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FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
The Holocaust was the murder of approximately six million Jews by the Nazis and their collaborators.
Between the German invasion of the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941 and the end of the war in Europe in May 1945, Nazi Germany (and its accomplices) strove to murder every Jew under their domination. Because Nazi discrimination against the Jews began with Hitler's accession to power in January 1933, many historians consider this to be the start of the Holocaust era. The Jews were not the only victims of Hitler's regime, but they were the only group that the Nazis sought to destroy entirely.
The term “Holocaust” is defined by the New Lexicon Webster's Dictionary of the English Language (1989) as a ‘large-scale sacrifice or destruction, especially of life, especially by fire’. As the research of Jon Petrie shows, the term “Holocaust” was already used by some writers during the war itself to describe what was happening to the Jews. Concurrently, various other terms such as ‘destruction’, ‘disaster’ and ‘catastrophe’ have been used (and are still being so today) to describe the fate of the Jews in Nazi-dominated Europe - although the dominant usage in American English since the middle of the 1960s is the word Holocaust.
In Hebrew, the word “Shoah” is used, and it appears more and more frequently in English-language texts.
Genocide is a legal term for the destruction of the essential foundations of the life of national groups. It may include, but does not necessarily include, the physical annihilation of the group. The Holocaust is an expression - and arguably the most extreme expression - of genocide.
There are other historical events akin to the Holocaust, but the Holocaust has characteristics that - in the opinion of many scholars - make it unique.
Mass murder on a scale of millions and targeting specific religious, ethnic or social groups, has occurred many times in history. Governments, other than Nazi Germany, have used camp systems and extensive bureaucracy to implement widespread State-sponsored brutality.
The Holocaust, however, is considered unique for two main reasons:
a. Unlike their policies towards other groups, the Nazis sought to murder every Jew everywhere - regardless of age, gender, beliefs or actions, and they utilised a modern government bureaucracy to accomplish their goal.
b. The Nazi leadership believed that ridding the world of the Jewish presence would be beneficial to the German people and all mankind, although, in reality the Jews posed no actual threat. Grounded in a spurious racist ideology that considered the Jews "the destructive race," it was this idea, more than any other that eventually led to the implementation of the policy known as the “Final Solution”.
The pre-war persecution of Jews in Germany took place under very different circumstances from that of the Nazis' extermination campaign during World War II. The operative aim of Nazi policy during their first years was not yet the physical annihilation of the Jews but, rather, their social and economic displacement and removal from German soil. In pursuing these goals, the regime was still subject to internal and external constraints that limited the full brutality of its anti-Semitic measures. Most of the anti-Jewish campaign in the initial years was carried out under the full glare of international attention. Its typical manifestations included discriminatory legislation, economic deprivation, public defamation, administrative harassment and social ostracism - rather than actual physical torture and murder.
A distinctive feature of Nazi policy before the war was the confusing interplay between repression and normalcy, the constant tightening/untightening of anti-Semitic pressure. Spurts of intense anti-Semitic activity were buffered by prolonged periods of deceptive stabilisation. By and large, the pre-war anti-Semitic campaign crested at three junctures:
• The boycott of April 1, 1933, and the ensuing wave of racial legislation aimed at Jewish employees in the public services and various professions.
• The Nuremberg Laws of September 15, 1935, which put the final seal on Jewish emancipation in Germany and defined ‘Jewishness’ in racial terms.
• The state-organised pogrom on the nights of November 9-10, 1938; the so-called Kristallnacht ("Crystal Night").
The most straightforward answer is that they simply had nowhere to go. For the Jews of Europe, as noted in Chaim Weizmann's famous remark, the world was divided into two: places where they could not live and places where they could not go.
The restrictive immigration practices of major countries vis-à-vis Jewish refugees reflected a global climate of economic protectionism, tinged with xenophobia and outright anti-Semitism.
An international conference on refugees at Evian, France, in July 1938, initiated by U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, proved to be a complete fiasco. Except for the Dominican Republic, none of the representatives of the 32 countries invited offered prospective Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria any hope whatsoever.
Another explanation is that the intermittent and uneven application of the anti-Semitic pressure during the Nazi regime's first years sent confusing signals to the Jewish victims, lulling their sense of danger and allowing them to believe that the worst had already passed. A panic exodus of Jews from Nazi-dominated Europe ensued only after the spring of 1938, in the wake of the annexation of Austria in March of that year, and intensified after the November pogrom. By that time, Jews were willing to emigrate to anywhere they could.
The exact date of the policy decision by the Nazis to murder all Jews is not entirely clear. No written order from Hitler to this effect has been found. Currently, there is a consensus amongst historians that before the outbreak of the war the Nazis didn’t have a definite plan to murder the Jews of Europe. Rather, the policy that came to be known as the “Final Solution” (which called for the murder of all Jews), developed during the war itself.
At the time of the German conquest of Poland, in the autumn of 1939, the Nazis crossed the line from earlier forms of discrimination to actual murder. At this point, sporadic mass killings in the General government alone (the area where most Polish Jews were gathered), resulted in the deaths of at least 7,000 in the last months of 1939. With the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, murderous activities against the Jews greatly intensified. German-armed formations (most notably, the special killing units of the SS known as the Einsatzgruppen) began shooting Jewish males and Communist political officers in a mass and systematic fashion. In early July, the “No. 2” man in the SS, Reinhard Heydrich, was made responsible by Hitler's deputy, Hermann Goering, for a "Final Solution to the Jewish Question in Europe." In mid-August, when the head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, visited the newly-occupied Soviet areas, it was decided to extend the killing to Jewish women and children. Soon after, experiments began on the use of Zyklon-B gas as a means of mass murder. These experiments were conducted in Auschwitz on Soviet prisoners of war.
In mid-October, the deportation of Jews from the Reich began and a few days later Jewish emigration from the Reich was also banned. As well in October, sites were chosen for the extermination camps, Chelmno and Belzec. In early December, the first of these (Chelmno) became operational; Jews began to be murdered with carbon monoxide gas generated by large diesel engines pumping gas into gas chambers.
On December 12, 1941, Hitler met with some of his inner circle and told them that the systematic mass murder (which had begun in the Soviet Union) would now be extended to the Jews of Germany. From this meeting, the decision to mass murder all Jews was made. On January 20, 1942, after hundreds of thousands of Jews had already been killed, Heydrich convened senior members of the German bureaucracy in what is known as the Wansee Conference to discuss and coordinate the "Final Solution."
It is clear from this series of events that Hitler, Goering, Himmler, Heydrich and other Nazi leaders were closely involved in the decision-making process that led to the mass murder of the Jews.
The largest ghetto was in Warsaw, which contained up to 480,000 Jews and was liquidated in May 1943, after massive deportations to Treblinka in the summer of 1942, and two uprisings in January and April of 1943.
The Lodz ghetto contained 160,000 Jews at its peak. This ghetto was liquidated gradually; in a first wave of deportations to Chelmno between January and May of 1942, many subsequent deportations to Chelmno and other camps, and a final liquidation on September 1, 1944.
The Lvov ghetto contained nearly 150,000 Jews when it was established in November 1941; its last few thousand inhabitants were removed in June 1943 after the rest had been deported to their deaths in Belzec and Janowska.
The Minsk ghetto held 100,000 Jews from this city, and the surrounding towns and villages. The Minsk ghetto was liquidated on October 21, 1943, after most of its Jewish inhabitants had been shot or deported to their deaths in Sobibor.
In Vilna, most of the 57,000 Jews who initially inhabited the ghetto were shot to death in the nearby pits of Ponar. In the wake of a failed Vilna ghetto uprising, the last few thousand Jews were sent to camps in Estonia on September 23, 1943.
The Bialystok ghetto, which originally contained 50,000 Jews, was liquidated on August 16, 1943, following five days of fighting by the Jewish underground.
The Jews resorted to legal and “illegal” methods in their attempts to cope with the severe conditions imposed on them in the ghettos. Jewish councils arranged housing, distributed food, provided social welfare, child care, refugee assistance and other services – often stretching their very scant resources beyond the limits of their capabilities.
In some ghettos, autonomous social welfare organisations were created to deal with the same types of needs. Political parties and youth movements organised clandestinely to provide their members with supplementary aid and moral support. Additionally, families and friends tried to help their own.
Many Jews in the ghettos, singly and collectively, came to realise that the Nazis had placed them in a trap: if they obeyed the Nazis' rules, they stood to die prematurely of starvation or disease; if they were caught breaking the rules by smuggling food, supplies or information, they faced certain death.
In many instances, Jews chose to become "outlaws" in their struggle to survive.
Einsatzgruppen literally means "task forces", but in reality they were mobile killing units. The SS set up these units before they entered Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland and the Soviet Union.
The task of the Einsatzgruppen in Poland was to terrorise the local population and murder anyone whom the SS deemed undesirable. The most infamous Einsatzgruppen were formed before the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. Their primary task was to destroy what they regarded as the ideological infrastructure of the Soviet Union: political commissars, members of the Communist party and, above all, Jews.
Einsatzgruppen advanced into the Soviet Union, along with the German army. Wherever they stopped, they gathered and shot in cold blood as many Jews as they could find (first Jewish males, followed by Jewish women and children).
They wrote detailed daily reports on their activities, copies of which still exist. According to their own incomplete reports, they killed at least 900,000 Jews and were assisted by other units in the murder of hundreds of thousands more.