In the Teutonic gloom spreading from Tunisia to Stalingrad, the Luftwaffe engineered a glimmer of fresh resiliency with the inaugural test flight of a Messerschmitt Me 262 jet that reached 520 mph on May 22. In those same hours, Stalin was dissolving the Third international, or Comintern, on the first anniversary of the formal Soviet alliance with Britain. The propaganda effort to abate Western fears of Soviet plans for world conquest garnered the signature of the French Communists André Marty and Marcel Thorez and the Spanish pasionaria Isidora Ibarruri Gomez. (Whether the Nationalist rumors were true — that she had killed a priest by biting his throat with her teeth in the Civil War — her son did indeed die fighting at Stalingrad.)
The modesty of Marxist intentions was quickly forgotten after 1945. The opportunism recalled the final dissolution of the First International in 1876 in Philadelphia, to Marx’s dismay, after its rupture at the Hague Congress of 1872, in response to world chagrin at the Paris Commune. The day after Stalin’s public gesture, 800 Allied planes launched the fiercest air raid of the war so far, dropping 2,000 tons of bombs in an attack on Dormund in Germany, killing 700 civilians.
Due to the special circumstances of occupied Poland, Pope Pius XII appointed Archbishop William Godfrey, apostolic delegate to Great Britain, to be Chargé d’Affaires accredited to the Polish government. During the First World War, the appointment of the future Pope Pius XI, Achille Ratti, as apostolic visitator of the Holy See and then as apostolic nuncio was understood as a sign of Pope Benedict XV’s confidence in Poland’s future. In 1939, the new nuncio, Msgr. Filippo Cortesi, went into exile in Romania and Hungary with the Polish government, doing welfare work among the Polish troops until health forced him to return to Italy.
On Polish National Day, May 3, 1943, Pius had Cortesi deliver a message to Dr. Kazimierz Papee, the Polish ambassador to the Holy See and informal representative of the Polish government in exile, saying that the day of Poland’s delivery was approaching. The Pope told Polish pilgrims: “I profoundly deplore the sufferings of the Polish nation. I give it my blessing, and I wish that Poland may be larger, stronger, and even more Catholic after this war.” Papee formally thanked the pope for his assistance to prisoners of war, internees, and refugees and gave him a painting of our Lady of Czestochowa.
The pope’s meeting with Papee on May 21 was taken as a de facto recognition of the exiled Polish government. This somewhat assuaged the feelings of the president of the Polish government in exile, Wladyslaw Raczkiewicz, who ruefully interpreted the January appointment of Msgr. Hilarius Breitinger as apostolic administrator for the Wartheland as the Holy See’s recognition, albeit unexpressed, of the fragmentation of Poland. According to his memoirs published in 1954, Papee expressed to Luigi Cardinal Maglione, the papal secretary of state, some exasperation at the pope’s hesitancy to speak in other than diplomatic language about the situation in Poland. In one audience, according to Papee, the pope addressed him: “I have listened again and again to your representations about our unhappy children in Poland. Must I be given the same story yet again?” Pope John XXIII had him replaced in 1958, but he remained in Rome after his diplomatic credentials were withdrawn, dying there in 1979.
Nazi efforts to refashion marriage as a celebration of its mythology were spreading. The Flemish De SS Man described a state ceremony:
Untersturmfuhrer Van Dijck admitted the bride into the Sibbe community in the name of the SS-Reichfuhrer. The ceremony ended with the SS Treueleid and a threefold Sieg Heil for the only Germanic Fuhrer. Some old Germanic traditions were observed at dinner, which lent deep meaning to the whole ceremony.
On May 18th, “Dr. Friedrich,” chief German spokesman on Radio Paris, was disappointed that so many Catholics continued to fear National-Socialism, saying the blame for this belonged to the Vatican:
A careful perusal of the Papal Press, the reports on interviews of high ecclesiastical authorities with Pius XI, and the study of the Encyclicals, have enabled me now clearly to realize the crushing responsibility of the Church in unleashing the present war. Just as the Vatican had condemned Fascism, so it had, inevitably, to condemn National-Socialism. Was it not a fact that these two revolutions were going to attempt to restore to all men the consciousness of their own dignity, and thus to come into conflict with the Church in the spiritual sphere? As soon as the Fuhrer assumed power, in 1933, the Vatican let loose its hostility.
Friedrich recalled how the pope had made Theodor Cardinal Innitzer stop giving the “Heil Hitler” salute and had said that anti-Semitism was incompatible with Christianity, while approving George Cardinal Mundelein’s defamation of Hitler. “National-Socialism tried to settle all conflicts with the Church; the Church rejected the hand offered to her. May she bear the responsibility for this in the annals of history.”
Gracing the cover of Time magazine for May 24 was the newly appointed First Sea Lord, Andrew Browne Cunningham, later 1st Viscount of Hyndhope. In 1943, he directed the naval supply operations in the Western Mediterranean littoral. In that issue, some readers wrote to the editor about John L. Lewis’s breaking of a pledge not to strike during the war. Half a million United Mine Workers had stopped work at his direction. An Army aerial gunner, Staff Sergeant F. M. Hilary of Orlando, Florida, let loose: “The men who fly over Europe through a blanket of flak would be greatly amazed if they returned to the U.S. and found that it had been forced into totalitarianism as a last resort against men of the Lewis ilk.” Essa Gladney of Tahlequah, Oklahoma, said succinctly: ” My honest opinion is that as a public service and a part of the war effort, somebody should shoot John L. Lewis.” Three Army privates — John Boulet, Clinton Draper, and Stanley Urba — proposed: “Sirs: We the undersigned request that you use your influence to obtain John L. Lewis for our bayonet practice.”
Among other events of May 24, the eldest daughter of the Duke of Marlborough, and great-granddaugher of William K. Vanderbilt, married a U.S. Naval Lieutenant from New Jersey. The 48-year-old violinist Albert Stroessel, died of a heart attack in Manhattan; and so also died, 39 years older, William Andrew Johnson, who had been named for his slave owner, President Andrew Johnson, and had been given a silver-headed walking stick by President Roosevelt in 1937.
On that 24th of May, a 32-year-old physician arrived in the concentration camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau to assist the chief garrison physician, SS-Standortarzt Eduard Wirths. Josef Mengele had a Ph.D. in physical anthropology from the University of Munich, and two year later, in 1937, he had been awarded another Ph. D. from the University of Frankfurt’s Institute for Hereditary Biology and Racial Hygiene (Rassenhygiene) under the direction of Dr. Ernst Rudiin. Mengele attended many of Rudine’s lectures and admired him, as did the American eugenicist Margaret Sanger, publisher of some of Rudin’s papers in the United States. Mengele had a particular fascination with the phenomenon of “heterochromia,” or different-colored eyes in the same person.
Standing on the railroad platform at Auschwitz, he looked for twins and used them for his more modest experiments. More ghoulish were his surgeries without anesthesia, live autopsies, and vivisections on pregnant women. This Todesengel, or “angel of death,” as he was called by his victims, compelled two Jews to assist him, a pediatrician Berthold Epstein, whose own family was exterminated in the camp, and Miklos Nyiszli, a Hungarian pathologist. They were able to testify against Mengele later, although he slipped through American custody and fled to Buenos Aires where he became an illegal, but much experienced, abortionist. Arraigned for the death of one his “patients,” he was released by the judge and eventually worked his way via Paraguay to Brazil where he died an utterly banal death, evidently by drowning in the surf, in 1979. He never understood why he had been criticized for his medical science and was disgusted when Albrecht Speer apologized for deeds of the Reich.
Contraception and abortion had been earnest policies of the Reich to subdue non-Aryan populations, thus exempting Norwegians, Danes, Dutch, and Flemish Belgians. Three weeks before Mengele arrived at Auschwitz, Professor Erhard Wetzel, racial administrator for the Reich’s Eastern Territories Ministry, issued a memorandum:
Every propaganda means, especially the press, radio, and movies, as well as pamphlets, booklets, and lectures, must be used to instill in the Russian population the idea that it is harmful to have several children. We must emphasize the expenses that children cause, the good things that people could have had with the money spent on them. We could also hint at the dangerous effect of child-bearing on a woman’s health. Paralleling such propaganda, a large-scale campaign would be launched in favor of contraceptive devices. A contraceptive industry must be established. Neither the circulation and sale of contraceptives nor abortions must be prosecuted. It will even be necessary to open special institutions for abortion, and to train midwives and nurses for this purpose.
As Mengele was experimenting on babies or destroying them altogether, the British government was issuing guidelines for infant nutrition: “Right from the start is the time to plan the health and happiness of Baby and yourself…. The old saying ‘lose a tooth for every child’ need not be true for you if you eat rightly. And the right foods now, help you quickly to recover your strength and energy after Baby is born.” The Crown allowed expectant mothers seven pints of milk a week, three eggs, orange juice, and cod liver oil. “Get a medical certificate from your doctor, certified midwife or health visitor. Hand or send this with your ration book to your Food Office…. There is little risk of too much meat nowadays, but your doctor will tell you whether to cut it down during the last months.”
This article is part of a series on World War II from 1942 to 1943. Image: Josef Mengele