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Third Reich’s Infrastructure of Horror Far More Widespread Than Thought

The Nazis built and operated a far more extensive mechanism of debasement and death than previously known, historians have found. When researchers began in 2000 to catalog places where the Germans and their cohort killed, detained, tortured, and enslaved people sexually and otherwise, they expected to find 7,000 sites. Instead, they identified 42,500 locations across occupied Europe.

The findings don’t change the estimate of 15–20 million people imprisoned and killed. But they provide new detail on the breadth of the horror and further call into question claims that ordinary Germans and Austrians did not know what the Third Reich was doing. “It really was impossible for anybody not to have known about the camp system to some extent,” says Geoff Megargee, a scholar with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies. “You couldn’t swing a cat without running into these folks.” The findings, presented in January at the German Historical Institute in Washington D.C., will go into the Holocaust museum’s seven-volume Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos, 1933–1945. Two volumes have already been published.

The proliferation of German “sites of detention, persecution, and murder,” as Megargee calls them, eluded detection because individual researchers tended to focus on specific geographic areas and themes. No one was looking at the big picture. Megargee says he often asks audiences how many detention sites they think Nazi Germany ran. “I’ll get answers of 25, or 200,” he says. “Some brave souls will get up to a couple thousand. Nobody gets how big this thing was.”

To arrive at the astounding new figure, researchers at the museum pieced together information from 650 sources. Catalogued facilities range from the massive Warsaw Ghetto and its 400,000 entrapped Jews to industrial-scale death camps like Auschwitz to small labor camps and slave brothels staffed by Polish and French women for Wehrmacht soldiers.

“There were far more forced labor sites than previously imagined, including labor sites that were short-term or seasonal, alongside longer-term camps,” says David Silberklang, a senior historian at Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust memorial. “The research team at the [American Holocaust museum] should be commended for their excellent and reliable work.”

Interest in B-24 Wreck Heats Up

Soon after Consolidated B-24 Liberator Hot Stuff crashed into a mountain in Iceland in bad weather on May 3, 1943, the crash was forgotten. But Jim Lux, a retiree in Austin, Texas, is campaigning to get Hot Stuff and crew the recognition he says they’re due.

Lux’s efforts are paying off. Iceland scheduled a ceremony marking the crash’s 70th anniversary and plans to put up a monument near the site. Dayton, Ohio’s U.S. Air Force Museum also is planning to recognize Hot Stuff.

When it crashed, the plane was carrying Lieutenant General Frank Andrews, a founder of the U.S. Army Air Corps and namesake of Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, home to Air Force One. He and 13 others died. Only the tail gunner survived.

Before the war, Andrews championed the B-17 bomber against resistance from army brass. He helped mobilize the country for war as assistant army chief of staff for operations. According to Time magazine, army wives considered him the handsomest man in that service. In February 1943, Andrews got command of all U.S. forces in the European Theater. General Henry “Hap’’ Arnold, Army Air Forces chief in World War II, noted in his memoirs that had Andrews lived he likely would have led the Allied invasion of Europe.

In addition to the Andrews connection, Lux has documented that Hot Stuff carried out 25 missions three months before famed B-17 Memphis Belle, often credited for being the first heavy bomber to reach that milestone thanks to publicity from its war bonds tour and a 1944 Hollywood documentary. According to military records, the first plane to hit the 25-mission mark was Hell’s Angels, of the 358th Squadron, 303rd Bomb Group.

Lux learned about the B-24 from golf buddy and Hot Stuff crewman Robert Jacobson, who was bumped from the fatal flight to make way for Andrews’s entourage. Jacobson gave Lux war-era documents proving Hot Stuff beat the Belle to 25 missions.

The Air Force museum in Dayton is planning an exhibit on the Memphis Belle that will “highlight several of the other significant 25-mission aircraft and crews in detail, including B-24 Hot Stuff,” says museum spokesman Rob Bardua. Lux has traveled to the site in Iceland to recover Hot Stuff wreckage for the exhibition, which awaits scheduling.

Honoring a Civilian Tragedy

One day, walking to work, architect Harry Paticas was approaching his office near Bethnal Green in London when he saw a small plaque. Pausing to read the inscription, Paticas learned the corner by the adjoining underground stop had been the scene of Britain’s worst civilian tragedy of World War II: on March 3, 1943, air raid sirens triggered a crush that killed 173 people, including 62 children, as Londoners sought safety in the tube.

Feeling these war dead deserved something more, Paticas, a native of Greece, put his design skills to work. After six years, the first phase of a new Bethnal Green memorial went into place in time to mark the event’s 70th anniversary.

The initial segment of the memorial consists of a concrete plinth studded with bronze plaques listing the dead and testimonials from survivors, along with a small light to recall the single 25- watt bulb in the station’s blacked-out stairwell seven decades ago. The next stage will add an inverted staircase suspended from the plinth over the station entrance—a Stairway to Heaven, with a light shaft for each victim.

Hitler’s Last Food Taster Tells All

The food was always delicious—fresh vegetables, real butter, rich sauces. But Margot Wölk couldn’t enjoy the wartime rarities. She knew that every bite could be her last. Wölk was one of 15 women assigned to taste-test Adolf Hitler’s meals. After she turned 95 last year, Wölk decided to tell her story to publications in Germany and Britain.

At 24 Wölk was an odd choice for so sensitive an assignment. She had refused to join the League of German Girls, the female equivalent of the Hitler Youth. Her father had been detained after declining to join the Nazi Party. After the family home was bombed during winter 1941 she fled Berlin for her mother-in-law’s home in the East Prussian village of Gross-Partsch, now in Poland. It was a beautiful, quiet place with a big garden, but less than two miles away stood Hitler’s Wolf ’s Lair compound. “I’d hardly arrived when the SS showed up at the door and demanded, ‘Come with us!’” Wölk told the German magazine Der Spiegel.

The men took her and other young women to nearby Krausendorf. In barracks there, chefs prepared food for Hitler. The Führer’s tasters sat at a big wooden table set with all sorts of foods but one: “There was never meat because Hitler was a vegetarian,” she said. Hitler would refuse to eat a meal unless all 15 tasters had sampled it and an hour had passed without bad result to them. The dictator, Wölk told Britain’s Daily Express, only wanted “good German stock” taste-testing his food. “I felt like a laboratory rabbit but if you learned one thing about life in Nazi Germany it was you didn’t argue with the SS.”


Originally published in the August 2013 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.