Today marks the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe. It’s a commemoration that is understandably being drowned out by the urgency of the global coronavirus pandemic.
And yet, for us Jews, the date is pregnant with meaning as it marks the end of the Holocaust, the greatest crime in world history and the greatest cataclysm in Jewish history.
While the war began on September 1, 1939, with the German invasion of Poland, the holocaust itself as a planned mass annihilation of the Jews using poison gas was carried out at a beautiful lakeside village in the Berlin suburb of Wansee in January of 1942.
Shortly after the war’s beginning, Heinrich Himmler, the head of the Gestapo and the SS, created special mobile-killing units within the SS, the Einsatzgruppen, responsible for liquidating all political enemies of the Reich. They were placed under the command of his deputy, Reinhard Heydrich.
On September 21, 1939, Heydrich sent a secret memo to the chiefs of the Einsatzgruppen. It is a remarkable document that makes clear that a conference in Berlin that day discussed the solution to the Jewish question and the importance of keeping the plans for implementing it secret. The memo euphemistically refers to the “final aim” of the Nazis, which he says would take some time, and the stages necessary for fulfilling it in the short term.
The “first prerequisite,” which Heydrich said should “be carried out with all speed,” was the “concentration of the Jews from the countryside into the larger cities.” If an explanation for this action was needed, he wrote, they were to say “that Jews have most influentially participated in guerrilla attacks and plundering actions.” Foreshadowing future plans, Heydrich said to create “as few concentration points as possible…so as to facilitate subsequent measures,” and to choose locations along railroad lines. The memo also uses the word “ghetto,” which may be the earliest reference to the German plan to confine Jews to ghettos. Charitably, Heydrich says Jews who do not immediately comply with orders to move into the cities should be given a short grace period along with a warning of “strictest punishment if they should fail to comply with this latter deadline.”
In the memo, Heydrich also gave instructions for the creation of Jewish councils, the notorious Judenrats, that would face the moral and ethical qualm of whether to collaborate with the Nazis in the hope of saving some Jewish lives or resisting. The decision to create what Heydrich referred to in the memo as “Councils of Jewish Elders” (Jüdishe Ältestenräte) was part of the diabolical scheme to force Jews to participate in their own destruction. Many of those who served on the councils would later be denounced.
Two years later, the implementation of the radical solution to the Jewish question to accomplish the “final aim” began when the Einsatzgruppen were assigned to kill Jews during the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. Ultimately, these mobile killing units would murder an estimated 1.4 million Jews.
The next stage in the genocide was tested on September 3, 1941, when 600 Soviet prisoners of war and 260 ill or weak prisoners at a concentration camp in Poland known as Auschwitz were herded into an experimental gas chamber. The Germans filled the room with crystalline hydrogen cyanide gas, an insecticide with the commercial name Zyklon B. The test was “successful” and the gas chamber was used for mass murder starting in January 1942.
So, the Holocaust had begun and the extermination of the Jews was already in full swing when Heydrich invited fourteen high-ranking Nazi Party and government officials to the SS-owned villa we had come to visit. Later, the meeting became known as the Wannsee Conference. We only know of its existence because one of the thirty copies (marked number 16 of 30) believed to have been distributed to the participants was found in the files of the German Foreign Office in 1947 by American war crimes investigators.
Fifteen men, convened by Heydrich, met over cigars and caviar and spent 90-minutes discussing the SS plan to kill all the Jews of Europe. Heydrich wanted to assert SS responsibility for the “Final Solution” and to stress the importance of the various government bodies coordinating their actions to accomplish their goal quickly and efficiently. Eichmann, Heydrich’s subordinate, recorded the minutes, which were subsequently edited by Heydrich who substituted euphemisms for references to actions planned against the Jews.
We do not know everything that was said, since Eichmann’s notes were not verbatim, but the euphemisms, such as the “new possibilities in the East” and “the Final Solution of the European Jewish Question,” are transparent in the descriptions of the role the various departments would play in transporting Jews from occupied territories to extermination camps in Poland. The scope of the Nazis’ vision is evident from a table listing 11 million Jews, by country, who were subject to the “Final Solution.” What is striking is that this list includes several countries, some neutral during the war, not usually associated with the Holocaust, such as England, Ireland, Sweden, Switzerland and Turkey. The group did acknowledge that it would be easier to evacuate Jews from some countries, such as France, than others, such as the Nordic states. Nevertheless, Heydrich made plain that the goal was “to cleanse the German living space [Lebensraum] of Jews in a legal manner.”
One telling passage from the minutes echoes Hitler’s sick notions of racial purity and the propaganda campaign that depicted Jews as vermin sub-humans whose existence could pollute the Aryan race:
In large, single-sex labor columns, Jews fit to work will work their way eastwards constructing roads. Doubtless the large majority will be eliminated by natural causes. Any final remnant that survives will doubtless consist of the most resistant elements. They will have to be dealt with appropriately, because otherwise, by natural selection, they would form the germ cell of a new Jewish revival.
State Secretary Josef Bühler was especially eager to dispose of the Jews in the Government-General – the occupied territory that included Poland and Western Ukraine – because the two-and-one-half million Jews living there were “unfit for work,” carried dangerous “epidemics,” and “caused constant disorder in the economic structure of the country” by their “black-market dealings.”
One of the remarkable aspects of the meeting, and of the Holocaust in general, is the absence of any evidence that Hitler ordered the murder of the Jews. The assumption of the attendees was that Heydrich was operating under the explicit orders of the Führer, but no such orders have ever been found. According to Yad Vashem, they may have been given orally or with Hitler’s knowledge. We only have documentation that Heydrich was acting under the authorization of Himmler. Hitler took extraordinary steps to make sure that no written orders from him as to the annihilation of European Jewry would exist. There are public speeches he gave promising to destroy European Jewry, but no written orders, which shows you how far Hitler went to suppress evidence of war crimes. That approach was emulated by nearly all the Nazis, especially in the final days of the war, doing their utmost to conceal the scope of the genocide and their involvement.
By 1942, Germany was already fighting a world war. And yet, they spent the day discussing how to deploy their scarce resources to conduct a continent-wide genocide of the Jews.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum succinctly summed up the significance of the Wannsee Conference: “Never before had a modern state committed itself to the murder of an entire people.”
Hitler killed six million Jews, but try as he might, he did not exterminate the Jewish people, even as he annihilated one out of three of all Jews alive at the time of the Second World War. We live on and thrive in our homeland of Israel and in Diaspora communities across the globe. It was a particularly fitting coda to the history of the Wannsee Conference when the staff at the Israeli embassy in Berlin held their weekly meeting in the same building on April 25, 2017 — 75 years after the protocol for the final solution was completed.
And here, 75 years after the end of the war, we recall the six million who were murdered not by a silent killer but by an all-too-visible enemy — not by a global pathogen, but by a European-wide pandemic of hate that had festered for generations.
We pray today for all the victims of the coronavirus, that God should purge this terrible plague from the earth, and we simultaneously pray for the end of hatred, bigotry, and prejudice from all the earth.