The vast reach of the Nazi Holocaust

"So what does that say about the notion that this was just taking place in a few corners of Europe and was the result of Hitler and a few mad men?" asked Cowan.

"I think it destroys it, utterly," Megargee replied. "Really, to say that you didn't know that there were camps, what was going on in the camps that were local, that would have been impossible."

Which raises the question: Just who beyond the notorious SS were complicit in the persecution?

For most of the last 70-plus years, German women for example, were thought to be largely innocent bystanders.

But disturbing new research to be released in a book this week paints an unnerving portrait of women's participation in the Holocaust. They, too, could be brutal killers.

"It takes a certain cognitive ability to carry out, to organize this kind of mass murder on this scale," said Wendy Lower, author of "Hitler's Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields." "And women are not innocent of that. They have that cognitive ability."

Lower said a generation of women was swept up in the nationalistic fervor of the Nazi movement. Banners like one reading "Women and girls -- the Jews are your ruin" were pervasive.

Members of the League of German Girls (the girls wing of the Hitler Youth) engage in paramilitary training in 1936; from the book, "Hitler's Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields." Houghton Mifflin Harcourt/BPK

She points to 23-year-old Erna Petri, who stumbled on six Jewish children who had escaped from a nearby train. She was so anxious to prove her loyalty to the Reich that she shot them all in the back of the head.

There was Johanna Altvater, who at 22 had moved East to be a secretary. One day while on a visit to a Jewish ghetto, one inquisitive child got too close: "She picked the child up by the legs and slammed it against the ghetto wall, like she was, you know, kind of shaking the dust out of a carpet."

These women weren't military -- they weren't under orders to kill. Lower points out, it's what they knew.

"They did it willingly," she said. "They weren't just conforming, they weren't just getting along. They were ideologically hooked."

Ursula Mahlendorf knows about getting ideologically hooked. "I was very enthusiastic, there was no time that I ever doubted anything," she said of being a Nazi. "Yeah, I was really proud. Yeah, Oh yes. Yeah."

She was a member of the Hitler Youth at the tender age of 10. She was forced to join.

"Everything the nation did was all right; everything that Hitler did was all right," Mahlendorf said. "And if bad things were done by the party, Hitler didn't know about it."

She later became a nurse's aide at a field hospital.

One day an injured Russian POW was brought in. She had been taught to hate anything not purely German. Two orderlies asked her if they should kill him instead of treat him.

What happened next surprised her.

"I've never felt a hate, a wave of hatred like that before, and I was just about to yell, 'Yes, you do it,' " Mahlendorf said.

Kill him? "Yeah, and I was aware of what it was, of what I would have been saying. That was one realization that always stayed with me: I could have killed."

She didn't; as far as she knows that POW survived.

Mahlendorf eventually moved to the U.S. as a Fulbright Scholar, and spent her life teaching at the University of California at Santa Barbara. But her Nazi past still haunts her to this day.

"Have your forgiven yourself?" Cowan asked.

"That's a hard one," she said. "Yeah, in part. I've got to live with myself."

She now counts among her friends Holocaust survivors who bear a different kind of witness.

The extent of the Nazi brutality may only be coming to light to researchers now, but for Irene Weiss, it was always there.

"This may be an odd question," said Cowan, "but do you ever wonder why you survived?"

"Pure chance in every way," Weiss said. "There were so many chances to die, and so many, occasionally, chances to survive another day. The system was rigged against survival."


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