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HOLOCAUST, a term for the methodical persecution, enslavement, and extermination of European Jewry by Nazi Germany. An estimated 6 million Jews died in the years from 1933 to 1945. Europe had a history of anti-Semitism, but the Holocaust was unique in scope, barbarity, and concentration on the annihilation of one people (genocide). Moreover, anti-Semitism was given legal sanction. The Holocaust was directed by the Nazi dictator Adolf HITLER, aided by a vast bureaucracy managed by Heinrich HIMMLER , Reinhard Heydrich, Heinrich Mueller, and Adolf Eichmann.

The Prewar Period

Hitler outlined his anti-Semitic program in Mein Kampf (My Struggle), his farrago of memoirs, prejudices, and ill-conceived scientism. On coming to power in 1933, he implemented this plan. It evolved from legal disfranchisement of the Jews to legalized murder. The Nuremberg Laws (1935) forbade Germans to commerce with Jews and to marry or have intercourse with them. It classed Jews as "subjects rather than "citizens. Later legislation added disabilities designed to drive Jews out of Germany. Many refused to leave, convinced that Hitler\'s rule would soon end. Nazi-sponsored propaganda was circulated widely. Jewish books were burned. Physical persecution commenced with orchestrated anti-Jewish riots, on the infamous Kristallnacht, or "Night of Broken Glass, of Nov. 9-10, 1938. Synagogues were destroyed; Jewish-owned stores were looted and burned; and some 30,000 Jews were arrested and imprisoned.

The War Period

In 1939, under cover of WORLD WAR II , in countries conquered or dominated by Germany, Jews were forced into overcrowded ghettos and employed as slave labor. Jewish property was seized. Disease and starvation decimated ghetto populations. Jews were rounded up in the ghettos and shipped to concentration camps where more succumbed. Survivors were sent to death camps (the "Final Solution) set up in 1942 all over Europe. There they were gassed and their corpses burned in ovens. In Auschwitz-Treblinka alone, at least 2 million Jews were murdered in this fashion. They had been citizens of the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Greece, and other countries. When the Germans invaded Russia, special Nazi extermination teams, Einsatzgruppen, were charged with destroying East European Jewry. In one action, at Babi Yar, more than 10,000 Jews were killed.

Jewish Resistance

In ghettos, concentration camps, and even death camps, Jews attempted armed resistance. It was nearly always futile. The most celebrated case was the Warsaw Ghetto Revolt (1943). After some 450,000 Jews had been sent from Warsaw to death camps, the last 60,000 decided to resist. The battle raged 28 days. Most Jews were captured or killed and the ghetto reduced to rubble. Individual Jews also resisted by joining partisan groups. Jewish resistance, however, was mainly spiritual. Jews studied, prayed, wrote, observed festivals and fasts, and refrained--for the most part--from committing suicide.

Rescue Attempts

The Allies repeatedly refused to attempt any rescue of European Jews. American Jews were warned against seeking special actions for the benefit of European Jewry. Little organized rescue was possible, although Zionists managed to save small groups of young Jews and bring them to Palestine. The churches, in Europe and outside, were mainly silent, but some clergy and a number of courageous non-Jews took part in saving individual Jewish lives. The Danish people as a whole undertook the most successful rescue effort, transferring the entire Danish Jewish community to Sweden in private boats, thereby saving them from destruction.


Decades of research, much of it by victims and survivors, resulted in an understanding of the extent of the Holocaust. A great and long-lived center of Jewish learning and culture had perished. Deep mental scars plagued survivors and even the children of survivors. An aspect of human cruelty was exposed more brutal than the civilized world cared to admit. This gave rise to theological questions that trouble Jewish and non-Jewish religious thinkers. The Nuremberg trials held immediately after World War II avoided assigning responsibility for the Holocaust, but later war-crimes trials--many sparked by the capture and trial of Adolf Eichmann--have dealt directly with the Holocaust and its perpetrators.

Seymour Rossel
Author of The Holocaust

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Seymour Rossel
Author of The Holocaust