The Holocaust, or Shoah*, was the systematic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of approximately six million European Jews by Nazi Germany and its collaborators. Holocaust is a word of Greek origin meaning great destruction by fire. Shoah, the Hebrew word for “catastrophe,” is sometimes the preferred term to refer to the near total destruction of European Jewry. (Some Yiddish speaking survivors of the Holocaust use the term Hurban or Churben.*)
Some scholars argue that other groups of people were targeted by Nazi Germany because of their perceived “racial inferiority” – Roma (Gypsies), the disabled, and some Slavs (Poles, Russians and others) should be included in the definition of the Holocaust. Other groups were persecuted on political, ideological, and behavioral bases, among them homosexuals, Communists, Socialists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Some people use the term Holocaust to describe the Nazi mass murders of some ten to eleven million civilians and prisoners of war.
During the 1920s and 1930s in Europe, an aggressive anti-Semitic nationalism emerged that made racial and social claims of Jews being inferior and a dangerous, alien threat to Germany’s “racial purity and superiority.” This nationalism translated into political strategizing to limit and plunder Jews economically and distance Jews from public life. In 1933, under the leadership of Adolf Hitler, the National Socialist (Nazi) party was elected to power in Germany. Racial anti-Semitism became the official ideology and policy of the German regime. Laws were passed to demean and exclude Jews from public life. In 1938 an organized anti-Semitic campaign, known as Kristallnacht, took place that included destroying synagogues, burning Jewish books, mass arrests, and destroying and looting of Jewish-owned businesses. Jews were required to register their physical properties in preparation for eventual confiscation.
German Jews were encouraged to emigrate during this time (though prevented from taking many of their financial or material resources with them). While many Jews managed to leave, many were not able to do so because so many countries were unwilling to accept Jewish refugees.
World War II Atrocities
September 1939 – May 1941
After Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939 and war was officially declared, the option of Jewish emigration from Germany was halted. The Nazis proceeded to invade and conquer one European nation after another (Poland, Ukraine, Italy, France, Belgium, Holland, etc.). As more Jewish populations fell under their control, Germany segregated, stigmatized and dehumanized Jews by moving Jews into ghettos. Great numbers of Jews perished in ghettos because of impossible living conditions (density in residential quarters, of lack of food, sanitation, heat etc.). Jews starved, succumbed to disease or were shot. Great numbers of Jews were also sent to concentration camps during this time and compelled to do forced labor. Conditions in the camps were horrendous (lack of food, impossibly difficult labor, torture, disease, etc.), and vast numbers of Jews were either killed outright, or died of starvation or disease.
June 1941 – May 1945
After the German invasion of the Soviet Union (Operation “Barbarossa”) in June 1941, special task forces known as Einsatzgruppen (mobile killing units), were formed to follow behind the German army and exterminate Jews, Roma, and political officials (Soviet state and Communist party. More than a million Jewish men, women, and children, and hundreds of thousands of others were murdered in this manner.
The Nazis’ “Final Solution to the Jewish problem” was developed during the Wannsee Conference in Germany in January 1942. Systematic genocide of European Jews became official policy and plans were made for moving Jews to mass killings centers in Poland. Six extermination camps were established for the purpose of mass execution (there was no labor or production component to these camps, as was common in concentration camps): Birkenau (part of the Auschwitz complex), Chelmno, Sobibor, Treblinka, Majdanek, and Belzec. From April to November 1942 alone (250 days) some 2.5 million Jews were murdered in these death camps.
At this point in the war, many concentration camps which had been set up shortly after the Nazis’ rise to power became mass-murder sites as well. Gas chambers and crematoria were added at camps in Germany, such as Bergen-Belsen and Dachau.
In the final year of the war, with so many German men fighting in other countries, labor to aid the German war effort was desperately needed. Germany was suffering more and more military losses and tried to move as many camp inmates as possible, who were still capable of work, to camps in Germany. Conditions in these German camps towards the bitter end of the war were abominable. Great numbers of prisoners died of starvation, disease and exhaustion.
In the very last months “death marches” took place, the emptying of camp prisoners and relocating them in a desperate attempt to prevent the Allied forces from finding and liberating the victims and witnesses of German war crimes. Many could not survive the death marches due to exhaustion, starvation, exposure to cold, or being shot.
As Allied forces moved across Europe in a series of offensives against Germany, they encountered and liberated concentration camp prisoners, as well as prisoners en route by forced march from one camp to another. The marches continued until May 7, 1945, the day the German armed forces surrendered unconditionally to the Allies. For the western Allies, World War II officially ended in Europe on the next day, May 8 (V-E Day), while Soviet forces announced their “Victory Day” on May 9, 1945.
After the War
By 1945 most of the Jews of Europe were dead. The crimes committed by Nazi Germany and its collaborators during the Holocaust devastated most European Jewish communities and entirely eliminated hundreds of Jewish communities in occupied Eastern Europe.
The survival rate of Jews varied by country. In a few places, such as Italy, France, Denmark, and Bulgaria, most Jews survived (there were strong grass-roots resistance movements or government opposition to Nazi demands in these countries). However, the Jewish populations of most European countries were decimated, including Poland, Germany, Slovakia, Holland, Hungary, Greece, Yugoslavia, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.
In the aftermath of the Holocaust, many of the survivors found shelter in displaced persons (DP) camps administered by the Allied powers. Between 1948 and 1951, almost 700,000 Jews emigrated to the new state of Israel, including 136,000 Jewish displaced persons from Europe. Other Jewish DPs emigrated to the United States and other nations. The last DP camp closed in 1957.
In trials against Nazi war criminals tens of thousands of Germans and their collaborators were tried and sentenced. However, most of the individuals who carried out the atrocities were never brought to justice, even until this very day. In 1960, the Israeli Mossad (the state intelligence service) captured one of the most sought after Nazi war criminals, Adolf Eichmann, in Argentina. (Eichmann facilitated and managed the logistics of mass deportation of Jews to ghettos and extermination camps in German-occupied Eastern Europe.) He was brought to Jerusalem where he was tried and sentenced to death.
* The Holocaust (from the Greek ὁλόκαυστος holókaustos: hólos, “whole” and kaustós, “burnt”) also known as Shoah (Hebrew: השואה, HaShoah, “the catastrophe”; Yiddish: חורבן, Churben or Hurban, from the Hebrew for “destruction”).
If you are interested in have a local Phoenix speaker, click here to see the variety of options offered.