The Holocaust was the genocide (a large-scale massacre of a nation or group of ethnic groups with the intention of exterminating) about 6 million European Jews during World War II, a program of systematic killings supported by the Nazi German state, led by Adolf Hitler, and took place in all areas controlled by the Nazis. Of the nine million Jews who lived in Europe before the Holocaust, about two-thirds were killed. In particular, more than one million Jewish children died in the Holocaust, as well as an estimated two million Jewish women and three million Jewish men.
What is the Holocaust?
The Holocaust (also known as the Shoah) is the persecution and systematic murder of 6 million Jews, organized by the Nazi state and its collaborators from 1933 to 1945.
In addition to committing the genocide of the Jews, the Nazis committed the genocide of the Roma and Sinti. They also persecuted other groups such as: the disabled (T4 program), homosexuals, Slavic peoples, political opponents and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Jewish communities before the Holocaust
In 1939, Jews had been present in Europe for over 2,000 years, and in Germany they represented less than 1% of the country’s total population. Anti-Semitism, hatred of Jews, has existed since the first millennium AD in Europe.
The rise of the Nazi party and its coming to power 1919-1939
After its defeat in World War I (1914-1918), Germany was humiliated and went through an economic and political crisis. This instability facilitated the arrival of the Nazis to power in 1933.
The Nazis are an anti-Semitic and racist party. They classify human beings into two categories: the Aryans (the Germanic people), considered “genetically superior”, and the “inferior races”, made up of Jews, Slavs, Roma and Sinti and blacks. Following this classification, many measures were put in place against Jews in Germany between 1933 and 1939.
On November 9 and 10, 1938, the Nazi state organized a pogrom (is a violent riot aimed at the massacre or expulsion of an ethnic or religious group, particularly one aimed at Jews) against the Jews of Germany and Austria: it was Crystal Night (Kristallnacht). More than 30,000 Jews are sent to concentration camps.
The Second World War
On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland, pushing France and Great Britain, allies of the Poles, to go to war. Germany’s technological superiority gives it victory after less than a month of fighting.
From 1940 to 1941, the Germans attacked and defeated Denmark, Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, France, Yugoslavia and Greece.
Despite a non-aggression pact signed between the two countries, German forces attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941.
The history of the Holocaust is closely linked to that of World War II. This war begins with the invasion of Poland by Germany on September 1, 1939 and ends with the latter’s surrender on May 8, 1945.
The Second World War pitted the Axis powers, namely Germany, Italy and Japan, against the Allies, or the British Empire (including Canada), France, the Soviet Union and the United States (entered the war following the bombardment of Pearl Harbor by Japan in December 1941).
On the European front, World War II ended with the unconditional surrender of Germany on May 7, 1945 to the Western Allies, and on May 9 to the Soviets. The surrender of Japan came on September 2, 1945.
In September 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union invaded Poland and divided it up. Of the 3.3 million Polish Jews, approximately two million Polish Jews come under German control and. 1.3 million under Soviet control. Jews on the German side are sent to ghettos where they often die of hunger, disease and abuse.
Hundreds of ghettos are established across central and eastern Europe. They will facilitate future deportations to the camps.
Following the invasion of Poland by Germany in 1939, approximately two million Polish Jews came under German control.
Almost immediately, Jews are sent to ghettos, which are usually located in poor areas of cities.
Their property is confiscated. The authorities force them to live in these supervised, overcrowded and unsanitary places. Many suffer from hunger, disease, ill-treatment, or have to submit to forced labor. Many of them died there.
The Judenrat (Jewish Council established by the Nazis) is responsible for enforcing the orders established by the Nazis to manage the daily life of the ghettos. The Judenrat tries its best to provide shelter, food, health care and sanitation facilities to an overcrowded, desperate and hungry population. The Council must also provide labor to the Nazi regime and, subsequently, take responsibility for meeting the deportation quotas. Failure to obey the orders of the Nazis leads towards certain death.
Hundreds of ghettos are established across Europe, including more than 400 in Poland alone, such as Lodz or Warsaw. Despite the inhumane conditions to which they were subjected, the populations of the ghettos struggled to meet their physical and spiritual needs, resisting the efforts of the Nazis to dehumanize them. Orphanages, soup kitchens and medical services are set up. Underground schools as well as religious and cultural activities continue, demonstrating determination of Jewish populations to survive.
The Nazis see most of the ghettos as a temporary measure.
In 1944, all the ghettos were liquidated and the rest of the population was deported to concentration or death camps.
Between 1933 and 1945, Nazi Germany established a series of detention centers designed to imprison and eliminate “enemies of the state”. The first camp, Dachau, was built in 1933. The Nazis sent their political opponents and the Jews there, particularly after the Crystal Night. These camps are an important part of the systematic oppression of the Nazi regime. This imposing system is comprised of over 20,000 camps and subcamps ranging from transition and forced labor camps to concentration camps.
Death, disease, famine, overcrowding, torture and unsanitary conditions are part of daily life in concentration camps.
Between 1933 and 1945, Nazi Germany opened more than 20,000 camps and sub-camps in order to lock up “enemies of the state”. Death, disease, famine, overpopulation, torture and unsanitary conditions are part of everyday life. To listen to testimonials from concentration camp survivors.
Transit camps are established in Western Europe. The Nazis guard the Jews there before deporting them east to the death camps.
The deportees were transported in crowded, unsanitary and windowless cattle wagons. They cannot eat or drink and are forced to defecate in their wagon. Many people succumb during transport.
In the early days (1933-1939), most of the people who ended up in the camps were political prisoners and opponents of the regime’s ideologies (such as the Communists and Social Democrats). Later (1936-1942), the concentration camps were enlarged to include apolitical prisoners (Jews, Roma and Sinti, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the disabled, Soviet prisoners of war and any individual considered “asocial” or having behaviors judged to be outside the normal social context).
The “final solution” and the killing centers
The mass murder of Jews began in 1941 with the “Mobile Killing Units” (Einsatzgruppen) which executed 1.3 million Jews in Eastern Europe. Deeming this method ineffective, the Nazi authorities turned to the development of gas chambers.
At the Wannsee Conference on January 20, 1942, Nazi leaders decide on the “Final Solution to the Jewish Problem”. The annihilation of a group becomes official government policy.
For this, the Nazis created 6 killing centers: Auschwitz, Belzec, Chelmno, Majdanek, Sobibor and Treblinka, all located in occupied Poland. 2.5 million people, deported from all over Europe in cattle wagons, are killed in gas chambers.
Jewish resistance and rescuers
Jews oppose the Nazis and their collaborators in ghettos, concentration camps and killing centers to maintain their identity, their humanity and survive.
Thousands of people risk their lives to save Jews, for example: by hiding them or providing them with false documents.
To learn more about resistance during the Holocaust and other genocides, listen to testimonies and discover objects on the subject.
Other governments are also arresting and deporting Jews to killing centers. Some even commit atrocities against their compatriots within their own borders.
It would have been impossible for the Nazis to carry out their plan without help. Other governments also arrest and deport Jews to killing camps and in some cases even commit atrocities against their compatriots within their own borders. This collaboration is an important part of the “final solution”.
Among the collaborators of the Nazi regime are: the French government in Vichy, the Ustasa government in Croatia, the Norwegian government; pro-Nazi units from Lithuania, Estonia, Ukraine, Latvia, Belarus; paramilitary organizations such as the Hlinka Guard of Slovakia, the Iron Guard of Romania and the Hungarian Arrow Cross.
From July 1944 to May 1945, Allied forces liberated the camps as they advanced into the occupied territories.
In total, six million Jews, or two-thirds of Europe’s Jewish population, were murdered.
Allied forces (the Soviet, British, Canadian and American armies) liberate the concentration and killing camps as they advance into German territory from July 1944 to May 1945. The nightmare of war is over, but a new reality brings its share of hardships to Jewish survivors. Six million Jews, or two-thirds of Europe’s Jewish population, were murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators.
Unlike the other released prisoners, most attempts by Jews to reconnect with members of their respective families are unsuccessful. Entire communities are destroyed. Many Jews dispossessed of their homes and possessions have nowhere to go.
International Day of Commemoration in memory of the victims of the Holocaust
The international day dedicated to the memory of the victims of the Holocaust, International Holocaust Remembrance Day is an international day for the remembrance of the Holocaust and for the prevention of crimes against humanity on January 27 each year.
The international day dedicated to the memory of the victims of the Holocaust was established on the initiative of the ministers of education of the member states of the Council of Europe in October 2002 and followed by the United Nations.
By a resolution entitled “Remembrance of the Holocaust” adopted on November 1, 20051, the General Assembly decided that the United Nations would celebrate it every year, on January 27, on the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz camp.
This resolution recalls the rights and freedoms associated with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “without any distinction, in particular based on race, religion or any other condition”, it also recalls the founding principle of the United Nations, whose creation is linked to the defeat of the Nazi regime and “decides that the United Nations will each year proclaim January 27 as the international day dedicated to the memory of the victims of the Holocaust”.
It encourages States to promote educational projects and protect places of memory linked to the Holocaust, it condemns any manifestation aimed at its denial, religious intolerance and finally undertakes to promote a program at the level of the United Nations. In order to perpetuate the memory of the Holocaust and prevent such an event from happening again.
Photo source: Wikimedia Commons
Photo explaination: emaciated (very thin and feeble especially from lack of nutrition or illness) corpses of children in Warsaw Ghetto.