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The Holocaust
  Jews murdered between 1 September 1939 and 8 May 1945: an estimate; map
> Click to enlarge

It is well known that six million Jews died in the vast and complex series of events that have come to be known as the Holocaust. Today, nearly 60 years after the end of the Second World War, the details, scope and significance of those events continue to astonish those who attempt to understand what happened. The Holocaust, certainly history’s most heavily documented genocide, is a focus for continuing attempts to understand issues of hatred and genocide, both in history and the present.

The Nazi government of Adolf Hitler devised a comprehensive strategy to rid Europe of its entire population of Jews, first by emigration and later by outright mass killing. They also targeted broad groups of political opponents, including Communists, and other groups they considered inferior, including Slavic peoples, the gypsies, also called Roma, disabled people and homosexuals. But European Jews, of whom two of every three perished, were their primary victims.

The foundations of the plan and the sometimes unwitting complicity of much of the civilized world, including even democratic governments and the Catholic church, are cloudier.

The harsh peace of the First World War imposed great hardships on Germany through the 1920s and 1930s, creating the foundation of discontent which Hitler and his co-conspirators were able to manipulate and exploit. They created a system of propaganda and legislation so overwhelming and pervasive that it helped to convince a cultured nation that the source of its misery was its Jewish population.

  Jews are marched through the streets of the Warsaw ghetto as it burns.
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After manipulating his way into office as German chancellor in January 1933, Hitler created a program of official antisemitism. It quickly escalated from resentment to persecution then isolation in ghettoes and finally mass murder in killing fields and death camps. Children, men and women of all ages were killed simply on the basis of their religious origin.

The Nazis created a myth of racial purity based on racist hygiene, a belief that higher genes were dominant in Aryan races such as Germans, lower genes in non-Aryan races such as Jews and Slavs. Lower genes were perceived to be a threat to society. The new concepts of this racial biology and the centuries old antisemitism in Europe laid the foundation for the Holocaust.

They portrayed Jews as lazy, arrogant, usurious and filthy criminals who undermined the purity of German culture and Aryan blood. At the same time, the Nazis also considered Jews to be powerful racial opponents with whom the Nordic races contended for world domination. At the feet of the Jews the Nazis laid the blame for unemployment, poverty and diminished stature on the world stage.

Hitler and his associates offered a brainwashed public a vision that would rescue them from the ignominy they had known since being defeated in the 1914-1918 war. Much of the nation co-operated and the rest of the world stood by as the program went into effect.

With scientific precision, the Nazis measured the Jewish populations of Germany and its European neighbours, and before the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, the elimination of German Jews was already well underway.

  Many desperate prisoners deliberately made for the fences of concentration camps, knowing they would either be shot or electrocuted.
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The Nazis first destroyed the Jewish professional and merchant classes with the Nuremberg Laws -- “purity laws” passed to enforce a complete separation between Aryans and non-Aryans, particularly Jews. This was followed by the brutal Kristallnacht of 1938, when synagogues were set on fire and Jewish businesses destroyed, leaving German city sidewalks covered with shattered glass. The Nazis established ghettoes, sealing Jews in cramped conditions where disease and starvation advanced their multiple goals of further demoralizing, weakening and reducing the population. But this was merely a preview of worse atrocities that lay ahead.

Soon after attacking Czechoslovakia and Poland, the Nazis began the transportation of tens of thousands of Jews to a network of concentration camps where they began the first phases of what they called the “final solution” to the existence of European Jewry.

Perhaps two million died outside the camps — by starvation and disease in ghettoes or at the hands of Einsatzgruppen, or mobile killing squads. The remainder died in the camps, where they were deliberately starved, worked to exhaustion, exposed to disease, subjected to torture and bizarre medical experiments and brutalized by guards. Many were shot and many more, numbering in the millions, were killed in the infamous gas chambers. The Auschwitz-Birkenau network of camps in Poland was by far the largest Nazi complex designed for efficient mass murder. There, as in other death camps, hundreds at a time were shaved, made to strip naked and ordered to sort their own belongings into piles before being forced into sealed chambers and fatally gassed. Their bodies were harvested of gold teeth and fillings before they were burned in ovens or in open fires, filling the air with the horrifying smell of their incineration.

  The concentration camps
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In the final months of the Second World War, as German defeat became inevitable, the Nazis worked desperately to complete their program of annihilation at the same time as they scrambled to obliterate evidence of their atrocities.

They deliberately blew up their gas chambers and tried to eliminate surviving witnesses before the camps were liberated and the war in Europe concluded in May 1945. But the post-war trials at Nuremberg finally and firmly established the catalogue of crimes that the world struggles to comprehend even today.

  Victims of the Holocaust who died at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany
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Perhaps incredibly, a pernicious undercurrent of denial continues to exist, powered by individuals and groups who foster the idea that the Holocaust did not happen or that it has been exaggerated. Their subversive efforts have helped to foster renewed dedication among survivors, their descendants and the public at large to educate everyone, and strive to assure that the Holocaust is neither forgotten nor repeated.

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Holocaust Collection, Centennial College Libraries.      Tel: 416.289.5000 x5410      Fax: 416.289.5228      Email: library@centennialcollege.ca