It began with a simple boycott of Jewish shops and ended in the gas
chambers at Auschwitz as Adolf Hitler and his Nazi followers attempted
to exterminate the entire Jewish population of Europe.
In January 1933, after a bitter ten-year political struggle, Adolf Hitler
came to power in Germany. During his rise to power, Hitler had repeatedly
blamed the Jews for Germany's defeat in World War I and subsequent economic
hardships. Hitler also put forward racial theories asserting that Germans
with fair skin, blond hair and blue eyes were the supreme form of human,
or master race. The Jews, according to Hitler, were the racial opposite,
and were actively engaged in an international conspiracy to keep this master
race from assuming its rightful position as rulers of the world.
Jews at this time composed only about one percent of Germany's population
of 55 million persons. German Jews were mostly cosmopolitan in nature and
proudly considered themselves to be Germans by nationality and Jews only
by religion. They had lived in Germany for centuries, fought bravely for
the Fatherland in its wars and prospered in numerous professions.
But they were gradually shut out of German society by the Nazis through
a never-ending series of laws and decrees, culminating in the Nuremberg
Laws of 1935 which deprived them of their German citizenship and forbade
intermarriage with non-Jews. They were removed from schools, banned from
the professions, excluded from military service, and were even forbidden
to share a park bench with a non-Jew.
At the same time, a carefully orchestrated smear campaign under the
direction of Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels portrayed Jews as enemies
of the German people. Daily anti-Semitic slurs appeared in Nazi newspapers,
on posters, the movies, radio, in speeches by Hitler and top Nazis, and
in the classroom. As a result, State-sanctioned anti-Semitism became the
norm throughout Germany. The Jews lost everything, including their homes
and businesses, with no protest or public outcry from non-Jewish Germans.
The devastating Nazi propaganda film The Eternal Jew went so far
as to compared Jews to plague carrying rats, a foreshadow of things to
In March 1938, Hitler expanded the borders of the Nazi Reich by forcibly
annexing Austria. A brutal crackdown immediately began on Austria's Jews.
They also lost everything and were even forced to perform public acts of
humiliation such as scrubbing sidewalks clean amid jeering pro-Nazi crowds.
Back in Germany, years of pent-up hatred toward the Jews was finally
let loose on the night that marks the actual beginning of the Holocaust.
The Night of Broken Glass (Kristallnacht) occurred on November 9/10 after
17-year-old Herschel Grynszpan shot and killed Ernst vom Rath, a German
embassy official in Paris, in retaliation for the harsh treatment his Jewish
parents had received from Nazis.
Spurred on by Joseph Goebbels, Nazis used the death of vom Rath as an
excuse to conduct the first State-run pogrom against Jews. Ninety Jews
were killed, 500 synagogues were burned and most Jewish shops had their
windows smashed. The first mass arrest of Jews also occurred as over 25,000
men were hauled off to concentration camps. As a kind of cynical joke,
the Nazis then fined the Jews 1 Billion Reichsmarks for the destruction
which the Nazis themselves had caused during Kristallnacht.
Many German and Austrian Jews now attempted to flee Hitler's Reich.
However, most Western countries maintained strict immigration quotas and
showed little interest in receiving large numbers of Jewish refugees. This
was exemplified by the plight of the St. Louis, a ship crowded with 930
Jews that was turned away by Cuba, the United States and other countries
and returned back to Europe, soon to be under Hitler's control.
On the eve of World War II, the Führer (supreme
leader) publicly threatened the Jews of Europe during a speech in
Berlin: "In the course of my life I have very often been a prophet,
and have usually been ridiculed for it. During the time of my struggle
for power it was in the first instance only the Jewish race that received
my prophecies with laughter when I said that I would one day take over
the leadership of the State, and with it that of the whole nation, and
that I would then among other things settle the Jewish problem. Their laughter
was uproarious, but I think that for some time now they have been laughing
on the other side of their face. Today I will once more be a prophet: if
the international Jewish financiers in and outside Europe should succeed
in plunging the nations once more into a world war, then the result will
not be the Bolshevizing of the earth, and thus the victory of Jewry, but
the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe!"
Hitler intended to blame the Jews for the new world war he was soon
to provoke. That war began in September 1939 as German troops stormed into
Poland, a country that was home to over three million Jews. After Poland's
quick defeat, Polish Jews were rounded up and forced into newly established
ghettos at Lodz, Krakow, and Warsaw, to await future plans. Inside these
overcrowded walled-in ghettos, tens of thousands died a slow death from
hunger and disease amid squalid living conditions. The ghettos soon came
under the jurisdiction of Heinrich Himmler, leader of the Nazi SS, Hitler's
most trusted and loyal organization, composed of fanatical young men considered
racially pure according to Nazi standards.
In the spring of 1940, Himmler ordered the building of a concentration
camp near the Polish city of Oswiecim, renamed Auschwitz by the Germans,
to hold Polish prisoners and to provide slave labor for new German-run
factories to be built nearby.
Meanwhile, Hitler continued his conquest of Europe, invading Belgium,
Holland, Luxembourg and France, placing ever-increasing numbers of Jews
under Nazi control. The Nazis then began carefully tallying up the actual
figures and also required Jews to register all of their assets. But the
overall question remained as to what to do with the millions of Jews now
under Nazi control - referred to by the Nazis themselves as the Judenfrage
The following year, 1941, would be the turning point. In June, Hitler
took a tremendous military gamble by invading the Soviet Union. Before
the invasion he had summoned his top generals and told them the attack
on Russia would be a ruthless "war of annihilation" targeting
Communists and Jews and that normal rules of military conflict were to
be utterly ignored.
Inside the Soviet Union were an estimated three million Jews, many of
whom still lived in tiny isolated villages known as Shtetls. Following
behind the invading German armies, four SS special action units known as
Einsatzgruppen systematically rounded-up and shot all of the inhabitants
of these Shtetls. Einsatz execution squads were aided by German police
units, local ethnic Germans, and local anti-Semitic volunteers. Leaders
of the Einsatzgruppen also engaged in an informal competition as to which
group had the highest tally of murdered Jews.
During the summer of 1941, SS leader Heinrich Himmler summoned Auschwitz
Commandant Rudolf Höss to Berlin and told him: "The Führer
has ordered the Final Solution of the Jewish question. We, the SS, have
to carry out this order...I have therefore chosen Auschwitz for this purpose."
At Auschwitz, a large new camp was already under construction to be
known as Auschwitz II (Birkenau). This would become the future site of
four large gas chambers to be used for mass extermination. The idea of
using gas chambers originated during the Euthanasia Program, the so-called
"mercy killing" of sick and disabled persons in Germany and Austria
by Nazi doctors.
By now, experimental mobile gas vans were being used by the Einsatzgruppen
to kill Jews in Russia. Special trucks had been converted by the SS into
portable gas chambers. Jews were locked up in the air-tight rear container
while exhaust fumes from the truck's engine were fed in to suffocate them.
However, this method was found to be somewhat impractical since the average
capacity was less than 50 persons. For the time being, the quickest killing
method continued to be mass shootings. And as Hitler's troops advanced
deep into the Soviet Union, the pace of Einsatz killings accelerated. Over
33,000 Jews in the Ukraine were shot in the Babi Yar ravine near Kiev during
two days in September 1941.
The next year, 1942, marked the beginning of mass murder on a scale
unprecedented in all of human history. In January, fifteen top Nazis led
by Reinhard Heydrich, second in command of the SS, convened the Wannsee
Conference in Berlin to coordinate plans for the Final Solution. The Jews
of Europe would now be rounded up and deported into occupied Poland where
new extermination centers were being constructed at Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka,
Map & Photos
Map showing locations of Nazi Concentration & Death camps.
Adolf Hitler salutes SS troops on parade in Nuremberg while
SS Leader Himmler (in front) watches.
Jews in Vienna forced to scrub sidewalks.
A mass shooting somewhere inside occupied Russia.
Jewish children in the Lodz Ghetto on their way toward transports
that will take them to Chelmno Death Camp.
Crematory ovens at Majdanek with piles of human ashes still
in front, as seen after liberation.
Portrait of Otto Ohlendorf, former commander of SS Einsatzgruppe
D, taken during war crimes trials. He admitted killing 90,000 Jews, was
convicted and hanged by the U.S.
Code named "Aktion Reinhard" in honor of Heydrich, the Final
Solution began in the spring as over two million Jews already in Poland
were sent to be gassed as soon as the new camps became operational. Hans
Frank, the Nazi Governor of Poland had by now declared: "I ask nothing
of the Jews except that they should disappear."
Every detail of the actual extermination process was meticulously planned.
Jews arriving in trains at Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka were falsely
informed by the SS that they had come to a transit stop and would be moving
on to their true destination after delousing. They were told their clothes
were going to be disinfected and that they would all be taken to shower
rooms for a good washing. Men were then split up from the women and children.
Everyone was taken to undressing barracks and told to remove all of their
clothing. Women and girls next had their hair cut off. First the men, and
then the women and children, were hustled in the nude along a narrow fenced-in
pathway nicknamed by the SS as the Himmelstrasse (road to Heaven). At the
end of the path was a bathhouse with tiled shower rooms. As soon as the
people were all crammed inside, the main door was slammed shut, creating
an air-tight seal. Deadly carbon monoxide fumes were then fed in from a
stationary diesel engine located outside the chamber.
At Auschwitz-Birkenau, new arrivals were told to carefully hang their
clothing on numbered hooks in the undressing room and were instructed to
remember the numbers for later. They were given a piece of soap and taken
into the adjacent gas chamber disguised as a large shower room. In place
of carbon monoxide, pellets of the commercial pesticide Zyklon-B (prussic
acid) were poured into openings located above the chamber upon the cynical
SS command - Na, gib ihnen shon zu fressen (All right, give 'em something
to chew on). The gas pellets fell into hollow shafts made of perforated
sheet metal and vaporized upon contact with air, giving off lethal cyanide
fumes inside the chamber which oozed out at floor level then rose up toward
the ceiling. Children died first since they were closer to the floor. Pandemonium
usually erupted as the bitter almond-like odor of the gas spread upwards
with adults climbing on top of each other forming a tangled heap of dead
bodies all the way up to the ceiling.
At each of the death camps, special squads of Jewish slave laborers
called Sonderkommandos were utilized to untangle the victims and remove
them from the gas chamber. Next they extracted any gold fillings from teeth
and searched body orifices for hidden valuables. The corpses were disposed
of by various methods including mass burials, cremation in open fire pits
or in specially designed crematory ovens such as those used at Auschwitz.
All clothing, money, gold, jewelry, watches, eyeglasses and other valuables
were sorted out then shipped back to Germany for re-use. Women's hair was
sent to a firm in Bavaria for the manufacture of felt.
One extraordinary aspect of the journey to the death camps was that
the Nazis often charged Jews deported from Western Europe train fare as
third class passengers under the guise that they were being "resettled
in the East." The SS also made new arrivals in the death camps sign
picture postcards showing the fictional location "Waldsee" which
were sent to relatives back home with the printed greeting: "We are
doing very well here. We have work and we are well treated. We await your
In the ghettos of Poland, Jews were simply told they were being "transferred"
to work camps. Many went willingly, hoping to escape the brutal ghetto
conditions. They were then stuffed into unheated, poorly ventilated boxcars
with no water or sanitation. Young children and the elderly often died
long before reaching their destination.
Trainloads of human cargo arriving at Auschwitz went through a selection
process conducted by SS doctors such as Josef Mengele. Young adults considered
fit for slave labor were allowed to live and had an ID number tattooed
on their left forearm. Everyone else went to the gas chambers. A few inmates,
including twin children, were occasionally set aside for participation
in human medical experiments.
The death camp at Majdanek operated on the Auschwitz model and served
both as a slave labor camp and extermination center. Chelmno, the sixth
death camp in occupied Poland, operated somewhat differently from the others
in that large mobile gas vans were continually used.
Although the Nazis attempted to keep all of the death camps secret,
rumors and some eyewitness reports gradually filtered out. Harder to conceal
were the mass shootings occurring throughout occupied Russia. On June 30
and July 2, 1942, the New York Times reported via the London
Daily Telegraph that over 1,000,000 Jews had already been shot.
That summer, Swiss representatives of the World Jewish Congress received
information from a German industrialist regarding the Nazi plan to exterminate
the Jews. They passed the information on to London and Washington.
In December 1942, British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden stood before
the House of Commons and declared the Nazis were "now carrying into
effect Hitler's oft-repeated intention to exterminate the Jewish people
Jews in America responded to the various reports by holding a rally
at New York's Madison Square Garden in March 1943 to pressure the U.S.
government into action. As a result, the Bermuda Conference was held from
April 19-30, with representatives from the U.S. and Britain meeting to
discuss the problem of refugees from Nazi-occupied countries. But the meeting
resulted in complete inaction concerning the ongoing exterminations.
Seven months later, November 1943, the U.S. Congress held hearings concerning
the U.S. State Department's total inaction regarding the plight of European
Jews. President Franklin Roosevelt responded to the mounting political
pressure by creating the War Refugee Board (WRB) in January 1944 to aid
neutral countries in the rescue of Jews. The WRB helped save about 200,000
Jews from death camps through the heroic efforts of persons such as Swedish
diplomat Raoul Wallenberg working tirelessly in occupied countries.
The WRB also advocated the aerial bombing of Auschwitz, although it
never occurred since it was not considered a vital military target. The
U.S. and its military Allies maintained that the best way to stop Nazi
atrocities was to defeat Germany as quickly as possible.
In April 1944, two Jewish inmates escaped from Auschwitz and made it
safely into Czechoslovakia. One of them, Rudolf Vrba, submitted a detailed
report to the Papal Nuncio in Slovakia which was then forwarded to the
Vatican, received there in mid-June. Thus far, Pope Pius XII had not issued
a public condemnation of Nazi maltreatment and subsequent mass murder of
Jews, and he chose to continue his silence.
The Nazis attempted to quell increasing reports of the Final Solution
by inviting the International Red Cross to visit Theresienstadt, a ghetto
in Czechoslovakia containing prominent Jews. A Red Cross delegation toured
Theresienstadt in July 1944 observing stores, banks, cafes, and classrooms
which had been hastily spruced-up for their benefit. They also witnessed
a delightful musical program put on by Jewish children. After the Red Cross
departed, most of the ghetto inhabitants, including all of the children, were sent
to be gassed and the model village was left to deteriorate.
In several instances, Jews took matters into their own hands and violently
resisted the Nazis. The most notable was the 28-day battle waged inside
the Warsaw Ghetto. There, a group of 750 Jews armed with smuggled-in weapons
battled over 2000 SS soldiers armed with small tanks, artillery and flame
throwers. Upon encountering stiff resistance from the Jews, the Nazis decided
to burn down the entire ghetto.
An SS report described the scene: "The Jews stayed in the burning
buildings until because of the fear of being burned alive they jumped down
from the upper stories�With their bones broken, they still tried to crawl
across the street into buildings which had not yet been set on fire�Despite
the danger of being burned alive the Jews and bandits often preferred to
return into the flames rather than risk being caught by us."
Resistance also occurred inside the death camps. At Treblinka, Jewish
inmates staged a revolt in August 1943, after which Himmler ordered the
camp dismantled. At Sobibor, a big escape occurred in October 1943, as
Jews and Soviet POWs killed 11 SS men and broke out, with 300 making it
safely into nearby woods. Of those 300, most were hunted down and only
fifty survived. Himmler then closed Sobibor. At Auschwitz-Birkenau, Jewish
Sonderkommandos managed to destroy crematory number four in October 1944.
But throughout Nazi-occupied Europe, relatively few non-Jewish persons
were willing to risk their own lives to help the Jews. Notable exceptions
included Oskar Schindler, a German who saved 1200 Jews by moving them from
Plaszow labor camp to his hometown of Brunnlitz. The country of Denmark
rescued nearly its entire population of Jews, over 7000, by transporting
them to safety by sea. Italy and Bulgaria both refused to cooperate with
German demands for deportations. Elsewhere in Europe, people generally
stood by passively and watched as Jewish families were marched through
the streets toward waiting trains, or in some cases, actively participated
in Nazi persecutions.
By 1944, the tide of war had turned against Hitler and his armies were
being defeated on all fronts by the Allies. However, the killing of Jews
continued uninterrupted. Railroad locomotives and freight cars badly needed
by the German Army were instead used by the SS to transport Jews to Auschwitz.
In May, Nazis under the direction of SS Lt. Colonel Adolf Eichmann boldly
began a mass deportation of the last major surviving population of European
Jews. From May 15 to July 9, over 430,000 Hungarian Jews were deported
to Auschwitz. During this time, Auschwitz recorded its highest-ever daily
number of persons killed and cremated at just over 9000. Six huge open
pits were used to burn the bodies, as the number of dead exceeded the capacity
of the crematories.
The unstoppable Allied military advance continued and on July 24, 1944,
Soviet troops liberated the first camp, Majdanek in eastern Poland, where
over 360,000 had died. As the Soviet Army neared Auschwitz, Himmler ordered
the complete destruction of the gas chambers. Throughout Hitler's crumbling
Reich, the SS now began conducting death marches of surviving concentration
camp inmates away from outlying areas, including some 66,000 from Auschwitz.
Most of the inmates on these marches either dropped dead from exertion
or were shot by the SS when they failed to keep up with the column.
The Soviet Army reached Auschwitz on January 27, 1945. By that time,
an estimated 1,500,000 Jews, along with 500,000 Polish prisoners, Soviet
POWs and Gypsies, had perished there. As the Western Allies pushed into
Germany in the spring of 1945, they liberated Buchenwald, Bergen-Belsen,
and Dachau. Now the full horror of the twelve-year Nazi regime became apparent
as British and American soldiers, including Supreme Commander Dwight D.
Eisenhower, viewed piles of emaciated corpses and listened to vivid accounts
given by survivors.
On April 30, 1945, surrounded by the Soviet Army in Berlin, Adolf Hitler
committed suicide and his Reich soon collapsed. By now, most of Europe's
Jews had been killed. Four million had been gassed in the death camps while
another two million had been shot dead or died in the ghettos. The victorious
Allies; Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union, then began the
daunting task of sorting through the carnage to determine exactly who was
responsible. Seven months later, the Nuremberg War Crime Trials began,
with 22 surviving top Nazis charged with crimes against humanity.
During the trial, a now-repentant Hans Frank, the former Nazi Governor
of Poland declared: "A thousand years will pass and the guilt of the
Germany will not be erased."
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