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FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
Immediately after they came to power, the Nazis established camps in which they imprisoned those whom they considered opponents to their regime and treated them with extreme brutality.
As in other dictatorial regimes, these camps were designed to break that opposition and inspire fear among the population to ensure that new opposition would not arise.
The first concentration camp was established at Dachau on March 23, 1933, just two months after Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. Dachau became the training ground for the SS. Its first commandant was Theodor Eicke, whose many precedents for brutality were adopted throughout the wider camp system. Among the major camps established in Greater Germany were Buchenwald, Mauthausen, Neuengamme, Ravensbrueck and Sachsenhausen.
At the time of the annexation of Austria (and more so during the pogrom against the Jews of Germany in November 1938 - Kristallnacht), people were no longer imprisoned primarily because of their perceived actions, but for reasons of race. From this point onward, Jews were placed in Nazi camps simply because they were Jews. As the Nazis conquered more and more territory, they massively expanded the camp system and used it as a tool in their plan for the re-ordering of European society along racial lines.
Forced labour was always a component of the camp system and as time went on, this component became increasingly central. In fact, the Nazis did not call all of their camps “concentration camps”; some were designated as labour or hard-labour camps, others as transit camps and others as exchange camps. Owing to the inhuman labour conditions, cruelty of camp staff and extreme physical conditions, many prisoners died in the camps, especially during the war. With the “Final Solution”, six extermination camps were also established in which primarily Jewish prisoners were systematically murdered.
As a rule, the greater the independence a country had, the more likely its Jewish population were to survive. Conversely, the Jews of countries ruled directly (or almost directly) by Germany (e.g. Soviet Union, Poland, Serbia, the Netherlands) had only the slimmest chances of survival.
As long as Italy remained a full-fledged ally of Germany (until September 1943), the Jews were not only untouched but, in Italian-occupied territories, were also protected.
Romanian military forces murdered large numbers of Jews at the frontiers of their territories, but the Government refused to hand over Jews in their core territories to the Germans.
The Hungarian Government did not accede to Nazi pressure to deport Hungarian Jewry until the Germans occupied Hungary in March 1944. During the occupation, however, Hungarian forces played a major role in their deportation.
The Bulgarian regime protected the Jews in its traditional territories, but those of the annexed areas of Macedonia and Thrace were deported to their deaths.
Puppet states either brutally murdered their own Jews (Croatia) or turned them over to the Germans (Slovakia). Semi-sovereign Vichy France collaborated in the deportation of non-French Jews, but by and large protected those who held French citizenship.
By contrast, the Jews of Denmark lived safely as long as a semblance of Danish independence was maintained; only when the Germans began encroaching on this independence did it become necessary to save the Danish Jews by smuggling them to Sweden. To the great credit of the Danish people, they managed to save almost all of the Jews residing in their country.
A distinction should be made between reports of specific mass-murder incidents and reports of genocide.
Information regarding the mass murder of Jews began to reach the free world soon after these actions began in the Soviet Union in late June 1941, and the volume of reports increased with time. Early sources of information included: German police reports intercepted by British intelligence; local eyewitnesses; escaped Jews reporting to underground, Soviet or neutral sources; and Hungarian soldiers on home leave, whose observations were reported by neutral sources.
During 1942, reports of a Nazi plan to murder all the Jews – including details on methods, numbers and locations – reached Allied and neutral leaders from many sources: the underground Jewish Socialist Bund party in the Warsaw ghetto in May; the cable from Switzerland from then World Jewish Congress Secretary-General, Gerhard Riegner, in August; the eyewitness account of Polish underground courier Jan Karski in November; and eyewitness accounts of 69 Polish Jews who reached Palestine in a civilian prisoner exchange between Germany and Britain in November.
On December 17, 1942, the Allies issued a proclamation condemning the "extermination" of the Jewish people in Europe and declared that they would punish the perpetrators.
Notwithstanding, it remains unclear to what extent Allied and neutral leaders understood the full import of the information. The utter shock of senior Allied commanders who liberated camps at the end of the war may indicate that this understanding was not complete.
In the context of the Nazi policy of the systematic mass murder of all Jews under their control, Jewish resistance to took many forms. The very act of trying to stay alive and maintain a remnant of human dignity constituted resistance to the Nazi effort to dehumanize and ultimately annihilate the Jews. Jews, on the personal, familial and community levels, strove to sustain themselves both physically and emotionally in the face of the Nazi machinery of murder.
In many ghettos, the Jewish councils (Judenraete) and various underground communal organisations did their best to distribute food and medicines, and to supply other essential needs to their suffering communities. In many places they organised cultural, educational and religious activities, which were expressions of the still vital human spirit of ghetto inhabitants.
The act of providing work was of great importance in many ghettos - both for its practical day-to-day aspects but also for Jewish labour serving to safeguard as many people as possible from the Nazis. In some localities, attempts were made to document the ever-deepening suffering under the Nazis.
In an organised fashion and sometimes on their own, Jews acquired false documents that identified them as Gentiles, and used them to hide and even to cross international borders.
As Jews became aware of the fact that the Nazis intended to kill them, armed underground organisations came into being. In more than 100 ghettos, groups prepared for armed resistance against the Nazis, either within the confines of the ghettos or by joining the partisans in the surrounding forests, swamps or mountains. Not all of the planned armed resistance against the Nazis was actually carried out. The armed uprising of the longest duration occurred during three weeks in the spring of 1943 in the Warsaw ghetto. Other armed actions took place in Bialystok, Czestochowa and Krakow.
Some Jews escaped from ghettos relatively close to forests and mountains - areas more suitable for hiding and partisan activities. This was the case in Vilna, Kovno and Minsk, as well as in many smaller ghettos.
Not only did men and women of fighting age flee, but some older people and children escaped in a desperate attempt to stay alive. Facing the elements, hunger, disease, often-hostile local populations, Nazi hunts for Jews and partisans who despised both Nazis and Jews, it is not surprising that in at least one area (Parczew forest), only 4% of the Jews who escaped lived to see the liberation. Nevertheless, Jewish partisan leaders did their best to provide for non-combatants, establishing what came to be known as “family camps.
In several Nazi camps – despite brutal regimes – Jews engaged in armed uprisings. In three of the extermination camps (Treblinka, Sobibor, Auschwitz-Birkenau), Jewish prisoners, in some cases, along with other inmates, took up arms against the Nazis. Resistance was offered by Jews in other Nazi camps as well, among them Janowska near Lvov and Minsk Masowiecki near Warsaw.
Jews also escaped from some camps, including Auschwitz-Birkenau. In Spring 1944, two sets of escapees provided the first detailed report (“Auschwitz Protocols”) that informed the Western world of the killing apparatus operating at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Many Jews who lived under Nazi occupation, struggled to find a coherent rationale for the horrifying events they had experienced. Demand for a rationale for their persecution reveals the state of utter bewilderment and confusion that pervaded the entire Jewish world throughout this period.
Among the few rabbis who left behind written documents which address questions of faith and suffering was Rabbi Kalonymus Kalamish Shapira of Piaseczna. His writings include a collection of messages delivered in the Warsaw Ghetto between 1940 and 1942. In his writings, the Rabbi developed the idea that God is revealed through pain, in the suffering in the ghetto and amongst Jews themselves. By his reasoning, suffering facilitated the ability to catch “rays of God”. He held the view that drawing near to God required the pain of the individual to extend to the pain of all and unite with the suffering masses without remaining apathetic. He depicted God as suffering with his people “for in all their suffering he suffers”. The Rabbi was believed to have been murdered by the Nazis towards the end of 1943 and his sermons were found after the war in the Oneg Shabbat clandestine archives.
Another response to questions concerning faith can be found in the writings of Rabbi Shimon Huberband. At the outbreak of war, Rabbi Huberband lost his wife and his only son; after many hardships, he finally arrived at the Warsaw Ghetto. In Warsaw, he took an active part in the provision of aid services and functioned in a central role in underground publishing - the “Oneg Shabbat” archives. His compositions, characterised by his penetrating and non-compromising insights, have been compiled in the book “Martyrdom” (Kiddush Hashem) and deal with the issue of the Jewish faith during the war era. Rabbi Huberband was sent to Treblinka during the mass deportation of the Warsaw Ghetto in the summer of 1942, where he was murdered.
Introspective queries regarding the role of God can also be found in many diaries – especially the diaries of youth. For example, the writings of Moshe Flinker, published in the book ‘Young Moshe’s Diary’, where you find an expression of the struggle of the soul. Further explorations of faith and the meaning of suffering also appear in numerous compositions and testimonies from the Holocaust, as well as from the “Questions and Answers” directed at rabbis.
Others viewed what was happening as punishment for sins and/or the modern secularisation amongst the Jews. Then there were those who endeavoured to understand the events, concluding that it was beyond their ability to comprehend or provide an explanation. Some sections of the Jewish community became heretical in the face of the reality of the cruelty and terrible violence. Surprisingly, there were also examples of non-Jewish individuals who chose to convert to Judaism during this time.
In summary, among the Jews living under the Nazi occupation, the events of the Holocaust in regard to faith generated a variety of responses. The Holocaust caused some Jews to abandon their faith, while for others, the increased persecution only strengthened their faith in God.
“Righteous Among the Nations” is the official title given to non-Jews who risked their lives in order to rescue Jews during the Holocaust. The deeds of each candidate for this title are reviewed by a special committee at Yad Vashem.
In many cases, it was ordinary people who saved Jewish lives during the Holocaust. They chose against great odds, to hide one or more Jews in their home or yard. Often, the rescuer would build a bunker where the Jewish persons/s would stay for weeks, months, or even years, hardly seeing the sun. Food was very scarce during the war, and the rescuer would share what food they had with the Jews that they were hiding from the Nazis.
There are also cases where groups of people, rather than individuals, rescued Jews. In the Netherlands, Norway, Belgium and France, underground resistance groups helped Jews, mainly by finding them hiding places. In Denmark, ordinary Danes transported over 7,000 of the country's nearly 8,000 Jews to Sweden in a fishing-boat operation.
In a few instances, highly-placed Germans used their position to aid Jews. The most famous of these rescuers is Oskar Schindler, the German businessman who rescued thousands of Jews from the Plaszow camp by employing them in his factory.
Diplomats and civil servants have also been recognised as “Righteous Among the Nations.” Some of the better-known are Aristides Sousa Mendes (Portugal), Sempo Sugihara (Japan), and Paul Gruninger (Switzerland), all of whom risked their careers to help Jews.
The most famous of the diplomats who rescued Jews is Raoul Wallenberg of Sweden, who saved tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews. Despite his diplomatic immunity, he was arrested by the Soviets after the conquest of Budapest and is believed to have died in the Soviet camp system.
By 2016, over 27,000 people had received the honour and title “Righteous Among the Nations.” The many instances of rescue perpetuated by those designated as such show that rescue was indeed possible, despite highly dangerous circumstances. The recipients of the title not only saved Jewish lives, but helped restore faith in humanity.
Holocaust Denial typically comprises such claims as:
- The mass extermination of the Jews by the Nazis never happened
- The number of Jewish losses has been greatly exaggerated
- The Holocaust was neither systematic, nor the result of an official policy
- Or simply, the Holocaust never took place.
Claims of this kind have been made by Nazis, neo-Nazis and pseudo-historians called ‘revisionists” who don’t want to believe or cannot fathom that such a huge atrocity actually occurred.
Holocaust denial was attempted even before World War II ended, despite the clear evidence at hand. The Nazis frequently used euphemistic language such as “Final Solution” and “special treatment” rather than gassing, annihilation and killing, in order to conceal their activities from the world.
During the last two years of the war, Sonderkommando units, in a secret program called Aktion 1005, were charged with digging up mass graves and burning the corpses. Again, the Nazis’ purpose was to hide all evidence of their activities.
Today (more than 60 years later), there are still some people who either completely reject the notion that the Holocaust happened, or argue that the Holocaust was not as widespread as it actually was. “Revisionist historians” and other pseudo-scholars are active in much of the world.
In 1978, a revisionist group in California established the ‘Institute for Historical Review’. The group, which claims to be scholarly, publishes the Journal of Historical Review and holds international conferences.
Revisionists often argue that the Holocaust did not impact as many people as it really did. A Frenchman, Paul Rassinier, one of the original founders of the revisionist school, stated that only 500,000 to 1 million Jews died during World War II, mostly due to bad physical conditions —and not systematically at the hands of the Nazis. Rassinier also claimed to have found the millions of Jews who disappeared from Europe. He maintains that the large number of North African Jews who moved to Israel both before and after it became a State were not always native North Africans. Rather, they were Jews who had fled Europe before and during the war.
Arthur R. Butz, an American revisionist, alleges that a mere 350,000 Jews were missing. He even goes as far as to suggest that some of them are not really missing, but rather, fell out of contact with their families, while only about 200,000 were executed by the Germans during the war. Butz also claims that many Jews were not killed, but instead, immigrated to the United States illegally, changed their identities and were absorbed into American life without leaving a trace of their former selves. Furthermore, he maintains that the number “six million” was a figure imagined by the Zionists.
Revisionists claim that Holocaust diaries, testimonies and photographs are not credible and are full of distortions. Some deniers argue that the Nazis could not have physically cremated so many people so quickly, nor could Zyklon B gas have feasibly been used on such a regular basis in one place.
Through the internet and social media, Holocaust deniers have actively used these platforms to spread misinformation and messages of hate - many websites, for example, established by revisionists and related groups such as white supremacists, offer highly skewed versions of events.
Important steps have been taken to combat this misinformation. In some countries, Holocaust denial has been made illegal and those who perpetuate it are punished. Many Holocaust museums have been established, and Holocaust education has been instituted in many schools to ensure that, despite the efforts of deniers, it will never happen again.
(Source: Robert Rozett & Shmuel Spector (eds.), The Encyclopaedia of the Holocaust, New York: Facts on File, 2000).
There are many facets to this question; and almost any answer ultimately leaves people who believe in the sanctity of life deeply confused and troubled.
At the heart of the Nazi project to wipe out the Jewish people was their racial and anti-Semitic view of the world. The Nazis sought to reshape the world in accordance with their worldview. Influenced profoundly by Social Darwinism and a belief that throughout human history the strong have prevailed over the weak, they determined that Germans were a people with superior racial qualities and should rule over inferior races.
In this regard, after the outbreak of World War II, they engaged in a number of projects that can be best described as racial restructuring in order to achieve their version of utopia. They defined people according to supposedly scientific racial categories, treating them as pawns and moving them around the face of Europe, usually in total disregard to their natural human rights.
The Nazis considered the Jews to be their archenemy on racial grounds, an enemy whose “influence” on the rest of mankind had to be stopped. Murder was always a possibility, given Nazi ideology, but, as a policy, it evolved over time. The Nazis tried a variety of solutions to the so-called “Jewish problem” before they embarked on the mass systematic murder of all Jews under their dominion, a policy known as the “Final Solution”.
Undoubtedly, amongst the Nazi leadership and Nazi rank and file (and their collaborators), many fully embraced Nazi ideology, believing that by murdering Jews they were rescuing mankind from a deadly enemy. It is clear, however, from well-researched scholarly studies that not all involved in the killing of the Jews believed in all aspects of the Nazi racial vision. A range of other factors - including the desire to achieve personal advancement in Nazi society, greed, peer pressure and a brutality that blossomed under conditions of total war - contributed to turning otherwise ordinary people, in extraordinary circumstances, into mass murderers.
At different places and at different times during the war, once the wider policy of mass murder took hold, local logistical factors (e.g. lack of space for housing Jews in ghettos, lack of available food), could trigger a specific incident of largescale murder.
The annihilation of the Jews could not have happened without the support, both active and passive, of Nazi-dominated society as a whole. Throughout most German-controlled territories, people were generally aware of the mass murder of Jews, and indeed benefited from the distribution of Jewish property. Many people supported the murder, wholeheartedly, whereas others were less enthusiastic. However, outright organised opposition was virtually non-existent, and only a small minority of individuals took risks to help their Jewish neighbours.
A common thread amongst all murderers (and a large segment of society under Nazi domination) was an anti-Semitic worldview that held that Jews were outside the circle of normative social responsibility; in other words, that Jewish life was ‘expendable’.
Source: Edited by Avraham Milgram and Robert Rozette, Yad Vashem, The Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority, 2005.