Mass Grave in Bergen-Belsen camp
Mass Grave in Bergen-Belsen camp

(Greek holo, “whole”; caustos, “burned”), originally, a religious rite in which an offering was entirely consumed by fire. In current usage, holocaust refers to any widespread human disaster, but when written Holocaust, its special meaning is the almost complete destruction of the Jews in Europe by Nazi Germany.

During the 19th century, European Jewry was being emancipated, and, in most European countries, Jews achieved some equality of status with non-Jews. Nonetheless, at times Jews were vilified and harassed by anti-Semitic groups. Indeed, some anti-Semites believed that Jewry was an alien “race” not assimilable into a European culture, but they did not formulate any coherent anti-Semitic campaign.

Pre-World War II Persecution of German Jews

When the Nazi regime came to power in Germany in January 1933, it immediately began to take systematic measures against the Jews. One early decree was a definition of the term Jew. Crucial in that determination was the religion of one’s grandparents. Anyone with three or four Jewish grandparents was automatically a Jew, regardless of whether that individual was a member of the Jewish community. Half-Jews were considered Jewish only if they themselves belonged to the Jewish religion or were married to a Jewish person. All other half-Jews, and persons who had one Jewish grandparent, were styled Mischlinge (half-breeds). Jews and Mischlinge were “non-Aryans.” In Nazi doctrine, such emphasis on descent was regarded as an affirmation of “race,” but the principal purpose of these categorizations was the clear delimitation of a target for discriminatory laws and directives.

The “Aryanization” of Businesses

From 1933 to 1939, concerted efforts were made by the Nazi party, agencies of the government, banks, and business enterprises to eliminate Jews from economic life. Non-Aryans were dismissed from civil service positions, and Jewish lawyers and doctors lost their Aryan clients. Jewish firms were either liquidated and their inventory disposed of, or they were purchased for much less than their full value by companies that were not owned or operated by Jews. The contractual transfer of Jewish enterprises to new German owners was called “Aryanization.” The proceeds of any sales, as well as Jewish savings, were subjected to special property taxes. The Jewish employees of liquidated or Aryanized firms lost their jobs.

“The Night of Broken Glass”

The proclaimed objective of the Nazi regime was Jewish emigration. In November 1938, following the assassination of a German diplomat in Paris by a young Jew, all synagogues in Germany were set on fire, windows of Jewish shops were smashed, and thousands of Jews were arrested. This “Night of Broken Glass” (Kristallnacht) was a signal to Jews in Germany and Austria to leave as soon as possible. Several hundred thousand people were able to find refuge in other countries, but a similar number, including many who were old or poor, stayed to face an uncertain fate.

The Occupation of Poland

When World War II began in September 1939, the German army occupied the western half of Poland and thereby added almost 2 million Jews to the German power sphere. Restrictions placed on Polish Jewry were much harsher than those in Germany. The Polish Jews were forced to move into ghettos surrounded by walls and barbed wire. The ghettos were like captive city-states. Each ghetto had a Jewish council that was responsible for housing, sanitation, and production. Food and coal were to be shipped in and manufactured products sent out. The food supply allowed by the Germans, however, consisted mainly of grains and such vegetables as turnips, carrots, and beets. In the Warsaw ghetto, the official ration provided barely 1200 calories to each inhabitant. Some black-market food, smuggled into the ghettos, was sold at high prices, but unemployment and poverty were widespread. Housing was overcrowded, with six to seven people to a room, and typhus was common.

Invasion of the USSR

At the time of ghettoization in Poland, a drastic undertaking was launched farther to the east. In June 1941, German armies invaded the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), and at the same time the Reich Security Main Office—an agency of the police and the Nazi party guard, known as the SS—dispatched 3000 men in special units to newly occupied Soviet territories to kill all Jews on the spot. These mobile detachments, known as Einsatzgruppen (action squads), were soon engaged in incessant shootings. The massacres usually took place in ditches or ravines near cities and towns. Occasionally, they were witnessed by soldiers or local residents. Before long, rumors of the killings were heard in several capitals of the world.

The “Final Solution”

A month after the beginning of mobile operations in the occupied USSR, the second in command of Nazi Germany, Hermann Goring, sent a directive to the chief of the Reich Security Main Office, Reinhard Heydrich, charging him with the task of organizing a “final solution to the Jewish question” in all of German-dominated Europe. By September 1941, the Jews of Germany were forced to wear badges or armbands marked wth a yellow star. In the following months, tens of thousands were deported to ghettos in Poland and to cities wrested from the USSR. Even as that movement was under way, the stage was set for another innovation: the death camp.

Camps equipped with facilities for gassing people were erected on the soil of occupied Poland. Most prospective victims were to be deported to these killing centers from ghettos nearby. From the Warsaw ghetto alone, more than 300,000 were removed. The first transports were usually filled with women, children, or older men, who could not work; Jews capable of labor were retained in shops or plants, but they too were eventually killed. The heaviest deportations occurred in the summer and fall of 1942. The destinations of the transports were not disclosed to the Jewish communities, but reports of mass deaths eventually reached the surviving Jews, as well as the governments of the United States and Great Britain. In April 1943, the 65,000 remaining Jews of Warsaw offered resistance to German police who entered the ghetto in a final roundup. The battle was fought for three weeks.


Throughout Europe, the deportations generated a host of political and administrative problems. In Germany itself, extensive discussions were held about the Mischlinge, and eventually they were exempted. In countries allied with Germany, such as the satellite states of Slovakia and Croatia, diplomatic negotiations were conducted to bring about deportations. The government of Vichy France, which had already extended its anti-Semitic laws, began imprisoning Jews before Germany’s request to do so. The Italian Fascist government refused to cooperate with Nazi Germany until after Italy was occupied by German forces in September 1943, and the Hungarian government was similarly reluctant to give up its Jews until after German troops entered Hungary in March 1944. Although the Romanian government had been responsible for several large-scale massacres of Jews in the occupied USSR, Romania also declined to deliver its Jews to the Germans. In occupied Denmark, Danes from all walks of life resolved to save that country’s Jews from certain death, ferrying thousands of them in small boats to neutral Sweden.

Wherever possible, the Germans collected the belongings of the deportees. In Germany, bank accounts and the contents of apartments were confiscated, and from occupied France, Belgium, and Holland furniture was shipped to Germany for distribution to bombed-out persons. Transportation of victims to the death camps was generally by rail, and the police had to pay the German state railways a one-way third-class passenger fare for each deportee. When as many as 1000 persons were loaded on a train, a group rate that was half the normal tariff was allowed. The trains, consisting of freight cars, moved slowly on special schedules to their destinations. Often, the sick and the elderly died en route.

The Death Camps

The arrival points in Poland were Kulmhof (Chelmno), Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, Lublin (Maydanek), and Auschwitz (Oßwiécim). Kulmhof, northwest of the Lódz ghetto, was supplied with gas vans, and its death toll was 150,000. Belzec had carbon monoxide gas chambers in which 600,000 Jews, mostly from the populous Galician area, were killed. Sobibor’s gas chambers accounted for 250,000 dead and Treblinka’s for 700,000 to 800,000. At Lublin, some 50,000 were gassed or shot; in Auschwitz, the Jewish dead totaled more than 1 million.

Auschwitz, near Kraków, was the largest death camp. Unlike the others, it used quick-working hydrogen cyanide for the gassings. The victims of Auschwitz came from all over Europe: Norway, France, the Low Countries, Italy, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, Yugoslavia, and Greece. A large inmate population, Jewish and non-Jewish, was employed by industry; some prisoners were subjected to medical experiments, particularly sterilizations. Although only Jews and Gypsies were gassed routinely, several hundred thousand other Auschwitz inmates died from starvation, disease, or shooting. To erase the traces of destruction, large crematories were constructed so that the bodies of the gassed could be incinerated. In 1944 the camp was photographed by Allied reconnaissance aircraft in search of industrial targets; its factories, but not its gas chambers, were bombed.

Results of the Holocaust

When the war ended, millions of Jews, Slavs, Gypsies, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Communists, and others targeted by the Nazis, had died in the Holocaust. The Jewish dead numbered more than 5 million: about 3 million in killing centers and other camps, 1.4 million in shooting operations, and more than 600,000 in ghettos. (Traditional estimates are closer to 6 million.) Heavy pressure was placed on the victorious powers to establish a permanent haven in Palestine for Jewish survivors. The establishment of Israel three years after Germany’s defeat was thus an aftereffect of the Holocaust.