Holocaust: The Events

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European Jewry in the Early 1930s
Germany in the Early 1930s
The Expansion of the Reich
Enemies of the State (Non-Jewish Victims of Nazism)
The Invasion of Poland and the Beginning of World War
Blitzkrieg, or the German Invasion of Western Europe
The German Invasion of the Soviet Union
The Wannsee Conference
Armed Resistance
The Fate of the Jews in Other Countries
German Retreat


"Holocaust" is the term used for the systematic state-sponsored murder of millions of Jews by the Nazis and their collaborators during World War II. Some historians and writers restrict the use of the term to the murder of Jews; others use the term more widely to include those civilians victimized by Nazi Germany – trade unionists, political opponents of the regime, Jehovah's Witnesses, homosexuals – who were persecuted but not systematically murdered, as well as mentally retarded and physically handicapped Germans and Roma and Sinti (Gypsies), who were murdered by gassing.

The term Holocaust was not contemporaneous with the events. Winston Churchill called the murder of the Jews "a crime without a name." The Germans named their program accurately but euphemistically "The Final Solution to the Jewish Question." The word "Final" was all too apt. The goal of the Germans was to eliminate all Jewish blood, to wipe Jews and those of Jewish origin from the face of the earth. The systematic murder of an entire people would end the problem. At the core of Nazi doctrine was a racist view of the world that envisioned a hierarchy of peoples with the Aryan-Nordic-Germans as the "master race" and the Jews as parasites on the German nation; their elimination was essential to national well-being.

The Holocaust is also known as the Catastrophe, the Hurban, and the Shoah. The word's most likely connotation is death by fire, signifying the means by which the Jews were cremated after gassing in the ultimate manifestation of the Nazi universe, its death camps. The Holocaust is written with a capital H, signifying this specific event, which by the early 21st century was regarded as the paradigmatic manifestation of evil, an event without parallel, singular in its barbarism, intensified by the power of the modern state, fueled by technological and scientific progress, and unchecked by moral, social, religious, or political constraints. The fact that the Holocaust was perpetrated not by an archaic, maniacal fringe but by the most cultured and scientifically advanced Western society of the era is an indictment of that very civilization and presents a challenge to historical interpretation. The historian Lucy *Dawidowicz termed the Nazi program of destruction "the War against the Jews" in a book of that title. Her distinction is important. The Germans fought two wars, a World War and a War against the Jews. Even while they were losing the battle against the Allied armies, they pursued their second war with unabated vigor, discipline, and determination. The final line of Hitler's last testament was a plea to his nation to continue the battle. "Above all, I enjoin the government and the people to uphold the race laws to the limit and to resist mercilessly the poisoner of all nations, international Jewry." Dawidowicz's perception of two wars also helps to understand the Allied response: the Allies fought the world war with complete dedication; they did not respond to the war against the Jews.

The persecution of the Jews – but not their murder – began with Hitler's rise to power in January 1933, and it continued in different forms with diverse policies, goals, and instrumentalities throughout the 12 years of his reign, until the defeat and unconditional surrender of the Third Reich on May 8, 1945. The systematic killing of the Jews did not begin in earnest until the German invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, and the evolution of that destruction was related to World War ii. The war freed the regime from constraints and united the German people. It also brought more Jews under German control, and the tide of war often dictated the timetable of murder.

As the racial war against the Jews evolved; so did their suffering. At first it was limited to Germany. As the Reich expanded into territories, countries, and entire regions, more and more Jews came under their domination. Discrimination, harassment, and persecution gave way to systematic social, political, and economic elimination, segregation, and apartheid. With the conquest of Poland came ghettoization. With the introduction of the Final Solution in 1941, the murder of the Jews also evolved. At first, mobile killers were sent to stationary victims. When this proved difficult for the killers – emotionally and logistically – the process was reversed and the victims were made mobile: they were put on trains and sent to stationary killing centers where they were systematically murdered by gassing – liquidation and extermination were the terms the Nazis used. Toward the end of the war, in the winter of 1944–45, when the killing centers were about to be overrun, the victims were again made mobile, this time by foot; they were sent overland toward Germany, which had once cast them out, and forcibly marched to the end of their strength. Some were sent to concentration camps in Germany, which broke down under the waves of newly arriving prisoners, and other prisoners were marched and marched until the war ended. Then came the liberation of the camps, and the terrible truth became known.

European Jewry in the Early 1930s

As the 19th century ended, Jewish life was in ferment throughout Europe. In Eastern Europe, many Jews lived in shtetls, villages that were predominantly Jewish. They spoke Yiddish, read Yiddish books, both sacred and secular, and attended Yiddish theaters and movies. Many wore traditional black caftans and continued to observe the practices of their grandparents. Jewish religious life in all its forms was fervent. The religious community was piously observant; the secularists ardently secular, seeking to overturn the power of religious authority and to embrace the ideological movements of Communism and socialism. Many a young Jew left the yeshiva to enter a German university, casting aside traditional garb and practice and ardently embracing the teachings of the West. Despite antisemitism and cultural constraints, Germany was the place where Jews were best able to participate in intellectual and cultural life. They assimilated rapidly. Intermarriage was widespread; so was conversion. A vibrant Sephardic culture flourished in North Africa in Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Morocco, where the dominant culture was Arabic and French, and the most significant religious influence Islamic.

At the beginning of the new century, civil equality in Germany was guaranteed by law, but social barriers were slow to fall. Sigmund Freud's revolutionary teachings on sexuality were delivered to the B'nai B'rith chapter in Vienna. His psychoanalytic teachings were dismissed as "a Jewish science," and he desperately courted a non-Jew, Carl Jung, to promulgate his new theories. Still, Jewish artists, writers, scholars and scientists thrived in a new climate of openness. Einstein launched a new era in physics, as Freud had in psychology. Chagall and Modigliani were in the forefront of modern art. Einstein was only the first among peers: between 1905 and 1931, ten German Jews won the Nobel Prize in a variety of scientific fields.

Most Jews were neither prominent nor affluent. Contrary to the image that all Jews lived like Rothschilds, most lived in very ordinary circumstances. Many were poor. They were stevedores in Salonika, Greece; factory workers in Lodz, Poland; small shopkeepers in Amsterdam; Yeshiva students in Kovno, Lithuania; and professors in Berlin. They worked to create a home and sustain their families.

When the Nazis came to power in 1933, more than 9 million Jews lived in the 21 European nations where Germany would come to dominate either through occupation or alliance. The 560,000 Jews who lived in Germany itself were less than one percent of the population. Within Central Europe there were 445,000 Jews in Hungary, 357,000 in Czechoslovakia, 225,000 in France (many of them immigrants), and about 160,000 in the Netherlands; Belgium had some 60,000 Jews concentrated in Antwerp and Brussels. The Jewish population of Denmark was 6,000, of Finland, 1,800 and of Norway, 1,500. In southern Europe, Greece had about 100,000 Jews, Yugoslavia 70,000, Bulgaria 50,000, and Italy some 48,000. In eastern Europe, Romania, within its pre-World War ii borders, had almost a million Jews and Poland had some three million; Lithuania had 155,000 and Latvia 95,000, while there were an estimated 2.5 million Jews in the Soviet Union. Within a dozen years, two out of three of the 9 million were dead.

Germany in the Early 1930s

The Germans did not expect to lose World War I. The German people had been told that their war efforts had been successful. The Versailles treaty that followed imposed harsh penalties on the German nation, the loss of territory, demilitarization, and burdensome reparations. In the early 1920s, inflation wiped out the savings of the middle class and caused major economic dislocation. Billions of marks were needed to buy a loaf of bread as the German currency became worthless. In 1929 Germany was impacted by the worldwide Depression; its gross national product fell by 40%. Politics turned violent with the Communists on the left and the National Socialists on the right. The political center was weakened, and because of the perceived ineffectiveness of the Weimar Republic, support for democracy was waning. Little consensus could be achieved; elections were frequent and indecisive and German governments were short-lived. There was a sense that only strong leadership would pull Germany out of its morass.


Racism was the dominant theme of Nazi ideology. It shaped social policy in Germany between 1933 and 1939, was a major factor in the way the Germans conducted the war, motivated German policy in occupied countries, and, when carried to its ultimate conclusion, resulted in the Holocaust.

Hitler's obsession with racial purity, his hatred of both Marxism and democracy, his belief in German racial supremacy, and his notion that an Aryan master race would take over the world were not secrets to German voters. They were stated clearly in his book Mein Kampf ("My Struggle"), first published in 1925. It was the "sacred mission of the German people… to assemble and preserve the most valuable racial elements… and raise them to a dominant position."

"All who are not of a good race are chaff," Hitler wrote. The Aryan race was destined to be superior, therefore the German people "are the highest species of humanity on earth." In the racial struggle of history, the "master race" would dominate if it preserved its purity. Otherwise, it would be polluted, corrupted, and destroyed by inferior races.

It was necessary for Germans to "occupy themselves not merely with the breeding of dogs, horses, and cats but also with care for the purity of their own blood." These notions were not original. Hitler simplified racial doctrines propounded in the nineteenth century, particularly in the writings of the French aristocrat *Gobineau and the English-born disciple of the composer Richard Wagner, Houston Stewart Chamberlain.

Whatever the theoretical underpinnings of Hitler's racial beliefs, Nazi racism under his direction was far from theoretical. Blood mixture was abhorrent. Procreation by inferior races was to be discouraged, at first through forced sterilization, later by systematic murder. The obsession with the Jews was central to Hitler's worldview and became the operative ideology of the German state under his rule.

The Nazi Party's attitude toward the Jews is expressed in the coarse slogan Deutschland erwache, Juda verrecke ("Germany wake up, Judah drop dead") and in the words of the battle cry of the party's paramilitary, the sa (Sturmabteilung, "Storm Division," known as the Brownshirts or Stormtroopers): "Wenn das Judenblut vom Messer spritzt, dann geht's nochmal so gut" ("When Jew blood spurts from the knife, things will go twice as well"). What could be expected from the party and its affiliated organizations was demonstrated by numerous acts of violence at the hands of Hitler's stormtroopers before the seizure of power, beginning in 1924, as well as by unrestrained propaganda (books, pamphlets, and periodicals such as Der *Stuermer, published from 1923 on), in which the Jew was represented as a subhuman (Untermensch), a parasite, a phenomenon of decay (Faeulniserscheinung), and the main cause of all German misfortunes. "It is our duty," Hitler said in 1920, "to arouse, to whip up, and to incite in our people the instinctive repugnance of the Jews."


Adolf Hitler came to power legally on January 30, 1933 as the head of a coalition government. He was appointed by the aging President Paul von Hindenburg on the assumption that that since he and the Nazi party were a source of German political instability, terror, and violence, the responsibilities of the chancellorship as a minority leader in a coalition government would force Hitler to the center. Political leaders assumed that he could be controlled either personally or by his circumstances. They underestimated him as they overestimated their own resources.

Ironically, Nazi power had reached its peak before Hitler was named chancellor. It was in decline by the time he came to office. The National Socialist (Nazi) Party had won just 12 seats with 2.8 percent of the vote in May 1928 and could still be dismissed as marginal, but in September 1930 its total rose to 107 in the 608-seat Reichstag (Parliament) after winning some 6.4 million votes (18 percent). The party improved in the elections of July 31, 1932, when it received 37.3 percent of the vote and 230 seats. But in the elections of November 6, 1932, the last free elections before Hitler came to power, the Nazis received only 33.1 percent of the vote. The number of their seats was reduced to 196. The master German propagandist Joseph *Goebbels had predicted: "We come like wolves descending upon a herd of sheep. We will become members of the Reichstag in order to disable the Weimar order with its own acquiescence."

Once in office, Hitler's first objective was to consolidate power and eliminate political opposition. The burning of the Reichstag on February 27, 1933, which the Nazis claimed had been done by a Communist, provided a pretext to strengthen Hitler's position. The next day, he received emergency powers from von Hindenburg and immediately ordered a hundred Communists arrested. In the March 1933 election, the Nazi Party received 288 seats in the Reichstag with 44 percent of the vote. Special Nazi courts were established to deal with dissidents and the first concentration camp, *Dachau, was established outside Munich to house the newly arrested. Emergency provisions of the Weimar Constitution were invoked to dismantle constitutional protections and give Hitler dictatorial powers. Articles 25 and 48 allowed the president to usurp the powers of state governments and suspend constitutional guarantees of civil liberties, and with a two-thirds majority of those present and voting the chancellor could be granted temporary legislative powers. On March 23, 1933, the Enabling Act was passed, giving Hitler just such legislative powers. One hundred and seven legislators, Communists and Social Democrats, were either under arrest or in hiding and were therefore not present and did not vote. In the first 60 days after the passage of the act, there were attacks against the Jews, but the major focus was on the suppression of Hitler's domestic political opposition.

By July 14, 1933, the Nazi Party was the only legal political party in Germany. Unopposed in the next election, it received 93 percent of the vote. A law for the Revocation of Naturalization and the Annulment of German Citizenship stripped of their citizenship East European Jews who had immigrated to Germany. A law for the Prevention of Offspring with Hereditary Diseases provided for the sterilization of unfit parents or potential parents and the euthanasia of defective offspring. "Useless eaters," they were termed. Jews felt their condition to be precarious, but so did others who belonged to political or racial categories not sanctioned by Nazi ideology. On July 20, 1933 the Vatican signed a Concordat with Germany, a treaty governing the status of the church, which Pope *Piusxi believed protected Catholic rights. The Concordat provided greater legitimacy for the Third Reich in the eyes of lay people and the church hierarchy. In August, the Haavara (Transfer) Agreement was signed between the German Ministry of the Economy and the World Zionist Organization, which permitted German Jews to meet British entry requirements (which included the possession of £1,000 in capital), in addition to German emigration taxes, and migrate to Palestine. As with all Jewish negotiations with the Nazis during this period, and most especially during the world war that followed, these were negotiations between unequal parties. Under the provisions of the agreement, the assets of Jews leaving for Palestine were placed in special accounts; portions of these accounts could be drawn upon in Palestine in the form of German goods. This agreement enabled some 40,000 Jews to leave Germany for Palestine and arrive there with at least some resources to begin new lives. The agreement was consistent with the goal of German policy during the prewar period, to make Germany judenrein, free of Jews, not by murder but by making it impossible for Jews to live there, virtually forcing them to emigrate.


The assault against the Jews began with the April 1, 1933 boycott of Jewish businesses. The boycott was originally scheduled to be an ongoing phenomenon but lasted one day. Some Germans supported the boycott; others made it a point of honor to call on Jewish friends, to patronize Jewish shops. Signs announcing the boycott were printed in English as well as German. They were intended as a warning to the Jews of America that any strong response to the Nazi rise to power, such as the proposed boycott of German products or a repeat of the mass rally sponsored by the American Jewish Congress in Madison Square Garden on March 27 that year, would endanger German Jews. In contacts between American and German Jews, the latter urged caution lest an already difficult situation be exacerbated. The question of how, publicly, Jews could oppose the persecution of Jews in other countries without worsening their situation was not new in Jewish history. It remained a problem throughout the Nazi years.

On April 7, the Law for the Restoration of a Professional Civil Service was promulgated, and Jews were dismissed from the civil service. These included lawyers working for the state, physicians employed by state-run health plans and hospitals, and even professors at state universities. By the end of the month, Jewish attendance at German schools was restricted by a quota. Such quotas were not unusual. They were present in Poland and even in the United States. On May 10, Hitler's 100th day in office, thousands of Nazi students along with many professors stormed university libraries and bookstores in thirty cities throughout Germany to remove tens of thousands of books written by non-Aryans and those opposed to Nazi ideology. The books were tossed into bonfires in an effort to purify German culture of "un-Germanic" writings. Some were by Jewish authors; others were not. Works that were politically offensive to Nazism were destroyed alongside works by Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, and other Jewish writers. Joseph Goebbels proclaimed at the bookburning opposite the Berlin Opera house, "The age of Jewish intellectual domination has ended." A century earlier, the German poet of Jewish origin, Heinrich Heine, had said, "Where one burns books, one will, in the end, burn people." In Nazi Germany, the distance between book burning and people burning was to be eight years.

Well integrated into German society and comfortably assimilated, the German Jews felt the assaults as a shock. One hundred thousand Jews, about one in six, had fought for Germany during World War i; 12,000 had lost their lives. During the Weimar period, they had achieved national prominence in literature and science, the arts and philosophy. Ten German Jews were among the approximately thirty Germans who had won Nobel Prizes for their work. They felt at home in German society and even spoke of the unique German-Jewish symbiosis. Years later, Gershom *Scholem, the great scholar of Jewish mysticism and Zionist dissenter from German culture, described the "symbiosis" as a German-Jewish monologue, Jews speaking to themselves of how deeply German they were. Religiously and culturally the community had also been flourishing during Weimar times, as some young Jews were rediscovering their Judaism. A small Zionist movement had emerged. Theological seminaries, Liberal and Orthodox, and great German universities were attracting not only German Jews but East European Jews who wanted to share the best of Western culture and integrate it into their Jewish learning and living. Joseph Dov Baer *Soloveitchik and Abraham Joshua *Heschel, Menachem Mendel *Schneersohn and Alexander *Altmann were among them. The remnant that survived was to come to prominence on three continents in the next generation. Few German Jews perceived the full extent of what was to follow, but how could they? The pessimists prepared to leave. Others regarded Nazism as an aberration, antithetical to German values and German tradition. This would pass, they believed. Jewish leadership sought clarification of its legal status. Deprived of their confidence as Germans, some Jews re-embraced their tradition and their identity. In a front-page article in the Juedische Rundschau, Robert Weltsch proclaimed: "Wear it with pride, the yellow badge." Others despaired; a few committed suicide. Turning inward, attempts at legal clarification, appeal to Jewish pride, emigration, self-loathing and despair characterized Jewish responses throughout the initial assault. Certainly most German Jews did not perceive how precarious their situation was and how much worse it was to be become.


Discrimination increased through 1933. Jews were banned from journalism and music, broadcasting and theater, even farming. Laws of increasing severity, scope, and detail were promulgated not only against the Jews but also against other groups targeted for discrimination and persecution by Nazi ideology. The Jewish situation was insecure, but did not necessarily appear fatal.

In 1934, there were fewer new anti-Jewish laws, as Hitler and his loyalists were consolidating their power, both within the party and in the country as a whole. They destroyed the leftist, socially radical wing of the Nazi party, including its leader, Ernst Roehm, who was murdered on Hitler's orders, as was Gregor Strasser, who had once been the second-ranking party leader. In August, with the death of von Hindenburg, the presidency was abolished and Hitler became the sole ruler of Germany, both "Fuehrer" (leader) and chancellor. Even the army swore allegiance directly to the man – not to the constitution and not to the people.

Over the next years Jewish economic activities and possibilities were severely restricted.

As exclusion of Jews and restriction of their activities increased, German law required a legal definition of who was a Jew and who was an Aryan. The Nuremberg laws passed by the Reichstag and promulgated at the annual Nazi Party rally in the Bavarian town of Nuremberg on September 15, 1935 – the Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor and the Reich Citizenship Law – became the centerpieces of anti-Jewish legislation and the precedents for defining and categorizing Jews in every land Germany controlled. Marriage, as well as sexual relations between Jews and citizens of "German or kindred blood," was prohibited. Only racially "pure" Germans were entitled to civil and political rights. Jews were reduced to the status of subjects of the state. The Nuremberg laws formally divided Germans and Jews, yet neither the word "German" nor "Jew" was defined. That task was left to the bureaucracy, which filled in the gap by November. Two basic categories were established: Jew – anyone with three Jewish grandparents – and Mischling (mixed breed). Thus, the definition of Jews was based not upon the identity they affirmed or the religion they practiced, but on categories derived from race "science." Raul Hilberg has argued that this definition was the first stage of the destruction of the Jews.

As the outside world became increasingly hostile, Jews turned inward. Martin *Buber led an effort at adult Jewish education, preparing the Jewish community for the long journey ahead. Rabbi Leo *Baeck circulated a prayer for Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) in 1935 that gave Jews instructions on to how to behave: "We bow down before God, we stand erect before man." Baeck, together with Otto *Hirsch, represented the Jews before German authorities in the Reichsvertretung der deutschen Juden (Representation of German Jews, founded in September 1933) that was to undergo a change of names and a reduction of authority and function over the first years of Nazi rule. Yet while few, if any, could foresee its eventual outcome, the Jewish condition was increasingly perilous and was expected to get worse.

For Jewish children, the first blow often came in school, where they met with hostility from their classmates and their teachers and where appeals to the principals or other authorities were often met with stony silence, if not with sympathy for the harassers. The Jewish community established Jewish schools, within whose walls Jewish children could feel safe even if they met with danger en route. The Jewish community was also forced to provide economic assistance as more Jews lost their livelihoods. Jewish cultural activities organized by the *Kulturbund provided employment for artists, performers, and musicians while it fortified a growing sense of Jewish identity.

Meanwhile, Hitler sought greater international legitimacy for his regime. To bolster its standing, Germany served as host to the 1936 Olympics. Efforts in several countries (the strongest in the United States) to organize a boycott failed. The American Olympic Committee received assurances that all German athletes had a chance to compete on German teams, yet only Nazi sports clubs continued to operate. For a period of time, Berlin was "sanitized" for the international press and foreign visitors. Antisemitic signs were removed, rhetoric toned down. Some Jews mistakenly felt that the worst had passed. In the United States, the 1936 Olympics are usually remembered for the great achievements of Jesse Owens, the African-American sprinter who won four gold medals, to the annoyance of Nazi race theorists, but little attention was paid to the exclusion of Jewish athletes from the German team, so the façade of normality can be said to have worked quite well. After the games, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt told Rabbi Stephen Wise, "The synagogues are full and apparently there is nothing wrong."

In 1937 the process of Aryanization was accelerated. Jewish businesses were transferred to "Aryan" ownership, and Jews were forbidden to remain corporate officers or stockholders. Their economic disenfranchisement led to economic vulnerability. Property had to be sold at well below market value. Banks profited by lending money to "Aryan" purchasers and charging exorbitant fees for the transaction. Over time, the well-established Jewish community became increasingly impoverished. When business owners held out for more favorable conditions, they often found themselves in a more vulnerable situation, which in turn diminished the value of their assets.

The Expansion of the Reich

Hitler felt that Germans were cramped within unnatural borders and were entitled to seize the Lebensraum (living space) he felt they needed in central and Eastern Europe, intending to "Germanize" these areas through dispossession and settlement. In this way all German "Aryans" would be brought "heim ins Reich," "home" within a nation that would rightfully dominate Europe and the world. Above all, perhaps, he was determined to restore the German honor he believed had been lost at Versailles with the 1919 treaty that embodied Germany's surrender, formally ending World War i and forcing Germany to take responsibility for the war, pay reparations, give up territory, suffer occupation by foreign troops, and disarm. Expansion, however, complicated Hitler's goal of ridding Germany of Jews through forced emigration. Each territorial expansion brought more Jews under German control. The Saar region, in the Rhineland, was returned to Germany on March 1, 1935. In German Upper Silesia, where the Jews were under the protection of the German-Polish Convention of May 15, 1922, the restrictions imposed by the Convention on the exercise of German sovereignty terminated on July 15, 1937. Austria was annexed in March 1938, and the Czech area known as the Sudetenland was handed over on October 1, 1938, by virtue of the Munich Agreement. Ultimately Czechoslovakia ceased to exist when the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia was created in March 1939. The Memel region, formerly part of East Prussia and now in Lithuania, was annexed at the same time. When Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, the "Jewish problem" became urgent. By the time the division of Poland between Germany and the Soviet Union was complete, more than two million more Jews had come under German control.


By the late 1930s, there was a desperate search for countries of refuge. Those few who could get visas to the United States and qualify under stringent quotas emigrated to America. Many went to Palestine, where the small Jewish community was willing to receive refugees. Still others sought refuge in neighboring European countries, later to be overrun by the German invasion. Most countries, however, were unwilling to receive large numbers of refugees.

Responding to growing domestic pressures to act on behalf of Jewish refugees, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt convened, but did not attend, a conference in Evian, France, in July 1938. The invitation foretold its limited achievements. National leaders were told that no laws would have to be changed and no government funds would be expended. Only philanthropic (Jewish) funds would be used for resettlement. The British were told that Palestine would not be on the agenda. The United States was unwilling to expand its quotas on German and Austrians seeking entry, mainly Jews. The conference spoke of the "refugee crisis," when everyone understood that this was a euphemism for Jewish refugees, unable to find asylum in numbers adequate to their need. Two days after Roosevelt announced the Evian Conference, Adolf Hitler gloated:

I can only hope that the other world which has such deep sympathy for these criminals [Jews] will at least be generous enough to convert this sympathy into practical aid. We on our part are ready to put all these criminals at the disposal of these countries, for all I care, even on luxury ships.

For nine days, delegations from 32 nations met at the Royal Hotel on Lake Geneva along with representatives of 39 private relief agencies, 21 of which were Jewish. The world press covered the event intensely.

One by one, delegates from each country rose to profess their understanding of the refugees' plight. One by one, they gave excuses why so little could be done: Canada would accept farmers – small comfort for urbanized Jews fleeing Germany. Holland and Denmark offered temporary refuge for a few. "Australia does not have a racial problem, and we are not desirous of importing one," its delegate proclaimed. Colombia's delegate was not "prepared to resign himself to the belief that two thousand years of Christian civilization must lead to this terrible catastrophe." Colombia itself could offer nothing. The delegate from Venezuela was reluctant to disturb the "demographic equilibrium" of his country. In short, no Jewish merchants, peddlers, or intellectuals were wanted in Venezuela. Only the Dominican Republic offered to receive 100,000 Jews. In the end only a few went there.

In a formal response to Evian, the German Foreign Office gloated: "…since in many foreign countries it was recently regarded as wholly incomprehensible why Germans did not wish to preserve in its population an element like the Jews… it appears astounding that countries seem in no way anxious to make use of these elements themselves now that the opportunity arises."

The implications for Nazi policy were clear. Forced emigration would not succeed. No one wanted the Jews. The desperate struggle of the refugees became even more difficult.


In October 1938, the Polish government revoked the passports of Jews who had lived outside Poland for more than five years. The Swiss government requested that German passports be marked with the letter J for Jude, thus preventing Jews from passing themselves off as Christians and finding temporary shelter in Switzerland. On October 28, Polish Jews living in Germany were expelled and Poland refused to repatriate them; they found temporary shelter in Zbaszyn, a frontier town on the Polish-German border. The *Grynzspan family wrote a desperate letter to their teenage son Hershel, who was in Paris. After receiving the letter he set off to the German Embassy and mortally wounded the third secretary of the German legation, Ernst vom Rath.

Ostensibly in response to Grynzspan's desperate act, on the evening of November 9, 1938, carefully orchestrated anti-Jewish violence "erupted" throughout the Reich, which since March had included Austria. Over the next 48 hours, more than 1,000 synagogues were burned and 7,000 businesses were ransacked and their windows broken. Some 30,000 Jewish men between the ages of 16 and 60 were arrested and sent to newly expanded concentration camps. The police stood by as the violence – often committed by neighbors, not strangers – raged on. Firemen were instructed to ensure that the flames did not spread to adjacent Aryan property, but not to put out the fires at the synagogues. Thus, most of the synagogues left standing were small synagogues that were part of other buildings. The November pogroms were given a quaint name to obscure what actually happened: "Kristallnacht" (Crystal Night, or the Night of Broken Glass). In its aftermath, Jews lost the illusion that they had a future in Germany.

The response in the West to the November Kristallnacht pogroms was strong. It dominated the news. The U.S. ambassador to Germany was recalled, though diplomatic relations were not severed. The act was public and the violence problematic for the Germans, as glass had to be imported.

Behind the scenes, matters deteriorated even further for the Jews. On November 12, 1938, Hermann *Goering, head of the Luftwaffe (air force) and the number two man in the Nazi party hierarchy, convened a meeting of Nazi officials to discuss the damage to the German economy from pogroms. The Jewish community was fined one billion Reichsmarks. Jews were made responsible for cleaning up. German Jews, though not foreign Jews, were barred from collecting insurance. In addition, new restrictions were enacted: Jews were denied entry to theaters, forced to travel in separate compartments on trains, and excluded from German schools. These were added to earlier prohibitions, such as those forbidding graduation from universities, owning businesses, or practicing law or medicine on non-Jews. Jewish property continued to be confiscated under the Aryanization program. Goering concluded the November meeting on a note of irony: "I would not like to be a Jew in Germany!"

Enemies of the State (Non-Jewish Victims of Nazism)

While Jews were the primary victims of Nazism as it evolved, and were central to Nazi racial ideology, other groups were victimized as well – some for what they did, some for what they refused to do, and some for what they were.

Political dissidents, trade unionists, Communists, and Social Democrats were among the first to be arrested. Additionally, German and Austrian male homosexuals (there was no systematic persecution of lesbians) were arrested and, like the others, later incarcerated in concentration camps. They were antithetical to the Nazis' concept of German manhood and useless for the procreation of the master race. Jehovah's Witnesses were a problem for the Nazis because they refused to swear allegiance to the state, register for the draft, or utter the words "Heil Hitler." Twenty thousand in number, many Witnesses were incarcerated. They were in one sense the only voluntary victims of Nazism. If they filled out a form severing their religious affiliation and promising to cease to proselytize, they could be freed. Jews, even those who had converted, were offered no such choice. The Nazis also singled out the Roma and the Sinti, known collectively and pejoratively as the gypsies. Their persecution began locally; only later did initiatives come from Berlin. Freemasons were persecuted at first; their lodges were regarded as a cover for a Jewish conspiracy to attack Christianity, but gradually the persecution of Freemasons slackened and by 1938 an amnesty was declared. Their services were needed by the regime. Until the arrest of Jewish men aged 16–60 on Kristallnacht, these non-Jews constituted the majority of people incarcerated in concentration camps.

The Invasion of Poland and the Beginning of World War ii

On the sixth anniversary of his ascent to office, January 30, 1939, Hitler warned the Reichstag: "If international-finance Jewry [Hitler's term, for the supposed conspiracy of Jewish bankers] inside and outside of Europe should succeed once more in plunging nations into another world war, the consequence will not be the Bolshevization of the earth and thereby the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe."

On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland. Two days later France and Great Britain declared war on Germany and World War ii began in what became known as the period of the phony war, for there were no battles in the West until the spring of 1940. The United States remained neutral for more than two years; only a direct attack by Japan on Pearl Harbor impelled America to enter the war. On August 22, 1939, speaking to German army generals, Hitler had defined a new type of war. "Our war aim does not consist in reaching certain lines, but in the physical destruction of the enemy. Accordingly, I have placed my deathhead formations in readiness – for the present only in the East – with orders to send to death, mercilessly and without compassion, men, women, and children of Polish derivation and language. Only thus shall we gain the living space (Lebensraum) which we need."

In a surprise move, especially considering Hitler's stated opposition to Marxism, on August 23, 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union signed the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, pledging mutual nonaggression. A secret protocol called for the division of Poland between them. German troops would enter from the west and Soviet troops from the east. German progress was swift. Within six days Cracow was conquered, within eight days Lodz, Radom, and Tarnow, and within four weeks Warsaw fell to the Germans. The Germans targeted the Poles for decimation. Polish priests and politicians were murdered, the Polish leadership was decimated and, over time, the children of the Polish elite were kidnapped and raised as "Aryans" by their new German "parents." A common enemy, the occupying Wehrmacht, and even the fury that the Nazis unleashed against Polish culture and Polish nationalism, did not lead to solidarity among the Jews and Poles but intensified tensions that were already high between the two communities. In the first weeks of battle, more than two million additional Jews came under German domination; thus, for the Germans the already problematic Jewish question had only become more acute.


The full thrust of German occupation policy was directed at the Jews, who were soon isolated and gradually cut off from the neighboring communities. On September 21, 1939, Reinhard *Heydrich, security service chief of the ss (Schutzstaffel, "Defense Squadron"; a Nazi party elite paramilitary organization that was the chief instrument of the Final Solution), ordered the establishment of the Judenraete (Jewish Councils; singular *Judenrat). Composed of 24 men – rabbis and Jewish leaders – they were to be made personally responsible in "the literal sense of the term," as Heydrich decreed, for carrying out German orders. From Heydrich's perspective, the Judenrat was an instrument of German control, a means of freeing his forces for other tasks.

He also ordered the deportation of Jews from smaller communities of less than 500 to larger urban centers, where they were to be concentrated in Jewish residential quarters, a euphemism for ghettos. His order spoke of the "final aim" – not the "Final Solution" – which would be implemented over time, and the stages leading to the fulfillment of the final aim, which were to be implemented swiftly.

Individual Jews, especially within the border area, faced the difficult choice of whether to move westward toward areas of German control or to move eastward into territories of Soviet domination. Those who relied on past experience, on the lessons of history, found that they were deeply mistaken. For more than a century, freedom, progress, and opportunity were to be found by moving west. The German army had been relatively well behaved during World War i; it had treated Jews and the rest of the Polish population far better than Russian forces.


In an order backdated to September 1, 1939, to give it the appearance of a wartime measure, Hitler instructed his personal physician and the chief of the Chancellery to put to death those Germans who were considered "life unworthy of living." His signed order read: "Reich leader Philip Bouhler and Dr. Brandt are charged with responsibility for expanding the authority of physicians, to be designated by name, to the end that patients considered incurable according to the best available human judgment of their state of health, can be granted a mercy killing."

This evolved over time into the "*euthanasia program" in which mentally retarded, physically infirm, and chronically ill Germans, who according to Nazi ideology were an embarrassment to the myth of Aryan supremacy, were put to death. At first, passive means were used, starvation and withholding of medicine. Gradually, more active measures were introduced, such as injections and sedatives. Finally, gas chambers were employed, staffed by physicians and nurses in a process of medical killing. While the t-4 program, named after its headquarters at Tiergarten 4 in Berlin, might seem unrelated to the Holocaust, it was a prefiguration. As the Final Solution killing centers came on line in 1942, they were staffed by t-4 workers, veterans of mass murder. The organized transportation of the handicapped foreshadowed the mass deportations of the Jews. During the German euthanasia program, psychiatrists were able to save some patients, at least temporarily, but only if they cooperated in sending others to their death. They faced no penalty if they refused to cooperate. Ultimately, in the Jewish communities of the territories conquered by the Germans, Judenrat leaders were coerced – under the threat of death – to make similar choices. Yet the programs were different in two respects: the so-called euthanasia program was halted because of domestic disquiet and protest; concerned parents and aroused clergy protested and the murders were formally halted (they were resumed in a disguised fashion). And there were no consequences for the few psychiatrists who refused to participate. There were no such protests against the murder of the Jews. Judenrat leaders were "personally responsible" for carrying out German orders. Those who refused were killed. Some, but not all, Judenrat leaders accepted the dire consequences.

Blitzkrieg, or the German Invasion of Western Europe

The events of World War ii had a direct impact on all the Jewish communities of Europe. On April 9, 1940, Germany invaded Denmark and Norway. On May 10, Germany invaded Holland, Belgium, France, and Luxembourg. German victories were swift. The German strategy, as in the earlier Polish campaign, was given the name Blitzkrieg, lightning war. By June an armistice had been signed with France; the north and west of the country came under German occupation, a portion in the southeast was ruled by Italy, and the remainder came under the control of a collaborationist French government based in Vichy.

The nature of the German occupation differed according to country, but it is axiomatic that Germany treated Western countries more respectfully than it did the populations in the East, who were considered racially inferior by Nazi ideology. In Denmark, the civil service remained in place and German occupation was restrained. The German and Austrian model served as a blueprint for the treatment of the Jews in the countries of Western Europe. Jews were defined according to the principles of Nuremberg; civil rights were curtailed and property was confiscated. Unlike those in Poland, Jews in the West were not confined to sealed ghettos; they were, however, forced to wear yellow stars marking them as Jews, since in most cases Jewish identity could not otherwise be determined visually. In France the quasi-independent Vichy regime imposed anti-Jewish laws, including the systematic confiscation of Jewish property and the transfer of Jewish businesses in a process of "Aryanization" modeled on the earlier German pre-war policies. In the summer of 1942, Jews were rounded up – mostly by French police – in both German-occupied and Vichy France. On July 16–17, 12,884 Jews in Paris were forced into the Veledrome d' Hiver, a sports arena, and held without food or water. Children were gathered with their parents andthen parents were separated from their children and shipped to the transit camp of Drancy. More than 40,000 Jews were transported to the "East" in 1942. One in three was from Vichy France. Transit camps were established in countries other than France as well. From 1942 on, as the death camps came into operation, more transit camps were established in Europe (in German-occupied France, Pithiviers, Beaune-la-Rolande, Compiègne, and *Drancy; in unoccupied Vichy France, alien Jews were concentrated in Gurs and Rivesaltes; in Serbia, Topovske Šupe, Šabac, and Sajmište in Belgrade; in Croatia, Jasenovac; in the Netherlands, *Westerbork and *Vught; in Belgium, Breendonck and Dassin-Malines); Jews were deported to these from their homes and were then sent on to the death camps.

On April 6, 1941, German troops invaded Greece and Yugoslavia, setting off a war in the Balkans. Their progress was less swift than expected, which was significant because it delayed the German invasion of the Soviet Union from the spring until the summer of 1941 and resulted in the Germans having to stop short of their goals due to the onset of the harsh Russian winter.


Following the German invasion of Poland, the Jewish population was herded into ghettos. Warsaw contained the largest of German-occupied Poland's approximately 400 ghettos. When it was sealed in the fall of 1940, the Jews – 30 percent of Warsaw's population – were forced into a district of 2.4 percent of the area of the city, with a density of over 200,000 per square mile and 9.2 people per room. Living conditions were difficult, the population faced hunger and famine, and soon conditions gave rise to diseases and epidemics. The death rate in Warsaw was one in ten in 1941, before the deportations and the killing.

There are two perspectives on the ghetto: to the German rulers, the ghetto was a temporary measure, a holding pen, until a policy of what to do with the Jews was established and implemented. To the Jews, ghetto life was the situation under which they thought they would live until the end of the war. Jews were biding time until…


How does one live under these circumstances? Families, living with others in squalid and crowded conditions, lost elementary privacy. Parental authority was compromised, and the ability of mothers and fathers to protect their children was limited at best. Some Jews collapsed under the pressure, many floundered; a few rose to the occasion, but most muddled through. As schools closed, makeshift forms of education were established. Since religious services were forbidden, prayer quorums and study houses were created secretly. Amateur historians documented the times in which they lived. Self-help groups arose, as did building committees and soup kitchens. Smugglers brought food into the starving ghetto; some for self-enrichment, most for basic survival. The motto of smugglers was described in one diary as "eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die." The painful truth was masked with humor.

Warsaw was connected to the rest of the city by a sewer system that could not be blocked. This underground system facilitated illicit commerce and exchange. In Lodz, the second largest ghetto in Poland was entirely separated from the city. In Warsaw, Emanuel *Ringelblum established a documentation center where records were kept and even research was undertaken. Diaries portrayed daily activities; they were personal but they also were intended to establish a historical memory. Documents were saved and later hidden. If individuals were not to survive, at least historical memory would bear witness to their demise and to their life under the intolerable conditions. Underground newspapers were published, and even theater performances and concerts were held in the ghetto.

The Jews gave their efforts a name: Iberleben, to outlive, to endure, to survive. Rabbi Yiẓḥak *Nissenbaum of the Warsaw ghetto spoke of *kedushat ha-ḥayyim, the sanctification of life, as opposed to *kiddush ha-Shem, traditional martyrdom, the sanctification of God's name. In the past, remaining faithful to Jewish tradition, sanctifying God's name, had deprived the enemy of their ultimate victory. Since the Nazis intended to impose the "Final Solution to the Jewish Question," to murder all Jews, remaining alive, sanctifying life, would deprive the Nazis of their victory.


Ghettos took a variety of forms and were led by men of diverse talents, egos, and integrity. Jewish leadership, like the ghetto itself, must be viewed from two perspectives. To the German masters, Jewish leadership was an indispensable instrument of German control; to the Jews, Jewish leaders imposed German domination on the ghetto and represented – usually without much success and in the end with absolute and total failure – Jewish needs to the Germans. They were caught with the most limited power in a dilemma not of their own making with meager resources and massive needs under the total domination of their captors, who ultimately ordered the liquidation – deportation to death camps – of the ghetto population. The head of the Warsaw Jewish Council, Adam *Czerniakow, an engineer by training, permitted laissez-faire capitalism. In Lodz, Mordechai Chaim *Rumkowski made himself and the Jewish Council the central and controlling arm of the besieged ghetto. He pursued a strategy of "survival by work." He reasoned that if the ghetto could become a productive work force making materials essential to the Wehrmacht (the German army), the Germans would be reluctant to destroy it. He was willing to pay the price of his strategy. Unlike Czerniakow, who sought to protect the children of the Warsaw ghetto, Rumkowski preserved the productive and was willing to consent to the deportation of the young and the old, sacrificing some while saving more inhabitants. On September 4, 1942, he gave an anguished speech. "Fathers and mothers, give me your children… A broken Jew stands before you… I reach out to you with my broken and trembling hands and I beg: give into my hands the victims so that we can avoid having other victims. A population of 100,000 Jews can be preserved." Alongside formal Jewish leadership, there were informal Jewish leaders. Soup kitchens were organized, apartment houses became a beehive of opportunity, rabbis continued to teach Torah and youth activities grew more intense and urgent. Jews continued their cultural life, even within the ghettos. Theater was produced, concerts were organized. The very survival of the Warsaw ghetto depended upon the activities of smugglers, who produced the food supplies that supplemented the bare rations provided by the Germans.

In retrospect – but only in retrospect – it is clear that the ghettos were a temporary measure containing the Jews until the infrastructure for their murder could be created. Most ghettos lasted for two or at most three years, until the great deportations of 1942 and 1943. Lodz was an exception. It endured until the summer of 1944. And Rumkowski, whom many considered a villain in Jewish history, might have emerged a hero had the Soviet Army liberated his ghetto before the Germans deported the last Jews of Lodz in August 1944.

In the pre-war period, the goal of German policy was to make Germany Judenrein, free of Jews. During the initial war years, two other policies were discussed and historians differ as to the seriousness of those discussions – to transport the Jews to reservations in Nisko and Lublin; or the Madagascar plan, to ship the Jews to an island off the coast of Africa. With the evolving war, neither plan was feasible, if even seriously considered.

The German Invasion of the Soviet Union

Historians differ as to the date of the decision to systematically murder Jews, the so-called "Final Solution to the Jewish Problem." There is debate whether and when there was one central decision or a series of regional decisions in response to local conditions, but there is no debate as to when the systematic murder of Jews began. It commenced with the German invasion of the Soviet Union.

Code named "Operation Barbarosa," the German invasion began on June 22, 1941. The scope of the operation was vast: more than three million German soldiers, accompanied by half a million additional personnel from Germany's allies (Finland, Romania, Hungary, Italy, Slovakia, and Croatia, and a contingent of troops from Spain). The attack was broad, from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Black Sea in the south. Unprepared for the assault because the Soviet leadership refused to believe early and accurate warnings, the Red Army was initially overwhelmed. Three German army groups advanced deep into Soviet territory. Millions of Soviet soldiers were encircled, cut off from supplies and reinforcements, and forced to surrender. Many, if not most, were to die due the harsh conditions of their captivity in the winter of 1941–42. Those who survived the winter found their chances of survival improved as Germany understood that success would not be immediate and the labor of captured pows could be valuable.

Before the onset of fall in September 1941, German forces were at the gates of Leningrad in the north, Smolensk in the center, and Dnipropetrovsk in the south. They came to the outskirts of Moscow. The Wehrmacht was clearly exhausted and its supply lines were stretched to the breaking point. German troops were unprepared for winter fighting, as they expected an early Soviet surrender. The onset of the harsh Soviet winter made military operations more difficult and exacted a toll on German soldiers.

In December 1941, the Soviet Union launched a counteroffensive that was initially successful in forcing a German retreat from the outskirts of Moscow. But by spring the front was stabilized east of Smolensk. Germany was poised to move to the offense, with a massive attack in the south toward the city of Stalingrad on the Volga River and the oil fields of the Caucasus. By August 1942, German forces neared the city. With the battle for Stalingrad, German domination of Europe was at its height.


Three thousand men of the Einsatzgruppen, or special (killing) units, entered the Soviet Union in June 1941 together with the Wehrmacht and other Axis armies. Their assignment was to enter cities and towns, villages and hamlets, to round up Jews, Soviet commissars, and gypsies, to confiscate their property, and to systematically murder them. They did not operate alone. The Wehrmacht and other Axis armies, local gendarmeries, and native antisemitic groups assisted them. They entered a city, arrested the victims (often by calling for their assembly using deceptive promises of relocation), marched them to the edge of the city, and murdered them one by one. Their victims were men, women, and children, entire families, whole communities, entire regions. One can plot the progress of the Einsatzgruppen week by week. Reports were written to their superiors, maps were drawn up marking their accomplishments, with coffins and numbers of Jews killed. Sometimes, the mere presence of German troops in an area was sufficient to spur a massacre. The Polish population of the village of *Jedwabne murdered its Jewish neighbors. For years the massacre was blamed on the Germans, though everyone knew that the local population had turned against its Jews. In Babi Yar near Kiev, Ukraine, 33,771 Jews were murdered on September 28–29 in the week between Rosh ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur. In the Rumbula Forest outside the ghetto in Riga, Latvia, 25,000 to 28,000 Jews were murdered on November 30 and December 8–9. More than 60,000 Jews were murdered at Ponary, the killing field adjacent to Vilna (Vilnius) in Lithuania, and 9,000 Jews, half of them children, were slaughtered at the Ninth Fort adjacentto Kovno (Kaunas), Lithuania, on October 28, 1941.

Mass shootings continued unabated, wave after wave. It is conservatively estimated that 1,400,000 Jews were killed in these shootings. When the killing had ended, and it appeared as if Soviet forces would again control the killing fields, special units returned to dig up the dead and burn their bodies to destroy the evidence of the crime. The operation, conducted by ss Kommando 1005 under the command of Paul Blobel, was called "Operation Blot Out." Erasing the evidence would permit the denial of the crime.


Translation of document 2999-ps submitted to the International Military Tribunal, Nuremberg:

I, Hermann Friedrich Graebe, declare under oath:

From September 1941 until January 1944 I was manager and engineer in charge of a branch office in Sdolbunow, Ukraine, of the Solingen building firm of Josef Jung. In this capacity it was my job to visit the building sites of the firm. Under contract to an Army Construction office, the firm had orders to erect grain storage buildings on the former airport of Dubno, Ukraine.

On 5 October 1942, when I visited the building office at Dubno, my foreman Hubert Moennikes of 21 Aussenmuehlenweg, Hamburg-Haarburg, told me that in the vicinity of the site, Jews from Dubno had been shot in three large pits, each about 30 meters long and 3 meters deep. About 1500 persons had been killed daily. All of the 5000 Jews who had still been living in Dubno before the pogrom were to be liquidated. As the shootings had taken place in his presence he was still much upset.

Thereupon I drove to the site, accompanied by Moennikes and saw near it great mounds of earth, about 30 meters long and 2 meters high. Several trucks stood in front of the mounds. Armed Ukrainian militia drove the people off the trucks under the supervision of an ss man. The militia men acted as guards on the trucks and drove them to and from the pit. All these people had the regulation yellow patches on the front and back of their clothes, and thus could be recognized as Jews.

Moennikes and I went direct to the pits. Nobody bothered us. Now I heard rifle shots in quick succession, from behind one of the earth mounds. The people who had got off the trucks – men, women, and children of all ages – had to undress upon the orders of an ss man, who carried a riding or dog whip. They had to put down their clothes in fixed places, sorted according to shoes, top clothing and underclothing. I saw a heap of shoes of about 800 to 1000 pairs, great piles of underlinens and clothing. Without screaming or weeping these people undressed, stood around in family groups, kissed each other, said farewells and waited for a sign from another ss man, who stood near the pit, also with a whip in his hand. During the 15 minutes that I stood near the pit I heard no complaint or plea for mercy. I watched a family of about 8 persons, a man and woman, both about 50 with their children of about 1, 8 and 10, and two grown-up daughters of about 20 to 24. An old woman with snow-white hair was holding the one-year old child in her arms and singing to it, and tickling it. The child was cooing with delight. The couple were looking on with tears in their eyes. The father was holding the hand of a boy about 10 years old and speaking to him softly; the boy was fighting his tears. The father pointed toward the sky, stroked his head, and seemed to explain something to him. At that moment the ss man at the pit shouted something to his comrade. The latter counted off about 20 persons and instructed them to go behind the earth mound. Among them was the family, which I have mentioned. I well remember a girl, slim and with black hair, who, as she passed close to me, pointed to herself and said, "23." I walked around the mound, and found myself confronted by a tremendous grave. People were closely wedged together and lying on top of each other so that only their heads were visible. Nearly allhad blood running over their shoulders from their heads. Some of the people shot were still moving. Some were lifting their arms and turning their heads to show that they were still alive. The pit was already ⅔ full. I estimated that it already contained about 1000 people. I looked for the man who did the shooting. He was an ss man, who sat at the edge of the narrow end of the pit, his feet dangling into the pit. He had a tommy gun on his knees and was smoking a cigarette. The people, completely naked, went down some steps which were cut in the clay wall of the pit and clambered over the heads of the people lying there, to the place to which the ss man directed them. They lay down in front of the dead or injured people; some caressed those who were still alive and spoke to them in a low voice. Then I heard a series of shots. I looked into the pit and saw that the bodies were twitching or the heads lying already motionless on top of the bodies that lay before them. Blood was running from their necks. I was surprised that I was not ordered away, but I saw that there were two or three postmen in uniform nearby. The next batch was approaching already. They went down into the pit, lined themselves up against the previous victims and were shot. When I walked back, round the mound I noticed another truck-load of people which had just arrived. This time it included sick and infirm persons. An old, very thin woman with terribly thin legs was undressed by others who were already naked, while two people held her up. The woman appeared to be paralyzed. The naked people carried the woman around the mound. I left with Moennikes and drove in my car back to Dubno.

On the morning of the next day, when I again visited the site, I saw about 30 naked people lying near the pit – about 30 to 50 meters away from it. Some of them were still alive; they looked straight in front of them with a fixed stare and seemed to notice neither the chilliness of the morning nor the workers of my firm who stood around. A girl of about 20 spoke to me and asked me to give her clothes, and help her escape. At that moment we heard a fast car approach and I noticed that itwas an ss-detail. I moved away to my site. Ten minutes later we heard shots from the vicinity of the pit. The Jews still alive had been ordered to throw the corpses into the pit – then they had themselves to lie down in this to be shot in the neck.

Who were these men? What were their motivations? After the war, they claimed that they were merely following orders. Raul Hilberg described them: "The great majority of the officers of the Einsatzgruppen were professional men. They included a physician, a professional opera singer and a large number of lawyers. They were in no sense hoodlums, delinquents, common criminals or sex maniacs. Most were intellectuals.… There is no indication that any of them requested an assignment to a Kommando. All we know is that they brought to their new task all the skills and training that they were capable of contributing. In short, they became efficient killers."

In a well received work, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland, Christopher Browning described the members of the units as ordinary men placed in extraordinary circumstances where conformity, peer pressure, careerism, obedience to orders, and group solidarity gradually overcame moral inhibitions. Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, whose book Hitler's Willing Executioners became an international bestseller and triggered discussion on three continents, disputes Browning's account and views them not as ordinary men but ordinary Germans who had embraced Hitler's vision of eliminationist antisemitism and were able to embrace its next phase, exterminationist antisemitism. The systematic murder, what the Germans called extermination – something that is done to rodents or bugs, not people – was not a pleasant task, but necessary.

Both Browning and Goldhagen concur that no Einsatzgruppen member faced punishment if he asked to be excused. They may have slowed their career advancement, they may have lost face, they may have disappointed their comrades, but they had a choice whether to participate or not. Almost all chose to become killers.

The ss remained proud of its achievement. In a speech to ss Major Generals at Poznan on October 4, 1943, some two hours into his three-hour ten-minute speech, Heinrich Himmler paused to speak of the Jews. He spoke openly and directly. "The Jewish people is going to be annihilated."

He spoke with pride in his men, pride in their toughness, pride in their moral integrity: "Most of you know what it means to see a hundred corpses lie side by side, or five hundred, or a thousand. To have stuck this out and – excepting cases of human weakness – to have kept our integrity, that is what has made us hard."

He spoke the unspoken. He spoke but urged silence. "This is an unwritten and never-to-be-written page of glory [in German history]."

He spoke of the Jews, but not only the Jews. Of the Soviet pows who were killed or allowed to die in the millions, he spoke with regret in the most utilitarian of tones. He regretted the loss of their labor potential. "At that time we did not value this human mass the way we value it today as raw material, as labor."

He spoke candidly, "What happens to the Russians, what happens to the Czechs, is a matter of total indifference to me." Germany was the center. Other nations concerned him only insofar as needed. "It is a crime against our own blood to worry about them."

This form of killing imposed a burden on the killers. Alcohol was needed, after the killing and later even before and during. Some broke under the strain. Many found their duty difficult. And the killing was public, which had significant consequences even to an acquiescent native population.

The experience of Jews in the territories where the Einsatzgruppen killers engaged in mass killing differed from that of the Jews of Poland in two major respects. In Poland, ghettoization preceded the mass killing. Further to the east, killing came first. The ghettoized Jews could have no doubts regarding German intentions, no doubts that they were intent on killing them. Some ghettos were surrounded by large forests, which could be used for hiding. These facilitated escape because there was somewhere to go. They also served as a base for Partisan groups. Murder in these areas began in 1941; ghettoization in Poland had begun some 18 months earlier.

The Wannsee Conference

On January 20, 1942, Reinhard Heydrich convened a conference at a Berlin lakeside villa at Wannsee to coordinate the "Final Solution to the Jewish Problem." Heydrich had received special responsibilities on the Jewish question some six months earlier and the meeting was originally set for December 9, 1941, but the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the entry of the United States into the war forced its postponement. Around the table were 15 men representing government agencies necessary for the implementation of so bold a policy. Seven had doctorates. They were able and experienced, what might be termed "the best and the brightest." Language was an important means of deceit and concealment – deceit of the victims, even self-imposed deceit of the killers. The language of the meeting was direct, the protocols prepared by Adolf *Eichmann, an ss officer who headed the Jewish affairs department in the Reich Central Security Office (Reichssicherheithauptamt, rsha), were circumspect: "Another possible solution to the [Jewish] problem has now taken the place of emigration, i.e., evacuation to the East… Practical experience is already being collected which is of the greatest importance in the relation to the future final solution of the Jewish problem." "Evacuation to the East" was understood as deportation to killing centers. Practical experience was understood as the experimental gassing in September at *Auschwitz, the use of mobile gas vans at *Chelmno on December 8 for mass murder. Thirty closely guarded copies of the protocols were prepared; only one was discovered after the war.

The conclusions of the *Wannsee Conference can be seen in what happened next. In the winter of 1942, death camps were opened at *Treblinka, *Sobibor, and *Belzec. These three camps were almost exclusively dedicated to the murder of Jews; their impact was total. There were two known survivors of Belzec, where some 500,000 Jews were murdered in 10 months; perhaps 50 survivors from Sobibor, where an uprising had occurred and where 250,000 Jews were killed; and perhaps twice that many from Treblinka, where an uprising also took place and between 750,000 and 870,000 were killed.


The death camps were the essential instrument of the Final Solution and a unique feature of the German program of mass murder. The Einsatzgruppen had been sent to their victims. In the camps, the process was reversed. The victims were sent by train, often in cattle cars, to their killers. The camps became factories producing dead corpses at minimal physical and psychological cost to German personnel. Assisted by Ukrainian and Latvian collaborators and prisoners of war, a few Germans could kill tens of thousands each month. At Chelmno, the first of the killing centers, mobile gas vans were used. These were trucks in which gas from the exhaust system was sent directly to the rear compartment. Local mechanics tinkered with the trucks to make them more "efficient." Later the mechanics requested that the rear axles be strengthened and the rear doors reinforced, as Jews were rushing toward the rear to escape the fumes. Elsewhere, the gas chambers were permanent buildings, linked to the crematoria or to open pits where bodies were burned. Carbon monoxide was the gas of choice at most camps. Zyklon b, an especially lethal killing agent, was employed primarily at Auschwitz.

Auschwitz, perhaps the most notorious and lethal of the concentration camps, was actually three camps in one: a prisoner-of-war camp (Auschwitz i), a death camp (Auschwitz ii–Birkenau), and a slave labor camp (Buna-Monowitz). Upon arrival, Jewish prisoners faced a Selektion. With a German physician presiding, the young and the old, pregnant women, young children, the handicapped, sick, and infirm were sent directly to the gas chambers. As necessary, the able-bodied would be sent to work in the factories adjacent to Auschwitz, where one German company, I.G. Farben, invested 700 million Reichsmarks in 1942 to take advantage of forced labor. Others followed suit. Deprived of adequate food, shelter, clothing, and medical care, the prisoners were literally worked to death. Periodically, they would face another Selektion. Those unable to work would be transferred to Birkenau, where they would be gassed. At Auschwitz, the Roma and Sinti (gypsies) were gassed as well. Historians estimate that 1.1 to 1.3 million people were murdered at Auschwitz; nine out of ten were Jews.

While the death camps of Auschwitz and *Madjanek also used inmates for slave labor and other types of forced support of the German war effort, the camps of Belzec, Treblinka, Chelmno, and Sobibor had one task alone: killing.


Lilly Applebaum Lublin, born in Antwerp, Belgium, was twelve years old when the Germans invaded her country in 1940 and 15 when she arrived at Birkenau. She had lived in hiding for three years until being captured and sent to the transit camp at Malines (Mechelen), Belgium, to await transport to Auschwitz. She recalled, "We were pushed in the cattle cars – like sardines. We were dirty with buckets for our urine and bowel movements. There was a small little window with barbed wire over it, and we had no air except what came from that little window. And we traveled like this, I think for three or four days."

The train rides were so horrible that surviving prisoners thought that they had survived the worst. They were mistaken. Lilly remembered her arrival. "It was like dawn. And I saw lights, and we saw fire from far away. And like a chimney, with fire going. And I thought they were factories. And I said, 'Good. We will be able to work.'"

Upon arrival all possessions were confiscated. "They told us to leave our luggage. And whatever packages we had with us we had to leave on the ground." Lilly had arrived at the ramp, from which a rail spur took the Jews directly into Birkenau, within site of the gas chambers. She then faced Selektion.

They separated the men from the women. I didn't even have time to say goodbye to my uncle and my aunt. And as we came in front of the Germans, one tall fellow – I didn't know who he was – guided us to go to the right or to the left. He told me to go to the right, and he told my aunt to go to the left. I never saw her again… I was fifteen years old, and I was all alone in this hell.

They told us to undress and that we were going to be showered and that they were going to give us clothes. The place was freezing cold. We stayed there for hours to wait for our clothes. No towels to dry, we had no food. And finally they gave us the clothes, and then they put us in barracks.

They tattooed me; and they told us from now on, this is my name. My name is a-5143… From now on, you do not answer by your name…

I felt like I was not a human person anymore. They had shaved our heads; and I felt so ashamed. And also when they told us to undress and to shower, they made us feel like… like we were animals. The men were walking around, and laughing and looking at us. And you take a young girl at that age, who had never been exposed to a person… to a man, and you stay there naked… I wanted the ground to open, and I should go into it.

Living conditions were primitive. Primo *Levi, who was in Auschwitz when Lilly arrived, said that if the camps had lasted a little longer a new language would have had to be invented. Ordinary words are not adequate to describe the conditions. Lily recounted: "We were packed like sardines. The beds were bunks, three layers. I was on the top layer… If one person wanted to turn, we all had to turn so that we could move around."

The transition between sleep – however disturbed – and the reality of waking up in Auschwitz was so great that survivors tell of deliberately waking up early so that they could shield themselves from the shock of waking to yet another dreadful day.

Each day there was the morning roll call, the counting of prisoners, who stood in the mud for hours in freezing weather. I used to say to myself, "What did I do to deserve this, to be here for the Germans to do this to me? What did we do to them?" The questions were never answered.

Food was scarce and portions were small – watery soup, ersatz coffee, bread that tasted like sawdust. Prisoners were often hungrier after they ate than before. Lilly recalled:

They gave me, finally, little rations of hard, dried-up bread which was half mildew, I could hardly eat it. And a tin can of soup; which was so rotten and vile, when I tasted it I couldn't eat it… I just ate the bread and drank a little water, which was just rust running out from the sink that they had over there… And finally when I got so hungry and I knew I had to eat the soup, I couldn't eat it. It was so vile. It was so terrible. I never ate anything like that in my whole life. I said, "If I want to survive… I have to eat the soup." So I started eating the soup. And I… I remember forcing the soup down my throat, and big tears coming down my face. Eating and crying, eating and crying, this is how I was in Birkenau.

Life was an ongoing struggle:

Every day, I woke up and I would find one or two people who wanted to end their lives and couldn't take it anymore. They would throw themselves to the electric wires and make an end of it. And every once in a blue moon, I couldn't take it anymore. I would try to sneak out of the barracks late at night… and I would see the sky… And I would talk to myself; and I would say, "I can't believe that these stars are looking down at us in this Hell, in this camp, and the same stars are shining at the outside of the world. And other people are looking at the same stars, and they are free. And they are free to do what they want to do. And they are living a good life. And we are here in Hell – human beings worse than animals. And nobody is doing anything about it."

She asked questions unanswerable then or now:

As young as I was, I… I was asking myself these questions. And I would say, "Where is the world? Why isn't the world doing anything about this?" And then I would question God; and I would say, "Where is God? How can He let us be killed like that?" And after I cried myself out real good, I would go back to the barracks.

Armed Resistance

It is often asked why Jews did not make greater attempts at armed resistance. Jews had almost no access to arms, were surrounded by native antisemitic populations who often collaborated with the Nazis or were not unsympathetic to the elimination of the Jews, and were alone against a German war machine zealously determined to carry out the Final Solution. Unlike conventional insurgency operations, where the fighters blend in and are protected by the local population, Jews stood out. They were often different in appearance and in their language and accent. Jewish men were circumcised; most European men were not. Also, the Germans went to great lengths to disguise the ultimate nature of their plans. Deception was an essential part of the Final Solution.

In the ghettos, because of the German policy of collective and disproportionate reprisal, Jews were often hesitant to resist. To escape was to endanger those who were left behind. To resist subjected the entire ghetto to punishment. Jews were also bound by family ties. Resistance was not an issue of courage; resistance fighters had no monopoly on valor. It took courage for Janusz *Korczak to defy Nazi orders and refuse to wear the Jewish star armband and especially to march with his orphans to the Umschlagplatz, the deportation point, in Warsaw, as he did in August 1942. He had been offered shelter and could have survived, but would a teacher abandon his students, could he leave his children?

While in the aftermath of the Holocaust many Jews focused on resistance as a way of salvaging pride and grappling with accusations of collaboration, Jews were traditionally skilled in the practice of defiance. They attempted to hide children in convents, or with friends and even strangers, doing virtually anything to save them. They used false papers. There were two types of concealment: passing oneself off as a non-Jew and hoping not to meet anyone who knew you from a former life or finding a place where one could live indefinitely in a sequestered fashion. Every manner of escape was a form of defiance. Yehuda *Bauer, a historian of the Holocaust, attempted to broaden the definition of resistance by speaking of "any group action consciously taken in opposition to known and surmised laws, actions or intentions directed against the Jews by the Germans and their supporters." Saul Esh wrote of the "dignity of the destroyed."

Attitudes toward armed resistance changed when the Germans ordered the final destruction of the ghettos, and it became clear to the residents that they all were going to die. As long as there was hope for survival, the inhabitants of the ghetto were reluctant to resist. Some understood their desperate situation earlier than others; some who understood what was to happen were paralyzed by grief and fear. Others, usually the young and able-bodied, those without young children or elderly parents for whom they were responsible, were willing to fight.

Jews resisted in the forests, in the ghettos, and even in the death camps. They fought alone and alongside resistance groups in France, Yugoslavia, and Russia. As a rule, full-scale uprisings – last stands – occurred only at the end when the reality of impending death was impossible to deny. They were not intended to defeat the enemy – that was impossible – but to make a statement through one's life and one's death; to uphold Jewish honor; to avenge Jewish losses; to see the "superman" bleed like a mere mortal. In Warsaw, there was no resistance during the great deportations of the summer of 1942, when, between July 23 and September 12, more than 265,000 Jews were deported to Treblinka. Armed resistance began on January 18, 1943; the clash was short and sharp and the deportations, which were planned by the Germans to be limited, were halted. On April 19, 1943, the second day of Passover, a full-scale uprising began in the Warsaw ghetto, led by 23-year-old Mordecai *Anielewicz. In Vilna, the underground leader, Abba *Kovner, who had intuitively recognized the full intent of Nazi policy toward the Jews, called for resistance in January 1942. He proclaimed: "Hitler wants to destroy all the Jews of Europe and the Jews of Lithuania have been chosen as the first in line." Yet an uprising did not begin until September 1943. Some United Partisan Organization (fpo) members shot at the Germans but the Jewish population refused to join them; thus the Partisans realized that they had no choice but to escape to the forest or risk internal conflict. At Treblinka and Sobibor, uprisings occurred when the inmates perceived that the death camps were being dismantled and the remaining prisoners were soon to be killed. This was also true at Auschwitz, where the *Sonderkommando, the prisoner units that worked in the vicinity of the gas chambers, destroyed a gas chamber just as the killing was coming to an end in October 1944 with Russian troops advancing.

As a rule, armed resistance was the domain of the young and the able, those capable of fighting and those not bound by responsibilities for aging parents or young children, but in the forests of Belorussia the *Bielski brothers established a unique family camp with a dual purpose of rescue and resistance. They accepted children and the aged and not only able-bodied men and women.

The Fate of the Jews in Other Countries

In Romania, the slaughter of the Jews was conducted by the Romanians themselves. In a sense they imitated the Germans; they had their own Kristallnacht in January 1941, when synagogues were burned, shops destroyed, and homes ransacked; 120 Jews were killed in Bucharest. Three days after Romania joined Germany in the invasion of the Soviet Union, a massive pogrom took place in the Northern Romanian city of *Jassy. On June 30, 4,332 Jews who survived the pogrom were put on trains, but instead of being offloaded at a death camp they rode the rails of Romania until they expired from heat, dehydration, starvation, and exhaustion. Jews from Bessarabia and Bukovina were expelled to *Transnistria, which also became a destination of Ukrainian Jews. Over 100,000 Ukrainian Jews were killed there while under Romanian administration. Toward the end of the war, when the defeat of Germany was all but certain, Romania found more value in living Jews who could be held for ransom or used as leverage with the Allies.

Bulgaria, which was an ally of Germany, permitted and participated in the deportation of Jews from neighboring Thrace and Macedonia, which it controlled. But when it came to its own Jews, segments of the population protested publicly and the Bulgarian Orthodox Church weighed in heavily. Jews were sent to work camps and persecuted, but in the end Jewish citizens of Bulgaria were not deported.

France was invaded by the Germans in May 1940. Its defeat was swift. France signed an armistice with Germany in June 1940; northern France and the Atlantic coast came under German occupation, part of southeastern France came under Italian occupation, and Alsace and Lorraine were annexed to Germany; the remainder, most of southern France, was unoccupied and governed by the French Vichy regime. Antisemitic legislation was passed that excluded Jews from public life, the civil service, and the army as well as the professions, commerce, and industry. In 1942, Jews were rounded up by French police in both the occupied and unoccupied zones and sent to transit camps such as the one at Drancy, and from there to Auschwitz. The last deportation from France was in the summer of 1944; by then some 75,000 Jews, mostly foreign-born, had been deported. In France, the Jews under fascist Italian occupation in the south fared better than the Jews of Vichy France, where collaborationist French authorities and police provided essential support to the understaffed German forces. The Jews in those parts of France under direct German occupation fared the worst.

The Germans invaded Belgium in May of 1940 and imposed a military administration that coexisted with a civilian administration. Jews were initially used for forced labor, working in clothing and armaments. There were 65,000 Jews in Belgium, mostly in Antwerp and Brussels; 25,000 avoided deportation by hiding. Between 1942 and 1944 more than 25,000 Jews were deported to Auschwitz via the transit camps of Malines and Breendonk.

There were more than 3,000 Jews in Luxembourg, which was invaded by Germany in May 1940 and annexed in 1942. Jews were interned in the Fuenfbrunnen camp in northern Luxembourg and then deported to the death camps. Almost 2,000 Jews from Luxembourg where killed and the country was declared judenrein; more than 1,000 Jews had fled and some survived in hiding. Jews in mixed marriages were exempt from deportation.

Germany invaded the Netherlands in May 1940. Arthur *Seyss-Inquart was installed as the German commissioner. He ordered the registration of all 140,000 Dutch Jews in January 1941; all had to move to Amsterdam. Deportations began in 1942. Foreign or stateless Jews were interned in the transit camp at Westerbork; others, mainly Jews from outside Amsterdam, were sent to Vught. In late June deportations began to Auschwitz and to Sobibor. No better than the French police, the Dutch police participated in rounding up the Jews for deportation. More than 100,000 Jews were deported; fewer than one in four Dutch Jews survived the war.

Under Mussolini the Italians passed antisemitic laws and confined Jewish refugees to internment camps where families lived together. Italy was an ally of Germany and it enjoyed the fruits of early German victories, occupying territories in Yugoslavia, Greece, and southern France. Despite its alliance, however, it did not cooperate in the Final Solution, neither at home nor in the territories it occupied. In 1943, after the Allied invasion, Mussolini was overthrown and in September a ceasefire was negotiated, but it did not last. Germany invaded and occupied northern and central Italy and reinstalled Mussolini, who was now its puppet. It was then that the Germans imposed the Final Solution in Italy. In November 1943 Jews were rounded up in Genoa, Milan, Florence, Trieste, and other northern cities and sent to transit camps. There were deportations from Rome, despite the presence of the Vatican, which did not protest. Eight thousand Jews were shipped from Italy to Birkenau and other concentration camps; more than five times that number survived in Italy. Two thousand more Jews were deported from Rhodes.

Germany invaded Yugoslavia and Greece in April 1941, supported by Italy, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Romania. When the Balkans were subdued, Yugoslavia was partitioned. Hungary received the Backa region and part of northern Croatia. Bulgaria annexed most of Thrace and Macedonia (from Greece and Yugoslavia); Italy annexed the Istrian peninsula, much of Slovenia, and most of the Dalmatian coast, and occupied Montenegro, Albania, and much of northwestern Greece; Germany together with Italy administered Athens, while Germany alone occupied the region of Salonika with its large Jewish community.

Germany also occupied Serbia; Jews there were interned in concentration camps and in August 1941 most Jewish men in the camps were shot. The murder of Serbian Jewish women in 1942 was the intermediate link between the euthanasia program, instituted in 1939, the Einsatzgruppen killings, which began in the summer of 1941, and the development of stationary killing centers, established in Poland in 1942. Jewish women and children were interned at a concentration camp on the abandoned exhibition ground of Semlin, within view of Belgrade. Between March and May 1942 they were murdered in mobile gas vans.

The Jews in the camp were deceived but the general population understood precisely what was happening. They could point to these mobile gas vans and see them functioning. The technical design of the gas vans was turned over to the motor pool, to talented and not so talented auto mechanics. The chief of the Motor Vehicle Administration turned to an automotive specialist to ask his chief mechanic if exhaust gas could be directed into a closed truck to kill the passengers.

Immediately thereafter, five Sara trucks were secured. They were furniture vans with a storage compartment about five meters long and two meters wide and were painted field gray. Within weeks, 40 naked Russians were led into a locked truck; after 20 minutes all were dead. They were pink when they died, which indicated they died of poisoning, and not of suffocation. Then a firm was contracted for 30 converted vans. It gave the contract to Sara, but they used Opel and Blitz and Diamond vehicles as well, which were also converted. The last held 25 while the Sara models held 50 people.

There were complaints; not about the murders but about how they were being done. The first problem was how the vans were to be unloaded, because people pushed against the rear in order to get out. Next, the rear axle collapsed from the surge of weight and the brakes required frequent repairs; therefore the effort was made to prevent any failure so that these trucks could perform their murderous mission in a satisfactory manner. There was no concern about causing the victims agony, but the task of unloading was burdensome. Mechanics did not complain about their task but were upset when their craftsmanship was challenged. By December 1941, 5,291 Jewish women and children had been interned. The general estimate is that by January and February the number had grown to about 7,500. The murder of Serbian Jewry was divided between well-educated and sophisticated organizers and lower-middle-class executioners – the grunts. The decision to commit the murders practically evolved of itself. If Belgrade wanted to get rid of Jewish women and children, Belgrade officials would have to do it themselves. All they could get from Reinhard Heydrich were the instruments, and local pressures caused the authorities to provide the means for the locals to do the job, at least until the structure of the death camps was ready.

In Croatia, the Germans established a puppet state, and more than 20,000 Jews were killed in the Jasenovac concentration camp near Zagreb. In 1942–43, another 7,000 were deported, mainly to Auschwitz and Birkenau. Some Croatian Jews escaped to Italian-occupied territories, where they were sent to a camp but not deported.

In Salonika, an area under direct German control, the Final Solution followed a familiar course. In mid-July 1942, Jewish men aged 18 to 45 were publicly humiliated, released, and then registered for forced labor. They were ransomed in exchange for large sums of money raised by the Jewish community. In February 1943, the Jews of Salonika were concentrated in two ghettos, one in the east of the city and one in the western Baron de Hirsch section of the city, near the railroad station. Adolf Eichmann's deputies, Dieter Wisliceny and Alois Brunner, were dispatched to arrange for the deportations. When the train transport was in place, more than 45,000 Jews were sent between May and August to Auschwitz-Birkenau.Three out of four of them were gassed upon arrival. The remaining Jews were used for slave labor. Jews holding Spanish citizenship living in Salonika (and later in Athens) were deported to Bergen-Belsen. One group of "protected Jews" was actually repatriated to Spain.

In Athens, Jewish property was confiscated on October 7, 1943. In March of the next year the Germans used the ruse of the distribution of matzah, unleavened bread required to observe Passover, to arrest some 800 Jews in Athens. On March 24–25, the first days of Passover, they were arrested and shipped to Auschwitz. Some 500 additional Jews were arrested in their homes and some Jews from outside Athens were also rounded up. Other Athenian Jews went into hiding. Germany then continued to round up the Jews of the islands, including 2,000 Jews of Corfu, who were arrested in June 1944 and of whom only 200 returned, and the 1,700 Jews of Rhodes, who suffered a similar fate and were deported in 1944.

Czechoslovakia became a casualty of German expansion even before the war began. The Sudetenland was surrendered in September 1938 in exchange for Hitler's pledge of peace. On March 15, 1939, he violated the Munich agreement and Bohemia and Moravia became a German "protectorate." Slovakia became an independent state, allied with Germany.

Slovakia became a one-party state. Its authoritarian leader Jozef *Tiso, a Roman Catholic priest, was an extreme nationalist. Jews were persecuted and anti-Jewish legislation was introduced along with a Jewish Code resembling the Nuremberg laws. Jews lived under curfew and were not allowed to assemble. Beginning on March 27, 1942, Jews were sent eastward from Slovakia, which paid a fee to the Germans for each deportee. Between March and June some 54,000 Jews were deported, mainly to Auschwitz and Majdanek. Jewish leaders, such as Gisi *Fleischmann and Rabbi Michael Dov *Weissmandel, a Zionist woman and an ultra-Orthodox Jew, joined together in a group associated with the local Judenrat, known as the Working Group, to stop the deportations by bribing Nazi officials. When the deportations were halted in October, they believed that the Jews could be bought and pleaded with international Jewish organizations for help for adequate sums to ransom all the Jews. Weissmandel, who lost his family on a transport to Auschwitz, was particularly bitter that massive help was not forthcoming. In May 1944 the Working Group received the Auschwitz Protocols from two Auschwitz escapees, Rudolph Vr'ba and Alfred Wetzler, detailing the scope of gassing activities at the largest of the Nazi death camps. They pleaded, through the World Jewish Congress and other Jewish organizations with whom they were able to maintain contact, that Auschwitz be bombed, but it was not.

When Germany invaded Norway in April 1940, there were 1,700 Jews in the country, among them 200 refugees from other countries. Beginning in the fall of 1942 and through February 25, 1943, at the initiative of Vidkun Quisling, whose name has become synonymous with a puppet leader, 763 Norwegian Jews were deported to Auschwitz, where 739 died. The local population, including its church leadership, protested. A letter read in the churches of Norway had a simple but eloquent message: "God does not differentiate among people." In Norway itself, 23 Jews were killed. Aided by the underground, 900 Jews escaped to Sweden, which was willing to take assimilated Scandinavian Jews.

In November 1941, the Germans established the *Theresienstadt ghetto in an old fortress town. Tens of thousands of Jews were deported there: the majority of Prague Jewry as well as Jews from Brno, Moravska, Ostava Olomouc, and other towns of the Protectorate. Theresienstadt was actually a ghetto, a concentration camp, and a transit camp. For a time it housed prominent Jews from Central Europe, Germany and Austria, the Netherlands, and Denmark. About 144,000 Jews were deported to Theresienstadt, 88,000 were sent from Theresienstadt to Auschwitz, and 33,000 died in the camp itself. Of the 15,000 children sent to Theresienstadt, fewer than 100 survived.

When Danish Jews were deported to Theresienstadt, the Danish government did not lose interest in their fate. It demanded an accounting of its citizens' fate and insisted that the Red Cross visit the ghetto. The Germans permitted the visit, but on their terms. They presumed that they could outmaneuver the Red Cross delegation. In the weeks before the visit, deportations were intensified. The model ghetto/transit camp/concentration camp was beautified. Gardens were planted, houses painted, sidewalks washed, and new barracks built. Turf was laid on the village green. A building was refitted to serve as a social center, concert hall, and synagogue. A monument was even erected to honor dead Jews.

Fearful that any slip of the tongue or crack in the veneer of peaceful village life would further endanger the beleaguered Jews of Theresienstadt, Paul Eppstein, the head of the Jewish Council of Elders, greeted the guests in a black suit and top hat. A band played light music. A cafe created for the occasion was filled with customers. Goods were displayed in store windows. When the delegation came to the soccer field, a goal was scored on cue. Danish Jews, no more than two or three in a room, were visited in their freshly painted quarters. A children's opera, Brundibar, was performed for the guests.

The hoax succeeded so well that a propaganda film showing how well the Jews were living under the benevolent protection of the Third Reich was made at Theresienstadt. When the filming was over, most of the cast, including nearly all of the children, were deported to Auschwitz.


Nowhere was the Holocaust more intense and more condensed than in Hungary. What took place over twelve years in Germany occurred over fifteen weeks in Hungary. Beginning the war as a German ally, Hungary had persecuted its Jews but not permitted deportation, at least not of Hungarian Jews. Jews from territories annexed to Hungary – foreign Jews – were deported as early as July–August 1941 to Kamenets-Podolski in the Ukraine, where Einsatzgruppen executed them. Hungarian Jews remained untouched. After the German and Hungarian military defeats of 1942–43, Admiral Miklos Horthy, the Hungarian dictator, concluded that Germany would probably lose the war. His government attempted to contact the Allies about a truce in 1942, and resisted German demands that Hungary send it Jews for forced labor. With the situation deteriorating in the Balkans, and fearing the defection of the Hungarians to the Allies, Germany invaded Hungary on March 19, 1944. Horthy remained in power, but a pro-German government was installed under Dome Sztojay. The consequences for the Jews were immediate.

By mid-April the Jews were ghettoized. On May 15, deportations to Auschwitz began. Over the next 54 days, 437,402 Jews were deported from Hungary, primarily to Auschwitz, on 147 trains. Nowhere in German-occupied Europe was the pace of deportations as rapid; nowhere did it begin so late in the war. The operations were personally supervised by Eichmann, who had moved to Budapest for the purpose.

The only remaining Jewish community in Hungary was in Budapest. At this time Himmler, through Eichmann, made an overture to the Allies for a separate armistice and used the Jews of Budapest as bait. In July, the deportations were haltedand in August the Sztojay government was dismissed. There was strong outside pressure on behalf of the Jews brought to bear on the Hungarian authorities, intensified by the deteriorating German war situation and the desire of Horthy to cut a deal with the Allies. Following the surrender of the Romanian government in August, and with the looming approach of the Red Army, Horthy, while negotiating with the Germans, again attempted to begin discussions for an armistice with the Allies. In October, Germany responded by arresting Horthy and installing an *Arrow Cross government. Jews in Budapest were then killed on a daily basis. Jews were sent to the banks of the Danube and shot; more than 70,000 were sent on a forced death march to Austria.

The most extraordinary exception to the bleak picture of the fate of European Jews was the experience of Danish Jews. German-occupied Denmark rescued most of its own Jews, spiriting them out of the country in October 1943 by sea to Sweden. Such an action was possible in part because the German presence in Denmark was relatively small. Also, unlike many other countries where antisemitism in the general population led to collaboration with the Germans, Jews were an integrated part of Danish culture. Danish humanitarianism flourished under these unique circumstances. Unlike other churches, which did not speak out against antisemitism, or the German puppet state of Slovakia, whose president was a Roman Catholic priest who presided over the deportations, the Lutheran bishop of Copenhagen, H. Fuglsang-Damgaard, openly urged Danes to protect the Jews, proclaiming: "Whenever persecutions are undertaken for racial or religious reasons, it is the duty of the Christian Church to protest against it." His protest was all too rare among Christian clergy, Protestant and Catholic, during the Holocaust.

Still, such an action was also only possible because it occurred in 1943, when Germany appeared to be losing the war, and because Sweden consented to receive the Danish Jews. Denmark alone of the German-occupied countries looked after its Jewish citizens once they were deported to a concentration camp, e.g.: Theresienstadt, which had the unique status of being a ghetto, a concentration camp and a transit camp.


Throughout German-occupied territory, the situation of Jews was desperate. They had meager resources and few allies and faced impossible choices. A few people came to their rescue, often at the risk of their lives. The Swedish diplomat Raoul *Wallenberg arrived in Budapest on July 9, 1944, in an effort to save Hungary's sole remaining Jewish community. Over the next six months, he worked together with other neutral diplomats (Charles Lutz of Switzerland and Giorgio Perlasca, an Italian Fascist who pretended to be a Spanish diplomat), with the Vatican, and with the Jews themselves to prevent the deportation of these last Jews. Le *Chambon, a French Huguenot village, became a haven for 5,000 Jews. In Poland, where hiding a Jew was punishable by death, an underground organization, Zegota, rescued a similar number.

In all occupied countries, there were individuals who came to the rescue of Jews, often without assistance, offering a place to hide, some food, shelter for days, weeks, or even for the duration of the war. Most of the rescuers did not see their actions as heroic, but they felt bound to the Jews by a common sense of humanity. (Israel has recognized rescuers with honorary citizenship and the planting of trees at *Yad Vashem, Israel's memorial to the Holocaust; see *Righteous among the Nations.)

German Retreat

The winter of 1942–43 ended the unbroken streak of victories for the German army. Stalingrad was decisive. A Soviet counteroffensive began in November 1942, surrounding the German army of 250,000 troops. By February, German forces were reduced to 91,000 and the Soviet Army went on the offensive. By the end of 1943, the German army was forced to the banks of the Dneiper and by the end of 1944 they were at the borders of eastern Prussia. In January 1945, the Red Army was on the banks of the Oder and from there it launched its final assault on Berlin.

The Allied force under the command of General Dwight D. Eisenhower launched its assault on D-Day, June 6, 1944, storming the beaches of Normandy and securing the beachhead. Two million Allied soldiers invaded France, opening the long-awaited second front. By August 25, 1944, Paris was liberated. France was liberated by the end of the month. The Allies advanced steadily, facing a huge and surprising counterattack in what became the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944. Nonetheless, the Allies forced Germany into a general retreat. By February they were at the Rhine, and in March the Rhine was crossed and Allied troops moved steadily toward Berlin.


In the summer of 1944 the Soviet Army entered Majdanek, and captured it whole. Reports from the camp were carried widely in Western newspapers. W.H. Lawrence, in the New York Times, wrote: "I have just been to the most terrible place on earth." The Germans were determined not to allow the capture of a camp nor of its prisoners. In the winter of 1944–45, with Allied armies closing in, desperate ss officials tried frantically to evacuate the concentration camps and conceal what had taken place. They wanted no eyewitnesses remaining. Prisoners were moved westward, forced to march toward the heartland of Germany. There were 59 different Death Marches from Nazi concentration camps during this final winter of German domination, some covering hundreds of miles. Goldhagen called the death marches the ambulatory analogue of deportation. The Nazis, who had wanted to make Germany judenrein, free of Jews, and had therefore shipped them eastward by train to death camps, were now bringing them back into their borders on foot. The prisoners were given little or no food and water, and hardly any time to rest or take care of bodily needs. Those who paused or fell behind were shot. In January 1945, just hours before the Red Army arrived at Auschwitz, 66,000 prisoners were marched to Wodzislaw, where they were put on freight trains to the Gross-Rosen, Buchenwald, Dachau, and Mauthausen concentration camps. Almost one in four died en route. When they arrived at their destination, the concentration camps of Germany were overwhelmed by the new inmates. The system broke down. Prisoners were not fed, sanitation was impossible, epidemics broke out, and even the dead could not be carried away. Conditions were so catastrophic that some survivors remember that Bergen-Belsen in March and early April 1945 was worse than Auschwitz.

In April and May 1945, the United States and British forces en route to military targets entered the concentration camps from the west and caught a glimpse of what had taken place. Even though tens of thousands of prisoners had perished, these camps were far from the worst. Yet even for the battle-weary soldiers who thought they had seen the worst, the sights and smells and the emaciated survivors they encountered left an indelible impression. At Dachau they came upon 28 railway cars stuffed with dead bodies. Conditions were so horrendous at Bergen-Belsen that 13,000 inmates died after they were freed and the entire camp had to be burned to prevent the spread of typhus. Most of the ss fled Buchenwald before the American armies arrived. The newly freed prisoners, at least those who could still move, greeted entering American soldiers as liberators. The Army had to perform tasks for which they were ill-trained: to heal the sick, comfort the bereaved, and bury the dead. For the victims, liberation was not a moment of exultation. Viktor Frankl, a survivor of Auschwitz, recalled: "Everything was unreal. Unlikely as in a dream. Only later – and for some it was very much later or never – was liberation actually liberating."


It has become commonplace to speak of six million Jewish dead. The number was an estimate derived by a compari son between pre-war and post-war Jewish populations, subtracting from the total those who emigrated to the West or to the East, taking the known numbers of those who were killed in the Nazi death camps and the concentration camps; and those who were casualties of the mobile killing units and those who died in the ghettos of German-occupied Poland. There is considerable discussion and legitimate debate among scholars regarding the numbers killed. Raul Hilberg, the dean of American Holocaust historians, basing his calculations primarily on German documents, estimates the figure of those killed at 5.1 million Jews. The Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, edited by the respected Israeli historian Israel Gutman, estimates the number at 5,596,000 to 5,860,000. Wolfgang Benz, the German historian, estimates the figure of Jewish dead in excess of 6 million. In some countries the figures are known and well researched and the names well documented.

The question of number is illustrated by the history of numbers at Auschwitz. For years the figures varied. Some wrote of four million killed; this was the quasi-official number given by the Communist government of Poland, though not accepted by Western historians. Rudolph Hoess, the commandant of Auschwitz from 1940–43 who also supervised the murder of Hungarian Jews at Auschwitz in 1944, gave two different figures. He wrote: "According to my calculations, at least 2.5 million people were put to death, gassed and subsequently burned there; in addition, 500,000 people died of exhaustion and illness, which gives a total of 3 million victims." He later repudiated these figures, claiming that he received them from Adolf Eichmann. The figure he later reported was 1.13 million, one virtually identical with the figures of Jews deported to Auschwitz.

In post-Communist times, Fraticek Piper, the respected chief historian of Auschwitz, undertook painstaking historical research by triangulating the figures, detailing the number of inmates who arrived at Auschwitz, the number of those shipped from Auschwitz elsewhere and the number who remained in the camp. He thus had a clear picture of the numbers who were killed at Auschwitz and their nationality, for nine out of ten of those killed at Auschwitz were Jews, but Roma and Sinti – gypsies – and Soviet pows and Poles were also killed at Auschwitz. Piper calculated that between 1.1 and 1.3 million people were killed at Auschwitz, the epicenter of the Holocaust. Ninety percent were Jews.

Until recently, historians cited 600,000 as the number of Jewish victims killed at the Bełżec death camp. This estimate was based on the pre-war population of Jewish communities thought to have been transported to Belzec and is too high, because it does not account for large numbers of Jews murdered in the ghetto deportation operations or shot in other locations because transport to Belzec was too difficult.

To date, only one known document, a report from the coordinator of Aktion Reinhard, Höfle, to Eichmann at the rsha in Berlin on January 11, 1943, gives an exact figure of Jews killed in Bełżec: 434,508. As it has been confirmed by direct perpetrators that in Belzec there was no detailed count of victims and even some transports could not be included in Höfle's count, the Bełżec Memorial estimates that the actual death toll for Jews at Belzec may have been as high as 500,000. Groups of non-Jewish Poles and Roma and Sinti were murdered at Belzec death camp, too. Their number, according to testimonies of various witnesses, could range from some dozens to some hundreds. There were only two known survivors of Belzec.

There is one figure that is unknown and perhaps unobtainable, even to the most dogged of researchers, and that is the number of Jewish dead within the Soviet Union. One has difficulty going from the pre-war 1939 census to the post-war population because the Soviet Union did not take a 1949 census; it delayed it by another decade and thus there is a twenty year span to evaluate the Jewish population. From the discrepancy between 1939 and 1959 statistic, one must subtract the natural deaths during a span of two decades, those who died in the war, in Stalinist purges, and in the Holocaust. An estimated figure has to be correlated with the Einsatzgruppen Reports and their activities to arrive at their conclusions.

For fifty years, Yad Vashem has undertaken to compile a list of the Jews who were killed in the Holocaust one by one, affidavit by affidavit signed by a witness or by a relative of those who were killed. The list of names is contained in a haunting memorial room at the end of its permanent exhibition and is available on line to those who surf the internet. More than three million people have been identified by name, one by one by one. It reinforces a truism that people are not numbers, not statistics, but individuals whose lives were ended, whose narratives were prematurely concluded by killers.

[Michael Berenbaum (2nd ed.)]