Holocaust (a program of genocide pursued by Nazi Germany during World War II to rid Europe of Jews and others leading to the murder of eleven million people including six million Jews) refers to the systematic killing of almost six million Jewish men, women, and children by the German government under approval of German dictator, or ruler, Adolf Hitler (1889–1945). Hitler directed this massive and centrally organized plan of murder during World War II (1939–45). World War II was a global conflict between the Axis powers of Germany, Japan, and Italy, and the Allied powers led by Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union. Hitler intended to racially purify Germany by ridding nation of its Jewish population in addition to Roma (Gypsies), ethnic Slavs of eastern Europe, and others considered undesirable. Race refers to a segment of the world's population that is socially identified by certain physical characteristics, usually skin color but also hair texture, eye shape, or some other physical trait.
For Germany, a primary goal of the war was the extermination of all Jews in Europe. The Holocaust lasted from 1933 to 1945, with the most intense activity occurring in the war years between 1942 and 1944. The killing was carried out using the most advanced technology available to kill as many people as possible. As stated by author Martin Gilbert in his 1986 book The Holocaust: A History of the Jews of Europe during the Second World War, the German leaders referred to the mass murder of Jews as "the final solution of the Jewish question."
The term holocaust is derived from the Greek word holokauston that refers to a sacrifice, burned in whole, to God. The word was used since the late nineteenth century to describe major disasters. However, since World War II the term has been solely associated with Nazi (a political party in Germany more formally known as the National Socialist German Workers' Party led by Adolf Hitler from 1920 to 1945) Germany's genocide of Jews since the dead bodies were burned in whole in crematoriums and open fires. Genocide is a planned, systematic attempt to eliminate an entire targeted group of people by murdering all members of that group.
Long-standing prejudice (a negative attitude towards others based on a prejudgment about those individuals with no prior knowledge or experience) against the Jews allowed Hitler and the Nazis to pursue the Holocaust. Prejudice against Jews extended back for centuries in ancient Europe. This prejudice, both religious and racial forms, became known as anti-Semitism (prejudice against members of the Jewish faith). The term "Semites" comes from a biblical term referring to ancient peoples of the Near East, including early Israelites, who spoke languages related to Hebrew. Even though Semites included Arabs and other peoples besides Jews, in modern times anti-Semitism refers specifically to prejudicial attitudes against anyone of the Jewish faith. Jews who had converted to other religions and no longer practiced Judaism were still victims of anti-Semitic prejudice.
WORDS TO KNOW
- Prejudice against members of the Jewish faith.
- concentration camp:
- A location set aside to hold detainees, such as prisoners of war, refugees, or political prisoners, usually in crowded conditions.
- crime against humanity:
- A criminal offense in international law that refers to murderous actions on such a large scale that it affects the global population as a whole.
- A deliberate destruction of a political or cultural human group.
- A program of genocide pursued by Nazi Germany during World War II to rid Europe of Jews and others, leading to the murder of eleven million people including six million Jews.
- A political party in Germany more formally known as the National Socialist German Says Workers' Party led by Adolf Hitler from 1920 to 1945.
- A negative attitude, emotion, or behavior towards individuals based on a prejudgment about those individuals with no prior knowledge or experience.
- A person or people blamed or punished for the things done by others.
A basic goal of the Nazi Party was promotion of a pure German race they considered superior to all others, the Aryans. Aryan race refers to people living mostly in northern Europe. They are characterized as tall, blond, and blue-eyed. Though no such thing as an Aryan race actually exists, Hitler promoted it as the master race with the Germans at the top.
The Holocaust represents to the world the utter depths to which humans can descend in their treatment of others based simply on prejudice as is typical in genocides. Germans referred to Jews as subhumans. Jews were scapegoats, blamed for many of the problems plaguing Germany in the 1930s. Scapegoats are people blamed for the actions of others. Scapegoating is a major factor in most forms of prejudice. The prejudice against Jews became central to German society and governmental actions.
The rise of anti-Semitism
For the past two thousand years since the rise of the Jewish faith, anti-Semitism could be found wherever Jews lived outside the Palestinian homeland located at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea. Anti-Semitism in the early Greek and Roman civilizations focused more on religious prejudice. Judaism was based on the worship of a single God. The other societies had different religions in which they worshiped many gods. Jews were seen as different and disloyal.
Strife between Jews and Christians, followers of Jesus Christ, began not long after the crucifixion of Jesus in about the year 29. With the approval of Jewish leaders, the Roman Emperor killed Jesus, a Jew. By the year 70, Christians, who believed Jesus was the Son of God, were blaming Jews for allowing his death. Jews denied that Jesus was the Son of God, that he was neither a prophet nor divine. Jews believed that God could not be separated into different parts, but is a unified whole. They were called Christ-killers and considered evil.
Jewish-Christian strife continued through the next few centuries as Jews continued to reject the increasingly popular Christian faith. Jewish communities were attacked on occasion. In the predominantly Christian Roman Empire (27 bce–476 ce), which included territories from Great Britain and Germany to North Africa, laws enforced prejudices against Jews by restricting their freedoms, such as living in certain areas or pursuing certain occupations. During the eleventh century, Christian crusaders targeted Jews and murdered thousands of them in the name of God.
Centuries of persecution
During the Middle Ages (from the fifth to the sixteenth centuries), Jews were denied citizenship and rights enjoyed by others in most of Europe. They could not become members of craftsmen guilds. In 1096, open violence against Jews broke out in Europe and the Holy Roman Empire. Jews were required to wear yellow badges identifying them as Jews. Jews in some towns were placed in ghettos, separate from the rest of society. (Ghettos were small, run-down sections of cities where Jews were forced to live, usually behind stone walls or barbed-wire fences policed by armed guards.) This practice of segregation (using laws or social customs to separate certain social groups based on some characteristic, such as race, gender, or religious affiliation) continued for centuries in Europe. In the fourteenth century, Jews were blamed for the plague, a very contagious, usually fatal epidemic disease, which killed millions of people in Europe. The Jews were blamed for poisoning the water wells thus causing the disease.
As commerce (business) expanded in the late Middle Ages, some Jewish businessmen prospered in trade, banking, and financing. These financial successes increased resentment—along with greater prejudice and discrimination—against Jews. They were expelled from England and a growing number of regions in Europe from the late thirteenth century to sixteenth century. Even in Spain, where Jews were numerous and a key part of society, they were expelled in the 1490s. These series of expulsions from Western Europe led to centers of Jewish life shifting to Turkey, Poland, and Russia. Jewish persecutions in Western Europe continued through the eighteenth century. The French Revolution in 1789 finally lessened discrimination against Jews as equality for all was emphasized.
From religious to racial prejudice
With the rise of nationalism in Europe in the nineteenth century, conflicts between countries were largely fueled by racial or ethnic differences rather than religious ones. Nationalism refers to a belief that a particular nation is superior to other nations. Jews began to be persecuted as a race with distinct physical differences, such as facial characteristics or body form, rather than as a religious group. The term "anti-Semitism" was first used around 1873. The new nations sought racial or ethnic purity within their boundaries. Jews were now considered inferior to the Aryan race through propaganda of the Nazi Party as promoted in speeches and books. Anti-Jewish riots called pogroms broke out in western Russia in the 1880s when many Jewish homes were destroyed and their occupants left impoverished, and Jews were restricted in their activities, such as living in rural areas, participating in local elections, or working in certain occupations, such as law practices. These pogroms led to emigration to other countries such as the United States.
World War I (1914–18), fought in Europe, led to many population displacements (being forced to leave traditional homelands). This triggered an increase in anti-Semitism as displaced peoples needed a scapegoat on which to blame their misery. In trying to ease tensions, Britain, which gained control of much of the Middle East from Germany following the war, declared a part of the Palestine area as the Jewish National Home in 1917. It also identified an area for Palestinian Arabs. The action only served to inflame hatreds between the two groups, who both claimed the same sacred grounds.
The Nazis gain followers
The National Socialist Germany Workers' Party, called Nazis for short, came to power in Germany in January 1933 with their leader Adolf Hitler. The strongly nationalistic Nazis offered hope for the German public still suffering under difficult economic conditions that began at the end of World War I. Many experiencing poverty and hunger were angry over their nation's plight. The Nazis promised jobs and food. The Nazi Party was founded on racist ideas that purifying the German population would be a cure for Germany's ills. Hitler had written of the removal of Jews from Germany as early as 1919, right after Germany's defeat in World War I. Others discussed the elimination of what they considered worthless people. The Jews, again made scapegoats, were blamed for Germany's loss in World War I.
Hitler's 1925 epic book Mein Kampf (My Struggle) portrayed the Jews as an evil race that was seeking domination of the world. He praised the virtues of the Aryan race and claimed it was the government's duty to protect the purity of the race. It was the duty of the Germans to rid their beloved country of the evil Jews, according to Hitler. As Hitler began his rise to power, the book became a best-seller in Germany. Jews were portrayed as a race, not a religious group. Even those who had converted to other religions were still considered Jews by German authorities and the public.
Hitler promotes a New Germany
Upon assuming leadership, the Nazis immediately began strengthening political control over the country. Jews were considered the chief enemies of the state. In reaction to the growing anti-Semitism in Germany, many countries boycotted (refused to buy goods or services from a business or country until their demands are met) German goods. On April 1, 1933, the German government responded with a boycott of Jewish-owned businesses. On that day, German soldiers were positioned in front of every Jewish business forbidding anyone from going into the stores and businesses. The boycott further escalated anti-Semitism in the country. Only one week later, Germany passed the first anti-Jewish law, the Law for the Restoration of the Civil Service. Under the law Jews were fired from government positions. In addition, by May the government also restricted the number of Jewish students admitted to German schools.
On May 10 of that year, anti-Semitic violence escalated as thousands of German students, along with many professors, stormed university libraries and bookstores in cities across Germany. In great bonfires they burned books written by Jews and other authors considered non-Aryan. Any books that were critical of Nazi policies were thrown into the fires. One-third of the books in Germany were destroyed. The first concentration camps within Germany were established in 1933, primarily for political prisoners and those considered undesirable because of their ethnic background or disabilities. A concentration camp is a location set aside to hold detainees, such as prisoners of war, refugees, or political prisoners, usually in crowded conditions. These early camps did not include the gas chambers that came into existence several years later.
In September 1935, the Nazi Party at its annual rally in Nuremberg adopted a set of laws that became known as the Nuremberg Laws. One was the Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor. The second was titled the Law of the Reich (German government) Citizen. These laws provided a legal definition of a Jew and an Aryan. They were used to categorize people in German-controlled territories over the next several years. Marriage and sexual relations between Jews and others were prohibited. Jews no longer held political and civil rights. They could not vote or hold political office and had no legal protections. Jews also had to register the property they owned with government authorities. They were now simply subjects of the German state. The categorization of Jews was not based on religious beliefs, but on the number of Jewish grandparents a person had. Any Jewish blood at all meant a person was a Jew.
Alarmed by the formalization of these policies, Jews began seeking refuge (safety) in other countries. However, most countries, including the United States, were not sympathetic to the growing Jewish plight in Germany due to prevalent anti-Semitic attitudes in their own societies as well as not fully understanding the genocide that was developing in Germany. As with other immigrant groups such as Asians, the government set strict limitations on the number of Jews that were allowed to immigrate into their countries. The small Jewish community in Palestine in the Middle East was most willing to accept Jewish immigrants. Many Jews had little option but to persevere through the growing anti-Semitism in Germany.
Violence begins with escalating anti-Semitism
Carefully orchestrated by the German government, violence against Jews erupted on the evening of November 9, 1938, across Germany and German-controlled Austria. Over the next two days, rioters burned or damaged over one thousand Jewish synagogues (places of worship) and damaged almost eight thousand Jewish-owned businesses. Approximately thirty thousand Jewish men between the ages of sixteen and sixty were arrested and sent to concentration camps. This was the first of hundreds of mass arrests of Jews. Around one hundred Jews died from sporadic beatings and shootings. Another two thousand died in the concentration camps over the next three months before their release. Fireman stood by during the riots, primarily making sure fires did not spread to non-Jewish property. The riots became known as Kristallnacht, or the "Night of Broken Glass." Those arrested were released once their families paid a fine.
Three days later, German leaders met to assess the cost of the damage from the rioting. They fined the Jewish community for the damage costs and made them responsible for cleaning up and repairing the damage. Victims were prohibited from collecting insurance payments for their losses. After Kristallnacht the German Jewish population saw there was no hope for them under Nazi rule leading to likely hundreds of suicides. Those Jews who could leave did with some 115,000 emigrating to other European countries or elsewhere including the United States, Palestine, and Asia.
Laws already existed that banned Jews from obtaining college degrees, owning businesses, or practicing law or medicine for non-Jewish clients. New laws were passed following Kristallnacht, restricting Jews from public places such as theaters and public schools and banning the use of radios and telephones. They also had to sit in separate compartments on trains. Confiscation of property, known as Aryanization of the German economy and begun in 1937, continued. By April 1939, almost all Jewish businesses had closed. The closures were especially devastating to Jews because they were, by and large, merchants. They commonly did not work for other companies or people, but worked in family-owned or Jewish businesses. Without this ability, their incomes were virtually nonexistent. By September 1941, all Jews in Germany were forced to wear a yellow star patch on their clothes in public.
Germans were eager to send the Jews elsewhere, even including the prospect of establishing a large reservation (a tract of public land set aside for a special purpose, such as placement of an undesired social group away from mainstream society) in Poland. Other options more distant included the possibilities of creating a state of Israel (new sovereign nation with a biblical name) in the Middle East or shipping the Jews to the large island of Madagascar off the coast of Africa. Poland, however, refused to accept more Jews after November 1939 due to the severe anti-Semitic attitudes there and the British navy blocked the Madagascar option.
The Germans under Hitler made life so unbearable for German Jews that hundreds of thousands decided to leave the country of their own accord. Between 1933 and 1941, the number of Jews in Germany declined from 500,000 to 164,000. Those who left carried with them only suitcases, leaving all else behind. Those who stayed did not think conditions could get any worse. It was difficult for the Jews to anticipate what was coming in the form of the Holocaust and they had few places to go where they were welcomed. Some Jewish parents, fearing the worst, sent their children away on trains, later referred to as orphan trains when the Holocaust claimed the lives of the parents who stayed behind.
Other targeted groups
Others besides Jews who were considered politically undesirable or racially inferior were also targets of Nazi prejudicial policies. These included political opponents, members of the Social Democrat Party, union members, those who refused to serve in Hitler's army, homosexuals, the physically or mentally disabled, and Gypsies.
Around twenty thousand Jehovah's Witnesses (an international religion) were imprisoned because they refused to serve in the military or hold Hitler in great esteem. (Jehovah's Witnesses are members of a religious group who oppose war and preach the imminent end of the world.) Approximately twelve hundred of them died in the camps.
Nazi police raided gay bars beginning in 1933, arresting male homosexuals. Homosexuals would not be contributing to the reproduction of the master race, so they were deemed useless. Nazis also believed homosexuality could be contagious, like a disease. Females were not targeted since they were not considered a threat to future generations of the German race. Many homosexuals were convicted under anti-gay laws and sent to prison. Some were castrated (had their private parts removed). Others were placed in mental hospitals. About fifteen thousand died in concentration camps, where they were forced to wear special yellow armbands and pink triangles to signify their homosexuality.
The mentally and physically disabled were viewed as contrary to Nazi ideas of a master Aryan race. In addition, they posed a burden on society. German leaders believed that eliminating those considered physically or mentally unfit would result in an improved Aryan race. This was the first group to be exterminated (systematically killed) under the 1939 T-4 Euthanasia Program. At first mentally and physically handicapped children were executed by individual lethal injections. Then as the number of victims grew including large numbers of handicapped adults, the Germans began using carbon monoxide gas pumped into rooms referred to as gas chambers. By 1939, six large concentration camps existed where the handicapped were bused. German officials told their families that they were being taken to a place where they would receive improved treatment by the state. Following their execution and cremation, an urn of ashes and a false death certificate were sent to the families. Of course, the ashes were not of the specific individual since the victims were cremated en masse. The practice of extermination using gas chambers and mass crematories began with the T-4 Program. The Germans rounded up the mentally retarded, physically disabled, and others with mental health problems and murdered them in mass numbers. The T-4 Program killed over 200,000 people between 1939 and 1941. Another four hundred thousand were sterilized, or surgically made unable to have children, against their will.
Like the Jews, another group that faced brutal treatment was the Gypsies. (Gypsies, also known as Roma, are people of several different tribes that are believed to have originated in India.) By the end of World War II, around 220,000 Gypsies—almost half of the entire Gypsy population—would be exterminated.
The assault on Polish Jews
As Germany expanded its control in 1938 and early 1939 over Austria, Moravia, and Bohemia (later the Czech Republic), more and more Jews came under German control. On September 1, 1939, the military invasion of Poland, where many Jews lived, brought the Final Solution to the Jewish Question, or what Nazis wanted to do with the Jewish people, to the critical point. (The Final Solution, devised by high-ranking Nazi officials, involved the murder of every Jew in Europe, regardless of age, gender, or social status.) Poland contained most of Europe's Jews, almost five million people. Jews in Poland were less integrated into the general Polish society than in Western Europe and were more readily identifiable merely by their appearance. Many lived in rural communities, spoke Yiddish, and dressed traditionally with beards, hats, and long coats. The same was true of Jews in Russia who had distinctive language, customs, and dress.
Cruelty by Germans toward Polish Jews occurred immediately upon the German invasion. Dehumanizing tactics such as pulling out by hand or setting fire to Jewish men's beards were common. Approximately five thousand Jews were killed in Poland in the first two months of German rule before the later death camps were established.
With a desire to increase the size of Germany, the Germans sought Polish land by first destroying Polish society so that the German army could take control without opposition. The Nazi army rounded up about thirty thousand Polish intellectuals and political figures. Approximately seven thousand of them were eventually killed. Polish political leaders and priests were also captured and killed. Poland was then divided between Germany and the Soviet Union. About two million Jews lived in the part controlled by Germany. German leaders debated ways to rid the region of Jews. Thoughts of shipping the Jews to the southeast coast of Africa proved impractical because there were too many.
On September 21, 1939, the Germans began concentrating Jews into large ghettos located in the oldest and most run-down sections of town where sanitation was very poor. The Nazis selected willing Jews to serve on Jewish councils. They were responsible for governing the ghetto and carrying out Nazi orders. The largest ghetto was located in Poland's capital city of Warsaw and called the Warsaw Ghetto. It contained around 380,000 people, comprising 30 percent of the Warsaw's population. The ghettos were like large crowded prisons, as barbed wire fences surrounded them. Schools and religious practice were banned. From 1940 to 1942, extreme overcrowding led to infectious diseases such as typhoid, malnutrition, and poverty during the bitter cold winters. Approximately sixteen thousand died of typhus in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1941. Death from starvation was also common. Many Jews figured this would be their plight for the remainder of the war.
A decision for genocide
By early 1941, Hitler and German leaders had decided how to eliminate the Jewish population. They chose genocide. Germany began a program of systematically killing Jews in June 1941 when it invaded its former ally, the Soviet Union. Entering the Soviet territory along with the German army were three thousand men who volunteered to serve in special killing units, called Einsatzgrappen. In a July speech, Hitler encouraged the death squads. Following the main army by two or three days, they were responsible for killing all Jews, Gypsies, and Soviet officers in areas captured by the German army. Their general process was to enter a captured town, round up targeted individuals, take them to the edge of town, and shoot them. The bodies were buried in mass graves at the location where they were executed. In some cases, mobile death vans drove around eastern Europe and Russia, with gunmen killing as they went. It was not uncommon for entire rural villages to be executed. During the summer of 1941, around seventy thousand Jews were killed outside Vilna, Lithuania. On June 30, approximately fourteen thousand Romanian Jews were murdered. In two days in late September, almost thirty-four thousand Jews were killed outside Kiev, Ukraine. Another nine thousand were killed in late October in Kaunas, Lithuania. Over twenty-five thousand were killed outside Riga, Latvia, by early December. Altogether, almost two million Jews, Gypsies, and Soviets were murdered. When the Soviets mounted a counterattack, Nazi special units different from the killing units, whose members were volunteers, dug up as many bodies as possible in the mass graves to burn them and destroy the evidence.
During the summer of 1941, the Germans began experimenting with poison gas for mass killings to keep the costs down and to not involve a large number of German troops who were needed at the battle fronts. They used Zyklon-B at the Auschwitz concentration camp in southern Poland, killing 250 hospital patients and 600 Russian prisoners. The experiment was successful and construction of death camps began. Ironically, Zyklon B had been developed by a German Jew during World War I.
Creation of extermination centers
By the fall of 1941, Hitler and Heinrich Himmler (1900–1945) finalized plans for killing Jews in mass numbers. The Jews were now firmly under German control especially since their avenues for flight to other countries were limited. The Germans also sought to rid Europe of Slavs (Polish, Russian, and Ukrainian peoples) as well as Latvians, Estonians, and Lithuanians. The first to die were the political leaders and most educated of these populations who constituted much of the leadership.
Rather than sending out death squads to kill people, the victims would now be transported by train to the seven newly built extermination centers—Auschwitz, Belzec, Chelmno, Majdanek, Sobibor, Treblinka, and Maly Trostenets. All were located in Poland and all were finished by summer of 1942.
Experimenting in Mass Killing
When Germany occupied Belarus during its invasion of Russia in 1942, the Germans began experimenting with captured mental patients on how to most efficiently kill multiple people at once. They would stand victims in a line to see how many could be killed by firing a single bullet. They also experimented with dynamite but this proved ineffective by not killing all the victims immediately. Neither approach proved very effective. In October 1941, Germans began experimenting with carbon monoxide gas, using truck exhaust fumes piped into the back of a truck filled with people. By using bigger trucks they were able to kill larger groups in shorter periods of time. This method led to the creation of gas chambers for use during the war.
The extermination centers were designed to make mass killing most efficient using permanently built gas chambers and adjoining crematoriums to burn the bodies. Gas chambers were disguised as showers. It would take only a small number of camp staff to kill tens of thousands of people a month. Carbon monoxide was first used as the poisoning gas. Later Zyklon-B was used.
Himmler gave the order on July 19, 1942, to begin deporting Jews from the Polish ghettos. Three days later, deportation from the Warsaw Ghetto began. To make the transport of thousands from the ghettos to the death camps go smoothly, the Germans called the process "resettlement" rather than "deportation." They promised more food, warmer clothing, and work. Over the following fifty-two days, around three hundred thousand people were transported by rail to the Treblinka extermination camp from Warsaw.
The Germans kept detailed records of the killings in thousands of reports. Detailed lists of the victims were compiled and their seized personal property was catalogued and tagged. Germans removed gold teeth from the bodies and sorted the clothing, including shoes and coats. Valuables went into special bank accounts or were sold. The overall value gathered throughout the entire Holocaust was $128 million. Women's hair was cleaned and woven into gloves and socks for German submarine crews to stay warm.
Much manpower was dedicated to the extermination program. At the forefront was the special German military force, the SS (abbreviation of the German word Schutzstaffel), led by Himmler. The SS served as guards and killers. The regular German army ran the camps, formed the ghettos, transported prisoners, and supervised slave labor. Those Germans involved in the Holocaust were not only soldiers, but also civilian clerks and officials as well in addition to physicians, a number of ministries, and local police. Citizens of countries occupied by German forces also helped round up and kill Jews.
The process of extermination
The deportations were massive in scale. The Germans used thousands of railway freight cars traveling over hundreds of thousands of track. Up to 130 inmates rode in a single windowless cattle car with no room to sit or lie down for trips that lasted several days. The Germans provided no food, water, or heat. Deportees froze to death in the winter and suffocated in the summer months. In an effort to keep the prisoners disorganized and in shock, German guards orchestrated what appeared to prisoners as a chaotic situation upon arrival of each train at a death camp. The Germans then quickly marched the inmates in large lines, tearing apart families while deciding who would die immediately and who would work in labor camps. The gas chambers were disguised as shower rooms and the victims were handed towels and soap (children received candy), before going in. Therefore, people walked quietly and obediently to their deaths. Once in, the doors were locked behind them and gas piped in. Death occurred within five to forty-five minutes. The bodies were then taken next door to the crematorium to be burned.
Thousands of other concentration and labor camps were built through the German-occupied territories of Europe. Life in these camps was brutal, with torture and beatings routinely carried out. An industry was established at every camp to make use of the slave labor. Private industry, including the companies Siemens, Porsche, and Bayer, would buy inmates for the day. Adult males might cost $3.60, while a child cost 90 cents. The labor camps often had no barracks; workers would simply sleep on the bare ground. They had little to eat and no warm clothing. Fighting was common among the prisoners for items such as a stale loaf of bread, a blanket, or a pair of shoes. When they became too weak or sick to work, they were shot or beaten to death. The death camps themselves were built by slave labor. Inmates were literally worked to death.
Those not killed immediately were shaved of all hair, sent to real showers, sprayed with a disinfectant, and given uniforms of rough cloth and wooden shoes. Each prisoner was assigned an identification number, which was tattooed on the inside of the forearm. Besides Jews wearing yellow patches, prisoners wore color-coded triangular patches. Political prisoners wore red triangles, asocial people (those who did not blend in to German society) black, homosexuals pink, Jehovah's Witnesses purple, and habitual criminals green. They never received a change of clothes and became infested with fleas and contagious lice. Every action of the Germans was designed to break the spirit of the inmates. In barracks, four to five people slept on a single bench level with a mattress of filthy straw on a wooden plank. Buckets served as toilets. Daily roll call occurred at 4:00 a.m., and even those who had died in the night were dragged out to be accounted for. Food usually consisted of watery, saltless soup made with rotten vegetables and spoiled meat, and a few ounces of bread. Hunger was persistent. At some camps, gruesome medical experiments were performed on live victims, such as seeing the effects of freezing to death, testing various drugs, and performing amputations without medication. Some prisoners threw themselves into the electrified fences to give themselves a mercifully quick death. Those few who manage to survive did so through bribery and stealing for extra food and clothing.
Killing by the numbers in Poland
At Auschwitz, between 1.1 and 1.6 million people were killed. The extermination camp of Auschwitz became the most notorious of the camps for the large numbers of people killed there. Around eight thousand innocent people were killed there each day. It was divided into three camps: a prison camp, an extermination camp, and a slave-labor camp. Upon arrival, Jewish prisoners would be sorted into the camps. Pregnant women, handicapped, sick, elderly, and young children were sent straight to the extermination camp for killing. Those who were able-bodied were sent to the labor camp for work at factories built next to the camp to aid the German war cause. Given insufficient food, shelter, medical care, and clothing, the laborers often worked themselves to death. Those unable to work further were sent to the gas chambers. The prison camp was also used for non-Jewish prisoners. Over 200,000 Gypsies were killed at Auschwitz.
The number of deaths also mounted at other Polish camps. Treblinka operated for seventeen months. A staff of 120 killed between 750,000 and 900,000. Belzec operated for ten months and claimed the lives of 434,000 Jews. About 250,000 were killed at Sobibor. When the killings ended at both Treblinka and Sobibor, all traces of the camps were removed and farms were built on the sites.
Twenty-one countries were directly affected by the mass killings. Central and eastern Europe were most affected. Besides Poland in eastern Europe, Germany invaded Hungary (in March 1944). Until then, the Hungarian government had refused to transport its Jews to German camps. However, with the change in government, 440,000 Jews were rounded up for deportation. After being initially confined in ghettos, beginning in mid-May they were transported to Auschwitz. The entire process took less than two months and 147 train trips. In addition to those transported on trains, about 20,000 Budapest Jews were shot on the banks of the Danube River and another 70,000 were sent on a death march to Austria. Along the way thousands died of starvation, exposure to weather, or a bullet to the brain.
Some countries, in support of Germany, did the killings themselves. Among these were Romania and Croatia whose leaders agreed with Nazi policies. Romanians killed up to 380,000 Jews. At one Romanian concentration camp at Bogdanovka, 54,000 Jews were exterminated between December 21 and 31, 1941. The Croatian government killed up to 390,000 Jews.
Other countries tried sending their Jews to safety as quickly as possible when they fell under German control. Denmark did not have a history of anti-Semitism. As a result, it sent almost 7,500 Jews to Sweden in fishing boats in October 1943. Bulgaria also refused to deport the 50,000 Jews living there to German camps as they stayed relatively safely in Bulgaria.
The occupation of France was divided between Germany and Germany's war ally, Italy. The Italians did not pursue mass killing of the four thousand Jews in their region until they themselves were overtaken by Germany. However the French leaders in the German-controlled area, known as Vichy France, assisted in killings.
The final count
It is estimated that between five and seven million Jews were killed, or 64 percent of the Jews in Europe. This amounted to 35 percent of the world's Jewish population. The Germans killed three million Jews in Poland alone (over 90 percent of the Jewish population in that country) and over one million in the Soviet Union. Over 70 percent of the Jewish population was killed in Yugoslavia, Greece, the Netherlands, Hungary, Lithuania, Bohemia, Slovakia, and Latvia. Over 50 percent of the Jewish population in Belgium, Romania, Luxembourg, Norway, and Estonia was killed. Over 25 percent of the Jewish population in France and Italy was killed. Overall some nine to eleven million people were killed including non-Jewish peoples. This included millions of Soviet prisoners and Slavic civilians.
Among the Jews that died, some researchers figured that over 800,000 died in ghettos, close to two million were shot in open areas primarily in 1941 before the death camps were built, and almost three million were killed in the camps.
Unprepared to fight back
Efforts to rescue Jews from the Holocaust were widespread. However, people involved in helping Jews faced death if caught. Some people risked all to aid Jewish families. They generally helped by providing hiding places and food for weeks or longer. Among Germans who sought to save Jews from death was Oskar Schindler (1908–1974), a German businessman who used Jewish slave labor in Poland. He went to great lengths using his exceptional persuasive skills to protect his Jewish workers from persecution.
The Jewish population found it almost impossible to defend itself against the massive German war machine. Overall, the Jews were unprepared and did not anticipate the German plan of extermination. Also, the rapid expansion of Germany into Eastern Europe caught everyone by surprise.
Various factors discouraged meaningful resistance. Jews had no access to arms. They were often surrounded in their own neighborhoods by anti-Semitic people. The Germans continuously disguised what was going on, and they threatened reprisals against people's friends and relatives if they resisted. Deceptions included having prisoners send postcards to friends and relatives upon their arrival at camps.
Jews had known a long history of persecution, yet had always recovered. They never had their own nation or an army, and Judaism discouraged fighting their persecutors. They believed whatever travesty was occurring was God's will and they were martyrs for God. In addition, any form of resistance was essentially suicide against the more numerous, well-armed Nazis and the Jewish faith prohibited suicide.
Fear of imminent death did lead to some acts of organized resistance in ghettos and camps including over one hundred armed uprisings. None of the ghetto uprisings was successful. The largest organized Jewish resistance, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, occurred in April 1943, nine months after the Germans began transporting ghetto inhabitants to Treblinka (see box).
Several uprisings occurred in the Treblinka extermination camp in August 1943, at Sobibor in October 1943, and at Auschwitz in January 1944. Few prisoners found freedom from all the escape attempts in the ghettos and camps. Most of those who did manage to escape were usually captured, killed by anti-Semitic public, or died of exposure in the unforgiving cold of the countryside.
Warsaw Ghetto Uprising
On September 5, 1942, the German military began rounding up to deport the last 115,000 Jews left of the original 500,000 that had been crowded into the Warsaw Ghetto. They shipped out approximately 10,000 people each day. When there were only 42,000 Jews remaining, a rebellion erupted. Jews formed the Jewish Combat Organization (ZOB) and busied themselves digging a network of bunkers and secret passageways in preparation for making a last stand of resistance against the Nazis.
On January 18, 1943, German troops entered the ghetto to round up more Jews for transport and met gunfire. Fifty German soldiers were killed or wounded as they retreated. This initial success by the rebels led to increased support of the ZOB as it grew to include around one thousand members. They even received more weapons from the Polish resistance fighters operating nearby. Meanwhile, the Germans regrouped.
On April 19, two thousand German soldiers with tanks entered the ghetto. After eleven hours of intense fighting they once again retreated. The Germans cut off gas, electricity, and water and began shelling the ghetto with heavy artillery. The fighting continued until May 16 when the ghetto was burned completely to the ground by the Germans, killing all remaining Jews.
A main point of controversy between Western leaders and surviving Jews was the lack of action by Allied forces, even after intelligence information began filtering to British and American authorities about what was occurring as early as 1941. By the end of 1942, knowledge of the use of gas chambers and the Holocaust in general had become clear. The Allies believed that the problem could not be resolved until the war was over. No action was taken such as bombing the camps or railroad tracks used to deliver the victims. Even the German public, aware of mass killing of Jews but perhaps not about gas chambers, did nothing. In effect, they gave consent if not active support. Even the Catholic Church leadership, which had signed an agreement with the German Nazis in 1933 agreeing to stay out of politics in return for freedom of worship for German Catholics, never publicly criticized the mass killings. One reason given was fear of Nazi retaliation against German Catholics. The Catholic Church, which had a long history of anti-Semitism, had supported Hitler's rise to power.
Conclusion of the Holocaust
The extent to which Germans tried to conceal the still ongoing Holocaust toward the end of the war revealed the continued dedication they had to the mass killing of Jews. Even in the last months of the war when the Germans knew their cause was lost, they continued the mass killings and worked hard to destroy the evidence. Special German units dug up mass graves and burned the remains.
By mid-1944, Allied forces were closing in on Germany. In July, advancing Soviet troops discovered the first major camp, Majdanek. Germans frantically evacuated the various camps as Allied forces approached each one. They forced remaining prisoners to march long distances in the winter conditions toward central Germany. Those who could not keep up with the pace were shot. For example, as Soviet troops were approaching Auschwitz in January 1945, the Germans marched 60,000 remaining prisoners 35 miles before boarding them on trains to other concentration camps. Approximately 15,000 died on the way.
American and British forces approaching from the west in spring of 1945 unexpectedly came upon concentration camps. There they discovered gruesome reminders of what had gone on at these camps. At Dachau, the Allied troops found twenty-eight railway cars stuffed with corpses. At Bergen-Belsen, the surviving 60,000 prisoners were in such bad condition that some 28,000 died shortly after being rescued.
At war's end, the Allied forces found between seven and nine million displaced people living outside their home countries. Displaced persons camps were established according to nationalities for Jews and others. Over six million returned to their home countries. However, over one million refugees refused to return. Some refugees had assisted Nazis during the war and feared retaliation if they returned to their communities. Others did not want to return to territories that were now under Soviet occupation and Communist governments (system of government in which the state controls the economy and a single party holds power). For many Jews, there was no home to return to. The communities were destroyed and families eliminated. Few nations were willing to accept them. In addition, physical recovery from near-starvation was lengthy. Over 250,000 remained in displacement camps for years suffering severe psychological effects from the death camps, the horrific conditions, and extensive loss of friends and family.
Increasingly, people looked to the establishment of a Jewish homeland in the British-controlled Middle East region of Palestine. Creation of Israel in 1948 provided a solution to the Jewish refugee problem. The displaced persons camps were finally closed by 1952.
The aftermath of genocide
Not surprisingly, the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust was also a very difficult period for survivors. With millions of families broken apart and whole communities destroyed, the search for friends and loved ones was difficult. For the survivors, the Holocaust was not an experience that could be forgotten. Memories of inmates being humiliated, tortured, and killed remained unspeakable. By the twenty-first century, searchable computer databases contained the names of three million Jewish victims.
A number of courtroom trials were held over the next several decades related to atrocities associated with the Holocaust. One of the more famous was the Nuremburg trials, held immediately after the war in 1945 and 1946. Nuremburg had been the site of Nazi Party rallies through the 1930s. An International Military Tribunal, a military court, was established in August 1945 by Allied forces in U.S.-controlled section of Germany in Nuremburg. It tried twenty-two high-ranking Nazi officials on charges of various war crimes. One newly established type of war crime was called crimes against humanity. These crimes included various inhumane acts against civilians, such as mass murder, extermination, and enslavement. Over five thousand Germans were convicted of war crimes by 1949. The defendants included physicians, judges, commanders of killing squads and concentration camps, German military leaders, and business leaders who made profits from slave labor. The trials brought the Holocaust to the attention of the world.
As a result of the Holocaust, human rights international law grew. The United Nations adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in 1948. The Holocaust trials, which continued through the remainder of the twentieth century, also set a precedent for future war crimes trials conducted by international tribunals, such as cases involving atrocities in Bosnia and Rwanda.
The return of property taken by German authorities from Jewish people during the war was a major issue that continued to be debated into the twenty-first century. For example, in the late 1990s, the world learned that Swiss bankers had received gold and other valuables from the German Nazis and kept it. International criticism of Switzerland led to a backlash of anti-Semitic sentiment in the country.
The fall of the eastern European Communist governments in 1990 opened new avenues for tracing seized property. Legal struggles over pieces of seized artwork that had been sold and resold developed in several countries. In addition to the recovery of seized property, the German government established a special fund to compensate with payments those who had been subjected to slave labor during the war. However, the funding proved difficult to raise among German companies and the government.
Tributes to Holocaust victims
Following the war, Germany was divided into two parts, one occupied by the Allied forces and the other occupied by the Soviet Union. This partition into West and East Germany lasted the next several decades. Following the reunification of the two sections of Germany in the 1990s, the German parliament voted in 1999 to build a Holocaust memorial in the capital of Berlin.
Pope John Paul II (1920–2005), the first and only pope from Poland, witnessed the Holocaust as a youth. He improved relations between followers of Judaism and Catholicism and became the first pope to visit a Jewish synagogue in 1986. While visiting Israel in 2000, Pope John Paul asserted that anti-Semitism was anti-Christian.
By late 2005, about 120,000 Holocaust survivors still lived in the United States. The Los Angeles area included around 10,000, one of the largest survivor groups in the world. They formed The 1939 Club, a reference to the year Hitler invaded Poland and the mass killings began. The club meets regularly and develops its own educational programs to combat anti-Semitism and donates money to other organizations that also pursue similar goals.
By the twenty-first century, a major issue arose when some public figures claimed the Holocaust never happened or was not nearly as severe as commonly portrayed. These included Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (1956–), who made threatening statements about the continued existence of Israel in 2006. This attitude, known as Holocaust denial, had originally surfaced in the 1960s in France. At the time, oral history projects were busy recording the memories of Holocaust survivors for future generations. Holocaust denial was labeled as another form of anti-Semitism. Several countries made the public expression of Holocaust denial a crime, including France, Poland, Austria, Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, and Romania.
To keep alive memories of the Holocaust, in November 2005 the UN General Assembly designated January 27 as the International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust. This date commemorated the day in 1945 that the remaining inmates of Auschwitz were liberated by Allied troops.
Interest in the Holocaust continued into the twenty-first century. Besides continuing as a major influence on art and literature, two major movies were released in the 1990s that kept the issue at the public forefront: Schindler's List (1993), which offered a fictionalized account of Oskar Schindler's life, and Life Is Beautiful (1997), a foreign language romance that won three Oscar Awards. The number of memorials and museums continued to grow. Built in 1993, the United States Holocaust Museum on the Mall of Washington, D.C., serves not only as a memorial to the Holocaust victims, but as a center for public interpretive displays and resources for the study of the Holocaust. The public still wondered how so many seemingly reasonable and educated people could obey such immoral orders in the mid-twentieth century.
For More Information
Altman, Linda J. Hitler's Rise to Power and the Holocaust. Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow, 2003.
Frank, Anne. The Diary of a Young Girl. New York: Doubleday, 1995.
Friedlander, Henry. The Origins of Nazi Genocide: From Euthanasia to the Final Solution. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995.
Gilbert, Martin. The Holocaust: A History of the Jews of Europe during the Second World War. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1986.
Levi, Primo. Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity. New York: Collier Books, 1993.
Sereny, Gitta. Into That Darkness: An Examination of Conscience. New York: Vintage Books, 1983.
Holocaust Survivors. http://www.holocaustsurvivors.org/ (accessed on November 29, 2006).