The Holocaust: Definition, survivors, facts, movies and more
The Holocaust was the systematic persecution and extermination of Jews by Nazi Germany and its collaborators between 1933 and 1945. A continental-scale genocide that destroyed not only individuals and families, but entire communities and cultures that had developed over the centuries.
To understand how the Holocaust could have happened, it is necessary to consider it from many points of view and in the framework of a variety of processes, starting from the following questions; it is also essential, overall, that the connections and examination of national and local contexts are integrated.
The Holocaust was the state-organized, systematic persecution and killing of six million European Jews by the Nazi German regime, its allies and collaborators. For the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the period of the Holocaust is from 1933 to 1945. The historical period of the Holocaust began in January 1933 when Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party came to power in Germany and ended in May 1945, when the Allies defeated Nazi Germany in World War II. Sometimes, the Holocaust is also referred to as “the Shoah,” the Hebrew word for “catastrophe.”
When the Nazis assumed power in Germany, they did not immediately begin mass murder. However, they used the government to target Jews and exclude them from German society. Among the anti-Semitic measures, the Nazi German regime enacted discriminatory laws and organized acts of violence against Jews in Germany. Nazi persecution of Jews became increasingly radical between 1933 and 1945. This radicalization culminated in a plan that Nazi leaders called the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question.” The “Final Solution” referred to the organized and systematic mass murder of European Jews. The Nazi German regime perpetrated this genocide between 1941 and 1945.
Why did the Nazis target Jews?
The Nazis targeted Jews because they were deeply anti-Semitic. This means that not only were they prejudiced against Jews but they actually hated them. Anti – Semitism was a fundamental tenet of their ideology and was the basis of their worldview.
The Nazis wrongly accused the Jews of being the cause of Germany’s social, economic, political and cultural problems. In particular, they blamed them for Germany’s defeat in World War I (1914-1918). Some Germans believed these Nazi allegations. Anger at the defeat suffered in the war and the economic and political crises that followed contributed to the growth of anti-Semitism in German society. Germany’s instability under the Weimar Republic (1918-1933), fear of Communism, and economic shocks from the Great Depression caused many Germans to embrace Nazi ideas, including anti-Semitism.
However, anti-Semitism was not invented by the Nazis. This is an ancient and widespread prejudice that has taken many forms throughout history. In Europe, it dates back to ancient times. In the Middle Ages (500-1400), prejudice against Jews was based primarily on early Christian beliefs and thought, especially the myth that Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus. Suspicion and discrimination rooted in religious prejudice continued in Europe modern (1400-1800). The leaders of much of Christian Europe excluded Jews from many aspects of economic, social and political life. This exclusion helped generate the stereotype that Jews were different and alien to the rest of society. As Europe became more secular, most of the legal restrictions on Jews were removed in many countries. This, however, did not mean the end of anti-Semitism. In addition to religious anti-Semitism, other types of anti-Semitism took hold in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. These new forms included economic, nationalist and racial anti-Semitism. In the 19th century, anti-Semites wrongly claimed that Jews were responsible for many of the social and political ills of modern, industrial society. Theories of race, eugenics, and social Darwinism justified, even without foundation, hatred of Jews. Racial anti-Semitism discriminates against Jews on the basis of the idea that they belong to a different and inferior race.
The Nazi Party promoted a particularly aggressive form of racial anti-Semitism, which also played a central role in its racially based worldview. The Nazis believed that the world was divided into distinct races and that some of these races were superior to others. They believed that Germans belonged to the supposed master “Aryan” race. They further claimed that the “ Aryans ” were engaged in a struggle for survival with other lesser races. Furthermore, the Nazis believed that the so-called “Jewish race” was the inferior and most dangerous of all. According to the Nazis, Jews were a threat that needed to be removed from German society. Otherwise, according to the Nazis, the “Jewish race” would have permanently corrupted and destroyed the German people. The Nazi definition of Jews, based on race, included many people who actually considered themselves Christians or who did not practice Judaism.
How did Nazi Germany, its allies and collaborators persecute the Jewish people?
Between 1933 and 1945, Nazi Germany, its allies and collaborators implemented a wide variety of anti-Semitic policies and measures. These policies varied from place to place. Therefore, not all Jews experienced the Holocaust in the same way. But in all cases, millions of people were persecuted simply because they identified as Jews.
Throughout the German-controlled territories and in the aligned territories, the persecution of Jews took several forms:
- Legal discrimination in the form of anti-Semitic laws . These included the Nuremberg Race Laws and numerous other discriminatory laws.
- Different forms of identification and public exclusion. These included anti-Semitic propaganda , boycotts of Jewish-owned businesses, public humiliation, and mandatory markings (such as the Jewish star worn as an armband or on clothing).
- Organized violence. The most notable example is Kristallnacht (‘Kristallnacht’). There were also isolated incidents and pogroms (violent riots).
- Physical transfer. Perpetrators used forced emigration, resettlement, expulsion, deportation, and ghettoization to physically relocate Jewish individuals and communities.
- Internment. The perpetrators of the Holocaust interned Jews in overcrowded ghettos, concentration camps, and forced labor camps, where many died of starvation, disease, and other inhumane conditions.
- Widespread theft and looting. The confiscation of Jewish property, personal effects, and valuables was a key part of the Holocaust.
- Forced labor . Jews had to perform forced labor in the service of the Axis war machine or for the enrichment of Nazi organizations, the military and/or private companies.
Many Jews died as a result of these policies. However, prior to 1941, the systematic mass murder of all Jews was not yet part of Nazi policy. Beginning in 1941, however, Nazi leaders set out to carry out the mass murder of the Jews of Europe. They referred to this plan as the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question.”
In late 1941, the Nazi regime began building death camps in occupied Poland. The killing fields are sometimes called “killing centers” or “death camps”. Nazi Germany operated five extermination camps: Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka and Auschwitz -Birkenau. The Germans built these death camps for the sole purpose of effectively killing Jews on a mass scale. The primary means of assassination used in the death camps was poison gas inside sealed gas chambers or in vans.
The German authorities, with the help of their allies and collaborators, transferred Jews from all over Europe to these extermination camps, disguising their intentions by calling the transports to the extermination camps “resettlement actions” or “evacuation transports”. These actions are often referred to as “ deportations ”. Most of these deportations took place by train. In order to efficiently transport Jews to the death camps, the German authorities used Europe’s extensive railway system, as well as other means of transport. In many cases the train carriages were freight cars, in other cases they were passenger carriages.
The conditions on the transports were horrific. Local German authorities and their collaborators forced Jews of all ages into overcrowded carriages, where they often had to stand, sometimes for days, until the train arrived at its destination. Those responsible for the deportations deprived prisoners of food, water, toilets, heating and medical care. Jews often died en route due to the inhumane conditions.
The vast majority of Jews deported to the death camps were gassed almost immediately upon their arrival. Jews whom German officers deemed healthy and strong enough were selected for forced labor.
What were ghettos and why did the German authorities create them during the Holocaust?
Ghettos were areas of cities or towns where the German occupiers forced Jews to live in overcrowded and unhygienic conditions. German authorities often closed off these areas by building walls or other barriers. Guards prevented Jews from leaving without permission. Some ghettos existed for years, while others only existed for months, weeks or even days as places of detention before deportation or assassination.
German officers first created ghettos in 1939-1940 in German-occupied Poland. The two largest ghettos were located in the occupied Polish cities of Warsaw and Lodz. Beginning in June 1941, German officers also created ghettos in the newly conquered territories in Eastern Europe after the German attack on the Soviet Union. The German authorities, their allies and collaborators also created ghettos in other parts of Europe. In particular, in 1944, the German and Hungarian authorities created temporary ghettos to concentrate and control Jews before their deportation from Hungary.
The purpose of the ghettos
The German authorities originally created the ghettos to isolate and control the large local Jewish populations in occupied Eastern Europe. Initially, ghettos served to concentrate Jews residing in a specific city and the surrounding area or region. However, beginning in 1941, German officers deported Jews from other parts of Europe (including Germany) to some of these ghettos as well.
Forced labor for Jews became a central feature of life in many ghettos. In theory, forced labor was to help pay for the administration of the ghetto and support the German war effort. At times, factories and workshops were set up in the vicinity of the ghetto in order to exploit Jewish prisoners for forced labor. The work was often manual and grueling.
Life in the Ghettos
Life in the ghettos was miserable and dangerous. There was little food and little sanitation or medical care. Hundreds of thousands of people died from starvation, rampant disease, exposure to extreme temperatures, and exhaustion from forced labor. The Germans also killed Jewish prisoners through brutal beatings, torture, arbitrary shootings, and other forms of wanton violence.
Jews in the ghettos tried to maintain a sense of dignity and community. Schools, libraries, municipal social services, and religious institutions created some measure of connection between the residents. Attempts to document life in the ghettos, such as the Oneg Shabbat archive and clandestine photography, were powerful examples of spiritual resistance. Many ghettos also had underground movements that carried out armed resistance. The most famous of these episodes is the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943.
Who are responsible for the Holocaust and the Final Solution?
Many people were responsible for the Holocaust and the Final Solution.
At the highest level, Adolf Hitler inspired, ordered, approved and supported the genocide of Europe’s Jews. However, Hitler did not act alone, nor did he establish an exact plan for implementing the Final Solution. Other Nazi leaders directly coordinated, planned and carried out the mass murder. Among them were Hermann Göring, Heinrich Himmler, Reinhard Heydrich and Adolf Eichmann.
However, millions of Germans and other Europeans took part in the Holocaust. Without their involvement, the genocide of the Jewish people in Europe would not have been possible. Nazi leaders relied on German institutions and organizations, other Axis powers, local bureaucracies and institutions, and individuals.
Who were the other victims of Nazi persecution and mass murder?
The Holocaust specifically refers to the systematic, state-organized persecution and killing of six million Jews. However, there were also millions of other victims of Nazi persecution and assassination. In the 1930s, the regime targeted a variety of perceived enemies within German society. As the Nazis extended their reach during World War II, millions of other Europeans were also subjected to Nazi brutality.
The Nazis classified Jews as a priority “enemy”. However, they also targeted other groups they saw as a threat to the health, unity and security of the German people. The first group targeted by the Nazi regime were political opponents. These included officials and members of other political parties and trade union activists. Political opponents also included people who were simply suspected of opposing or criticizing the Nazi regime. Political enemies were the first to be incarcerated in Nazi concentration camps. Jehovah’s Witnesses were also incarcerated in prisons and concentration camps. They were arrested because they refused to swear allegiance to the government or to serve in the German army.
The Nazi regime also targeted Germans whose activities were seen as harmful to German society. These included men accused of homosexuality, people accused of being professional or habitual criminals, and the so-called antisocials (people identified as vagrants, beggars, prostitutes, pimps, and alcoholics). Tens of thousands of these victims were incarcerated in prisons and concentration camps. Furthermore, the regime enforced sterilization and also persecuted Afro-Germans.
People with disabilities were also victims of the Nazi regime. Prior to World War II, Germans considered to have a presumably unhealthy hereditary condition were forcibly sterilized. Once the war began, Nazi policy became more radical. People with disabilities, especially those living in institutions, were seen as both a genetic and a financial burden on Germany. These people were targeted to be killed through the so-called Euthanasia Program .
The Nazi regime employed extreme measures against groups considered racial, civil or ideological enemies. These included Roma (Gypsies) , Poles (especially the Polish intelligentsia and elites), Soviet officials, and Soviet prisoners of war. The Nazis perpetrated mass murder against all of these groups.
Period after the Holocaust
While the Holocaust ended with the war, the legacy of terror and genocide continued beyond. By the time the end of World War II came, six million Jews and millions of other people were dead. Nazi Germany, its allies and collaborators had devastated or completely destroyed thousands of Jewish communities across Europe.
In the aftermath of the Holocaust , Jewish survivors were often confronted with the traumatic reality of having lost their entire families and communities. Some were given the opportunity to return home and rebuild their lives in Europe. Many others were afraid to do so because of postwar violence and anti-Semitism. In the immediate postwar period, those who could not or would not go home often found themselves living in camps for displaced persons . In these camps, many people had to wait years before they could move into new homes.
In the aftermath of the Holocaust, the world struggled to come to terms with the horrors of the genocide, to remember the victims, and to hold the perpetrators accountable. These important efforts are still ongoing.
One of the most famous films about the Holocaust. Released in 1993 and directed by Steven Spielberg, the cast includes actors such as Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes . Inspired by Thomas Keneally’s novel of the same name, the story is based on the life of Oskar Schindler, a German entrepreneur who saved around 1,100 Jews during World War II. A classic that we include in our list of films to watch on the Holocaust. If we haven’t convinced you yet, let the numbers do the talking: 12 Oscar nominations and a total of 7 statuettes earned, including best film and best director.
The Diary of Anne Frank
1959 film directed by George Stevens based on the theatrical adaptation of the diary of the same name, the collection of the writings of the Jewish girl during the years in which she lived, with her family, in hiding in Amsterdam and which ends with the last entry dated August 1, 1944, shortly before his family’s arrest and deportation. Anne Frank died in 1945 in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. The 1959 film, produced just 14 years after the death of the protagonist, was presented in competition at the 12th Cannes Film Festival and wonthree Academy Awards.
Life is beautiful
The 1997 film directed by and starring Italian actor Roberto Benigni which was awarded three Academy Awards – out of seven nominations – for best foreign film, best leading actor and best soundtrack by Nicola Piovani. The story told is that of an Italian Jewish family who are deported to a concentration camp. The protagonist, Guido Orefice, played by Oscar winner Roberto Benigni, will make his son believe, while in prison, that their family has taken part in a strange game, for which a final prize is at stake.
A touching film based on the autobiographical novel of the same name by Wladyslaw Szpilman which, in 2002, won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. The story, touching and dramatic, tells the story of a Jewish pianist who witnesses the creation of the Warsaw ghetto, and tells of the protagonist’s survival and escape from the ghetto. The pianist’s notes accompany the film, imbuing the story with further drama.
5 nominations and an Oscar for Best Actress for Kate Winslet. These are the figures of The reader, a poignant film based on the adaptation of the novel of the same name by Bernhard Schlink. The film is divided into two parts: the first tells of a love story between a 15-year-old and a 36-year-old, the second concerns a trial in which several concentration camp guards are accused, accused of causing the death of hundreds of women Jews in a church. A heartbreaking and dramatic story whose ending leaves you breathless.
The film earned Meryl Streep an Academy Award for Best Actress. The film is based on the novel of the same name by William Styron and tells the story of an aspiring writer who meets, having moved to New York, a couple of guys who live in the same house: she, a Polish woman who immigrated after detention in Auschwitz concentration camp and he a young Jewish boy. The writer’s friendship with the couple grows ever more intimate until the Polish woman confesses a secret. The 1982 film was included by the American Film Institute in the ranking of the hundred best American films of all time.
The Lady from the Warsaw Zoo
The 2017 film with Jessica Chastain inspired by a true story contained in the book The Jews of the Warsaw Zoo based on the story of Antonina Żabińska. Żabińska, together with her zoo director husband, tries to defend the animals about to be slaughtered by the Germans. They gain the trust of Hitler ‘s officersand, in great secrecy, they manage to save hundreds of Jews by making them hide in their home and among the cages of the zoo.