What does the term "Holocaust" mean?
The Holocaust was the systematic persecution and murder of approximately six million Jews by the Nazi regime and its collaborators between 1933 and 1945. The Nazis, who came to power in Germany in January 1933, believed that Germans were "racially superior" and that the Jews, deemed "inferior," were an alien threat to the so-called German racial community. Gypsies, people with mental and physical disabilities, and Poles were also targeted for destruction or decimation for racial, ethnic, or national reasons.
What does "Final Solution" refer to?
The term "Final Solution" refers to Germany's plan to murder all the Jews of Europe. The term was used at the Wannsee Conference, which took place in Berlin on January 20, 1942, where German officials discussed its implementation. The Nazis used the term "Final Solution" to conceal the plan that, in its entirety, called for the murder of all European Jews by shooting, gassing and other means. Approximately six million Jewish men, women, and children (1.5 million children) were killed during the Holocaust -- two-thirds of the Jews living in Europe before World War II.
How many Jews were killed in the Holocaust?
Between five and six million Jews - out of a Jewish population of nine million living in Europe - were killed during the Holocaust. It is impossible to know exactly how many people died as the deaths were comprised of thousands of different events over a period of more than four years. About half of the Jewish victims died in concentration camps or death camps such as Auschwitz. The other half died when Nazi soldiers marched into many large and small towns in Germany, Poland, the Soviet Union and other areas and murdered people by the dozens or by the hundreds.
What is the evidence that so many Jews were killed by the Nazis?
The numerous pieces of evidence proving that between five and six million Jews were killed by the Nazis include:
Records on the number of people sent to the larger death camps, which were built and used primarily for Jews;
Demographic studies of the number of Jews in Europe before and after the war;
Progress reports from Nazi commanders of death camps and from organized killing squads in the conquered territories;
Post-war testimonies by Nazi leaders and commanders
More recent evidence that has come to light, for example, as a result of excavation of mass graves of Jewish victims in the Ukraine.
Nazi leaders made numerous references to the extermination of Jews, including:
Diary of Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's propaganda chief (Lochner, The Goebbels Diaries, 1948, pp. 86, 147-148):
February 14, 1942: The Führer once again expressed his determination to clean up the Jews in Europe pitilessly. There must be no squeamish sentimentalism about it. The Jews have deserved the catastrophe that has now overtaken them. Their destruction will go hand in hand with the destruction of our enemies. We must hasten this process with cold ruthlessness.
March 27, 1942: The procedure is a pretty barbaric one and not to be described here more definitely. Not much will remain of the Jews. On the whole it can be said that about 60 per cent of them will have to be liquidated whereas only 40 per cent can be used for forced labor.
SS Chief Heinrich Himmler's speech at Posen on October 4, 1943, which was captured on audiotape (Trial of the Major War Criminals, 1948, Vol. XXIX, p. 145):
I refer now to the evacuation of the Jews, the extermination of the Jewish people. This is one of those things that is easily said: "the Jewish people are being exterminated," says every Party member, "quite true, it's part of our plans, the elimination of the Jews, extermination, we're doing it."
Why did the Nazis single out the Jews - among all their "enemies" - for extermination?
Hitler started a world war to achieve his dream of world domination. The war left behind an estimated 72 million dead, among them 47 million civilians, of whom some six million were Jewish. Jews were the targets of the Holocaust because Hitler hated Jews and blamed them for all of the problems in the world. He was brought up in Vienna, where Jews played a prominent role in the city's political and cultural life. He especially blamed them for Germany's loss of World War I. Hitler told the German people that they could have won the first war, if Germany had not been "stabbed in the back" by the Jews and their conspirators.
Hitler's hatred of Jews was so profound that several of his biographers have called it an obsession. Albert Speer, who was a close confidante to Hitler, wrote in 1977:
The hatred of the Jews was Hitler's driving force and central point, perhaps even the only element that moved him. The German people, German greatness, the Reich, all that meant nothing to him in the final analysis. Thus, the closing sentence of his Testament sought to commit us Germans to a merciless hatred of the Jews after the apocalyptic downfall.
I was present in the Reichstag session of January 30, 1939 when Hitler guaranteed that, in the event of another war, the Jews, not the Germans, would be exterminated. This sentence was said with such certainty that I would never have doubted his intent of carrying through with it.
Did ordinary Germans know about the persecution of Jews while it was happening?
In the 1930s, Nazi persecution of Jews and other opponents were common knowledge in Germany. News reels in cinemas around the world at the time showed footage of attacks on Jews, their properties and synagogues in Germany during Kristallnacht (The Night of the Broken Glass). But the Nazis tried to keep the extermination of Jews and their other genocidal acts a secret. While ordinary Germans knew that the Jews had been deported to the east, large segments of the German population were unaware that they were being murdered.
Did the people of occupied Europe know what the Germans were doing to Jews at the time?
The attitude of the local population vis-a-vis the persecution and destruction of the Jews ranged from zealous collaboration with the Nazis to indifference to active assistance to Jews. Thus, it is difficult to make generalizations. The situation also varied from country to country. In Eastern Europe and especially in Poland, Russia, Romania and the Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania), there was much more knowledge of the "Final Solution" because it was implemented in those areas with the participation of part of the local population. In Western Europe, the local population had less information on the details of the "Final Solution." It must be mentioned that in every country in Europe, there were courageous individuals who risked their lives to save Jews. In several countries, there were groups which aided Jews, e.g. Joop Westerweel's group in the Netherlands, Zegota in Poland, and the Assisi underground in Italy and inhabitants of the French village Le Chambon-sur-Lignon.
Who are "Righteous Among the Nations"?
"Righteous Among the Nations" refers to those non-Jews who on their own initiative often put their lives at risk to aid Jews during the Holocaust. There were "Righteous Among the Nations" in every country overrun or allied with the Nazis, and their deeds often led to the rescue of Jewish lives. Yad Vashem, the Israeli national remembrance authority for the Holocaust, bestows special honors upon these individuals. To date, after carefully evaluating each case, Yad Vashem has recognized approximately 10,000 "Righteous Gentiles" in three different categories of recognition. Seventy Muslims have been recognized to-date as "Righteous Among the Nations".
Could anything have done to stop the genocide of the Jews?
The response of the Allies to the persecution and destruction of European Jewry was inadequate and the strongest moral voice - that of the Pope - was silent. On December 17, 1942, the Allies issued a condemnation of Nazi atrocities against the Jews, but this was the only such declaration made prior to 1944. Moreover, no attempt was made to call upon the local population in Europe to refrain from assisting the Nazis in their systematic murder of the Jews. It has been suggested that the Allies could have bombed the death camp at Auschwitz to slow down the Nazi murder machine. But it is unlikely that any such measures could have stopped, or even significantly slowed down, the genocide of the Jews.
Why do the Jews regard the Holocaust as unique, while so many human beings have lost their lives in other catastrophes throughout history?
It is morally unjustifiable to rank human suffering in order to diminish the horror of "lesser" forms of human suffering. Every catastrophe or act of genocide has its similarities and differences with other catastrophes and genocides. But historians emphasize that the Holocaust was unique, because it was (and remains) the only time in history when one nation - ranking itself among the league of so-called civilized nations - tried to systematically murder every man, woman, and child of a certain ethnic or religious minority as a political goal, seeking to find and destroy them everywhere, from the bustling metropolitan centers of Europe to remote Greek islands. The Nazis created a complete bureaucratic apparatus to accomplish their goal.