The Holocaust was a terrible part of World War II that involved the mass murder of nearly 6 million Jews, as well as others, including Gypsies, Slavs, disabled people and gay people.
Hitler and the Nazis hated the Jews and blamed them for Germany’s defeat in World War I, as well Germany’s collapse during the 1920s. Before coming to power, Hitler had written a book called My Struggle. In the book he talked about another war in Europe in which the Jews would be completely wiped out.
The book also referred to ‘true Germans’, which he called ‘Aryan’. He thought that Aryans were the most worthy human beings who deserved to live at the expense of other races. Hitler felt that the Jews and many others were not as able as pure Germans and did not deserve to live alongside the ‘master race’. He believed that Aryans should have the right to expand into other territories and countries.
When Hitler came to power Jews who had worked in government lost their jobs. Soon afterwards, other professionals, such as doctors and lawyers were to lose their jobs too. Jewish businesses were closed down and Jews were cut off from society. They were given separate seats on buses and park benches and were bullied in schools.
In 1935 the Nuremberg laws were passed which stripped Jews of their German citizenship. The attack on Jews reached a peak on the night of November the 9th, 1938 when Jewish homes and shops were violently attacked in the so-called ‘Kristallnacht’, or ‘Night of the Broken Glass’.
In the early part of the war in 1939, Germany had invaded and taken control of the West of Poland. Polish Jews were driven from their homes and forced to live in separate areas where they were not allowed to earn a wage. These areas, which were walled and fenced off from the rest of the population, were called ‘ghettoes’. Many died of starvation and disease in awful conditions.
Between 1939 and 1941 the Nazis ordered the killing of mentally and physically disabled people who they saw as an unfit burden on society. Doctors and medical staff were forced to carry out this terrible order, murdering over 70,000 people. The Catholic and Protestant Churches in Germany spoke out against this policy and Hitler claimed to have stopped the practice. It continued in secret though.
During World War II, the attacks got worse with an attempt to round up all European Jews in organised genocide, which meant mass murder. In 1941 nearly 1 million Jews from all over Europe were killed by the Nazis.
In January 1942, Hitler decided to organise further killings by building camps in certain locations, such as Auschwitz near Krakow in Poland. The camps were grim places where Jews and many other groups were forced into slave labour, before being starved to death, or murdered. At Auschwitz alone, over 2 million people were killed by the Nazis.
How did people react?
There were some wonderful stories of survival and human compassion in these awful times. Oskar Schindler was a German who saved 1,200 Jews from certain death. His humane actions were made into the film Schindler’s List in 1993.
Some Jews fled to other countries, some, like the young girl Anne Frank, hid from the Nazis for two years in occupied Netherlands, and kept a diary which became famous. Sadly, she died, aged 15, in 1945 at the Bergen-Belsen prison camp.
Luckily, some children were sent by their parents to other countries, such as Britain, on special trains to be fostered.
There were some who were fearful of the Nazis and worked with them.
The Death Marches
As Soviet troops moved through Eastern Europe and Germany’s defeat drew closer, the Nazi’s ordered the evacuation of the camps in the autumn of 1944. The prisoners had to march away from the enemy and this went on until the Germans surrendered. It is estimated that between 250,000 and 375,000 people died during these marches.
The survivors were unable to return home having lost their families, and many of them were homeless for some time. Surviving Nazi leaders were brought to justice during the Nuremberg trials of 1945-1946, when their war crimes were exposed. Many were sentenced to death.
The state of Israel was created in 1948, partly to give a permanent home to the survivors of the Holocaust.