By Elliot Lefkovitz
The Holocaust or Shoah (Hebrew for catastrophe) was the genocide perpetrated by the German Nazis and their collaborators against the Jews of Europe from 1933-1945. It resulted in the loss of two thirds of European Jewry, six million innocent human lives, each a unique individual. The Holocaust has been increasingly recognized as a seminal historical event that has left an indelible scar on the collective consciousness and conscience of Western civilization. It has been the subject of more scholarly scrutiny than any other genocide due in part to the vast amount of documentation concerning it, gleaned from both its perpetrators and its victims.
The intellectual and social psychological foundations of the Holocaust were laid by centuries of Christian anti-Semitic prejudice and persecution and then by the emergence of so-called "racial science" in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which posited that the Jews were the root of all evil. The Holocaust itself proceeded in stages, beginning with Hitler and the Nazis’ rise to power on January 30, 1933. The racist ideology behind the Holocaust was paranoid and irrational, yet it was carried out with the utmost rationality beginning with the "cold pogrom", the persecution of the Jews through discriminatory legislation. The Nuremberg laws (1935) promulgated a biologically based definition of a Jew, made German Jews second-class citizens and outlawed marriage and sexual relations between Jews and "Aryans".
The ongoing expropriation of Jewish property reached its zenith in the wake of the Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass) pogroms in November of 1938. Kristallnacht witnessed the desecration and destruction of several hundred synagogues and the incarceration of 30,000 Jewish males in concentration camps. The first of these was Dachau, which had been established in March 1933. It became the model camp for the Nazi camp kingdom of death that was eventually established throughout Europe. A number of historians view Kristallnacht as the actual beginning of the Holocaust.
Once the Nazis launched World War II with their attack on Poland on September 1, 1939, they created Jewish ghettos there and then in other conquered lands. Each ghetto had its own Judenrat or Jewish council. These councils became tools of the SS, the instrument of Nazi genocide. Many council members were terrorized into submission, but others behaved honorably and courageously, doing everything possible to save their people. The ghettos themselves became death traps where tens of thousands perished due to disease, slave labor and malnutrition — but various forms of Jewish resistance also became manifest in them.
Outright extermination began with the German invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 194l. The Nazis falsely believed the USSR was run by "Jewish Bolsheviks" and populated by "racially subhuman elements." Einsatzgruppen, mobile SS killing squads, murdered one and a half million Jews in eastern Poland, Belorussia, Ukraine, and Russia. The greatest massacre occurred in the ravine of Babi Yar, outside of Kiev, where 33,700 Jews were murdered on September 29 and 30, l941.
From the very outset of their rule, the Nazis pursued a policy of Jewish forced emigration. But Chaim Weizmann, who became the first president of the State of Israel, noted, "The world was divided into two camps. One which wanted the Jews out and the other which did not want to let them in." This reluctance to admit Jewish refugees helped confirm the Nazis' hateful views of the Jews. However, with increasing numbers of Jews falling under their control, the Nazis had to find other solutions to what they referred to as the "Jewish question." In addition, the outright killing of unarmed men, women and children proved psychologically difficult, even for some members of the Einsatzgruppen.
Therefore, some time during the second half of 1941, the Nazi leadership decided on the "final solution" to the problem of European Jewry. It was announced to key Nazi functionaries at the infamous Wannsee Conference on January 22, 1942. The remaining Jews of Europe were to be deported to killing centers where they would be robbed of all they had and murdered in specially constructed gas chambers. Their bodies would then be incinerated in crematoria. This was to be done under the cover of war and with the utmost secrecy. A chillingly euphemistic vocabulary, such as "resettlement in the east," was developed to hide the Nazis' true intentions. The death factories they Nazis constructed illustrate the ultimate abuse of science and technology.
Some able-bodied Jews were not murdered immediately. They were subject to "death through labor" where they were systematically dehumanized in a hell-on-earth of pain and atrocity. The largest of the camps was Auschwitz, a combination extermination and slave labor camp where more than one million Jews and seventy thousand Poles met their deaths. Nazi Lieutenant Colonel Adolf Eichmann and his cohorts coordinated the round up and deportation of Jews to this and other camps from all over Nazi-occupied Europe. Primo Levi, in his classic work, Survival in Auschwitz, wrote, "A large heavy guard prowling outside the barracks snatched [an icicle] from me. 'Why', I asked him in my poor German. He replied, 'Here there is no why.'"
The peak years of Jewish annihilation were 1942 and 1943. However, more than a half million Hungarian Jews perished in 1944 following the Nazi invasion of that country. Even with defeat becoming increasingly evident, the slaughter continued. Though Hitler and the Nazis knew they would lose the wider war, they were determined to win their war against the Jews. The genocide came to an end only with the surrender of Nazi Germany on May 8, 1945.
The Holocaust involved perpetrators and collaborators, some of whom were ideologues, criminals and sadists, but many of whom were, in the words of political theorist and author Hannah Arendt, "terribly and terrifyingly normal." They were part of a vast bureaucracy of death. They demonstrated how easily many individuals can ignore the dictates of conscience. The bureaucracy of death included the elites of a modern industrialized society: attorneys, judges, engineers, bankers, journalists and physicians. The latter conducted hideous medical experiments in the name of racial eugenics.
The victims of the Holocaust often could not imagine the unimaginable and were not aware of fate that awaited them. Deceived, abandoned and powerless, they faced with tragic "choiceless choices" and lost everything: their homes, their families, their innocence, their identities and their lives. The Nazis were demonically obsessed with the need to destroy every Jew. In the words of Elie Wiesel, "Not all the victims were Jews, but every Jew was a victim."
Bystanders included the Allied nations, most of those in the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church and in the Protestant churches, and countries who pursued neutrality. There were Jewish resisters who engaged in spiritual, moral and physical resistance in ghettos, camps and forests — and a small number of rescuers, immune to the infections of evil and indifference. They heeded the admonition of the English poet John Donne who said, "Therefore send not to know for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee." Then there were the Allied liberators of the concentration camps at the end of the war who freed the skeletal survivors.
The survivors had to live with "a violated self," but most nevertheless went on to rebuild their lives and bear witness to what had befallen them. A number of survivors were able to reach British-controlled Palestine through the clandestine Aliyah Bet (prohibited immigration) immediately after the war. Some fought in the Israeli War of Independence in 1948 and gave their lives to help found a Jewish state dedicated to preventing a second Holocaust.
The Holocaust cannot be discussed without considering the some five million non-Jewish victims of the Nazis. These included the Nazis' political opponents, as well as Jehovah's Witnesses, male homosexuals and the physically and mentally handicapped who were considered by the Nazis "life unworthy of life" and were murdered in a "euthanasia" program. Those who carried out these "mercy killings" went on to take part in the Nazi genocide against the Jews.
Other victims included the Gypsies (the Roma and Sinti) many of whom were also ghettoized and deported to camps. The Nazis also murdered some two million Poles and several million Soviet prisoners of war, all of whom were viewed as "racially inferior," fit only to be enslaved by the "master race" and unworthy of any humane treatment.
The victims of the Holocaust must be remembered, for if their memory is forgotten, they will perish a second time. But the Holocaust was not simply a Jewish tragedy — it was a human tragedy. The Holocaust resonates with themes of hatred, brutality and loss, but it contains universal lessons as well. It undermines easy optimism about human nature and human progress. It bids us to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, the guarantor of our liberties and, to paraphrase Elie Wiesel, it impels us to try to save one person, to never allow the enemy to ask questions or to supply the answers, to fight evil right away for it won’t pass without a struggle, and to never allow ourselves to become perpetrators or victims or bystanders. Above all, it cries out to us to love our neighbors as ourselves.