This is the most tragic and sorrowful page in the history of the Jewish people. The world had never seen anything like this before: six million people systematically and deliberately exterminated just because they are of a certain national origin. In Hebrew, “Shoah” means “the catastrophe”. This catastrophe suffered by the Jewish people in Europe is referred to as the “third destruction” (the first and second destruction referring to that of the First Temple and the Second Temple). We remember and mourn each and every victim of the Catastrophe and do everything in our power to prevent it from ever happening again. The survivors of concentration camps have managed to get the horrible truth across to us.
According to the testimony given by the former SS officer Dieter Wisliceny during the Nuremberg Trials, the persecution and destruction of Jews had three distinct periods: “till 1940… dealing with the Jewish question in Germany and its occupied territories by means of systematically driving Jews out. This was when the second phase started: concentration of all Jews in Poland and other eastern territories in ghettos. This period lasted approximately until the beginning of 1942. The third period implied the so-called “final solution of the Jewish question”, i.e., the systematic extermination of the Jewish people. Wisliceny claimed that the term “final solution” implied the physical annihilation of Jews and that he had seen the relevant order signed by Heinrich Himmler.
The Concise Jewish Encyclopaedia views the Holocaust in four stages:
January 1933 – August 1939: starting with the moment when Hitler became the Chancellor of Germany and up to invading Poland
September 1939 – June 1941: from incorporating the west of Poland in the Reich and the establishment of the “General Government” to attacking the Soviet Union
June 1941 – autumn of 1943: from attacking the USSR to the complete elimination of ghettos in its territory
Winter 1943 – May 1945: from the beginning of mass deportations of Jews from Western Europe to death camps and until the end of the war.
Despite obvious discrimination in the treatment of Jews, the genocide did not start right after the Nazis rose to power. The Nazis wanted to force Jews out of the country, but often they had nowhere to go. According to the famous quote by Chaim Weizmann (the future first President of Israel), for the Jews living in Europe the world had split in two: places where they could not live any longer and places where they could not go. The policy of forbidding entry to Jewish refugees upheld by the majority of western countries reflected the global climate of protectionism with a flair of xenophobia and blatant antisemitism. The Évian Conference held in July 1938 and convened at the initiative of the US President Franklin D. Roosevelt for the international discussion of the refugee situation ended in complete fiasco. Except for the Dominican Republic, none of the 32 participant countries gave even the remotest chance to the refugees expected to flee from Germany and Austria. Besides, Great Britain was going to restrict immigrant flow to Palestine, which was under the jurisdiction of the former.
Oppression started with the boycott of Jewish businesses beginning with 1 April 1933 and the following wave of ethnicity-specific laws targeting the Jews who worked in governmental agencies or certain professions. The Nuremberg Laws of 15 September 1935 eliminated the equal rights of Jews in Germany and defined a “Jew” in racial terms.
The anti-Semitic hysteria in Germany culminated in mass “pogroms” on 9–10 November 1938 historically known as the “Kristallnacht” (named so after the shards of broken glass that littered the streets of German cities). The pretext for the pogroms against Jews was the assassination of the German embassy counsellor Ernst vom Rath in Paris by Herschel Grrynszpan, a 17-year-old Polish Jew, on 7 November 1938.
The number of Jews who fled from Germany and Austria in 1933–1939 reached 330 thousand. Approximately 110,000 Jewish refugees left Germany and Austria for neighbouring countries, but still suffered persecution during the war.
At the beginning of 1939 Hitler ordered Hermann Göring, the “official responsible for the 4-year plan”, to prepare measures for the deportation of Jews from Germany. The onset of World War II did not only increase their numbers (after Germany annexed Western Poland), but also made legal ways of emigration much more complicated.
In 1940 and the beginning of 1941, the Nazis devised several alternative solutions to the Jewish question: suggesting that the Kremlin admit Jews from the Reich to the USSR; initiating the “Madagascar” (involving the resettlement of all the Jews to this island off the coast of Southeast Africa) and “Lublin” (establishing a Jewish reservation in the part of Poland occupied by the Nazis and named the “General Governorate”) plans. None of these projects were implemented.
On 31 July 1941, Hermann Göring signed the order appointing Reinhard Heydrich, head of the RSHA (Reich Main Security Office), responsible for the “final solution of the Jewish question”.
In January 1942, the programme for the “final solution of the Jewish question” was approved at the Wannsee Conference. Among other issues, decisions were made not on either to exterminate Jews or not, but on the way to do it, which would be the most cost-efficient for the Reich. These decisions were not made public, and very few (including the future victims) could believe at the time that something like this could happen in the 20th century. Jews from Germany, France, Holland and Belgium were deported east, to camps and ghettos in Poland and Belarus and were told that the relocation was temporary. Extermination camps established in Poland were not designed for a large number of people living there at all, but only for newcomers to be killed fast. The locations for the first camps of this type (Chelmno and Belzec) had been selected as early as in October 1941. At the end of December 1941, the death camp in Chelmno was “commissioned”. Jews were killed with carbon monoxide generated by huge diesel engines pumping the gas into gas chambers.
Mass deportations from the Warsaw Ghetto (the largest of all ever established) to the Treblinka extermination camp started in July 1942. By 13 September 1942, 300 thousand Warsaw Jews were deported or killed in the ghetto.
The ghetto in the city of Lodz accommodated up to 160,000 Jews. This ghetto was subjected to gradual liquidation: the first wave of deportations to Chelmno took place between January and May of 1942 (55 thousand Jews from Lodz and provincial towns of the Kalisz Region), and then a series of further deportations to Chelmno and other camps, after which it was liquidated entirely on 1 September 1944. The Jewish population of Lublin was deported to the Belzec extermination camp. During the operation between 17 March and 14 April 1942, 37 thousand Jews were sent to destruction, and the remaining four thousand were concentrated in the Majdan Tatarski Ghetto in the outskirts of the city. In March 1942, the Jews from the entire Lublin voivodeship were transferred to Belzec; this was also when trains with deportation victims started arriving from Western Ukraine. Around 15 thousand Jews were sent to Belzec from Lviv in March 1942, and other 50 thousand were deported in August.
From Krakow, the majority of Jews were sent to Belzec in June and October 1942; in March 1943, some six thousand remaining Jews were deported to a labour camp in the Plaszow suburb of Krakow, and around three thousand were sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp. In September 1942, the majority of Jews from Radom, Kielce, Czestochowa and other cities of Eastern Poland were deported to Treblinka. By the end of 1942, just around 30 thousand of the 300 thousand Jews who had lived in the Radom region were still alive.
It was in 1942 that the majority of Jews from Eastern and Central Europe and a considerable share of Jews from Western Europe were exterminated. The successful advance of the Soviet Army on a number of fronts in 1943, the change of situation after the Battle of Stalingrad and the defeat of Rommel’s army at El Alamein caused the Nazis to increase the pace of the “liquidation” of Jews.
The rapid westward movement of Soviet forces made the SS liquidate the last remaining ghettos and labour camps frantically, covering up the traces of atrocities committed there. A special unit’s (Sonderkommando 1005) task was burning bodies in the locations of mass executions.
Almost all the camps and ghettos still existing in the territories of Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Latvia and Lithuania were hastily liquidated (for example, after the revolt was suppressed in the Vilnius Ghetto, the remaining several thousand Jews were relocated to camps in Estonia); mass deportations of Jewish population from Italy, Norway, France, Belgium, Slovakia, and Greece to the Auschwitz concentration camp started, lasting until October 1944. The annihilation of Hungarian Jews started after the Soviet Army had already taken over the eastern regions of the country.
According to some researchers, two thirds of the programme of the extermination of Jews for 1943–1945 were completed until the capitulation of Germany in 1945. The shortage of labour and the simultaneous economically pointless killing of millions of people raised doubts among the military establishment in 1943–1944 as to the feasibility of the approach to the “final solution”. In 1943, Himmler ordered the surviving Jews to be put to use as workforce for warfare purposes. There was a moment when Himmler even suggested some of the Jews should be freed in exchange for political concessions (including the opportunity to conclude a separate peace treaty with the West) or for colossal ransoms.
During the last stage of the war, when the defeat of Germany was undoubtedly inevitable, some Nazi chiefs attempted to use Jews for establishing a connection with the allies while others (primarily Hitler) continued insisting on the total extermination of all Jewish survivors.
However, one cannot say that those Jews who realised where they were being sent went to their doom without a fight!
It was only after the outcome was finally clear that revolts started in ghettos and camps; the most famous of these are the revolt in the Warsaw Ghetto in January 1943 and the one in the Sobibor extermination camp, which was the only concentration camp revolt to be a success in the course of World War II. One of the active centres of resistance was the Minsk Ghetto. The ghetto in Bialystok, which had initially housed 50,000 Jews, was liquidated on 16 August 1943 after five days of armed struggle of the Nazis with the Jewish underground.
The fate of Jews in the occupied territories was foregone. As a rule, they were not supported by the locals, so many had no chances of surviving outside the ghetto. Among the survivors of the Catastrophe there are those few whom locals hid, risking their own lives (non-Jews referred to as the “Righteous Among the Nations” saved tens of thousands of Jews from death), and those who joined partisan units. According to various sources, from 8 to 30 thousand Jews fought among partisans in Belarus. There is information about a large partisan unit organised by the Bielski brothers. Jews also could be found in partisan units in Lithuania and Northern Ukraine.
There also were those who helped and saved Jews, risking their own lives. They are known as “Righteous Among the nations”.
In Poland, over 2000 people who had been saving or helping Jews were executed. The Polish government-in-exile formed a special underground agency “Zegota” (the Council to aid Jews in the German-occupied territory of Poland, 1942–1945) in order to organise operations for saving Jews. The agency was headed by Zofia Kossak-Szczucka.
Underground resistance organisations in the Netherlands, Norway, Belgium and France also helped Jews, primarily to find refuge. In Denmark, common people transported 7000 of 8000 Danish Jews to Sweden by boats; entire Danish society, including the royal family, openly protested against racist laws during German occupation. As the result, only 60 Jews were killed in Denmark in the course of World War II.
Bulgarians mounted resistance to the Nazis as well. Having already become internationally isolated, Bulgaria was forced to become Germany’s ally. Still, when the Germans demanded that Bulgarian Jews (numbering around 50,000) be turned over, entire society protested. Democrats, communists, public figures, members of the parliament, and Orthodox priests spearheaded by the Patriarch rose to the defence of Jewish citizens of Bulgaria. Tsar Boris III repeatedly sabotaged the German orders concerning them. Jews were relocated to the province from the capital so that they wold stay hidden from the Germans. As the result, around 50,000 people were saved. The country failed to save 11,343 Jews from Macedonia and Trace, which had been incorporated into Bulgaria after a number of wars. In 1996, the “Bulgarian Forest” with memory plaques in the honour of those who saved Jews from Bulgaria was opened in Israel.
Despite the heavy-handed anti-Semitic policy of the Nazis, there were voices raised in protest against the persecution of Jews in Germany as well. The largest spontaneous overt action against the anti-Semitic policy was the demonstration of ethnic Germans, spouses and other relatives of the Jews in danger of deportation to camps, on Rosenstrasse in Berlin on 27–28 February 1943. To avoid scandal, Goebbels, the Gauleiter of Berlin, ordered the relatives of the protestors (numbering approximately 2000) freed and transferred for forced labour in Berlin; almost all of them survived until the end of the war.
In some cases, high-ranking Germans used their position and opportunities to help Jews. On of the most famous figures among these is probably Oskar Schindler, a German businessman who saved thousands of Jews from the Kraków-Płaszów concentration camp by giving them jobs at his factory.
“Righteous Among the Nations” include diplomats and civil officials, the best known being Aristides Sousa Mendes from Portugal, Sempo Sugihara from Japan and Paul Gruninger from Switzerland, who risked their careers to save Jews. Abdol Hossein Sardari, an employee of the Iranian embassy, also saved Jews in Paris, occupied by the Nazis, by issuing around three thousand Iranian visas. However, the most famous diplomat to have saved Jews is probably Raoul Wallenberg from Sweden, who saved tens of thousands of Jews from Hungary. Despite diplomatic immunity, he was arrested by Soviet intelligence services after Budapest had been taken and subsequently disappeared. It was only in 2006 that the world first heard the name of José Arturo Castellanos, the Salvadoran diplomat who had issued approximately 40 thousand forged citizenship certificates to European Jews (mainly from Hungary), which saved around 25 thousand people.
According to the Yad Vashem Institute, as at 1 January 2009, the number of contributors to saving Jews who had been identified and awarded with the title of “Righteous Among the Nations” was 22,765. Poland holds the record for the number of “Righteous Among the Nations” in the country (6135); there are 4947 in Holland and 2991 in France. As for the former USSR republics, the largest number of the “Righteous Among the Nations” is in Ukraine (2246).
The Yad Vashem web page also states that “These figures are not necessarily an indication of the actual number of Jews saved in each country, but reflect material on rescue operations made available to Yad Vashem”.
We still remember the Shoah. Our nation has always been good at healing its wounds, but this large scar will always remain on the body of the Jewish people.