The Final Solution


On January 20, 1942, fifteen high-ranking Nazi party and German government leaders gathered for an important meeting. They met in a wealthy section of Berlin at a villa by a lake known as Wannsee. Reinhard Heydrich, who was SS chief Heinrich Himmler's head deputy, held the meeting for the purpose of discussing the "final solution to the Jewish question in Europe" with key non-SS government leaders, including the secretaries of the Foreign Ministry and Justice, whose cooperation was needed.

The "final solution" was the Nazis' code name for the deliberate, carefully planned destruction, or genocide, of all European Jews. The Nazis used the vague term "final solution" to hide their policy of mass murder from the rest of the world. In fact, the men at Wannsee talked about methods of killing, about liquidation, about "extermination."

The Wannsee Conference, as it became known to history, did not mark the beginning of the "Final Solution." The mobile killing squads were already slaughtering Jews in the occupied Soviet Union. Rather, the Wannsee Conference was the place where the "final solution" was formally revealed to non-Nazi leaders who would help arrange for Jews to be transported from all over German-occupied Europe to SS-operated "extermination" camps in Poland. Not one of the men present at Wannsee objected to the announced policy. Never before had a modern state committed itself to the murder of an entire people.

In the months following the Wannsee Conference, the Nazi regime continued to carry out their plans for the "Final Solution." Jews were "deported" -- transported by trains or trucks to six camps, all located in occupied Poland: Chelmno, Treblinka, Sobibor, Belzec, Auschwitz-Birkenau, and Majdanek-Lublin.

The Nazis called these six camps "extermination camps." Most of the deportees were immediately murdered in large groups by poisonous gas. The Nazis changed to gassing as their preferred method of mass murder because they saw it as "cleaner" and more "efficient" than shooting. Gassing also spared the killers the emotional stress many mobile killing squad members had felt shooting people face to face. The killing centers were in semi-rural, isolated areas, fairly well hidden from public view. They were located near major railroad lines, allowing trains to transport hundreds of thousands of people to the killing sites.

Many of the victims were deported from nearby ghettos, some as early as December 1941, even before the Wannsee meeting. The SS began in earnest to empty the ghettos, however, in the summer of 1942. In two years' time, more than two million Jews were taken out of the ghettos. By the summer of 1944, few ghettos remained in eastern Europe.

At the same time that ghettos were being emptied, masses of Jews and also Roma (Gypsies) were transported from the many distant countries occupied or controlled by Germany, including France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway, Hungary, Romania, Italy, North Africa, and Greece. The deportations required the help of many people and all branches of the German government. The victims in Poland were already imprisoned in ghettos and totally under German control. The deportation of Jews from other parts of Europe, however, was a far more complex problem. The German Foreign Ministry succeeded in pressuring most governments of occupied and allied nations to assist the Germans in the deportation of Jews living in their countries.

Jews in the Netherlands were systematically sent to the Westerbork transit camp. The majority of Jews sent to Westerbork remained there only a short time before their deportation to killing centers in the east. Beginning on July 15, 1942, the Germans deported nearly 100,000 Jews from Westerbork: about 60,000 to Auschwitz, over 34,000 to Sobibor, almost 5,000 to the Theresienstadt ghetto, and nearly 4,000 to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. The overwhelming majority of those deported were killed upon arrival in the camps.

Between July 22 and mid-September 1942, over 300,000 people were deported from the Warsaw ghetto: more than 250,000 of them were deported to the Treblinka killing center. Deportees were forced to the Umschlagplatz (deportation point), which was connected to the Warsaw-Malkinia rail line. They were crowded into freight cars and most were deported, via Malkinia, to Treblinka. The overwhelming majority of the deportees were killed upon arrival in Treblinka. In September, at the end of the 1942 mass deportation, only about 55,000 Jews remain in the ghetto.

German forces occupied Hungary on March 19, 1944. In April 1944, all Jews except those in Budapest were ordered into ghettos. Systematic deportations from the ghettos in Hungary to Auschwitz-Birkenau began the next month. In less than three months, nearly 440,000 Jews were deported from Hungary in more than 145 trains. The overwhelming majority were killed upon arrival in Auschwitz.