The term holocaust, derived from the Greek and literally meaning “a sacrifice totally consumed by fire,” refers to the Nazi incarceration and extermination of approximately 6 million European Jews and a million others, including half a million Gypsies, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Freemasons, resistants from occupied countries, and Russian prisoners of war plus miscellaneous others such as a few U.S. soldiers. The Nazi term was the “Final Solution to the Jewish Problem.” In modern German history anti- Semitism has waxed and waned, but in the 20th century before 1933 it was less acute than elsewhere in eastern Europe. However, for Adolf Hitler anti- Semitism was a core belief.
From 1933 to 1939, Hitler imposed mounting persecution on Germany’s Jews (defined both religiously and racially), who made up less than 1 percent of its population. They were forced to wear a yellow star and progressively lost jobs, rights, and citizenship. The first concentration camp, at Dachau near Munich, opened in March 1933. Initially, inmates were political opponents: communists, socialists, liberals, and some clergy as well as prominent Jews. From 1938 on, the percentage of Jewish inmates grew. In these years, too, those deemed physically, mentally, or emotionally unfit for the “Master Race,” especially children, were registered, sterilized, and from 1938 on killed. The “euthanasia program” developed murder techniques, such as mobile killing vans and mass gas “showers,” that were later used on a large scale.
Many German Jews assumed this was simply another periodic spate of anti-Semitism. Others tried to flee. Some succeeded, but moving to western Europe proved futile in the end. Emigration to Palestine was restricted because of Jewish-Arab tension there and British need for Arab support if war came. Emigration elsewhere was limited by anti-Semitic officials and high unemployment owing to global depression.
When Hitler conquered Poland in 1939, Jews in western areas were forced into a central area not annexed by Germany. They faced random, unpredictable shooting sprees by Nazi paramilitaries. During the next year they were forced into ghettos, often the old Jewish ghettos liberated in the 19th century but now greatly overcrowded by a much-increased population. They were locked in at all times, guarded, and given starvation rations. These were supplemented by smuggling, chiefly by children, who could slither through cracks and pipes. Ghetto inmates hoped in vain that their slave labor would spare their lives.
The Nazis created a Jewish council (Judenrat) to administer each ghetto. To avoid riots, the Nazis assured deportees they were to be “resettled” in the east. Jewish ghetto leaders varied in quality and in approaches to their jobs, but all aimed to save or prolong lives. The ghetto system created in Poland was gradually extended through other eastern European areas Germany conquered.
After Germany conquered Norway, Denmark, the Low Countries, and France in the spring of 1940, Jewish inhabitants were registered, assigned yellow stars, and subjected to harsh measures. Many Norwegian and most Danish Jews escaped to neutral Sweden. In France and the Low Countries, however, roundups in 1942 sent most Jews to transit camps to await deportation eastward. Meanwhile, Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 led to the use of mobile killing vans or, more commonly, troops in mobile killing squads who ordered Jews to line up, dig a trench, and strip; the troops then shot them so they fell into the graves they had dug.
Plans for more systematic extermination of Europe’s Jews proceeded in late 1941 and early 1942. The first death camp opened at Chelmno in December 1941. The first gassing experiments occurred in September 1941 at Auschwitz, where there were old Austrian army buildings as well as new construction. As the system developed into more than 9,000 installations, three types of camps emerged: transit camps (temporary holding pens); concentration and/or labor camps, where German firms used slave labor; and extermination camps, the last all in Poland. Though inmates died in ghettos and other camps of disease, starvation, execution, and despair, the six extermination camps were death factories whose administrators dealt with such problems as how to kill more people faster and how to dispose of bodies. Gassing with Zyklon B in mass gas chambers and burning bodies night and day in crematoria or in outdoor pits were the usual solutions.
Some camps served more than one purpose. The vast Auschwitz-Birkenau-Buna complex encompassed both a death factory and a labor camp for industrial purposes. Theresienstadt (Terezin) in Czechoslovakia was a ghetto, a supposedly “model” concentration camp twice visited by the German Red Cross and a transit station en route to Auschwitz. From 1942 into 1944 Jews were shipped across Europe to camps in the east. They were crammed standing up in freight cars without food, water, or lavatories for a trip of several days. Some died or went mad en route.
Upon arrival at a camp, if not immediately sent to die in the “showers,” dazed Jews were deprived of their possessions, clothes, hair, and identity. They were issued a striped uniform with a number and a badge—yellow stars for Jews and otherwise triangles: homosexuals pink, political prisoners red, criminals green, and Gypsies brown. Existing in rough barracks on starvation rations, prisoners worked in manufacture for leading German firms or in pointless projects such as hauling boulders up steep hills to roll them down. Some were subjected to unethical medical experiments, often senseless. In time most died or were killed.
The Nazis wasted nothing from those who died or were gassed. Hair was woven into cloth, gold teeth were extracted from corpses, bones and ashes became fertilizer, and fat was used for soap or to fuel outdoor fires. Tattooed skin was favored for lampshades; other skin became bookbindings and purses.
Resistance was almost impossible but occurred, nonetheless, usually when hope and dependent relatives were gone. Inmates worked slowly and badly with some sabotage. Some tried to escape, and a few succeeded. Some chose their own death on the electrified fences surrounding the camps. Most camps had an underground organization. Plans for rebellion were made in many camps and were realized in six; the prisoners succeeded in closing Sobibor and Treblinka.
In eastern Europe, Jews who had evaded initial registration and roundups fled to the forests and formed partisan bands. Usually strained relations with national underground movements meant scanty armaments, but they fought the Germans, engaged in sabotage, and provided potential havens for escapees from ghettos and camps. In the ghettos, smuggling, illegal education of children, and carefully hidden documentation of Nazi outrages were common. Though local undergrounds were reluctant to give weapons to those they considered doomed, ghetto revolts were numerous, especially in the smaller ghettos. Of the larger ghettos, Bialystok fought for four days, Vilna achieved an armed breakout through the sewers into the forests, and Warsaw battled German forces from April 19 to May 10, 1942, when about 75 survivors slid forth from sewers.
From mid-1942 on, Jewish leaders in Switzerland and Poland sought to inform the Allies of major aspects of the Final Solution. They succeeded, but much skepticism greeted such startling news on both sides of the Atlantic. President Franklin Roosevelt, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden were sympathetic, but they were preoccupied with the global struggle. Inaction prevented substantive aid. In mid-1943 an emissary of the Polish resistance saw four British cabinet members, including Eden and several top U.S. officials, and gave his own eyewitness account of conditions in the Warsaw ghetto and killing operations at Belzec. As a result, after bureaucratic delays Roosevelt established the War Refugee Board in January 1944. The British government and the State Department were hostile, but the board, with the aid of neutral states, distributed valuable neutral passports to Jews and sponsored the important rescue efforts of Swedish banker Raoul Wallenberg, among other activities. It saved perhaps 200,000 Jews.
Ordinary individuals played a role as well. In both Germany and occupied Europe, some abetted the Nazis, most avoided the issue, and a few helped Jews. In Germany, devout Christians, lay and clerical, Catholic and Protestant, engaged in acts of protest and resistance. There and in occupied nations, individuals hid Jews, provided false papers, and proffered food. Many a Jew with false papers in occupied Europe was vouched for to Nazi police and paramilitaries as a long-time neighbor by total strangers. Others escaped in priests’ robes, although the Vatican made no overt statement. At war’s end, a startling number of Jews emerged from hiding in Berlin’s workingclass districts.
Jewish leaders outside occupied Europe sought the bombing of Auschwitz’s gas chambers. By mid-1944 this was possible, if difficult, from Italy. Churchill and Eden ordered it, but Foreign Office and Air Ministry officials delayed and obstructed. Equally, in the United States, the War Department (then home of the air force) opposed diversion of resources, though the United States bombed Auschwitz’s factories repeatedly. Thus, nothing was done to prevent extermination, and Jewish representatives were told that a speedy military victory was their best hope of deliverance.
Though many lives could have been saved, the Holocaust was by then winding down. Its peak years were 1942–44, though many died later as well as earlier. By late 1944 many countries seemed largely Judenrein (cleansed of Jews); in late November killing at Auschwitz was ordered stopped, and the gas chambers and crematoria were destroyed to hide evidence of mass murder. The easternmost camps were emptied out, followed by others as the Soviet army approached, and those still alive were sent on diffi- cult, wintry forced marches westward. The Red Army liberated Auschwitz in late January 1945 before its destruction was complete. In the west, Anglo-American troops similarly liberated concentration camps in the spring of 1945.
Once healthy, most survivors headed to Palestine, North America, or western Europe. The Holocaust provided the primary impetus for and the parameters of the United Nations’ Genocide Convention passed in 1946. It also contributed an emotional and political pressure toward the creation of Israel in 1948. In Germany and Austria, Poland, and the Baltic states, 90 percent of the Jews had died; the percentages were somewhat lower elsewhere. In all, the Holocaust destroyed two-thirds of Europe’s Jews, who amounted to one-third of the world’s Jews, and wiped out a distinctive eastern European culture dating from ancient times.
- Berenbaum, Michael. The World Must Know. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1993;
- Marrus, Michael. The Holocaust in History. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1987;
- Yahil, Leni. The Holocaust: The Fate of European Jewry, 1932–1945. Ina Friedman and Haya Galai, trans. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.