Historical data

The Holocaust History

Ilya ALTMAN, 

David POLTORAK

This paper provides documentary evidence of one of the most notorious tragedies of the 20th century, a tragedy that has yet to be fully comprehended – the Nazis’ effort to exterminate the Jewish race. “Holocaust” is a word of Greek origin, meaning “complete burning, sacrifice by fire.” It is the generally accepted name for the Jewish genocide perpetrated by the Nazis and their collaborators in the period from 1993 through 1945. The Holocaust remains relevant today: social tensions, religious conflicts, and an escalation of extremism and neo-fascism force us to recall the Catastrophe that befell European Jewry.

The Government of the Russian Federation has adopted a federal program called Shaping an Attitude of Tolerance and Preventing Extremism in Russian Society.  Both the spirit and letter of this document speak to the necessity of overcoming the ethnic prejudices that are reemerging in society (including anti-Semitism), as such prejudices impede the development of rule of law and of civil society.

The Nazis’ Rise to Power. Anti-Semitism in Germany

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Adolf Hitler started on his path to dictatorship in 1919, when he joined a small political group called the National Socialists, which had been established in Munich. He soon rose to leadership of the party and declared state anti-Semitism one of its key goals. An economic slump, combined with the extreme nationalism that had awoken as a response to the country’s defeat in World War I, revolutionary turmoil, and disillusion with democracy, resulted in the adoption by many Germans of an aggressive form of nationalism. Taking advantage of popular dissatisfaction and economic difficulties, Hitler was able to openly develop his racist theory.  The Führer (the leader) thought of himself as a Messiah destined to save the world from “Jewish domination.” He called on Germans to attack Jews without mercy as defilers of the “Aryan race.” The Nazis’ rise to power in Germany introduced anti-Semitism at the national scale. In April 1933, an all-German anti-Jewish campaign was launched. The Nazis picketed stores, law offices and medical practices owned by Jews. The state and party propaganda machinery used each opportunity to demonize Jews. The Nazi newspaper Der Sturmer was particularly notorious in this respect. On May 10, 1933, Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels arranged the burning of “harmful” books. Along with books by the masters of world literature (Thomas Mann, Erich Maria Remarque, Jack London, Emile Zola), the Nazis burned works by famous writers and scientists of Jewish origin - Heinrich Heine, Sigmund Freud, Stefan Zweig and Albert Einstein.

Goebbels stated that “Now the German spirit can express itself again. This flame lights not only the end of an old era, but the beginning of a new one.” These words mark the beginning of the Nazification of German culture. In September 1935, during a party rally the Nazis adopted the Nuremberg Laws. In the first stage of the solution to the Jewish Question the Nazis deprived Jews of all their civil rights.

Upon adoption of the Nuremberg Laws, anti-Semitism was given legal status. Anti-Jewish policy was becoming increasingly hard-line. The SS and internal affairs department launched a policy of “racial hygiene.” Schoolchildren were taught about tools and charts that supposedly made it possible to assess a person’s racial profile by measuring the size of cheekbones and the color of eyes and hair.

In 1938, children with “inferior racial features” were forbidden to attend German schools.

In incremental steps, the Nazis moved from limiting Jews’ rights to completely cutting them off from the social, political and economic life of Germany.

The night of November 10 witnessed a Jewish pogrom that is now known as Die Krystallnacht (The Crystal Night). About 100 Jews died that night. All the synagogues in Germany were destroyed, and more than 7,000 Jewish stores were looted. As an excuse for the pogrom, the Nazis pointed to the assassination of the secretary of the German embassy in Paris by a young Jew, Herschel Grynszpan. Grynszpan was retaliating for his parents’ deportation from Germany. After that, more than 30,000 Jews were arrested and sent to concentration camps. In January 1939, the Nazis started preparing for the second stage of the “Jewish Question” solution. This stage involved depriving the Jewish people of their right to live in Germany.

WWII and the Holocaust

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After the seizure of Austria and Czechoslovakia and the invasion of Poland in September 1939, Hitler’s administration started preparing for the introduction of “a new order” in Europe to reflect the Nazi ideology.

“Today I will be a prophet once again. If the Jewish financiers in Europe and around the world should succeed once again in plunging the nations into a world war, then the result will not be the victory of Jewry, but rather the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe!” These words were part of a speech Hitler gave at the Reichstag on January 30, 1939. A top-secret order by R. Heydrich, dated September 21, 1939, outlined the Nazis’ policy towards Jews in Poland. All of them were to be deported from small towns and shtetls to specially designated areas in large cities (ghettos); all of their property was to be expropriated. As a rule, ghettos were formed in locations near rail lines so that in the future it would be easier to move the ghettos’ inmates to death camps.

By the end of 1940, all of Poland’s Jews had been isolated in ghettos, where they were faced with slave labor, darkness, starvation and epidemics. Since the Middle Ages, Jewish ghettos in Europe had been a traditional means of isolating Jews from Christians. Ghettos had often provided protection and support for their inmates. During the day, Jews had been allowed to leave their sections of the town and be involved in the town’s life. However, the ghettos created by the fascists had a single purpose – the total annihilation of their inmates.

Hitler’s army invaded the USSR on June 22, 1941, marking a new stage in the Nazis’ anti-Jewish policy, the so called “Final Solution of the Jewish Question.” Jews from the USSR were the first to be sentenced to death, and Jews from all over Europe were soon to follow. The vehicle of mass murder used in the occupied territory of the USSR was soon recognized as being inefficient. On January 20, 1942 in Wannsee, a suburb of Berlin, the Nazis held a conference during which officials of several Reich departments discussed an action plan to provide a “Final Solution of the Jewish Question.. At this conference, Heydrich stated the exact number of Jews to be exterminated in Europe, naming 33 states where the executions were to be performed. Six death camps were created in Poland for the extermination of Jews (Treblinka, Chelmno, Sobibor, Majdanek, Auschwitz and Belzec). People were murdered in these camps on an industrial scale. Gas chambers and crematoria were installed and equipped. People arriving at the rail stations for the death camps were sent to “baths” under the pretence of hygienic treatment. Zyclon B gas was piped into the room, and in five minutes everyone inside was dead. The most “efficient” camp was Auschwitz, where more than 1 million people were exterminated. Of those, 90% were Jews. In the period from 1941 to 1945, the Nazis killed 6,000,000 Jewish people in the occupied countries of Europe.

Nazi Occupation and the Holocaust in the USSR

German-occupied territory in the USSR was divided into areas of governed by the military administration (areas near the front) and areas of civil administration. The Reichskommissariats of Ukraine and Ostland (comprised of Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and the western parts of Belarus) were established. Eastern Galicia, including Lvov, was annexed to occupied Poland. The so-called Transnistria, an area between the Dnieper and the Bug that includes Odessa, was placed under Romanian governance. All Jewish people in these areas were subject to special registration. Jews were made to wear special insignia on their clothes and armbands with six-pointed stars. In many towns, Jews were not allowed to walk along the sidewalks, use public transportation, or enter the downtown area. In all areas located in the military zone, including in the territory of Russia, the Jews were exterminated soon after the occupation. These mass murders were committed by mobile groups called einsatzgruppen (i.e. special groups). Their principal task was to annihilate all ”hostile elements.” Most of the victims were Jews. Each einsatzgrup of 600-1000 people was divided into einsatztruppen (i.e. special teams). Team A operated in the Baltic States and around Leningrad; Team B was assigned to Belarus and the Moscow area; Team C was assigned to Ukraine; and Team D was sent to Moldavia, Bukovina, the Crimea and the Caucasus. They worked in cooperation with the SS, Wehrmacht, gendarmerie and police battalions. Local collaborators also took part in the mass murder of Jews. People doomed to death were taken to the outskirts of town, where they were shot. Scores of mass murders were carried out in the occupied territories this way. On September 29-30, 1940, tens of thousands of Jews were executed in Babi Yar ravine, near Kyiv. By the beginning of 1942, the fascists had annihilated more than one million Soviet Jews. In the areas controlled by the civil administration, Jews were killed in stages. Some men were exterminated immediately. Specialists, craftsmen, doctors and members of their families were confined in hundreds of ghettos both large and small. Ghettos were located in the worst parts of towns. They were usually separated from surrounding neighborhoods by walls or barbed wire. People were only notified of their relocation to ghettos just the day before, or even several hours beforehand. They were allowed to bring only what they could carry. Before resettlement, all valuables belonging to Jews were expropriated. Judenrats (Jewish administrative bodies) were established, which governed the ghettos and followed the Nazis’ orders. The Judenrats were in charge of registering all Jews, collecting contributions and allocating housing; they also governed medical issues and sanitation, in addition to assigning prisoners for forced labor. The Nazis completely isolated the Jewish population. Ghettos were not connected in any way with each other. The Nazis organized random house-checks, during which they took away what little people had left. Every day, all Jews capable of working were forced to work, for which in most cases they were paid nothing. Each day starvation and disease took many lives. In the spring and summer of 1942, Hitler’s forces started to liquidate the ghettos. Ghetto inmates were either killed or deported to concentration camps. The last major ghettos – in Minsk, Kaunas, Vilnius, Šiauliai and Riga – were liquidated in the autumn of 1943. Those who decided to escape from the ghetto or managed to disappear from the death ravines needed reliable shelter and documents. A lot depended on local population. Most people were indifferent to the fate of their Jewish neighbors and took the position of casual observers. There were many motives behind this, including fear of repression and anti-Semitism. Anti-fascist resistance forces did not organize any measures to help Jews in the occupied areas of the USSR. There is no evidence of any orders or appeals on the part of the Soviet government to underground organizations requesting assistance for Jews. Approximately 3 million Soviet Jews became victims of the Holocaust. Only those who escaped to partisan groups, hid their identity with new documents or received shelter from local people managed to survive. Around 70,000 Jews survived in the territory controlled by Romania.

The Resistance. Righteous Among the Nations

The question is often asked – why did Jews not fight for their freedom, why did they not resist? These questions reflect ignorance and misunderstanding of the real situation. The Nazis had an articulated plan to break the spirit of ghetto inmates. Merciless repression following each act of resistance, as well as a lack of weapons and the hope many held of surviving the war and occupation all served to restrain the Resistance. Extermination plans were always top-secret and were disguised as promises of deportation, resettlement to another part of the town, or work assignments. Nevertheless, many ghetto inmates fought for their lives. They tried to escape from the ghettos, obtained counterfeit “Aryan” documents, and took part in the armed struggle for liberation. They made a worthy contribution to the anti-Nazi Resistance in Europe and the USSR. There were two forms of struggle – spiritual and physical. Spiritual resistance was expressed, first of all, as a striving for human dignity. People did not forget that they had to raise their children, even if they were behind barbed wire. For this purpose, they opened illegal schools, gave lectures and copied textbooks. Prisoners gathered for secret religious services. They also kept diaries in order to preserve for future generations a record of the atrocities of the Nazis and their collaborators.

However, Jews did not restrict themselves to this kind of confrontation. Underground members of the Vilnius ghetto called for armed resistance to the Nazis. They bought guns from the occupation forces and polizeis or stole them from German armories. Some types of weapons, such as handmade grenades and daggers, were made in ghetto. Resistance work in the ghetto was very difficult and dangerous. Underground groups in Bialystok, Niasviz, Mira, Lachwa and other ghettos managed to organize armed uprisings, as a result of which a certain number of prisoners joined the partisans.

The symbol of the Jewish Resistance, however, was the Warsaw ghetto uprising in April-May 1943, which the fascists were only able to suppress with tanks and artillery. In some ghettos (Vilnius, Minsk, Kaunas), resistance movements trained armed groups that forced their way to the forests, where they established partisan bands.

In 1942-1943, approximately 25,000 Jews jointed the partisan movement in the Baltic States, Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia. There were Jewish bands as well. Using their knowledge of the region and their ability to adapt to life in the forest, they attacked fascist control points and police stations, mined the enemy’s transportation roads and blew up trains. Partisans were also involved in liberating Jews from their ghettos and removing them to the forests. Some survivors arranged family camps and lived under the partisans’ protection. The number of Jews in such family camps reached many thousands. In Lithuania, Jewish partisans entered Vilnius, where they blew up the city’s power station and power transmission lines. Many Jewish partisan bands operated in Belarus. About half a million Soviet Jews fought in the Red Army during the World War II.

 Based on the number of honorary titles of Hero of the Soviet Union awarded to them, Jews rank fifth among our country’s ethnic groups. Among the most important subjects in Holocaust history are the deeds of those people referred to in Jewish tradition as the Righteous Among the Nations. Throughout Nazi-occupied territories there were individuals and families who saved Jews. They ignored Nazi orders and were ready to risk their own lives.

There were literally thousands of such fearless people. They obtained documents for Jews hiding from deportation or who had escaped from the ghetto. They provided them with shelter, financial and medical assistance, and food. The extended family of the Kyiv priest A.A.Glagolev saved many people, hiding Jewish families at their houses or at the homes of their friends in villages. Jan Lipke, a dock worker, evacuated scores of Jews from the Riga ghetto and hid them. Many Righteous Among the Nations were imprisoned and executed. Most often, only those whom they saved remembered their names. 

The Lessons of the Holocaust

In 1943, Allied leaders signed the Statement on Atrocities (a declaration on the punishment for atrocities committed by German troops in occupied territory all over Europe), in which they warned the Nazis of the impending punishment for their crimes; punishment that would find them even at “the uttermost ends of the earth.”

In 1945-1946, the International Military Tribunal tried several leaders of the Third Reich for their crimes. The trials were held in Nuremberg, the same city where the Nazi Party had held its rallies and adopted its racist laws. The Tribunal proved the defendants’ guilt of crimes against the peace, of war crimes, of crimes against humanity, of brutality to civilians, and of racial persecution, including genocide against Jews. The Tribunal sentences twelve leaders of Hitler’s state to death.

After the war, military tribunals convicted more than 30,000 Nazis. Thousands of criminals managed to escape justice. Many of them found shelter in the USA, Canada, Australia and Latin American countries. The United Nations resolved to ignore statutes of limitations when trying crimes committed by the Nazis. In 1960-1970, hundreds of Nazis were arrested and convicted. One of them was Adolf Eichmann, Head of the Jewish Department of the Gestapo.

The Nuremberg trial and all subsequent trials of Nazi criminals remind us of the irreversible nature of the punishment handed down for the genocide. Holocaust history helps us comprehend how prejudices, biases and erroneous judgments give birth to real-life racism. Holocaust history teaches us how modern technology can by used to exterminate people. By discussing the meaning of the Holocaust, historians and politicians are attempting to define the role of this Jewish tragedy in the fate of humankind, as well as to reveal parallels, associations and coincidences connecting the events of today with events that took place in Germany in the middle of the 20 th century.

This text is taken from History, a site belonging to the September 1 st Publishing House:  http://his.1september.ru/article.php?ID=200500909

History, maintained by the September 1st Publishing House, is a scientific and instructional resource for teachers of history and the social sciences. It publishes lesson plans, advice from experienced instructors and teachers, historical portraits of outstanding historical figures, reviews of textbooks, dictionaries, and, anthologies on history. The newspaper focuses on the practical aspects of using the published materials.