From the moment the war in the Soviet Union had begun, special Nazi killing squads had targeted selected male Jews, and by the autumn of 1941 that policy of murder had been expanded to include the shooting of whole Jewish families in the east. But the Jews of Western Europe were still relatively unscathed by this horror in the Soviet Union – now that was about to change.
As early as mid-August 1941, a number of leading Nazis called for some of the German Jews to be sent east. On 15 August, Leopold Gutterer, state secretary to the Propaganda Minister, Josef Goebbels, said that all the Jews in Berlin who were not working should be ‘carted off to Russia…. Best of all would be to kill them.’i A few days later, Goebbels himself pressed the case for the deportation of the German Jews to Adolf Hitler. But Hitler didn’t agree – for him the war was still the absolute priority and he believed the fate of the Jews in Western Europe would probably have to be resolved only at the end of the war (but he expected the war, certainly in the Soviet Union, to be over very soon). However, in a significant increase in anti-Semitic action against the Jews of Germany, Hitler now agreed that they should be forced to wear the mark of the yellow star on their clothing.
In September 1941, another leading Nazi pressed Hitler to deport the German Jews. Karl Kaufmann, Gauleiter of Hamburg, wrote to Hitler in the aftermath of the bombing raid on the city on 15 September, asking him to permit the deportation of the city’s Jews to free up housing for non-Jewish residents whose homes had been destroyed.ii In response to this – and a number of other – requests, Hitler finally agreed in late September that the German Jews should be sent east. But this was not some kind of seismic shift in Hitler’s attitude to the Jews, merely a change in tactical timing. Hitler had now decided that, since he felt the war against the Soviet Union would be over soon, there was little difference in deporting the Jews immediately and deporting them ‘when the war was over’.
But where should the Jews be sent? One possibility was the Lodz ghetto in Poland, but this could only be a short term solution as the ghetto was so overcrowded. Another possibility was to send them into the occupied Soviet Union where perhaps they could occupy space left by the Jews who had already been killed there. But that seemed an illogical policy – killing one Jew to make place for another?
As Professor David Cesarani puts it: ‘The autumn of 1941 is one of the strangest and most difficult periods to get a hold of, and I’m not sure that I understand it. I think it’s best put in this way. In the Soviet Union you have got the most radical conceivable kind of ethnic cleansing which is the mass shooting of populations, particularly the Jewish population. You have the crystallization of an idea in Berlin that during the war itself the Jews are going to be removed from the sphere of influence of the Third Reich, which I think at that point means after the defeat of the Soviet Union, which is imminent, dumping them in Siberia, not actually killing them. So you’ve got two strange things already. Tens of thousands of Jews are being massacred, but people are thinking of sending Jews alive to somewhere else where they may die, but they may not.’
In October 1941 the Jews of Hamburg were forcibly deported. Lucille Eichengreen, then a seventeen year old German schoolgirl, was escorted with her mother and sister to Hamburg station. As they were taken to the train station the non-Jewish population watched them ‘stony faced. It was either an ugly word or they looked away. It didn’t make me feel cross. It made me feel afraid.’
Lucille and her family were sent to the Lodz ghetto in Poland, where they were to suffer appallingly that autumn. But, in the context of the deportations of 1941, some were to experience a still worse fate. Some 5,000 German Jews who were sent to Kaunas in Lithuania were murdered by Einsatzkommando 3. Another transport, sent to Riga, was also killed on arrival.
However, most of the nearly 60,000 Jews from the ‘Old Reich’ deported between October 1941 and February 1942 did not suffer such a fate. Though the vast majority would eventually be murdered by the Nazis, the policy of systematically killing the Jews was not yet in place. ‘You have got smallish groups of Jews who are deported from the Reich to the east who get caught up in the slaughter process and are murdered, but for what seem to be rather arbitrary reasons,’ says Professor Cesarani. ‘I don’t think those shootings signify that much. I mean they were horrendous but I don’t think they tell us that much except that there is not yet a ‘final solution’ because of the inconsistency in the way in which the deported German Jews are treated and that shows that there’s not yet a final global decision.’ For Professor Cesarani that ‘global decision’ does not occur until much later when the Nazis ‘decided to round up all of the Jews of Europe wherever they can be got hold of and to deport them to fixed killing sites - a genocide, a total and biological annihilation of the Jewish people. Then I think we’ve made a qualitative, conceptual and technological leap and we are in that area of singularity that makes the genocide against the Jews so distinctive. What is frustrating to many people coming to this subject is that this point of coalescence occurs quite late in the day…. It comes in the spring of 1942, after hundreds of thousands of Jews have already been killed or perished in the ghettos in Poland, and it has evolved in a haphazard way.’
This period between the autumn of 1941 and the spring of 1942 is undoubtedly one of the most crucial in the development of the Nazis’ ‘Final Solution’. At the start of it the Jews of Western Europe are still living with their families in their countries of origin, and at the end of it many are en route to perish in the gas chambers of Auschwitz or Treblinka. So when was the ‘moment’ of this ‘final global decision’? Was there ever such a single ‘moment’ of decision, rather than an evolutionary process with several vital milestones along the way to the policy of mass extermination? These are some of the issues discussed in the next Key Moment of the Holocaust – Hitler’s pronouncements in December 1941.
i Quoted in Christopher Browning, The Origins of the Final Solution: The Evolution of Nazi Jewish Policy September 1939 – March 1945, William Heinemann, 2004, p. 318
ii See Laurence Rees, Auschwitz: The Nazis and the ‘Final Solution’, BBC Books, 2005, pp. 93-94
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