J.C. Peters

"Technically it wasn't so hard—it would not have been hard to exterminate even greater numbers.... The killing itself took the least time. You could dispose of 2,000 head in half an hour, but it was the burning that took all the time. The killing was easy; you didn't even need guards to drive them into the chambers; they just went in expecting to take showers and, instead of water, we turned on poison gas. The whole thing went very quickly."

Rudolf Höss, Commandant of Auschwitz: Testimony at Nuremberg, 1946



In 2008, seventeen year old Eli Sagir got a tattoo after returning from a high school trip to Poland. Nothing too elaborate or complicated, just a number. 157622. When she showed it to her grandfather, he bent his head and kissed it, because he had the same number, in the same spot. Only he hadn't gotten his at a hip tattoo parlor but at Auschwitz concentration camp, nearly 70 years ago. A week later, her mother and brother also had the number imprinted on their left forearm. Several other young descendants of Auschwitz survivors have done the same. They view the number as part of their family history, almost as an heirloom. They want to remember. They want others to remember. Not surprisingly the young numbered forearms trigger reactions far and wide. Some are disgusted, shocked, even angry. Others find it a beautiful gesture.

It was not much different from the various ways Auschwitz survivors treated their own tattoo. Some rushed to the plastic surgeon after the war to have the numbers removed, others view it as a scar that nevertheless needs to be preserved. Still others view it with pride, because it proves they survived. Everything.

For some of the few that remain, surviving started the same year the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (NSDAP, a.k.a Nazi Party) came to power in Germany, in 1933. NSDAP leader Adolf Hitler had never made a secret about his hatred for the Jewish people (or many other people for that matter), a hatred that was adamantly shared by the rest of the party members, the Nazi party electorate and even many who had not voted for the Nazis. In fact, Jews had been subject to hatred, discrimination and violence for centuries throughout Europe. They were used to it. But this time, in this country, it would be different.

The nazi ideology was centered around the belief in the superiority of the Aryan race, the German people and German culture. To fulfill its perceived destiny of ruling the world, Germany needed to have a strong state, a strong leader and a strong people. To this end the state should be given the means to control and legislate every aspect of society and its citizens, while the leader should be given the means to control every aspect of the state. The people, for their part, should be pure of blood and purpose, willing to sacrifice everything for the good of the state.

Everybody who disagreed with this view was to be considered a disruptive force to the strength of the state and therefore a danger to the security of the state. Everybody who was impure of blood or weak in any other way could not be part of the New Order and should therefore be either reeducated (if only weak) or permanently expelled (if impure). These Unerwünschten (undesirables) included, a.o: Jews, Slavs, Roma, communists, homosexuals, the mentally ill, the disabled, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Freemasons.

But above all, the Jews.

Getting rid of the Jews stood front and center of the Nazi ideology, but actually getting it done posed various practical challenges. It is one thing to shout all manner of things in speeches at beer cellars and backrooms, but quite another to turn those rants into policy. To put things in perspective, an estimated 523,000 Jews lived in Germany alone. They served in the military, they taught at universities, sat on judges benches, worked in factories, as doctors, lawyers, they owned shops, stocks and bonds, employed people, were married to non-jews. Whatever their undesirability, their lives were entwined with all aspects of German society.

Historians still debate whether Hitler had already decided to exterminate all the Jews even before he came to power, but given the different solutions to the 'Jewish Question' the Nazis tried out between 1933 and 1941 it seems unlikely he had, even if only for practical reasons. The Germany of 1933 was very different from the Germany of 1941. For one thing, Germany was not ----

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