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