandos had to climb over bodies piled five and six feet high to harvest glasses, gold teeth and prosthetic limbs, before hauling out the corpses and washing down floors and walls covered in blood and excrement. Gabbai said, “I saw the people I just saw alive, the mother with the kids in their arms, some black and blue from the gas, dead. I said to myself — my mind went blind, how can I survive in this environment?” Gabbai and other Sonderkommandos had to drag the bodies to an elevator that would lift them one flight to the furnace floor. There was also a dissecting room, where jewels and other valuables hidden in body crevices would be removed. To endure such grim work, Gabbai said, he “shut down” and became an “automaton.”
The Germans preferred less common nationalities like Greek and Ladino-speaking Jews for these tasks, because they could not easily communicate the precise details of the factorylike slaughter to Polish, Hungarian and other European inmates. “They had seen too much and known too much,” Mr. Berenbaum, long-time friend of Gabbai said. It is no wonder Gabbai only wanted to get away…far away to California, after the war. When Gabbai was liberated, he weighed 100 pounds. He couldn’t face his haunting memories. He needed to get away from all German memories. He made his way to Athens, where he helped settle refugees for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. In 1951, he immigrated to the United States through the sponsorship of the Jewish community of Cleveland, and two years later he moved to California for “its beautiful beaches, beautiful women and sunshine,” he told Mr Berenbaum. In California Gabbai finally found, if not peace, at least a light beyond the darkness of his past. In the mid-1950s, he married Dana Mitzman. They divorced, but had a daughter, Rhoda, who survives him. He passed away on March 25, 2020, at 97 years old, in California. Whether Gabbai ever achieved peace with his past or not will never be known.
As a grandmother and great grandmother, I want my grandchildren to love me and want me around, but even more that that, I want my grandchildren to respect me, because when it comes down to it, your good name is really the best thing to pass down to your kids, whether they take your last name or not. Your name is your identity, oh sure, you can change it, but once you have ruined your reputation, not much can fix it.
As a prime example, take the case of Rainer Höss. The name might not ring any bells to you, and mostly that would be due to the fact that the English pronunciation of the name, doesn’t really tell you what the name is. Rainer Höss is the grandson of the former commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolph Höss, and he knows first-hand how bad it can be when your name has been ruined.
In 1933, Rudolph Höss joined the SS in Nazi Germany, and in 1934 he was attached to the SS at Dachau. On August 1, 1938, Rudolph Höss was appointed as adjutant of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp until his appointment as Kommandant of the newly-built camp at Auschwitz in early 1940. In May 1941, SS commander Heinrich Himmler told Höss that Hitler had given orders for the final solution of the Jewish question and that “I have chosen the Auschwitz camp for this purpose.” It was then that Höss converted Auschwitz into an extermination camp and installed gas chambers and crematoria that were capable of killing 2,000 people every hour. He was brutally meticulous…counting corpses with the cool dedication of a trained bookkeeper, he went home each night to the loving embrace of his own family who lived on the camp grounds. Rudolph Höss had no qualms about watching millions of innocent human beings dissolve in the gas chambers, burn in the crematoriums and their teeth melt into gold bars, Höss even wrote poetry about the “beauty” of Auschwitz. He was a monster of epic proportions.
Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann recounted in his memoirs how he was assigned in early 1942 to visit the Auschwitz death camp and report back to superiors on the killing of Jews. He wrote that the methods for killing were still crude, but these represented a gruesome foretaste of the factory-style gas chambers and crematoria that were to follow: “Höss, the Kommandant, told me that he used sulfuric acid to kill. Round cotton wool filters were soaked with this poison and thrown into the rooms where the Jews were assembled. The poison was instantly fatal. He burned the corpses on an iron grill, in the open air. He led me to a shallow ditch where a large number of corpses had just been burned.”
Höss eventually found that gassing by carbon monoxide was inefficient and introduced the cyanide gas Zyklon B. He later recalled: “The gassing was carried out in the detention cells of Block 11. Protected by a gas mask, I watched the killing myself. In the crowded cells, death came instantaneously the moment the Zyklon B was thrown in. A short, almost smothered cry, and it was all over…I must even admit that this gassing set my mind at rest, for the mass extermination of the Jews was to start soon, and at that time neither Eichmann nor I was certain as to how these mass killings were to be carried out. It would be by gas, but we did not know which gas and how it was to be used. Now we had the gas, and we had established a procedure.” Rudolph Höss not only “enjoyed” his work, but he was proud of his accomplishments.
His family, or at least his grandson Ranier Höss was horrified by the legacy his grandfather so “lovingly” left him. He could not believe that his grandfather was not only proud of what he had done, but he liked it so much that he wanted to watch from inside the chamber. Rainer Höss has spent his whole life trying to escape the stigma of being related to Rudolph Höss. Rainer doesn’t expect to be forgiven…he knows that he will always be blamed for what his grandfather did, because his grandfather left him the name. His grandfather was proud his “accomplishments.” He honestly thought everyone would be proud. He honestly thought he was a hero.
Rainer Höss doesn’t expect to be “forgiven.” He knows it wasn’t his fault, but he understands the reasons people react the way they do, because it’s how he would react. That is the real legacy his “grandfather” left him. You see, for Rainer Höss…grandfather is an abstract word.
I read a book the other day, called “The Librarian of Auschwitz.” It is a true story about a woman named Dita Polachova , who at the age of 14 years was imprisoned at Auschwitz. I was moved by the sacrifices the people in her network made, as well as the many people I have read about in the past. We, in America, don’t often understand the need to sacrifice our own safety, and many people wouldn’t do it even if it was necessary. Dita was one of those people who would.
She was in charge of eight books that someone had smuggled into Auschwitz, the first sacrifice. It was something that could have cost the smuggler his life, but he saw value in the ability to get the books into the hands of the family camp, and the children’s school at Auschwitz. The family camp, and the coordinated children’s school was unique to Auschwitz. Most camps did not allow families to stay together. In fact, most of the children were killed upon arrival at the camps. The family camp and the children’s school were the brainstorm sacrifice Freddy Hirsch, who was a Jewish athlete, one of the great runners. He was almost impossible to beat. I don’t know if that was what gave him some pull or not, but he made a sacrifice that turned out to be the ultimate sacrifice. Fredy Hirsch would not survive Auschwitz. It wasn’t because the books were found, but rather that the Nazis were taking away the family camp and children’s school. He took his own life. He assumed that the precious books would be lost, but he had underestimated Dita, who managed to get the books back in their hiding place, where they were not found by the Nazis.
Dita outlived the Nazi reign of terror and went on to lead a happy life, despite the memories that would haunt her for the rest of her life. She married Arvid Harnack, an author, who with the writer Adam Kuckhoff and his wife Greta, who with Mildred Fish-Harnack brought together a discussion circle which debated political perspectives on the time after the National Socialists’ expected downfall or overthrow. From these meetings arose what the Gestapo called the Red Orchestra resistance group.
The Red Orchestra, Die Rote Kapelle in German, or the Red Chapel as it was known in Germany, was the name given by the Gestapo to anti-Nazi resistance workers during World War II. The members included friends of Harro Schulze-Boysen and Arvid Harnack in Berlin, as well as groups working independently of these intelligence groups, working in Paris and Brussels, that were built up on behalf of Leopold Trepper on behalf of the Soviet Main Directorate of State Security. The Red Orchestra was neither directed by Soviet communists nor under a single leadership but a network of groups and individuals, often operating independently contrary to legend. About 400 members are known by name at this time. They printed illegal leaflets hoping to incite civil disobedience, helped Jews and opposition escape the regime, documented the crimes of the Nazi regime, and forwarded military intelligence to the Allies. The public perception of the “Red Orchestra” is characterized by the transfigurations of the post-war years and the Cold War.
The network of people willing to risk their own lives during the Holocaust years was extensive. From Jews who risked their lives to make life better in and out of the camps, to non-Jews who risked their lives to fight against the atrocities of the Nazi Regime and the Third Reich. These were brave people who knew that bravery isn’t about being fearless, but rather being brave despite the fear. Their stories deserve to be told. They deserve recognition, because in the face of the worst odds, they took action anyway. That is true bravery, and true sacrifice.
Most people who know anything about World War II, have heard of Auschwitz. Concentration camps like the infamous Auschwitz forced people to endure inhumane treatment and poor living conditions. It was one of the worst of the death camps set up by Hitler as part of the “Final Solution” killings of Jews, Gypsies, and Jehovah’s Witnesses during and right before World War II. Nevertheless, Auschwitz wasn’t the only death camp, and some were even more afraid of going to Mauthausen than they were Auschwitz.
Between 1939, when World War II began, to 1945 when it ended, more than 1 million of the 1.5 million Jewish children who had lived in the areas German armies occupied, had perished. The Mauthausen camp wasn’t as well known as Auschwitz, but it was equally horrific. Built in 1938, Mauthausen was one of the first concentration camps erected and the last to be liberated. It was a place where terrible medical experiments took place, and the guards humiliated the prisoners. Mauthausen “Stairs of Death” were especially tragic because prisoners were forced to climb to their deaths. This 186-step structure was brutal for prisoners. They had to carry stones weighing more than 100 pounds from the bottom of the quarry to the top of the stairs. Climbers often collapsed beneath the stones’ weight. Exhausted prisoners slid down the steps, knocking over other prisoners while the stones crushed their limbs. Nazi Party members called the camp “the Bone Grinder.”
Prisoners who actually made it to the top of those torturous steps, were then forced to make the most unthinkable decisions. The German guards lined up the survivors of the climb, then forced them to choose between either pushing a fellow prisoner off the cliff or being executed. Many prisoners opted to jump off the cliff. German officers called these acts “parachute jumps.” It didn’t matter if they had been strong enough to make the climb, carrying the 100 pound rocks, because they were to lose their lives anyway.
Some prisoners escaped the stairs, if it could be called escape, but they were subjected to Dr. Aribert Heim’s horrific experiments. In 1941, Heim started working at Mauthausen. His experiments involved disfiguring people indiscriminately. During his first year of employment there, guards brought in an 18-year-old Jewish athlete with a foot infection. “Heim put the teen under anesthesia, cut him open, removed his kidney, and castrated him. Finally, the doctor removed the athlete’s head, then boiled the skull to remove all the flesh. He kept the severed body part as a trophy.”
Austrian winters are brutal, with temperatures dropping to around 14 degrees Fahrenheit. The guards at Mauthausen used the frigid temperatures to torment and execute inmates. They took groups outside, forced them to strip naked, then sprayed them with water. The poor terrified prisoners were the left to freeze. Many died of hypothermia. The guards also “enjoyed” physically and mentally abusing their prisoners. Former inmate and French resistance fighter Christian Bernadac said Mauthausen was “infernal, without a second’s rest.” Officers offered prisoners breaks from the grueling work, but then executed those who accepted. Mauthausen survivor Aba Lewitt recalled a man who met that fate: “The guard said [to the man], ‘Well, then, sit over there’ – then he shot him. [He] said the inmate tried to escape the camp. That happened umpteen times every day.”
The Germans created Mauthausen to benefit Adolf Hitler’s army. They needed granite and brick for Linz, a neighboring city the dictator hoped to rebuild with huge, elaborate structures. The concentration camp sat on the edge of a granite quarry, and prisoners collected the plutonic igneous rock to form Mauthausen’s main structures. Inmates called their time there “vernichtung durch arbeit,” or “extermination by work.” They did not expect to return home.
Mauthausen was a central concentration camp, but it had numerous subcamps that surrounded it. The subcamps were connected by underground tunnels. One of these smaller subcamps, the Gusen complex, was the place they took people who were too weak to work. Gusen inmates were simply thrown on the ground and abandoned. People there were piled on top of each other, often unable to move around and covered in human excrement. German guards rarely distributed food in Gusen, so the prisoners simply starved to death.
Crazed prisoners at Mauthausen allegedly resorted to cannibalism to survive. Food was so scarce in Mauthausen, and sometimes high-ranking German guards like Oswald Pohl cut the rations in half. To stay alive, some inmates resorted to cannibalism, particularly during the winter months when other sustenance such as grass and sand was scarce. A black market of stolen meat emerged. Allegedly, “meat” came from dying inmates. Cannibalism became so rampant that extremely ill prisoners feared sleeping, afraid others might remove chunks of their flesh.
Mauthausen guards had nothing but time to come up with the most horrific ways to torture the prisoners. Sometimes they ordered them to pick strawberries in a field and then shot them…saying they were trying to escape. Concentration camp leaders also threw prisoner’s hats near the structure perimeters and shot whoever tried to retrieve their belongings. Barbed-wire fencing surrounded Mauthausen. The guards loved dangling “freedom” in front to the prisoners, or at least saying that the prisoners were trying to escape. Some inmates ended their own lives by throwing themselves against the fence. That didn’t usually end their lives instantly. The prisoner would just hang there, stuck in the wire, for days until they finally died.
Mauthausen was finally liberated when World War II ended in 1945, but many of the inmates never received justice. They died before help arrived. The Austrian concentration camp claimed about 100,000 lives and thousands more were lost after their release. Allied soldiers didn’t understand the gravity of the situation when they arrived in Mauthausen. They were trying to help when they threw chocolate to the starving inmates. Chocolate has lots of calories, and is often given as a source of energy, but many of the inmates died, because their bodies could no longer digest solids. I can’t imagine the horror the soldiers must have felt, knowing that in trying to help, they had inadvertently caused the death of these poor prisoners. The camp was liberated on that day in 1945, but the terror that was daily life in Mauthausen will never be forgotten.
Most people would not think that the things Dr Gisella Perl did at Auschwitz during the Holocaust were angelic in any way, but the prisoners there, the women whose lives she saved would say otherwise. To them, she was an angel of mercy…even if some of the things she had to do were so horrific that she tried to commit suicide after the war. Dr Perl was a successful Jewish gynecologist from Romania, where she lived with her husband and two children. Right before the Nazi soldiers stormed her home, she was able to hid her daughter with some non-Jews, but she, her husband, son, her elderly parents who captured and taken to Auschwitz. Once they arrived, Gisella was separated from her family. They would be sent to be slave labor or to be killed. She would never see any of them again. Because she was a doctor, she was to be used in a different way…a horrifically gruesome way. She was to work for Dr Joseph Mengele, to be at his beck and call, and the things he made her do nearly killed her. She was a doctor. She was supposed to save lives, not be involved in ending them…or worse, but that was the position he put her in.
First, he told her to round up any pregnant women. She thought she was going to be caring for these women, but after she turned over 50 women, and they were immediately sent to the gas chambers, a horrified Dr Perl made up her mind that somehow, she would do whatever she could to thwart the Nazis horrible plans. She had not understood what was goin to happen to the pregnant women she turned over, and the thought of her part in their loss of live, nearly killed her. The things she did after that first horrible mistake, might not seem to most people, including me, like the actions of an angel, but I can see that she had no real choices.
The women Dr Perl cared for had been treated horrible by the Nazi soldiers. Their wounds consisted of lashes from a whip on bare skin, to bites from dogs, to infections from the horribly unsanitary conditions. When she entered the room, the prisoners in the infirmary knew that she was there to help. That was the good part of her life at Auschwitz, but Dr Mengele was a cruel and evil man, and he was determined to kill any pregnant woman. This left Dr Perl with an extremely difficult decision to make. She could watch as the mother and baby were put to death, or she could abort the babies and give the mothers the chance to live to have a family later. The choice was unthinkable to her, but it was also a non-choice. She could lose one life or both. The abortions were performed in secret, often in darkness, and the women whose lives she saved…well, they were grateful, even though they mourned their babies and never truly got over the decisions they and Dr Perl made. Later in life, after the war, Dr Perl went on to deliver many live babies, rejoicing over each. She was bold with God, telling him, when a baby seemed unlikely to make it, that God owed her this baby, because of those she could not save in the Holocaust. God honored her prayers, and gave her the healthy babies she requested of Him. I think He considered her the Angel of Auschwitz too.