On 20 January 1942, fifteen men met in an affluent suburb of Berlin to determine the “final solution of the Jewish question.” World War II was raging, and Germany was spread thin across three fronts: Western Europe, Soviet Union, and North Africa. The meeting had actually been postponed from its original date of 9 December 1941 due to Pearl Harbor and the United States entering the war. While the war machine spun itself in different directions, there was still the open directive handed down by Adolf Hitler to “exterminate” any and all Jews. The Wannsee Conference was primarily attended by Reich ministers and Schutzstaffel (SS) heads, led by Reinhard Heydrich, the head of the Reich Security Main Office. The primary purpose of the conference was to synchronize objectives, clarify plans, and define “Jewishness” by the percentile. The meeting’s circumstances seem odd, given the setting of a world war and who was and wasn’t present, but it was responsible for sealing the fate of millions of people for the next three years, enacting an organized genocide.
In 1933, Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, the leader of the Nazi Party (officially the National Socialist German Workers' Party), which had as one of its racist tenets, antisemitism. Anti-Jewish sentiments were not uncommon in Germany, although the Jewish population made up less than 1% of the whole. Much like other marginalized groups, the majority held prejudiced and misinformed concepts about the Jewish culture and religion. They were an easy target for a group wanting to unite against a common enemy. That is not to downplay Hitler’s personal racist ideologies about Jews. Within months of taking on the role of Chancellor, he began to target Jewish men, sending them to the first concentration camp at Dachau, along with political opponents of the Nazi Party. It should be noted that Jewishness was considered to be a trait of race, not religion, and people who may have converted to another religion, were still considered to be Jewish by racial standards.
As we know, in gradual steps over the next five years, the antisemitic laws and rules placed upon the Jewish population led to harsher and more deadly outcomes, stripping people of jobs, homes, and freedom. Unfortunately, it seems a majority of the Germany population was all too willing to take up the Nazi propaganda as a directive, as evidenced by Kristallnacht on 9-10 November of 1938, where Jewish synagogues, businesses, schools, and homes were attacked en masse, as encouraged by the Nazi propagandist, Joseph Goebbels. After the invasion of Poland, in 1939, Jewish ghettos were also put into use for segregating Jews from the rest of the occupied population. The Nazi Party itself was also willing to have its internal politics driven by the whims of Hitler, as his subordinates seemingly competed with each other in trying to enact his genocidal fantasies. The war was, of course, the primary goal of German and Axis forces with the intent of gaining more territory. The Wannsee Conference happening when military efforts were extended in all directions meant that high level Nazi officials were not present.
What we know about the Wannsee Conference came from a rare find in the aftermath of the war. The various German departments associated with the war were instructed in January 1945 to destroy all secret and top-secret documentation if they were under threat of being taken over by Allied forces. One office that did not destroy its documents was the German Foreign Office, which had been evacuated from Berlin to avoid bombings. In 1945, American forces discovered the intact files at this location, and boxed them all up for later handling. In 1946, the documents were in the process of being microfilmed, and Kenneth Duke (one of the staff performing the microfilming), uncovered the meeting minutes from the conference. In March 1947, Duke alerted Dr. Robert Kempner to the existence of the Wannsee Conference minutes. Kempner was a German-born Jewish refugee and was serving as the United States prosecutor in the Ministries Trial, which was one of the Nuremberg trial proceedings. Kempner was able to personally ask several of the German officials who attended the Wannsee Conference about the outcome of the meeting, allowing prosecutors to use the Wannsee Protocol in two of the Subsequent Nuremberg Proceedings, as well as in the trials of individuals like Eichmann, which took place in Israel in 1961.
Under scrutiny of the minutes, it was discovered that Reinhard Heydrich had called and managed the meeting, as directed by Hermann Goring, Hitler’s second in command (note that Heinrich Himmler was Heydrich’s supervisor). Although it was never found in writing, the order to kill the Jews to enact a genocide was likely given verbally by Hitler sometime in 1941. At Wannsee, Heydrich opened the meeting by indicating that he was the plenipotentiary to oversee the “final solution of the Jewish question,” which was to be managed by the Reich Security Main Office. He presented a plan meant to eliminate 11 million Jews across all of Europe, including those as far east as Turkey, and as far west as Ireland. Adolf Eichmann was present and supervised the minutes, even rewriting them prior to their distribution. It is of course, unknowable what he removed from the minutes, but according to his testimony during his war crimes trial, he removed “vulgar” language to make the document more bureaucratically professional. The push to deport Jews from Germany and German-occupied territories had been one of Eichmann’s roles prior to the Wannsee Conference, but this approach was officially abandoned, effective in October 1941, when Germany closed the borders to Jews. Eichmann’s new role would switch to deporting Jews to ghettos and then killing camps from any place they were encountered during the war. The German Army had already been enforcing the murders of Jews throughout 1941, as they encountered Jewish communities, most notably in Russia.
In addition to the plan for eliminating much of the Jewish population by way of gas chambers, the plan for labor camps was also laid out as a means of an eventual solution meant to literally work them to death. A few exceptions were made for the elderly and Jewish veterans, who would still be sent to old age ghettos for holding. There was some argument during the meeting regarding how to deal with people who were half Jewish, a quarter Jewish, and Jews married to an “Aryan” person. Heydrich presented rules that were a step more stringent than those established by the 1935 Nuremberg Laws. He suggested treating Jews married to Aryans without exception, although authorities may opt to send them to an old-age ghetto rather than a camp. If half Jewish persons had proven exceptional service to the state or had a child with an Aryan, they might be sent to an old age ghetto or could be sterilized. If someone was a quarter Jewish and lived like a “German” they could be spared. But if someone was the child of two half-Jewish people, or looked racially Jewish, or who were criminally or politically unfavorable, they would be treated as Jewish. These standards were only meant to be applied to Germans and Austrians.
Prior to the Wannsee protocol, there had been no set measures for dealing with the “Jewish problem.” After the 90-minute conference, however, there was a clear plan. A few of the attendees seemed to celebrate the “final solution” with a brandy and a cigarette by the fire, including Heydrich and Eichmann.
The particular madness and cruelty that drove the Holocaust was not just the brain-child of Hitler or Goebbels or a handful of Nazis, but was made possible by the ministers and department heads, pencil pushers and train schedulers, like those who attended the Wannsee Conference, to push the agenda forward with explicit instructions for how to do so. The document would become damning for the entirety of the Nazi party in the aftermath of the war.
Joseph Wulf, a Jewish resistance fighter and Auschwitz survivor, began in 1965 to push for the villa at Am Grossen Wannsee No. 56/58 to be preserved and opened as a museum to house an establishment he wanted to call the “International Documentation Centre for Research on National Socialism and its Consequences.” The German government was reluctant to make the building available for that purpose, and the movement for it was set aside in 1973. Wulf died in 1974. However, his vision came to fruition on the 50th anniversary of the Wannsee Conference in January 1992 when the stately home used for the Wannsee Conference was turned into a museum. In 1994, a library was also established there in Wulf’s name. The villa stands now as a stark symbol of the casual evil done in the name of nationalism, and has as its mission to educate the present of the atrocities of the past.
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Admixture (Ethnicity) Estimates for Jewish Research
People of Jewish heritage represent an ethnically, geographically and racially diverse diaspora which extends 4,000 years through history. Throughout that history, Jewish communities have been largely segregated for reasons including but not limited to, political, cultural or religious factors. This largely insular history has made it possible to identify the DNA signatures of specific Jewish ethnicities. The major diaspora communities which can be identified through DNA testing include:
Ashkenazim (Ashkenaz in Hebrew, or “Germany/German”) - Refers to the Jewish population who resided in Germany and France before migrating into Eastern Europe. Hasidic Judaism, most closely adhering to Orthodox Jewish practice, is a religious subset of the Ashkenazic population. The Yiddish language can be attributed to the Ashkenazim.
Beta Israel (“House of Israel” or Ethiopian Jews) - Refers to the Jewish population of northern Ethiopia which extends back at least fifteen centuries and, today, primarily live in Israel.
Mizrahim (Hebrew for east or eastern) - Refers to the Jewish population of Middle Eastern descent, specifically east of ancient Israel in Iran, Iraq and Syria. Most Mizrahi Jews today live either in Israel or the United States. A subsection of Mizrahim called Teimanim, or Yemenite Jews, can also be distinguished in some DNA tests. The Teimanim primarily live in Israel.
Sephardim (Sephardi in Hebrew, or “Spain/Spanish”) - Refers to the Jewish population who resided in Spain and Portugal and dispersed to North Africa. The Ladino or Judeo-Spanish language, derived from Old Spanish and other Iberian languages, can be attributed to the Sephardim.
For identifying Jewish ethnicity, all testing companies are not created equal. Of the major testing companies, the reference populations available on each site are as follows:
A reference population is comprised of a group of people with long family histories in a specific region, whose DNA was specifically chosen as a means to provide a stable comparison with any given DNA test-taker. This comparison provides the test-taker with a percentage estimate of ancestry in specific regions which reach back several hundred or even a thousand years ago. All of the major companies provide a reference population for the Ashkenazi Jewish community. MyHeritage, headquartered in Israel, currently has the most robust ability to distinguish between ethnic Jewish communities due to its larger database of testers with Jewish ancestry.
As testing evolves and as other companies refine or establish reference populations, the information gained from admixture estimates will also evolve and provide exciting new discoveries about your family history through DNA. Although admixture estimates alone cannot establish ethnically Jewish ancestry, these estimates may help to point your research in a new direction!
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