The history of the Holocaust is a complicated topic about which many volumes were written. What is clear, however, is that it took many years to plan and implement the darkest period in Jewish history.
Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel, an award-winning novelist, journalist and human-rights activist, wrote:
“Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed.”
As we approach Holocaust Memorial Day, we remember the slaughter of six million innocent Jews, of whom 1.5 million were merely children, during the darkest hour in human history. These six million Jewish lives represented two-thirds of the European Jewish community and one-third of the world Jewish population at the time. Six million Jews being murdered is the equivalent of all Jews in Israel or in the United States being slaughtered within a period of twelve years! Indeed, the Holocaust was the worst genocide recorded in human history, yet even this is a gross understatement, for no words can accurately describe the magnitude of the horrors experienced by the Jewish people during the history of the Holocaust and the trauma passed on to the children and grandchildren of the survivors.
History of the Holocaust Began Before WW2
The history of the Holocaust – as with all major events – began many years before the Shoah happened. At first, the Nazis prepared the ground for genocide by enacting a series of restrictive legislation against the Jewish people, which resulted in stripping Jews of their human dignity and citizenship rights while educating the populations under their control that Jews were subhuman creatures who did not deserve to live. Der Strumer, the weekly Nazi tabloid, frequently proclaimed, “The Jews are our misfortune,” and published dehumanizing cartoons comparing Jews to satanic figures. The educational system similarly taught children to hate Jews, and many young children joined the Hitler Youth movement, which further reinforced Nazi propaganda.
Anne Frank described the Nazi era as follows:
“Our freedom was severely restricted by a series of anti-Jewish decrees: Jews were required to wear a yellow star; Jews were required to turn in their bicycles; Jews were forbidden to use street cars; Jews were forbidden to ride in cars, even their own; Jews were required to do their shopping between 3 and 5 PM; Jews were required to frequent only Jewish-owned barbershops and beauty parlors; Jews were forbidden to be out on the streets between 8 PM and 6 AM; Jews were forbidden to go to theaters, movies, or any other forms of entertainment; Jews were forbidden to use swimming pools.”
Yet what Anne Frank described was only the beginning. Soon after, Jews were forced into ghettos, where the conditions were even worse. Shimon Srebrnik, a survivor of the Lodz Ghetto, said: “We got a loaf of bread and 20 grams of coffee. You couldn’t live on that. That’s why people collapsed in the streets and died. Died, died, died! Many died in the ghettos< !”
Tola Walach Meltzer, another survivor of the Lodz Ghetto, described the horrible fate of a neighbor:
“A family with a girl named Hanechka lived on my street. She was very sick. She had tuberculosis. She was all skin, bones and eyes. I loved her very much and I paid her a visit. Before I left, her mother told me that she asks for nothing, she doesn’t ask for food, she doesn’t cry, and she asked every one who came to kiss her. Every one kissed her and then she died.”
In addition to the lack of food, the sanitary conditions within the ghetto combined with the exhaustion caused by being forced to engage in slave labor caused many to perish. This does not even include the cases where the Nazis murdered Jews for resisting their oppression, breaking ghetto rules in order to enhance their chances of survival, or just to be cruel.
However, as horrific as the ghettos were, the concentration camps made survival virtually impossible. Indeed, the concentration camps were designed specifically to kill Jews. Countless Jews were gassed to death upon arrival, while others were utilized brutally for slave labor until they too perished after suffering unspeakable horrors. Within the camps, the Jews who were selected to live were not only robbed of their belongings and slowly worked to death; they were also cruelly tortured. Nazi doctors conducted medical experiments on Jewish bodies without anesthesia and numerous Jewish women were sterilized. Despite Nazis racial laws, countless women were also violently raped by the Nazis, which is another type of physical torture that Jewish women endured during the Holocaust.
Most of the Jews who entered these camps did not walk out alive. As late award-winning Italian-Jewish novelist and Holocaust survivor Primo Levy had written:
“You who live safely; In your warm houses; You who find warm food; And friendly faces when you return home. Consider if this is a man; Who works in mud; Who knows no peace; Who fights for a crust of bread; Who dies by a yes or no. Consider if this is a woman; Without hair, Without name; Without the strength to remember, Empty are her eyes, cold her womb, Like a frog in winter. Never forget that this has happened. Remember these words. Engrave them in your hearts, when at home or in the street, when lying down, when getting up. Repeat them to your children.”
By Rachel Avraham
Click below to watch Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, former Chief Rabbi of Israel, discuss the history of the Holocaust.