March 1944–May 1945

On April 6, 1944, Klaus Barbie, chief of the Gestapo in Lyons, informed Röthke of a particularly successful catch:

“This morning, the Jewish children’s home ‘Colonie d’Enfants’ in Izieu (Ain) has been taken away. A total of 41 children, aged 3–13, have been caught. Moreover all the Jewish staff was captured: 10 people, including 5 women. We have not seized any cash or valuables. The transport to Drancy will take place on April 7.”1

Most of the children and staff of Izieu were deported from Drancy to Auschwitz on April 13 in transport 71; the remaining ones were deported on May 30 and June 30: None survived. The first ten names on the list (in alphabetical order) included children from five countries: Adelsheimer, Sami, age five (Germany); Ament, Hans, age ten (Austria); Aronowicz, Nina, age twelve (Belgium); Balsam, Max-Marcel, age twelve (France); Balsam, Jean-Paul, age ten (France); Benassayag, Esther, age twelve (Algeria); Benessayag, Ellie, age ten (Algeria); Benessayag, Jacob, age eight (Algeria); Benguigui, Jacques, age twelve (Algeria); Benguigui, Richard, age seven (Algeria). The last children on the list were Weltner, Charles, age nine (France); Wertheimer, Otto, age twelve (Germany); Zuckerberg, Émile, age five (Belgium).2

The murder of the children and staff of Izieu was but a minute event in the routine of German mass extermination, but it demonstrated, as the war entered its last year, that despite the rapidly deteriorating situation of the Reich, no effort would be spared, no roundup deemed too insignificant in the final drive toward the complete extermination of the European Jews.

Both the evolution of the war and that of the anti-Jewish campaign between March 1944 and May 1945 can be divided into three distinct and yet roughly coinciding phases. The first and longest phase ended approximately at the beginning of 1945, after the failure of Hitler’s major offensive in the West and the liberation of Auschwitz. At the end of this phase the Führer’s state controlled hardly more territory than the prewar Reich. Yet through the preceding months it had remained a unified political entity capable of conducting large-scale military operations and implementing thoroughly planned measures against the Jews within its reach.

During the second phase, stretching from the beginning of 1945 to early April, Allied forces in the East and the West were closing on Germany’s vital centers. The disintegration of the Nazi state and regime had become irreversible, and chaos spread within the shrinking Reich. The murderous anti-Jewish steps taken during those few months resulted in part from the growing anarchy combined with the persistence of raging anti-Semitism among party officials high and low and in wide strata of the population. Nonetheless there was no unified anti-Jewish policy any longer as Himmler in particular started following an independent course.

The last phase (April and early May 1945) was that of the Reich’s collapse and surrender, of course, but also that of Hitler’s final message to future generations. The Jewish issue dominated the Nazi leader’s ultimate ramblings but, in some aspects, it did so in quite a peculiar way, as we shall see.

During this entire final year the Allies did not countenance any major rescue efforts and rejected the main plans submitted to them in regard to Hungarian Jewry (in one case at least, not without plausible reasons). But the liberation of camps and of ever-larger areas in which Jews had survived, as well as the initiatives of individuals and neutral organizations mainly in still-occupied parts of Hungary, saved tens of thousands of lives. The Jewish issue as such, however, was generally speaking nonexistent in terms of Allied decisions.

As for the majority of the surviving Jews themselves, they had become, by early 1944, a motley population of isolated individuals. Those who could joined the partisans or Resistance forces; the vast majority clawed its way through slave labor, starvation, and potential extermination at every step and, finally, survived by pure chance or mostly perished by German design.


During the first phase the Wehrmacht stemmed the Allied advance on Rome until early June 1944, and in mid-March it had occupied Hungary. German armaments production did not drastically decrease until the end of the year. Although the Allied landing in Normandy on June 6 succeeded, and although in the summer and autumn Soviet forces occupied Poland and the Baltic countries, toppled the Romanian regime, took over Bulgaria, and established a front line on the outskirts of Budapest, the Germans still launched dangerous counteroffensives in both the east and the west.

By the end of the year, however, after the failure of the military countermoves on all fronts (particularly the offensive in the West, definitively halted on December 27), the Reich’s military might was spent: East Prussia had already partly fallen into Soviet hands, and huge Allied forces were poised on the borders of the Reich; by that time, too, the country’s industrial capacity was rapidly sinking under the relentless Anglo-American bombing attacks.

At times some minor incident allowed Hitler to give a new and unexpected twist to his anti-Jewish rage, as for example, in the case of the Hungarian general Ferenc Feketehalmy-Czeydner and some fellow officers. Feketehalmy and his associates were responsible for the massacre of about 6,000 Serbs and 4,000 Jews in Novi Sad in March 1943. About to be put on trial by Kallay’s government (as a sign of goodwill directed at the Western Allies), the Hungarian officers fled to Germany in early 1944. When the Budapest government asked for their extradition, Hitler granted them political asylum. On January 19 the Nazi leader’s adjutant, Walter Hewel, informed Ribbentrop that, in his chief ’s words, “everyone in Europe should know that a person accused of persecuting Jews who would flee to Germany would be granted asylum. Anybody who fights against the Jewish pest in Europe, stands on our side. We did not yet hear that in Hungary there had been complaints against the Jews who were responsible for the mass murder of women and children in the Anglo-American bombings. It should be clear to everybody that only the Jews could be the agitators behind these horrifying terror-attacks.” Hitler asked that Horthy be informed of the message.3 The Jews as inciters of the “terror attacks” became one of Hitler’s most recurrent themes.

On April 27, 1944, the propaganda minister recorded a conversation that must have taken place on the previous day in Berlin. The most recent bombing of Munich had caused heavy damage. Hitler was filled with intense desire for vengeance against England and expected a great deal from the forthcoming “reprisal weapons.” Then, without transition, Goebbels noted: “The Führer’s hatred against the Jews has intensified even further rather than declined. The Jews must be punished for their crimes against the European nations and in general against the entire cultured world. Wherever we can get hold of them, they should not escape retribution. The advantages of anti-Semitism do offset its disadvantages, as I always said. All in all, a long-term policy in this war is only possible if one considers it from the standpoint of the Jewish question.”4

Why, in fact, could Hitler’s hatred of the Jews have eventually lessened? For the obvious reason that most of the Jews of Europe had already been murdered. Yet as German cities were reduced to rubble and as total defeat loomed ever closer, the Führer’s hatred increased.5 Furthermore Hitler’s declaration indicated once again that for him Jewry as an active entity was independent of the concrete fate of the Jews who had been murdered under German domination. The destruction of German cities was the work of “the Jew.” Thus the full significance of the war and any long-term policy could not be grasped and formulated without setting the “Jewish question” (the role of the Jew) at center stage.

The same crazed obsession resurfaced in Hitler’s address to an assembly of generals and officers of other ranks on May 26, 1944, in Berchtesgaden. This group of several hundred newly minted “National Socialist guidance officers” responsible since December 1943 for ideological indoctrination in the Wehrmacht, had just completed their own special training before returning to the front.6 Two days before the meeting with Hitler, they had been harangued by Himmler at Sonthofen. As in Posen in October 1943, the Reichsführer did not mince words: The extermination of the Jews, as difficult as it was, had been a necessity for the safety and the future of the Volk.7 Now it was Hitler’s turn.

According to historian Hans-Heinrich Wilhelm, who first published the speech in 1976, Hitler’s main aim was to inform these officers of the extermination of the Jews (already widely known by then and mentioned to them by Himmler).8 The Jews, the Nazi leader proclaimed, had been a “foreign body” in the community of the Volk; it had been necessary to expel them, although not everybody grasped why it had to be done “so brutally and ruthlessly.” “In removing the Jew,” Hitler explained, “I eliminated in Germany the possibility of creating some sort of revolutionary core or nucleus. You could naturally say: Yes, but could you not have done it more simply—or not more simply, since everything else would have been more complicated—but more humanely? Gentlemen, we are in a life-or-death struggle. If our opponents are victorious in this struggle, the German people will be eradicated [ausgerottet]. Bolshevism would slaughter millions and millions and millions of our intellectuals. Anyone not dying through a shot in the neck would be deported. The children of the upper classes would be taken away and eliminated. This entire bestiality has been organized by the Jews.” After evoking the 40,000 women and children killed in Hamburg, he went on, now answering his own initial rhetorical question: “Don’t expect anything else from me except the ruthless upholding of the national interest in the way which, in my view, will have the greatest effect and benefit for the German nation.” The speech was greeted with frenetic applause.9

As was his wont, when haranguing foreign dignitaries, the Nazi leader rarely missed some threatening reference to the Jews. Yet in 1944, the anti-Jewish outbursts turned even shriller than before and their setting, ever more grotesque, as the once-all-powerful Führer was now trying to convince his Balkan and Central European allies that Germany would win in the end and that they should faithfully accept his explanations despite the overwhelming Soviet military tide surging at their very borders.

Thus on March 16 and 17, on the eve of the browbeating of Horthy and the occupation of Hungary, Hitler preached at great length to the Bulgarian regency council set up after King Boris’s sudden and mysterious death. The Jews were unavoidably present, of course. Atypically however, the Nazi leader started with defensive remarks: “One had often reproached him that by his ruthless handling of the Jews he had turned them into inexorable enemies.” The answer was ready: The Jews would have been his enemies and those of Germany in any case; “by totally excluding them, he had completely eliminated the danger to the internal morale that they represented.”10 Just beforehand, he had mentioned 1917 and 1918 again: The link was clear enough. Whether the Bulgarians were convinced is doubtful. In any case, it would be the last visit of a Bulgarian delegation to the leader of the Great German Reich.

The “Priesterchen” Tiso, as the Nazi leader referred to him at times, Antonescu, or the new Hungarian prime minister, Sztójay, remained Hitler’s only “politically significant” guests (there were Croats as well and the former Duce—still a Duce in title—and soon de Brinon would arrive, as spokesman of the French government-in-exile in Germany, probably in the company of his Jewish-born wife).

Hitler had already addressed the Jewish issue at length in his conversation with Tiso on April 22, 1943. On May 12, 1944, the Nazi leader was ready for a repeat performance. Right from the outset he informed his Slovak guest that the military struggle that was unfolding was certainly the mightiest confrontation in Europe since the breakup of the Roman Empire. In such a gigantic battle, crises and difficulties were unavoidable. The greatest difficulty was “that in this battle against world bolshevism we also have to take up the struggle for those who are not bolsheviks but who, by way of the Jewish segment of their society, have an inner connection to bolshevism.”11

In this case as a year earlier, Hitler brought up the situation in Hungary. Later in his quasi monologue, the Nazi leader told Tiso that “the degree of Judaization of Hungary was astonishing; over a million Jews lived in Hungary. It was great luck for the German nation that its Führer was an Austrian. Yet notwithstanding his familiarity with the issue, the Führer would not have imagined the possibility of such a degree of Jewification.”12 Three days after this conversation the deportations from Hungary to Auschwitz started.

Among the political leaders of central and southeastern Europe, Antonescu was Hitler’s most frequent guest and also the one on whom the Nazi chief seemed to rely most. Under the circumstances, however, the strengthening of Romanian resolve was greatly needed. In September 1943 and in February 1944, Hitler had already conferred at length with his Romanian counterpart. The Jews had not been forgotten then nor were they forgotten during the meetings of March 23 and 24, 1944. After the German occupation of Hungary, both leaders agreed about the disastrous political consequences of Jewish influence in Budapest. And, Hitler assured the marshal, the Werhmacht, fully equipped with new weapons, would soon regain its superiority.13


According to a report sent by Bene to the Wilhelmstrasse, on February 9, 1944, the overall situation regarding the Jews in the Netherlands was by then as follows: 108,000 Jews had “left the country.” The roundup of hidden Jews was successfully going on, and not more than 11,000 Jews were still in hiding. Some 8,610 Jewish partners in mixed marriages had not been “concentrated,” as these couples were sterile (either after a procedure or due to age); they would be used as laborers; they could possibly all be transferred to Westerbork for that purpose.14

It took eight more months to complete the roundups and empty Westerbork. In February, as Bene was sending his report, Mechanicus was still in the camp. On the fifteenth he described the departure of one more weekly transport; obviously, like Etty Hillesum before him he did not know what awaited the deportees: “This train is a decent one, for human beings, but the journey is compulsory and the fate of the travelers is not known.”15 Yet the sentence that followed sounded like an intimation: “We have seen old familiar faces for the last time—we have heard from them for the last time.”16

A routine not observed in Drancy or Malines followed the departure: “At the camp boundary, in front of the barrier, the train stops. There it is officially handed over to the German military occupation forces who have come on the train to accompany the ‘travelers.’ The Jews are counted one by one. Not a single Jew must be missing. Before the barrier the Commandant bears the responsibility for the consignment—after the barrier the occupation forces.”17 Was the Dutch police thought insufficiently trustworthy to accompany the deportees to the German border?

Even in Westerbork, albeit rarely so, one could indulge in a laugh at the expense of the Germans. “The Portuguese [Jews],” the diarist recorded on February 16, 1944, “have been notified to appear in hut 9 today with the papers referring to their personal antecedents. There was a rumour that they were to have their craniums measured. Merriment throughout the camp. The place is full of different skull shapes, even among thoroughbred Jews with four grandparents of pure race.”18 A few days later, on February 28, the diary ended.

On March 8 Mechanicus was deported to Bergen-Belsen and from there to Auschwitz, on October 9, together with 120 other Belsen inmates. On October 12, 1944, they were all shot.19 Young Ben Wessels followed the same path to Belsen. On May 7, 1944, he sent a last postcard from the camp, written in German, to his friend Johan in Oostvoorne: “Fortunately, I can tell you that I am in excellent shape. A food package would please me a great deal and also please some wool for mending.” Ben probably died in the typhus epidemic, in March 1945.20

Anne Frank’s thoughts, in the spring of 1944, took an unusual turn. Her chronicle of everyday life in hiding and of the ebb and flow of intimate feelings became more widely open to reflections on the fate of her people, on religion and history: “Who has inflicted this on us?” she asked on April 11. “Who has set us apart from all the rest? Who has put us through such suffering? It’s God who has made us the way we are, but it is also God who will lift us again. In the eyes of the world, we’re doomed, but if, after all this suffering, there are still Jews left, the Jewish people will be held up as an example. Who knows, maybe our religion will teach the world and all the people in it about goodness, and that’s the reason, the only reason, we have to suffer. We can never be just Dutch, or just English, or whatever, we will always be Jews as well. And we’ll have to keep on being Jews, but then, we’ll want to be.”21

Anne exhorted herself: “Be brave! Let’s remember our duty and perform it without complaint. There will be a way out. God has never deserted our people. Through the ages Jews have had to suffer, but through the ages they’ve gone on living, and the centuries of suffering have only made them stronger. The weak shall fall and the strong shall survive and not be defeated!”22

Anne’s proclamation of faith was followed, in the same entry of April 11, by a declaration of overflowing love for the Dutch nation. After describing a brief alarm, during which she believed that the police had discovered their hiding place, she went on: “But now, now that I have been spared, my first wish after the war is to become a Dutch citizen. I love the Dutch, I love this country, I love the language, and I want to work here. And even if I have to write to the Queen herself, I won’t give up until I have reached my goal!”23

Barely a month later, however, Anne was less sure about her place in postwar Dutch society: “To our great sorrow and dismay,” she noted on May 22, “we have heard that many people have changed their attitude toward us Jews…. “We’ve been told that anti-Semitism has cropped up in circles where once it would have been unthinkable. This fact has affected us all very, very deeply. The reason for the hatred is understandable, maybe even human, but that doesn’t make it right. According to the Christians, the Jews are babbling their secrets to the Germans, denouncing their helpers and causing them to suffer the dreadful fate and punishments that have already been meted out to so many. All this is true. But, as with everything, they should look at the matter from both sides: Would Christians act differently if they were in our place? Could anyone, regardless of whether they are Jews or Christians, remain silent in the face of German pressure? Everyone knows it’s practically impossible, so why do they ask the impossible from the Jews?…Oh, it’s sad, very sad that the old adage has been confirmed for the umpteenth time: ‘What one Christian does is his own responsibility, what one Jew does reflects on all the Jews.’”24

Anti-Semitism did indeed spread in Holland and, as we saw, throughout the Continent. It was as tangible in France as in the Ukraine, as real in Poland as in Germany itself; Klemperer, the keenest of observers, had expressed it precisely: Whatever else the Nazis had miscalculated, they had been right to concentrate their propaganda campaign against the Jew. Anne had also heard that, after the war, foreign Jews would be sent back to the countries they had fled from. Thus, the young girl who, a few weeks earlier, had proclaimed her intense wish to become Dutch now assessed her chances of being accepted with some wariness after she heard about the change in public mood: “I have only one hope”: she wrote that same day, “that this anti-Semitism is just a passing thing, that the Dutch will show their true colors, that they will never waver from what they know in their hearts to be just, for this is unjust! And if they ever carry out this terrible threat, the meager handful of Jews still left in Holland will have to go. We too will have to shoulder our bundles and move on, away from this beautiful country, which once so kindly took us in and now turns its back on us. I love Holland. Once I hoped it would become a fatherland to me, since I had lost my own. And I hope so still!”25

Somebody denounced the Jews hidden at 263 Prinsengracht. On August 4, 1944, they were arrested, transferred to a prison in Amsterdam, then deported to Auschwitz, probably in the last transport from Holland. Margot and Anne were taken to Bergen-Belsen, where, like Ben Wessels, they both died of typhus a few weeks before the liberation of the camp. They were probably buried in a mass grave. Except for Otto Frank, none of the eight residents of the Annex survived. Miep and Bep found Anne’s diary pages scattered all over the hiding place.26

In Brussels the Gestapo, led by a Jewish informer, arrived at the Flinkers’ home on April 7, 1944, Passover eve. The Flinkers had prepared matzot and all traditional dishes for the seder: They could not deny their identity. All were arrested and deported. Moshe and his parents perished in Auschwitz. Moshe’s sisters survived, and among the belongings they retrieved after the war, they discovered three notebooks of his diary.27

The German roundups were partly hampered by a lack of sufficient police forces and other personnel, as Müller explained to Thadden in October 1943, after the failure in Denmark.28 The growing absence of cooperation from regular local police units was only partly compensated by the expansion of diehard militias, including both common criminals and fanatical pro-Nazis. The rise of these extremist militias had elements in common with a wider radicalization process among some segments of Western and Central [Hungary] European societies in the shadow of German defeat.

In France collaborationist extremism surged in early 1944 with Darnand’s appointment as secretary-general for the maintenance of order, and, a few months later, as secretary of state for the interior, and that of Philippe Henriot, a militant Catholic and extreme rightist from the prewar years, as secretary of state for propaganda and information; their views and their fanaticism were on par with that of their models and allies, the SS. While Henriot spewed the vilest anti-Semitic propaganda in his twice-daily broadcasts, Darnand’s men denounced, arrested, tortured, and killed Resistance fighters and Jews. They killed Victor Basch, the Jewish former chairman of the League of Human Rights and his wife, both in their eighties; they killed Blum’s Jewish former minister of Education, Jean Zay; they killed Reynaud’s minister of the interior, Georges Mandel, to name only their best-known Jewish victims.29 An inscription left on Basch’s body proclaimed: “Terror for terror: the Jew is always made to pay. This Jew has paid with his life for the assassination of a Frenchman.”30 As for Henriot’s rhetoric, it was astonishingly successful even at this late stage of the war: The man was in many ways equal to Goebbels, and the Resistance considered him dangerous enough to execute him at the end of June 1944. His fierce anti-Semitism found at least some echo among wide segments of the population.

On the eve of the liberation, anti-Semitic attitudes in France were not on the decrease; they were even blurted out among the Free French in obviously well-meant declarations. Thus, in alluding in a French BBC broadcast to the assistance given by collaborationist Frenchmen to the murder of Jews, André Gillois, the commentator, put the matter as follows: “The policemen, civil servants, and prison guards should know that in accepting to take part in the massacre of Jews, they have no more excuse than [they have] for lashing out against all other victims of Nazism.”31 It was the same climate of opinion that led André Weill-Curiel, a Jew who had spent the war years with de Gaulle, to advise a “young Jewish friend,” in 1945: “Do not display your rights conspicuously, that would be an abuse; do not wear your war medals, that would be a provocation…. Act in such a way that the blueblooded French in France who hoped never to see you again forget that you exist.”32

Undeterred by the landing in Normandy and by the approaching allied forces, the Paris Gestapo forged ahead. On July 20 and 24 the Germans raided the children’s homes of UGIF-North, where some 650 children were still kept assembled by the organization’s leadership, despite entreaties and pressure to disband the homes. Edinger wavered, procrastinated, and basically opted for the status quo.33 At first 233 children were taken and transported to Drancy. Edinger’s immediate reaction was to order the dispersal of the remaining children, but shortly thereafter he canceled the order. The remaining children were taken away.34 To the very end the leaders of UGIF-North were afraid of German retaliation—probably against themselves.

On August 17 and 22 the last transports of Jews left France for Auschwitz.35 On August 25 Gen. Jacques Philippe Leclerc’s Free French division, attached to the U.S. forces in the West, liberated Paris.

In Italy and in the formerly Italian-occupied areas the roundups of Jews achieved uneven results. A memorandum dated December 4, 1943, of Inland II of the Wilhelmstrasse confirmed that the measures taken over the previous several weeks had not encountered much success, as the Jews had had the time to find hiding places in small villages. The means at the disposal of the Germans did not allow for thorough searches in small or even in midsize communities. On the other hand the Germans placed some hopes on a new ordinance issued by the fascist government (Police Order Number 5), that all Jews should be sent to concentration camps. It was to be hoped that the fascist police would take matters in hand, the memorandum noted, and allow the small Gestapo task force to spread its men as advisers to the local police units.36

In some areas the order issued by Mussolini’s government was indeed followed, even without German participation. Thus, in Venice, on December 5–6, 1943, the local police arrested 163 Jews (114 women and girls and 49 men and boys) either in their houses or at the Old People’s Home. A repeat performance, this time with German participation, took place at the Old People’s Home on August 17, and finally, on October 6, 1944, twenty-nine Jewish patients were seized in three Venetian hospitals. In the old rice mill, La Risiera di San Sabba, which, it will be remembered, replaced Fossoli after August 1944, the oldest and weakest inmates were murdered on the spot and the rest, the majority, were deported to Auschwitz and exterminated (including Venice’s chief rabbi, Adolfo Ottolenghi, whom the Swiss police had prevented from crossing the border a few months beforehand).37

In Milan a gang of Italian fascists outperformed the Germans in feats of bestiality; this was an uncommon achievement by all accounts, and an atypical one. Pietro Koch’s men had established their headquarters in a villa soon known as Villa Triste (“sad villa”), where they tortured and executed their victims, Jews and non-Jews. Koch’s thugs were assisted by two famous Italian actors, Luisa Ferida and Osvaldo Valenti, “the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers of torture, who lent a macabre, surreal quality to Villa Triste that has made it a symbol of the decadent twilight of fascism.”38

Simultaneously with the roundups in Italy (and in southeast France) the Germans turned to mainland Greece and to the Greek islands. Wisliceny was ordered back to Athens in September 1943. However, the deportations from the Greek capital were temporarily delayed due to the “kidnapping”—by the Greek Resistance—of the chief rabbi of Athens and the destruction of the community register. Wisliceny was soon replaced by the more brutal Hauptsturmführer Tony Burger, transferred to the Greek capital from Theresienstadt. Two weeks before Passover, on March 23, 1944, some 800 Jews had assembled at the main Athens synagogue for a distribution of matzoth promised by the Germans. All were arrested, driven to the Haidari transit camp, and in early April deported to Auschwitz.39

No Jewish community in the Aegean was forgotten, not even the smallest. Most of the Jews of the Greek islands were arrested in the course of July 1944. On July 23 the 1,750 Jews of Rhodes and the 96 Jews of the tiny island of Kos were rounded up, crammed into three barges, on their way to the mainland. Due to bad weather the transport left on the twenty-eighth, sailing in full view of the Turkish coast, within a short flying distance of the British airfields in Cyprus and through an area of the eastern Mediterranean fully controlled by the British navy. On August 1 the convoy reached mainland Greece. There 1,673 Jews from Rhodes and 94 from Kos who had survived the sea voyage and rough treatment on arrival were herded into the usual freight cars, and on August 16 they reached Auschwitz. One hundred fifty-one deportees from Rhodes survived the war, as did twelve Jews from Kos.40


The Wehrmacht occupied Hungary on March 19, 1944. On the previous day Horthy had met Hitler at Klessheim. Under threat of unilateral military action, the Nazi leader compelled the regent to accept the German occupation and set up a pro-German government.41 Hitler also demanded that some 100,000 Jews be delivered “for labor” in Germany. Horthy submitted. The train that took the regent back to Budapest carried another prominent passenger: Edmund Veesenmayer, Hitler’s special delegate to the new Hungarian government. On that same day, Eichmann also arrived in the Hungarian capital, soon followed by the members of his “special intervention unit Hungary” (Sondereinsatzkommando Ungarn).

The appointment of Döme Sztójay, the former ambassador to Berlin, as prime minister did not lead to major changes in the political structure of the cabinet or in the functioning of the existing administration, although in a meeting with Goebbels, on March 3, Hitler told his minister that the occupation of Hungary would be followed by an immediate disarming of the Hungarian military forces, as well as by a rapid move against the country’s aristocratic elites—and against the Jews.42 The anti-Jewish measures were indeed immediately launched.

A Jewish Council was set up on March 12; additional anti-Semitic legislation followed, including the introduction of the star, on April 7. The appointment of two violently anti-Semitic secretaries of state, Laszlo Endre and Laszlo Baky, in Andor Jaross’s Ministry of the Interior gave the Germans all the assistance they needed to round up the Jewish population. On April 7 the roundups started in the Hungarian provinces, with the enthusiastic cooperation of the Hungarian gendarmerie. Within less than a month, ghettos or camps for hundreds of thousands of Jews sprang up in Carpatho-Ruthenia, in Transylvania, and later in the southern part of the country.43

The furious pace of the German-Hungarian operation ensured the quasi-total success of the concentration phase. One may wonder, however, whether the attitude adopted by the Jewish Council did not, more than in most other places, add to the passivity and subservience of the Jewish masses. The council was well informed, and so were many Hungarian Jews, especially in Budapest. Returning members of the labor batallions, Hungarian soldiers back from the Eastern Front, Jewish refugees from Poland and Slovakia spread the information they had gathered about the mass extermination of Jews, as did the Hungarian services of the BBC. Moreover, on April 7, two Slovak Jews, Rudolf Vrba (Walter Rosenberg) and Alfred Wetzler, escaped from Auschwitz and on the twenty-first reached Slovakia. Within days they had written a detailed report about the extermination process in the Upper Silesian camp and delivered it to the “Working Group” in Bratislava. These “Auschwitz Protocols” reached Switzerland and the Allied countries; large excerpts were soon published in the Swiss and the American press. To this day, however, it isn’t exactly clear how long it took for the report to reach the Jewish Council in Budapest.

Vrba himself expressed the view that the “Working Group” did not act rapidly enough and that, once it received the report, the council kept the information to itself; thus the Jews of the Hungarian provinces were not warned against boarding the trains to Auschwitz. Yehuda Bauer has countered Vrba’s accusation: The report may have reached Budapest and the council as early as the end of April;44 but nothing could have been done in any case to stop the masses of Jews in the provinces from following the deportation orders.45 In fact the Budapest council members admitted after the war to having had precise knowledge of what was happening to the Jews all over occupied Europe and, in that sense, whether they received the “protocols” at the end of April or at a somewhat later date was not of major importance.46

The Budapest council, headed by Samu (Samuel) Stern, included representatives of all the major religious and political groups of the community. It may have assumed that any warning to Jews of the provinces would be useless. Possibly for that reason and because the council members were utterly assimilated, law-abiding Magyar citizens, the council made no attempt to inform the heads of communities in the provinces covertly;47 its announcements were soothing all along, as if the Budapest leaders mainly wanted to avoid panic among the hapless Jewish masses. The council’s attitude did not change after two more Jews, Czeslaw Mordowicz and Arnost Rosin, escaped from Auschwitz at the end of April and confirmed the previous information. Some of the council members, such as the Orthodox Fülöp Freudiger, were in close touch with Wisliceny (on Weissmandel’s recommendation) and succeeded in saving themselves, members of their family, and some other closely related Orthodox Jews by crossing over to Romania.48 Others, after being threatened by the Gestapo, went into hiding.49

Almost from the outset of the German occupation several thousand Jews, mostly public figures, journalists, known antifascists, and the like, were seized and sent to concentration camps in Austria.50 On May 14 the full-scale deportations from the Hungarian provinces to Auschwitz started, at the rate of approximately 12,000 to 14,000 deportees a day. Hungarian trains ran to the Slovak border; there the deportees were transferred to German trains that carried them to Auschwitz. The crematoriums of Birkenau could not keep up with the gassing pace, and open-air cremation pits had to be added.

According to SS officer Perry Broad’s testimony at the Auschwitz trial in Frankfurt, “a triple track railway line leading to the new crematoria enabled a train to be unloaded while the next one was arriving. The percentage of those who were assigned to ‘special accommodation’—the term that had been used for some time in place of ‘special treatment’—was particularly high in the case of these transports…. All four crematoria operated at full blast. However, soon the ovens were burnt out as a result of the continuous heavy use and only crematorium No. III was still smoking…. The special commandos had been increased and worked feverishly to keep emptying the gas chambers. The ‘white farmhouse’ was brought back into use…. It was given the title ‘Bunker 5.’…The last body had hardly been pulled from the gas chambers and dragged across the yard behind the crematorium, which was covered in corpses, to the burning pit, when the next lot were already undressing in the hall ready for gassing.”51

Paul Steinberg, a young Jewish deportee from France, described the situation from his perspective, that of a Buna inmate. In the background a discussion was taking place about the advantages of an uprising as against staying put, just after D-day: “And while this strange debate is going on,” Steinberg reminisced, “the Hungarians arrive, whole trainloads of them, two or three a day…. Almost all transports wind up in the gas chamber: men, women, children. The labor camps are stuffed to bursting; they wouldn’t know what to do with more workers…. The crematoria are going full bore around the clock. We hear from Birkenau that they’ve burned 3,000, then 3,500, and last week up to 4,000 bodies a day. The new Sonderkommando had been doubled to keep everything running smoothly between the gas chambers and the ovens, day and night. From the chimneys flames shoot thirty feet into the air, visible for leagues around at night, and the oppressive stench of burnt flesh can be smelt as far as Buna.”52 Höss himself described the cremation in the open pits: “The fires in the pits had to be stoked, the surplus fat drained off, and the mountain of burning corpses constantly turned over so that the draught might fan the flames.”53

In Buna, Steinberg had merely heard some details of the mass extermination, but a few of the Hungarian Jews did in fact arrive at the I.G. Farben site. One of them, unforgettably evoked by Levi, was called Kraus: “He is Hungarian, he understands German badly and does not know a word of French. He is tall and thin, wears glasses and has a curious, small, twisted face; when he laughs he looks like a child, and he often laughs.”54 Kraus is clumsy, works too hard, cannot communicate, in short has none of the attributes that may help survival, even in Buna. Levi talks to Kraus very slowly in some pidgin German; he tries to comfort him; he invents a dream about Kraus returning home to his family; Kraus must have understood something of this idyllic fantasy: “What a good boy Kraus must have been as a civilian,” Levi muses. “He will not survive very long here, one can see it at a first glance, it is as logical as a theorem. I am sorry I do not know Hungarian, for his emotion has broken the dykes, and he is breaking out in a flood of outlandish Magyar words…. Poor silly Kraus. If he only knew that it is not true, that I have really dreamt nothing about him, that he is nothing to me except for a brief moment, nothing like everything is nothing down here, except the hunger inside and the cold and the rain around.”55

Soon after the beginning of the deportations, pressure from within the country, particularly from Horthy’s longtime conservative political allies and from his closest circle of advisers, started building up to bring a halt to cooperation with the German deportations.56 That in this matter at least the regent wished to extricate Hungary from Hitler’s clutches finds an indirect expression in the conversation which took place on June 7 (after the Allied landing in Normandy) between Prime Minister Sztójay and the Nazi leader, at Klessheim.

The Hungarian prime minister started by assuring the Führer of the regent’s and the country’s will to fight on faithfully alongside the German ally; yet the activities of the German state police in Hungary could give the impression of interference in the country’s internal affairs and of a limitation of its sovereignty. Hitler did not need any further explanations. He answered by reminding the prime minister that during the previous year he had already pressed the regent to take steps against the Jews but unfortunately Horthy had not followed his advice; he then reviewed Hungarian attempts to change sides and, implicitly, linked them to the strong presence of the Jews. The regent, Hitler continued, had been warned about the dimensions of the country’s “Jewification” but had dismissed the warnings by referring to the important role played by the Jews in Hungary’s economy. The Führer then explained at length that eliminating the Jews would only bring new opportunities that the Hungarians would undoubtedly be able to master. “Moreover,” he declared, “even as Horthy tried to stroke the Jews, the Jews nonetheless hated him, as could be daily surmised from the world press.” The conclusion was obvious: The Germans were not limiting Hungarian sovereignty but rather defending Hungary against the Jews and the agents of the Jews.

As Sztójay turned to the internal difficulties that had hindered Horthy’s intended measures against the Jews, and also mentioned Horthy’s age (seventy-five), Hitler did not show any sign of understanding. Horthy, the Führer declared, is a man who shies away from violence; so did he, Hitler, try to avoid the war by offering a compromise about the Polish corridor. But, Hitler reminded Sztójay, the Jewish press clamored for war and he then warned the Jews, in his Reichstag speech: The Nazi leader, needless to say, spelled out his prophecy once again. Then he significantly added: “When, moreover, he had to remember that in Hamburg 46,000 German women and children had been burnt to death, nobody could demand of him to have the least pity for this world pest; he now went by the ancient Jewish proverb: ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.’…If the Jewish race were to win, at least 30 million Germans would be exterminated and many millions would starve to death.”57

Toward the end of June international intervention strengthened internal Hungarian opposition to continuing the deportations: the king of Sweden, the pope, the American president—all intervened with the regent. On July 2 a heavy American raid on Budapest emphasized Roosevelt’s message.58 Horthy vacillated, ready to comply with these demands, yet unable for several weeks to impose his will on the pro-Nazi members of his government.59 Finally, on July 8, the deportations were officially stopped. Nonetheless, Eichmann succeeded in getting two more transports out of country to Auschwitz, the first from the Kistarcsa camp on July 19, the second from Starvar, on July 24.60

According to a report sent by Veesenmayer on June 30, a total of 381,661 Jews had been deported to Auschwitz from Zones I to IV in the Hungarian provinces. “Concentration in Zone V (an area so far not included, west of the Danube, not comprising Budapest),” Veesenmayer added, “has started on June 29. Simultaneously small special actions in suburbs of Budapest as preparatory measures have been launched. Furthermore a few small special transports with political Jews, intellectual Jews, Jews with many children and especially skilled Jewish workers are still on the way.”61 When, on July 9, the deportations from the Hungarian provinces finally stopped, 438,000 Jews had been sent to Auschwitz and approximately 394,000 immediately exterminated. Of those selected for work, very few were still alive at the end of the war.62 In Budapest about 250,000 Jews were still awaiting their fate.

As usual in east-central and eastern (non-Soviet) Europe, the main institutions that to a certain degree could have stemmed the anti-Jewish drive were the churches (the great majority of the population was Catholic; a minority was Lutheran). Pius XII did join other leaders in interceding with Horthy to stop the German operation. This first public intervention of the pope in favor of the Jews was sent on June 25, 1944, after the “Auschwitz Protocols” had reached the Vatican via Switzerland.63 Despite full knowledge of the ongoing extermination, even this message was worded in rather hazy terms: “Supplications have been addressed to Us from different sources that we should exert all Our influence to shorten and mitigate the sufferings that have, for so long, been peacefully endured on account of their national or racial origin by a great number of unfortunate people belonging to this noble and chivalrous nation. In accordance with Our service of love, which embraces every human being, Our fatherly heart could not remain insensible to these urgent demands. For this reason we apply to your Serene Highness, appealing to your noble feelings, in the full trust that your Serene Highness will do everything in your power to save many unfortunate people from further pain and sorrow.”64 As historian Randolph Braham noted, the word “Jew” did not appear in Pius’s message, even in these circumstances.65 Neither, it should be added, was there any mention of extermination.

Such lack of pontifical forcefulness did not encourage the head of the Hungarian Catholic hierarchy, Cardinal Justinian Seredi, to take any bold step of his own. Seredi was an anti-Semite of the traditional Christian ilk and had voted in favor of the first two anti-Jewish laws of 1938 and 1939.66 The heads of the Catholic and Protestant churches in Hungary knew what the deportations to Germany meant, and some of their main leaders (including Seredi) had apparently received the “Auschwitz Protocol.” Yet, from March to July 1944, the leading Christian dignitaries could not be swayed to take a public stand against the policies of the Sztójay government. Both Seredi and the heads of the Protestant Churches sought, first and foremost, to obtain exemptions for converted Jews, and in this they were partly successful precisely because they abstained from any public protest against the deportations in general.67

Regarding the deportation of the Jews as such, Cardinal Seredi finally drafted a short pastoral note that was read on July 16, a week after Horthy had stopped the transports. In the original pastoral letter—never publicly read—Seredi had stated that one part of Jewry “had had a guilty and subversive influence on the Hungarian economic, social and moral life…[while] the others did not stand up against their coreligionists in this respect.”68 In other words, all Jews were guilty, and Seredi’s position was very close to that of his deputy, Gyula Czapik, archbishop of Eger, who in May 1944 had argued “not to make public what is happening to the Jews; what is happening to the Jews at the present time is nothing but appropriate punishment for their misdeeds in the past.”69

The papal nuncio in Budapest, Monsignor Angelo Rotta, was more outspoken than the Holy See itself and tried to sway Seredi toward more active protest; he drew Seredi’s ire, and on two different occasions Rotta’s interventions showed the cardinal’s frustration with the pope’s own abstention. On the first occasion, on June 8, Seredi told the nuncio that it was “deceitful for the Apostolic Holy See to maintain diplomatic relations with the German government which carries out these atrocities.”70 The second occasion was a meeting of representatives of the Christian churches to discuss the possibility of a joint intervention. Apparently an angry Seredi burst out: “If His Holiness the Pope does nothing against Hitler, what can I do in my narrower jurisdiction? Damn it.”71

A few Catholic bishops courageously spoke out in their dioceses but these were lone voices that could not have a major impact on the attitude of the Hungarian population.


As the events in Hungary unfolded with extraordinary speed in the face of the world, two related issues arose that remain highly contentious to this very day: The attempt of some members of the Jewish “Relief and Rescue Committee” (the Vaadah—the Committee, in Hebrew) to negotiate with the Germans; and the Allied decision concerning the bombing of the railway line from Budapest to Auschwitz or of the Auschwitz killing installations as such.

The Vaadah was established in the Hungarian capital at the beginning of 1943 to help Jewish refugees, mainly from Slovakia and Poland, who had fled to Hungary. Rudolf Kastner, a Zionist journalist from Cluj; Joel Brand, another native from Transylvania and something of an adventurer in politics and otherwise; and an engineer from Budapest, Otto Komoly, became the leading personalities of the Vaadah, whose executive committee had been joined by several other Hungarian Jews.

In late March or early April 1944 Kastner and Brand met in Budapest with the ubiquitous Wisliceny, on Weissmandel’s recommendation and following contacts established by some SD officers. Eichmann’s envoy was offered a substantial amount of money (two million dollars) to avoid the deportation of the Jews of Hungary. But as it became clear that the Vaadah could not come up with such an amount, Eichmann summoned Brand sometime in mid or late April, and made several offers that ultimately became the notorious exchange of the lives of 800,000 Hungarian Jews against the delivery by the Western Allies of 10,000 winterized trucks to be used solely on the Eastern Front. The SS would allow Brand to travel to Istanbul, in the company of Bandi Grosz, a multiple agent and a shady figure by all accounts, on whom Himmler’s men were relying, at least so it seemed, to establish contacts with the West.72

Eichmann’s proposal should be interpreted in relation to a cable sent by Veesenmayer to Berlin on April 3. The Reich plenipotentiary advised Ribbentrop that Allied bombings of the Hungarian capital had exacerbated anti-Jewish feelings; the possibility of executing one hundred Jews for each Hungarian killed had been evoked. Veesenmayer was not sure whether such a large-scale retaliation was practical, but before considering any concrete steps, he wanted to know whether another track, apparently suggested to Hitler by Ribbentrop, remained an option; if the answer was in the affirmative, mass executions would of course be excluded: “In reference to the suggestions made by Herr Reichsaussen-minister to the Führer about offering the Jews [of Hungary] as a gift to Roosevelt and Churchill, I would like to be informed whether this idea is still being pursued.”73

Veesenmayer’s cable indicates that the kind of barter suggested by Eichmann had been discussed between Hitler and Ribbentrop, and that its implementation was taken over by Himmler’s men, almost certainly with Hitler’s agreement. Of course there was no intention to free any substantial number of Hungarian Jews. The unparalleled rapidity and scale of the deportations and of the exterminations is the best indication of what, at that stage, the Germans really meant. The intent behind the contacts with the naive Jewish representatives was grossly simple: If the Allies rejected the German offer, they could be saddled with the responsibility for contributing to the extermination of the Hungarian Jews; as after the Evian conference of July 1938, the Germans could proclaim once again: “Nobody wants them!” If by chance, however, due to Jewish pressure (as seen from Berlin), the Allies were to start any kind of negotiations, Stalin would be apprised of it and the rift in the Grand Alliance, which Hitler impatiently awaited, would follow. The rationale behind Grosz’s mission was most probably identical: If the West accepted the idea of separate negotiations, the Soviets would be informed and the end result would be the same.74

On May 19, 1944, Brand and Grosz landed in Istanbul. While Grosz went on his separate “mission,” Brand conveyed the SS proposal to the Yishuv’s delegates in Istanbul. A series of quickly unfolding events followed. One of the Yishuv envoys in Istanbul, Venia Pomeranz, traveled to Jerusalem to inform Ben-Gurion of the German proposal. The Jewish Agency Executive, convened by Ben-Gurion, decided to intervene immediately with the Allies, even if the chances of a deal with the Germans were generally seen as very slim. The British high commissioner in Palestine, informed by Ben-Gurion, agreed that Moshe Shertok, in charge of foreign affairs in the Executive Council of the Jewish Agency, be allowed to travel to Istanbul to meet with Brand. While Shertok’s departure was delayed, Brand himself had to leave Turkey. Thus it was in Aleppo (Syria), where he was kept under British arrest, that the envoy from Budapest met with Shertok, on June 11.75 Brand repeated the gist of the German message to Shertok. The issue became further complicated, at least on the face of it, by a German offer to invite one of the Jewish Agency delegates in Istanbul, Menachem Bader, to travel to Budapest—even to Berlin—and negotiate directly there. The Germans even seemed ready to relinquish their demand for trucks and return to the initial idea of an adequate financial offer. According to postwar testimony, Eichmann promised to liberate 5,000 to 10,000 Jews, upon reception of the first positive answer from the West and in exchange for German POWs.76

Although the leadership of the Yishuv soon understood that Grosz’s mission was the main German ploy and Brand’s a mere accessory and additional bait, Shertok and Weizmann nonetheless interceded with Eden in London for some gesture that would allow time to be gained and eventually save part of Hungarian Jewry. On July 15 they were told that the German “offer” was rejected. Churchill himself, in a letter to Eden of July 11, estimated that the German proposal was not serious, as it was a “plan broached through the most doubtful channel…and is itself of a most doubtful character.”77 In the meantime Brand had been transferred from Aleppo to Cairo, where he remained under British interrogation. At that point his mission came to an abrupt end. It seems that before his death in 1964, Brand himself reached the conclusion that his mission had essentially been a German maneuver meant to undermine the alliance between the Soviets and the West.78

For the Yishuv leadership the failure of this rescue attempt, as flimsy as its chances had been, represented a serious setback. The hope of saving hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews disappeared. For Ben-Gurion, moreover, the crucial question surfaced once again: Who would build the Jewish state in Eretz Israel? “We are now on the brink of the end of the war,” he declared in September 1944, “with most of the Jews destroyed. Everyone wonders: Where will we find the people for Palestine?” Later he wrote: “Hitler harmed more than the Jewish people whom he knew and hated: he caused damage to the Jewish state, whose coming he did not foresee. The state appeared and did not find the nation that awaited it.”79

On July 10 Ribbentrop informed Veesenmayer that Hitler had agreed to the demands addressed to Horthy by the United States, Sweden, and Switzerland to repatriate their Jewish nationals from Budapest to their home countries. But, Ribbentrop added, “We can agree to this accommodation only under the condition that the deportation of Jews to the Reich, temporarily stopped by the Regent, be immediately resumed and brought to its conclusion.”80 On July 17 the foreign minister demanded that Veesenmayer inform the regent of the following, in Hitler’s name: “The Führer expects that now the measures against the Jews of Budapest be taken without any further delay, with the exceptions…granted to the Hungarian government. However, no delay in the implementation of the general Jewish measures [ Judenmassnahmen] should occur as a result of these exceptions. Otherwise, the Führer’s acceptance of these exceptions will have to be withdrawn.”81

As for the Reichsführer, he met Hitler on July 15 for a discussion of the “Jewish question” in Hungary and indicated Hitler’s approval of his proposals with a check.82 A few days later Himmler boasted in a letter to Gauleiter Martin Mutschmann about the 450,000 Hungarian Jews he had already sent to Auschwitz and assured him that, despite some difficulties encountered elsewhere—in France, for example—in Hungary the task would be completed. “Be assured,” Himmler concluded, “that particularly at this decisive moment of the war, I do possess the necessary hardness, as before.”83

It remains hard to believe that the shrewd Kastner had high hopes regarding the success of Brand’s mission. Whatever the case may be, he must soon have understood that SS officers of Wisliceny’s ilk—and the whole Budapest group—were also ready for more limited deals that could be explained away as ransoming operations for the Reich. And such operations could also be highly lucrative for some of the SS participants. Thus, in a series of negotiations that lasted from April to June 1944, Kastner convinced Wisliceny, Eichmann, and Himmler’s underling (whose function at the time was supplying horses to the SS), Kurt Becher, to allow a train with (ultimately) 1,684 Jews to leave Budapest for Switzerland, as a sign of German goodwill, in the framework of the wider “exchange negotiations.” The price was one thousand dollars per Jew, and Becher, who negotiated the final arrangement, managed to have some of the lucky passengers pay twice.84 On June 30 the train left, first—and unexpectedly—for Bergen-Belsen: The Kastner Jews nonetheless reached Switzerland in two transports, one in the early fall; the second, several weeks later. Although Kastner was not alone in choosing the passengers, his influence on the selection committee was considerable; it led to postwar accusations of nepotism and to two court cases in Israel; eventually it cost Kastner his life.85

When, in mid-August, the Swiss delegation in Budapest informed Bern that a first batch of 600 Hungarian Jews, temporarily sent to Bergen-Belsen, would arrive in Switzerland within days, the information was positively received by head of the police division, Rothmund, but with some hesitation by his chief, Federal Councillor Steiger.86 As for Carl Burckhardt of the ICRC, he immediately grasped the advantage of letting these unexpected refugees enter Switzerland, as we know from a Swiss official’s memorandum of August 14, 1944: “Mr. Burckhardt did not seem at all surprised by the information sent by the delegation in Budapest; he declared he was delighted. It is a very good thing for Switzerland to be able now to do something positive for the Jews. It will make a good impression in foreign countries and could help to dissipate the resentment that could develop against our country from the stories of refugees and foreign [Swiss camp] inmates (mainly intellectuals) who are dissatisfied with the way they are being treated.”87

Some Jews left Hungary by their own means. The SS negotiated the acquisition of the Manfred Weiss industrial empire belonging to Jewish family and its Jewish and non-Jewish associates. By acquiring major munitions and machine-tool firms, Himmler and Pohl hoped to join the select elite of German industry. They had no difficulty in convincing Hitler of the advantages of this particular extortion. Becher, once again the go-between in Budapest, kept a neat percentage of the benefits. In exchange some fifty members of the Jewish families involved were allowed to leave for Switzerland, Spain, or Portugal with the help of the SS—and were even paid part of the sums that had been agreed upon.88

During the same months another rescue project of a very different kind also collapsed: the Allied bombing of the railway line from Hungary to Auschwitz and, possibly, of the extermination sites in Auschwitz-Birkenau.

On May 25, 1944, the highly competent and motivated representative of the War Refugee Board in Bern, Roswell McClelland, passed on to Washington a message he had received from Isaac Sternbuch, the representative of the American Union of Orthodox Rabbis in Switzerland; the message was addressed to the Union of Orthodox Rabbis in New York: “We received news from Slovakia,” Sternbuch wrote, “according to which they ask prompt air raids should be made over the two towns Kaschau (Kosice) as transit place for military transports and also Presov as town junction for deportations coming through Kaschau and also the whole railroad line between them where there is a short bridge of about 30 yards. It is the single near route from Hungary to Poland, whereas all the other small and short lines, going eastwards, can be used only in Hungary, but not for the traffic to Poland being already battlefields. Do the necessary that bombing should be repeated at short intervals to prevent rebuilding. Without named towns just one too long route via Austria remains which is almost impracticable.”89

The “Working Group” was the source of the information from Slovakia received by Sternbuch. A first letter sent by Weissmandel sometime in early May 1944 had not been acknowledged, so that on May 31 the Slovak rabbi repeated his entreaty and again gave details about the deportations: These details were extraordinarily precise, as was the description of the killing installations (probably based upon the Vrba-Wetzler report). Weissmandel’s letter ended with an agonized plea: “Now we ask: how can you eat, sleep, live? How guilty will you feel in your hearts if you fail to move heaven and earth to help us in the only ways that are available to our own people and as quickly as possible?…For God’s sake, do something now and quickly.”90

Intense consultations and contacts followed in late June, after Jewish organizations and the WRB in Washington received Sternbuch’s message. Pehle transmitted the message to the assistant secretary of war, John J. McCloy, but with reservations: “I saw Assistant Secretary McCloy today on the proposal of the Agudas Israel that arrangements be made to bomb the railroad line between Kassa (Kosice) and Presov being used for the deportation of Jews from Hungary to Poland. I told McCloy that I wanted to mention the matter to him for whatever exploration might be appropriate by the War Department but that I had several doubts about the matter, namely (1) whether it would be appropriate to use military planes and personnel for this purpose, (2) whether it would be difficult to put the railroad line out of commission for a long enough period to do any good; and (3) even assuming that this railroad line were put out of commission for some period of time, whether it would help the Jews in Hungary. I made it very clear to Mr. McCloy that I was not, at this point at least, requesting the War Department to take any action on this proposal other than to appropriately explore it. McCloy understood my position and said that he would check into the matter.”91

A few days later Leon Kubowitzki, the head of the Rescue Department of the World Jewish Congress, addressed a letter to Pehle, this time suggesting not the bombing of the railway line from Hungary to Auschwitz but rather the destruction of the death installations at the camp by Soviet paratroopers or Polish underground units. The idea of bombing the installations from the air came at the same time from another Jewish representative, Benjamin Akzin.92

On July 4, 1944, McCloy dismissed this flurry of projects and entreaties in a letter to Pehle: “I refer to your letter of June 29th, enclosing a cable from your representative in Bern, Switzerland, proposing that certain sections of railway lines between Hungary and Poland be bombed to interrupt the transportation of Jews from Hungary. The War Department is of the opinion that the suggested air operation is impracticable. It could be executed only by the diversion of considerable air support essential to the success of our forces now engaged in decisive operations and would in any case be of such very doubtful efficacy that it would not amount to a practical project. The War Department fully appreciates the humanitarian motives which prompted the suggested operation but for the reasons stated above, the operation suggested does not appear justified.”93

In the meantime Shertok and Weizmann, despite their failure to sway the British government in regard to the Brand mission, now pleaded for the bombing operations. Although Churchill was briefly involved and appeared to be in favor of some action, by mid-July London was as negative as Washington. At the top of the refusal letter that he received on July 15, 1944, from the Secretary of State for Air, Sir Archibald Sinclair, Eden scribbled: “A characteristically unhelpful letter. Dept. will have to consider what is to be done about this. I think that we should pass the buck to this ardent Zionist in due course, i.e. tell Weizmann that we have approached Sir A. Sinclair and suggest he may like to see him. AE July 16.”94

Höss had been recalled to Auschwitz to supervise the extermination of the Hungarian Jews. For the flawless implementation of his task, he was awarded the War Merit Cross first and second class. On July 29 he returned to Berlin.95


In late July 1944 the Red Army liberated Majdanek. In their hasty flight the Germans did not manage to destroy the gas chambers and other traces of the camp’s murderous activities: Soon, pictures of killing installations, victims’ belongings, mounds of glasses, hair, or prosthetic limbs appeared in newspapers all around the world.

For the Germans, erasing traces of their crimes hence became highest priority. On July 13, the Polish physician Klukowski noted: “Recently, we heard a rumor that the Germans are planning to open the graves of the murdered Jews, remove the bodies, and burn them…. Strange things are going on in the Jewish cemetery. No one is allowed to enter. The cemetery is surrounded by military guards armed with rifles. Warning signs stating that anyone entering will be shot were posted. Many cars and trucks come and go. A large group of prisoners was brought from Zamóść. The cemetery has been divided into sections; then the Germans built fences covered with tarps, so no one can observe what is taking place.”96 And on July 14 he added: “We learned that the Germans are moving Jewish bodies to be burned at the Rotunda. No bodies were burned at the cemetery.”97

The next day Klukowski once more took up the same topic: “Sometimes, with heavy wind, you can smell the odor of decomposed bodies from the Jewish cemetery.”98 A day later the Germans left: “Today around 10:00 a.m., the Germans completed their work in the cemetery and left. The roads are all open. The church is open also. The Germans did a lot of digging; they did move something but it is impossible for them to have removed thousands of badly damaged bodies in only a few days.”99 This indeed was the gist of the matter: The Germans had killed too many Jews to be able to move all the corpses and burn them.

On July 26 the Russians entered Szczebrzeszyn.

On August 23 Antonescu’s regime collapsed, and on the thirty-first, the Soviet army occupied Bucharest. A few days later it was Bulgaria’s turn. Among the dramatic upheavals in eastern and southeastern Europe, the events in Poland turned into a dismal tragedy: On August 1, after the Soviet forces had reached the Eastern bank of the Vistula in the Warsaw area, the Home Army gave the signal for an uprising in the city. A fierce urban battle unfolded between the insurgents and German reinforcements, while the Soviets at first could not, then did not intervene in any forceful way. On October 2, the remaining Polish forces finally surrendered, while their capital had been reduced to ruins and rubble. Soon thereafter the Soviet army occupied Warsaw. At the outset, Rokossovski’s divisions had been pushed back by German counter-attacks along the Vistula; later on, Stalin, in his own way, solved the problem of a nationalist opposition to the communist rule he meant to impose on Poland: He let the Germans decimate it.100

In March 1944 Emmanuel Ringelblum and his son were caught by the Germans before the Polish uprising and shot. Many other Jews, who had also found refuge on the Aryan side of the city, such as Calel Perechodnik, perished during the battle for Warsaw.

On May 5, 1944, one more anonymous diarist began recording details of his life in the Lodz ghetto in the margins of a French novel by François Coppée, Les Vrais Riches [“The Truly Rich”]. The diarist was an adolescent who at times wrote down his entries in English (to hide some of the comments from his twelve-year-old sister), but also in Polish, Hebrew and mainly in Yiddish. For the approximately 77,000 Jews still living in the ghetto and working for the Wehrmacht, daily life was, as before, dominated by one major obsession: food. The young diarist had every good reason to write his first entry in English, on May 5, 1944:

“I committed this week an act which is best able to illustrate to what degree of dehumanization we have been reduced—namely, I finished my loaf of bread at a space of three days, that is on Sunday, so I had to wait till next Sunday for a new one. I was terribly hungry. I had a prospect of living only from the [factory] soups which consist of three little potato pieces and two decagrams of flower [sic]. I was lying on Monday morning quite dejectedly in my bed and there was the half loaf of bread of my darling sister…. I could not resist the temptation and ate it up totally…. I was overcome by a terrible remorse of conscience and by a still greater care for what my little one would eat for the next few days. I felt a miserably helpless criminal…. I have told people that it was stolen by a supposed reckless and pitiless thief and, for keeping up appearance, I have to utter curses and condemnations on the imaginary thief: ‘I would hang him with my own hands had I come across him.’”101

By the time the anonymous diarist started writing, the ghetto’s end had arrived. In line with Himmler’s decision, extracted from him by Greiser, as we saw in the previous chapter, the extermination of the ghetto population started again. Between June 13 and July 14, 1944, more than 7,000 Jews were deported to Chelmno.102 Within a month, however, the killing site had to be dismantled as the Red Army was approaching: No repetition of the Majdanek fiasco would take place. The brief respite in the deportations triggered hope and joy in the ghetto, as Rosenfeld noted on July 28: “We are facing either apocalypse or redemption. The chest dares breathe more freely already. People look at each other as if to say: ‘We understand each other, right!’…There are plenty of skeptics, nigglers, who don’t want to believe it and still have doubts about that for which they have been longing and waiting for years. They are being told: ‘It has to come sometime, and now that the time is here, you don’t want to believe it.’ Then they look with a vacuous gaze into empty space and bask in their pessimism. After so much suffering and terror, after so many disappointments, it is hardly surprising that they are not willing to give themselves over to anticipatory rejoicing…. And if at long last, the day of the ‘redemption’ should be at the doorstep, it is better to let oneself be surprised than to experience yet another disappointment. That’s human nature, this is the human mentality of Ghetto Litzmannstadt at the end of July 1944.”103 It was Rosenfeld’s last diary entry.

On August 2 the Germans announced “the relocation of the ghetto.” Beginning on August 3, 5,000 Jews a day had to assemble at the railway station. Part of the population, which at the outset had been slow in responding, was fooled once again by Biebow’s appeals to reason and by his reassurances: “The relocation of the ghetto should proceed with calm, order and benevolence…. I assure you that we will do our very best to continue to achieve the utmost and to save your life through the relocation of the ghetto…. I know you want to live and eat, and that’s what you will do…. If you are not reasonable, the ghetto administration will resign and forcible measures will be taken…. There’s room enough in the railway cars, the machinery is adequately relocated. Come with your families, take your pots, drinking vessels and flatware; we don’t have those in Germany since everything has been distributed to bombing victims.”104

While Rosenfeld’s last entry was suffused with hope, the anonymous adolescent’s last entry [written in English], dated August 3, was of a very different tone. It may have been the most unconstrained expression of anti-German hatred expressed in a Jewish diary in those days; it was also an outburst of anger at the meekness of the Jews, of intense compassion for his people, of challenge to God. After quoting one of Biebow’s arguments (“In order that the German Reich should win, our Führer has ordered the use of every worker”), the diarist commented: “Evidently! The only right which entitles us to live under the same sky with Germans—though to live as the lowest slaves—is the privilege of working for their victory, working much! and eating nothing. Really, they are even more abominable in their diabolical cruelty than any mind could follow…. He asked the crowd if they are ready to work faithfully for the Reich and everyone answered “Jawohl”—I thought about the abjectedness of such a situation! What sort of people are the Germans that they managed to transform us into such low, crawling creatures, as to say “Jawohl.” Is life really so worthy? Is it not better not [to] live in a world where there are 80 millions of Germans? Or, is it not a shame to be a man on the same earth as the Ger-man?…What will they do with our sick? With our old? With our young? Oh, God in Heaven, why didst thou create Germans to destroy humanity?” An undated entry followed: “My God, why do you allow them to say that you are neutral? Why will you not punish, with all your wrath, those who are destroying us? Are we the sinners and they the righteous? Is that the truth? Surely you are intelligent enough to understand that it is not so, that we are not the sinners and they are not the Messiah!”105

Some of the inhabitants tried to hide. As the Jewish police were unable to deal with the situation, German police and firemen units from the city moved into the ghetto and started dragging out the rapidly dwindling number of Jews. On August 28 the ghetto’s end had come. Rumkowski, his wife, the son they had adopted, and his brother with his wife were on the last transport that left that day for Auschwitz-Birkenau.106 Neither Rumkowski nor any member of his family survived.

The last entry of the “Chronicle,” on July 30, 1944, had included the usual indications about the weather, vital statistics (“Deaths: one; Births: none”), and the number of inhabitants (68,561), before recording the “news of the day”: “Today, Sunday, also passed very calmly. The Chairman held various meetings. But all in all, the ghetto is peaceful and orderly. Langiewnicka Street now has a different look. Traffic is extraordinarily lively. One can see the war gradually approaching Litzmannstadt. The ghetto dweller peers curiously at the motor vehicles of various service branches as they speed through; for him, though, the crucial question remains: What is there to eat?”

Information about the arrival of potatoes, white cabbage, and kohlrabi followed: “If no flour arrives tomorrow, Monday, then the situation will be extremely critical. It is claimed that flour supplies will suffice for barely two or three more days.” No cases of contagious disease were reported. The cause of the single death was suicide.107 The chroniclers, including Zelkowicz and Rosenfeld, were all deported to Auschwitz and murdered. When the Red Army occupied the city, in January 1945, 877 ghetto Jews were still alive.

Poland was liberated. Over the months and years some Polish Jews who had hidden as Aryans resurfaced; larger groups who had fled in 1939 to the Soviet occupation area and had been evacuated into the Soviet interior, returned. Of the 3.3 million Jews who had lived in Poland in 1939, some 300,000 survived the war; among these some 40,000 at most survived in hiding on Polish territory.108

In early July 1944, as the Red Army reached the eastern borders of Lithuania, 33,000 Jews were still alive in the German-occupied Baltic countries, mainly in the Kovno and Shavli ghettos and in the labor camps of Estonia. On July 14 and 15, as we saw, the Kovno ghetto was liquidated: Some 2,000 of its inhabitants were killed on the spot and 7,000 to 8,000, deported to camps in Germany.109 Between July 15 and 22 some 8,000 Jews were deported from Shavli to the Stutthof camp near Danzig.110

Kalmanovitch died in the Narva slave labor camp in Estonia before the end of 1943. Kruk, in the meantime, was an inmate of Klooga, the main Estonian slave labor camp. He had resumed his chronicling, although less systematically than in Vilna. At the end of August 1944, he was transferred again, this time to neighboring Lagedi. “So far I have slept on the bare ground,” he wrote on August 29. “Today I built a lair for myself, boarded up the holes in the barrack—an achievement for Lagedi…. If possible, I shall continue to record.”111 He did so for a few more days. “Sunday, we had some tension,” the entry for September 5 reads. “The chief butcher came, the chief doctor. But everything remained as it was. Today again some anxiety. The commandant came here, the so-called Vaivarchik, the so-called Sortovshchik” [Selectioner].112 And on September 8: “Again experienced some anxiety: the Vaivarchik, Dr. Botmann, was here, with Schwartzer, the whole “butcher shop,” as it is called. Everybody was sure something horrible was imminent, in the best case, transport to Germany. The result is zero—we remain. He orders underwear, clothes, etc., sent; it seems we are staying. Thus we are playing for time.”113

The last entry in Kruk’s diary was dated September 17, 1944. He recorded the hiding of his manuscripts in the presence of witnesses: “Today, the eve of Rosh Hashanah, a year after we arrived in Estonia, I bury the manuscripts in Lagedi, in a barrack of Mrs. Shulma, right across from the guard’s house. Six persons are present at the burial. My coexistence with my neighbors [the Germans] is difficult.”114

“The next day,” according to Benjamin Harshav, the editor of the English translation of Kruk’s diary, “all Jews from Klooga and Lagedi, including Herman Kruk, were hastily exterminated. The inmates were ordered to carry logs and spread them in a layer, and then they were forced to undress and lie down naked on the logs, where they were shot in the neck. Layer was piled on top of layer, and the entire pyre was burned. The next morning, the first Red Army units reached the area. One of the six witnesses mentioned by Kruk in his final entry, survived. He returned to Lagedi, dug up the diary, and brought it to Vilna.”115


As Germany was swaying under Allied military pressure on all fronts in the summer of 1944, an event of major importance took place in the Reich itself: the attempt on Hitler’s life.

A growing number of officers, many of whom had previously been unquestioning, even enthusiastic devotees of the regime and of its leader, were ready in 1944 to support the small circle of determined opponents of Nazism who were conspiring to kill the Nazi leader and save Germany from total catastrophe. Although several prior attempts had been unsuccessful, the assassination plan meticulously prepared by Claus von Stauffenberg and set for July 20, 1944, seemed foolproof. Once again, though, the plot failed due to sheer bad luck. It brought frightful retribution in its wake. Over the following months and up to the last weeks of the war, reprisals did not stop, not only against the main plotters but against most of the opposition groups and personalities we encountered throughout this history: Moltke was executed and so were Hassell, Goerdeler, Bonhoeffer, Oster, Canaris, and thousands more with them.

Yet, as heroic and significant as July 20, 1944, is for the history of Germany, more immediately fateful was the unwavering loyalty to Hitler and his regime displayed at this crucial juncture—and into 1945—by a majority of Germans, the bulk of the Wehrmacht and of course the party and its organizations. If anything, the attempt on Hitler’s life seemed, in historian Stephen G. Fritz’s words “to bind more Landser [soldiers] to him.” Wrote BP indignantly: “Thank God that Providence allowed our Führer to continue his task of the salvation of Europe, and our holiest duty is now to cling to him even more strongly, in order to make good what the few criminals…did without regard for [the welfare] of the entire nation.” Lt. KN thought it “unspeakably tragic that the enemy nations will see symptoms of disunity, where before they perhaps supposed only unanimous solidarity.” “These bandits tried to destroy that for which millions are ready to risk their lives,” exclaimed Lt. HWM. “It is a good feeling to know that a November 1918 cannot be repeated.”116

The Jews were never absent for long. On August 8 Sergeant E lashed out: “We are totally convinced that we shall soon overcome the damage caused by these damned traitors; then the greatest difficulties will be behind us and it means: full speed to victory! You can see how these pigs wanted to deprive us of everything, at the very last moment. We know that all these bandits are Freemasons and therefore in cahoots with international Jewry, or, better said, dominated by it. Too bad that I could not be part of the operation against these criminals. It would have been a pleasure to see the smoke come out of my gun.”117

The tragic irony of such an identification of the plotters and the Jews stems from the fact that, as repeatedly mentioned, many of these conservative opponents of the regime were themselves anti-Semites to various degrees. This became clear once again during their interrogation by the Gestapo about their political and ideological beliefs. The reports of the interrogations (“The Kaltenbrunner Reports”) were forwarded to Bormann by the head of the RSHA. A report of October 16, 1944, dwelled at length on the Jewish question.

The former finance minister of Prussia, Popitz (a friend of Moltke and Preysing), said: “As somebody who was very familiar with conditions in the system period [that is, Weimar] my view of the Jewish question was that the Jews ought to disappear from the life of the state and the economy. However, as far as the methods were concerned I repeatedly advocated a somewhat more gradual approach, particularly in the light of diplomatic considerations.” Popitz reasserted the same view at greater length in the course of the interrogation. The report then emphasized that: “A number of other persons who were interrogated expressed similar views. Thus Count Yorck von Wartenburg, for example, said that the extermination measures against the Jews, which went beyond law and justice, caused him to break with National Socialism. Count Lehndorff declared ‘that although he was hostile to Jews, nevertheless he had never quite approved of the National Socialist view of race, in particular its practical implementation.’ Count Alexander von Stauffenberg [Alexander and Berthold von Stauffenberg were brothers of Claus] said he ‘took the view that the Jewish question should have been dealt with in a less extreme manner because then it would have produced less disturbance among the population.’ Count Berthold von Stauffenberg took a similar line: ‘He and his brother had basically approved of the racial principle of National Socialism but considered it to be exaggerated and excessive.’”

Further on, Kaltenbrunner’s report quoted Goerdeler’s memorandum “The Goal”: “The Jewish persecution, which has taken the most inhuman, merciless and deeply shaming forms, for which no compensation can be adequate, is to be halted immediately. Anyone who believed that he could enrich himself with Jewish property will discover that it is a disgrace for any German to seek such dishonestly acquired property. The German people truly want nothing to do with marauders and hyenas among God’s creatures.”118

As the Reich was sliding into total defeat, few Germans remained indifferent to the “Jewish question.” Whether influenced by Goebbels’s propaganda or partaking of more traditional forms of anti-Semitism, Germans of all walks of life were obsessed with the Jews. The most prevalent attitudes were hatred of course, but also fear, as we saw—the fear of retribution. Many a party member must have shared the feelings of Cpl. KB. In a letter written to his mother, on August 27, 1944, KB asked her to hide his party uniform or, better, to burn it. He admitted that these outward signs of his former commitment to National Socialism did not let him sleep at night; his fear had its good reasons: “You well know that the Jew will take a bloody vengeance, particularly against party members.”119

On August 5 Hitler had had his last chance to lecture Antonescu on the Jewish question. He explained to the Romanian marshal that Germany’s exemplary fight was due to the “pitiless destruction of the inner enemies. The Jews, the accomplices and instigators of revolutions, did not exist in Germany anymore. If somebody believed that by sparing the Jews, one could expect them to become advocates of their host nation in the event of defeat, this was a complete mistake as shown by the events in Bavaria and Hungary after the World War. In those countries the Jews proved to be the absolute organizers of the Bolshevik overthrow.”120 Thus, against all odds, as Antonescu’s regime was about to collapse, Hitler was still trying to persuade his ally to resume his anti-Jewish campaign.


Jakob Edelstein had been arrested in the fall of 1943 for having helped some inmates to escape from Theresienstadt by manipulating numbers and names on the registration lists of the camp. He was sent to Auschwitz with his wife, Miriam; his son, Aryeh; and old Mrs. Olliner, Miriam’s mother. While Edelstein was kept in block 11 of the main camp, his family members were detained in the “family camp” in Birkenau. On June 20, 1944, they were all reunited in front of Crematorium III and shot. Jakob was shot last, after he had to witness the killing of his son, his wife, and his mother-in-law.121

On September 27, 1944, Paul Eppstein was arrested on the trumped-up charge of attempting to escape. He was brought to the small fortress and executed.122 The inmates of Theresienstadt were now led by the last of the three elders, the Viennese Murmelstein: He remained a controversial figure, notwithstanding his postwar judicial rehabilitation. When he died in Rome in 1989, the chief rabbi of the city did not allow his burial next to his wife, but only at the outer limit of the Jewish graveyard, a symbolic rejection.123In the camp Murmelstein’s German protagonist was the ex-“curator” of the Prague Jewish museum, SS commandant Karl Rahm.

In the autumn of 1944 a second film was shot in Theresienstadt, this time by Kurt Gerron. Gerron was a well-known Jewish actor, director, and overall Weimar star performer, who had been deported to Theresienstadt from Holland. It presented Theresienstadt as a happy resort town, complete with parks, swimming pools, soccer tournaments, schools, and endless cultural activities (concerts, theater, and so on); it featured “happy faces” all around. Completed in November 1944, this second hoax on a grand scale, titled Theresienstadt: A Documentary from the Jewish Settlement Area—and not, as is often mentioned, The Führer Gives a Town to the Jews (an ironic title made up by the inmates themselves)—was never shown in public. Gerron left Theresienstadt on the last transport to Auschwitz and was gassed on arrival.124

In April 1945, after some further improvement work, a second ICRC delegation visited the camp, once more in the company of a vast SS retinue that included Adolf Eichmann. Once again the Geneva delegates were satisfied: In their report Theresienstadt became a “small Jewish state.” Incidentally they were the only audience to see Gerron’s film; even they found it “slightly too propagandistic.”125

There was no armed uprising in Theresienstadt, although it seems that the Germans took such a possibility into account in the fall of 1944, after the events in Treblinka and Sobibor, and the desperate and immediately-beaten-down rebellion of the Auschwitz Sonderkommando Jews in October. Thus, mainly young people boarded the transports to Auschwitz during the deportations of those months.126

There was no lack of defiance in the ghetto-camp, however, some of it quite open. The performance of Verdi’s Requiem, with its Dies Irae and particularly its Libera me, was meant as a powerful message. The conductor, Raphael Schächter, had assembled a very large choir, soloists, and a sizable orchestra. The first performance took place at the end of the summer of 1944. Schächter reworked the Libera me, too tame in its original rendition, “giving to those final words the Beethoven victory code: three short notes, one long.” Whether or not Eichmann sat in the audience, as he was in the camp to bestow a medal on Rahm in Himmler’s name, is unclear. Be that as it may, on September 28, on the morrow of the final performance (during which they already knew of their deportation), the members of the choir, the soloists and the orchestra boarded the transport for Auschwitz.127

Throughout October eleven transports followed the September 28 one, leaving 11,077 Jews in the camp, which, in mid-September, still had had a population of 29,481 detainees. As deportees from Slovakia, the Protectorate, and the Reich (mainly Mischlingeand mixed couples) trickled in over the following months, the number of inmates grew again to some 30,000 (in the meantime a first transport of some 1,200 detainees was sent to Switzerland following negotiations between Himmler and the former Swiss president, Jean-Marie Musy, which we will discuss further on). In February 1945 Rahm ordered the building of two sites, a vast hall whose doors closed hermetically, and a covered pit of huge proportions: Both sites could have been used to exterminate the entire Jewish population on the spot, had the decision been taken to liquidate the camp before the arrival of the Soviet forces. The detainees were ultimately spared: 141,184 Jews had at one time or another been sent to Theresienstadt; at the end of the war, 16,832 were still alive.128

The final entry in Redlich’s diary, dated October 6, 1944, was part of the “Diary of Dan” [the name of his newborn son], in which he commented on events by addressing his infant child: “Tomorrow, we travel, my son. We will travel on a transport like thousands before us. As usual, we did not register for this transport. They put us in without a reason. But never mind, my son, it is nothing. All of our family already left in the last weeks. Your uncle went, your aunt, and also your beloved grandmother…. Parting with her was especially difficult. We hope to see her there.

“It seems they want to eliminate the ghetto and leave only the elderly and people of mixed origin. In our generation, the enemy is not only cruel but also full of cunning and malice. They promise [something] but do not fulfill their promise. They send small children, and their prams are left here. Separated families. On one transport a father goes. On another, a son. On a third, the mother. “Tomorrow, we go too, my son. Hopefully, the time of our redemption is near.”129

For Redlich sending the child and leaving the pram behind meant death. On the eve of his deportation he had exchanged food to get a pram for his son. He was authorized to take it along. This, in his mind, allowed for optimism. To his friend Willy Groag, Redlich said: “Why else would they permit us to take a baby carriage with us?”130 Redlich and his infant son, Dan, were murdered on arrival. Dan’s pram, with tens of thousands of other baby carriages, probably found its way to the Reich.

After her arrest in Kassel, in August 1943, Lilli Jahn, the physician from Immenhausen, was sent to a “corrective labor camp” in Breitenau. Such relatively mild treatment (non-Jewish inmates, the majority, were often liberated after a few weeks of detention) may have been due at first to Lilli’s five mischling children or to the intervention of her former husband’s acquaintance, a Gestapo official in Kassel. Yet after six months in Breitenau, Lilli was deported to Auschwitz, in March 1944. By early June, she must have become very weak, as she was barely able to sign her name at the bottom of a letter sent to her sister-in-law and manifestly written by another inmate. The end came soon thereafter.

An official death certificate indicating that Lilli Sara Jahn died on June 19, 1944, was sent to her children’s address in Kassel, on September 28; her identity card was returned to the mayor of Immenhausen as “District Police Authority.” A short announcement appended to the card indicated that the death had taken place on June 17.131 Whether Lilli Sara Jahn died on June 17 or 19 was all the same to the Auschwitz administration.


In Slovakia the uprising of the underground was premature, notwithstanding the rapid advance of the Red Army: The Germans and their Hlinka Guard auxiliaries rapidly overcame the local partisans. The Jews who had joined the armed rebellion were usually shot whenever caught, and so were three of the four parachutists sent by the Yishuv; the remnants of the community were mainly deported to Auschwitz, also to some other camps, including Theresienstadt, during the last months of 1944 and early 1945.132

Once again the Vatican tried to intervene to halt the deportations, at least those of converted Jews, but without success. Tiso, who previously had been less extreme than his closest aides, now defended the deportations in a letter to Pius XII: “The rumors about cruelties are but an exaggeration of hostile enemy propaganda…. The deportations were undertaken in order to defend the nation from its foe…. We owe this as [an expression] of gratitude and loyalty to the Germans for our national sovereignty…. This debt is in our Catholic eyes the highest honor…. Holy Father, we shall remain faithful to our program:—For God and the Nation Signed: Dr. Josephus Tiso (sacerdos) [priest].”133 As noted by a Catholic historian, the Reverend John Morley: Tiso was reprimanded on several occasions by the Vatican, but not excommunicated; the Holy See lost the opportunity “for a great humanitarian and moral gesture.”134

In the meantime the events in neighboring Hungary took again a sharp turn for the worse. On October 15 Horthy announced his country’s withdrawal from the war. On the same day the Germans took control of Budapest, arrested the regent and his son, and appointed an Arrow Cross (Niylas) government led by Szalasi and backed by most of the Hungarian army. On October 18 Eichmann returned to Budapest.

Over the following days and weeks the Germans sent some 50,000 Jews on a trek from the Hungarian capital to the Austrian border, under the escort of Hungarian gendarmerie first, then of German guards. The aim was to march these Jews to the vicinity of Vienna, where they would build fortifications to defend the Austrian capital. Thousands of marchers perished from exhaustion and mistreatment or were shot by the guards.

Another 35,000 Jews were organized into labor battalions to build fortifications around Budapest: They became prime targets for Niylas thugs whose fury increased as the Soviet forces approached the capital. When compelled to retreat into the city with the fleeing army units, the members of the Jewish labor battalions were killed on the bridges or on the banks of the Danube and thrown into the river. The carnage took such proportions that “special police units had to be called out to protect the Jews from the raging Niylas.”135

In fact local Arrow Cross gangs had started murdering Jews in Budapest immediately after the change of government. As Arrow Cross deputy Karoly Marothy put it in a speech in parliament: “We must not allow individual cases to create compassion for them [the Jews]…. Something must also be done to stop the death rattle going on in the ditches all day, and the population must not be allowed to see the masses [of Jews] dying…. The deaths should not be recorded in the Hungarian death register.”136 National Police Commissioner Pal Hódosy shared Marothy’s worries: “The problem is not that Jews are being murdered; the only trouble is the method. The bodies must be made to disappear, not put out in the streets.”137 As in Croatia, some priests excelled in the killings. Thus a Father Kun admitted to having murdered some 500 Jews. Usually he would order: “In the name of Christ—fire!”138 Women, too, were active participants in the mass murders.139

A few days after the Arrow Cross came to power, Ribbentrop advised Veesenmayer that the Hungarians should “be encouraged in every way to continue taking measures that compromise them in the eyes of our enemies…. It is particularly in our interest,” the minister added, “that the Hungarians should now proceed against the Jews in the most extreme way.”140 It does not seem that the Hungarians were in need of any German prodding.

The Jews who remained in the city for the most part lived in two ghettos. At the end of November, according to Veesenmayer, a minority inhabited a so-called international ghetto or special ghetto; they were protected by various foreign countries, particularly by Sweden and Switzerland. The others, the great majority, had been packed into an ordinary ghetto. A few hundred Jews were granted immunity by the Arrow Cross itself.

In fact Veesenmayer’s assessment was off the mark: By the end of November only 32,000 Jews lived in the “ordinary ghetto,” while tens of thousands, mostly protected by forged papers, stayed in the international ghetto. The Arrow Cross regularly raided both ghettos, and once the forged papers were discovered, mass deportations from the international to the ordinary ghetto started. Soon, some 60,000 Jews were enclosed in some 4,500 apartments, at times as many as 14 to a room.141 In January, most of the inhabitants of the international ghetto were marched into the “ordinary ghetto,” where daily deaths were reaching ten times the pre-occupation rate.142

About 150,000 protection papers, some 50,000 of these genuine and the others forged, were in circulation.143 The Arrow Cross recognized some 34,800 of these documents, under the pressure of foreign governments. A group of foreign diplomats and delegates of humanitarian organizations spared no effort, sometimes at the risk of their own lives, to help the Jews of Budapest, in the ghettos, in “protected houses,” on the trek from Budapest to Vienna. The Swiss diplomats, Carl Lutz, and the delegate of the ICRC, Friedrich Born; the Italian Giorgio Perlasca, impersonating a “Spanish chargé d’affaires”; the Portuguese, Carlos Branquinho; and, of course, the Swede, Raoul Wallenberg, became the tireless rescuers of thousands of Budapest Jews and their main sources of hope.144

The Niylas remained undeterred, to the very end. As Soviet troops were already fighting in the city, the killings went on, including mostly Jews but also other “enemies.” A Hungarian lieutenant described events that probably occured in mid-January 1945: “I peeped round the corner of the Vigadó Concert Hall and saw victims standing on the track of the number 2 streetcar line in a long row, completely resigned to their fate. Those close to the Danube were already naked; the others were slowly walking down and undressing. It all happened in total silence, with only the occasional sound of a gunshot or machine-gun salvo. In the afternoon, when there was nobody left, we took another look. The dead were lying in their blood on the ice slabs or floating in the Danube. Among them were women, children, Jews, Gentiles, soldiers, and officers.”145 The last word should be left to Ferenc Orsós, a Hungarian professor of medicine who had belonged to the international commission that investigated the Katyn massacre: “Throw the dead Jews into the Danube; we don’t want another Katyn.”146

In February 1945 the Soviet army occupied the whole of Budapest.

While the march of the 50,000 Jews from Budapest to Vienna may be considered as the first large-scale death march, smaller groups of Jewish slave laborers from Hungary had already started their treks at least a month earlier. The well-known Hungarian Jewish poet Miklós Radnoti, then thirty-five, was among the “labor servicemen” who had been dispatched to Serbia, to the neighborhood of the Bor copper mines. On September 15, 1944, Radnoti and his group were ordered back to Bor, and on September 17 their march toward Hungary began.147

Attempts by the officers in command of the escort to leave the marches at railway stations failed; the column passed Belgrade and, on the road to Novi Sad, the Hungarian guards were reinforced by Volksdeutsche. From then on the number of Jews murdered along the road grew into the hundreds. On October 6 the column reached Cservenka, where it was divided into two groups: some eight hundred men, Radnoti among them, continued on their way; the other group, one thousand strong, was exterminated by SS in the local brickyards. Two days later, in Oszivac, Radnoti’s group was surrounded by an SS cavalry unit: The “servicemen” were ordered to lie on the ground and were shot at random. As one of those wounded, a violinist, tried to get up and continue to march, one of the SS men exclaimed: “Der Springt noch auf!” (“He is still jumping up!”) and shot him. A few days later Radnoti scribbled his last poem on a piece of paper that he probably found on the ground, and placed it in his notebook:

I fell beside him and his corpse turned over,

tight already as a snapping string.

Shot in the neck. “And that’s how you’ll end too,”

I whispered to myself; “lie still; no moving.

Now patience flowers into death.” Then I could hear

“Der springt noch auf,” above, and very near.

Blood mixed with mud was drying on my ear.

About a month later Radnoti and a few other “servicemen” were murdered by their guards.148

“For English soldiers.” That was the address of a letter left on the kitchen table in a house abandoned by the Germans somewhere on the Italian front in the last days of 1944; its message was unambiguous: “Dear Kamerad, on the Western front German troops are attacking the line of Americans. German tanks have destroyed a great deal of the enemy troops. The new German Luftwaffe is on the West front and she is very, very good. The war is in a new station, she is over when the Germans are victorious. Germans are fighting for their lives. The English are fighting for the Jews. A GERMAN SOLDIER.”149

Beyond the anti-Jewish hate outburst, the soldier’s message carried faint echoes of Hitler’s last major military initiative: the Ardennes offensive (Operation Autumn Mist), launched against mainly American forces on December 16 and stopped less than ten days later. A “new Luftwaffe,” flying the first jet planes, did indeed participate in the operations, with no major results, however. The first phase of Germany’s collapse was over, sometime in the early days of 1945.


The disintegration of the Reich accelerated as weeks went by and as, between January and March 1945, the command and control systems increasingly broke down. In the West, Belgium and Holland were liberated; the Rhineland and the Ruhr fell into Allied hands and, on March 7, the ninth U.S. Armored Division crossed the Rhine at Remagen. On the Eastern Front in the meantime, after taking control of Budapest, Soviet forces were moving toward Vienna; to the northeast, the Baltic countries were again in Stalin’s grip; most East Prussian strongholds fell one after another, and millions of German civilians were fleeing westward in an increasingly chaotic panic as news of Soviet savagery was spreading. In March, Soviet units crossed the river Oder: The road to Berlin was open. A few weeks beforehand Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill had met at Yalta and redrawn the borders of Eastern Europe—and divided Germany into occupation zones. And, in those same days of February 1945, Dresden, filled with refugees fleeing the Russians, was turned into a burning inferno by two successive air raids: a British and then an American one. During the first days of March, the short-lived and last German offensive of the war unfolded and petered out near Lake Balaton, in a desperate attempt to secure the control of Hungarian oil fields and bauxite mines.150

As the Nazi leader lived in an increasingly delusional world, it is not certain that even in early 1945 he recognized that the game was over. Of course in his morbid mind, mulling over the Jewish issue never stopped: “Jesus was certainly not a Jew,” he explained to Bormann on November 30, 1944. “The Jews would never have delivered one of their own to the Romans and to a Roman court; they would have convicted him themselves. It seems that many descendants of Roman legionaires lived in Galilee and Jesus was one of them. It could be that his mother was Jewish.” The usual themes followed: Jewish materialism, the perversion of Jesus’ ideals by Paul, the link between Jews and communism, etc.151 Nothing seemed to have changed in Hitler’s innermost ideological landscape from his earliest forays into political propaganda in 1919 to the last months of his crusade against “the Jew.”

In his 1945 New Year’s address to the party, the people, and the troops, Hitler brandished once again the omnipresent Jewish threat: Didn’t Ilya Ehrenburg and Henry Morgenthau represent the two faces of the identical Jewish will to destroy and exterminate the German nation?152 On January 30 it was the Jewish-Asiatic-Bolshevik conspiracy to undermine Germany after World War I that resurfaced in the endlessly repeated self-justificatory history of the rise of the party and of Hitler’s own providential-political destiny.153

On February 24, in his traditional address commemorating the February 1920 proclamation of the party program, Hitler avoided traveling from Berlin to Munich; old-timer Hermann Esser read his address to the assembled Nazi elite. The Führer may have wished to avoid meeting the “old guard,” but his message remained the same and the archenemy was the same: “At the time” [of the party’s beginnings], Hitler reminded the faithful, “the semblance of an opposition between the forces that acted together was but the expression of the single will of the one inciter and beneficiary. For a long time international Jewry used both forms [capitalism and Bolshevism] to exterminate the freedom and social happiness of nations.”154

In case such a statement sounded too abstract and too vague, Hitler turned to the ongoing events in the eastern provinces of the Reich that were already in Soviet hands: “What this Jewish pest inflicts there upon our women, children and men is the most horrible fate that a human brain can imagine.”155 The concluding exhortation followed in all “logic”: “The life that has been left to us can serve but one commandment: to restore and regain what the international Jewish criminals and their handymen have caused to our people.”156

Goebbels did not let go of the Jews either: “This afternoon,” he recorded on January 7, 1945, “I write an article on the Jewish question. It is again necessary to deal with the Jewish question on the widest scale. This theme cannot be allowed to rest. The Jews all over the world will not rejoice about my arguments.”157 The minister, needless to say, was not bereft of “compelling proofs” to make his anti-Jewish points: “That Bolshevism is essentially inspired by the Jews,” he noted on February 6, “is demonstrated in the news coming from Moscow, that Stalin has married for a third time, now the sister of the vice-chairman of the Council of the people’s representatives, Kaganowitch, a Jewess through and through. She will see to it that Bolshevism does not follow any wrong path.”158

Notwithstanding the continuous fury of the anti-Jewish propaganda, which was to reach its ultimate stage (in both meanings of the word) in Hitler’s “political testament,” German policies regarding the fate of the remaining Jews became increasingly inconsistent. On the one hand Hitler himself and part of the SS apparatus directly involved in the implementation of the “Final Solution” did not waver to the very end in the policy of extermination, although it was delayed at times by last-minute need for slave labor. In fact, in early 1944 already, Hitler had been ready to compromise regarding the presence of Jewish slave laborers on German soil. Speer confirmed, in a memorandum dated April 1944, that the Nazi leader authorized the use of 100,000 Hungarian Jews in urgent building projects for munitions factories to be located in the Protectorate.159 Soon thereafter Jewish camp inmates would be brought back to the Reich.

Thus in the late summer of 1944, some 40,000 Jews selected in Auschwitz and Stutthof had been shipped to two major satellite camps of Dachau—Kaufering and Mühldorf (in the vicinity of Munich)—where Organization Todt used them to build the heavily protected, semiunder-ground halls needed for the production of aircraft. Somewhat later, mainly in the wake of the Auschwitz evacuation, other Jewish workers would be marched to the Harz Mountains, to slave in the tunnels of Dora-Mittelbau where, some Germans still believed, the ongoing production of V-2 rockets would save the Reich.160

The Jewish workers shipped to the Dachau satellite camps were joined by thousands of Hungarian Jews marched directly from Budapest to the Bavarian construction sites.161 OT rapidly proved itself equal to the SS in its mistreatment of the slave laborers, and by the fall of 1944, hundreds had been killed or were too weak to continue working. At this point the Dachau commandant decided to send these Jews back to Auschwitz for gassing.162 Some of these transports left Bavaria at the end of September, others in October 1944.163

It is at this point, in late 1944, that Himmler’s hesitant search for a way out becomes apparent. It seems that at some stage the Reichsführer countermanded the steps taken by his underlings (and approved by his master) to pursue the “Final Solution” but was unable to sustain this alternative, afraid as he was of Hitler’s reaction. Nonetheless, from early 1945 on, in order to find an opening to the West, Himmler was ready to give up some small groups of Jews to prove his goodwill.

During his earlier forays into secret diplomacy, the Reichsführer was represented by the head of the Foreign Intelligence Department of the SD, Walter Schellenberg, who in 1944 had taken over the operations and most of the agents of the disbanded Abwehr. Apart from Schellenberg and his outfit, Himmler’s main delegate had been and continued to be, until the fall of 1944, the business-savvy Becher and, at times, Becher’s colleagues in Budapest, Gerhard Clages, Wisliceny, and Hermann Krumey. Himmler would allow contacts with representatives of Jewish organizations in Switzerland, the War Refugee Board delegates in Bern and various Swiss personalities, without giving any firm commitment about what he was ready to undertake. Simultaneously he would be in touch with Jewish and non-Jewish personalities in Sweden.

According to Becher’s postwar testimony, sometime in the fall of 1944, he convinced Himmler to order an end to the deportations, as an opening to further negotiations with representatives of the Joint and, more specifically with its representative in Switzerland, Sally Mayer. The Jewish representatives were asked to transfer money.164 It seems that in reciprocation, along the lines suggested by Becher, Himmler did indeed issue some order both to Kaltenbrunner and to Pohl; it also appears that in response Mayer, with the agreement of the representative of the War Refugee Board in Switzerland, was ready to set up a blocked account for the Germans in a Swiss bank. But Himmler, who must have sensed that Hitler would not agree to any major compromise in Jewish matters, probably backed down.

Yet, other negotiations went on between the Reichsführer and an old friend of his, the Swiss Federal Councillor Jean-Marie Musy, aiming at the release of tens of thousands of Jews as an opening to negotiations with the Western Powers. As already mentioned, a first train carrying 1,200 Jews from Theresienstadt arrived in Switzerland in January 1945. Informed of the deal, Hitler put an immediate end to it.165 At that stage a third channel appeared more promising: negotiations by way of Sweden. The Swedes informed Himmler in February 1945 that they were ready to undertake a series of humanitarian missions, which, if agreed to by the Germans, could possibly open the way for wider contacts. To that effect Count Folke Bernadotte was dispatched to Germany.166

Bernadotte’s mission, ostensibly under the banner of the Swedish Red Cross but, as in Wallenberg’s case backed in fact by the Swedish government, aimed first at liberating Scandinavian internees from Neuengamme (near Hamburg) and transfering them to Sweden. Himmler agreed. The Swedes then pushed for the release of Jews from Theresienstadt and Bergen-Belsen, while during the previous months Raoul Wallenberg had extended his activities in Budapest. During March and April 1945 initiatives to save Jews still alive in the camps multiplied, and groups of internees were indeed released as chaos spread throughout Germany.


Sometime in January 1945, after preparations had already started several months earlier (including the destruction of crematoriums, the emptying of burial pits, the clearing of ashes, the shipment of hundreds of thousands of items of clothing, and so on), Himmler gave the order for the complete evacuation of all the camps in the East with, according to several testimonies, an ominous warning to the camp commanders: “The Führer holds you personally responsible for…making sure that not a single prisoner from the concentration camps falls alive into the hands of the enemy.”167 Other testimonies indicate that the decision about the fate of the inmates was left to the camp commanders.168 Moreover, in a basic directive that had already been issued in July 1944, Glücks had stated clearly that in an “emergency situation” (evacuation) the camp commanders were to follow the directives of the regional HSSPFs. In other words nobody seemed to know who was in charge of the evacuations. But in the rapidly increasing chaos, the marches westward started.

Not all the 700,000 to 800,000 camp inmates lurching along the roads or stranded in open railroad cars during these last months of the war were Jews. A mixed sample of all of Germany’s victims had been herded together; yet, as a reflection of the camps’ population, the Jews ultimately represented a majority of these final victims of the monstrous Reich. During the marches approximately 250,000 of these Jewish prisoners perished from exhaustion, freezing, shooting, or being burned alive.

On January 18, columns of Auschwitz detainees—some 56,000 inmates, including those of satellite camps—started on their way westward toward Gleiwitz from where part was to be sent off by rail to camps in the interior of the Reich and others were to be marched farther on to Gross-Rosen and other camps in Upper Silesia. Hundreds of “stragglers” were shot during the earliest phase of the evacuation.169 In this respect—and regarding the spreading chaos—the rendering of the situation in Höss’s memoirs appears credible: “On all the roads and tracks in Upper Silesia west of the Oder, I now met columns of prisoners, struggling through the deep snow. They had no food. Most of the noncommissioned officers in charge of these stumbling columns of corpses had no idea where they were supposed to be going. They only knew that their final destination was Gross-Rosen. But how to get there was a mystery. On their own authority they requisitioned food from the villages through which they passed, rested for a few hours, then trudged on again. There was no question of spending the night in barns or schools, since these were all crammed with refugees. The route taken by these miserable columns was easy to follow, since every few hundred yards lay the bodies of prisoners who had collapsed or been shot…. I saw open coal trucks, loaded with frozen corpses, whole trainloads of prisoners who had been shunted on to open sidings and left there without food or shelter.”170

Not all evacuees ordered to clamber onto the open train cars stayed in or around Gleiwitz. Some trains actually departed with their human load. Paul Steinberg, whom we already met in Buna, was in one of them. While the Jews marching through German villages mostly remembered indifference from the population or additional brutality, Steinberg tells of a different event, “a precise, detailed, overwhelming memory.” The train had reached Prague in the early hours of a winter day and was crawling with its open load of “vaguely human creatures” under bridges while the Czechs were marching overhead on their way to work. “As one man,” Steinberg recalls, “the Czechs opened their satchels and tossed their lunches down to us without a moment’s hesitation…. We were showered with rolls, slices of bread and butter, potatoes.” Then on the railroad cars the fighting erupted: “A terrible struggle broke out as everyone fought to grab a morsel, a mouthful…. I witnessed a scene of complete degradation…. Three or four men died around a crumbled loaf of bread…. I waited twelve hours, until night came and my neighbors were only half-conscious, before I ate my bread, silently hiding my face, and my mouth savored my survival. I do not think I would have made it without that bread.” A few days later the surviving passengers reached Buchenwald.171

While the camp inmates were moving westward on foot or in open railroad cars, SS officers, camp staff members, and guards, were of course traveling in the same direction, but under better conditions. At times, however, the camp evacuations linked staff and detainees in unexpected ways. Thus during the last days of the war, on April 28, 1945, a Red Cross member watched some 5,000 detainees and their male and female SS guards moving westward out of Ravensbrück. At the head of one of the columns, a small cart pulled by six skeletal females carried the wife of one of the SS officers of the camp and her mounds of belongings. The lady, it seems, had to be particularly well attended to, as she was suffering from the consequences of an excessive binge of raisins.172

During the marches the guards usually decided on their own to kill the stragglers. However, some notorious decisions to murder the prisoners were taken at higher levels. Thus, during the second half of January between 5,000 and 7,000 Jewish inmates were assembled in Königsberg from various Stutthof satellite camps and sent marching to the northeast along the Baltic coast. Most were women. As the column reached the fishing village of Palmnicken, and could not move on overland, the Gauleiter of East Prussia, Erich Koch, together with local SS officers, members of Organization Todt, and the commanders of the satellite camps from which the inmates had arrived, decided to liquidate the entire group.173 Only two to four hundred of the prisoners survived the massacre on the seashore.

The same murderous conditions surrounded the evacuation of the Buchenwald inmates. Of the 3,000 Jews sent to Theresienstadt, barely a few hundred reached it in early April.174 As for the 22,000 inmates sent marching to Bavaria at the same time, around 8,000 were murdered, while the others reached Dachau and were liberated by the Americans. From the 45,000 inmates of the satellite camps of Buchenwald, 13,000 to 15,000 lost their lives during the evacuation.175

None of the major camps was entirely emptied of inmates in the evacuations. In Auschwitz, for example, sick inmates remained in each of the three camps after the January 19 mass evacuation. And SS units, still sporadically battling the Soviets in the area, also remained for a full week. Although the Breslau HSSPF had given the order to murder all the remaining inmates, the SS units rather concentrated on the destruction of what remained of the gas chambers and the crematoriums and the burning of archives. Yet one such unit murdered 200 female inmates in Birkenau before Himmler’s men finally left the camp.

“We all said to each other that the Russians would arrive soon, at once,” Primo Levi, who in those days was an inmate in the Monowitz infirmary block, reminisced. “We all proclaimed it, we were all sure of it, but at bottom nobody believed it. Because one loses the habit of hoping in the Lager [the camp], and even of believing in one’s own reason. In the Lager it is useless to think, because events happen for the most part in an unforeseeable manner; and it is harmful, because it keeps alive a sensitivity which is a source of pain, and which some providential natural law dulls when suffering passes a limit.”176

As Levi was waiting for the Soviet troops to liberate the camp—which they did on January 29—Ruth Kluger and Cordelia (Edvardson) had already left Auschwitz for some time. Kluger and her mother had been transferred to the small Christianstadt labor camp, a satellite camp of Gross-Rosen, also in Upper Silesia; Cordelia had been shipped off to a camp near Hamburg (probably Neuengamme). In early 1945 Ruth and her mother started marching in the mass of inmates, but after a few days they escaped from the march and survived by moving from farm to farm, then by blending into the stream of German refugees fleeing westward, until they reached Straubing, in Bavaria. Soon thereafter the Americans arrived.177 Cordelia was among the sick inmates (mainly children and youngsters) saved by the arrangement between Himmler and the Swedish government; a new life started for her, too, in Sweden.178

As for Filip Müller, his chances of survival were slim: Members of the Sonderkommando were not to be left alive. He did escape nonetheless, marching, then ferrying, then marching again to Mauthausen, then to Melk, and farther to Gusen 1, and by early April 1945, out of Gusen again. The SS did not give up: All stragglers were shot; yet, instead of leaving the corpses by the roadside, they ordered Müller and some of his companions to load them on a horse-drawn vehicle, take them to a local cemetery, and bury them in a mass grave; traces had to be effaced as thoroughly as possible.179 Finally the group reached some small camp near Wels: starving prisoners lay there on the floors of the barracks: The guards were gone. Müller settled on a rafter and waited. A few days later shouting inmates spread the news: “We are free!”

“It was, incredibly, a complete anti-climax,” Müller reminisced. “The moment, on which all my thoughts and secret wishes had been concentrated for three years, evoked neither gladness nor, for that matter, any other feelings inside me. I let myself drop down from my rafter and crawled on all fours to the door. Outside I struggled along a little further, but then I simply stretched out on a woodland ground and fell fast asleep.” The final image, whether precise or not, was a necessary finale to his memoir and, in one form or another, to many individual stories of liberation: “I awoke to the monotonous noise of vehicles rumbling past. Walking across to the nearby road I saw a column of American tanks clanking along in the direction of Wels. As I stared after the convoy of steel giants I realized that the hideous Nazi terror had ended at last.”180


During the last months of the war, while one German city after another suffered catastrophic damages, while transportation was becoming increasingly chaotic, the Gestapo sent out new deportation summonses. In January 1945 many of the 200 Mischlinge or partners in mixed marriages who still lived in Stuttgart were ordered to be ready for deportation to Theresienstadt.181

Sent on January 27, 1945, the Stuttgart Gestapo summonses ordered recipients “to report to the Transit Camp Bietigheim (Ludwigsburg County) on Monday February 12, 1945, for assignment to an external work commando.” The usual list of food rations and items to be taken along followed, and so did the usual administrative orders: “You must report your departure as well as relinquish any food ration cards to the police by February 10, 1945. Children [mainly Mischlinge of the first degree] under the age of 16 are to be placed in the care of relatives.”182

Similar summonses were being sent out, approximately at the same time, throughout the entire Reich. On February 13, in the afternoon (“perfect spring weather”), Klemperer recorded: “Today at eight o’clock [in the morning] I was at Neumark’s. Frau Jährig came out of his room weeping. Then he told me: Evacuation of those capable of work, it’s called outside work duty; as I myself [i.e., Klemperer] am released from duty, I remain here. So, the end is more likely for me than for those who are leaving. He: That is not the case; on the contrary, remaining here is a privilege…. The circular to be delivered stated that one had to present oneself at 3 Zeughausstrasse early on Friday morning, wearing working clothes and with hand luggage, which would have to be carried for a considerable distance, and with provisions for two to three days travel…. The whole thing is explicitly no more than outside work duty—but is without exception regarded as a death march.”183

A few hours later the bombing of Dresden started. At first Victor and Eva lost contact with each other in the pandemonium…. By chance they met again on the Elbe riverbank. They took off Victor’s star and, as non-Jews now, they hid with other refugees at the house of acquaintances outside the burning city, before moving westward.

The last opinion reports of the SD collected in the Reich in early 1945 confirm the generalized obsession with the Jewish issue in the crumbling Reich. They mainly indicate various (fragmentary) aspects of the depth of anti-Jewish hatred both among wide segments of the populace and the elites. The belief in the Jewish responsibility for the war had taken root. According to historian Robert Gellately, during the last two years of the war, letters (including some from academics) were sent to the Ministry of Propaganda suggesting that the Jews remaining in Germany be collected at likely bombing targets. The number of Jews killed would be announced after each raid. One of these letters suggested that even if this measure did not stop Allied bombings, at least many Jews would be exterminated; another proposal was to threaten the Americans and the British that a tenfold number of Jews would be shot for each German civilian killed in a bombing raid.184 The Volksgenossen had forgotten that essentially there were no Jews in the Reich anymore.

During the last weeks of 1944 people in the Stuttgart region criticized the publicity given to Soviet atrocities and argued that the Germans had done much worse in their treatment of the Jews;185 others believed that whatever was befalling Germany was the result of Jewish vengeance.186All in all, it seems that Nazi indoctrination was keeping its hold. On April 12, 1945, the British chief of military intelligence reported: “The Germans…caution us against appointment of Jewish burgomeisters which [they say] is a psychological mistake and which militates against cooperation of German civilian population.”187

The persistence of such deep-rooted anti-Semitism was confirmed by various opinion polls conducted in the Western zones of Germany shortly after the surrender.188 This in turn indicates that, after a certain point, the decline of Hitler’s popularity did not necessarily lead to a fading of anti-Jewish hatred. It has been argued that Hitler still had much popular support at the beginning of 1945.189 This may have been true in January and February 1945 but was probably changing around March and April, according to the well-informed yet traditionally optimistic entries in Goebbels’s diaries.

“Unfortunately,” the propaganda minister recorded on March 24, 1945, “Führer, too, is now increasingly mentioned in critical assessments…. It seems to me disastrous that now criticism does not stop at the person of the Führer, or at the National Socialist idea or at the movement.”190 And on April 1 Goebbels recorded again (referring mainly to attitudes in the western parts of the country); “Morale has sunk extraordinarily among the soldiers and the population. People are no longer afraid even of sharply criticizing the Führer.”191

At least he, the Reichsminister, unlike most Volksgenossen, kept the faith, but like many, nursed the rage: “The Jews speak up again,” he recorded on March 14. “Their spokesman is the well-known and notorious Leopold Schwarzschild who now pleads in the American press against any milder treatment of Germany. These Jews should be killed like rats, whenever one gets the possibility to do it. In Germany, thank god, we already took care of it quite seriously. I hope that the world will adopt this as an example.”192The raving and ranting went on ever more furiously as the twelve-year Reich was fast approaching its end.


After part of the Reich Chancellery had been destroyed by massive American bombings in early February 1945, Hitler retreated to the vast underground maze of living quarters, offices, conference rooms, and utilities spreading two stories deep under the building and its garden. It was there that, a few weeks later, he decided to stay as the Red Army was closing in on Berlin. Almost to the end the Nazi leader apparently believed in his star and in a last-minute miracle that would turn the utterly hopeless military situation around. It was there in his subterranean abode that he heard extraordinary tidings: On April 12 Roosevelt died.

The enemy coalition would collapse now as, at another time, in another hopeless war, the coalition arrayed against Frederick the Great foundered with Czarina Elizabeth’s death. Great expectations surged again and Hitler shared them with the troops on the Eastern front in his April 16 proclamation: “For the last time the Jewish-Bolshevik mortal enemy has attacked…. In this hour the entire German nation looks to you, my Eastern Front warriors [meine Ostkämpfer] and only hopes that as a result of your steadfastness, your fanaticism, your weapons and your leadership, the Bolshevik assault will suffocate in a bloodbath. At the moment when fate has taken away the greatest war criminal of all times [Roosevelt], the turn of this war will be decided.”193

On April 20, as somewhat subdued toasts were raised in Hitler’s bunker to celebrate the Führer’s fifty-sixth birthday, Dr. Alfred Trzebinski, senior physician at the Neuengamme concentration camp, received the order to dispose of twenty Jewish children who had been used as guinea pigs for SS doctor Kurt Heissmeyer’s experiments on tuberculosis.194

About a year beforehand, Heissmeyer, assistant director of the SS sanatorium at Hohenlychen, had received Himmler’s authorization to conduct his experiments on adults and children in secluded barracks at Neuengamme. The twenty Jewish children, ten boys and ten girls, aged five to twelve, had arrived in Birkenau with their families from France, Holland, Poland, and Yugoslavia. The families disappeared in the gas chambers and, in the fall of 1944 the twenty children were sent to Neuengamme.195

During the following months, the children, injected with Heissmeyer’s preparations, became seriously ill. On April 20, as British forces were approaching the camp, the order came. The killing would not take place in Neuengamme but at the Bullenhuser Damm school in Rothenburg-sort, near Hamburg, a subcamp of Neuengamme.

At his postwar trial Trzebinski described the course of the events. The SS personnel arrived at Bullenhuser Damm with six Russian prisoners, two French doctors, two Dutch inmates, and the children. The children were put in a separate room, an air raid shelter: “They had all their things with them—some food, some toys they had made themselves, etc. They sat on the benches and were happy that they had gotten out. They didn’t suspect a thing.”

Trzebinski gave the children sedatives, while, in the boiler room, all the adult inmates were put to death. “I must say,” Trzebinski went on, “that in general the children’s condition was very good, except for one twelve-year-old boy who was in bad shape; he therefore fell asleep very quickly. Six or eight of the children were still awake—the others were already sleeping…. Frahm [an orderly] lifted the twelve-year-old boy and said to the others that he was taking him to bed. He took him to a room that was maybe six or eight yards away, and there I saw a rope already attached to a hook. Frahm put the sleeping boy into the noose and with all his weight pulled down on the body of the boy so that the noose would tighten.”196 The other children followed, one by one.

One of the most criminal political leaders in history was about to put an end to his life. There is no point in probing once more “the mind of Adolf Hitler” or the twisted emotional sources of his murderous obsessions. It has been attempted many times without much success. However, the significant and unavoidable historical question, the one that we briefly addressed in the introduction and repeatedly throughout the volume, has to be restated and considered again at the end. The major question that challenges all of us is not what personality traits allowed an “unknown corporal” of the Great War to become the all-powerful leader Adolf Hitler, but rather why tens of millions of Germans blindly followed him to the end, why many still believed in him at the end, and not a few, after the end. It is the nature of “Führer-Bindung,” this “bond to the Führer,” to use Martin Broszat’s expression, that remains historically significant.197

Among twentieth-century leaders none but Hitler was surrounded by the frenzied devotion of so many fellow countrymen in one of the most advanced and powerful nations on earth. Roosevelt was divisive, and a large segment of the American people opposed him and at times hated him throughout his four terms in office; many Britons detested Churchill before and during his premiership; fear surrounded Stalin, the statesman most often compared to Hitler. Whereas in the Soviet Union the elite was terrorized and the population lived in a mixed atmosphere of fear and admiration for the worthy disciple of Marx and Lenin, Hitler was surrounded by the hysterical adoration and blind faith of so many, for so long, that well after Stalingrad, as we saw, countless Germans still believed in his promises of victory. Of course nothing of the kind ever applied to Mussolini, and whatever bond had existed between the Duce and his people at the onset of his regime fast vanished from the midthirties on.

Previously we indicated how brandishing the threat represented by “the Jew” reinforced Hitler’s charismatic appeal. A metahistorical enemy demanded, when the time for the decisive struggle arrived, a metahistorical personality to lead the fight against those forces of evil. Yet we are hard put to identify the importance of charisma in a modern society functioning along the rules of instrumental rationality and bureaucratic procedures. There remains but one plausible interpretation: Modern society does remain open to—possibly in need of—the ongoing presence of religious or pseudoreligious incentives within a system otherwise dominated by thoroughly different dynamics. Above and beyond the “reactionary modernism” evoked by historian Jeffrey Herf, Nazism confronts us with some kind of “sacralized modernism.”198 Propaganda and all the trappings of mass manipulation were an essential part of the emotional-psychological mobilization that took hold of the German population. However, without Hitler’s uncanny ability to grasp and magnify the basic urges of such a mass craving for order, authority, greatness, and salvation, the techniques of propaganda alone would not have sufficed. In that sense National Socialism could not have arisen and taken hold without Adolf Hitler on the one hand, and without the Germans’ response to Hitler on the other.

Of course, had Hitler only ranted and raved without delivering any tangible results, disenchantment would rapidly have undermined his appeal. But within a few years, despite the mobilization of sundry enemies by the “master of deceit,” he did achieve full employment and economic growth, the elimination of humiliating shackles and a new sense of national pride, social mobility for the great number and improvement of the standards of living and the working conditions of the masses, together with hefty rewards—and the promise of much greater ones—for the leaders of business and industry. Above and beyond anything else, Hitler instilled in the majority of Germans a sense of community and purpose. Later extraordinary diplomatic success followed, capped by stunning military victories that drove German national exaltation to the rim of literal collective insanity.

Throughout, Hitler was loath to sacrifice standards of living to the demands of an increasingly total war, and, as was amply shown in the preceding pages, conquered peoples, and mainly the Jews, were indeed defrauded and exploited to sustain, in part, the well-being of the Volksgemeinschaft or, at least, to alleviate some of the material burdens of the war. In that sense the arguments mustered by Götz Aly in Hitlers Volkstaat cannot be dismissed out of hand. But why should the Jews have been exterminated in the face of the demands of the Wehrmacht for skilled labor and other economic arguments, unless entirely different reasons motivated the master of the Reich and the multitude of his acolytes and supporters? Unavoidably the question leads us back once again to the phantasmal role played by “the Jew” in Hitler’s Germany and the surrounding world.

As the struggle reached its critical phase, at the height of the war, to lose faith in Hitler meant only one outcome: the prospect of horrendous retaliation at the hands of “Jewish liquidation squads,” in Goebbels’s words. Robbing the Jews contributed to the upholding of the Volkstaat; murdering them and fanning the fears of retribution became the ultimate bond of Führer and Volk in the collapsing Führerstaat.

At the very end the “bond” snapped for many Germans. For others, however, pride in the achievements of the regime and belief in its rightful path, marred solely by minor blemishes, remained silently and anonymously alive for decades to come, as did the nostalgia for the Volksgemeinschaft.199

On April 21, 1945, in the evening, as Soviet shells started falling near the former buildings of the Reich Chancellery, the Nazi leader thanked the Duce for his birthday greetings: “My thanks, Duce, for your wishes on my birthday. The struggle that we are leading for our sheer existence has reached its high point. With limitless supplies of war material, Bolshevism and the troops of Jewry [Bolschewismus und die Truppen des Judentums] set everything in action to unite their destructive forces in Germany and thus push our continent into chaos.”200 For the first time, it seems, the Anglo-American forces were designated as “the troops of Jewry.”

The Nazi chief let his entourage know that he would stay in the bunker and kill himself; everybody else could leave if they wished to. Eva Braun, whom Hitler would marry on the eve of their suicide, was determined to die with him. The faithful Goebbels, his wife, Magda, and their six children were also in the bunker: They would share their leader’s fate. On April 29 the time had come: The Führer dictated his “Private Testament” and then his message to future generations, his “Political Testament.”

In the first half of the document, the Nazi leader addressed the German people, the world, and history. “It is untrue,” he declared, “that he or anybody else in Germany had wanted the war in 1939.” And, immediately, at the very outset of the message, he turned to his main obsession: “It [the war] was exclusively willed and triggered by the international statesmen, who were either of Jewish descent or worked for Jewish interests.” After denying again any responsibility in the outbreak of the war, the Nazi leader, as was his wont, prophesied retribution: “From the ruins of our cities and our monuments hatred will arise again against the people that bears the responsibility in the end, the one to whom we have to thank for all of this: international Jewry and its acolytes!”

After a brief but, as we shall see, essential comment on British responsibility for the outcome of the Polish crisis of September 1939, Hitler could not fail to end this short paragraph without returning to Jewish warmongering. Full-scale raving followed: “I left no doubt that if the peoples of Europe were treated again as bundles of stocks belonging to the international conspiracy of money and finance, then the culprit for this murderous struggle would have to pay: Jewry! Moreover I did not leave anybody unaware of the fact that, this time, not only millions of men would be killed, not only hundreds of thousands of women and children would be burnt and bombed to death in the cities, but those truly responsible would have to pay for his culpability, albeit by more humane methods.” The responsibility for the extermination of five to six million Jews was laid squarely upon the victims. The address then turned to Hitler’s decision to share the fate of Berlin’s inhabitants but, typically, it shifted again: “Moreover, I do not want to fall into the hands of the enemies who need a new show staged by the Jews for their excited masses.”

Volk and soldiers got their share of praise: The seeds had been sown, Hitler declared, that would lead to the rebirth of National Socialism. Then he settled accounts with Göring and Himmler, whom he demoted and expelled from the party for their dealings with the Western Powers, nominated Grand Adm. Karl Dönitz as the new head of state (“president,” not “Führer,” of course) and chief of the armed forces, Goebbels as chancellor, and designated the new ministers. Hitler reached the inevitable final exhortation: “Most of all, I commit the leadership of the nation and its followers to the strictest keeping of the race laws and the merciless struggle against the universal poisoner of all people, international Jewry.”201

The wording of such a document, dictated in the direst of circumstances, cannot be taken in the same way as if it had been carefully prepared at the height of the Nazi leader’s power. And yet isn’t it plausible that precisely the historical importance (in Hitler’s eyes) of this last message would bring forth only the essentials, the barest tenets, of Hitler’s faith?

That “Providence” or “fate”—still invoked less than two weeks earlier—had disappeared from the Nazi leader’s rhetoric needs no explanation. That the “Reich” and the “party” also remained unmentioned (except for “Berlin, the capital of the Reich”) is not surprising either. The Reich was in ruins and the party replete with traitors. Not only were Göring and Himmler negotiating with the enemy but, in the West, the Gauleiter were surrendering one after another, and SS generals were sending false reports on the military situation. The party, whose members should have been ready to die for the Reich and their leader, had ceased to exist.

All this was in line with Hitler’s usual reactions toward anyone daring to wander off the path he alone was allowed to dictate. But besides such foreseeable reactions, one aspect of the testament was utterly unexpected: In Hitler’s final message there was no trace of Bolshevism.

Hitler had probably decided to concentrate his entire apologia on demonstrating that neither Germany’s catastrophic end nor the murder of the Jews was his responsibility. The responsibility was laid squarely upon those who, in September 1939, pushed for war, whereas he sought only compromise: the Western plutocrats and the warmongering Jews. Stalin, his ally at the time, was better left unmentioned as the partition of Poland within days of the invasion showed that the Reich and the Soviet Union had decided to share the Polish spoils in a pact that considerably facilitated the German attack and proved that Hitler was intent on launching the war.

On April 30, shortly after 3:00 p.m., Hitler and Eva Braun committed suicide. On Dönitz’s order, German radio broadcast the following announcement on May 1 at 10:26 p.m.: “The Führer’s headquarters announce that this afternoon, our Führer, Adolf Hitler, fell at his command post in the Reich Chancellery, in fighting against Bolshevism to his last breath.”202 Seven days later Germany surrendered.

Either on May 1 or 2, as he was informed of Hitler’s death, Cardinal Bertram—who in the meantime had left Breslau for safer surroundings—requested, in a handwritten letter addressed to all the parish priests of his diocese, that they “hold a solemn requiem mass in memory of the Führer.”203

Before continuing their trek to the West the Klemperers, as mentioned, stayed briefly in an acquaintances’ house near Dresden. On the night of March 21, all the inhabitants huddled in the corridor during an air raid warning. The Klemperers struck up a conversation with one Fräulein Dumpier: “She cautiously began to come out of her shell,” Victor later noted. “She gradually came out with strong doubts on National Socialist teaching…. She turned the conversation toward the Jewish question. I side-stepped carefully…. I went through quite a few contortions. The girl’s last words were amusing…she believed in the rights of nations, she found the arrogance and brutalization in Germany repugnant—‘It’s only the Jews I hate. I think I have been influenced a bit in that.’ I would have liked to ask her how many Jews she knew, but swallowed it down and merely smiled. And noted for myself, how demagogically justified National Socialism was in putting anti-Semitism at the center.”204

Two weeks later the Klemperers, now ordinary German refugees, reached Upper Bavaria; their identity had not been discovered: They were saved. And so were some other diarists: Mihail Sebastian, in Bucharest (who soon after the Russian takeover was killed in an accident); Abraham Tory, from Kovno; Hersch Wasser, from Warsaw. So also were the dazed survivors who had been left behind in the camps, those who remained alive during the death marches, those who emerged from their hiding places in Christian institutions, in “Aryan” families, in mountains or forests, among partisans or in Resistance movements, those who lived in the open under false identities, those who had fled in time from German-dominated areas, those who kept their new identities, and those, known or unknown, who had betrayed and collaborated for the sake of survival.

Between five and six million Jews had been killed; among them almost a million and a half were under the age of fourteen.205 They comprised the immense mass of silent victims and also most of the diarists and authors of letters whose voices we heard in these pages. Etty Hillesum, Anne Frank, Ben Wessels, and Philip Mechanicus, from Amsterdam;206 Raymond-Raoul Lambert, Jacques Biélinky, and Louise Jacobson, from Paris; Moshe Flinker, from The Hague and Brussels; Jochen Klepper and Hertha Feiner, from Berlin; Lilli Jahn, from Cologne; Ernst Krombach from Essen; Gonda Redlich and Oskar Rosenfeld, from Prague; Dawid Sierakowiak, Josef Zelkowicz, the other “chroniclers,” and at least three anonymous young diarists, from Lodz; Elisheva (Elsa Binder) and her unknown “guest diarist” from Stanislawów; Adam Czerniaków, Emanuel Ringelblum, Shimon Huberband, Chaim Kaplan, Abraham Lewin, and Janusz Korczak, from Warsaw; Calel Perechodnik, from Ottwock; Dawid Rubinowicz, from Kielce; Aryeh and Malwina Klonicki, from Kovel and Buczacz; Herman Kruk, Itzhok Rudashevski, and Zelig Kalmanovitch, from Vilna; and the diarist of the Auschwitz Sonderkommando, Zalman Gradowski. Many more diarists, of course, were murdered, and another handful remained alive.207

From among the few hundreds of thousands of Jews who had stayed in occupied Europe and survived, most struck roots in new surroundings, either by necessity or by choice; they built their lives, resolutely hid their scars, and experienced the common share of joys and sorrows dealt by everyday existence. For several decades, many evoked the past mainly among themselves, behind closed doors, so to speak; some became occasional witnesses, others opted for silence. Yet, whatever the path they chose, for all of them those years remained the most significant period of their lives. They were entrapped in it: Recurrently, it pulled them back into overwhelming terror and, throughout, notwithstanding the passage of time, it carried along with it the indelible memory of the dead.

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