Lest We Forget: The Holocaust

It started with anti-Semitism and Kristallnacht. It ended with more than 6 million lives erased.
Policemen guarding Jews who are being relocated into the ghetto in Grodno, Poland. November 1941

It’s not pleasant to think about. But ignoring it, although pleasant for a while, has its own ugly ramifications. Namely, history repeating itself. The mind-numbing, horror-film realities of Belzec and Bergen-Belsen remain a chilling testament to what Churchill called the “confirmed unteachability” of mankind.

Some of the most chilling memories of this brutal lesson in mankind’s history come from original documents produced in the midst of this terror. In their own words, in their own horrific time, these echoes from the past are powerful warnings for our future.

Kristallnacht and the pogrom riots were just the beginning. As Berlin warred against Britain, the United States and the Allies, Jews and others became the victims of a state-sponsored terrorism that stripped freedoms, humiliated, confiscated belongings, and finally kidnapped the Jews outright and murdered them inside executional machinery greased with human blood.

Even when Hitler’s war began to go badly, the Führer continued diverting badly needed manpower, funds and resources to systematic slaughter. By the tens of thousands, Nazis herded fathers, mothers, grandparents and children into ghettos, and onto cattle cars, enslaved them at concentration camps, and/or exterminated them at death camps.

SS General Stroop, charged with transferring the Jewish workforce in the Warsaw ghetto to Lublin, found the Jews had built an elaborate system of passageways and bunkers and were fighting to the death against Nazi troops, whom he finally ordered to comb the ghetto “with maximum severity and ruthless determination.”

Stroop’s battle diary:

I therefore decided to carry out the total destruction of the Jewish quarter by burning down all residential blocks, including the blocks attached to the armament factories. … Not rarely, the Jews stayed in the burning houses until the heat and fear of being burned to death caused them to jump from the upper floors after they had thrown mattresses and other upholstered objects from the burning houses to the street. With broken bones they would then try to crawl across the street into buildings which were not yet, or only partially, in flames.

In Eastern Europe and Russia, it was execution-style murders on a ghastly scale. One Wehrmacht report, which celebrated the “elimination of some, in part superfluous eaters in the cities,” still decried the indiscriminate “elimination” of Jewish craftsmen, propaganda problems, and “brutalizing effects” on troops and police who carried out the executions:

Immediately following the military operations, the Jewish population remained undisturbed at first. It was only weeks, in some cases months, later that systematic shooting of the Jews was carried out by units of the Order Police specially set up for this purpose. This Aktion moved in the main from east to west. It was carried out entirely in public, with the assistance of Ukrainian militia; in many cases, regrettably, also with the voluntary participation of members of the Wehrmacht. These Aktionen included aged men, women and children of all ages, and the manner in which they were carried out was appalling. The gigantic number of executions involved in this Aktion is far greater than any similar measure undertaken in the Soviet Union up to now. Altogether about 150,000 to 200,000 Jews may have been executed in this section of the Ukraine belonging to the RK [Reichskommissariat]; up to now no consideration was given to the interests of the economy.

Secret telegrams between generalkommissars, reichskommissars and other Nazi officers discussed how many Jews and Jewesses they had “liquidated,” how many needed to be, and what the most efficient methods and practices were.

From Karl Jaeger, commander of security police:

… I can confirm today that Einsatzkommando 3 has achieved the goal of solving the Jewish problem in Lithuania. There are no more Jews in Lithuania, apart from working Jews and their families. These number: in Shavli, about 4,500; in Kovno, about 15,000; in Vilna, about 15,000. I wanted to eliminate the working Jews and their families as well, but the Civil Administration (Reichskommissar) and the Wehrmacht attacked me most sharply and issued a prohibition against having these Jews and their families shot. The goal of clearing Lithuania of Jews could only be achieved through the establishment of a specially selected Mobile Commando under the command of SS ObersturmfuehrerHamann, who adopted my aims fully and who was able to ensure the cooperation of the Lithuanian Partisans and the Civil Authorities concerned. The carrying out of such Aktionen is first of all an organizational problem. The decision to clear each sub-district systematically of Jews called for a thorough preparation for each Aktion and the study of local conditions. The Jews had to be concentrated in one or more localities and, in accordance with their numbers, a site had to be selected and pits dug. The marching distance from the concentration points to the pits averaged 4 to 5 kilometers. The Jews were brought to the place of execution in groups of 500, with at least 2 kilometers distance between groups. … All the officers and men of my command in Kovno took an active part in the Grossaktionen in Kovno.

In Pripet, this ghastly method of attempting to dispose of Jews is described: “The driving of women and children into the marshes did not have the expected success, because the marshes were not so deep that one could sink. After a depth of about a meter there was in most cases solid ground (probably sand) preventing complete sinking ….”

In other attempts to dispose of and conceal the Nazis’ victims, prisoners were forced to open mass graves where thousands of men, women and children had died, some having been alive when they were buried. The prisoners were forced to stack the bodies like firewood, burn them, then grind the charred remains into powder and mix it with dirt.

And, finally, from the death camps:

The other workers were nearly finished with the job of clearing all the corpses from the platform. Some of the bodies had lain there for 10 days and were in an advanced state of decomposition. Armed guards patrolled among us. SS men kept showing up to pick a few of us out of the rest and lead them to the edge of the huge cremation pit. There the victims were ordered to disrobe and stand facing the pit. Then they were shot to death. At first, each of the victims had to drag the body of his predecessor into the pit; his reward, when he climbed out, was a bullet. Anyone who pleaded for his life was ordered to lie on the ground and absorbed a terrible beating before being shot.

At the infamous Treblinka death camp, prisoners helped ailing and elderly off the cattle cars around a barrier of pine branches to the “field hospital.” This infirmary was a 30-yard-wide pit ablaze with trash mixed with the remains of the elderly, the sick and children. “Patients” were taken to the edge of the pit, where an SS officer shot them in the back of the neck. Workers then threw them into the flames. Edi Weinstein saw a dozen infants sitting next to the pit; the SS officer was on his lunch break. Later, the SS man returned.

But bullets and labor-intensive burials and cremations were not efficient enough. Great industrial death factories were constructed in an attempt to turn an entire race of people into puffs of smoke. Testimony from death camp crematorium engineers is chilling in its detachment and professionalism:

I decided to design and build a crematorium with a higher capacity. I completed this project of a new crematorium in November 1942—a crematorium for mass incineration, and I submitted this project to a State Patent Commission in Berlin.This “Krema” was to be built on the conveyor belt principle. That is to say, the corpses must be brought to the incineration furnaces without interruption. When the corpses are pushed into the furnaces, they fall onto a grate, and then slide into the furnace and are incinerated. The corpses serve at the same time as fuel for heating of the furnaces. This patent could not yet be approved by the Main Patent Office in Berlin, because of its classification (as a state secret).

From the testimony of engineer Kurt Prufer:

Q. Were you the sole Topf engineer in Auschwitz in spring 1943?A. No, [senior engineer Karl] Schultze was with me in Auschwitz at the time. I saw personally about 60 corpses of women and men of different ages, which were being prepared for incineration. That was at 10 in the morning. I witnessed the incineration of six corpses and came to the conclusion that the furnaces were working well.Q. Did you see a gas chamber next to the crematoriums?A. Yes, I did see one next to the crematorium. Between the gas chamber and the crematorium there was a connecting structure.Q. Did you know that in the gas chamber and in the crematoriums there took place the liquidation of innocent human beings?A. I have known since spring 1943 that innocent human beings were being liquidated in Auschwitz gas chambers and that their corpses were subsequently incinerated in the crematoriums.Q. Who is the designer of the ventilation systems for the gas chambers?A. Schultze was the designer of the ventilation systems in the gas chambers; and he installed them.Q. Why was the brick lining of the muffles so quickly damaged?A. The bricks were damaged after six months because the strain on the furnaces was colossal.

One of thousands of heartbreaking accounts from the Chelmno death camp: “On August 31, in the middle of the day, a car full of people arrived. We didn’t know who they were. After a short break, all of them were driven off to the forest, and only when the car returned with their belongings did we realize that these were our wives and children.”

From Ellie Kulka, wife of prisoner no. 73043, to her husband as she waited to be taken to the gas chamber:

My darling, On this, the last night of my life, I bid you farewell. Our days of happiness were short-lived, but beautiful. At this moment I am remembering our love, from its beautiful beginning until its cruel end. You were the love of my life, and I would willingly have sacrificed everything to save you. And our innocent little Otto—why has it been decreed that this rough, ruthless hand should put an end to his short life? …Farewell, love of my life! Ellie and your little Otto send you kisses for the last time!

Goodbye, from Auschwitz Birkenau.

The Watch Jerusalem staff remembers the anguish and the horror of the Holocaust, but most of all, we remember the monumental, commanding lesson this history teaches us about the evil capacity of man, and the need for deliverance, governance and justice from the only one who can fairly and lovingly give it: God. God is intently interested in our lives and in turning us to obedience to His laws and His way of life. As today’s headlines trend toward a nuclear Second Holocaust, we must remember this history and turn to God to avoid repeating it.

For God’s ultimate plan for mankind, including those lost in the Holocaust, read Jerusalem in Prophecy.