The Holocaust was the systematic annihilation of the European Jews by the German Nazis and their collaborators. From 1933 to 1945, two-thirds of the Jews of Europe were murdered in gas chambers and by bullets, starvation, and brutal slave labor. Among them, were 1.5 million children under the age of 15.
Unlike other incidents of human destruction in history, the assault on Jews was not implemented to gain power, territory, or wealth. The Nazis were motivated by nationalism and a belief in German racial superiority. They viewed Jews as racial inferiors who were unfit to inhabit the world. Jews were doomed, not because of anything they did or believed, but because they were the children of Jewish fathers and mothers.
Although Jews were the only people singled out for extinction, the Nazis targeted millions of defenseless human beings of other faiths and nationalities. The mentally and physically handicapped, Gypsies, homosexuals, and Poles and other Slavs were murdered in cold blood.
Adolph Hitler, the leader of the Nazi party, was obsessed with hatred of Jews. A steady drumbeat of anti-Semitic propaganda in his speeches aroused public anger and hostility. Thousands of people became involved in the Nazi campaign of human destruction that claimed the lives of 11 million innocent people. Six million were Jews.
Before the Whirlwind
In Another Time
Although Jews began their history as a people in the Middle East, they had lived in Europe for 2,000 years. Because they were not Christians, they had been frequent victims of religious bigotry, persecution, expulsion, and massacre. Anti-Semitism became part of the culture of Christian Europe, and for centuries Jewish existence was precarious.
The changes brought about by emancipation in the 19th century in western Europe brought unparalleled opportunities for Jews. They were granted citizenship and gradually were admitted to some spheres of society. Although their new status was never totally accepted in Germany,
they assimilated, making impressive strides in many fields. But the undercurrent of anti-Semitism persisted and took on ominous political and racial overtones that set the groundwork for Hitler’s ideology.
An estimated 9 million Jews lived in Europe in 1930. Approximately 500,000 lived in Germany. The majority were concentrated in Poland and other parts of eastern Europe, where anti-Semitism was widespread. There, Jews lived in segregated communities at the margins of society. Despite poverty and oppression, they maintained a rich religious and cultural tradition with schools, libraries, and synagogues that were renowned throughout the Jewish world.
All through history Jews had learned to accommodate themselves to social discrimination, professional restrictions, and periodic violence, but nothing in their historic past prepared them for the Nazi onslaught of hatred and persecution. Within a short period of time, they were caught in a storm of violence from which there was no escape.
The Rise of Nazism
Germany’s humiliating defeat in World War I (1914-1918) left the country in turmoil. Germans were angered by the harsh terms of the peace treaty, and they had little faith in their newly established government. When the Great Depression struck in 1929, Germany was thrown into a severe economic depression. Political unrest gripped the country as unemployment soared and personal savings disappeared. Fearful of the threat of Communism and desperate for change, many Germans turned to the Nazi party and its leader, Adolph Hitler.
Hitler was a charismatic leader who inspired hope and excitement with promises to restore Germany’s economic and military power. Hoping to restore order and save the government, German president Paul von Hindenberg reluctantly appointed Adolph Hitler chancellor. Hitler assumed office in January 1933.
He acted quickly to dismantle German democracy. Given emergency powers by the German parliament, he suspended civil liberties and established concentration camps to imprison political opponents. Censorship was imposed, and a massive propaganda campaign was initiated to gain control of public opinion. Books were removed from libraries and burned. Police, schools, universities, and the media were placed under Nazi control. Other political parties were banned. Boys and girls, organized into the Hitler Youth movement, were indoctrinated to unquestioning loyalty and obedience to Adolph Hitler. Clergy were forced to sign an agreement to preach “positive Christianity” or face imprisonment or execution.
Within 13 months, Germany became a police state. Everything Germans heard, read, and saw was controlled. They lost many of their civil and legal rights, but despite repression and fear, most Germans supported Hitler enthusiastically. The pride they felt in their country overshadowed any doubts they may have had about Hitler’s ideology and intentions.
The Master Race
Hitler was consumed by the myth of German superiority. In his book Mein Kampf, he wrote, “The state must set race in the center of all life. It must take care to keep it pure.” At his urging, prominent university professors developed a pseudo science that used measurements of skull and nose, hair color, and other physical attributes to determine racial origin and class. Racial science was taught in schools and universities and became a central theme of the Hitler Youth.
To strengthen, improve, and purify the nation, the Nazis forcibly sterilized racially mixed Germans and the mentally and physically handicapped, who were viewed as a blight on Germany’s racial integrity. Later, they would become the first victims of Nazi euthanasia.
Racism was at the very core of Nazi ideology. It determined policy and provided justification for mass murder. Jews, depicted as defilers of German racial purity, were its principle victims. While some Germans were embarrassed by Hitler’s crude anti-Semitism, most did not question the racial charges brought against the Jews. Intoxicated by Hitler’s vision of a strong, pure Germany, they ignored the persecution of their Jewish neighbors and friends.
The Gathering Storm
Loss of Rights
Hitler’s intention to isolate Jews and drive them outside daily existence in Germany began almost immediately after he assumed office. In April 1933 the Nazis enforced a boycott of Jewish businesses throughout Germany. It was followed by a series of other regulations that barred Jews from civil service jobs and the legal and teaching professions. Thousands of musicians, academicians, lawyers, doctors, actors, and artists were driven from their jobs. In the public schools, Jewish students were tormented and abused.
The Nuremberg Laws of 1935 defined Jews biologically as descendants of Jewish parents and grandparents and invalidated their German citizenship. Marriage between Jews and Aryans was forbidden. In Nazi Gemany, anti-Semitism was no longer based on religious bias. It became a matter of German blood and racial purity from which there was no escape. Even those who had converted to Christianity were identified as Jews.
German Jews became outcasts. Signs barring them from public places and villages were posted throughout Germany. Physical attacks were commonplace, and hundreds were arrested without cause and sent to concentration camps. In 1936 Jewish athletes were not permitted to represent Germany in the Olympic games.
The measures taken against the Jews were gradual but relentless. Deeply rooted in Germany, many Jews believed that Hitler’s anti-Semitic policies were only temporary. They attempted to accommodate themselves to the new situation by forming organizations that provided schools for their children and jobs for the unemployed. Even as the persecution intensified, their loyalty to Germany remained strong. Many found it hard to believe that the nation they loved and had fought for in World War I could turn against them.
On November 9, 1938, a violent anti-Jewish riot organized by the government broke out throughout Germany, Austria, and the Sudetenland. The outburst was sparked by the assassination of a German diplomat in Paris by a young Jew whose parents had been among 15,000 Jews forcibly deported from Germany. The explosion of violence was called Kristallnacht, or Night of Broken Glass.
Angry mobs torched synagogues and vandalized Jewish businesses, schools, and hospitals. Under instructions from the government, police and firemen did not interfere. Jewish homes were raided, and thousands were arrested and sent to concentration camps. Synagogues were burned down, and nearly a hundred Jews were murdered. When the two-day riot ended, Jews were ordered to clear the rubble and pay for the damage at their own expense. In the months that followed, the Nazis took further measures to impoverish the Jews. Their businesses and assets were confiscated, bank accounts blocked, and insurance policies canceled. To isolate them, a curfew was imposed, and they were prohibited from use of public transportation. Later they were required to relinquish most of their possessions and wear the yellow Star of David on their outer garments.
When news of the severe measures taken against the Jews spread around the world, the Nazis were widely condemned, but within Germany reaction was muted. Germans had already accepted the inevitable end to a Jewish presence in their country. And Kristallnacht shattered any illusions Jews had about living a normal existence in Hitler’s Third Reich.
Search for Refuge
By 1938 one in four German Jews had emigrated, and many others were seeking escape. Although the Nazis encouraged Jews to leave, they did not permit them to take their assets with them. Prominent scientists, academicians, and artists had little trouble finding countries willing to offer refuge, but others were less fortunate. As the number of people seeking asylum increased, country after country began to tighten their immigration policies.
In July 1938 an international conference was convened in Evian, France, to address the refugee crisis. Delegates from 32 nations expressed concern, but few were prepared to increase their immigration quotas. To make matters worse, the British severely limited Jewish immigration to Palestine, which had been designated as the Jewish National Home in 1922.
The Evian Conference was a cruel disappointment. Except for a few humanitarian gestures, it was clear that the world was indifferent to the plight of the Jews, a message that was not lost on the Nazis. On the day that the conference ended, one German newspaper declared, “Jews for Sale. Who Wants Them? No One.” That conclusion was confirmed a year later, when the ocean liner St. Louis was turned away from Cuba. Although they all held landing permits, only a few of the 937 passengers were permitted to disembark in Havana. Forced to leave the Cuban port, the St. Louis sailed along the coast of the United States and Canada but was denied permission to land. The passengers returned to Europe. Very few survived the war.
During this period one humanitarian gesture stands out. As the situation for Jews deteriorated in Germany, the British offered to provide haven for more than 9,000 children. In the United States, a similar effort to rescue Jewish children was rejected by Congress.
The Nazi Assault
On September 1, 1939, the German army invaded and conquered Poland. Half the country was claimed by Germany, the remaining half by the Soviet Union. The Nazis immediately launched a bloody campaign against Polish civilians. Under cover of war, Hitler’s troops were free to perpetrate terrible atrocities without fear of international condemnation. Nearly 3.5 million Jews lived in Poland. Those trapped in the German sector were uprooted from their homes. Most of them were congregated into a designated area of Poland where they were forced to move into sealed urban ghettos.
Overcrowding was severe and grew worse as hordes of deportees began arriving from Germany and Austria. Sanitary facilities were taxed far beyond capacity. Water and medicines were scarce, and fuel for heat was almost nonexistent.
Ghetto inhabitants who were used for forced labor by the Germans were paid with meager food rations that were barely enough to sustain them. Hunger stalked the ghettos, and thousands died of starvation. Others died of disease or were victims of frequent Nazi raids. Ghetto streets were littered with the bodies of the dead and dying. Carts collected the corpses and took them to common burial sites.
Escape from the ghettos was very difficult. Because of their size, children sometimes squeezed through the sewers or gaps in the walls to scrounge for food and other necessities on the other side. If apprehended, they were often executed. Adults who escaped were faced with the problem of finding safe haven. The most fortunate among them were able to join underground groups.
Inside the ghettos Jews attempted to maintain a semblance of normalcy and dignity. They created schools, soup kitchens, health facilities, religious services, orphanages, and clandestine newspapers, but as time passed, existence in the ghettos became a cruel and losing battle against hunger, disease, and terror. The Nazis had predicted that the ghettos would become “chambers of death,” and so they were.
The Final Solution
By 1941 Nazi troops occupied most of Europe. Flushed with victory, Hitler turned his troops eastward to invade the Soviet Union. Millions of Jews who thought they were safe within Soviet boundaries were trapped.
Special mobile killing units, the Einsatzgruppen, were assigned the task of liquidating Jews from the occupied areas. Aided by local collaborators, they went on a murderous spree. According to plan, Jews were collected in groups of up to 500 and marched to isolated areas where they were lined up and shot. Their bodies fell layer upon layer into large ravines or pits. Some were still alive. The killing squads murdered more than a million Jews and hundreds of thousands of other people.
During the summer of 1941, Hitler gave orders for the total physical extermination of Jews. None were to be left alive. The Nazis drafted a comprehensive plan called the Final Solution. Six extermination camps were established in Poland. Within months, Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, Majdanek, and Auschwitz-Birkenau were operational. Since they were conveniently located near railway lines, the transportation of Jews to the camps was easily arranged.
The extermination centers operated with cruel efficiency. An entire bureaucracy was required to operate them and the hundreds of other concentration camps that were located throughout Nazi- occupied Europe. The Final Solution involved the cooperation of thousands of people who became willing cogs in the Nazi assembly line of death.
By 1942 the Germans occupied most of Europe. Orders were issued to deport Jews to the camps in Poland from every corner of the occupied areas. In the ghettos, the Judenrat, the Nazi- appointed Jewish governing councils, were ordered to select quotas to be sent for resettlement in the east. They had little choice but to comply. Some ghetto inhabitants were evacuated by force, but some went willingly, enticed by promises of food and work. The Nazis emptied the ghettos gradually, first of the old and infirm, then of whole neighborhoods.
The deportees, believing the Nazis needed them as a work force, did not suspect that they were being taken to extermination centers. The Germans used every ruse to dupe the deportees, and when that did not work, they used brute force.
The victims were crammed into primitive cattle cars without food or sanitary facilities. Those who attempted to hide or escape were shot or beaten. The arduous journey often took days. At every stop suffering passengers clamored for water or even a handful of snow. Bystanders who tried to offer help were driven off by the Nazi guards. Many died on the trains. In summer they suffocated; in winter many froze to death.
The Machinery of Death
When the trains arrived at the death camps, the prisoners who had survived the journey stumbled out on the platform not knowing what lay ahead. Because there was general confusion and panic, the Nazis often went to great lengths to calm the new arrivals. The station platforms and buildings were disguised as normal railway stations. Nazi officers greeted the newcomers with false politeness, and sometimes camp orchestras played music.
Some prisoners attempted to question the uniformed inmates who worked at the station, but conversation was forbidden. Nazi guards assured everyone that they were going to be taken to shower rooms.
The newly arrived prisoners were divided according to their ability to walk. The elderly and infirm were whisked away quickly. Those who remained were separated, men in one line, women in another. Within moments, families were torn apart—few would ever be reunited.
In Sobibor, Treblinka, Chelmno, and Belzec, prisoners were marched directly from the trains to the well-disguised gas chambers. They were instructed to disrobe before taking showers. Although some became fearful and agitated, most could not imagine the worst. Unsuspecting, they followed orders and walked into the chambers to their death.
In two camps, Majdanek and Auschwitz, a small percentage of the prisoners were selected for forced labor. As lines of men and women stood before them at the train station, Nazi officers who were usually physicians quickly decided who would live and who would die. With a small motion of the hand, they sent the frail and elderly to the left to go directly to the gas chambers. Babies were torn from their mothers’ arms and handed to strangers who had been assigned to death. Those who appeared strong were waved to the right—they had been selected for a short life of slave labor.
The laborers faced immediate degradation. Their heads and bodies were shaved, and they were washed with corrosive chemicals. After a quick shower, uniforms were issued. At Auschwitz prisoners’ arms were tattooed with numbers, and they were no longer referred to by name.
The Nazis reduced the victims to consumable raw materials. Their hair was used to stuff mattresses. Their clothing and other possessions were sorted and sent to Germany for use there. Gold teeth were extracted from the mouths of corpses to be melted down into gold bars. Ashes from the crematoria became fertilizer. Nothing was wasted except life itself.
The first gassings were carried out in vans using carbon monoxide as the lethal agent. Later, Zyklon B gas was found to be more efficient. Gas chambers were constructed to resemble shower rooms. Every effort was made to disguise their deadly purpose. Signs along the paths leading to the chambers read, “To the Baths and Disinfecting Rooms.”
The condemned were told to undress and hang their clothes in an outer room. Sometimes they were given a bar of soap. Women and children entered the chambers first. The size of the gas chambers varied, but some could hold more than a thousand. They were always filled to capacity, victims squeezed together, standing shoulder to shoulder, some women still carrying their babies. When the iron door slammed shut, there were shouts of panic.
Zyklon B was discharged through vents in the ceiling of the gas chambers. About one third of the victims were asphyxiated immediately. The remainder, screaming and struggling for air, perished within 15 or 20 minutes.
Special prisoner units removed the bodies and transported them to crematoria to be incinerated. When the crematoria were overloaded or in disrepair, bodies were buried or burned in open pits.
Forced Labor Camps
The Walking Dead
At the entrance to Auschwitz, the prisoners selected for forced labor passed through a gate marked “Arbeit Macht Frei,” “Work Will Free You.” They were assigned to overcrowded, filthy barracks. In Auschwitz-Birkenau 800 people were housed in barracks that were intended to hold 48 horses. Three-tiered wooden bunks lined the walls, each shared by several prisoners. Those who could not find space slept on the floors. Bathroom facilities were primitive and inadequate, and their use was strictly regulated.
The guards rivaled each other in cruelty; beatings and brutality were daily fare. Regardless of weather conditions, daily roll calls lasted for hours. Prisoners were fed moldy bread, watery soup, coffee, and an occasional pat of margarine, a diet that could sustain them for only a short period of time. They survived mainly on fierce determination, hope, and luck.
During the daily roll calls, camp officers assessed the prisoners’ condition and selected those who appeared to be weak or sick for the gas chambers. The ability to work was essential to survival. Any weakness, even a slight limp or cough, warranted selection for death.
Although the Nazis desperately needed a work force to support their armed forces, the prisoners were considered expendable. The annihilation of the Jews was an overarching policy that superseded the German war effort.
The Last Days
By the winter of 1944-1945, the Nazis knew the war was lost, but the murder of Jews continued and, in some cases, was accelerated. As they retreated before the advancing Allied troops, the Nazis began a frantic attempt to conceal evidence of their crimes. They camouflaged camps and destroyed records. Crematoria were blown up, and corpses were exhumed and burned.
The prisoners, the most damaging evidence of all, were hastily evacuated from the camps in Poland. Some were packed into freight trains and shipped to camps within Germany. Others were marched hundreds of miles without food, water, or adequate clothing. Those who collapsed on the marches were shot. Their bodies were left unburied on the roads.
“At 9 a.m. each of us received a half loaf of bread and we marched out of the camp. It was very hot…and we marched until 6 p.m. During the entire time we received no water. Marching by a ditch, people bent down to draw a little water. They were immediately shot by the SS guards.Henech Abramovitch
At 6 p.m. we remained…in a field under open skies and spent the night. We received no water… the thirst tormented us terribly…. The following morning bread was distributed, one loaf for eight people. The first 1,500 received bread; for the rest of us nothing was left…. Our thirst was great and in fact, very many fell, not being able to march on. They were shot…. The next morning…we no longer got any food…. They led us to a body of water…. The first hundred men were led to the water, but instead of drinking water, the SS began shooting at the groups. Up to twenty men fell. So we drank no water and marched on.
There were 59 death marches. The small percentage of prisoners who reached Germany alive were crowded into camps that were more primitive than those in Poland. Food distributions stopped, and brutality continued to take its toll. Surrounded by the dead and dying, the prisoners grew weaker each day. Rumors that Allied troops were approaching buoyed their hopes, but for many, liberation would come too late.
Return to Life
As the Allied armies advanced, they discovered concentration camps throughout Europe. The scenes awaiting them were gruesome. The battle-hardened soldiers were sickened by what they saw—corpses everywhere; skeletal prisoners more dead than alive; crematoria filled with human ashes; storehouses full of victims’ clothing, shoes, and hair.
Soviet troops reached the camps in Poland and eastern Germany first. Their initial reports to the outside world were met with disbelief. Later, when the British and Americans liberated camps in western Europe, they viewed the horrifying evidence with their own eyes.
General Dwight Eisenhower toured the Ohrdruf camp and saw clear evidence of the crimes that had been committed there. He said he believed it to be his duty to witness the horrors so that he could “be in a position from then on to testify at first hand about these things, in case there ever grew up at home, the belief…that the stories of Nazi brutality were just propaganda.”
The Allies immediately began an intense effort to nurse the survivors back to health. Food supplies, medicines, and medical personnel were rushed in, but in many cases it was too late. Having endured years of brutal captivity, thousands died without being able to enjoy the freedom of liberation.
Among the American soldiers was Leon Bass, an African American familiar with discrimination. He served in a segregated army unit.
“I saw human beings who had been beaten, starved, and tortured…. They were standing there, skin and bones, dressed in striped pajamas…. Something happened when I walked through the gates. My blinders came off; my tunnel vision dissipated. I began to realize that human suffering is not delegated just to me and mine. Human suffering touches everybody. All people can suffer.”Leon Bass
At the end of the war in 1945, there were 7 to 9 million displaced people living outside their countries of origin, among them an estimated 1,400,000 Jews. The roads in war-torn Europe were clogged with people trying to make their way home. For the most part, those who were not Jewish were repatriated, but Jewish survivors who attempted to return home were often met with hostility and violence. Most of them felt they could not return to communities that had collaborated in their suffering or borne witness to it in silence.
The survivors made frantic attempts to trace their families but met with little success. Occasionally, one was fortunate to locate a sibling or even a spouse, but most were alone, destitute, and often in precarious health. They were housed in displaced persons camps that were set up by the Allies, sometimes at the same sites in which they had been held prisoner by the Nazis. Although food was distributed, living conditions in the crowded camps were dismal and did not improve until American president Harry Truman intervened.
Most of the survivors wanted to leave Europe. Some were permitted to emigrate to the United States, but thousands yearned to go to British-controlled Palestine, where they hoped to live in a Jewish state free from the hatreds that had destroyed their families. Although the British continued to limit the number of immigration certificates issued, the desperate survivors were not easily discouraged. Between 1945 and 1948, more than 250,000 made their way into Palestine by secret escape routes. If intercepted by the British, they were returned to internment camps.
In 1947 the Exodus set sail for Palestine with 4,500 Jewish passengers aboard. The British captured the ship and forced it to return to port in France. Tear gas was used to subdue the passengers who refused to disembark. News of the refugees’ plight drew international attention and aroused harsh criticism of the British.
Acts of Courage and Humanity
Jewish resistance to the Nazis took many forms. During the earliest years of oppression, the Jewish response was nonviolent. Only when the Jews fully understood the Nazis’ intentions did they use arms. Resistance became an act of courage and honor in the face of almost certain death. Nazi reprisals were swift and costly. In response to each insurgent incident, hundreds of innocent people were killed.
An estimated 20,000 to 30,000 Jews escaped to secluded areas to form their own fighting units or join other partisan groups. Guns, ammunition, and explosives were almost impossible to obtain, but wherever possible, partisans sabotaged Nazi troop movements and destroyed military supplies.
By mid-1942, when it became apparent that Jews were being transported to certain death, young men and women in the Warsaw ghetto organized a revolt. Using a small number of smuggled weapons, they forced the Nazis to retreat. The rebellion ended after a month when the Nazis burned the ghetto down building by building. The Warsaw ghetto uprising ended in defeat, but it inspired resistance in many other places.
Although prisoners knew there was little chance for victory, there were revolts in Treblinka, Sobibor, and Auschwitz. Hundreds of prisoners attempted to escape, but only a few succeeded.
At a time when every element of their lives was designed to weaken and kill them, the prisoners viewed even small things as resistance—to stay alive, to outlive the tormentors, to hide a fellow prisoner who had been selected for gassing, to share a piece of bread, to observe the Jewish holidays when it was forbidden, to remain human in the face of terrible evil. These were the daily expressions of resistance in every camp. In the midst of misery and humiliation, they were victories of the spirit.
The process of isolating and killing Jews required the cooperation of thousands of people, some in Nazi uniform, others who collaborated. An even greater number of people were bystanders who were simply indifferent to the suffering they observed all around them. Yet in the midst of utter depravity and darkness, there was a smaller group of remarkable human beings who offered a beacon of light and hope. They were rescuers who sometimes risked their own lives to save Jews. Some provided food and shelter. Others distributed false identity papers and visas. Many hid people and took children in as their own. Some found escape routes for fleeing refugees.
No one can accurately say how many lives they saved—some rescued thousands, others one or two. They acted out of conscience and a sense of personal responsibility. They came from many nations and all walks of life, some rich, some poor, some well educated, others barely literate.
The names of many rescuers will never be known. Those who have been identified are memorialized in Jerusalem at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority. They are the “Righteous among the Nations of the World.”
The transition to normal life after years of oppression was very difficult. Survivors, some of whom were barely past childhood, found themselves alone in the world without homes or the means to take care of themselves. Jewish agencies were set up to help them start new lives. In an affirmation of their belief in the future, many survivors married and started families soon after liberation. Their survival was a miracle; their children would be a symbol of victory and hope.
The Holocaust’s impact on Jews as a people cannot be exaggerated. The magnitude and ferocity of the Nazi assault cast a deep gloom over the Jewish people. The religious faith of some was shaken and the hopes of the assimilationists, who believed that Jews would one day be welcomed and absorbed into the non-Jewish world, were challenged. For many of the surviving Jews of Europe, Zionism, the dream of establishing a Jewish homeland, was the only viable response to the demonic anti-Semitism that had destroyed their world. Zionism, which called for the radical transformation of the Jews from victims to self-sufficient citizens in their own homeland, entered deeply into the Jewish spirit of the survivors and became an integral part of Jewish identity after the war.
In the fall of 1947, the United Nations voted to partition Palestine into two states, one Arab and one Jewish. The Star of David, once worn as a badge of shame, became the symbol on the flag of the new Jewish state. When Israel declared its independence on May 15, 1948, five Arab armies attacked the new nation. Many Holocaust survivors who had made their way to Palestine took up arms and once again fought for survival. Against great odds, the State of Israel emerged victorious, and the Jewish dream of a homeland became a reality. The monumental effort to absorb the Holocaust survivors who still remained in European displaced persons camps began.
In terms of numbers, the Jewish people have never fully recovered from the Holocaust. In 1939 there were approximately 18 million Jews in the world. Today, the number hovers around 12 million. In terms of numbers and spirit, the losses inflicted by the Nazis and their collaborators continue to haunt Jewish existence.
Out of the Ashes
After Germany’s defeat in 1945, the United Nations appointed an International Military Tribunal to bring the Nazis to justice. The tribunal met in Nuremberg, Germany, to try 22 leading Nazis. All but two of the defendants pleaded not guilty, claiming they were only following orders. Twelve were sentenced to death by hanging, seven were sent to prison, and three were found innocent. The IMT held 12 additional trials of high-ranking Nazi officials before it was dissolved. Adolph Hitler escaped punishment; he committed suicide, as did three of his top aides, Heinrich Himmler, Joseph Goebbels, and Hermann Goering.
Lower-level Nazi officials including camp guards and commandants, police, members of the
killing squads, and doctors who performed medical experiments on prisoners were tried by military
courts in Occupied Germany, Austria, and Italy. Rudolf Hoess, the commandant of Auschwitz,
was sentenced to death in Poland. Many of the Nazis who were tried and found guilty were not punished; their sentences were reduced or commuted.
A large number of war criminals escaped and found refuge outside Germany. Efforts to find them and bring them to justice have been ongoing, and some have been brought to trial. An estimated 10,000 entered the United States illegally. In 1961 Adolph Eichmann, an SS officer who claimed responsibility for the murder of 5 million Jews, was captured in Argentina and taken to Israel, where he was tried, found guilty, and sentenced to death.
The trials of the Nazi criminals set a precedent. For the first time in history, leaders of a regime were held legally responsible for crimes committed while carrying out their government’s policies. The trials set new standards of accountability for nations and individuals which are still relevant today.
The Holocaust haunts the present, reminding us of the worst of human possibilities. It leaves us with burdensome memory. The mass graves and ashes of the victims have long been covered over. Their faces inevitably fade with time, but the enormity and nature of the crimes committed against them remain indelibly imprinted in our minds and conscience.
Some may choose to forget, to assign the Holocaust to the dustbin of history. Indifference to the past is more comfortable. But in a world that grows more and more dangerous, indifference is not an option. In the words of survivor Emil Fackenheim, “…civilization must struggle with the memory because we cannot afford to bury it.”
For Hitler’s victims, bearing witness was the only attainable victory. In spite of the danger all around them, Jews in crowded ghettos and remote hiding places kept detailed accounts of their daily existence. In the camps the last request of the dying was often a plea to tell the world. In remembering their suffering, we not only honor their memory, we also commit ourselves to learning from the past.
The Nazis left a changed world in their wake. They set standards of barbarity that challenge civilization’s accepted norms of behavior. We cannot repair the damage they inflicted until we openly examine the harsh realities they created. We remember the Holocaust not to place blame but to learn to live in its aftermath. Memory is a warning, a call to vigilance and action.
The Holocaust defies meaning and challenges our belief in human progress. Passion triumphed over reason. Science was perverted to serve false racial premises, and the value of human life was sacrificed to primitive ideology. The result was a tragedy of major proportion. Although it is viewed as a Jewish calamity, the Holocaust has universal significance. It has become a paradigm for political extremism, human indifference, and tribalism. It is the negative against which all other human catastrophes are measured.
The Holocaust was not inevitable. Had individuals and nations protested when the persecution and violence first became evident, the carnage might have been avoided. Sadly, the world was mostly silent. Indifference to human suffering is never neutral; it is a terrible power unto itself.
Whether the Holocaust will ultimately be viewed as a rupture in history or simply as a chapter in the continuing saga of man’s inhumanity to man will depend on our willingness to fight the human tendency to estrangement and indifference. Empathy and involvement are the most effective defense against the radical ideologies and extremist leaders that continue to plague our world.
If we come to understand that our choices as individuals impact the course of history and the world in which we all live, history need not repeat itself.
The Holocaust is our legacy. We forget it at our own peril. If we choose to learn from it, we may use it as a torch to light the path to a better world where all of us see ourselves in the faces of strangers.