The Holocaust

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The term Holocaust comes from a Greek word that means “burnt whole” or “consumed by fire.” Between 1939 and 1945, nearly six million Jews died in the Holocaust along with five million non-Jews. Among the non-Jewish groups the Nazis singled out for murder and persecution were the Roma (Gypsies), Polish intellectuals, Serbs, resistance fighters of all nations, German opponents of Nazism, and eventually all people of Slavic ethnicity. These were not accidental deaths or casualties of war, but planned mass executions. Along with these eleven million human beings, a way of life, an entire European Jewish culture rich in traditions, vanished as well. 

In the prewar years, Hitler tried to rid Germany of its Jewish population by a series of harsh discriminatory laws intended to make Jews want to leave Germany. If this failed, he planned forced expulsion. At the time World War II began, many historians argue that the Nazis had not yet devised a plan for the murder of the Jews. Although Hitler began setting up concentration camps in 1933 for the persecution of political and religious dissidents, the Final Solution may not have been decided upon until after the invasion of the Soviet Union. The war enabled the Nazis to apply their racial theories particularly against the “subhuman” Poles, Slavs, Roma, and Jews. Starting in October 1939, following the invasion of Poland, Heinrich Himmler created a new department of the SS whose purpose was to deal with deportations, emigration, or mass shootings by mobile killing units. Once groups were categorized as “subhuman,” they no longer had to be treated by the normal rules of civilized behavior. Nazi leaders felt justified in making them victims of mass brutalization. 

WANNSEE CONFERENCE                     
During 1941 Hitler decided to move from a policy of forced emigration to one of annihilation. Einsatzgruppen, mobile killing squads, were already murdering Jews in Poland and parts of the Soviet Union. At the Wannsee Conference, in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee, on January 20, 1942, SS General Reinhard Heydrich explained to SS and other top Nazi leaders and heads of German government bureaucracies that Hitler had “given sanction for the evacuation of Jews to the East.” This statement announced a policy that had as its aim the destruction of European Jewry.   Instead of forcing Jews to emigrate, Nazi officials would deport them to death camps. A death camp would have facilities designed specifically for mass murder. The Nazis’ euphemism for this policy was “evacuation to the East.” At the conference, Nazi leaders as well as non-Nazi bureaucrats, who would arrange for the transport of Jews to the death camps in Poland, received instructions for the implementation of this policy of genocide and the deportation of Jews from all Nazi-occupied countries. No dissent was heard from those attending the conference. In fact, some participants offered suggestions for making the process of carrying out the Final Solution more efficient. Nazi leaders had a two-step plan. Jews were to be gathered at “concentration points” in cities on or near railroad lines and then taken by train to mass killing centers. 

At the beginning of the war, the SS, directed by Heinrich Himmler, had organized mobile killing squads, the Einsatzgrup-pen, that followed the German armies into Poland and, later, into the Baltic countries. Jews were rounded up in towns and villages and driven to the forest or into the country-side. As soon as they were stripped of their clothes and any possessions, victims were executed by gunfire and buried in huge pits. Fearing this method of execution would be discovered, the Germans abandoned mass shootings relying, instead, upon specially equipped vans that were used to gas the passengers within. 

DEATH CAMPS IN POLAND                   
While the killing vans did the job, the process itself was slow. The Germans felt a faster method had to be found. At first they experimented with gas chambers at small concentration camps in Germany. By the fall of 1941, mass murder became official state policy; orders were given to build death camps in Poland, accessible by direct rail lines from any point in occupied Europe. 

Nazi leaders chose Poland for the killing centers for several reasons. First, the largest number of Jews lived in eastern Europe. Second, non-Jews in these areas had age-old traditions of anti-Semitism and were unlikely to oppose the activities of the Nazis. In fact, many offered assistance. The Holocaust would not have been possible without the aid of these local populations. Finally, all sites were located in semi-rural areas. Starting in 1941, death camps were built at Auschwitz, Treblinka, Sobibor, Chelmno, Belzec, and Maidanek.

Following the invasion of Poland, the Germans began to round up Polish Jews and put them into ghettos. There they were segregated from the rest of the population and told that, when labor camps were built, they would be resettled in special work areas. Jews from cities in Germany and from other countries were also sent to these staging areas in Poland and in other parts of Nazi-occupied eastern Europe. In total, the Nazis created some 400 ghettos. They used starvation and deprivation to weaken the captives. Then, whenever the Nazi officials in charge decided, a certain number of residents were ordered to report to rail stations for “resettlement to the East.” 
Between 1941 and 1945, the Germans built and operated twenty major concentration camps in Germany and eastern Europe. The concentration camps, including Dachau, Buchen-wald, Mauthausen, and Ravens-bruck were set up as work camps. Prisoners were worked to death as slave laborers or used in medical experiments conducted by German physicians and university scientists. Scores of other, smaller concen-tration camps were built in other areas. These camps tied up men and materiel in their operation and were a drain on German man-power. This policy did not advance the war effort, but it showed the strong commitment of the Nazis to the Final Solution. At first, thinking that life could only be better away from the disease-ridden ghettos, the victims willingly accepted reset-tlement. In order to avoid panic in the ghettos, the Germans allowed families to travel together to the death camps. Crowded into railroad cattle cars with little water and no food, frightened and confused families made the slow train trip into Poland. 

The victims seldom knew what was about to happen to them. Although the rumors from the killing centers, or death camps, began to filter back into the ghettos after 1942, few Jews could believe that mass extermination was the final aim of the Germans—a nation many had considered to be the most cultured and advanced in Europe. Even when a number of death camp escapees managed to return to the ghettos and report what they had seen, their accounts were dismissed as wild stories.

Under the “resettlement plan,” the Nazis first emptied out the major areas of Jewish settlement in eastern Europe. Poland was first, followed by Czech-oslovakia, Bulgaria, Romania, Yugoslavia, Hungary, and the Soviet Union. Nazi victories in western Europe in 1940 had brought even more Jews under Nazi control. Victims were transported from France, Holland, Belgium, and Germany itself. The policy of genocide was in full force in Europe by mid-1942. Almost all the victims at Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka death camps were Jews.   A few were Roma. Few survived these camps. 

Auschwitz, also known as Auschwitz-Birkenau, was the largest death camp. It was built west of Krakow, Poland, in Auschwitz. Beginning in late 1941, Russian prisoners of war and several thousand Jewish prisoners worked nonstop to build the gas chambers and crema-toria, as well as hundreds of barracks to house slave laborers. Thus, Auschwitz served first as a concentra-tion camp and slave labor camp and then became the death camp where the most of the European Jews and Roma were killed. German engineers and architects supervised the construction. Scores of German doctors and medical researchers carried out cruel medical experiments on human beings in specially equipped laboratories built on the grounds of the camp. The camp began accepting large numbers of prisoners in 1942, and was soon operating at full capacity. While the Germans used some prisoners as slave laborers, killing was the major goal of the camp. By mid-1944, when vast numbers of Hungarian Jews were arriving at Auschwitz, 10,000 people or more were murdered daily. Even as the war brought the Soviet armies deep into eastern Europe after 1944, trains filled with victims continued to arrive in Auschwitz.  
Railroad freight cars and passenger trains, packed with terrified prisoners, arrived in the death camps several times each day. Prisoners were unloaded from the trains by waiting guards. Once they were separated by sex, victims waited in long lines to be checked by an SS doctor who decided who would go to the gas chambers. The young, the healthy, and those with skills needed by camp officials were sent into the camp itself. In the camp, guards made the prisoners undress and hand over rings, watches, and all other valuables. Prisoners’ heads were shaved and they were herded into overcrowded barracks. Most of these people eventually died of malnutrition, brutality, and diseases. Old people, the sick, women with children under fourteen, and pregnant women were almost always sent directly to the gas chambers. Victims were driven naked into the gas chambers which were disguised as shower rooms and either carbon monoxide or Zyklon B, a deadly gas, was used to asphyxiate them.

In late 1944, the Allied armies crossed into Germany and the Soviet forces liberated sections of eastern Poland. Fearful that the secret of the death camps would be discovered, the Germans began destroying them. Treblinka had already been plowed under after a Jewish revolt in August, 1943, and Auschwitz was partially taken apart in 1945.

FORCED MARCHES BEGIN                              
As the Allies approached several of the remaining camps, the killing continued, with nearly a half-million victims murdered in 1945 alone. The SS forcibly marched the surviving prisoners from the Polish death camps to camps inside Germany, where they hoped to prevent their liberation and hide evidence of the massive genocide which had occurred. These final death marches killed thousands, and tens of thousands of starving victims were eventually left to die in abandoned German trains. Those who survived remained in concentration camps until they were freed by the Allies. 

On April 30, 1945, shortly before he took his own life, Hitler wrote his last political testament. He blamed the war on the Jews. They were, he said, solely responsible for causing the war and their own eventual destruction, and he urged the continuation of their extermination.  

National Archives

Auschwitz Burial
Prisoners liberated at Wobbelin camp, May 4 Burial service for executed Jews, April 29


US Flag Victims
U.S. flag at half-mast at Buchenwald, 19 April Germans ordered to view victims at Wobbelin, May 6

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Resources include Teaching Lesson 4 and Handouts 4A and 4B.
See Full Teacher Resource Guide for additional The Holocaust Lessons 5 & 6.