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This is a background article. See:

Main article: Holocaust survivors
Main article: Psychological issues raised by the Holocaust
File:Selection Birkenau ramp.jpg

"Selection" on the Judenrampe, Auschwitz, May/June 1944. To be sent to the right meant slave labor; to the left, the gas chambers. This image shows the arrival of Hungarian Jews from Carpatho-Ruthenia, many of them from the Berehov ghetto. It was taken by Ernst Hofmann or Bernhard Walter of the SS. Courtesy of Yad Vashem.[1]

The Holocaust (from the Greek ὁλόκαυστον (holókauston): holos, "completely" and kaustos, "burnt"), also known as haShoah (Hebrew: השואה), Churben (Yiddish: חורבן) is the term generally used to describe the genocide of approximately six million European Jews during World War II, as part of a program of deliberate extermination planned and executed by the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (Nazi) regime in Germany led by Adolf Hitler.[2]

Other groups were also persecuted and killed, including the Roma; Soviet civilians, Soviet prisoners of war; ethnic Poles; the disabled; homosexual men; and political and religious opponents.[3] Most scholars, however, define the Holocaust as a genocide of European Jewry alone,[4] or what the Nazis called the "Final Solution of the Jewish Question." Taking into account all the victims of Nazi persecution, the total number of victims would be between nine and 11 million.[5]

The persecution and genocide were accomplished in stages. Legislation to remove the Jews from civil society was enacted years before the outbreak of World War II. Concentration camps were established in which inmates were used as slave labour until they died of exhaustion or disease. Where the Third Reich conquered new territory in eastern Europe, specialized units called Einsatzgruppen murdered Jews and political opponents in mass shootings. Jews and Roma were crammed into ghettos before being transported hundreds of miles by freight train to extermination camps where, if they survived the journey, the majority of them were killed in gas chambers. Every arm of Nazi Germany's bureaucracy was involved in the logistics of the mass murder, turning the country into what one Holocaust scholar has called "a genocidal state".[6]

Template:The Holocaust

Etymology and use of the term

Main article: Names of the Holocaust

The term holocaust originally derived from the Greek word holókauston, meaning a "completely (holos) burnt (kaustos)" sacrificial offering to a god. Its Latin form (holocaustum) was first used with specific reference to a massacre of Jews by the chroniclers Roger of Howden[7] and Richard of Devizes in the 1190s. Since the late 19th century, it has been used primarily to refer to disasters or catastrophes.

The biblical word Shoah (שואה) (also spelled Sho'ah and Shoa), meaning "calamity," became the standard Hebrew term for the Holocaust as early as the 1940s.[8] Shoah is preferred by many Jews for a number of reasons, including the theologically offensive nature of the word holocaust, as a Greek pagan custom.[9]


The word holocaust has been used since the 18th century to refer to the violent deaths of a large number of people.[10] For example, Winston Churchill and other contemporaneous writers used it before World War II to describe the Armenian Genocide of World War I.[11] Since the 1950s its use has increasingly been restricted, with its usage now mainly used as a proper noun to describe the Holocaust perpetrated by the Nazi party.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

Holocaust was adopted as a translation of Shoah—a Hebrew word connoting catastrophe, calamity, disaster, and destruction[12]—which was used in 1940 in Jerusalem in a booklet called Sho'at Yehudei Polin, and translated as The Holocaust of the Jews of Poland. Shoah had earlier been used in the context of the Nazis as a translation of catastrophe; for example, in 1934, Chaim Weizmann told the Zionist Action Committee that Hitler's rise to power was an "unvorhergesehene Katastrophe, etwa ein neuer Weltkrieg" ("an unforeseen catastrophe, perhaps even a new world war"); the Hebrew press translated Katastrophe as Shoah.[13] In the spring of 1942, the Jerusalem historian BenZion Dinur (Dinaburg) used Shoah in a book published by the United Aid Committee for the Jews in Poland to describe the extermination of Europe's Jews, calling it a "catastrophe" that symbolized the unique situation of the Jewish people.[12][14] The word Shoah was chosen in Israel to describe the Holocaust, the term institutionalized by the Knesset on April 12, 1951, when it established Yom Ha-Shoah Ve Mered Ha-Getaot, the national day of remembrance. In the 1950s, Yad Vashem was routinely translating this into English as "the Disaster"; at that time, holocaust was often used to mean the conflagration of much of humanity in a nuclear war.[15] Since then, Yad Vashem has changed its practice; the word Holocaust, usually now capitalized, has come to refer principally to the genocide of the European Jews.[8][13]

The usual German term for the extermination of the Jews during the Nazi period was the euphemistic phrase Endlösung der Judenfrage (the "Final Solution of the Jewish Question"). In both English and German, "Final Solution" is widely used as an alternative to "Holocaust".[16] For a time after World War II, German historians also used the term Völkermord ("genocide"), or in full, der Völkermord an den Juden ("the genocide of the Jewish people"), while the prevalent term in Germany today is either Holocaust or increasingly Shoah. An attempt by the German TV documentarian Guido Knopp in 2000 to "Germanize" the term by spelling it Holokaust has not yet been successful.[17]

The word holocaust is also used in a wider sense to describe other actions of the Nazi regime. These include the killing of around half a million migrant Romani peoples, the Roma and Sinti, the deaths of several million Soviet prisoners of war, along with slave laborers, gay men, Jehovah's Witnesses, the disabled, and a vast assortment of perceived potential troublemakers and political opponents. The use of the word in this wider sense is objected to by many Jewish organizations, particularly those established to commemorate the Jewish Holocaust. Jewish organizations say that the word in its current sense was originally coined to describe the extermination of the Jews, and that the Jewish Holocaust was a crime on such a scale, and of such totality and specificity, as the culmination of the long history of European antisemitism, that it should not be subsumed into a general category with the other crimes of the Nazis.[18]

Even more hotly disputed is the extension of the word to describe events that have no connection with World War II. The terms Rwandan Holocaust and Cambodian Holocaust are used to refer to the Rwanda genocide of 1994 and the mass killings by the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia respectively, and African Holocaust is used to describe the slave trade and the colonization of Africa, also known as the Maafa.

Distinctive features

Compliance of Germany's institutions


Ghettos were established in Europe in which Jews were confined before being shipped to extermination camps.

Michael Berenbaum writes that Germany became a "genocidal state."[6] Every arm of the country's sophisticated bureaucracy was involved in the killing process. Parish churches and the Interior Ministry supplied birth records showing who was Jewish; the Post Office delivered the deportation and denaturalization orders; the Finance Ministry confiscated Jewish property; German firms fired Jewish workers and disenfranchised Jewish stockholders; the universities refused to admit Jews, denied degrees to those already studying, and fired Jewish academics; government transport offices arranged the trains for deportation to the camps; German pharmaceutical companies tested drugs on camp prisoners; companies bid for the contracts to build the crematoria; detailed lists of victims were drawn up using the Dehomag company's punch card machines, producing meticulous records of the killings. As prisoners entered the death camps, they were made to surrender all personal property, which was carefully catalogued and tagged before being sent to Germany to be reused or recycled. Berenbaum writes that the Final Solution of the Jewish question was "in the eyes of the perpetrators … Germany's greatest achievement."[19]

Saul Friedländer writes that: "Not one social group, not one religious community, not one scholarly institution or professional association in Germany and throughout Europe declared its solidarity with the Jews."[20] He writes that some Christian churches declared that converted Jews should be regarded as part of the flock, but even then only up to a point.

Friedländer argues that this makes the Holocaust distinctive because antisemitic policies were able to unfold without the interference of countervailing forces of the kind normally found in advanced societies, such as industry, small businesses, churches, and other vested interests and lobby groups.[20]

Dominance of ideology and the scale of the genocide

In other genocides, pragmatic considerations such as control of territory and resources were central to the genocide policy. Yehuda Bauer argues that:

[T]he basic motivation [of the Holocaust] was purely ideological, rooted in an illusionary world of Nazi imagination, where an international Jewish conspiracy to control the world was opposed to a parallel Aryan quest. No genocide to date had been based so completely on myths, on hallucinations, on abstract, nonpragmatic ideology – which was then executed by very rational, pragmatic means."[21]

Responding to the German philosopher Ernst Nolte who claimed that the Holocaust was not unique, the German historian Eberhard Jäckel wrote in 1986 that the Holocaust was unique because:

"the National Socialist killing of the Jews was unique in that never before had a state with the authority of its responsible leader decided and announced that a specific human group, including its aged, its women and its children and infants, would be killed as quickly as possible, and then carried thorugh this resolution using every possible means of state power"[22]

The slaughter was systematically conducted in virtually all areas of Nazi-occupied territory in what are now 35 separate European countries.[23] It was at its worst in Central and Eastern Europe, which had more than seven million Jews in 1939. About five million Jews were killed there, including three million in occupied Poland and over one million in the Soviet Union. Hundreds of thousands also died in the Netherlands, France, Belgium, Yugoslavia and Greece. The Wannsee Protocol makes clear that the Nazis also intended to carry out their "final solution of the Jewish question" in England and Ireland.[24]

Anyone with three or four Jewish grandparents was to be exterminated without exception. In other genocides, people were able to escape death by converting to another religion or in some other way assimilating. This option was not available to the Jews of occupied Europe.[25] All persons of recent Jewish ancestry were to be exterminated in lands controlled by Germany.[26]

Medical experiments

File:Dachau cold water immersion.jpg

A cold water immersion experiment at Dachau concentration camp presided over by Professor Holzlohner (left) and Dr. Rascher (right).

Further information: Nazi human experimentation

Another distinctive feature was the extensive use of human subjects in medical experiments. German physicians carried out such experiments at Auschwitz, Dachau, Buchenwald, Ravensbrück, Sachsenhausen and Natzweiler concentration camps.[27]

The most notorious of these physicians was Dr. Josef Mengele, who worked in Auschwitz. His experiments included placing subjects in pressure chambers, testing drugs on them, freezing them, attempting to change eye color by injecting chemicals into children's eyes and various amputations and other brutal surgeries.[27] The full extent of his work will never be known because the truckload of records he sent to Dr. Otmar von Verschuer at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute were destroyed by von Verschuer.[28] Subjects who survived Mengele's experiments were almost always killed and dissected shortly afterwards.


Romani children in Auschwitz, victims of medical experiments.

He seemed particularly keen on working with Romani children. He would bring them sweets and toys, and would personally take them to the gas chamber. They would call him "Onkel Mengele".[29] Vera Alexander was a Jewish inmate at Auschwitz who looked after 50 sets of Romani twins:

I remember one set of twins in particular: Guido and Ina, aged about four. One day, Mengele took them away. When they returned, they were in a terrible state: they had been sewn together, back to back, like Siamese twins. Their wounds were infected and oozing pus. They screamed day and night. Then their parents – I remember the mother's name was Stella – managed to get some morphine and they killed the children in order to end their suffering.[29]

Victims and death toll

Victims Killed Source
Jews 5.9 million [30]
Soviet POWs 2–3 million [31]
Ethnic Poles 1.8–2 million [32][33]
Roma 220,000–500,000 [34]
Disabled 200,000–250,000 [35]
Freemasons 80,000–200,000 [36]
Homosexuals 5,000–15,000 [37]
2,500–5,000 [38]

The number of victims depends on which definition of "the Holocaust" is used. Donald Niewyk and Francis Nicosia write in The Columbia Guide to the Holocaust that the term is commonly defined[3] as the mass murder, and attempt to wipe out, European Jewry, which would bring the total number of victims to just under six million — around 78 percent of the 7.3 million Jews in occupied Europe at the time.[39]

Broader definitions include the 220,000 Roma and Sinti, and the 200,000 disabled and mentally ill who were killed, because these groups were also targeted for eradication. A broader definition still includes political and religious dissenters, two to three million Soviet POWs, and 5,000 to 15,000 gay men, bringing the death toll to nine million. This rises to 11 million if the deaths of 1.8 to 2 million ethnic Poles are included. The broadest definition would include Soviet civilians, raising the death toll to 17 million.[3] R.J. Rummel estimates the total democide death toll of Nazi Germany to be 21 million.


Further information: The Destruction of the European Jews and The War Against the Jews
File:The War Against the JewsTable.png

Figures from Lucy Dawidowicz showing the annihilation of the Jewish population of Europe.[30]


Members of the Sonderkommando burn corpses in the fire pits at Auschwitz II-Birkenau. Photographer Alberto Errera, August 1944. Courtesy of the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum, Poland.[40]

Since 1945, the most commonly cited figure for the total number of Jews killed has been six million. The Yad Vashem Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem, writes that there is no precise figure for the number of Jews killed. The figure most commonly used is the six million cited by Adolf Eichmann, a senior SS official. Early calculations range from 5.1 million from Raul Hilberg, to 5.95 million from Jacob Leschinsky. Yisrael Gutman and Robert Rozett in the Encyclopedia of the Holocaust estimate 5.59–5.86 million.[41] A study led by Wolfgang Benz of the Technical University of Berlin suggests 5.29–6.2 million.[42][43] Yad Vashem writes that the main sources for these statistics are comparisons of prewar and postwar censuses and population estimates, and Nazi documentation on deportations and murders. Yad Vashem reports that it has the names of four million of the victims.[42]

Hilberg's estimate of 5.1 million, in the third edition of The Destruction of the European Jews, includes over 800,000 who died from "ghettoization and general privation"; 1,400,000 killed in open-air shootings; and up to 2,900,000 who perished in camps. Hilberg estimates the death toll of Jews in Poland as up to 3,000,000.[44] Hilberg's numbers are generally considered to be a conservative estimate, as they typically include only those deaths for which records are available, avoiding statistical adjustment.[45]

British historian Martin Gilbert used a similar approach in his Atlas of the Holocaust, but arrived at a number of 5.75 million Jewish victims, since he estimated higher numbers of Jews killed in Russia and other locations.[46] Lucy S. Dawidowicz used pre-war census figures to estimate that 5.934 million Jews died (see her figures (left) here).[47]

There were about 8 to 10 million Jews in the territories controlled directly or indirectly by the Nazis (the uncertainty arises from the lack of knowledge about how many Jews there were in the Soviet Union). The six million killed in the Holocaust thus represent 60 to 75 percent of these Jews. Of Poland's 3.3 million Jews, over 90 percent were killed. The same proportion were killed in Latvia and Lithuania, but most of Estonia's Jews were evacuated in time. Of the 750,000 Jews in Germany and Austria in 1933, only about a quarter survived. Although many German Jews emigrated before 1939, the majority of these fled to Czechoslovakia, France or the Netherlands, from where they were later deported to their deaths. In Czechoslovakia, Greece, the Netherlands, and Yugoslavia, over 70 percent were killed. More than 50 percent were killed in Belgium, Hungary, and Romania. It is likely that a similar proportion were killed in Belarus and Ukraine, but these figures are less certain. Countries with notably lower proportions of deaths include Bulgaria, Denmark, France, Italy, and Norway.

Year Jews Killed[48]
1933–1940 under 100,000
1941 1,100,000
1942 2,700,000
1943 500,000
1944 600,000
1945 100,000

The number of people killed at the major extermination camps is estimated as: Auschwitz-Birkenau: 1.4 million;[49] Treblinka: 870,000;[50] Belzec: 600,000;[51] Majdanek: 360,000;[52] Chelmno: 320,000;[53] Sobibór: 250,000;[54] and Maly Trostinets: 65,000.[55] This gives a total of over 3.8 million; of these, 80–90% were estimated to be Jews. These seven camps alone thus accounted for half the total number of Jews killed in the entire Nazi Holocaust. Virtually the entire Jewish population of Poland died in these camps.

In addition to those who died in the above extermination camps, at least half a million Jews died in other camps, including the major concentration camps in Germany. These were not extermination camps, but had large numbers of Jewish prisoners at various times, particularly in the last year of the war as the Nazis withdrew from Poland. About a million people died in these camps, and although the proportion of Jews is not known with certainty, it was estimated to be at least 50 percent. Another 800,000 to one million Jews were killed by the Einsatzgruppen in the occupied Soviet territories (an approximate figure, since the Einsatzgruppen killings were frequently undocumented).[56] Many more died through execution or of disease and malnutrition in the ghettos of Poland before they could be deported.


Main article: Generalplan Ost

One of Hitler's ambitions at the start of the war was to exterminate, expel, or enslave most or all Slavs from their native lands so as to make living space for German settlers. This plan of genocide[57] was to be carried into effect gradually over a period of 25-30 years.[58]

Ethnic Poles

File:Execution of Poles by German Einsatzkomanndo Oktober1939.jpg

Execution of Poles by Einsatzkommando – Leszno, October 1939

File:Death penalty for Jews outside ghetto and for Poles helping Jews anyway 1941.jpg

Announcement of death penalty for Poles helping Jews.

File:Polish civilians murdered by German-SS-troops in Warsaw Uprising Warsaw August 1944.jpg

Polish civilians after execution in Warsaw.

File:P Oboz.jpg

Auschwitz I patch with the letter "P": required wear for Polish inmates

Main article: Nazi crimes against ethnic Poles

German planners in November 1939 called for nothing less than ‘the complete destruction’ of the Polish people.[59] "All Poles", Heinrich Himmler swore, "will disappear from the world". The Polish state under German occupation was to be cleared of ethnic Poles and settled by German colonists.[60] Of the Poles, by 1952 only about 3-4 million of them were supposed to be left residing in the former Poland, and then only to serve as slaves for German settlers. They were to be forbidden to marry, the existing ban on any medical help to Poles in Germany would be extended, and eventually Poles would cease to exist. On August 22, 1939, about one week before the onset of the war, Hitler "prepared, for the moment only in the East, my 'Death's Head' formations with orders to kill without pity or mercy all men, women and children of Polish descent or language. Only in this way can we obtain the living space we need."[61]

The genocide against ethnic Poles was not at the scale of the genocide against ethnic Jews. Nazi planners decided that a genocide against ethnic Poles at the same scale as against ethnic Jews could not proceed in the short run since "such a solution to the Polish question would represent a burden to the German people into the distant future, and everywhere rob us of all understanding, not least in that neighbouring peoples would have to reckon at some appropriate time, with a similar fate".[59] Between 1.8 and 2.1 million non-Jewish Polish citizens perished in German hands during the course of the war, about four-fifths of whom were ethnic Poles with the remaining fifth being ethnic minorities of Ukrainians and Belarusians, the vast majority of them civilians.[32][33] At least 200,000 of these victims died in concentration camps with about 146,000 being killed in Auschwitz. Many others died as a result of general massacres such as in the Warsaw Uprising where between 120,000 and 200,000 civilians were killed.[62] The policy of the Germans in Poland included diminishing food rations, conscious lowering of the state of hygiene and depriving the population of medical services. The general mortality rate rose from 13 to 18 per thousand.[63] Overall, about 5.1 million of the victims of Nazism were Polish citizens,[33] both Jewish and non-Jewish, and over the course of the war Poland lost over 16 percent of its pre-war population; 3.1 million (90 percent) of the 3.4 million Polish Jews and 2.0 million (six percent) of the 31.7 million non-Jewish Polish citizens died in German hands.[64] Over 90 percent of the death toll came through non-military losses, as most of the civilians were targeted by various deliberate actions by Germans and Soviets.[62]

A common German practice in occupied Poland was to round up random civilians on the streets of Polish cities. The term "łapanka" carried a sardonic connotation from the word's earlier use for the children's game known in English as "tag." Between 1942 and 1944 there were around 400 victims of this practice daily in Warsaw alone, with numbers on some days reaching several thousand. For example, on September 19, 1942, close to 3000 men and women caught in the round-ups all over Warsaw the previous two days were sent by train to Germany.[65] Additionally, between 20,000 and 200,000[66] Polish children were forcibly separated from their parents and, after undergoing scrutiny to ensure that they were of "Nordic" racial stock, were sent to Germany to be raised by German families.[67]

South and East Slavs

Main article: World War II persecution of Serbs

In the Balkans, up to 500,000 Serbs were killed in Yugoslavia.[68][69] Hitler's high plenipotentiary in South East Europe, Hermann Neubacher, later wrote: "When leading Ustaše state that one million Orthodox Serbs (including babies, children, women and old men) were slaughtered, this in my opinion is a boasting exaggeration. On the basis of reports I received, I estimated that threequarters of a million defenceless people were slaughtered."[70] German forces, under express orders from Hitler, fought with a special vengeance against the Serbs, who were considered Untermensch[71] The Ustaše collaborators conducted a systematic extermination of large numbers of people for political, religious or racial reasons. The most numerous victims were Serbs The USHMM and Jewish Virtual Library reports between 56,000 and 97,000 persons were killed at the Jasenovac concentration camp[72][73][74] However, Yad Vashem reports 600,000 deaths at Jasenovac.[75]

In Belarus, Nazi Germany imposed a regime in the country that was responsible for burning down some 9,000 villages, deporting some 380,000 people for slave labour, and killing hundreds of thousands of civilians. More than 600 villages, like Khatyn, were burned along with their entire population and at least 5,295 Belarusian settlements were destroyed by the Nazis and some or all of their inhabitants killed. Altogether, 2,230,000 people (24 percent of the population) were killed during the three years of German occupation.[76] This includes 370,000 military dead[77] and 245,000 Jews killed by the Einsatzgruppen.[47]

Soviet POWs


Soviet POWs in German captivity

Main article: Nazi crimes against Soviet POWs

According to Michael Berenbaum, between two and three million Soviet prisoners-of-war—or around 57 percent of all Soviet POWs—died of starvation, mistreatment, or executions between June 1941 and May 1945, and most those during their first year of captivity. According to other estimates by Daniel Goldhagen, an estimated 2.8 million Soviet POWs died in eight months in 1941–42, with a total of 3.5 million by mid-1944.[78] The USHMM has estimated that 3.3 million of the 5.7 million Soviet POWs died in German custody—compared to 8,300 of 231,000 British and American prisoners.[79] The death rates decreased as the POWs were needed to work as slaves to help the German war effort; by 1943, half a million of them had been deployed as slave labor.[31]



Roma arrivals in the Belzec extermination camp, 1940.

File:Persecution of Roma.gif

Map of persecution of the Roma.

Main article: Porajmos

Because the Roma and Sinti are traditionally a secretive people with a culture based on oral history, less is known about their experience of the genocide than about that of any other group.[80][81] Yehuda Bauer writes that the lack of information can be attributed to the Roma's distrust and suspicion, and to their humiliation, because some of the basic taboos of Romani culture regarding hygiene and sexual contact were violated at Auschwitz. Bauer writes that "[m]ost [Roma] could not relate their stories involving these tortures; as a result, most kept silent and thus increased the effects of the massive trauma they had undergone."[82]

Donald Niewyk and Frances Nicosia write that the death toll was at least 130,000 of the nearly one million Roma and Sinti in Nazi-controlled Europe.[80] Michael Berenbaum writes that serious scholarly estimates lie between 90,000 and 220,000.[83] A detailed study by the late Sybil Milton, formerly senior historian at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, calculated a death toll of at least 220,000, and possibly closer to 500,000.[84][85] Ian Hancock, Director of the Program of Romani Studies and the Romani Archives and Documentation Center at the University of Texas at Austin, has argued in favour of a higher figure of between 500,000 and 1,500,000.[86] Hancock writes that, proportionately, the death toll equaled "and almost certainly exceed[ed], that of Jewish victims."[87]

… they wish to toss into the Ghetto everything that is characteristically dirty, shabby, bizarre, of which one ought to be frightened and which anyway had to be destroyed.

Emmanuel Ringelblum on the Roma.[88]

Before being sent to the camps, the victims were herded into ghettos, including several hundred into the Warsaw Ghetto.[89] Further east, teams of Einsatzgruppen tracked down Roma encampments and murdered the inhabitants on the spot, leaving no records of the victims. They were also targeted by the puppet regimes that cooperated with the Nazis, e.g. the Ustaše regime in Croatia, where a large number of Roma were killed in the Jasenovac concentration camp.

In May 1942, the Roma were placed under the same labor and social laws as the Jews. On December 16, 1942, Heinrich Himmler, Commander of the SS and regarded as the "architect" of the Nazi genocide,[90] issued a decree that "Gypsy Mischlinge (mixed breeds), Roma Gypsies, and members of the clans of Balkan origins who are not of German blood" should be sent to Auschwitz, unless they had served in the Wehrmacht.[91] On January 29, 1943, another decree ordered the deportation of all German Roma to Auschwitz.

This was adjusted on November 15, 1943, when Himmler ordered that, in the occupied Soviet areas, "sedentary Gypsies and part-Gypsies (Mischlinge) are to be treated as citizens of the country. Nomadic Gypsies and part-Gypsies are to be placed on the same level as Jews and placed in concentration camps."[92] Bauer argues that this adjustment reflected Nazi ideology that the Roma, originally an Aryan population, had been "spoiled" by non-Romani blood.[93]

Disabled and mentally ill

"60,000 RM is what this person with genetic defects costs the community during his lifetime. Fellow German,[94] that's your money too …"[95]

Main article: Nazi eugenics
Our starting point is not the individual:

We do not subscribe to the view that one should feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, or clothe the naked … Our objectives are different: We must have a healthy people in order to prevail in the world.

Joseph Goebbels, 1938.[96]

Aktion T4 was a program established in 1939 to maintain the genetic purity of the German population by killing or sterilizing German and Austrian citizens who were judged to be disabled or suffering from mental disorder.[97]

Between 1939 and 1941, 80,000 to 100,000 mentally ill adults in institutions were killed; 5,000 children in institutions; and 1,000 Jews in institutions.[98] Outside the mental health institutions, the figures are estimated as 20,000 (according to Dr. Georg Renno, the deputy director of Schloss Hartheim, one of the euthanasia centers) or 400,000 (according to Frank Zeireis, the commandant of Mauthausen concentration camp).[98] Another 300,000 were forcibly sterilized.[99] Overall it has been estimated that over 200,000 individuals with mental disorders of all kinds were put to death, although their mass murder has received relatively little historical attention. Despite not being formally ordered to take part, psychiatrists and psychiatric institutions were at the center of justifying, planning and carrying out the atrocities at every stage, and "constituted the connection" to the later annihilation of Jews and other "undesirables" in the Holocaust.[100]

The program was named after Tiergartenstraße 4, the address of a villa in the Berlin borough of Tiergarten, the headquarters of the Gemeinnützige Stiftung für Heil und Anstaltspflege (General Foundation for Welfare and Institutional Care),[101] led by Philipp Bouhler, head of Hitler’s private chancellery (Kanzlei des Führer der NSDAP) and Karl Brandt, Hitler’s personal physician.

Brandt was tried in December 1946 at Nuremberg, along with 22 others, in a case known as United States of America vs. Karl Brandt et al., also known as the Doctors' Trial. He was hanged at Landsberg Prison on June 2, 1948.



The Homomonument in Amsterdam, a memorial to the gay victims of Nazi Germany.

Main article: Institut für Sexualwissenschaft

Between 5,000 and 15,000 homosexuals of German nationality are estimated to have been sent to concentration camps.[37] James D. Steakley writes that what mattered in Germany was criminal intent or character, rather than criminal acts, and the "gesundes Volksempfinden" ("healthy sensibility of the people") became the leading normative legal principle.[102] In 1936, Himmler created the "Reich Central Office for the Combating of Homosexuality and Abortion." Homosexuality was declared contrary to "wholesome popular sentiment,"[37] and homosexuals were consequently regarded as "defilers of German blood." The Gestapo raided gay bars, tracked individuals using the address books of those they arrested, used the subscription lists of gay magazines to find others, and encouraged people to report suspected homosexual behavior and to scrutinize the behavior of their neighbours.[37][102]

Tens of thousands were convicted between 1933 and 1944 and sent to camps for "rehabilitation," where they were identified by yellow armbands[103] and later pink triangles worn on the left side of the jacket and the right trouser leg, which singled them out for sexual abuse.[102] Hundreds were castrated by court order.[104] They were humiliated, tortured, used in hormone experiments conducted by SS doctors, and killed.[37] Steakley writes that the full extent of gay suffering was slow to emerge after the war. Many victims kept their stories to themselves because homosexuality remained criminalized in postwar Germany. Nevertheless, only a small percentage (around two percent) of German homosexuals were persecuted by Nazis.[102]

Freemasons and Jehovah's Witnesses

File:Liberté chérie2.jpg

A memorial for Loge Liberté chérie, founded in November 1943 in Hut 6 of Emslandlager VII (KZ Esterwegen), one of two Masonic Lodges founded in a Nazi concentration camp.

Main article: Suppression of Freemasonry#Nazi Germany and Occupied Europe

In Mein Kampf, Hitler wrote that Freemasonry had "succumbed" to the Jews: "The general pacifistic paralysis of the national instinct of self-preservation begun by Freemasonry is then transmitted to the masses of society by the Jewish press."[105] Freemasons were sent to concentration camps as political prisoners, and forced to wear an inverted red triangle.[106] It is estimated that between 80,000 and 200,000 were killed.[107][108] However , the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum believes “because many of the Freemasons who were arrested were also Jews and/or members of the political opposition, it is not known how many individuals were placed in Nazi concentration camps and/or were targeted only because they were Freemasons.”[109]

Refusing to pledge allegiance to the Nazi party or to serve in the military, roughly 12,000 Jehovah's Witnesses were forced to wear a purple triangle and placed in camps, where they were given the option of renouncing their faith and submitting to the state's authority. Between 2,500 and 5,000 were killed.[38] Historian Detlef Garbe, director at the Neuengamme (Hamburg) Memorial, writes that "no other religious movement resisted the pressure to conform to National Socialism with comparable unanimity and steadfastness."[110]

Political activists

German communists, socialists and trade unionists were among the earliest domestic opponents of Nazism[111] and were also among the first to be sent to concentration camps. Hitler claimed that communism was a Jewish ideology which the Nazis termed "Judeo-Bolshevism", and that socialists and trade unionists were allies and servants of Jewish-controlled international communism. Fear of communist agitation was used as justification for the Enabling Act of 1933, the law which gave Hitler his original dictatorial powers. Herman Göring later testified at the Nuremberg Trials that the Nazis' willingness to repress German communists prompted President Paul von Hindenburg and the German elite to cooperate with the Nazis. The first concentration camp was built at Dachau, in March 1933, to imprison German communists, socialists, trade unionists and others opposed to the Nazis.[112] Communists, social democrats and other political prisoners were forced to wear a red triangle.

Hitler and the Nazis also hated German leftists because of their resistance to the party's racism. Many leaders of German leftist groups were Jews, and Jews were especially prominent among the leaders of the Spartacist Uprising in 1919. Hitler already referred to Marxism and "Bolshevism" as a means of "the international Jew" to undermine "racial purity" and survival of the Nordics or Aryans (sometimes of all white Europeans), as well to stir up socioeconomic class tension and labor unions against the government or state-owned businesses. Within the concentration camps such as Buchenwald, German communists were privileged in comparison to Jews because of their "racial purity."[113]

Whenever the Nazis occupied a new territory, members of communist, socialist, or anarchist groups were normally to be the first persons detained or executed. Evidence of this is found in Hitler's infamous Commissar Order, in which he ordered the summary execution of all political commissars captured among Soviet soldiers, as well as the execution of all Communist Party members in German held territory.[114][115] Einzatsgruppen carried out these executions in the east.[116]

Nacht und Nebel (German for "Night and Fog") was a directive (German: Erlass

) of Hitler on December 7, 1941 signed and implemented by Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces Wilhelm Keitel, resulting in kidnapping and disappearance of many political activists throughout Nazi Germany's occupied territories.

Development and execution


See also: Nazi boycott of Jewish businesses

At 10 a.m. on April 1, 1933, members of the Sturmabteilung moved into place all over Germany, positioning themselves outside Jewish-owned businesses to deter customers. These stormtroopers are outside Israel's Department Store in Berlin. The signs read: "Germans! Defend yourselves! Don't buy from Jews." ("Deutsche! Wehrt Euch! Kauft nicht bei Juden!")[117] The store was ransacked during Kristallnacht in 1938, then handed over to a non-Jewish family.

The Nazi Party under Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany on January 30, 1933, and the persecution and exodus of Germany's 525,000 Jews began almost immediately. In his autobiography Mein Kampf (1925), Hitler had been open about his hatred of Jews, and gave ample warning of his intention to drive them from Germany's political, intellectual, and cultural life. He did not write that he would attempt to exterminate them, but he is reported to have been more explicit in private. As early as 1922, he allegedly told Major Joseph Hell, at the time a journalist:

Once I really am in power, my first and foremost task will be the annihilation of the Jews. As soon as I have the power to do so, I will have gallows built in rows – at the Marienplatz in Munich, for example – as many as traffic allows. Then the Jews will be hanged indiscriminately, and they will remain hanging until they stink; they will hang there as long as the principles of hygiene permit. As soon as they have been untied, the next batch will be strung up, and so on down the line, until the last Jew in Munich has been exterminated. Other cities will follow suit, precisely in this fashion, until all Germany has been completely cleansed of Jews.[118]

Jewish intellectuals were among the first to leave. The philosopher Walter Benjamin left for Paris on March 18, 1933. Novelist Leon Feuchtwanger went to Switzerland. The conductor Bruno Walter fled after being told that the hall of the Berlin Philharmonic would be burned down if he conducted a concert there: the Frankfurter Zeitung explained on April 6 that Walter and fellow conductor Otto Klemperer had been forced to flee because the government was unable to protect them against the "mood" of the German public, which had been provoked by "Jewish artistic liquidators."[119] Albert Einstein was visiting the U.S. on January 30, 1933. He returned to Ostende in Belgium, never to set foot in Germany again, and calling events there a "psychic illness of the masses"; he was expelled from the Kaiser Wilhelm Society and the Prussian Academy of Sciences, and his citizenship was rescinded.[120] Saul Friedländer writes that when Max Liebermann, honorary president of the Prussian Academy of Arts, resigned his position, not one of his colleagues expressed a word of sympathy, and he died ostracized two years later. When the police arrived in 1943 with a stretcher to deport his 85-year-old bedridden widow, she committed suicide with an overdose of barbiturates rather than be taken.[120]

Throughout the 1930s, the legal, economic, and social rights of Jews were steadily restricted. Friedländer writes that, for the Nazis, Germany drew its strength for its "purity of blood" and its "rootedness in the sacred German earth."[121] In 1933, a series of laws were passed to exclude Jews from key areas: the Civil Service Law; the physicians' law; and the farm law, forbidding Jews from owning farms or taking part in agriculture. Jewish lawyers were disbarred, and in Dresden, Jewish lawyers and judges were dragged out of their offices and courtrooms, and beaten up.[122] Jews were excluded from schools and universities, and from belonging to the Journalists' Association, or from being newspaper editors.[121] The Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung of April 27, 1933 wrote:

A self-respecting nation cannot, on a scale accepted up to now, leave its higher activities in the hands of people of racially foreign origin … Allowing the presence of too high a percentage of people of foreign origin in relation to their percentage in the general population could be interpreted as an acceptance of the superiority of other races, something decidedly to be rejected.[123]

In 1935, Hitler introduced the Nuremberg Laws, which stripped German Jews of their citizenship and deprived them of all civil rights. In his speech introducing the laws, Hitler said that if the "Jewish problem" cannot be solved by these laws, it "must then be handed over by law to the National-Socialist Party for a final solution (Endlösung)."[124] The expression "Endlösung" became the standard Nazi euphemism for the extermination of the Jews. In January 1939, he said in a public speech: "If international-finance Jewry inside and outside Europe should succeed once more in plunging the nations into yet another world war, the consequences will not be the Bolshevization of the earth and thereby the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation (vernichtung) of the Jewish race in Europe."[125]

The question of the treatment of the Jews became an urgent one for the Nazis after September 1939, when they occupied the western half of Poland, home to about two million Jews. Himmler's right-hand man, Reinhard Heydrich, recommended concentrating all the Polish Jews in ghettos in major cities, where they would be put to work for the German war industry. The ghettos would be in cities located on railway junctions, so that, in Heydrich's words, "future measures can be accomplished more easily."[126] During his interrogation in 1961, Adolf Eichmann testified that the expression "future measures" was understood to mean "physical extermination."[126]

Increasing persecution and pogroms (1938–1942)

File:1938 Interior of Berlin synagogue after Kristallnacht.jpg

Berlin's Fasanenstrasse synagogue after Kristallnacht, November 9–10, 1938.

Main article: Pogrom

On Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, on November 9, 1938, Jews were attacked and Jewish property was vandalized across Germany. Approximately 100 Jews were killed, and another 30,000 sent to concentration camps, while over 7,000 Jewish shops and 1,668 synagogues (almost every synagogue in Germany) were damaged or destroyed. Similar events took place in Austria, particularly Vienna.

A number of deadly pogroms by local populations occurred during the Second World War, some with Nazi encouragement, and some spontaneously. This included the Iaşi pogrom in Romania on June 30, 1941, in which as many 14,000 Jews were killed by Romanian residents and police, and the Jedwabne pogrom, in which between 380 and 1,600 Jews were killed by local Poles in July 1941.[127]

Madagascar plan

While Jews were murdered on mass scale since 1939, in 1940 some Nazis considered eliminating Jews by the unrealistic Madagascar Plan which, however futile, in retrospect did constitute an important psychological step on the path to the Holocaust.[128] The planning was carried out by Eichmann's office; Heydrich called it a "territorial final solution". The plan was to ship all European Jews to Madagascar. In view of the difficulties of supporting more population in the General Gouvernment in July 1940, Hitler, still hoping for success with the Madagascar plan, stopped the deportation of Jews there.[129] This was temporary, however, as the military situation offered no possibility to conquer Britain. The plan may have been foreseen as a remote and slower genocide through the unfavorable conditions on the island.[130] Although the Final Solution was already in place and Jews were being exterminated, the formal declaration of the Plan's end was abandoned on February 10, 1942, when the German Foreign Office was given an official explanation that due to the war with the Soviet Union Jews are going to be "sent to the east" [131]

Early measures in German occupied Poland


Germany 1941, including occupied Poland and the General Government area.


German policemen tormenting a Jew in Rzeszów, Poland.

Main article: Armia Krajowa
I ask nothing of the Jews except that they should disappear.

'Hans Frank, Nazi governor of Poland.[132]

Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, leading Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, and France to declare war. Hans Frank, a German lawyer, was appointed Governor-General in October.

In September, Himmler appointed Reinhard Heydrich head of the Reich Security Head Office (Reichssicherheitshauptamt or RSHA), a body overseeing the work of the SS, the Security Police (SD), and the Gestapo in occupied Poland and charged with carrying out the policy towards the Jews described in Heydrich's report. (This body should not be confused with the Rasse und Siedlungshauptamt or Race and Resettlement Main Office, RuSHA, which was involved in carrying out the deportation of Jews.) First organized murders of Jews by German forces occurred during Operation Tannenberg and through Selbstschutz units. Later the Jews were herded into ghettos, mostly in the General Government area of central Poland, where they were put to work under the Reich Labor Office headed by Fritz Saukel. Here many thousands were killed in various ways, and many more died of disease, starvation, and exhaustion, but there was still no program of systematic killing. There is no doubt, however, that the Nazis saw forced labor as a form of extermination. The expression Vernichtung durch Arbeit ("destruction through work") was frequently used.

When the Germans occupied Norway, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Belgium, and France in 1940, and Yugoslavia and Greece in 1941, anti-Semitic measures were also introduced into these countries, although the pace and severity varied greatly from country to country according to local political circumstances. Jews were removed from economic and cultural life and were subject to various restrictive laws, but physical deportation did not occur in most places before 1942. The Vichy regime in occupied France actively collaborated in persecuting French Jews. Germany's allies Italy, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Finland were pressured to introduce antisemitic measures, but for the most part they did not comply until compelled to do so. The German puppet regime in Croatia, on the other hand, began actively persecuting Jews on its own initiative [How to reference and link to summary or text].

During 1940 and 1941, the murder of large numbers of Jews in German occupied Poland continued, and the deportation of Jews from Germany, Austria and the "Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia" (today's Czech Republic) to General Gouvernment was undertaken. Eichmann was assigned the task of removing all Jews from these territories, although the deportation of Jews from Germany, particularly Berlin, was not officially completed until 1943. (Many Berlin Jews were able to survive in hiding.) By December 1939, 3.5 million Jews were crowded into the General Government area.

The Governor-General, Hans Frank, noted that this many people could not be simply shot. "We shall have to take steps, however, designed in some way to eliminate them." It was this dilemma which led the SS to experiment with large-scale killings using poison gas. This method had already been used during Hitler's campaign of euthanasia in Germany (known as "T4"). SS Obersturmführer Christian Wirth seems to have been the inventor of the gas chamber.

Although it was clear by 1941 that the SS hierarchy led by Himmler and Heydrich was determined to embark on a policy of killing all the Jews under German control, there were important centers of opposition to this policy within the Nazi regime. The grounds for the opposition were mainly economic, not humanitarian. Hermann Göring, who had overall control of the German war industry, and the German army's Economics Department, representing the armaments industry, argued that the enormous Jewish labor force assembled in the General Government area (more than a million able-bodied workers) was an asset too valuable to waste while Germany was preparing to invade the Soviet Union.

During this period there were a few conflicts between the Army and the SS over policy in Poland. Ultimately, neither Göring nor the army leadership was willing or able to challenge Himmler's authority, particularly since Himmler made it clear he had Hitler's support.

Concentration and labor camps (1933–1945)

File:Rows of bodies of dead inmates fill the yard of Lager Nordhausen, a Gestapo concentration camp.jpg

April 12, 1945: Lager Nordhausen, where 20,000 inmates are believed to have died.

  • Further information: Extermination through labour, List of Nazi German concentration camps, Nazi concentration camps, Nazi concentration camp badges.
  • The major concentration and extermination camps: Auschwitz, Belzec, Bergen-Belsen, Chełmno, Dachau, Flossenbürg, Grini, Jasenovac, Klooga, Majdanek, Maly Trostinets, Mauthausen-Gusen, Ravensbrück, Treblinka.
  • Camp badges: Black triangle, Pink triangle, Purple triangle, Yellow badge.

Leading up to the 1933 elections, the Nazis began intensifying acts of violence to wreak havoc among the opposition. With the cooperation of local authorities, they set up camps as concentration centers within Germany. One of the first was Dachau, which opened in March 1933. These early camps were meant to hold, torture, or kill only political prisoners, such as Communists and Social Democrats.[133]

These early prisons – usually basements and storehouses – were eventually consolidated into full-blown, centrally run camps outside the cities. By 1942, six large extermination camps had been established in Nazi-occupied Poland.[133] After 1939, the camps increasingly became places where Jews and POWs were either killed or forced to live as slave laborers, undernourished and tortured.[134] It is estimated that the Germans established 15,000 camps in the occupied countries, many of them in Poland.[135][136]

New camps were focused on areas with large Jewish, Polish intelligentsia, communist, or Roma and Sinti populations, including inside Germany. The transportation of prisoners was often carried out under horrifying conditions using rail freight cars, in which many died before reaching their destination.

Extermination through labour, a means whereby camp inmates would literally be worked to death – or frequently worked until they could no longer perform work tasks, followed by their selection for extermination – was invoked as a further systematic extermination policy. Furthermore, while not designed as a method for systematic extermination, many camp prisoners died because of harsh overall conditions or from executions carried out on a whim after being allowed to live for days or months.

Upon admission, some camps tattooed prisoners with a prisoner ID.[137] Those fit for work were dispatched for 12 to 14 hour shifts. Before and after, there were roll calls that could sometimes last for hours, with prisoners regularly dying of exposure.[138]

Ghettos (1940–1945)

  • Further information: Emanuel Ringelblum, Judenrat, Ghettos in occupied Europe 1939-1944, Oyneg Shabbos
  • Main ghettos: Cluj Ghetto, Kraków Ghetto, Łachwa Ghetto, Łódź Ghetto, Lwów Ghetto, Theresienstadt Ghetto, Warsaw Ghetto, Wilna Ghetto

A child dying in the streets of the crowded Warsaw Ghetto, where hunger and disease killed 43,000 in 1941 alone.[89]

After the invasion of Poland, the German Nazis established ghettos throughout 1941 and 1942 to which Jews and some Roma were confined, until they were eventually shipped to death camps to be murdered. The Warsaw Ghetto was the largest, with 380,000 people, and the Łódź Ghetto the second largest, holding 160,000. They were, in effect, immensely crowded prisons, described by Michael Berenbaum as instruments of "slow, passive murder."[139] Though the Warsaw Ghetto contained 400,000 people[89]—30% of the population of Warsaw—it occupied only 2.4% of the city's area, averaging 9.2 people per room.

From 1940 through 1942, starvation and disease, especially typhoid, killed hundreds of thousands. Over 43,000 residents of the Warsaw ghetto died there in 1941,[89] more than one in ten; in Theresienstadt, more than half the residents died in 1942.[139]

The Germans came, the police, and they started banging houses: "Raus, raus, raus, Juden raus." … [O]ne baby started to cry … The other baby started crying. So the mother urinated in her hand and gave the baby a drink to keep quiet … [When the police had gone], I told the mothers to come out. And one baby was dead … from fear, the mother [had] choked her own baby.

—Abraham Malik, describing his experience in the Kovno ghetto.[140]

Each ghetto was run by a Judenrat (Jewish council) of German-appointed Jewish community leaders, who were responsible for the day-to-day running of the ghetto, including the provision of food, water, heat, medicine, and shelter, and who were also expected to make arrangements for deportations to extermination camps. Heinrich Himmler ordered the start of the deportations on July 19, 1942, and three days later, on July 22, the deportations from the Warsaw Ghetto began; over the next 52 days, until September 12, 300,000 people from Warsaw alone were transported in freight trains to the Treblinka extermination camp. Many other ghettos were completely depopulated.

Berenbaum writes that the defining moment that tested the courage and character of each Judenrat came when they were asked to provide a list of names of the next group to be deported. The Judenrat members went through the tried and tested methods of delay, bribery, stonewalling, pleading, and argumentation, until finally a decision had to be made. Some argued that their responsibility was to save the Jews who could be saved, and that therefore others had to be sacrificed; others argued, following Maimonides, that not a single individual should be handed over who had not committed a capital crime. Judenrat leaders such as Dr. Joseph Parnas in Lviv, who refused to compile a list, were shot. On October 14, 1942, the entire Judenrat of Byaroza committed suicide rather than cooperate with the deportations.[141]

The first ghetto uprising occurred in September 1942 in the small town of Łachwa in southeast Poland. Though there were armed resistance attempts in the larger ghettos in 1943, such as the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the Białystok Ghetto Uprising, in every case they failed against the Nazi military, and the remaining Jews were either killed or deported to the camps, which the Germans euphemistically called "resettlement in the East."[142]

Death squads (1941–1943)

Main article: Einsatzgruppen
File:Einsatzgruppen Killing.jpg

A member of Einsatzgruppe D is about to shoot a man sitting by a mass grave in Vinnitsa, Ukraine, in 1942. Present in the background are members of the German Army, the German Labor Service, and the Hitler Youth.[143] The back of the photograph is inscribed "The last Jew in Vinnitsa".

The German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 opened a new phase. The Holocaust intensified after the Nazis occupied Lithuania, where close to 80 percent of Lithuanian Jews were exterminated before the end of the year.[144][145] The Soviet territories occupied by early 1942, including all of Belarus, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, and Moldova and most Russian territory west of the line Leningrad-Moscow-Rostov, contained about four million Jews, including hundreds of thousands who had fled Poland in 1939. Despite the chaos of the Soviet retreat, some effort was made to evacuate Jews, and about a million succeeded in escaping further east. The remaining three million were left at the mercy of the Nazis.

In these territories, there were fewer restraints on the mass killing of Jews than there were in countries like France or the Netherlands, where there was a long tradition of tolerance and the rule of law, or even Poland where, despite a strong tradition of antisemitism, there was considerable resistance to Nazi persecution of Polish Jews. In the Baltic states, Belarus, and Ukraine, native antisemitism was reinforced by hatred of Communist rule, which many people associated with the Jews. Thousands of people in these countries actively collaborated with the Nazis. Ukrainians and Latvians joined SS auxiliary forces in large numbers and did much of the dirty work in Nazi extermination camps. Raul Hilberg writes that these were ordinary citizens; the great majority were university-educated professionals.[146] They used their skills to become efficient killers, according to Michael Berenbaum.[143]

Despite the subservience of the Army high command to Hitler, Himmler did not trust the Army to approve of, let alone carry out, the large-scale killings of Jews in the occupied Soviet territories. This task was assigned to SS formations called Einsatzgruppen ("task groups"), under the overall command of Heydrich. These had been used on a limited scale in Poland in 1939, but were now organized on a much larger scale. Einsatzgruppe A (commanded by SS-Brigadeführer Dr. Franz Stahlecker) was assigned to the Baltic area, Einsatzgruppe B (SS-Brigadeführer Artur Nebe) to Belarus, Einsatzgruppe C (SS-Gruppenführer Dr. Otto Rasch) to north and central Ukraine, and Einsatzgruppe D (SS-Gruppenführer Dr. Otto Ohlendorf) to Moldova, south Ukraine, the Crimea, and, during 1942, the north Caucasus. Of the four Einsatzgruppen, three were commanded by holders of doctorate degrees, of whom one (Rasch) held a double doctorate.[147]

According to Ohlendorf at his trial, "the Einsatzgruppen had the mission to protect the rear of the troops by killing the Jews, gypsies, Communist functionaries, active Communists, and all persons who would endanger the security." In practice, their victims were nearly all defenseless Jewish civilians (not a single Einsatzgruppe member was killed in action during these operations). By December 1941, the four Einsatzgruppen listed above had killed, respectively, 125,000, 45,000, 75,000, and 55,000 people—a total of 300,000 people—mainly by shooting or with hand grenades at mass killing sites outside the major towns.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum tells the story of one survivor of the Einsatzgruppen in Piryatin, Ukraine, when they killed 1,600 Jews on April 6, 1942, the second day of Passover:

I saw them do the killing. At 5:00 p.m. they gave the command, "Fill in the pits." Screams and groans were coming from the pits. Suddenly I saw my neighbor Ruderman rise from under the soil … His eyes were bloody and he was screaming: "Finish me off!" … A murdered woman lay at my feet. A boy of five years crawled out from under her body and began to scream desperately. "Mommy!" That was all I saw, since I fell unconscious.[143]

The most notorious massacre of Jews in the Soviet Union was at a ravine called Babi Yar outside Kiev, where 33,771 Jews were killed in a single operation on September 29–30, 1941. The killing of all the Jews in Kiev was decided on by the military governor (Major-General Friedrich Eberhardt), the Police Commander for Army Group South (SS-Obergruppenführer Friedrich Jeckeln) and the Einsatzgruppe C Commander Otto Rasch. It was carried out by a mixture of SS, SD and Security Police, assisted by Ukrainian police.

On Monday the Jews of Kiev gathered by the cemetery, expecting to be loaded onto trains. The crowd was large enough that most of the men, women, and children could not have known what was happening until it was too late: by the time they heard the machine-gun fire, there was no chance to escape. All were driven down a corridor of soldiers, in groups of ten, and then shot. A truck driver described the scene:

Kikes of the city of Kiev and vicinity! On Monday, September 29, you are to appear by 08:00 a.m. with your possessions, money, documents, valuables, and warm clothing at Dorogozhitskaya Street, next to the Jewish cemetery. Failure to appear is punishable by death.

—Order posted in Kiev in Russian and Ukrainian, on or around September 26, 1941.[148]

[O]ne after the other, they had to remove their luggage, then their coats, shoes, and overgarments and also underwear … Once undressed, they were led into the ravine which was about 150 meters long and 30 meters wide and a good 15 meters deep … When they reached the bottom of the ravine they were seized by members of the Schutzpolizei and made to lie down on top of Jews who had already been shot … The corpses were literally in layers. A police marksman came along and shot each Jew in the neck with a submachine gun … I saw these marksmen stand on layers of corpses and shoot one after the other … The marksman would walk across the bodies of the executed Jews to the next Jew, who had meanwhile lain down, and shoot him.[148]


From left to right; Heinrich Himmler, Reinhard Heydrich, and Karl Wolff (second from the right) at the Obersalzberg, May 1939. Wolff wrote in his diary that Himmler had vomited after witnessing the mass shooting of 100 Jews.[149]

In August 1941 Himmler travelled to Minsk, where he personally witnessed 100 Jews being shot in a ditch outside the town, an event described by SS-Obergruppenführer Karl Wolff in his diary. "Himmler's face was green. He took out his handkerchief and wiped his cheek where a piece of brain had squirted up on to it. Then he vomited." After recovering his composure, he lectured the SS men on the need to follow the "highest moral law of the Party" in carrying out their tasks.

In December 1941, a few cases of typhus broke out in the Bogdanovka concentration camp in Transnistria, where over 50,000 Jews were held.[150] A decision was made by the German adviser to the Romanian administration of the district and the Romanian District Commissioner to murder all the inmates. The Aktion began on December 21, and was carried out by Romanian soldiers and gendarmes, Ukrainian police and civilians from Golta,[151] and local ethnic Germans under the commander of the Ukrainian regular police, Kazachievici. Thousands of disabled and ill inmates were forced into two locked stables, which were doused with kerosene and set ablaze, burning alive all those inside. Other inmates were led in groups to a ravine in a nearby forest and shot in the neck. The remaining Jews dug pits with their bare hands in the bitter cold, and packed them with frozen corpses. Thousands of Jews froze to death. A break was made for Christmas, but the killing resumed on December 28. By December 31, over 40,000 Jews had been killed.[152]

By the end of 1941, however, the Einsatzgruppen had killed only 15 percent of the Jews in the occupied Soviet territories, and it was apparent that these methods could not be used to kill all the Jews of Europe. Even before the invasion of the Soviet Union, experiments with killing Jews in the back of vans using gas from the van's exhaust had been carried out, and when this proved too slow, more lethal gasses were tried. For large-scale killing by gas, however, fixed sites would be needed, and it was decided—probably by Heydrich and Eichmann—that the Jews should be brought to camps specifically built for the purpose.

In his Nuremberg testimony on April 15, 1946, Rudolf Höß, the commandant of Auschwitz, testified that Heinrich Himmler personally ordered him to prepare Auschwitz to carry out the 'final solution':

In the summer of 1941 I was summoned to Berlin to Reichsfuehrer SS Himmler to receive personal orders. He told me something to the effect—I do not remember the exact words—that the Fuehrer had given the order for a final solution of the Jewish question. We, the SS, must carry out that order. If it is not carried out now then the Jews will later on destroy the German people. He had chosen Auschwitz on account of its easy access by rail and also because the extensive site offered space for measures ensuring isolation.[153][154][155][156]

Laurence Rees writes that Höß may have misremembered the year this was said to him. Himmler did indeed visit Höß in the summer of 1941, but there is no evidence that the Final Solution had been planned at this stage. Rees writes that the meeting predates the killings of Jewish men by the Einsatzgruppen in the East and the expansion of the killings in July 1941. It also predates the Wannsee Conference. Rees speculates that the conversation with Himmler was most likely in the summer of 1942.[157] The first gassings, using an industrial gas derived from prussic acid and known by the brand name Zyklon-B, were carried out at Auschwitz in September 1941.[158]

Wannsee Conference and the Final Solution (1942–1945)

Further information: Operation Reinhard

The dining room of the Wannsee villa, where the Wannsee conference took place. The 15 men seated at the table on January 20, 1942 to discuss the "final solution of the Jewish question"[159] were considered the best and the brightest in the Reich.[160]

File:Wannsee Conference - List of Jews in European countries.JPG

Facsimiles of the minutes of the Wannsee Conference. This page lists the number of Jews in every European country.


Auschwitz I

File:Rail leading to Auschwitz II (Birkenau).jpg

The railway line leading to the death camp at Auschwitz II (Birkenau).


Empty poison gas canisters used to kill inmates and piles of hair shaven from their heads are stored in the museum at Auschwitz II.

File:Gas chambers ruins.JPG

What remains of the gas chambers at Auschwitz II (Birkenau); photographed in 2006.


Corpses in Auschwitz; from Yad Vashem.

Those present at the conference: Josef Bühler, Adolf Eichmann, Roland Freisler, Reinhard Heydrich, Otto Hofmann, Gerhard Klopfer, Friedrich Wilhelm Kritzinger, Rudolf Lange, Georg Leibbrandt, Martin Luther, Heinrich Müller, Erich Neumann, Karl Eberhard Schöngarth, Wilhelm Stuckart

By the end of 1941, Himmler and Heydrich were becoming increasingly impatient with the progress of the Final Solution. Their main opponent was Göring, who had succeeded in exempting Jewish industrial workers from the orders to deport all Jews to the General Government and who had allied himself with the Army commanders who were opposing the extermination of the Jews out of mixture of economic calculation, distaste for the SS and (in some cases) humanitarian sentiment. Although Göring's power had declined since the defeat of his Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain, he still had privileged access to Hitler.


The Nazis methodically tracked the progress of the Holocaust in thousands of reports and documents. Pictured is the Höfle Telegram sent to Adolf Eichmann in January, 1943, that reported that 1,274,166 Jews had been killed in the four Aktion Reinhard camps during 1942.

Heydrich therefore convened the Wannsee Conference on January 20, 1942 at a villa, Am Großen Wannsee No. 56-58, in the suburbs of Berlin to finalize a plan for the extermination of the Jews.[161] The plan became known (after Heydrich) as Aktion Reinhard (Operation Reinhard). Present were Heydrich, Eichmann, Heinrich Müller (head of the Gestapo), and representatives of the Ministry for the Occupied Eastern Territories, the Ministry for the Interior, the Four Year Plan Office, the Ministry of Justice, the General Government in Poland (where over two million Jews still lived), the Foreign Office, the Race and Resettlement Office, and the Nazi Party, and the office responsible for distributing Jewish property.[160] Also present was SS-Sturmbannführer Rudolf Lange, the SD commander in Riga, who, with Friedrich Jeckeln had recently carried out the liquidation of 24,000 Latvian Jews from the Riga ghetto in the Rumbula massacre.[161]

Michael Berenbaum writes that the 15 men seated at the table were considered the best and the brightest; more than half of them held doctorates from German universities. Butlers served brandy as they talked.[160]

The men were presented with a plan for killing all the Jews in Europe, including 330,000 Jews in England and 4,000 in Ireland,[161] although the minutes taken by Eichmann refer to this only through euphemisms, such as " … emigration has now been replaced by evacuation to the East. This operation should be regarded only as a provisional option, though in view of the coming final solution of the Jewish question it is already supplying practical experience of vital importance."[161]

The officials were told there were 2.3 million Jews in the General Government, 850,000 in Hungary, 1.1 million in the other occupied countries, and up to 5 million in the Soviet Union (although only 3 million of these were in areas under German occupation) —a total of about 6.5 million. These would all be transported by train to extermination camps (Vernichtungslager) in Poland, where those unfit for work would be gassed at once. In some camps, such as Auschwitz, those fit for work would be kept alive for a while, but eventually all would be killed. Göring's representative, Dr. Erich Neumann, gained a limited exemption for some classes of industrial workers.

Extermination camps

Approx. number killed at each extermination camp (Source: Yad Vashem[162]); Help improve coordinates:
Camp name Killed Coordinates Ref.
Auschwitz II 1,400,000 Template:Coord [49][163][164]
Belzec 600,000 Template:Coord [51][165]
Chelmno 320,000 Template:Coord [53][166]
Jasenovac 600,000 Template:Coord [167][168]
Majdanek 360,000 Template:Coord [52][169]
Maly Trostinets 65,000 Template:Coord [55][170]
Sobibór 250,000 Template:Coord [54][171]
Treblinka 870,000 Template:Coord [50][172]

During 1942, in addition to Auschwitz, five other camps were designated as extermination camps (Vernichtungslager) for the carrying out of the Reinhard plan.[173][174] Two of these, Chelmno (also known as Kulmhof) and Majdanek were already functioning as labor camps: these now had extermination facilities added to them. Three new camps were built for the sole purpose of killing large numbers of Jews as quickly as possible, at Belzec, Sobibór and Treblinka. A seventh camp, at Maly Trostinets in Belarus, was also used for this purpose. Jasenovac was an extermination camp where mostly ethnic Serbs were killed.

Extermination camps are frequently confused with concentration camps such as Dachau and Belsen, which were mostly located in Germany and intended as places of incarceration and forced labor for a variety of enemies of the Nazi regime (such as Communists and gays). They should also be distinguished from slave labor camps, which were set up in all German-occupied countries to exploit the labor of prisoners of various kinds, including prisoners of war. In all Nazi camps there were very high death rates as a result of starvation, disease and exhaustion, but only the extermination camps were designed specifically for mass killing.

There was a place called the ramp where the trains with the Jews were coming in. They were coming in day and night, and sometimes one per day and sometimes five per day … Constantly, people from the heart of Europe were disappearing, and they were arriving to the same place with the same ignorance of the fate of the previous transport. And the people in this mass … I knew that within a couple of hours … ninety percent would be gassed.

Rudolf Vrba, who worked on the Judenrampe in Auschwitz from August 18, 1942 to June 7, 1943.[175]

The extermination camps were run by SS officers, but most of the guards were Ukrainian or Baltic auxiliaries. Regular German soldiers were kept well away.

Gas chambers

At the extermination camps with gas chambers all the prisoners arrived by train. Sometimes entire trainloads were sent straight to the gas chambers, but usually the camp doctor on duty subjected individuals to selections, where a small percentage were deemed fit to work in the slave labor camps; the majority were taken directly from the platforms to a reception area where all their clothes and other possessions were seized by the Nazis to help fund the war. They were then herded naked into the gas chambers. Usually they were told these were showers or delousing chambers, and there were signs outside saying "baths" and "sauna." They were sometimes given a small piece of soap and a towel so as to avoid panic, and were told to remember where they had put their belongings for the same reason. When they asked for water because they were thirsty after the long journey in the cattle trains, they were told to hurry up, because coffee was waiting for them in the camp, and it was getting cold.[176]

According to Rudolf Höß, commandant of Auschwitz, bunker 1 held 800 people, and bunker 2 held 1,200.[177] Once the chamber was full, the doors were screwed shut and solid pellets of Zyklon-B were dropped into the chambers through vents in the side walls, releasing toxic HCN, or hydrogen cyanide. Those inside died within 20 minutes; the speed of death depended on how close the inmate was standing to a gas vent, according to Höß, who estimated that about one third of the victims died immediately.[178] Joann Kremer, an SS doctor who oversaw the gassings, testified that: "Shouting and screaming of the victims could be heard through the opening and it was clear that they fought for their lives."[179] When they were removed, if the chamber had been very congested, as they often were, the victims were found half-squatting, their skin colored pink with red and green spots, some foaming at the mouth or bleeding from the ears.[178]

The gas was then pumped out, the bodies were removed (which would take up to four hours), gold fillings in their teeth were extracted with pliers by dentist prisoners, and women's hair was cut.[180] The floor of the gas chamber was cleaned, and the walls whitewashed.[179] The work was done by the Sonderkommando prisoners, Jews who hoped to buy themselves a few extra months of life. In crematoria 1 and 2, the Sonderkommando lived in an attic above the crematoria; in crematoria 3 and 4, they lived inside the gas chambers.[181] When the Sonderkommando had finished with the bodies, the SS conducted spot checks to make sure all the gold had been removed from the victims' mouths. If a check revealed that gold had been missed, the Sonderkommando prisoner responsible was thrown into the furnace alive as punishment.[182]

At first, the bodies were buried in deep pits and covered with lime, but between September and November 1942, on the orders of Himmler, they were dug up and burned. In the spring of 1943, new gas chambers and crematoria were built to accommodate the numbers.[183]

Another improvement we made over Treblinka was that we built our gas chambers to accommodate 2,000 people at one time, whereas at Treblinka their 10 gas chambers only accommodated 200 people each. The way we selected our victims was as follows: we had two SS doctors on duty at Auschwitz to examine the incoming transports of prisoners. The prisoners would be marched by one of the doctors who would make spot decisions as they walked by. Those who were fit for work were sent into the Camp. Others were sent immediately to the extermination plants. Children of tender years were invariably exterminated, since by reason of their youth they were unable to work. Still another improvement we made over Treblinka was that at Treblinka the victims almost always knew that they were to be exterminated and at Auschwitz we endeavored to fool the victims into thinking that they were to go through a delousing process. Of course, frequently they realized our true intentions and we sometimes had riots and difficulties due to that fact. Very frequently women would hide their children under the clothes but of course when we found them we would send the children in to be exterminated. We were required to carry out these exterminations in secrecy but of course the foul and nauseating stench from the continuous burning of bodies permeated the entire area and all of the people living in the surrounding communities knew that exterminations were going on at Auschwitz.

Rudolf Höß, Auschwitz camp commandant, Nuremberg testimony.[184]

Jewish resistance

  • Further information: Jewish resistance during the Holocaust.
  • For uprisings: Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Białystok Ghetto Uprising, Marcinkance Ghetto Uprising, Sobibór extermination camp, Żydowski Związek Walki, Żydowska Organizacja Bojowa.
  • For Jewish partisans, volunteers, and escapees: Yitzhak Arad, Bielski partisans, Masha Bruskina, Eugenio Calò, Jewish Brigade, Jewish partisans, Abba Kovner, Dov Lopatyn, Moše Pijade, Haviva Reik, Special Interrogation Group, Hannah Szenes, Rudolf Vrba, Alfréd Wetzler, Shalom Yoran, Simcha Zorin.
  • For how stories were preserved in the Warsaw Ghetto: Emanuel Ringelblum, Oyneg Shabbos (group).

File:Ghetto Uprising Warsaw2.jpg

An image from the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

File:Bundesarchiv Bild 183-41636-0002, Warschauer Ghetto-Aufstand, Verhaftungen.jpg

Jews captured and forcibly pulled out from dug outs by the Germans during the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. The photo is from Jurgen Stroop's report to Heinrich Himmler

Yehuda Bauer and other historians argue that resistance consisted not only of physical opposition, but of any activity that gave the Jews dignity and humanity in humiliating and inhumane conditions.[185]

In every ghetto, in every deportation train, in every labor camp, even in the death camps, the will to resist was strong, and took many forms. Fighting with the few weapons that would be found, individual acts of defiance and protest, the courage of obtaining food and water under the threat of death, the superiority of refusing to allow the Germans their final wish to gloat over panic and despair.

Even passivity was a form of resistance. To die with dignity was a form of resistance. To resist the demoralizing, brutalizing force of evil, to refuse to be reduced to the level of animals, to live through the torment, to outlive the tormentors, these too were acts of resistance. Merely to give a witness of these events in testimony was, in the end, a contribution to victory. Simply to survive was a victory of the human spirit."

Martin Gilbert. The Holocaust: The Jewish Tragedy.[186]

There are many examples of Jewish resistance, most notably the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of January 1943, when thousands of poorly armed Jewish fighters held the SS at bay for four weeks, and killed several hundred Germans before being crushed by overwhelmingly superior forces. This was followed by the uprising in the Treblinka extermination camp in May 1943, when about 200 inmates escaped from the camp after overpowering the guards. Two weeks later, there was an uprising in the Bialystok ghetto. In September, there was a short-lived uprising in the Vilnius ghetto. In October, 600 Jewish and Russian prisoners attempted an escape at the Sobibór death camp. About 60 survived and joined the Soviet partisans. On October 7, 1944, the Jewish Sonderkommandos at Auschwitz staged an uprising. Female prisoners had smuggled in explosives from a weapons factory, and Crematorium IV was partly destroyed by an explosion. The prisoners then attempted a mass escape, but all 250 were killed soon after.

An estimated 20,000 to 30,000 Jewish partisans (see the list at the top of this section) actively fought the Nazis and their collaborators in Eastern Europe.[187] The Jewish Brigade, a unit of 5,000 volunteers from the British Mandate of Palestine fought in the British Army. German-speaking volunteers from the Special Interrogation Group performed commando and sabotage operations against the Nazis behind front lines in the Western Desert Campaign.

In occupied Poland and Soviet territories, thousands of Jews fled into the swamps or forests and joined the partisans, although the partisan movements did not always welcome them. In Lithuania and Belarus, an area with a heavy concentration of Jews, and also an area which suited partisan operations, Jewish partisan groups saved thousands of Jewish civilians from extermination. No such opportunities existed for the Jewish populations of cities such as Budapest. However in Amsterdam, and other parts of the Netherlands, many Jews were active in the Dutch Resistance.[188] Joining the partisans was an option only for the young and the fit who were willing to leave their families. Many Jewish families preferred to die together rather than be separated.

"Many people think the Jews went to their deaths like sheep to the slaughter, and that's not true—it's absolutely not true. I worked closely with many Jewish people in the Resistance, and I can tell you, they took much greater risks than I did."

Pieter Meerburg. The Heart Has Reasons: Holocaust Rescuers and Their Stories of Courage.[189]

For the great majority of Jews resistance could take only the passive forms of delay, evasion, negotiation, bargaining and, where possible, bribery of German officials. The Nazis encouraged this by forcing the Jewish communities to police themselves, through bodies such as the Reich Association of Jews (Reichsvereinigung der Juden) in Germany and the Jewish Councils (Judenrate) in the urban ghettos in occupied Poland. They held out the promise of concessions in exchange for each surrender, enmeshing the Jewish leadership so deeply in well-intentioned compromise that a decision to stand and fight was never possible. Holocaust survivor Alexander Kimel wrote: "The youth in the Ghettos dreamed about fighting. I believe that although there were many factors that inhibited our responses, the most important factors were isolation and historical conditioning to accepting martyrdom."[190]

The historical conditioning of the Jewish communities of Europe to accept persecution and avert disaster through compromise and negotiation was the most important factor in the failure to resist until the very end. The Warsaw Ghetto uprising took place only when the Jewish population had been reduced from 500,000 to 100,000, and it was obvious that no further compromise was possible. Paul Johnson writes: "The Jews had been persecuted for a millennium and a half and had learned from long experience that resistance cost lives rather than saved them. Their history, their theology, their folklore, their social structure, even their vocabulary trained them to negotiate, to pay, to plead, to protest, not to fight."[191]

The Jewish communities were also systematically deceived about German intentions, and were cut off from most sources of news from the outside world. The Germans told the Jews that they were being deported to work camps – euphemistically calling it "resettlement in the East" – and maintained this illusion through elaborate deceptions all the way to the gas chamber doors to avoid uprisings. As photographs testify, Jews disembarked at the railway stations at Auschwitz and other extermination camps carrying sacks and suitcases, clearly having no idea of the fate that awaited them. Rumours of the reality of the extermination camps filtered back only slowly to the ghettos, and were usually not believed, just as they were not believed when couriers such as Jan Karski, the Polish resistance fighter, conveyed them to the western Allies.[192]


Heydrich was assassinated in Prague in June 1942. He was succeeded as head of the RSHA by Ernst Kaltenbrunner. Kaltenbrunner and Eichmann, under Himmler's close supervision, oversaw the climax of the Final Solution. During 1943 and 1944, the extermination camps worked at a furious rate to kill the hundreds of thousands of people shipped to them by rail from almost every country within the German sphere of influence. By the spring of 1944, up to 8,000 people were being gassed every day at Auschwitz.[193]

Despite the high productivity of the war industries based in the Jewish ghettos in the General Government, during 1943 they were liquidated, and their populations shipped to the camps for extermination. The largest of these operations, the deportation of 100,000 people from the Warsaw Ghetto in early 1943, provoked the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which was suppressed with great brutality. At the same time, rail shipments arrived regularly from western and southern Europe. Few Jews were shipped from the occupied Soviet territories to the camps: the killing of Jews in this zone was left in the hands of the SS, aided by locally recruited auxiliaries. In any case, by the end of 1943 the Germans had been driven from most Soviet territory.

Shipments of Jews to the camps had priority on the German railways, and continued even in the face of the increasingly dire military situation after the Battle of Stalingrad at the end of 1942 and the escalating Allied air attacks on German industry and transport. Army leaders and economic managers complained at this diversion of resources and at the killing of irreplaceable skilled Jewish workers. By 1944, moreover, it was evident to most Germans not blinded by Nazi fanaticism that Germany was losing the war. Many senior officials began to fear the retribution that might await Germany and them personally for the crimes being committed in their name. But the power of Himmler and the SS within the German Reich was too great to resist, and Himmler could always evoke Hitler's authority for his demands.

File:Bundesarchiv Bild 101I-680-8285A-08, Budapest, Festnahme von Juden.jpg

SS arresting some of the Jewish population, Budapest October 1944

File:Bundesarchiv Bild 101I-680-8285A-26, Budapest, Festnahme von Juden.jpg

SS arresting some of the Jewish population, Budapest October 1944

In October 1943, Himmler gave a speech to senior Nazi Party officials gathered in Posen (Poznan in western Poland). Here he came closer than ever before to stating explicitly that he was intent on exterminating the Jews of Europe:

I may here in this closest of circles allude to a question which you, my party comrades, have all taken for granted, but which has become for me the most difficult question of my life, the Jewish question … I ask of you that what I say in this circle you really only hear and never speak of … We come to the question: how is it with the women and children? I have resolved even here on a completely clear solution. I do not consider myself justified in eradicating the men—so to speak killing them or ordering them to be killed—and allowing the avengers in the shape of the children to grow up … The difficult decision had to be taken, to cause this people to disappear from the earth.

The audience for this speech included Admiral Karl Dönitz and Armaments Minister Albert Speer, both of whom successfully claimed at the Nuremberg trials that they had had no knowledge of the Final Solution. The text of this speech was not known at the time of their trials.

The scale of extermination slackened somewhat at the beginning of 1944 once the ghettos in occupied Poland were emptied, but in March 19, 1944, Hitler ordered the military occupation of Hungary, and Eichmann was dispatched to Budapest to supervise the deportation of Hungary's 800,000 Jews. Hitler had personally complained to the Hungarian regent Admiral Miklos Horthy on the previous day, March 18, 1944, that:

Hungary did nothing in the matter of the Jewish problem, and was not prepared to settle accounts with the large Jewish population in Hungary.[194]

More than half of them were shipped to Auschwitz in the course of the year. The commandant, Rudolf Höß, said at his trial that he killed 400,000 Hungarian Jews in three months. This operation met strong opposition within the Nazi hierarchy, and there were some suggestions that Hitler should offer the Allies a deal under which the Hungarian Jews would be spared in exchange for a favorable peace settlement. There were unofficial negotiations in Istanbul between Himmler's agents, British agents, and representatives of Jewish organizations, and at one point an attempt by Eichmann to exchange one million Jews for 10,000 trucks—the so-called "blood for goods" proposal—but there was no real possibility of such a deal being struck (see Joel Brand and Rudolf Kastner).

Escapes, publication of news of the death camps (April–June 1944)


Bratislava, June–July 1944. Rudolf Vrba (right) escaped from Auschwitz on April 7, 1944, bringing the first credible news to the world of the mass murder that was taking place there. Arnost Rosin (left), escaped on May 27, 1944.[195]

Escapes from the camps were few, but not unknown. The few Auschwitz escapes that succeeded were made possible by the Polish underground inside the camp and local people outside.[196] In 1940, the Auschwitz commandant reported that "the local population is fanatically Polish and … prepared to take any action against the hated SS camp personnel. Every prisoner who managed to escape can count on help the moment he reaches the wall of a first Polish farmstead."[197]

In February 1942, an escaped inmate from the Chelmno extermination camp, Jacob Grojanowski, reached the Warsaw Ghetto, where he gave detailed information about the Chelmno camp to the Oneg Shabbat group. His report, which became known as the Grojanowski Report, was smuggled out of the ghetto through the channels of the Polish underground to the Delegatura, and reached London by June 1942. It is unclear what was done with the report at that point.[53][198][199][200] In the meantime, by the 1st of February, the United States Office of War Information had decided not to release information about the extermination of the Jews because it was felt that it would mislead the public into thinking the war was simply a Jewish problem.[201]

In 1943 the news about gassing Jews was at least broadcasted from London to The Netherlands. It was also published in illegal newspapers of Dutch resistance (for example in Het Parool of September 27, 1943). However, the news was so unbelievable that many assumed it was merely war propaganda. The publications were halted because they were counter-productive for the Dutch resistance. Nevertheless, many Jews were warned that they would be murdered, but as escape was impossible for most of them, they preferred to believe that the warnings were false.[202][203]

In April 1943, Captain Witold Pilecki, a member of the Polish underground and a soldier of the Home Army, worked out a plan to enter Auschwitz and volunteered to be sent there. He organized an underground network Union of Military Organizations (UMO) that was ready to initiate an uprising but it was decided that the probability of success was too low for the uprising to succeed. UMO's numerous and detailed reports became later a principal source of intelligence on Auschwitz for the Western Allies. Pilecki escaped from Auschwitz with information that became the basis of a two-part report in August 1943 that was sent to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in London. The report included details about the gas chambers, about "selection," and about the sterilization experiments. It stated that there were three crematoria in Birkenau able to burn 10,000 people daily, and that 30,000 people had been gassed in one day. The author wrote: "History knows no parallel of such destruction of human life." Raul Hilberg writes that the report was filed away with a note that there was no indication as to the reliability of the source.[204] When Pilecki returned to Poland after the war, the communist authorities arrested him and sentenced to death in a show trial. He was executed on May 25, 1948.

File:Pilecki ausch f.jpg

Auschwitz concentration camp photos of Pilecki (1941)

Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler, Jewish inmates, escaped from Auschwitz in April 1944, eventually reaching Slovakia. The 32-page document they dictated to Jewish officials about the mass murder at Auschwitz became known as the Vrba-Wetzler report. Vrba had an eidetic memory and had worked on the Judenrampe, where Jews disembarked from the trains to be "selected" either for the gas chamber or slave labor. The level of detail with which he described the transports allowed Slovakian officials to compare his account with their own deportation records, and the corroboration convinced the Allies to take the report seriously.[205][195]

Two other Auschwitz inmates, Arnost Rosin and Czesław Mordowicz escaped on May 27, 1944, arriving in Slovakia on June 6, the day of the Normandy landing (D-Day). Hearing about Normandy, they believed the war was over and got drunk to celebrate, using dollars they'd smuggled out of the camp. They were arrested for violating currency laws, and spent eight days in prison, before the Judenrat paid their fines. The additional information they offered the Judenrat was added to Vrba and Wetzler's report and became known as the Auschwitz Protocols. They reported that, between May 15 and May 27, 1944, 100,000 Hungarian Jews had arrived at Birkenau, and had been killed at an unprecedented rate, with human fat being used to accelerate the burning.[206]

The BBC and The New York Times published material from the Vrba-Wetzler report on June 15[207] and June 20, 1944. The subsequent pressure from world leaders persuaded Miklos Horthy to bring the mass deportations of Jews from Hungary to Auschwitz to a halt on July 9, saving up to 200,000 Jews from the extermination camps.[206]

Death marches (1944–1945)

Main article: Death marches (Holocaust)

By mid 1944, the Final Solution had largely run its course. Those Jewish communities within easy reach of the Nazi regime had been largely exterminated, in proportions ranging from more than 90 percent in Poland to about 25 percent in France. In May, Himmler claimed in a speech that "The Jewish question in Germany and the occupied countries has been solved."[208] During 1944, in any case, the task became steadily more difficult. German armies were evicted from the Soviet Union, the Balkans and Italy, and German allies were either defeated or were switching sides to the Allies. In June, the western Allies landed in France. Allied air attacks and the operations of partisans made rail transport increasingly difficult, and the objections of the military to the diversion of rail transport for carrying Jews to Poland more urgent and harder to ignore.

At this time, as the Soviet armed forces approached, the camps in eastern Poland were closed down, any surviving inmates being shipped west to camps closer to Germany, first to Auschwitz and later to Gross Rosen in Silesia. Auschwitz itself was closed as the Soviets advanced through Poland. The last 13 prisoners, all women, were killed in Auschwitz II on November 25, 1944; records show they were "unmittelbar getötet" ("killed"), leaving open whether they were gassed or otherwise disposed of.[209]

Despite the desperate military situation, great efforts were made to conceal evidence of what had happened in the camps. The gas chambers were dismantled, the crematoria dynamited, mass graves dug up and the corpses cremated, and Polish farmers were induced to plant crops on the sites to give the impression that they had never existed. In October 1944, Himmler, who is believed to have been negotiating a secret deal with the Allies behind Hitler's back, ordered an end to the Final Solution. But the hatred of the Jews in the ranks of the SS was so strong that Himmler's order was generally ignored. Local commanders continued to kill Jews, and to shuttle them from camp to camp by forced "death marches" until the last weeks of the war.[210]

Already sick after months or years of violence and starvation, prisoners were forced to march for tens of miles in the snow to train stations; then transported for days at a time without food or shelter in freight trains with open carriages; and forced to march again at the other end to the new camp. Those who lagged behind or fell were shot. Around 100,000 Jews died during these marches.[211]

The largest and best-known of the death marches took place in January 1945, when the Soviet army advanced on Poland. Nine days before the Soviets arrived at Auschwitz, the SS marched 60,000 prisoners out of the camp toward Wodzislaw, 56 km (35 miles) away, where they were put on freight trains to other camps. Around 15,000 died on the way. Elie Wiesel and his father, Shlomo, were among the marchers:

An icy wind blew in violent gusts. But we marched without faltering.
Pitch darkness. Every now and then, an explosion in the night. They had orders to fire on any who could not keep up. Their fingers on the triggers, they did not deprive themselves of this pleasure. If one of us had stopped for a second, a sharp shot finished off another filthy son of a bitch.
Near me, men were collapsing in the dirty snow. Shots.[212]


File:Ebensee concentration camp prisoners 1945.jpg

Starving prisoners in Mauthausen camp, Ebensee, Austria, liberated by the U.S. 80th Infantry Division on May 5, 1945.

File:Mass Grave Bergen Belsen May 1945.jpg

A grave inside Bergen-Belsen, liberated by the British on April 15, 1945.

Main article: Battle of Berlin

The first major camp, Majdanek, was discovered by the advancing Soviets on July 23, 1944. Auschwitz was liberated, also by the Soviets, on January 27, 1945; Buchenwald by the Americans on April 11; Bergen-Belsen by the British on April 15; Dachau by the Americans on April 29; Ravensbrück by the Soviets on the same day; Mauthausen by the Americans on May 5; and Theresienstadt by the Soviets on May 8.[213] Treblinka, Sobibor, and Belzec were never liberated, but were destroyed by the Nazis in 1943. Colonel William W. Quinn of the U.S. 7th Army said of Dachau: "There our troops found sights, sounds, and stenches horrible beyond belief, cruelties so enormous as to be incomprehensible to the normal mind."[214][215]

We heard a loud voice repeating the same words in English and in German: "Hello, hello. You are free. We are British soldiers and have come to liberate you." These words still resound in my ears.

—Hadassah Rosensaft, inmate of Bergen-Belsen.[216]

In most of the camps discovered by the Soviets, almost all the prisoners had already been removed, leaving only a few thousand alive—7,000 inmates were found in Auschwitz, including 180 children who had been experimented on by doctors.[217] Some 60,000 prisoners were discovered at Bergen-Belsen by the British 11th Armoured Division,[218] 13,000 corpses lay unburied, and another 10,000 died from typhus or malnutrition over the following weeks.[219] The British forced the remaining SS guards to gather up the corpses and place them in mass graves.[220]

The BBC's Richard Dimbleby described the scenes that greeted him and the British Army at Belsen:[221]

Here over an acre of ground lay dead and dying people. You could not see which was which ... The living lay with their heads against the corpses and around them moved the awful, ghostly procession of emaciated, aimless people, with nothing to do and with no hope of life, unable to move out of your way, unable to look at the terrible sights around them ... Babies had been born here, tiny wizened things that could not live ... A mother, driven mad, screamed at a British sentry to give her milk for her child, and thrust the tiny mite into his arms ... He opened the bundle and found the baby had been dead for days. This day at Belsen was the most horrible of my life.

See also


  1. "The Auschwitz Album", Yad Vashem.
  2. Niewyk, Donald L. The Columbia Guide to the Holocaust, Columbia University Press, 2000, p.45: "The Holocaust is commonly defined as the murder of more than 5,000,000 Jews by the Germans in World War II." Also see "The Holocaust", Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2007: "the systematic state-sponsored killing of six million Jewish men, women and children, and millions of others, by Nazi Germany and its collaborators during World War II. The Germans called this "the final solution to the Jewish question".
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Niewyk, Donald L. and Nicosia, Francis R. The Columbia Guide to the Holocaust, Columbia University Press, 2000, pp. 45-52.
    • Weissman, Gary. Fantasies of Witnessing: Postwar Attempts to Experience the Holocaust, Cornell University Press, 2004, ISBN 0801442532, p. 94: "Kren illustrates his point with his reference to the Kommissararbefehl. 'Should the (strikingly unreported) systematic mass starvation of Soviet prisoners of war be included in the Holocaust?' he asks. Many scholars would answer no, maintaining that 'the Holocaust' should refer strictly to those events involving the systematic killing of the Jews'."
    • "The Holocaust: Definition and Preliminary Discussion", Yad Vashem: "The Holocaust, as presented in this resource center, is defined as the sum total of all anti-Jewish actions carried out by the Nazi regime between 1933 and 1945: from stripping the German Jews of their legal and economic status in the 1930s, to segregating and starving Jews in the various occupied countries, to the murder of close to six million Jews in Europe. The Holocaust is part of a broader aggregate of acts of oppression and murder of various ethnic and political groups in Europe by the Nazis."
    • Niewyk, Donald L. The Columbia Guide to the Holocaust, Columbia University Press, 2000, p.45: "The Holocaust is commonly defined as the murder of more than 5,000,000 Jews by the Germans in World War II. Not everyone finds this a fully satisfactory definition. The Nazis also killed millions of people belonging to other groups: Gypsies, the physically and mentally handicapped, Soviet prisoners of war, Polish and Soviet civilians, political prisoners, religious dissenters, and homosexuals."
    • "Holocaust," Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2007: "the systematic state-sponsored killing of six million Jewish men, women, and children and millions of others by Nazi Germany and its collaborators during World War II. The Germans called this "the final solution to the Jewish question" (emphasis added).
    • "Holocaust", Encarta: "Holocaust, the almost complete destruction of Jews in Europe by Nazi Germany and its collaborators during World War II (1939–1945). The leadership of Germany’s Nazi Party ordered the extermination of 5.6 million to 5.9 million Jews (see National Socialism). Jews often refer to the Holocaust as Shoah (from the Hebrew word for “catastrophe” or “total destruction”)."
    • Paulsson, Steve. "A View of the Holocaust", BBC: "The Holocaust was the Nazis' assault on the Jews between 1933 and 1945. It culminated in what the Nazis called the 'Final Solution of the Jewish Question in Europe', in which six million Jews were murdered. The Jews were not the only victims of Nazism. It is estimated that as many as 15 million civilians were killed by this murderous and racist regime, including millions of Slavs and 'asiatics', 200,000 Gypsies and members of various other groups. Thousands of people, including Germans of African descent, were forcibly sterilised."
    • "The Holocaust", "The Holocaust was the systematic annihilation of six million Jews by the Nazis during World War 2. In 1933 nine million Jews lived in the 21 countries of Europe that would be military occupied by Germany during the war. By 1945 two out of every three European Jews had been killed. 1.5 million children were murdered. This figure includes more than 1.2 million Jewish children, tens of thousands of Gypsy children and thousands of handicapped children."
    • "Holocaust—Definition", Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies: "HOLOCAUST (Heb., sho'ah). In the 1950s the term came to be applied primarily to the destruction of the Jews of Europe under the Nazi regime, and it is also employed in describing the annihilation of other groups of people in World War II. The mass extermination of Jews has become the archetype of GENOCIDE, and the terms sho'ah and "holocaust" have become linked to the attempt by the Nazi German state to destroy European Jewry during World War II … One of the first to use the term in the historical perspective was the Jerusalem historian BenZion Dinur (Dinaburg), who, in the spring of 1942, stated that the Holocaust was a "catastrophe" that symbolized the unique situation of the Jewish people among the nations of the world."
    • Also see the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies list of definitions: "Holocaust: A term for the state-sponsored, systematic persecution and annihilation of European Jewry by Nazi Germany and its collaborators between 1933 and 1945."
    • "The Holocaust", Compact Oxford English Dictionary: "(the Holocaust) the mass murder of Jews under the German Nazi regime in World War II."
    • The 33rd Annual Scholars' Conference on the Holocaust and the Churches defines the Holocaust as "the Nazi attempt to annihilate European Jewry," cited in Hancock, Ian. "Romanies and the Holocaust: A Reevaluation and an Overview", Stone, Dan. (ed.) The Historiography of the Holocaust. Palgrave-Macmillan, New York 2004, pp. 383–396.
    • Bauer, Yehuda. Rethinking the Holocaust. New Haven: Yale University Press. 2001, p.10.
    • Dawidowicz, Lucy. The War Against the Jews: 1933–1945. Bantam, 1986, p.xxxvii: "'The Holocaust' is the term that Jews themselves have chosen to describe their fate during World War II."
  4. Donald Niewyk suggests that the broadest definition, including Soviet civilian deaths, would produce a death toll of 17 million. [1] Estimates of the death toll of non-Jewish victims vary by millions, partly because the boundary between death by persecution and death by starvation and other means in a context of total war is unclear. Overall, about 5.7 million (78 percent) of the 7.3 million Jews in occupied Europe perished (Gilbert, Martin. Atlas of the Holocaust 1988, pp. 242-244). Compared to five to 11 million (1.4 percent to 3.0 percent) of the 360 million non-Jews in German-dominated Europe. Small, Melvin and J. David Singer. Resort to Arms: International and civil Wars 1816-1980 and Berenbaum, Michael. A Mosaic of Victims: Non-Jews Persecuted and Murdered by the Nazis. New York: New York University Press, 1990
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  9. The Oxford English Dictionary, Clarendon Press, 2nd ed.Oxford 1989, vol.VII p.315 sect c.'complete destruction, esp. of a large number of persons; a great slaughter or massacre' citing examples from 1711, 1833, and 1883 onwards.
  10. "As for the Turkish atrocities ... helpless Armenians, men, women, and children together, whole districts blotted out in one administrative holocaust - these were beyond human redress" (Winston Churchill, The World in Crisis, volume 4: The Aftermath, New York, 1923, p. 158).
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  15. A useful analysis of the terms can be found in Bartov, Omer. "Antisemitism, the Holocaust, and Reinterpretation of National Socialism," in Berenbaum, Michael & Peck, Abraham J. (eds.) The Holocaust and History: The Known, the Unknown, the Disputed, and the Reexamined. Bloomington 1998, pp. 75–98.
  16. Guido Knopp is a German Ken Burns with many very successful TV documentary series about the Nazi era, such as Hitler's Women, Hitler's Warriors, and Hitler's Helpers. The series in question was published as: Guido Knopp, Holokaust (Munich: Bertelsmann, 2000). Pages 20-22 of the 2001 paperback edition discuss the choice of the title, which was suggested by the renowned German historian Eberhard Jäckel.
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  192. 195.0 195.1 Conway, John S. "The first report about Auschwitz", Museum of Tolerance, Simon Wiesenthal Center, Annual 1 Chapter 07, retrieved September 11, 2006.
  193. Linn, Ruth. Escaping Auschwitz. A culture of forgetting, Cornell University Press, 2004, p. 20.
  194. Swiebocki, Henryk. "Prisoner Escapes," in Berenbaum, Michael & Gutman, Yisrael (eds). Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp, Indiana University Press and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 1994, p. 505.
  195. Grojanowski Report
  196. Grojanowski Report, Yad Vashem
  197. Yad Vashem, "Diaries"
  198. Memorandum, Arthur Sweetser to Leo Rosten, February 1, 1942, quoted in Eric Hanin, "War on Our Minds: The American Mass Media in World War II" (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Rochester, 1976), ch. 4, n.6
  199. Het Parool, September 27, page 4–5. Concentration camps: where the Nazi's bring their ideals in practice, NIOD (Dutch Institute of War Documentation), Amsterdam
  200. [14] and [15] (Het Parool, September 27, 1943, p 4–5)
  201. Hilberg, Raul (1985). The destruction of the European Jews, p. 1212, New York: Holmes & Meier.
  202. Vrba, Rudolf (2002). I Escaped From Auschwitz, New York: Barricade Books.
  203. 206.0 206.1 Linn, Ruth. "Rudolf Vrba", The Guardian, April 13, 2006.
  204. The BBC first broadcast information from the report on June 18, not June 15, according to Ruth Linn in Escaping Auschwitz: A Culture of Forgetting, p. 28.
  205. "Captured German sound recordings", The National Archives.
  206. Czech, Danuta (1989). Kalendarium der Ereignisse im Konzentrationslager Auschwitz- Birkenau 1939 - 1945., , pp.920, 933, Rowohlt, Reinbek. using information from a series called Hefte von Auschwitz, and cited in Kárný, Miroslav. "The Vrba and Wetzler report," in Berenbaum, Michael & Gutman, Yisrael (eds). Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp, p. 564, Indiana University Press and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 1994. The original German is: "25. November Im KL Auschwitz II kommen 24 weibliche Häftlinge ums Leben, von denen 13 unmittelbar getötet werden."
  207. Maps of the main death marches, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
  208. Dear, Ian and M. R. Foot, I. C. (Eds.) (2001). The Oxford companion to World War II, Oxford [Oxfordshire]: Oxford University Press.
  209. Wiesel, Elie. Night, p. 81.
  210. Stone, Dan G.; Wood, Angela (2007). Holocaust: The events and their impact on real people, p.144, DK CHILDREN, in conjunction with the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education.
  211. Holocaust: The events and their impact on real people, DK Publishing in conjunction with the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education, p. 146.
  212. A film with scenes from the liberation of Dachau, Buchenwald, Belsen and other Nazi concentration camps, supervised by the British Ministry of Information and the American Office of War Information, was begun but never finished or shown. It lay in archives until first aired on PBS's Frontline on May 7, 1985. The film, partly edited by Alfred Hitchcock, can be seen online at Memory of the Camps.
  213. Wiesel, Elie. After the Darkness: Reflections on the Holocaust, Schocken Books, p. 39.
  214. Holocaust: The events and their impact on real people, DK Publishing in conjunction with the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education, p. 145.
  215. "The 11th Armoured Division (Great Britain)", United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
  216. "Bergen-Belsen", United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
  217. Wiesel, Elie. After the Darkness: Reflections on the Holocaust, Schocken Books, p. 41.
  218. "Liberation of Belsen", BBC News, April 15, 1945.

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