"Behold the tears of the oppressed. and they have no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power... And l thought the dead more fortunate than the living; but better than both is he who has not Yet been, and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun." -Ecclesiastes 4:13
The story unfolds through four major themes:
Nazi Germany, 1933-1938
Moving Toward the “Final Solution”, 1939-1941
Annihilation in Nazi-occupied Europe, 1941-1945
Liberation - Building New Lives
Six million Jews and millions of others, including Roma, Slavs, political dissenters, LGBTQ+ folx, POW’s, and people with mental or physical disabilities were murdered by the Nazis between 1933 and 1945. The Nazi policy of racial hatred moved with relentless cruelty from hateful propaganda to mass murder, culminating in the extermination of European Jewry and culture.
The magnitude of brutality, the remorseless cruelty, and the cold industrial character of mass murder during the Holocaust are unique. However, the root causes of the Holocaust persist. Racial hatred, economic crises, human psychological and moral flaws, the complacency or complicity of ordinary individuals in the persecution of their neighbors are still ominously common.
Thus we must have the courage to remember and study the Holocaust, no matter how disturbing these studies and memories may be. For only informed, understanding, and morally committed individuals can prevent such persecution from happening again. The persecution of people is always and everywhere intolerable and to act against it is a beginning for hope.
"Moreover, we do not know to this day which devil has brought them (Jews) here...like a plague, pestilence, pure misfortune in our country." Martin Luther, About the Jews and Their Lies, 1543
Jewish communities existed continuously in Europe for over 2,000 years. Many of these communities were older than the countries in which they existed. Nevertheless, as the countries of Europe developed, Jews were rarely given complete citizenship status. At best they were tolerated as guests. Their social and religious distinctiveness made them persistent targets for persecution; and such persecution, in turn, intensified the cohesiveness of Jewish communities.
The emergence of Christianity as the ominant religion in Europe intensified the persecution of Jews. Since both the religious and political life of Europe became organized around the Christian faith, Jews were seen as outcasts, the deniers and "killers" of Christ. For millions of European Christians, for over 1600 years, the hatred and persecution of Jews was religiously sanctioned. antisemitism intensified during the l9th and 20th century industrialization of Europe as Jews participated more directly in European economic and social life.
By 1933, the patterns of economic, social, and personal persecution of uropean Jews were well established. Nazi racial antisemitism and propaganda amplified and manipulated these patterns, ultimately adding one deadly tenet--that all Jews must be eliminated.
Passports of all Jews in Nazi Germany were stamped with the letter "J" for "Jude." German Jews were forced to take new middle names: Israel for men, Sarah for women.
By 1933, German Jews were largely urban, middle class, prosperous in business, and well represented in the professions (especially medicine and law). They were culturally integrated but represented less than 1 percent of the total population.
Albert Einstein and Sir Herbert Samuel, British High Commissioner for Palestine, in Jerusalem in 1923. CL:LBI/NY
This was in stark contrast to Eastern European Jews who were often poor, rural, socially isolated, religiously traditional and represented a much larger percentage of the total population.
"The Jew is no German. If you say that the Jew is born in Germany...has obeyed German laws has had to become a soldier --has fulfilled all his duties, has paid his taxes, too, then all that is not decisive for nationality, but only the race out of which he was born is decisive." Hermann Ahlwardt, Speech to Reichstag, 1895
Jewish soldiers in the German Army during World War I celebrate Yom Kippur in the Brussels synagogue, Oct. 7, 1915. CL:LBI/NY
In 1933, 600,000 Jews lived in Germany: 20 percent were immigrants from Eastern Europe and 80 percent were German citizens. Many were descendants of Jews who had settled in Germany for nearly 2,000 years. They were socially integrated and participated in German intellectual, cultural, economic, and political life. Nevertheless, they were seldom fully accepted as social equals in German society.
"There is great distress in German Jewry....New distress has overtaken us. Jewish people are torn away from their work: the sense and basis of their lives have been destroyed." Central-Vereins-ZeitUng. April 21, 1933
"So I believe that I act in the spirit of the Almighty God: by defending myself against the Jew. I am fighting for the work of the Lord." Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf. 1924
From 1933 to 1939 the Nazis systematically excluded Jews from participation in German life. Jews lost their jobs, their citizenship, and their civic rights. They were isolated and cut off from society. But flight was still possible. Although the world knew the plight of the German Jews, little refuge was offered. The world watched while Nazi Germany became a testing ground for an accelerating persecution that ultimately became the epitaph for six million Jews.
"My measures will not be hindered by any legal considerations or bureaucracy whatsoever. It is not justice that I have to carry out but annihilation and extermination." Hermann Goering, March 3, 1933
As the international economic crisis of the Great Depression spread in the early 1930s, the Nazis fed on the discontent of the lower and middle classes of Germany. In 1932, the German people who voted for the Nazis hoped for decisive leadership, economic revival, and a new national sense of pride and purpose. Most assumed Nazi extremism would be tempered by the responsibility and compromise necessary to govern. They were mistaken.
Immediately upon seizing power, the Nazis unleashed a frenzy of violence against their political opponents, many of whom were Jews. On April 1, 1933, a nationwide boycott of Jewish businesses was organized by the SA (Storm Troops) and SS (Elite Guard), who picketed Jewish-owned shops and businesses.
An SA man stands guard outside a Jewish shop during the Boycott of April l, 1933. CL:National Archives and Records Administration. Wash.. D.C. (NARA)
"All Jews' businesses are closed. SA men are posted outside their entrances. The public has everywhere proclaimed its solidarity. The discipline is exemplary...The boycott is a great moral victory for Germany." Josef Goebbels, Diary. April 1, 1933
Hitler during a Nazi rally in Bueckeburg, 1934.
CL:Adolf Hitler. Bilder aus dem Leben des Fuehrers. (Hamburg, 1936)
In January 1933, Hitler was appointed Chancellor. By February 28th, constitutional guarantees of personal liberty, free speech and freedom of the press were suspended. The nightmare of the Nazi rule had begun.
Books written by Jews and those deemed subversive ideology were removed from public libraries. On May 10, 1933, the Nazis coordinated public burnings of "banned" books.
The SA confiscating literature for book burnings in Hamburg, May 15, 1933. CL:Bildarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Berlin (BPK)
"Another great pageant tonight. Two thousand party officials packed in the Zeppelin Wiese with their twenty-one thousand flags unfurled in the searchlights like a forest of weird trees...until under the mystic lights and at the sound of the magic words of the Austrian they were merged completely in the Germanic herd."
William Shirer, Berlin Diary September 7, 1934
Propaganda was the essence and genius of National Socialism. Flags, uniforms, Sieg Heils. fanfares, marching columns, banners, searchlights, every form of physical stimulation and manipulation was used to mold the Nazi party, and later all of Germany into total compliance with Nazi policy.
Hitler and the Nazis transformed the fears, impulses, and dissatisfaction of the prewar German masses into a subservient political machine, capable of systematic persecution and murder.
Josef Goebbels, Hitler's minister of propaganda, possessed a diabolical flair for orchestrating mass fervor and ecstasy. With sober calculation, he designed the ritual rallies of the Nazis--the repeated oaths, the arm raising, the songs.
"Josef Goebbels has worn down the nerves of the enemy: he played the register of the propaganda organ. so that they soon thought they were hearing the shrieks of the last trumpet."
Alfred Frauenfeld, Nazi Deputy Propaganda Minister
"A time of brutality approaches of which we ourselves can have absolutely no conception."
While Nazi propaganda manipulated mass opinion and paralyzed opponents, Nazi violence and terror guaranteed swift success in seizing power and implementing racist and political policy. Within a month of seizing power, in February of 1933, Hitler suspended all constitutional rights. The SS and SA began political arrests, brutalizing Jews, Communists, and any other declared opponents of the Third Reich.
"A house like millions of others. somewhere in Germany. Simple people. like you and me. live in this house: these people live in fear. Don't ask what they fear: they fear the Gestapo of course. They fear the rampant secret denunciations. Friends see someone ringing the doorbell at an unusual hour. The fear is there: doors open furtively and the intimidated residents peek out to see who is affected." Lea Grundig, Survivor, Dresden, 1936
A 1933 kiosk in Werl in the Rhineland lists Jewish businesses and residents, urging "Genuine Germans avoid them." CL:BPK
"Tolerance is a sign of weakness. Let any political agitators, whatever their leanings. pay heed: take care that you are not caught or you will be seized by the throat and silenced."
From the beginning, concentration camps were an integral feature of Nazi rule. In March of 1933, the first concentration camp was established at Dachau to house opponents of the Nazi regime including communists, socialists, liberals, some clergy and anyone considered disloyal to the Reich. Dachau became the model for the entire concentration camp system. Theodor Eicke, the second commandant at Dachau, introduced a system of brutal disciplinary regulations and punishments for prisoners. Dachau was also a place where a whole generation of SS camp officials were trained, including Rudolf Hoess.
By 1939, major SS camps existed at Buchenwald, Flossenbuerg, Mauthausen, Ravensbrueck, and Sachsenhausen. While all "enemies" of the Reich were imprisoned, the percentage of Jews in the camps increased dramatically after the pogrom, known as Kristallnacht. in November 1938.
"The Jewish prisoners worked in special detachments and received the hardest tasks. They were beaten at every opportunity....During the working period the non-Jewish prisoners were issued with one piece of bread at breakfast--the Jews with nothing. But the Jews were always paraded with the others to see the bread ration issued." Former Prisoner, Germany Reports. Paris 1938
"As to annihilate German Jewry...Let no one doubt our resolution."
In 1933, after the initial wave of Nazi antisemitic violence, a panic swept the German-Jewish community and 37,000 people fled Germany. This emigration slowed, however, after the initial rush. Initially, the Nazis encouraged and, in some cases, forced emigration, especially of poor, unemployed or criminal Jews, hoping thereby to spread antisemitic feelings throughout Europe. Wealthier Jews could also flee Germany, but they paid a large portion of their assets for the opportunity to escape.
The chief obstacle to Jewish emigration was the unwillingness of other nations to accept Jews. Traditional antisemitism and fear of swamping labor markets combined to close off most escape routes.
By 1939, more than 50 percent of Germany's Jews had fled; however, with the rapid Nazi conquest of Europe after 1939, most of these emigres found themselves back under Nazi control. After the outbreak of war, Nazi policy shifted from forced emigration to extermination.
Refugee child guarding the family's suitcases, 1935. CL:Leni Sonnenfeld.
"I have in the course of my political struggle won much love from my people, but when I crossed the former frontier (into Austria) there met me such a stream of love as I have never experienced. Not as tyrants have we come, but as liberators." Adolf Hitler, March 1933
The Nazi program extended beyond the borders of Germany in March 1938, when Austria was incorporated by Germany. The Nazis' social, economic, and legal degradation of the German Jews had taken five years to accomplish; in Austria it was achieved in a few months. Jewish men and women were forced to scrub the streets on their knees, while many Viennese cheered. Shops were looted, property confiscated, and thousands of Austrians were arrested.
In August 1938, Mauthausen concentration camp opened to imprison individuals opposed to the Nazi regime; the Central Office for Jewish Emigration was established to accelerate the forced emigration of Jews. Adolf Eichmann was appointed head of Jewish affairs in Austria. The patterns of persecution he established would serve as a model for future Nazi practices of confiscation of Jewish property followed by forced emigration.
Jews and others fleeing Austria line up outside Wehrgasse Passport Office, 1938. CL:DOW
The fate of European Jews was directly linked to Hitler's preparations for war. By 1938, Nazi policy had systematically removed Jews from the political and cultural life of Germany. In 1938, Jews were evicted from Germany's economic life. Desperate and impoverished, they sought refuge, but no nation wanted them.
To insure the poverty of the immigrant, laws were passed in 1938:
Denying Jewish communities the right to own property
Denying Jewish doctors the right to treat Aryan patients
Denying Jewish lawyers the right to practice law
Requiring Jewish businesses to be registered & encouraging their transfer at artificially low prices to Aryan owners
SS roundups outside the Jewish Community Center in Vienna, March 1938. CL:Bundesarchiv
"Beginning systematically in the early morning hours in almost every town and city in the country, the wrecking, looting and burning continued all day. Huge, but mostly silent, crowds looked on and the police confined themselves to regulating traffic and making wholesale arrests of Jews 'for their own protection."
On November 7, 1938, Herschel Grynszpan, a 17 year old Polish Jewish student living in Paris, in reprisal for the expulsion of his family from Germany, shot Ernst -vom Rath, a German diplomat. It was a convenient pretext to escalate the campaign against the Jews.
As revenge for vom Rath's murder, Josef Goebbels coordinated a nationwide night of antisemitic terror, subsequently known as Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass). On the night of November 9, 1938, synagogues were burned, Jewish shops looted, Jewish homes vandalized, Jews were beaten and abused. Ninety-one were murdered and 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and sent to concentration camps.
Jewish shop in Berlin with shattered windows. CL:Wiener Library. London
Deportation of male Jews of Berlin to Sachsenhausen concentration camp on November 10, 1938 CL:LBI/NY
The looted interior of the synagogue at Zeven dumped onto the town's main square and later burned. CL.LBI/NY
"No German should be asked to live under the same roof with Jews...we must expel them from our house and living areas."
Das Schwarze Korps (SS Journal) November 24, 1938
Jews trapped in a no-man's land between Hungary and Czechoslovakia, Winter 1938. CL:Wiener Library, London
In the wake of Kristallnacht. the brutal character of Nazi racist policy was apparent. It became clear that there could be no accommodation, only escape. By 1939, Germany's Jews were in flight to any place that would receive them. But options were few. Over half of Germany's Jews had emigrated before the outbreak of war in September 1939. Tragically, with the rapid conquest of Europe by the Nazis, many German Jews were under Nazi control shortly after their escape.
Slovakian village Jews in no-man's land on Hungarian- Czechoslovakian border, 1938-1939. CL:Wiener Library, London
In July 1938, President Franklin Roosevelt initiated a conference in Evian, France, to develop a solution to the German refugee problem. Over thirty nations participated: the conference degenerated into a litany of what would not be done. The conference's failure trapped the remaining Jews of Germany and Austria. Between 1938 and 1939, Jewish refugees were stranded in a no-man's land in the border areas of Central Europe: 3,000 homeless Jews wandered alone along the Slovak/Hungarian border.
"It is a shameful spectacle to see how the whole democratic world is oozing with sympathy for the poor. tormented Jewish people. but remains hardhearted and obdurate when it comes to helping them."
Adolf Hitler, January 20, 1939
At the core of the Nazi ideology was a deadly vision of a racially pure society: a vicious form of social, genetic, and population planning that eliminated every individual not fitting its narrow definition of perfection. While Jews were the primary target, Gypsies, Slavs, homosexuals, the handicapped and political dissidents were also trapped in the deadly grip of Nazi ideology.
The Nazis believed that the "useless mouths" (the chronically ill and the physically and mentally defective) had no right to live. On September 1, 1939, Hitler signed an order "granting" such individuals the right to die. The so-called euthanasia (mercy-killing) program of the Nazis killed hundreds of thousands of individuals by gas or lethal injection.
In 1940-41 special liquidation centers were established throughout Germany to eliminate the mentally or chronically ill. In these centers the first hermetically sealed gas chambers were developed. These deadly chambers, disguised as showers, were the prototypes for the mass extermination chambers later used in the Nazi extermination camps.
Over 500,000 Gypsies were systematically murdered by the Nazis between 1939 and 1945. Like the Jews, Gypsies were stereotyped in Nazi propaganda as vagabonds, criminals, and parasite
Gypsies being deported from Simmering in Vienna to the transit camp of Bruck on the Leitha River, late 1938.CL:DOW
A demonstration of Aryan features in Nazi-run schools. CL:SW