We have only just entered a new millennium, and in the last eight years we have seen many lives lost in the name of ‘ethnic cleansing’ and ‘genocide’. On this site, we will use the term ‘mass atrocities’ to describe all extreme mass killings perpetrated by the state (government) towards their own citizens because of race, language, religion, gender or political beliefs.
Some of the obvious examples are Darfur and Zimbabwe.
In the 20th century, the following events have been classified as genocide. Do you know about any of them?
a) The Hereros (1917-1919)
b) Armenia (1913-1923)
c) Nanking (1937)
d) The Holocaust (1933-1945)
e) Cambodia (1975-1979)
f) Srebrenica (1995) & Kosovo (1999)
g) Rwanda (1994)
What is Genocide?
Genocide is one of the greatest crimes that humans commit. It is an act of multiple murder, intended to destroy an entire group of people, because of who they are. It is usually the act of a government and its collaborators, seeking to destroy a part of the population under its control. Its perpetrators do not respect age, gender, occupation, religion or status. Every member of the group will be targeted for killing.Genocide is never spontaneous. It takes time to plan. The word 'genocide' was coined by Raphael Lemkin, a Jewish Polish lawyer, following the Nazi destruction of the Jews of Europe. He used a combination of Greek and Latin words: geno (race or tribe) and cide (killing). He also proposed a Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which was approved by the United Nations in 1948.
Genocide as defined by the United Nations Convention, 1948
"Genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: Killing members of the group Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group Deliberately inflicting conditions calculated to bring about its physical destruction Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group Forcibly transferring children of this group to another group.
Article 6 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, which came into force on 30 June 2002, shares the UN Convention's definition of the crime of genocide".
Other definitions of genocide
"a form of one-sided mass killing in which a state or other authority intends to destroy a group, as that group and membership in it are defined by the perpetrator."
Frank Chalk and Kurt Jonassohn, The History and Sociology of Genocide, 1990
"the mass killing of substantial numbers of human beings ... under conditions of the essential defenselessness and helplessness of the victims."
Israel Charny in George Andreopoulos (ed), Genocide: Conceptual and Historical Dimensions, 1994
"sustained purposeful action by a perpetrator to physically destroy a collectivity directly or indirectly, through interdiction of the biological and social reproduction of group members, sustained regardless of the surrender or lack of threat offered by the victim."
Helen Fein, Genocide: A Sociological Perspective, 1993/1990
"the promotion and execution of policies by a state or its agents which result in the deaths of a substantial portion of a group ...[when] the victimized groups are defined primarily in terms of their communal characteristics, i.e., ethnicity, religion or nationality."
Barbara Harff and Ted Gurr, 'Toward empirical theory of genocides and politicides,' International Studies Quarterly, 37:3, 1988
“Genocide is not extreme war or conflict; it is extreme exclusion. Exclusion may start with name-calling, but may end with a group of people being excluded from a society to the point where they are destroyed.”James M. Smith speaking to the London Assembly, January 2006
What is meant by the Holocaust?
The Holocaust was the mass murder of over six million Jews and five million non-Jewish victims during the Nazi reign of terror between 1939 and 1945. Some call it the Shoah, others genocide, but whatever name is used to describe what occurred, murder happened.
The Jews and non-Jewish victims of the Holocaust were beaten, tortured, starved, worked to death, executed in mass shootings, gassed in mobile killing vans and murdered in the gas chambers. The killings were planned, deliberate and carried out by people who would consider themselves ‘ordinary’ citizens.
So how do ordinary people commit murder and genocide?
This is a question we would like you to explore together as you listen to the Filmed Survivor Interviews and Expert's views on the topic. We would like to invite you to participate in posting your views on the site, and ask questions, if you have any.
Who was affected by the Holocaust?
The millions of victims and survivors of Nazi oppression, people who were someone’s parent, grandparent, child, brothers and sisters, friend, were the ones personally affected by the Holocaust. Groups from across Europe who were systematically murdered and tortured during the Nazi reign of terror were the Jews, Roma, the Handicapped, Communists, Homosexuals, Poles, Slavs and all those considered “anti-social” by the Nazis. The exact numbers of victims will never be fully known, but it is a fact that more than 10 million people were murdered, people who had names, families and friends, and were denied the chance of a future. Ultimately, the whole world was − and is − affected by the Holocaust and therefore the world has a responsibility to learn the lessons of this terrible event in history. If humanity − and that includes all of us − does not learn the lessons of the Holocaust, then genocide can, and will, occur again and again and again.
In the next section, a brief history of the Holocaust is presented. As you go through this, write down questions you may have. We would like to hear from you how you go about investigating the history of the Holocaust. Log in and post your views, questions and findings you may have.
History of the Holocaust
Roots of Antisemitism
In 70 CE (AD), the Romans defeated a Jewish uprising and destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem, removing from the Jews their sense of identity and ability to govern themselves. From this time on, the Jews were in diaspora. This meant that they did not have their own country, but relied upon finding suitable places to live and work, and countries in which they could feel at home. As a result, Jewish communities developed across the Middle East and Europe at different times, in different places. At every step of the unfolding of European history, there were Jewish communities playing an active role. There is not a century or a country where at some time or in some way, Jews did not have a part in the emerging story of Europe, its people, its culture and traditions.
Sometimes Jews were made welcome, at other times not. But always the Jewish community managed to maintain its own traditions and identity, while contributing to the traditions and identity of those around them. Their past was not easy, as Jewish communities often found themselves in quite hostile environments. Jews were expelled from England in 1290 and from Spain in 1492. In Eastern Europe, there were terrible pogroms of which Jews became victims in 1648, and later in Czarist Russia in the 1880s. However, despite hardships, Jews continued to thrive in their chosen homelands.
The Jewish Tradition
A Diverse Community
On the eve of the Second World War, Jewish communities were a diverse and vibrant. There were rich and poor, religious and secular, socialists, capitalists, professors and labourers − a broad spectrum of ordinary people. Each person contributed in their own way to the societies in which they lived, and ensured that the community to which they belonged was cared for. It is important to understand that there were vast differences between different Jewish communities. In Western Europe, many Jews did not consider themselves Jewish other than by birth. They were fully integrated into their surroundings and had little or nothing to do with their religious traditions, preferring to adopt the language, culture and tradition of their neighbours and friends. Other communities, particularly in Eastern Europe, were very poor, very religious and, as a result, not so integrated. In most cases, there was a false sense of safety.
Europe has not always appreciated its Jewish communities. From the early years of the Common Era, Jews faced rivalry from an increasingly hostile Christian Church. By the fourth century, the Church governed the politics of many of the European countries where Jews were living and, more significantly, the attitudes of their populations.
Christianity began as a branch of the Jewish faith and Jesus himself was a Jew. But soon, Christians began to accuse Jews of being the murderers of Christ and the enemy of the Church. Wherever Jews settled in Christian Europe, they usually faced an uncomfortable, if not hostile, environment.
|Significant antisemitic events pre 1905|
|1096||German and French Crusades|
|1189-90||Massacre of Jews in London and York|
|1290||Expulsion of Jews from England|
Racial Hygience Basics introduced by German eugenicist Alfred Ploetz
|1492||Spanish Inquisition and expulsion from Spain|
|1497||Expulsion from Portugal|
|Martin Luther advocated that Jewish synagogues and schools be set on fire, their prayer books destroyed, rabbis forbidden to preach, homes razed, and property and money confiscated.|
|Jews and Roman Catholics were massacred during the Khmelnytsky Uprising of Ukrainian Cossacks|
|1821||Anti-Jewish riots in Odessa|
Pogrom of Jews in Odessa with reports of 400 to 2,500 Jews killed.
In the nineteenth century, religious antagonism and sporadic violence gave way to a more sinister, modern form of antisemitism − 'scientific racism', social theory, centuries of religious antagonism and cultural mistrust combined. This led to the perpetuation of hideous lies for political ends − which people all too readily believed. Instead of Jews being liberated by the modern era, they often found themselves the scapegoats of Europe. One publication, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, was distributed widely. It was supposed to show that there was a Jewish conspiracy to control the world. It was later demonstrated to be a fraud, started in Czarist Russia. This same book is still published and read in parts of the world today.
Hitler's Rise to Power
The First World War
In 1918 Germany lost the First World War. The Treaty of Versailles placed heavy burdens on the German people at a time when defeat had already been a bitter blow. Among the war veterans returning from the trenches was Adolf Hitler. On his return to Munich, he worked for the German army, spying on new political parties. Among them was a small party known as the ‘German Workers Party’, which he ultimately joined in September 1919. In 1921, he became the leader of the now renamed ‘National Socialist German Workers' Party’ − the Nazi party.
The Munich Putsch
In November 1923, Hitler's party tried to seize power from the regional government in Bavaria in what became known as the 'Munich Putsch'. They failed and Hitler was sent to jail for his part in it, where he served nine months of a five-year sentence. There he wrote his political manifesto, one of the most infamous works of all time − Mein Kampf(My Struggle). After his release, Hitler continued to work even more aggressively towards the ultimate power he wanted to gain. In 1925, when he emerged from prison, few would have guessed that eight years later he would become Chancellor of Germany.
From the end of the First World War until Hitler introduced the Third Reich, Germany was known as the Weimar Republic. The Weimar period was characterised by economic hardship and political tension. This was made worse when, in 1929, the stock market on Wall Street, New York, crashed, and worldwide economic depression set in. In their haste to address the domestic problems that followed, many members of the German public chose to ignore, or even believe, Hitler's violent antisemitic ideas.
The Weimar Republic was a democracy and so the Nazis had to campaign for votes like any other party in any other democracy. In the late 1920s, the Nazi party gained more and more seats. In the July 1932 general election, the Nazi party polled 37.3% and became the largest party. Hitler was still not invited to create a government, but six months later, although Hitler’s popularity had dropped to 33%, President von Hindenburg was faced with having to appoint him Chancellor of the Weimar Republic. This gave Hitler the opportunity he wanted. President von Hindenburg disliked Hitler and the Nazis, but thought that by making Hitler Chancellor, he could control him. This was to prove a disastrous mistake. Within a year, Hindenburg was dead and Hitler was in total control of the country. How?
In 1933, the German Parliament building, the Reichstag, burned down. For many, this was a disaster, but the Nazis used the event to increase their power. A man called Marius van der Lubbe was arrested and the fire was blamed on German Communists. Many, however, believed that the Nazis were responsible. In this climate of fear and suspicion, Hitler persuaded Hindenburg to ban the Communist Party. He then persuaded German leaders to pass the ‘Enabling Act’, which effectively gave him the power to make laws without the need for Parliament’s consent.
A ban on trade unions and other new parties quickly followed. The Nazis were now in total, legal control of Germany. In 1933, Hitler had established Dachau as the first concentration camp and anyone who opposed him was sent there. A reign of terror had begun. Many diverse groups came under threat.
Hitler as Führer
In order to maintain power, Hitler developed a complex governmental structure, with his own superiority secured. Part of the Nazi apparatus included a large group called the Sturmabteilung(SA) (Storm Troopers), who by 1934 had become very strong. Concerned that their leader, Ernst Röhm, might challenge him, Hitler had Röhm assassinated in what was known as 'The Night of the Long Knives'. The 4.5 million members of the SA then came fully under Hitler's control. This was the kind of method Hitler was prepared to use to maintain his absolute power as Führer (leader) of the Third Reich.
The SS, SD and Gestapo
As early as 1924, Hitler had as bodyguards a dedicated protection squad known as the SS (Schutzstaffel). Following the crushing of the SA, the SS came to play a key role in enforcing Hitler's objectives. The SS, along with the SD − the Security Service or Sicherheitsdienst − maintained tight control within the Reich, and later in its occupied territories. Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler had control of the activities of the SS and Secret Police, known as the Gestapo. It was by ensuring that these secret services were motivated, loyal and indoctrinated in Nazi ideology that the SS were able to enforce the laws and terror of Nazi Germany so effectively.
Nazi ideology, with racial purity as its central theme, was extended into every aspect and level of society. Schoolbooks were rewritten and teachers took an oath of loyalty to Adolf Hitler. The 'racial sciences' exalted the Germans as the master race and Jews as the epitome of evil. All institutions of society became functionaries of the regime. The Church, the judicial system, the education system, science and the arts were all controlled and utilised to influence and maintain the newly imposed order.
The treatment of the Jews in Germany became significantly worse as the Nazis began to pass more and more laws to restrict Jewish life. Books were burned, shops boycotted and acts of violence against Jews encouraged.
In 1935, Germany’s Jewish population was moved outside the protection of German law. The Nuremberg laws were passed which deprived Jews of German citizenship. They could no longer vote and were banned from marrying or having a sexual relationship with non-Jews. The isolation of the Jewish population was now sanctioned by law. Over the next few years, the restrictions increased. Jews could not vote, Jewish students were removed from schools and universities, travel restrictions were imposed, Jewish street names were replaced and all Jews had to add either Israel or Sarah to their name. Prejudice was now given the protection of the law.
Hitler realised how important it was for the next generation to be taught National Socialism from an early age. Membership of the Hitler Youth organisations became compulsory in 1936. German youth was educated 'in the spirit of National Socialism' − a mixture of entertainment, sport and propaganda. On the surface, it was an enjoyable organisation to be part of if you were young, energetic and considered racially pure. Jewish young people could not join because it was a national racist organisation. Its message, behind the enjoyment, was to ensure loyalty to the Führer (Hitler) and knowledge of National Socialist ideas.
For many Germans, the benefits of National Socialism were quite clear. The rearmament and road-building programmes were improving the economy and people felt a greater sense of national pride and self sufficiency. An extensive propaganda campaign offered a bright and prosperous future and restored a sense of national direction that Germans had not felt in over a generation. Most Germans, therefore, saw Hitler as doing something good for Germany, rather than creating something dangerous for the world as a whole.
In 1938, the situation worsened for Germany’s Jewish population. In Paris, a minor diplomat, Ernst von Rath, was shot by a young Polish Jew, Herschel Grynszpan. He was angry at the forced deportation of his parents from Germany and felt he had “no other way of expressing himself”.
Two days later, on 9 November, Josef Goebbels, leader of the Nazi party’s propaganda unit, used the incident as an excuse to organise a nationwide riot against the Jews. As a retaliation of Von Roth death, synagogues were burned, shops looted and destroyed, homes attacked and over 30,000 Jews arrested and sent to concentration camps. This night of mayhem and murder was given the name Kristallnacht, Night of the Broken Glass, because of the amount of glass that filled the streets the following day. The Jewish community was then fined for the damage that had been caused − over one billion Reichmarks were to be paid to the Nazi Government. Violence against Jews was now sanctioned, if not actively encouraged, in German society.
The Road to War − A Gathering Storm
Three days after becoming Chancellor, Hitler addressed his top generals and admirals, outlining his rearmament intentions in direct defiance of the Versailles Treaty. This was the beginning of a catalogue of treaty violations that over the next six years led Europe down the road to war.
In 1935, the people of the Saarland − under French control since the Treaty − voted decisively to return to Germany. Britain’s policy towards Germany at this time was one of appeasement, giving concessions to keep the peace. In 1935, Britain signed the Anglo-German Naval Agreement, which relaxed armament restrictions on Germany. The policy of appeasement, it is now understood, allowed Hitler more time to ready himself for war.
In 1936, Hitler marched into the land west of the River Rhine. The Allies, avoiding conflict and overestimating Hitler’s military strength at the time, did nothing.
In March 1938, Hitler marched into Austria and was welcomed as a hero. This was known as the Anschluss, the annexation of Austria. The secret police rounded up anyone who resisted. In a referendum following the Anschluss, 99% of Austrians voted to unite with Germany. The Allies made only verbal protests.
Hitler also put pressure on Czechoslovakia in 1938, with the concurrence of Britain and France, who were hoping that his expansion into German-populated areas of Czechosovakia-Sudentenland would be the end of his plans to take over the rest of Europe. Hitler, however, wanted Lebensraum, living space, and it was Poland he looked to in order to obtain this. Hitler realized that if he invaded Poland, he would have to fight Russia. In 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union made an agreement to divide Poland between them. The Pact gave Hitler the assurance that he would not have to fight the Russians as well as the British and French, who had pledged to come to Poland’s aid if she were attacked. For the Russian leader, Stalin, it gave time to build up his own war capability.
When German troops invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, the British and French gave Hitler an ultimatum: withdraw or face war. The ultimatum was ignored and at 11am on 3 September, Britain and France declared war on Germany. Ill-equipped for war, Poland fell to the Nazis after three weeks of fighting. The outbreak of war in 1939 meant that Jewish isolation in Germany was now total.
The entire Jewish population of Europe was now under threat. There were other people whom Hitler considered ‘subhuman’ for example all Poles. Thousands were sent to camps and transported to Germany to be used as slave labour in German industries. In November 1939, the round-up of Poland’s Jews began. They were forced into walled ghettos. In the ghettos, conditions were horrendous; people were living on starvation rations and thousands died from hunger, disease and cold. The Nazis set up Jewish Councils to run the ghettos, to organize collections of money and provide slave labour. If the Council did not carry out Nazi orders, its members were simply arrested and shot.
By the summer of 1940, Hitler had occupied most of Europe and many countries were allied with Germany – Hungary, Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria. Denmark and Norway fell under Nazi occupation and, in the spring of 1941, Yugoslavia, Greece and North Africa were added to the list of occupied countries. The Jewish population of an entire continent was at the mercy of Nazi rule. Antisemitism was encouraged and flourished, aided by Nazi propaganda.
Hitler then set his sights east, to the Soviet Union. In June 1941, the German army invaded Russia, quickly followed by the Einsatzgruppen, killing squads with the specific purpose of killing all Jewish people in the Soviet Union. Within a few days of the invasion, over two million men, women and children had been slaughtered by the Einsatzgruppen. The deaths of Russian prisoners of war doubled the death toll. Hitler had expected the invasion of Russia to be complete within six months, but after the initial onslaught the Germans were slowed by the Russian winter.
On the other side of the world, another event, the bombing of Pearl Harbour by the Japanese in 1941, followed closely by a German declaration of war with the United States, strengthened the Allies against the Nazis. However, on a day-to-day basis, Jewish life under Nazi occupation was to take a far more murderous turn. It was decided that the mass shootings were too inefficient and Heinrich Himmler, who was in charge of the Einsatzgruppen, ordered that a more effective way must be found to kill Europe’s remaining Jewish population. Reinhard Heydreich was put in charge of finding a solution to the ‘Jewish Question’.
In their attempt to find a solution to this ‘Jewish Question’, the Nazis took extreme measures. Their racial policies took priority over everything. First they had tried to isolate the Jews from society and force them to emigrate. When this had failed, they decided on what they termed the Endlösung, the ‘Final Solution’ of the Jewish Question. This meant total annihilation of the Jews of Europe. Every man, woman and child was to be murdered.
No one knows when the decision was made to destroy all the Jews, but when the ghettos were established, Heydrich, chief of Reich security, described them as ‘one step towards the final aim’. Certainly by the middle of 1941, preparations were being made for the implementation of this catastrophic policy.
A conference about the ‘Final Solution’ took place at Wannsee, a suburb of Berlin, in January 1942. Its purpose was to inform government officials of their role in the destruction of the Jews. Their aim was to kill all 11 million Jews throughout Europe, including the 330,000 living in England.
Lists of Europe’s Jewish populations were drawn up and ways of disposing of the remaining Jews discussed. It was decided that the Jews would be worked to death and the remainder dealt with in extermination camps. Camps had already been set up all over Europe, as well as ghettos, and these would now become extermination centres. The railways of Europe would be put to use to transport millions of Jews to these centres and their deaths.
Eichmann was put in charge of rounding of the Jews and finding an ‘efficient’ way of killing them, and in the camp at Auschwitz poison gas had been tried. This was the method that was decided upon. Giant gas chambers were built that could hold up to 2,000 people, and crematoria that could dispose of the bodies were brought into operation. Other extermination camps were established at Belzec, Chelmno, Majdanek, Sobibor and Treblinka. Mauthausen and Ravensbrück were also established largely with the same deadly purpose – to murder the Jews.
The ghettos of Europe were gradually sealed off and the mass deportation of their populations began. The Nazis used the promise of resettlement and food to ensure that Jews cooperated with the round-ups. Anyone who tried to avoid it was simply shot. The journey in cattle trucks to the camps was horrendous and thousands died on the way, having been forced into wagons that were jammed full of people, with no food or water. For some, the journey lasted many days.
The Nazis developed a system of camps in order to enforce their rule of terror, first of all in Germany. They repeated this in the other countries of Europe that they occupied. But there were different camps for different functions. The first concentration camp to be built was at Dachau, near Munich, in March 1933. Communists, Socialists and trade unionists were sent here − anyone who opposed the Nazis.
By nearly the end of the war, Auschwitz had become the major death cam. In the later stages of its operation, trains passed through here from all over Europe to the ‘ramp’, where the deportees were unloaded ready for the ‘selection’.
Upon arrival at the camps, the people were subject to ‘selections’. Those fit to work survived this initial selection, but the elderly, women with babies, children and the sick were invariably sent directly to the gas chambers.
After the selections, those destined for the gas chambers were stripped of all their clothing and belongings, women and men had their heads and body hair shaved and they were herded into chambers that looked like showers. The doors were sealed behind them and the gas released into the air. Many died immediately and all were dead within minutes. Once all those inside the chamber were dead, special units of Jewish inmates, the Sonderkommandos, had to empty the chamber and throw the corpses into pits or load them into the crematoria. Bodies were searched for valuables, gold teeth removed and then the bodies were burned. For the Nazis, murder was also an opportunity to profit from the bodies of the innocent victims.
In the camps, the prisoners’ priority was survival, and it was often not just determination to survive but luck which ensured that some survived. Starvation rations were the norm and often the cold and hunger resulted in the deaths that many had avoided in the gas chamber selections. Those who had been selected to work were given a number, which was sewn onto their clothing or tattooed on their arm. Regular selections ensured that those who become too weak or ill to work were sent to the gas chambers. The will to live and survive was vital.
In some camps, Jews and Gypsies were subjected to medical experiments. The victims of these experiments were treated with unbelievable cruelty and suffering as Nazi doctors carried out their ‘research’.
In labour camps, most inmates were used for slave labour. There was a policy of ‘death through work’. Even though this work may have been useful for the German war effort, the inmates’ lives were expendable as far as the Nazis were concerned. When they could no longer perform useful work, they would be taken to the gas chambers after one of the many ‘selections’ took place.
As well as the maintenance work, road building and quarrying that the prisoners were made to do for the SS, many large German companies also made use of their labour. The inmates were frequently marched out of the camps, through towns to private factories. Some of the industries were vast, such as the multimillion pound consortium IG Farben, which established a rubber works near Auschwitz.
While the 'Final Solution' meant that all Jews were victims, not all victims were Jews. A wide range of victim groups suffered under the Nazis, and millions were killed. These included anyone who did not fit in with the Nazis' idea of 'racial' superiority, or was opposed to them. Communists, Soviet prisoners of War, Jehovah's Witnesses, Poles (particularly intellectuals), members of the Resistance, the Roma and Sinti peoples (Gypsies) and Homosexuals were all interned in concentration camps, where slave labour, brutal conditions and the violence of the guards meant that life expectancy would rarely be more than a few months.
T-4 Programme and Disabled Victims
Those who were considered not to fit in with the Nazi ideal of racial purity, such as Gypsies and homosexuals, were liable to be forcibly sterilized. Under the Sterilization Law of 1934, it is estimated that 300,000-400,000 people were sterilized, along with 500 teenagers of mixed African and German parentage.
The mentally ill and handicapped were also systematically killed in the name of ‘mercy killing’ or euthanasia. From 1939 onwards, patients in mental asylums and other institutions were killed in secrecy in an operation called "Operation T4”. The code-name referred to the postal address of the programme’s headquarters.
Patients were sent by bus to killing centres in Germany and Austria, mostly in former psychiatric hospitals, castles, and a former prison — at Hartheim, Sonnenstein, Grafeneck, Bernburg, Hadamar and Brandenburg.
Lethal injections were used at first, but by 1940 carbon monoxide gas was in use. Experimental gassings had taken place at Brandenburg Prison in 1939, using chambers that became the model later for the extermination camps in occupied Poland.
In total, from 1939-1945, 200,000-250,000 mentally and physically handicapped people were murdered in these ‘euthanasia’ programmes.
These Euthanasia programmes were carried out in secret and eventually aroused a great deal of opposition form the German population and Roman Catholic Church. As a consequence it was officially closed down though it seemed to have continued in part and T-4 personnel were largely transferred to Auschwitz.
By the spring of 1944, the Allies were winning the war against Germany, but this did not mean that the murder of the Jews ended. In fact, it became even more intense and in April 1944, the Jews of Hungary were rounded up and deported to the camps with ruthless efficiency.
As the Allies advanced on Germany, leading Nazis gave the order to get rid of the evidence of what had happened in the camps by destroying the gas chambers and crematoria. Prisoners from the camps were taken on death marches deeper into German-occupied territory. For many, this would be their last journey because they died en route from starvation, cold and exhaustion. There was virtually no food and no shelter. As a result of this mistreatment, prisoners fell by the roadside and were either left to die, or were shot by the SS guards escorting them.
In March 1945, the Russians liberated Auschwitz and were horrified by what they found. As each camp was liberated by the Americans and British, the murderous activities that had happened behind the gates became very clear.
The Pain of Survival
In the days after liberation, many survivors died from disease and because their bodies could not take the food that was now freely offered to them. Most survivors had lost everything and everyone who was close to them. For all, the future was uncertain.
With German surrender on 7 May 1945, the Allies faced the dilemma of what to do with those who had committed these horrendous crimes. Was Germany as a whole to blame? Or was it only the Nazis? Should they only punish the leaders? How were the guilty to be punished? Eventually, it was decided that leading Nazis would be put on trial in Nuremberg for crimes against humanity. Of the 24 leading Nazis who were tried, 12 were sentenced to death, 3 to life imprisonment, 4 to prison terms of varying times and 3 were acquitted. In the liberated countries, many more local trials took place of those who had taken part in running the camps and murdering innocent victims. Sometimes survivors turned on the guards themselves and exacted their own justice. The issue of responsibility is still debated and has to be acknowledged. Ultimately, humanity is responsible for what happened and must now ensure that such outrages do not happen again. It is everyone’s responsibility.
It is always difficult to understand what motivated Germans and their collaborators to do such things. It remains a dilemma to know whether they specifically hated Jews and wanted to kill them, or whether they were ordinary people caught up in the evil of the Nazi regime.
If they were just ordinary men and women, the question today is whether we would behave in a similar way in similar circumstances.
Little could be done to stop the advance of the German army or halt the terror campaign. However, there were Jews who took the initiative, through a number of means, to resist the Nazi intent to destroy them en masse.
Sometimes ghetto fighters took on the Nazis in a number of ghettos, including Warsaw, Bialystok and Vilnius. In Warsaw, the Jews held out for several weeks. Partisans based in Eastern Europe waged a guerrilla war in the forests of Belarus and Lithuania. Sabotage, strikes and propaganda campaigns were waged underground wherever possible. Hiding places were created by families, and many people attempted to escape into the forests.
But at all times even a determination to stay alive and to survive constituted a form of resistance.
The Courage to Care
During the Holocaust, many millions of individuals were murdered because of who they were. Sadly, few were rescued from their impending fate. There were, however, a relatively small number of non-Jewish people who recognised what was happening to the Jews of Europe and were prepared to risk their lives in order to try and save others, or oppose the Nazi regime.
Thousands of rescuers are remembered along the Avenue of the Righteous at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem. Some saved thousands of lives by helping people escape; others hid a smaller number, a family or an individual.
In June 1942, 6,000 Jews were taken and shot dead in woodland near the town of Tarnow in Poland. Among them were 800 children. If you go there today, there is peaceful woodland, where green grass covers their mass graves. Few people know who is buried in these woods, and few really care. No one knows who those children were: they have no names, no faces and no one to remember them. Who can remember what they were like, what personalities they had, what were their hopes and dreams? The memory of those 800 children is lost forever. Like all the 1,500,000 children killed by the Nazis, their lives are no more than figures on a page.
Remembering the Past
Still today, survivors of the Holocaust write, talk and bear witness to the destruction of the European Jews. Through their stories, the memory of those communities lives on and we learn about them. Soon, survivors will no longer be able to tell their stories. Then, the 800 children from Tarnow, along with almost six million other victims, will only have us to remember them. That is partly why learning about their experiences should be a reminder to us in the future.