The Holocaust

Introduction to the Holocaust

The Jews of Europe

In 1933, there were roughly nine million Jews living in Europe; less than two percent of the total population. The largest Jewish populations lived in Poland, the western part of the Soviet Union, Romania and the Baltic States. In these areas, the Jews constituted between five to ten percent of the total population.

Children playing in a Jewish neighbourhood in Paris, France, 1931.

Two Jewish men playing chess in Lodz, Poland, 1936.

In Germany, the Jewish population was about 500 000 people, roughly 0.75 percent of the total population.

In many villages in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, Jews lived like their ancestors had done for centuries. They lived in small towns in rural areas, some of which had a Jewish population majority. They often kept their traditional clothing and lived in a strictly religious manner. Some were rich but most were poor. In bigger cities, Jews became more and more involved in the society of the surrounding majority population and, even though some of them maintained a traditional lifestyle, many abandoned the religious life. In Western Europe more and more Jews became assimilated, which meant that they adapted to the societies they lived in. In other words, life for the Jews of Europe could be very different from place to place.

Hitler and Nazi Ideology

After the First World War, Germany lost large areas of land under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. The German state was also forced to pay huge reparations for the damages that the Allies held Germany and countries associated with it responsible for. In 1923, Germany was hit by hyperinflation, money became worthless and large parts of the population became very poor.

Nazi propaganda in Berlin, Germany, 1932.

In the aftermath of the US stock market crash of 1929, nearly six million Germans lost their jobs. Many people wanted someone to blame and, for Hitler, “the Jew” became the perfect scapegoat.

Support for Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party started to grow in the beginning of the 1930s. Many Germans had lost their faith in democracy and did not believe that the existing parties could improve circumstances. A large part of the population regarded Hitler as a strong leader and expected him to restore the former glory of the German state. In his speeches, Hitler emphasized that Germany must recapture the areas it had lost in the war and acquire more “living space” in order to develop. He spoke about a struggle against “predatory Capitalism” and Communism, and said that the Aryan, white or German “race” was superior to all other “races”. The lowest of all was the Jewish “race”, regarded by Hitler as parasitic and dangerous.

While Hitler despised the Jews, he also regarded them as a huge threat and claimed that they wanted to rule the world and control other peoples. His ideas of “the Jew” as sinister and menacing came from Christian anti-Jewish traditions that claimed that the Jews had killed Jesus. To keep the white Aryan “race” pure, Germans had to avoid mixing with Jews at all costs.

1933-1939 – From Exclusion to Persecution

In the 1932 November election, the National Socialist German Workers’ Party received more than a third of the votes. Conservative politicians convinced German president Paul von Hindenburg to appoint Adolf Hitler as head of a minority government composed of conservative and nationalist parties. The Nazis quickly managed to outmanoeuvre the other parties, even receiving support from a centrist party to pass laws reforms that resulted in the abolishment of democracy.

A Jewish lawyer, Dr Michael Siegel, humiliated publicly in the streets of Munich, Germany, because he put his trust in the justice system. The Nazis have shaved his head and forced him to go barefoot. The sign reads: “I’ll never again complain to the police”.

All parties except the Nazi party were forbidden. Different Nazi organizations started controlling both the private and public life of citizens. The persecution of Jews and others not considered fit for Nazi society began. People with a different political affiliation were put indefinitely and without trial into concentration camps. The concentration camp of Dachau that opened in March 1933 became a model for all other concentration camps. The German youth was organized in different youth movements. They were to be taught to be obedient citizens in the new state. All of society was to be permeated by Nazi ideology.

New laws excluding Jews from society were enacted almost immediately after the takeover. With time there were hundreds of such laws. Some of them forbade Jews to visit bath houses, parks or restaurants, some said they could not hold government jobs, work in media or with culture.  Discrimination  grew  incessantly. Soon Jewish children could not attend schools, doctors and lawyers of Jewish origin could not treat or speak for non-Jews. According to the law, Jews were second-class citizens.

Slowly but surely, Jews were removed from society. They had to hand over their homes and valuables to the state. Jews who owned shops or businesses were forced to transfer ownership for a pathetic sum. Many tried to flee, but entry visas to other countries were hard to obtain. With its tough legislation, Sweden was no exception. Only a few thousand Jews were admitted into the country before 1939.

In the autumn of 1938, the Nazi authorities decided to expel all Jews holding Polish citizenship. Many of them had lived in Germany for generations. Some 15 000 people were affected by the decision. The Polish authorities did not want to receive them despite their Polish citizenship and instead placed them in refugee camps on the border between Germany and Poland.

One of the families affected by this decision was the Grynszpan family. They had lived in Germany since 1911. When their son, 17-year-old Herschel, who had fled to Paris, heard that his parents and sister lived in very bad conditions in a refugee camp, he acquired a gun, went to the German Embassy and shot a diplomat, Ernst vom Rath. Two days later, on the 9th of November, vom Rath died. Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels used this as an excuse to launch an organized campaign against the Jews of Germany to “avenge” the murder.

In the evening of 9 November 1938, a violent and bloody attack was launched against the Jewish population of Germany, the so-called November Pogrom. The riots lasted for days. Thousands of shop windows were broken and Jewish shops plundered. The glass lay on the streets like crystal, which is probably why the pogrom is referred to as Kristallnacht. Men and women were beaten, shot or clubbed to death. The situation was so dramatic that some people committed suicide.

It is presumed that approximately 400 Jews were murdered during the night between 9 and 10 November but the total number of dead during the entire November Pogrom is estimated at around 1 500 people. Close to 300 synagogues were set on fire and about 30 000 Jewish men were arrested and sent to concentration camps for no other reason than the fact they were Jews. The Nazi government decided that the Jews of Germany should pay one billion Reichsmarks in compensation for damage caused by the pogrom.

Herschel Grynszpan at his arrest in November 1938 in Paris, France.

People arrested during the November Pogrom 1938 being counted at roll call in Buchenwald concentration camp, Germany.

1939-1942 – Forced Into Ghettos

In September 1939, Poland was attacked first by Germany and later on by the Soviet Union. Through an agreement between the two states, they divided Poland among themselves. Almost two million Jews lived in the German part. They were regarded by the Nazi leaders as having an even lower standing than the German Jews. Almost immediately, plans were made to cleanse the countryside of Jews and drive them into the city. The authorities wanted to create special areas where Jews were forced to live, so-called ghettos. These areas were often set up in neighbourhoods that already contained many Jews. Non-Jews living there were forced to move out. Relocations into the ghetto often occurred under brutal conditions.

A fence or wall was built around the ghetto area. Everyone was forced to wear a special mark on their clothes identifying them as Jews. It could be a yellow six-pointed star, a yellow armband or a white ribbon with a blue six-pointed star. It was strictly forbidden for Jews to go outside the fence of the ghetto. Those who tried to go into hiding were dependent on help to survive. Harsh punishments were meted out by the Germans to anyone caught helping a Jew. The situations made some Jews flee into the ghetto in order to escape persecution and suffering.

Hundreds of transports were sent from Germany and the rest of Western Europe to ghettos far away from Germany, for instance to Riga in Latvia or Minsk in Belarus. There were also some transports of Roma to a few ghettos. A number of people were forced into slave labour. The ghettos were eventually liquidated and people who were not considered fit for work were killed in mass shootings or taken to extermination camps.

Jews in the ghetto of Lodz in occupied Poland.

In 1941, Hitler decided to attack the Soviet Union. Special teams followed the army in order to cleanse the villages of Soviet communists and Jews. These so-called Einsatzgruppen also killed thousands of Roma. Mass graves were prepared, sometimes by the local population, sometimes by the victims themselves, or by Soviet prisoners of war. It is estimated that approximately two million people were shot, burnt or beaten to death by the so-called Einsatzgruppen.

1942-1945 – The Implementation of the Holocaust

The war against the Soviet Union was not as successful as expected. The Red Army showed fierce resistance and this hindered the advancement of the Germans. Thus, the original plan to expel large groups of Jews to areas far away in the Asian part of the Soviet Union would not work. Furthermore, the mass shootings had affected the mental health of the soldiers responsible. Therefore, the Nazi leadership discussed other ways to “get rid of” the Jews.

In January 1942, a meeting was held in Wannsee, outside Berlin, where senior Nazi and state officials agreed on how to coordinate what the Nazis called “the Final Solution to the Jewish Question”. The plan, probably decided upon some time during autumn 1941, was to comb Europe from west to east in order to find all Jews. Trains would transport them to the East. It was further decided that different departments in the German administration would cooperate under the auspices of the police and security agencies.

Even before convening the conference at Wannsee, the killing of Jews and Roma had started through mass shooting actions. Experiments had been made with specially-built vehicles. Exhaust fumes were led into a closed room in the back of a rebuilt lorry, the gas killing the people in the compartment. Before being used on a larger scale in the first extermination camp of Chelmno north of Lodz, these gas vans had been used in Ukraine and other places.

The building of the extermination camp in Belzec in eastern occupied Poland had also begun before the meeting in Wannsee, and two more camps in Sobibor and Treblinka were built during the spring of 1942.

The building where the Wannsee conference took place outside Berlin, Germany.

They were all erected with one single purpose: the extermination of as many people as possible, as quickly as possible. When a transport arrived, a few prisoners were selected to work under the SS to ensure that the process ran smoothly. All other prisoners were killed in gas chambers immediately upon arrival.

Hundreds of thousands of Jews were transported by train to the extermination camps in occupied Poland from other countries occupied by Germany. In these four camps, almost two million people were killed.

Two camps were built, Auschwitz-Birkenau and Majdanek, to serve as both extermination and so-called concentration camps where people were to be either killed or interned.

The concentration camp in Auschwitz was established in 1940 in the Polish town of Oswiecim using old army barracks that used to be used to house Polish political prisoners and Soviet prisoners of war. When the number of prisoners increased, there were not enough barracks and the SS decided to expand and build another large camp in the village of Birkenau (Brzezinka in Polish), approximately three kilometres from Auschwitz. In Birkenau, or Auschwitz II, as the camp was officially named, an extermination camp with gas chambers was built. From the spring of 1942, Auschwitz-Birkenau was a combined labour and extermination camp.

About forty slave labour camps were built around Auschwitz and many German industries exploited this cheap workforce. When the trains arrived, the Jews had no idea what was going to happen to them. Everything was chaotic, German SS soldiers shouted orders, dogs barked and prisoners appointed by the SS tried to unload the trains as fast as possible. Old people, children and the sick were sent directly to the gas chambers. The rest went through a selection process with SS doctors selecting people fit to work and sending the others to the gas chambers.

The conditions in Auschwitz-Birkenau were so bad that many prisoners only survived a few weeks. The gas chambers were in use until November 1944, by which time approximately one million Jews had been murdered in Auschwitz-Birkenau.

In Majdanek outside the city of Lublin in eastern occupied Poland and close to the border with the Soviet Union, a similar concentration and extermination camp was built. A large number of Polish intellectuals, political opponents and Soviet prisoners of war were taken to Majdanek. Jews from the Warsaw ghetto also became slave labourers in the camps around Lublin. More than 50 000 people were gassed, many others were shot.

To escape from one of these camps was virtually impossible. In the extermination camps of Sobibor and Treblinka the prisoners tried to rebel. Some tens of prisoners managed to escape, but most of them were caught, tortured and killed. Also in Auschwitz-Birkenau the prisoners revolted and set fire to one of the gas chambers. Only a few prisoners managed to get away, but the uprisings created hope for the inmates and worried the Nazi leadership.

At the end of the war, the facilities in Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka were destroyed. The Nazis did not want the world to know what had happened in the camps and the number of prisoners killed. They dug up the mass graves, tried to burn the remains and spread the ashes in the woods and rivers around the camps.

In July 1944, Soviet troops advanced rapidly westward and liberated the camp at Majdanek. The German retreat was so quick that they did not have time to destroy all the documents and items in the camp. This has given the Museum at Majdanek a large archival collection.

From January to May 1945, concentration and slave labour camps all over Germany, occupied Poland and Austria were liberated by Soviet, British and American troops. Even if the world by then knew that millions of Jews had been killed in “human slaughterhouses”, the horrific situation in the liberated camps came as a shock to people around the world. Many photos and articles were circulated.

After the war, several trials were held, among other places in Nuremberg, where senior Nazis were sentenced to death or imprisonment for crimes against humanity. Several perpetrators were never punished.

There is no exact data about how many Jews were killed by the Nazis, but approximately five to six million Jews were murdered, representing two thirds of the Jews of Europe. This figure is based partly on records in German archives. Today there are about one and a half million Jews living in Europe.

A trial in Nürnberg in November 1945 for crimes against humanity. In the front row from the left: Herman Göring, Rudolf Hess, Joachim von Ribbentrop, Wilhelm Keitel, and in the back row from the left: Karl Dönitz, Erich Raeder, Baldur von Schirach, Fritz Dauckel.

The extermination of the Jews of Europe has come to be known as the Holocaust.   square.jpg