The HolocaustReturn to Primer Index
The Holocaust was the systematic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of roughly six million Jews and five million others- including Roma/Sinti, political opponents, Slavic people, homosexuals, Freemasons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses- by the Nazi regime, its allies, and collaborators between 1933 and 1945. The word “holocaust,” originating from the Greek holokausten meaning “a thing wholly burnt,” referred to burnt sacrificial offerings during religious practice, but gained an additional meaning of “the destruction of a large amount of people” starting in the late 17th century. The term was adopted in the 1960s within the Western-speaking world to refer to the genocide of European and North African Jews during WWII alongside the Biblical Hebrew word “Shoah,” or “catastrophe,” adopted in 1957 and still used in various countries around the world today.
According to Nazi ideology, the Western world and in particular the German race, was made weaker by the presence of Jewish people within German society and culture. It was Nazi leader Adolf Hitler’s desire to rid Germany of this “Jewish influence,” and so embarked upon a campaign of genocide against the Jewish population of Germany that spread with WWII to encompass most of the continent of Europe and parts of North Africa. This prosecution began with the social and physical isolation of Jewish people from the rest of the German population as well as state-sponsored humiliation campaigns which escalated into pogroms and attempts at forced deportation of foreign Jews living in Germany. Jews were stripped of their rights, liberty, livelihoods, and citizenship. In a speech to the Reichstag in January 1939, Hitler promised, “the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe,” if there were to be a second World War – plans for which must have been well underway considering the German occupation and annexation of Austria and Sudetenland in 1938, and the subsequent invasion of Bohemia and Poland in March and September of 1939.
Nazi occupiers wasted no time in extending German measures against Jews into occupied countries; October 1939, only a month after the beginning of WWII, saw the creation of the first Jewish ghetto in Piotrków Trybunalski, Poland. Ghettoization and concentration continued throughout the early 1940s, affecting millions of Jews from both Eastern and Western Europe who were forced from their homes, sometimes hundreds of miles away, to live in squalid conditions with little food, shelter, or medical care and subject to constant persecution, torture, and murder. Millions more faced immediate execution in the “Holocaust by bullets” campaign of the Einsatzgruppen, which followed the Wehrmacht along the Eastern front targeting the Jewish population of Eastern Europe. Gradually, deportations began from the ever-expanding system of concentration camps and ghettos to the six Extermination camps in Nazi-occupied Poland – the most well-known being that of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Killings would continue in this manner until the end of the war and the liberation of the camps in 1945, though the trauma of genocide and persecution still affects survivors and their families to this day.
After Austria was annexed to Germany in March 1938, the Polish government was afraid the approximately 20,000 Austrian Jews with Polish citizenship would flee back to Poland. It thus suspended the validity of all Polish passports whose holders had been abroad for more than 5 years. This law took effect on 31 March 1938, but it was only after the Munich agreement that a decree was issued allowing the passports of all Poles living abroad to be checked. After 31 October 1938 the holders of Polish passports issued abroad were only allowed on to Polish territory if their passports contained a special note made by Polish consulates. In this way, most of the 50,000 Polish Jews settled in Germany would lose their state citizenship overnight.
After German-Polish talks failed, the German Foreign Ministry handed over the whole affair to the Gestapo, which on 27 October 1938 started forcibly deporting Polish Jews over the Polish border. In some places only the men were deported, since the Nazis expected they would be joined by their wives and children all the same, while in other places the women and children were deported as well. Those arrested included old people, some of whom died during deportation. There were also suicides. The arrested Jews were forced, through threats and violence, to illegally cross the border with Poland. In all, approximately 17,000 people were expelled in this way. However, the Polish authorities refused to accept them, and so most of them had to live for many long weeks in no man’s land, or the Polish border area. In most cases they were driven into the surroundings of the Polish towns of Zbaszyn and Bytom. In Zbaszyn, according to various sources, between six and ten thousand Jews gathered in the space of a few days. A large refugee camp was created in Zbaszyn, with help from Jewish aid organisations. The personal freedom of the refugees was restricted. It was not until the end of November 1938 that the Polish authorities decided to disband the camp and allow the refugees residency in Poland. With the help of Jewish communities and organisations, many of them managed to arrange travel visas and to leave the country, or to settle in Poland. After talks with the Polish authorities, the Nazis allowed the temporary return of a small group of men so that they could put their affairs in order in Germany. Finally, the Polish authorities also permitted the arrival of the family members of Jews expelled at the end of October 1938.
The case of the Polish Jews expelled from Germany shows that Jewish refugees were having more and more difficulty finding a refuge from persecution. Not only Poland, but other countries were closing their borders in an effort to prevent a flood of Jewish immigrants.
Beginning in 1939, Jews throughout German-controlled Poland were forced to move into ghettos—specific areas of cities and towns that were separated from the rest of the population. Jews had to leave behind their homes and most of their possessions when they moved to ghettos; while families were generally able to stay together, space was crowded, with multiple families sharing one apartment. In Warsaw, Jewish resident Chaim Kaplan wrote in his diary, “We have entered into a new life, and it is impossible to imagine the panic that has arisen in the Jewish Quarter. Suddenly we see ourselves penned in on all sides. We are segregated and separated from the world and the fullness thereof, driven out of the society of the human race.”
The ghettos created by the Nazis were not the first in Europe: the term ghetto actually originated in Venice, Italy, where Jewish homes and businesses were confined to a designated part of the city beginning in 1516. Over the next 200 years, rulers in Rome, Prague, Frankfurt, and other cities also established ghettos, though by the late 1800s Jews were no longer legally required to live in them. But as the German army conquered territory in Poland and farther east in the early years of World War II, the Germans created ghettos throughout this area; historians estimate that during the war there were more than 1,100 Jewish ghettos.
They were not all alike: some ghettos were tiny, less than the size of a city block, while others, such as the Łódź ghetto, were vast areas almost like small cities themselves. Some ghettos, like Warsaw’s, were sealed off from the outside world by walls, barbed wire, and guards. Others were more open, and Jewish residents were able to leave the ghetto to work, most often as forced laborers for the Nazis or companies that supported the Third Reich. Some ghettos existed only for brief periods of just a few weeks, as places where Jews could be contained before deportation or murder; other ghettos were active for years.
Anxiety about deportation to concentration camps and the struggle to find enough food were part of daily life in most ghettos. In the Łódź ghetto, located in a part of Poland that had been incorporated into the German Reich, residents were particularly isolated from the surrounding population and had to exist on the small rations provided by the Germans. Smuggling of food and medicine—a lifeline for other ghettos—was nearly impossible in Łódź.
Source: Facing History and Ourselves
Concentration CampsRelated Lessons
The term concentration camp refers to a camp in which people are detained or confined, usually under harsh conditions and without regard to legal norms of arrest and imprisonment that are acceptable in a constitutional democracy.
German authorities established camps all over Germany on an ad hoc basis to handle the masses of people arrested as alleged subversives. The SS established larger camps in Oranienburg, north of Berlin; Esterwegen, near Hamburg; Dachau, northwest of Munich; and Lichtenburg, in Saxony. In Berlin itself, the Columbia Haus facility held prisoners under investigation by the Gestapo (the German secret state police) until 1936.
Concentration camps are often inaccurately compared to a prison in modern society. But concentration camps, unlike prisons, were independent of any judicial review. Nazi concentration camps served three main purposes:
- To incarcerate people whom the Nazi regime perceived to be a security threat. These people were incarcerated for indefinite amounts of time.
- To eliminate individuals and small, targeted groups of individuals by murder, away from the public and judicial review.
- To exploit forced labor of the prisoner population. This purpose grew out of a labor shortage.
After Nazi Germany unleashed World War II in September 1939, vast new territorial conquests and larger groups of potential prisoners led to the rapid expansion of the concentration camp system to the east. The war did not change the original function of the concentration camps as detention sites for the incarceration of political enemies. The climate of national emergency that the conflict granted to the Nazi leaders, however, permitted the SS to expand the functions of the camps.
The concentration camps increasingly became sites where the SS authorities could kill targeted groups of real or perceived enemies of Nazi Germany. They also came to serve as holding centers for a rapidly growing pool of forced laborers used for SS construction projects, SS-commissioned extractive industrial sites, and, by 1942, the production of armaments, weapons, and related goods for the German war effort.
Despite the need for forced labor, the SS authorities continued to deliberately undernourish and mistreat prisoners incarcerated in the concentration camps. Prisoners were used ruthlessly and without regard to safety at forced labor, resulting in high mortality rates.
Source: US Holocaust Memorial Museum
A partisan is a “member of an organized body of fighters who attack or harass an enemy, especially within occupied territory; a guerrilla.”
Jewish resistance took on different forms, physical resistance by the partisans was something that hurt the Germans. Spiritual resistance may not have affected the Germans and their collaborators directly, but it was important to the Jews, since the Nazis wanted to take away their dignity and self-respect.
Partisans with ammunition blew up thousands of Nazi supply trains, making it harder for the Germans to fight the war. In Lithuania, Jewish partisans were responsible for significant damage to Nazi trains. Partisans also destroyed numerous Nazi power plants and factories, and focused their attention on other military and srategic targets, rather than on civilians.
The partisans fought and survived by forming organized groups. Compared to the Nazis, they had few arms and little ammunition, but were successful because they knew the lay of the land and how to use the terrain to their own advantage. One partisan remembered that, “In the forest, ten partisans seemed like a hundred to those on the outside.” The Nazis didn’t know what it was like inside the forests and swamps.
The partisans lived there under harsh conditions – without real shelter to protect them from sub-freezing temperatures and storms in the winter, or from heat and rain during other seasons. Medical supplies were scarce, and partisans died from infection and disease spread by lice. Bandages were washed and reused whenever possible.
Most successful partisan activities took place at night, under camouflage of the dark and with the help of the local population. Without the locals who gave them food and information, the non-Jewish partisans would never have made it through the war. Jewish groups had an even tougher time: because vicious antisemitism prevailed even among the locals in some areas, the Jews had to sometimes use force to get supplies and information from them. The partisans begged, borrowed, bribed and stole whatever they needed and did whatever they had to do in order to survive and fight against the Nazis.
As the war progressed, the Allies began to airdrop supplies to the partisans. Many Jewish groups had to fight for the valuable medicine and weapons that came to them via parachute. Radios and communications equipment, along with radio operators and Allied officers, were also sent to the partisans to train and better help with partisan infrastructure.
Source: Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation
Resistance In GhettosRelated Lessons
The term “resistance” when related to Jews and the Holocaust takes on a different meaning than the way most of us understand the term. Jews during the Holocaust were resisting, among other things, isolation, dehumanization, starvation, illness and the “Final Solution” — every single Jew living under Nazi tyranny was sentenced to death. For most Jews, acts of cultural and spiritual resistance were the only possible means to oppose Nazi tyranny. Such acts undermined Nazi power and inspired Jewish hope. However, the risks of resisting Nazi policies were grave; often an act of resistance by one person would mean the death of others. Resistance of any kind during the Holocaust required great courage.
Cultural and spiritual resistance took place within the ghettos, but the extent varied from ghetto to ghetto. Some of the activities were secretive, held at the initiative of underground organizations; they included literary evenings, gatherings to mark the anniversary of a Jewish artist, and concerts. Other examples of resistance included creating schools; printing and distributing underground newspapers; maintaining religious customs; drawing, painting, or secretly photographing observed events; and keeping records of ghetto life and hiding them in the hope that they would be discovered after the war. Such cultural activities helped people temporarily forget the worries of ghetto life and were a source of encouragement. However, there was also criticism; some people argued that these events were inappropriate in a place where so many people were dying every day.
In approximately one hundred ghettos, in Poland, Lithuania, Belorussia, and Ukraine, underground organizations were formed. The purpose of such organizations was to wage armed struggle, that is to stage an uprising in the ghetto or to break out of the closed ghetto by the use of force in order to engage in partisan operations on the outside. In many instances, the two forms combined, the uprising being followed by an escape from the ghetto.
While preparing for armed resistance, secret groups in the ghettos faced extremely difficult problems, such as smuggling arms into the ghetto, training the fighters under ghetto conditions, and establishing a method for putting the fighters on battle alert in case of a surprise action by the Germans. No less difficult was the task of gainins the ghetto residents’ support for the fighting underground.
The largest and most famous single revolt by Jews took place in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in April and May of 1943, led by the Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa (Jewish Fighting Organization; ZOB). In the 27 days that the uprising officially lasted, the Nazis deployed a considerable military force that in the first days of the fighting consisted, on the average, of 2,054 soldiers and policemen and 36 officers. Facing them were 700 to 750 young Jewish fighters who had no military training or battle experience, and who for all practical purposes were armed with not much more than a few pistols. The hand-to-hand combat lasted for several days. The Germans were not able to destroy the Jewish fighters, many of whom managed to get away and retreat over the roofs after clashing with the Germans; nor could the Germans find the non-combatant Jews hiding in the bunkers. Ther Germans decided to burn the ghetto systematically, house by house.
Source: Anti-Defamation League
Resistance In CampsRelated Lessons
In several camps, notably Sobibor, Treblinka, and Auschwitz-Birkenau, Jewish workers whose forced labor assignment was to dispose of (i.e., cremate) bodies of gas chamber victims (Sonderkommando) initiated uprisings. All of these uprisings were brutally put down. In Birkenau all the rebels were killed, but in Sobibor and Treblinka, a small number of prisoners managed to escape during the struggle. The Jewish-initiated uprisings in the camps were the only organized acts of armed resistance carried out against the Nazis in the concentration and extermination camp network.
The revolt in Auschwitz-Birkenau attempted to put an end to the murder by disrupting the operation of the crematoria, and also to create a memory and a testimony to the tragedy of the lives and deaths of the hundreds of thousands of people who were killed there. After writing down and documenting the events, one of the organizers of the Auschwitz-Birkenau revolt buried them near the crematoria.
Source: Anti-Defamation League
Final SolutionRelated Lessons
German term, meaning “action-groups,” that originally referred to Nazi police intelligence units that worked with the German army following the invasion of Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Poland. Later, the term referred to mobile SS killing units that traveled with the German forces that invaded the Soviet Union in 1941.
As Germany prepared to invade the Soviet Union in June 1941, Hitler made it clear to the army that the upcoming war was based on a fundamental conflict between two completely opposing ideologies. It was imperative to destroy those elements that perpetuated the conflicting ideology. Thus, special units called Einsatzgruppen were formed to accompany the advancing military forces. Their job was to search for opponents of the Reich, including communists and all Jews- and execute them.
When Operation “Barbarossa” began, the Einsatzgruppen followed the German army Wehrmacht into the Soviet Union. Four units had been established, Einsatzgruppen A, B, C and D. Each was assigned to liquidate the Jews in its region, and each was divided into sub-units called Sonderkommandos or Einsatzkommandos. These groups did not carry out the destruction of Soviet Jewry alone- they were regularly assisted by other German soldiers, German police units and local collaborators in various locations. By the Spring of 1943, the Einsatzgruppen had exterminated 1.25 million Jews and hundreds of thousands of Soviets, including prisoners of war. The Einsatzgruppen killed their victims-men, women, and children- by gathering them in ravines, mines, quarries, ditches, or pits dug specifically for the purpose. Jews were forced to hand over their possessions and remove their clothing, and were then shot. Their bodies were thrown into ditches. The commanders would file daily reports of these activities.
The constant up-close contact with murder had a terribly destructive effect on the Einsatzgruppen members. This led the Nazis to search for other execution alternatives. Soon the Einsatzgruppen were provided with gas vans for the murder of the reamining Jews.
After the war, leaders of the Einsatzgruppen were tried at Nuremberg and at later trials. Of 24 defendants, 14 were sentenced to death. Only 4 were actually executed; the rest received reduced sentences.
Source: Yad Vashem
As Adolf Hitler consolidated his power at home in anticipation of war, he moved not only against Jews, Sinti, and Roma but also against those Aryans whom he considered “unworthy of life”—people with epilepsy, alcoholism, birth defects, hearing loss, mental illnesses, and personality disorders, as well as those who had vision loss or developmental delays or who even suffered from certain orthopedic problems. Hitler viewed them as “marginal human beings” who had to make a case for their own survival at a time when the nation was preparing for war.
The first to be eliminated were too young to speak on their own behalf. In fall 1938, the parents of a severely disabled infant petitioned Hitler for the right to kill their child. He granted the petition and saw in the request an opportunity to encourage what he called “mercy killings” or “euthanasia.” In fact, according to science historian Robert N. Proctor, the goal was not to provide mercy to the victims but to improve the “Aryan” race and make hospital beds and personnel available for the coming war.
The following spring, Hitler set up a committee of physicians to prepare for the murder of mentally and physically disabled children. Known as the Reich Committee for the Scientific Treatment of Severe Hereditary and Congenital Diseases, the group was told to keep its mission secret.
In addition to the use of drugs, victims were murdered by a variety of other methods, including poisoning, starvation, being left to die of exposure in unheated buildings, and gassing.
The operation was later expanded to include not only children but also teens and adults, and it was given the codename “T-4.” One “euthanasia expert” excused the murders by arguing: “The idea is unbearable to me that the best, the flower of our youth, must lose its life at the front, in order that feebleminded and asocial elements can have a secure existence in the asylum.” Another suggested that a physician’s duty is to rescue the “fit” for the future by weeding out the “unfit” in the present.
Among Germans who knew of the euthanasia program, many supported it. In some cases, the parents of mentally or physically disabled children “were eager to rid themselves of the stigma of having ‘defective children.’” Racial ideology and propaganda in the 1930s had also helped to build support in Germany for eliminating mentally ill adults.
Source: Facing History and Ourselves
Wannsee ConferenceRelated Lessons
The Wannsee Conference, held on January 20, 1942 was called to coordinate the “Final Solution to the Jewish Problem”. As a result, a network of extermination camps was established in which 1.7 million Jews were murdered in 1942-1943.
There is no document in our possession that indicates specifically by whom, at what time, and in what way it was decided to embark on the total extermination of the Jews. Many scholars believe that such an order was never issued in writing: instead, it was given orally, by Hitler, or with his knowledge, in the summer of 1941. On July 31, 1941, shortly after the invasion of the Soviet Union, the Nazi Reichsmarschall Herman Göring ordered Reinhard Heydrich, head of the RSHA, “to make all the necessary preparations… for the Final Solution of the Jewish problem in the German sphere of influence in Europe.”
The first experiment with mass murder by gas was performed in Auschwitz in September 1941. The victims of the experiment were Soviet prisoners of war. The Germans pumped Zyklon B, a cyanic gas, into a sealed room and within a few minutes the victims had all been killed.
On January 20, 1942, a meeting was held in Wannsee (a suburb of Berlin), chaired by Reinhard Heydrich with the participation of 15 officials and representatives of the Reich authorities. At this meeting, the Reich Security Main Office coordinated the extermination plans vis-à-vis the relevant ministries and authorities. Heydrich spoke about the inclusion of 11,000,000 Jews in the Nazi program for the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question.” The minutes of the Wannsee Conference record that: “Due to the war, the emigration plan has been replaced with deportation of the Jews to the east, in accordance with the Führer’s will.”
Source: Yad Vashem
Killing CentersRelated Lessons
To implement the ‘Final Solution’, the Nazis established six purpose built extermination camps on Polish soil. These were:
- Chelmno (in operation December 1941-January 1945)
- Belzec (in operation March-December 1942)
- Sobibor (in operation May-July 1942 and October 1942-October 1943)
- Treblinka (in operation July 1942-August 1943)
- Majdanek (in operation September 1942-July 1944)
- Auschwitz-Birkenau (in operation March 1942-January 1945)
Chełmno was the first extermination camp to be established in December 1941. Its purpose was to murder the Jews of the surrounding area and the Łódź ghetto. The facility contained three gas vans in which victims were murdered by carbon monoxide poisoning. Once dead, the vans were driven to a nearby forest and the victims were buried in mass graves.
After the Wannsee Conference of 1942, the Nazis built additional extermination camps at Bełżec, Sobibór and Treblinka. These camps were specifically built near railway lines to make transportation easier. Instead of vans, stationary gas chambers, labelled as showers, were built to murder people with carbon monoxide poisoning created using diesel engines.
A concentration camp had been established at Majdanek in 1941. In the spring of 1942, following the Wannsee Conference, the camp was adapted to become an extermination camp by the addition of gas chambers and crematoria.
Auschwitz-Birkenau was a complex, consisting of a concentration camp, a forced labour camp and an extermination camp. Eventually it had a network of more than 40 satellite camps. Following tests in September 1941, the lethal gas Zyklon B was selected as the method of murder. Auschwitz initially had one gas chamber at the Auschwitz I camp, but this was soon expanded. By 1943, four new crematoria, with gas chambers attached, had been built in Auschwitz II. Approximately 1.1 million people were murdered in the Auschwitz gas chambers.
Not everyone who arrived at the extermination camps was murdered on arrival. Some were selected for various work tasks to help the camp operations run smoothly. Jobs included sorting and processing the possessions of everyone who arrived at the camp, administrative work and heavy manual work.
The majority of those selected for any kind of work within this type of camp would die within weeks or months of their arrival from lack of food, disease or overwork. Those that survived were often killed after a short period and replaced with new arrivals
Over the course of the Holocaust, more than three million were killed at extermination camps.
Source: The Holocaust Explained, The Wiener Holocaust Library
DP CampsRelated Lessons
After the war, the western Allies established DP camps in the Allied-occupied zones of Germany, Austria, and Italy. The first inhabitants of these camps were concentration camp survivors who had been liberated by the Allies on German soil. Conditions in these camps, especially at the beginning, were very difficult. Many of the camps were former concentration camps and German army camps. Survivors found themselves still living behind the barbed wire, still subsisting on inadequate amounts of food and still suffering from shortages of clothing, medicine, and supplies.
In the DP camps, Holocaust survivors sometimes lived alongside antisemites and individuals who had harmed Jews during the war.
Life in the camps in occupied Germany was regarded by most of the Jewish refugees as a temporary arrangement. They sought to leave Germany, and in many cases, Europe as a whole. Yet despite this, and despite the wretched physical conditions, the survivors in the DP camps transformed them into centers of social, cultural and educational activity.
The survivors found themselves “liberated but not free”. Their starting point was their unique legacy, but their response was a national one.
Due to the establishment in 1948 of the State of Israel and the changes that were made to the US immigration legislation, there were increased opportunities for many of the Jews in the DP camps to emigrate. All the DP camps closed by 1950, except for Föhrenwald, which remained operative until 1957. Most of the displaced persons immigrated to Israel, approximately one third to the US, and several thousand settled in Europe, including in Germany itself, and reestablished communities that had been destroyed in the Holocaust.
Source: Yad Vashem
Finding HomeRelated Lessons
Although liberation brought freedom to those persecuted and imprisoned by the Nazis, it was also a time of confusion and difficulty. Those who had survived the Holocaust had to come to terms with the loss of their family, home, friends, businesses, and belongings. For many, there was nowhere and no one to return to. On top of this, camp survivors in particular also suffered from poor health due to years of malnutrition and poor sanitation. In Bergen-Belsen alone, 13,000 people died following liberation as a result of the conditions in the camp. Liberation marked the beginning of a complex and difficult journey for survivors to reconstruct their lives.
Many survivors wished to emigrate and start a new life abroad. For the majority, this new life was either in Palestine or the United States of America. However, in the immediate post-war period, both of these options were, for the most part, closed to survivors.
Palestine was still under British control until November 1947 (at which time the United Nations voted to split Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state). It was not until 14 May 1948 that the Jewish Agency declared Israel an independent state and mass immigration was permitted. The United States of America continued to operate a restrictive immigration policy in the initial post-war years, which made mass emigration to the country impossible. Between 1945-1948 survivors’ options, then, were limited.
The creation of Israel, in combination with the United States Displaced Persons Act of June 1948 (which allowed the admission of 200,000 European refugees into the United States of America), allowed mass emigration out of Europe and dramatically altered situation for DPs in Germany. By 1951, 177,109 Jews had left Europe for Palestine (through legal or illegal methods) -leaving just 20,000 Jews in Germany.
Source: The Holocaust Explained, The Wiener Holocaust Library