5. Those Who Stayed Behind
The National Socialist regime had from the start been concerned to reduce to a minimum the influence and presence of Jews. From 1933, Nazi Germany marginalised its Jewish population and systematically excluded them from most spheres of social, educational, professional and economic life. In Austria this process happened at a faster pace, following the ‘Anschluss’ in March 1938. After the violent November pogrom in 1938, the remaining Jewish population was desperate to find ways to emigrate. The outbreak of war in September 1939, however, greatly reduced the possibilities of emigration. It forced the Nazis to consider other means of ridding Germany of Jews, as well as enabling them, under cover of wartime conditions, to embark on more radical measures, such as the deportation of Jews from cities like Vienna to a ‘Jewish reservation’ in Nisko, Poland, in October 1939. The Nazis also began to separate Jews in big cities from the rest of the population, by concentrating them in certain quarters; this facilitated the coming mass deportations to the East.
In October 1941, the regime banned any further Jewish emigration. This marked a key turning point, when Nazi policy moved to the outright extermination of Germany’s Jews. Within a very short time, work started at the first death camps, Belzec and Chelmno in occupied Poland; gassings at Chelmno began in December 1941. From that point on, the fate of the Jews of Germany merged with that of Jews in the rest of occupied Europe during the Holocaust.
Though Jews had been imprisoned and killed by the Nazis ever since 1933, the systematic extermination of Europe’s Jews only began after the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941; the precise date remains to be ascertained. Behind the lines of the advancing German forces, units known as Einsatzkommandos were sent in to kill Jews; the largest massacres were the killing of some 33,000 Jews of Kiev at Babi Yar over two days in September 1941 and the killing of some 50,000 Jews in Odessa later that year by German and Romanian troops. The mass shooting of Jews spread to Poland, where some 42,000 Jews were killed in Aktion Erntefest (Operation Harvest Festival) in November 1943, and to other lands in the East. The numbers killed were enormous; it has been calculated that they were at least equal to those killed in the gas chambers.
As many as two million Jews were killed at the death camps of Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka, situated in remote areas of Poland away from public view. These were extermination camps pure and simple, employing methods first tested in Germany in Aktion T4, the programme of mass murder by involuntary euthanasia; transports of Jews were brought in by train and killed, leaving only very few survivors. Auschwitz not only contained the largest of the extermination camps, Auschwitz II-Birkenau, where at least a million Jews were killed, but it also, like Majdanek, contained a work camp, where it was possible for Jews like Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel to survive to bear witness.
The Nazis had established concentration camps from 1933, on the model of the camp at Dachau, outside Munich. These included such notorious sites as Sachsenhausen, outside Berlin, Buchenwald, outside Weimar in central Germany, and Mauthausen, near Linz in Austria. Though they were originally intended for political enemies of the Nazis, many Jews were also detained and murdered there over the years. To the principal camps was added a large number of sub-camps; by 1945, a vast network of camps, often labour camps, had spread across Germany and beyond. But the concentration camps, for all their horrors, should be distinguished from the extermination camps. Many German Jews were killed in concentration camps; some were sent to the ghetto/concentration camp at Theresienstadt (Terezín) in Bohemia, which the Nazis tried to present as a model camp; some were deported and killed in mass shootings, at sites like Maly Trostinec, near Minsk in Belarus. But the greatest number of Germany’s Jews died in the extermination camps.
The aim of the Holocaust was to kill the entire Jewish population of Europe. From Norway to Rhodes in the Dodecanese Islands, from Brittany to Transylvania, Jews were deported to the death camps; not even the communities in Albania or the Channel Islands escaped the fury of the Nazis. In the occupied areas of the East, Poland, the Baltic States and the western Soviet Union, the Germans could act without hindrance, carrying out mass shootings followed by deportations to the extermination camps. Where they met with military resistance, as in occupied Serbia, they proceeded with extreme violence in which the local Jewish population was caught up. In western Europe, the Nazis set up transit camps, like Drancy, a suburb of Paris, Westerbork in Holland, Fort Breendonk in Mechelen (Malines) in Belgium or Fossoli in Italy, where Jews were detained before being transported to the East. The Vichy French authorities provided a notable example of the collaboration of a state apparatus with the Nazis. The Jews of Denmark, however, were mostly saved, by being shipped to safety in Sweden.
In central, eastern and south-eastern Europe, the Germans could rely on the cooperation of puppet regimes like that in Slovakia, eager to be rid of its Jews, or Croatia, bent on eliminating minorities that were not Catholic Croats. In Greece, which was under military administration, the Germans proceeded to deport Jews without hindrance. The Bulgarian government was successful in protecting its Jewish citizens from deportation, though that protection did not extend to Jews in the areas of Greece occupied by Bulgaria in 1941. The Romanian government carried out massacres of Jews independently of its German allies, though it also collaborated with them in the territories it occupied in the Soviet Union; its record in areas like Bessarabia or Bukovina was appalling. The last mass deportation of a nation’s Jews occurred in Hungary, following the German occupation of that country in March 1944; by then, the machinery of deportation organised by Adolf Eichmann was working with maximum efficiency, transporting several hundred thousand people to the death camps. Following international pressure, the deportations from Hungary were halted in July 1944.
In the face of the advance of the Red Army, the death camps were mostly destroyed in haste by the Germans; their surviving inmates were taken on death marches towards the west or transported to camps like Bergen-Belsen.