Exact numbers never will be known, but an estimated eleven million people died between 1933 and 1945 as a direct result of the Holocaust. About five million were among various groups of people who refused to acknowledge the leadership of Adolf Hitler or those whom the German Fuehrer disliked—political dissenters; artists; homosexuals; the mentally and physically handicapped; priests; the Roma and Sinti; Jehovah’s Witnesses; and Freemasons are just a few examples. Over half of the victims, nearly 6 million, were people of the Jewish faith.
Adolf Hitler was elected Chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933 as the leader of the National Socialist German Workers Party. Almost immediately, thousands of people left the country in fear for their lives. Hitler began issuing laws barring Jews from holding professional positions within the country; Jews were banned from being civil servants, professors, lawyers, doctors, and journalists. In 1935, Hitler enacted the Nuremberg Laws, which took away the citizenship of German Jews and deprived them of all civil rights.
On the night of November 9, 1938, thousands of synagogues and Jewish-owned businesses were vandalized and burned throughout Germany and Austria. Kristallnacht, or Night of Broken Glass, became a turning point in Hitler’s personal war against the Jews.
Jewish ghettos were established in the larger cities of Poland in 1941. Thousands of people were crowded into an area of just a few blocks and entire families were forced to live in one room with whatever belongings that they could carry from home. The largest ghetto was in Warsaw, where 400,000 people lived in an area occupying just two percent of the city. The next step from the ghetto for many, provided they were able to survive starvation, diseases, and torture, was the concentration camp.
Concentration camps were opened in 1933 and were used to torture and kill political prisoners, such as Communists and Social Democrats. By the end of the 1930s, there were about 15,000 camps, mainly in Poland; these soon were expanded to include Jewish prisoners who were used as laborers for the German war effort in munitions and weapons factories. Hitler wanted Germany and the occupied countries to be populated by pure Aryans and camps were used as a form of extermination, the prisoners literally were worked to death. When they were unable to work any longer, the camp occupants were killed. By the early 1940s, Hitler’s focus turned specifically to the destruction of the Jewish people.
On January 20, 1942, at a villa in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee, fifteen members of the Nazi Party, including Adolf Eichmann and Reinhard Heydrich, held a conference to discuss the final extermination of the Jewish people across Europe, including England and Ireland. They came up with a “Final Solution,” and camps immediately were created for the sole purpose of killing large numbers of Jews at once. Freight car trains deported thousands at a time from ghettos to camps like Auschwitz and Treblinka. If they survived the tortuous train ride, the Jews were marched out upon arrival and doctors determined whether they would be used for labor or killed immediately in the gas chambers. Children and the elderly were among those killed immediately.
There were a few instances of resistance within the ghettos and camps, most famously in Warsaw and Auschwitz, but not one was successful. The uprisings always were overpowered and stopped by the Nazis.
By the end of 1944, as it was becoming clear that Germany was losing the war, efforts were stepped up to kill as many Jews as possible and conceal what the Nazis were doing. Death marches were conducted from camp to camp, killing thousands at a time, and Nazis covered their tracks by dismantling crematoria, burning bodies rather than burying them, and destroying the paperwork. Majdanek was the first major camp to be liberated, in July of 1944, by the advancing Russian troops. The Russian army also liberated Auschwitz in January of 1945. The first camp to be liberated by American troops was Buchenwald in April 1945.
In October 1945, a military tribunal was convened in Nuremberg, Germany, charging twenty-four top Nazi Party leaders with crimes against humanity—a trial with repercussions still felt today with the creation of the International Criminal Court and the development of laws specifically for war crimes.
Did You Know?
The Freedom Wall is comprised of 4,048 gold stars. Each gold star represents one hundred American service personnel who died or remain missing in the war. The 405,399 American dead and missing from the Second World War are second only to the loss of more than 620,000 Americans during our Civil War.