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The word “Holocaust,” from the Greek words “holos” (whole) and “kaustos” (burned), was historically used to describe a sacrificial offering burned on an altar. Since 1945, the word has taken on a new and horrible meaning: the ideological and systematic state-sponsored persecution and mass murder of millions of European Jews (as well as millions of others, including Romani people, the intellectually disabled, dissidents and homosexuals) by the German Nazi regime between 1933 and 1945.
To the anti-Semitic Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, Jews were an inferior race, an alien threat to German racial purity and community. After years of Nazi rule in Germany, during which Jews were consistently persecuted, Hitler’s “final solution”—now known as the Holocaust—came to fruition under the cover of World War II, with mass killing centers constructed in the concentration camps of occupied Poland. Approximately six million Jews and some 5 million others, targeted for racial, political, ideological and behavioral reasons, died in the Holocaust. More than one million of those who perished were children.
Before the Holocaust: Historical Anti-Semitism & Hitler’s Rise to Power
Anti-Semitism in Europe did not begin with Adolf Hitler. Though use of the term itself dates only to the 1870s, there is evidence of hostility toward Jews long before the Holocaust–even as far back as the ancient world, when Roman authorities destroyed the Jewish temple in Jerusalem and forced Jews to leave Palestine. The Enlightenment, during the 17th and 18th centuries, emphasized religious toleration, and in the 19th century Napoleon and other European rulers enacted legislation that ended long-standing restrictions on Jews. Anti-Semitic feeling endured, however, in many cases taking on a racial character rather than a religious one.
The roots of Hitler’s particularly virulent brand of anti-Semitism are unclear. Born in Austria in 1889, he served in the German army during World War I. Like many anti-Semites in Germany, he blamed the Jews for the country’s defeat in 1918. Soon after the war ended, Hitler joined the National German Workers’ Party, which became the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP), known to English speakers as the Nazis. While imprisoned for treason for his role in the Beer Hall Putsch of 1923, Hitler wrote the memoir and propaganda tract “Mein Kampf”(My Struggle), in which he predicted a general European war that would result in “the extermination of the Jewish race in Germany.”
Hitler was obsessed with the idea of the superiority of the “pure” German race, which he called “Aryan,” and with the need for “Lebensraum,” or living space, for that race to expand. In the decade after he was released from prison, Hitler took advantage of the weakness of his rivals to enhance his party’s status and rise from obscurity to power. On January 30, 1933, he was named chancellor of Germany. After President Paul von Hindenburg’s death in 1934, Hitler anointed himself as “Fuhrer,” becoming Germany’s supreme ruler.
WATCH: Third Reich: The Rise on HISTORY Vault
Nazi Revolution in Germany, 1933-1939
The twin goals of racial purity and spatial expansion were the core of Hitler’s worldview, and from 1933 onward they would combine to form the driving force behind his foreign and domestic policy. At first, the Nazis reserved their harshest persecution for political opponents such as Communists or Social Democrats. The first official concentration camp opened at Dachau (near Munich) in March 1933, and many of the first prisoners sent there were Communists.
Like the network of concentration camps that followed, becoming the killing grounds of the Holocaust, Dachau was under the control of Heinrich Himmler, head of the elite Nazi guard, the Schutzstaffel (SS), and later chief of the German police. By July 1933, German concentration camps (Konzentrationslager in German, or KZ) held some 27,000 people in “protective custody.” Huge Nazi rallies and symbolic acts such as the public burning of books by Jews, Communists, liberals and foreigners helped drive home the desired message of party strength.
In 1933, Jews in Germany numbered around 525,000, or only 1 percent of the total German population. During the next six years, Nazis undertook an “Aryanization” of Germany, dismissing non-Aryans from civil service, liquidating Jewish-owned businesses and stripping Jewish lawyers and doctors of their clients. Under the Nuremberg Laws of 1935, anyone with three or four Jewish grandparents was considered a Jew, while those with two Jewish grandparents were designated Mischlinge (half-breeds).
Under the Nuremberg Laws, Jews became routine targets for stigmatization and persecution. This culminated in Kristallnacht, or the “night of broken glass” in November 1938, when German synagogues were burned and windows in Jewish shops were smashed; some 100 Jews were killed and thousands more arrested. From 1933 to 1939, hundreds of thousands of Jews who were able to leave Germany did, while those who remained lived in a constant state of uncertainty and fear.
Beginning of War, 1939-1940
In September 1939, the German army occupied the western half of Poland. German police soon forced tens of thousands of Polish Jews from their homes and into ghettoes, giving their confiscated properties to ethnic Germans (non-Jews outside Germany who identified as German), Germans from the Reich or Polish gentiles. Surrounded by high walls and barbed wire, the Jewish ghettoes in Poland functioned like captive city-states, governed by Jewish Councils. In addition to widespread unemployment, poverty and hunger, overpopulation made the ghettoes breeding grounds for disease such as typhus.
Meanwhile, beginning in the fall of 1939, Nazi officials selected around 70,000 Germans institutionalized for mental illness or disabilities to be gassed to death in the so-called Euthanasia Program. After prominent German religious leaders protested, Hitler put an end to the program in August 1941, though killings of the disabled continued in secrecy, and by 1945 some 275,000 people deemed handicapped from all over Europe had been killed. In hindsight, it seems clear that the Euthanasia Program functioned as a pilot for the Holocaust.
Towards the “Final Solution,” 1940-1941
Throughout the spring and summer of 1940, the German army expanded Hitler’s empire in Europe, conquering Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and France. Beginning in 1941, Jews from all over the continent, as well as hundreds of thousands of European Romani people, were transported to the Polish ghettoes. The German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 marked a new level of brutality in warfare. Mobile killing units called Einsatzgruppenwould murder more than 500,000 Soviet Jews and others (usually by shooting) over the course of the German occupation.
A memorandum dated July 31, 1941, from Hitler’s top commander Hermann Goering to Reinhard Heydrich, chief of the SD (the security service of the SS), referred to the need for an Endlösung (final solution) to “the Jewish question.” Beginning in September 1941, every person designated as a Jew in German-held territory was marked with a yellow star, making them open targets. Tens of thousands were soon being deported to the Polish ghettoes and German-occupied cities in the USSR.
Since June 1941, experiments with mass killing methods had been ongoing at the concentration camp of Auschwitz, near Krakow. That August, 500 officials gassed 500 Soviet POWs to death with the pesticide Zyklon-B. The SS soon placed a huge order for the gas with a German pest-control firm, an ominous indicator of the coming Holocaust.
READ MORE: Horrors of Auschwitz: The Numbers Behind WWII's Deadliest Concentration Camp
Holocaust Death Camps, 1941-1945
Beginning in late 1941, the Germans began mass transports from the ghettoes in Poland to the concentration camps, starting with those people viewed as the least useful: the sick, old and weak and the very young. The first mass gassings began at the camp of Belzec, near Lublin, on March 17, 1942. Five more mass killing centers were built at camps in occupied Poland, including Chelmno, Sobibor, Treblinka, Majdanek and the largest of all, Auschwitz-Birkenau. From 1942 to 1945, Jews were deported to the camps from all over Europe, including German-controlled territory as well as those countries allied with Germany. The heaviest deportations took place during the summer and fall of 1942, when more than 300,000 people were deported from the Warsaw ghetto alone.
Fed up with the deportations, disease and constant hunger, the inhabitants of the Warsaw Ghetto rose up in armed revolt. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising from April 19-May 16, 1943 ended in the death of 7,000 Jews, with 50,000 survivors sent to extermination camps. But the resistance fighters had held off the Nazis for almost a month, and their revolt inspired revolts at camps and ghettos across German-occupied Europe.
Though the Nazis tried to keep operation of camps secret, the scale of the killing made this virtually impossible. Eyewitnesses brought reports of Nazi atrocities in Poland to the Allied governments, who were harshly criticized after the war for their failure to respond, or to publicize news of the mass slaughter. This lack of action was likely mostly due to the Allied focus on winning the war at hand, but was also a result of the general incomprehension with which news of the Holocaust was met and the denial and disbelief that such atrocities could be occurring on such a scale.
At Auschwitz alone, more than 2 million people were murdered in a process resembling a large-scale industrial operation. A large population of Jewish and non-Jewish inmates worked in the labor camp there; though only Jews were gassed, thousands of others died of starvation or disease. And in 1943, eugenicist Josef Mengele arrived in Auschwitz to begin his infamous experiments on Jewish prisoners. His special area of focus was conducting medical experiments on twins, injecting them with everything from petrol to chloroform under the guise of giving them medical treatment. His actions earned him the nickname “the Angel of Death.”
Nazi Rule Comes to an End, as Holocaust Continues to Claim Lives, 1945
By the spring of 1945, German leadership was dissolving amid internal dissent, with Goering and Himmler both seeking to distance themselves from Hitler and take power. In his last will and political testament, dictated in a German bunker that April 29, Hitler blamed the war on “International Jewry and its helpers” and urged the German leaders and people to follow “the strict observance of the racial laws and with merciless resistance against the universal poisoners of all peoples”–the Jews. The following day, Hitler committed suicide. Germany’s formal surrender in World War II came barely a week later, on May 8, 1945.
German forces had begun evacuating many of the death camps in the fall of 1944, sending inmates under guard to march further from the advancing enemy’s front line. These so-called “death marches” continued all the way up to the German surrender, resulting in the deaths of some 250,000 to 375,000 people. In his classic book “Survival in Auschwitz,” the Italian Jewish author Primo Levi described his own state of mind, as well as that of his fellow inmates in Auschwitz on the day before Soviet troops arrived at the camp in January 1945: “We lay in a world of death and phantoms. The last trace of civilization had vanished around and inside us. The work of bestial degradation, begun by the victorious Germans, had been carried to conclusion by the Germans in defeat.”
READ MORE: The Horrifying Discovery of Dachau Concentration Camp—And Its Liberation by US Troops
Aftermath & Lasting Impact of the Holocaust
The wounds of the Holocaust–known in Hebrew as Shoah, or catastrophe–were slow to heal. Survivors of the camps found it nearly impossible to return home, as in many cases they had lost their families and been denounced by their non-Jewish neighbors. As a result, the late 1940s saw an unprecedented number of refugees, POWs and other displaced populations moving across Europe.
In an effort to punish the villains of the Holocaust, the Allies held the Nuremberg Trials of 1945-46, which brought Nazi atrocities to horrifying light. Increasing pressure on the Allied powers to create a homeland for Jewish survivors of the Holocaust would lead to a mandate for the creation of Israel in 1948.
Over the decades that followed, ordinary Germans struggled with the Holocaust’s bitter legacy, as survivors and the families of victims sought restitution of wealth and property confiscated during the Nazi years. Beginning in 1953, the German government made payments to individual Jews and to the Jewish people as a way of acknowledging the German people’s responsibility for the crimes committed in their name.
Remembering the Holocaust
Holocaust Concentration Camps
Holocaust Survivors: The Fate of Survivors
For the survivors, returning to life as it had been before the Holocaust was impossible. Jewish communities no longer existed in much of Europe. When people tried to return to their homes from camps or hiding places, they found that, in many cases, their homes had been looted or taken over by others.
Returning home was also dangerous. After the war, anti-Jewish riots broke out in several Polish cities. The largest anti-Jewish pogrom took place in July 1946 in Kielce, a city in southeastern Poland. When 150 Jews returned to the city, people living there feared that hundreds more would come back to reclaim their houses and belongings. Age-old antisemitic myths, such as Jews' ritual murders of Christians, arose once again. After a rumor spread that Jews had killed a Polish boy to use his blood in religious rituals, a mob attacked the group of survivors. The rioters killed 41 people and wounded 50 more. News of the Kielce pogrom spread rapidly, and Jews realized that there was no future for them in Poland.
Many survivors ended up in displaced persons' (DP) camps set up in western Europe under Allied military occupation at the sites of former concentration camps. There they waited to be admitted to places like the United States, South Africa, or Palestine. At first, many countries continued their old immigration policies, which greatly limited the number of refugees they would accept. The British government, which controlled Palestine, refused to let large numbers of Jews in. Many Jews tried to enter Palestine without legal papers, and when caught some were held in camps on the island of Cyprus, while others were deported back to Germany. Great Britain's scandalous treatment of Jewish refugees added to international pressures for a homeland for the Jewish people. Finally, the United Nations voted to divide Palestine into a Jewish and Arab state. Early in 1948, the British began withdrawing from Palestine. On May 14, 1948, one of the leading voices for a Jewish homeland, David Ben-Gurion, announced the formation of the State of Israel. After this, Jewish refugee ships freely landed in the seaports of the new nation. The United States also changed its immigration policy to allow more Jewish refugees to enter.
Although many Jewish survivors were able to build new lives in their adopted countries, many non-Jewish victims of Nazi policies continued to be persecuted in Germany. Laws which discriminated against Roma (Gypsies) continued to be in effect until 1970 in some parts of the country. The law used in Nazi Germany to imprison homosexuals remained in effect until 1969.
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August 3, 1945
Harrison issues report on Jews in Germany
US special envoy Earl Harrison heads a delegation to the displaced persons' camps in Germany. Following World War II, several hundred thousand Jewish survivors are unable to return to their home countries and remain in Germany, Austria, or Italy. The Allies establish camps for displaced persons (DPs) for the refugees. Most Jewish DPs prefer to emigrate to Palestine but many also seek entry into the United States. They remain in the DP camps until they can leave Europe. Harrison's report underscores the plight of Jewish DPs and leads to improved conditions in the camps. At the end of 1946 the number of Jewish DPs is estimated at 250,000.
July 11, 1947
Refugee ship sails for Palestine despite British restrictions
Many Jewish DPs seek to emigrate to Palestine, despite existing British emigration restrictions. (In 1920, Great Britain received a mandate from the League of Nations to administer Palestine, and administered the territory until 1948.) Despite the restrictions, the refugee ship Exodus leaves southern France for Palestine, carrying 4,500 Jewish refugees from DP camps in Germany. The British intercept the ship even before it enters territorial waters off the coast of Palestine. The passengers are forcibly transferred to British ships and deported back to their port of origin in France. For almost a month the British hold the refugees aboard ship, at anchor off the French coast. The French reject the British demand to land the passengers. Ultimately, the British take the refugees to Hamburg, Germany, and forcibly return them to DP camps. The fate of the refugee ship Exodus dramatizes the plight of Holocaust survivors in the DP camps and increases international pressure on Great Britain to allow free Jewish immigration to Palestine.
November 29, 1947
United Nations votes for partition of Palestine
In a special session, the United Nations General Assembly votes to partition Palestine into two new states, one Jewish and the other Arab. Less than six months later, on May 14, 1948, prominent Zionist leader David Ben-Gurion announces the establishment of the State of Israel and declares that Jewish immigration into the new state will be unrestricted. Between 1948 and 1951, almost 700,000 Jews immigrate to Israel, including more than two-thirds of the Jewish displaced persons in Europe. Holocaust survivors, the passengers from the Exodus, DPs from central Europe, and Jewish detainees from British detention camps on Cyprus are welcomed to the Jewish homeland.
Your guide to the Holocaust
The Holocaust was the systematic killing of European Jews who lived in areas that were controlled by Nazi Germany in World War Two, as well as the persecution and murder of other groups of people. Millions of Jews lost their lives in purpose-built extermination camps and concentration camps more than a million were murdered by the Einsatzgruppen (mobile killing units) while the squalid ghettos claimed the lives of thousands more.
How many people were killed?
No exact figure of how many people died exists, though it is estimated that approximately six million Jews were killed by Nazi Germany and collaborators of the regime during the Holocaust, as Adolf Hitler was determined to expunge the world of all Jews, whom he viewed as “sub-human”.
The Nazis also persecuted other groups of people either because they were also seen to be racially inferior or for other reasons, such as their sexual orientation. Between 200,000 and 500,000 Roma and Sinti (pejoratively called ‘gypsies’) were killed during the Holocaust, along with millions of Slavs in the Soviet Union and Poland, and up to 250,000 disabled people. The latter were murdered during the Aktion T4 ‘euthanasia’ programme, which was first established in 1939.
Thousands of homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, communists and socialists – as well as anyone who outwardly opposed Hitler’s government – were also murdered.
When did the Holocaust begin?
The start of the Holocaust is tied to the outbreak of World War Two. In September 1939, Germany invaded Poland and forcibly took control of around 1.7 million Polish Jews. And, as the Nazis swept across Europe, more and more Jews found themselves under Hitler’s influence. As a temporary measure, Jews were forced into walled-off sections of cities, known as ghettos, until the Nazis could decide what to do with them permanently.
These ghettos were cramped, squalid places that heaved with misery. The Warsaw Ghetto – the biggest of the 400 ghettos that dotted German-occupied Poland – saw 30 per cent of the city’s population herded into a measly 2.4 per cent of the city’s land. Disease and malnutrition were rife, with access to food or medicine becoming a distant memory for the ghettos’ inhabitants, and people died in their thousands.
Who were the Einsatzgruppen and what they do?
The Einsatzgruppen were mobile killing units that were tasked with murdering Germany’s ‘political enemies’ during the 1939 invasion of Poland and the 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union. In Poland, they were instructed to target Roman Catholic clergymen, Polish nationalists and Jews. By December 1939, 50,000 Poles had died at their hands. These calculated acts of violence marked the moment when the Nazis began systematically murdering Jews.
In the Soviet Union, these units were tasked with rounding up Jews and Soviet officials, marching them to isolated locations, and turning their guns on them. It’s believed they murdered approximately 1.5 million Jewish people.
What was the ‘final solution’?
The “final solution to the Jewish question” was unveiled by Reinhard Heydrich (who was Heinrich Himmler’s chief lieutenant in the SS) on 20 January 1942 at the Wannsee Conference. Fourteen top Nazis gathered at a villa in Wannsee, a Berlin suburb, to hear Heydrich’s plan.
The previous “solution” to the Jewish “problem” that the Nazis had favoured – deporting every European Jew to the island of Madagascar – was deemed unfeasible. Instead, Heydrich proposed “the evacuation of the Jews to the east”. Everyone around the table knew what this meant: the Jews would be transported to death camps. The systematic murder of Jews was about to reach its height.
What was the difference between death camps and concentration camps, and how many camps were there?
Death camps, or extermination camps, were designed specifically to murder prisoners, often as soon as they arrived. The first to be operational – Chelmno, in Poland – killed people in mobile gas vans. Others, such as Treblinka, had permanent gas chambers in which the prisoners were murdered.
There were four other death camps: Belzec, Sobibor, Majdanek and Auschwitz II-Birkenau. Apart from Sobibor and Chelmno, all these sites also had work or concentration camps. Auschwitz IIBirkenau was the regime’s largest death camp, and as many as 12,000 prisoners could be put through the gas chambers and burned in the crematoria every day.
But not every prisoner at Auschwitz was put to death straight away. During the Selektion process, those who were deemed fit to work were taken to the site’s ‘main camp’: the concentration camp Auschwitz I. Out of the thousands of concentration camps that littered German-occupied Europe, Auschwitz I was the largest – and deadliest.
Although concentration camps were not designed to immediately murder prisoners, being sent to one was often a death sentence in itself. The Nazis dubbed the forced labour that took place at these camps “extermination through work”. At Auschwitz I, prisoners received little food – a watery slop of rotten vegetables and meat was a common meal – slept in slum-like barracks and were worked well past the point of exhaustion. Some toiled in the camp’s kitchens or shaved prisoners’ heads. Others worked outside the camp under armed guard, assembling weaponry in German factories. If they didn’t die at Auschwitz I, when they were deemed too frail to continue working, prisoners were condemned to Birkenau. At least 1.1 million people never made it out of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Who was Josef Mengele, and why was he called the ‘Angel of Death’?
Josef Mengele was a doctor at Auschwitz who earned his macabre nickname for the sickening medical experiments he performed on the camp’s prisoners. He deliberately sought out twins, and those with unusual physical characteristics. Prisoners with dwarfism, a club foot or two different eye colours were taken away to be experimented on – to be electrocuted, perhaps, or else have chemicals injected into their eyeballs in an attempt to change their eye colour.
After the war ended, Mengele evaded capture for decades and remained in hiding until his death in 1979 – having never answered for his crimes.
Was there any resistance to the Holocaust in Germany?
A number of Germans did not agree with the Holocaust and clandestinely helped protect Jews, such as the Nazi business mogul Oskar Schindler, who rescued more than 1,000 Jews. Across German-occupied countries, dissenting individuals secretly provided Jews with food or offered them shelter – one of the most well-known examples being Miep Gies and the others who hid Anne Frank and her family. Jews occasionally actively resisted the Holocaust, too. In 1944, an uprising erupted at Birkenau when the Sonderkommando (Special Commando) prisoners who worked in and around the crematoria wrecked a crematorium.
How and when did the Holocaust end?
In the second half of 1944, the British and American armies were taking swathes of territory back from the Nazis across western Europe, while the Soviets were closing in from the east. As winter set in, SS officials were desperate to cover up the atrocities that had been committed in the camps before the Allies arrived. So, after setting fire to the crematoria and mass graves to obscure evidence of the mass murders, the death marches began.
Prisoners were made to march west, towards the heart of the Reich. More than 50 marches from concentration and death camps took place, with some routes stretching over hundreds of miles. Food and water was scarce, and the prisoners were already starving before the marches began. Any who stopped to catch their breath or who couldn’t keep up were shot, and prisoners died in their thousands.
But the Allied forces kept coming, and in 1945 the Holocaust came to an end with the liberation of the camps. On 27 January, Soviet soldiers discovered 7,650 severely ill or malnourished prisoners at Auschwitz-Birkenau (Majdanek was liberated by the Soviets even earlier, in July 1944). And at Bergen-Belsen, which British troops liberated on 15 April, they found thousands of starving prisoners, many of whom were suffering from typhus. They were so unwell that 28,000 died after being liberated, and the whole camp was set alight to stop the spread of disease.
How many people survived?
Some 6 million Jews were murdered by the Nazis, and the approximately 3.5 million Jews who survived found their lives were completely changed. Many had lost family members or couldn’t return to their homes. Immediately after the war, many moved to displaced-person camps, and in the years afterwards, a large number permanently left their homelands, moving to Israel, the US, Canada and Australia.
When did the outside world learn about the Holocaust?
The Nazis had tried to keep many details of the Final Solution secret from the world – and their own people. However, the UK, US and Soviet governments knew about the Holocaust as early as December 1942, and prepared war crime indictments against Hitler and other members of Nazi High Command. They did not attempt to close down the camps at this time, though, preferring to focus on securing victory first.
After the war, a number of trials were staged to bring the Nazis to justice, the most famous being the Nuremberg trials. Held in 1945-46, 22 top Nazis were accused of war crimes, crimes against the peace and crimes against humanity. Three were acquitted seven were handed prison sentences and 12 were given the death sentence.
How did Germany react to the Holocaust in the aftermath of World War Two?
When the Allies carved up Germany after the war, the West Germans were instructed to view the Holocaust very differently to those who lived in the East. Those in the western Federal Republic of Germany, occupied by the US, UK and France, were instilled with a sense of guilt for the crimes of the Holocaust, and Jews were given reparation payments.
The eastern German Democratic Republic, conversely, was told by the Soviets that the Holocaust was the evil product of capitalism, and they should feel no guilt for the part they had played. However, the first action of east Germany’s post-communist parliament was to issue an apology to Jews, and in 1999, the German parliament decreed that a Holocaust memorial would be put up in Berlin.
What (and when) is Holocaust Memorial Day?
Holocaust Memorial Day takes place every year on 27 January: the day that Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated. It’s a day of remembrance, for those who died during the Holocaust and the millions of others who suffered as a result of Nazi persecution, as well as those who lost their lives in later genocides.
Rhiannon Davies is a sub-editor for BBC History Magazine
This article was first published in the December 2020 edition of BBC History Revealed
LIST OF NAMES OF THE VICTIMS OF THE MASSACRE IN ORADOUR-SUR-GLANE THE 10TH JUNE 1944 OFFICIALLY DECLARED MISSING (ID: 48175)
Oradour-sur-Glane was a small farming village of around 350 inhabitants, located near Clermont-Ferrand, some 15 miles west-north-west of Limoges. During World War II, it was located in the German-occupied zone of France. By June of 1944, the village population had almost doubled to about 650 people, swelled by refugees, including some Jewish refugees, from other parts of France. On June 10, 1944, troops of the 2nd Waffen-SS Panzer Division (armored division), Das Reich massacred almost the entire population as well as individuals who just happened to be in the village at that time, and then destroyed the village.
The Germans took the 197 men to several barns on the edge of town and locked them in while 240 women and 205 children were brought to the village church. The SS men set fire to the barns and threw grenades through the windows of the church, shooting those who sought to escape. In total, 642 individuals, including seven Jewish refugees, were dead. Only seven villagers survived the massacre: six men and a woman, all of them more or less severely injured. About fifteen other inhabitants of the village were able to escape the Germans before the massacre started or evade the roundup by hiding.
The Black People Who Died And Survived During The Holocaust
Pictured: Entrance to the German concentration camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland. | Source: Bettmann / Getty
UPDATED: 2:00 p.m. ET, Jan. 26, 2021
Original story published April 19, 2012
J an. 27 marks the annual international observation of Holocaust Remembrance Day.
And while the millions of victims who perished during the Holocaust were overwhelmingly Jewish and at the forefront of Adolf Hitler‘s psycho-driven efforts to “purify” Europe, and eventually, rid the world of non-whites, it’s seldom remembered that Black people were also casualties of the genocidal Nazi terrorism decades ago, according to the United State Holocaust Memorial Museum.
The museum’s website says there was no systematic program for the elimination of Blacks as there was for Jews and other groups. But to be sure, people of African descent were certainly not safe during the Holocaust period that killed millions of Jews over the course of more than a decade beginning in 1933 Germany.
During the war, Black Americans and Europeans captured by the Nazis were interned in concentration camps. Bayume Mohamed Hussein of Tanzania died in the Sachsenhausen camp, near Berlin and Lionel Romney, an American sailor with the U.S. Merchant Marine, was imprisoned in the Mauthausen concentration camp.
Black prisoners of war faced illegal incarceration and mistreatment at the hands of the Nazis, who did not uphold the regulations imposed by the Geneva Convention (international agreement on the conduct of war and the treatment of wounded and captured soldiers). Lieutenant Darwin Nichols, an African American pilot, was incarcerated in a Gestapo prison in Butzbach. Black soldiers of the American, French and British armies were worked to death on construction projects or died as a result of mistreatment in concentration or prisoner-of-war camps. Others were never even incarcerated but were instead immediately killed by the SS or Gestapo.
Even before WWII, the Nazis treated its native Black citizenry (children whose mothers were usually German and fathers were of African descent) with pure inhumanity:
African German mulatto children were marginalized in German society, isolated socially and economically and not allowed to attend university. Racial discrimination prohibited them from seeking most jobs, including service in the military. With the Nazi rise to power, they became a target of racial and population policy. By 1937, the Gestapo (German secret state police) had secretly rounded up and forcibly sterilized many of them. Some were subjected to medical experiments others mysteriously “disappeared.”
Go to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website for more historical facts on Black victims of the Holocaust.
Primo Levi (1919 - 1987)
Photo: Leonardo Cendamo/Getty Images
Born and raised in Italy, Primo Levi graduated from the University of Turin in 1941, and pursued a career in chemistry. With World War II underway, however, Levi turned his focus on aiding anti-fascist resistance groups in Italy, but was quickly captured and imprisoned in Auschwitz, working as a slave laborer at a synthetic rubber factory.
After the war, Levi returned to his hometown of Turin and became a factory manager of paints and enamels. He also began writing books. One of his most famous, If This Is a Man (1947), illustrated the horrors of his imprisonment at Auschwitz. However, his most celebrated and critically acclaimed work was The Periodic Table (1975), which was a collection of 21 short stories — each named after a chemical element — that used his pre- and post-wartime experiences to reflect on the plight of the human condition.
In 1987 Levi died after falling from his third-story apartment. The incident was ruled a suicide.
Child Survivors of the Holocaust
In November 1938, following the night of brutal attacks on Jewish homes across Germany known as Kristallnacht (night of broken glass), British refugee organisations persuaded the British government to permit Jewish children under 17 to come temporarily to Britain. Each child's keep, education, and eventual emigration had to be paid for by private individuals. In return, the government agreed to permit refugee children to enter the country on travel visas. Parents were not allowed to accompany their children.
Between December 1938 and September 1939, when war began, the kindertransport (child transport) trains brought around 10,000 children to Britain. Many would never see their parents again.
Ursula Adler, Anne Berkovitz, Harry Bibring and Helga Carden came to Britain on the kindertransport. In these video clips, recorded by the 'Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation', they describe their experiences as Jewish children in Nazi Germany and Austria, and the emotions they felt when leaving their parents in order to find safety in Britain.
Holocaust museums in Israel and Europe
In the years following World War II, initial efforts to record the crimes of the Nazi Party began in the newly formed State of Israel. The first of these institutions, the Ghetto Fighters’ House outside of ʿAkko, Israel, was founded by Holocaust survivors in 1949. Exhibits centred on the theme of resistance, showcasing both Jewish life before the Holocaust and Jewish agency in the face of Nazi aggression. In addition to exhibiting Jewish artworks, photographs, and writings, it also featured a scholarly archive accessible to the public. A second museum, Yad Vashem, was founded in Jerusalem in 1953 as the world centre for Jewish Holocaust remembrance. Both museums continued to expand into the 21st century. Another very early museum of the Holocaust was the Mémorial de la Shoah in Paris. Inaugurated in 1956, the memorial has since expanded its exhibitions and developed a vast collection of archival resources.
In addition to new museums constructed to preserve the memory of the Holocaust, several historical sites in Europe were restored and preserved in the years following World War II. Former Nazi concentration camps were gradually opened by survivors or by the governments of their respective countries so that visitors could glimpse the sites of the tragedy for themselves. The Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, located outside the town of Oświęcim, Poland, was organized by former prisoners of the notorious camp. When it opened in 1947, visitors could view for the first time the gas chambers, burning pits, and crematoriums used to murder hundreds of thousands of people. In the same year, the Terezín Memorial opened in Czechoslovakia (now Czech Republic) at the site of the former Theresienstadt camp. The Buchenwald Memorial (1958), Sachsenhausen National Memorial (1961), and Dachau Concentration Camp and Memorial Site (1965) were later opened in Germany. Buildings used by Nazis as detention and deportation centres, such as the Dutch Theatre (Hollandsche Schouwburg) in Amsterdam, were also opened to serve as memorials and museums. Although these sites differ markedly from traditional museums in that the buildings themselves serve as the exhibits, most also contain such tangible items as possessions taken from prisoners as they entered the camps, written records kept while the camps were in service, and clothing and shoes removed from prisoners just before they were killed.
Private homes used to conceal people during the Holocaust were also opened to the public. The Amsterdam home where Anne Frank and her family hid for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands was opened as a museum in 1960. In France the Memorial Museum for Children of Izieu was opened in the Maison d’Izieu, a private home where Sabina and Miron Zlatin concealed more than 100 children from the Nazis between May 1943 and April 1944. The home opened as a museum in 1988.