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Holocaust FAQs

April 7, 2013 | by Marnie Winston-Macauley

Everything you need to know from the beginning to the end.

Q: When and what was the Holocaust?

A: The Holocaust refers to Adolf Hitler's systematic plan to perform genocide on non-Aryans and "undesirables" in order to purify the Germanic "race." The Holocaust (in Hebrew, "Shoah," a biblical term meaning "destruction") spanned a 12-year period starting when Hitler came to power in January 1933, until liberation by the Allies on May 8, 1945 (V.E. Day).

Its effect, however, is enduring. The Holocaust showed the depths that humanity can descend, the power of evil to rule the world, and the degree of hatred that exists against Jews.

For years it was thought that 11 million humans were murdered, among them 6 million Jews – representing two-thirds of European Jewry. In March 2013, researchers at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum released documentation proving that the atrocities and death toll were actually far larger; in fact between 15-20 million died or were imprisoned by the Nazis.

Q: In targeting Jews for destruction, how did the Nazis define "Jewish"?

A: Anyone with one Jewish grandparent was considered “Jewish.” Those of Jewish descent could be spared only if their grandparents had converted to Christianity before January 18, 1871 (the founding of the German Empire).

Q: What happened to Jews in the early days of the Holocaust?

A: Hitler progressively eliminated Jews. First up were the 935 Nuremberg Laws which stripped Jews of their German citizenship and most of their civil rights; making marriage between Jews and Germans illegal.

Q: What was Kristallnacht?

A: This "Night of Broken Glass" occurred on November 9, 1938, when Nazis brutalized Jewish communities throughout Germany and Austria. They looted and destroyed Jewish businesses, hospitals, schools, cemeteries, and more than 1,000 synagogues. In the aftermath, 96 Jews were murdered, and 30,000 were arrested.

Q: Why did the Jews not defend themselves?

A: In November 1938, Germany made it illegal for Jews to carry firearms or other weapons. Initially people did not grasp that it would keep getting worse and worse. Plus it is nearly impossible to fight when outnumbered 1000-1 by heavily armed and trained troops.

The Jews did fight back on many occasions. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (see below) was the most famous. At the Treblinka camp in 1943, prisoners attacked Nazi guards with guns and grenades, killing several and interrupting extermination operations for a month. That same year an uprising took place at the Sobibor extermination camp, where Jewish inmates killed German SS officers, forcing the Nazis to close the camp. And in 1944, female inmates at Auschwitz used explosives to partially destroy one of the crematoria. Furthermore, Jewish partisan groups operated in many countries, working to sabotage Nazi war efforts.

Q: What were the ghettos?

A: Jews were forced into enclosed areas called “ghettos,” where they were deprived of their liberty and the tools of survival. During the Holocaust, there were 1,150 Jewish ghettos. The largest was the Warsaw Ghetto, established in November 1940, populated by 400,000 Jews. Over 100,000 died in the ghetto due to starvation, disease, or killed wantonly by Nazis. In a two-month period in 1942, over 250,000 residents of the Warsaw Ghetto were deported to the Treblinka extermination camp.

Q: What was the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising?

A: On January 18, 1943, the Germans entered the Warsaw Ghetto. Within a few hours, 600 Jews were shot and another 5,000 rounded up. In a remarkable feat of courage, the Jews met the Nazis with armed resistance, under the leadership of Mordechai Anielewicz. The final battle started on the eve of Passover 1943, when several thousand Nazi troops blew up the ghetto buildings, murdering or sending over 56,000 people to death camps. As their command post was surrounded, Anielewicz and many of his group committed suicide. In a final blow, the Great Synagogue of Warsaw was decimated on May 16, 1943.

Q: What were the Nazis' initial killing methods?
Jews were tortured and shot indiscriminately. The largest mass shooting took place in September 1941, when thousands Jews in Kiev, Ukraine, were forced to the edge of the Babi Yar Ravine, where they were shot and thrown into the chasm. It took the Nazis two days to murder 33,000 Jews.

Q: How did the Nazis gain the cooperation of the average European citizens?

A: Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels created a large propaganda machine to dehumanize Jews and justify their annihilation. "The Eternal Jew" was a 1940 Nazi pseudo-documentary film that portrayed Jews as genetically inferior cultural parasites.

The Final Solution

Q: What is meant by "The Final Solution"?

A: The euphemistic "Final Solution" was Nazi Germany's plan to annihilate all European Jews. The chief architect was Heinrich Himmler, who, with 14 high-ranking Nazis in attendance, designed the plan during the Wannsee Conference on January 20, 1942. Massacres had occurred prior, but the Final Solution led to the deadliest, systematic slaughter: through mobile killing vans, extermination camps, gas chambers, and crematoria.

Q: What were mobile killing vans?

A: Called Einsatzgruppen ("task forces"), these trucks had exhaust pipes feeding directly into the cargo area that would be packed with 90 Jews.

Q: What were "cattle cars?"

A: Hitler's murderous scheme required mass transport to labor and death camps. The term "cattle cars" refer to the inhumane vehicles the Nazis used for deportation. Victims were crowded into these "cars" without water, food, toilets or ventilation. Many didn't survive. The longest journey was 18 days – with no survivors.

Q: What was the first concentration camp?

A: The first concentration camp was Dachau. Initially the camp imprisoned political opponents of Hitler: communists, socialists, and political Catholics. Later, it became an extermination camp for Jews.

Q: Who "policed" the camps?

A: The soldiers who worked in the camps were known as Totenkopfverbande, or "Death's Head" detachments. They wore skull-and-crossbones insignias on their uniforms.

Q: Were there different types of camps?

A: There were several types of concentration camps: transit camps, POW camps, detention camps and, in Nazi-occupied Poland, death camps.

Auschwitz-Birkenau consisted of a concentration camp, a death camp and a slave labor camp. Comprising 19 square miles, it was the largest and most organized death complex in human history. It opened in June 1940 and by the war’s end five years later, over 1.25 million had been murdered and thousands sterilized by radiation.

Treblinka was a death camp where people came off the cars and were immediately slaughtered and burned in mass pits. Almost 900,000 Jews were killed by a staff of only 150. There were less than 100 known survivors.

Also in Poland were the Chelmno and Majdanek slave labor camps, and the Sobibor and Belzec death camps. Of the million Jews who were sent to Belzec in 1942, only two survived. The rest were murdered by a staff of 12 SS men and some Ukrainian helpers.

Q: What was the “selection” at the death camps?

A: At the entrance to each death camp, there was a process of selection (Selektion in German). An SS officer, frequently a doctor (in Auschwitz, this was the infamous Doctor of Death, Josef Mengele), made this call based on age, and health. Pregnant women, children, the elderly, the handicapped and those who appeared unfit for hard labor were sent to the "left" – targeted for instant murder. Those chosen for slave labor were sent to the "right."

Q: What was life like in the camps for the slave laborers?

They were totally dehumanized. Their hair was shorn (and used to make thread, socks, mattress stuffing, and rope). All their personal possessions were confiscated. They had to wear striped garb and ill-fitting shoes. Each was tattooed with a registration number. More, they learned of the murderous fate of their loved ones… those who were sent to the "left."

They slept on wooden bunks in cramped barracks, stacked like cordwood. Three prisoners slept side by side, and when one wanted to turn, they all had to turn. Toilets were an overflowing bucket.

Each morning, they would be assembled, standing for hours in extreme weather conditions for roll call. They were then marched to their work detail of hard labor, followed by another roll call.

Food was usually some watery horse-meat soup, and a small piece of bread. Starvation was a never-ending form of torture.

Q: What were the Nazi "medical" experiments in the camps?

A: As prisoners arrived, Nazi doctors would choose those for "experimentation." People who were physically different – for example, twins and dwarfs – were earmarked. At Auschwitz, the two most notorious doctors were Dr. Carl Clauberg and Dr. Josef Mengele. Clauberg focused on finding bizarre ways to sterilize women. Mengele experimented on identical twins, to find a secret to cloning the “perfect Aryan."

At some camps, prisoners were exposed to high altitudes, freezing temperatures and extreme atmospheric pressure to test their reactions and ostensibly provide “research” for German soldiers. Prisoners were also purposely infected with hepatitis, tuberculosis and malaria. Victims of these inhuman experiments were almost always murdered and dissected. Adults were left deformed, and medically mutilated.

Q: What was the role of the infamous gas chambers?

A: Gas chambers were the Nazi’s chosen method of industrializing the death camps. The first mass gassing of Jews took place in the Chelmno camp. In order to avoid rebellion, the Jews were tricked into entering the gas chambers, which appeared as "showers." Prisoners were told these were "disinfecting rooms," and greeted by signs that said: "Cleanliness brings freedom!"

Once the victims were crammed inside, the doors were bolted closed, and pellets of a powerful insecticide called Zyklon B were put into the vents, releasing poison gas. Victims died a torturous death. It took 20 minutes to kill all those in the chamber; the chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau could kill 6,000 people in 24 hours.

After gassing, laborers would "examine" each body and plunder those with gold teeth. The bodies were then brought to fiery hot crematoria for final disposal.

Q: What was the death total at these concentration camps?

A: Auschwitz-Birkenau – 2,000,000. Belzec – 600,000. Bergen-Belsen – 70,000. Buchenwald – 56,000. Chelmno – 340,000. Dachau – 30,000. Flossenburg – 30,000. Majdanek – 1,380,000. Mauthausen – 95,000. Ravensbruck -90,000. Sachsenhausen – 100,000. Sobibor – 250,000. Treblinka – 900,000.

Humanity’s Response to the Holocaust

Q: What of the claim that many German citizens "did not know” about the Holocaust as it was happening?

A: When Nazi Germany became a genocidal state dedicated to exterminating Jews, every major institution was involved. Churches provided the birth records of Jews. Jewish property was seized by the Finance Ministry. Universities became centers of research on efficient murder. Government transport bureaus supplied the "cattle cars" to the camps. The vastness of these most unspeakable crimes means that no one can claim being "an innocent bystander."

Virtually every Eastern European citizen witnessed their neighbors being hauled away, rounded up into ghettos, and forced into cattle cars or on a long death march. Millions of citizens witnessed crematoria smoke stacks, mass graves, shootings and torture. They all share responsibility for allowing the brutality to continue by feigning ignorance.

Q: What was the role of big business in the Holocaust?

A: German corporations such as BMW, Daimler-Benz (Mercedes-Benz), Messerschmitt, and Krupp used slave labor. A German chemical conglomerate, I.G. Farben, invested millions of Reich marks to build a petrochemical plant at Auschwitz III, staffed by human slaves.

American companies also participated in fueling the death machine. For example, IBM provided precision technology to facilitate Nazi genocide by tabulating census data with special "computer" punch cards. With such information readily accessible – including family trees, address changes and personal data – the door was shut on Jews who had hoped to hide from Nazi claws. Every Nazi concentration camp also maintained a system of IBM punch cards to keep tabs on inmates.

Q: Did the rest of the world step in to help the Jews during the Holocaust?

A: For Jews attempting to flee the Holocaust, astonishingly, most of the world had no "room" for them. As far back as 1938, a conference consisting of 32 countries met in France to discuss the "refugee" crises. Nothing concrete was adopted, and Jews were left to languish, locked in by the Nazi death machine.

Q: What was the United States policy toward Jewish refugees?

A: The U.S. did not pursue a specific rescue policy for Jewish victims of Nazi Germany until 1944. Reasons included financial uncertainty, xenophobia, and anti-Semitic attitudes on the part of the public and major government officials. In 1944, FDR bowed to pressure from some government insiders and American Jews, establishing the War Refugee Board which rescued thousands of European Jews. He also designated that Fort Ontario, New York, become a free port for refugees. However, only a few thousand refugees were allowed to enter, and only from liberated, not from Nazi-occupied areas.

Q: Did U.S. policy change after the war?

A: Unlike FDR, President Truman favored a liberal immigration policy toward refugees, issuing the "Truman Directive" on December 22, 1945, allowing more refugees to enter. Yet the numbers remained small: 23,000, two-thirds of whom were Jews. Due to intense lobbying by American Jews, in 1948 Congress passed legislation to admit 400,000 refugees, but only 20 percent were Jewish as entry favored agricultural laborers, mostly Christians. President Truman considered the law "flagrantly discriminatory against Jews." It was amended in 1950, but by that time most Jewish survivors had gone to the newly-established State of Israel. By 1952, 137,450 Jewish refugees had settled in the U.S.

Q: What was the response of American Jewry to the Holocaust as it was happening?

A: As documented in the book, The Deafening Silence: American Jewish Leaders and the Holocaust, the mainstream American Jewish leadership shockingly worked to deny the entry of Jewish refugees into America. Led by Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, they feared that Jewish immigration would provoke anti-Semitic backlash. Some American Jews, notably Peter Bergson, worked feverishly to save Jews, in contrast to the intransigence of the mainstream Jewish leadership.

Q: What was the role of the American media to the Holocaust as it was happening?

A: As documented in the book, Buried by the Times, the American media largely ignored the Holocaust. The New York Times – the newspaper of record – implemented an editorial policy that minimized and diluted history's worst genocide. This was due primarily to the assimilationist outlook of the Times' Jewish owner, Arthur Sulzberger, who for political and personal reasons did not want his paper characterized as "Jewish."

For example, as the genocide of Hungarian Jewry hit full stride, with 400,000 Jews murdered and another 350,000 to be exterminated within weeks, the Times posted the news as a small item on page 12. Of more than 17,000 Times editorials during the war, only five mentioned Europe's Jews. By defining the Holocaust as a non-story for the national media, the Times made it impossible for others to galvanize the public or politicians to save Hitler's Jewish victims. Other media took the cue; BBC records show explicit orders not to report on the Holocaust.

Q: What was the response of other nations to the Holocaust as it was happening?

A: Great Britain claimed they had no room to accept Jewish refugees. Australia said: "We don't have a racial problem, and we don't want to import one." Canada said of the Jewish refugees: "None is too many."

Holland and Denmark offered a few refugees temporary asylum. Only the Dominican Republic offered to take in 100,000 Jews, but due to the overwhelming situation only a relative handful of Jews made it there.

At War's End

Q: As the war wound down, how did the Nazis deal with the camps?

A: In late 1944, the Nazis became trapped between the Soviets in the east, and Britain and the U.S. in the west. Knowing that defeat was inevitable, the Nazis tried to destroy evidence of the Holocaust. The SS let prisoners starve, shot many who survived, or evacuated them on long death marches in an attempt to move them into Germany. At Auschwitz, Himmler ordered the crematoria destroyed and human remains thrown into pits, then covered with grass.

Q: What were the death marches?

A: Between the Fall 1944 and Spring 1945, hundreds of thousands of camp prisoners were subject to forced evacuations. After already being brutalized, starved and diseased, they were marched for miles in the freezing cold without water, food or shelter. Those who couldn't keep pace were routinely executed on the spot, as described in Elie Wiesel’s haunting book, Night. An estimated 100,000 Jews died during these "death marches."

Q: Who were some of the major architects of the Holocaust, and what happened to them at the end of the war?

A: Joseph Goebbels, Nazi minister of propaganda, was with his family in Hitler's underground bunker during the final week of the war. On May 1, 1945, Goebbels' wife poisoned her six children, then she and Joseph Goebbels committed suicide.

Heinrich Himmler, chief architect of the concentration camps, was captured by the British at the end of the war, but committed suicide before he could be brought to trial.

Adolf Eichmann, director of the Final Solution, escaped from Europe. In 1960, with the aid of Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal, the Israeli secret service captured Eichmann in Argentina and secretly brought him to Israel for trial (1961). He was hanged in 1962 for crimes against humanity.

Hermann Goering, commander of the Luftwaffe (German air force), had a rabid ambition to control the German economy. Not only did he plunder Jewish businesses, but personally stole major art works. He committed suicide the night before his execution.

Martin Bormann, head of the Party Chancellery (Parteikanzlei) and private secretary to Hitler, advocated extremely harsh, radical treatment of Jews and passed along Hitler's orders for Jewish extermination. He disappeared after the war and his fate was shrouded in mystery and supposition. In 1973 forensic experts established "with near certainty" that a skeleton unearthed during construction in West Berlin was that of Bormann.

Adolph Hitler and his wife Eva Braun committed suicide in their bunker, 55 feet under the Hitler's chancellery on April 30, 1945. Per his instructions, their bodies were wrapped in blankets and carried up into the Chancellery garden where they were burned.

Liberation and Trials

Q: Who were among the first to liberate the death camps and what was their reaction?

A: Disbelief. On July 23, 1944, when Soviet soldiers liberated the death camp, Majdanek, most of the world initially refused to believe the reports of the atrocities they found. When General Eisenhower learned of the Ohrdruf concentration camp (a subcamp of Buchenwald), he ordered every American soldier nearby to visit the camp, so they should know "what they were fighting against." After the war, many German citizens were forced to view the bodies at the concentrations camps. Eisenhower ordered every citizen of the German town of Gotha to tour the Ohrdruf concentration camp. After the town's mayor and his wife did so, they went home and hanged themselves.

Q: What were the Nuremberg Trials?

A: In August 1945, the Allied powers created the International War Crimes Tribunal to prosecute prominent members of the political, military and economic leadership of Nazi Germany. The trials were held at the Palace of Justice in the city of Nuremberg, in Bavaria, Germany. Presiding Judges were from the U.S., Great Britain, the Soviet Union and France. This was the first time in history that individuals from a nation at war were held accountable for crimes against humanity.

The first and best known, the Trial of the Major War Criminals before the International Military Tribunal (IMT), put 20 top Nazi leaders on trial, including Hermann Goering. Specific charges included the murder of over 6 million Jews, pursuing an aggressive war, the brutality of the concentration camps, and the use of slave labor.

A second set of trials of lesser war criminals included the Doctors' Trial and the Judges' Trial.

Q: What were the results of the Nuremberg Trials?

A: The verdicts were announced on October 1, 1946. Eighteen of the defendants were found guilty, three were acquitted. Eleven of the guilty were sentenced to death by hanging, the remainder received prison sentences ranging from 10 years to life.

Most of the defendants proclaimed innocence, declaring they were "just following orders." They also questioned the authority of the court to pass judgment. Dr. G.M. Gilbert, a prison psychologist monitoring the defendants’ behavior, observed:

Hermann Goering said that he had naturally expected the death penalty, and was glad that he had not gotten a life sentence, because those who are sentenced to life imprisonment never become martyrs. But there wasn't any of the old confident bravado in his voice. Goering seemed to realize, at last, that there is nothing funny about death, when you're the one who is going to die.

Joachim von Ribbentrop, foreign Minister of Nazi Germany, “wandered in, aghast, and started to walk around the cell in a daze, whispering, 'Death! Death! Now I won't be able to write my beautiful memoirs. Tsk! Tsk! So much hatred! Tsk! tsk!' Then he sat down, a completely broken man, and stared into space..."

Albert Speer, Hitler's friend, architect, and Nazi minister responsible for the use of slave labor in armaments production, was one of the very few who expressed repentance and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Speer laughed nervously: “Twenty years. Well, that's fair enough… I said the sentences must be severe, and I admitted my share of the guilt, so it would be ridiculous if I complained about the punishment."

Q: What happened to Germany in the wake of the Holocaust?

A: Western powers engaged in de-militarizing Germany and ridding it of Nazi symbols. Not only were 3.4 million former Nazis sentenced, but racial and other oppressive laws were eliminated, and Nazi organizations disbanded. Konrad Adenauer, German Chancellor from 1949-63, acknowledged guilt for the Holocaust and agreed to pay damages to individual survivors. In 1954 the West German government paid $6 million in pensions. By 1961, the total was about $100 million. By agreement, reparations were not meant to either lessen German guilt or "repay" Jews for the torment of the Holocaust.

Q: Apart from the Nuremberg Trials, what other actions were taken to bring the Nazis to justice?

A: Following the war, many activists were determined to find Nazis in hiding and bring them to justice. Many had been given asylum in South America. The most famous Nazi hunter was Simon Wiesenthal, a survivor who, with the help of various governments, located over one thousand war criminals, including Adolf Eichmann, the administrator of the slaughter of the Jews, and Franz Murer, the “Butcher of Vilna." Wiesenthal died at age 96, saying that he goes to his grave with two unsolved cases nagging him – that of Gestapo chief Heinrich Müller, and Alois Brunner, inventor of the mobile gas chambers who went on to become an advisor to the Syrian government.

Altogether, 5,000 Nazi war criminals were executed, and 10,000 imprisoned between 1945 and 1985.

From the Ashes

Q: Once the world knew the extent of the Holocaust, what actions were taken to ensure this will never happen again?

A: After the Holocaust, the U.N. formed the Commission of Human Rights in June 1946. In December 1948, the Commission approved two historic agreements: the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Today, with Iranian leaders threatening nuclear annihilation of the state of Israel, many are calling for their arrest and trial for incitement to genocide.

Q: How did the Holocaust influence the founding of the State of Israel?

A: The Holocaust gave new urgency to the Jewish quest for a homeland. As survivors found a home in Israel, within a few short years, they were again fighting for their survival. But this time it was in freedom – to carry the banner of "Never again!” and insure freedom for Jews everywhere.

Q: How is the Holocaust memorialized today in Israel?

A: In 1953, Yad Vashem became Israel's official memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. The name "Yad Vashem" conveys the idea of a national depository for the names of Jewish victims who have no one to carry their name after death, as it says in the biblical book of Isaiah 56:5: "In My house and walls I will give them a place and a name (yad vashem)… that will never be terminated."

Yad Vashem is located on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, and contains a Children's Memorial, Hall of Remembrance, a synagogue, archives, research institute, publishing house and School for Holocaust Studies. Yad Vashem also honors non-Jews who saved Jews during the Holocaust, as trees are planted for the “righteous among the nations.”

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