The Holocaust is a part of history that was only briefly covered in my classrooms over the years, but I had not had the opportunity to learn about it in depth. I wanted to know more than what the regular school curriculum offered, and to learn about it first-hand through online sources, books, and points of view from survivors. I wanted to learn why it started and survivors experiences. I decided this was a history topic I wanted to cover during my year of being homeschooled. I had the opportunity to read books written by survivors who had unique stories, as well research the history of World War II.
A New Leader Emerges in Germany
In the early 1930’s a worldwide economic depression had hit Germany. Many people were left without jobs and were struggling to find work. This opened up a chance for a new leader to rise to power and Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist German Workers’ Party (Nazis) saw the opportunity. Hitler promised a new and better life for everyone and this was very appealing, especially to the unemployed, young people, and members of the lower middle class. In January of 1933 Hitler was appointed chancellor, the head of the German government, and the Germans really believed he was going to save their nation and help them. Hitler came to power in a very short period of time due to society’s dissatisfaction with the weak government after World War I.
Under Hitler’s rule the Nazi party grew into a big movement and ruled in Germany through totalitarian means for 12 years. The Nazi party worked on promoting German pride and anti-semitism as well as making propaganda. There had been conflicts between Christianity and Judaism for years which created an anti-semitic atmosphere throughout Europe, including where Hitler spent part of his childhood. He grew up in Vienna, Austria, where anti-semitism was highly advocated. Hitler and the Nazis also believed in superiority of the Aryan (German) race and that Jews were inferior to them, as well as homosexuals, gypsies, and disabled or special needs people. He felt he would be doing the world a big favor by extinguishing them. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, Hermann Goring who was the Prussian minister at the time got rid of the political espionage from the Prussian police and filled their ranks with thousands of Nazis and recognized them under his command as the Gestapo. The Gestapo (short for Staatspolizei) were the political police of Nazi Germany.
New Rules under Hitler
In 1935 and 1936 Hitler started depriving Jews of their German citizenship and doctors were no longer allowed to practice in government institutions. Also in these years the first gypsies were arrested and deported to concentration camps. However, Hitler was smart about hiding this from the rest of the world. In 1936 The Olympic Games were hosted in Berlin and all Anti-Jewish propaganda and signs were taken down until after the games. After the Olympic Games were over he continued to strip Jews of their rights and freedoms. Soon after “non-aryans” were not allowed to be educated at public schools and Jewish teachers were banned. By 1938 Jews could only go on public streets on certain days, could not drive or have cars, and had to sell their businesses and real estate. Eventually they were forced to live in ghettos. These were marked off sections of towns or cities created by the Nazis that turned into Jewish residential quarters. Over the next few years there were at least 1,000 ghettos created with the one in Warsaw, the Polish capital, being the largest with half a million jews within 1.3 square miles. Most of the ghettos were made in the most run down parts of cities and were enclosed by barbed wire fences or walls and were guarded by police and SS members (Schutzstaffel “protection squadron”). Residents were forced to stay inside at night and in the winter the nights got very cold considering there was no heat due to the lack of basic electrical infrastructure. Along with having no heat there was no sanitation system. People threw garbage and human waste in the streets. This caused the ghettos to be very dirty and sicknesses and diseases spread rapidly. There was also a major lack of food. Nazis decided that Jews in the Warsaw ghetto could survive off of 300 calories per day. The only food they were allowed to purchase were small portions of bread and potatoes and some residents had things they could trade for food which they had to smuggle into the ghetto. Due to all of these living conditions, tens of thousands died in ghettos.
Within a week of Hitler invading Poland, a man named Oskar Schindler arrived in Krakow which became the central location of government for Nazi occupied Poland. He wanted to help the Jews, but he had to do it subtly. He purchased a bankrupt kitchenware factory and opened it with the intention to look and employ the Jewish community. He succeeded in employing them but he was ordered to pay his Jewish employees’ wages to the SS. His workers were pretty much safe until the Nazis relocated the Jews from Krakow to labor camps. Just when the train was about to transport all of them, Schindler ran to the train station and argued with the SS about how he needed his workers. After tipping them he was able to rescue his workers, but shortly after all Jews left in Krakow were ordered to go to Plaszow. He proposed establishing a mini labor camp within his factory and the SS officer agreed, after being bribed once again. The word was that the main camp would be closed and so would Schindler's factory. This was not going to stop him from trying to protect his Jewish workers so he approached the SS officer again and proposed moving his factory to Czechoslovakia so they could continue to supply hitler’s army and he agreed after another bribe. The officer told him to make a list of everyone he wanted to bring. He came up with a list of 1100 people including all employees of the emailia camp and other ones as well. He ended up saving their lives while at the same time he was risking his own.
After reading The Boy On The Wooden Box (2015) by Leon Leyson I gained a perspective from a young Jew living in Germany during the Holocaust. He was the youngest survivor on Schindler’s list at the age of about 7 I learned the hardships the Jews went through even at such a young age. The little boy was much younger than me when he was put to work and put in concentration camps, and this work ultimately saved his life. The living conditions were awful. Practically no food was available, starving became normal to him as well as sleeping on the floor. He had nothing, no possessions and almost no family. He was working in the same factory as his dad and brother, but he had no idea where his mom and sister ended up along with his extended family. However his boss Oskar Schindler made a list of workers he wanted to keep in his factory and the little boy always remained on that list. Schindler saved his life. Leon was extremely lucky, unlike most other Jews.
Hitler’s “Final Solution”
In 1941 the Final Solution was implemented. This was the Nazis and Hitler's plan to annihilate the Jewish race. The Germans started to destroy ghettos by deporting Jews to forced labor and extermination camps. In these camps the prisoners often did construction to expand the camps. After WWII started, new territorial conquests and potential groups of more prisoners led to the rapid expansion of the concentration camp system. These camps increasingly became sites where the SS authorities could kill targeted groups of real or perceived enemies. Another reason for concentration camps was to prevent guerilla warfare from Jews and other civilians. If the Nazis allowed the civilians to have any form of power, chances are they would rebel against them so they were put in camps before they had a chance to make a move. In the camps people died from exhaustion and starvation. Some people were just shot when an SS guard felt like it or if they were annoyed and in some camps Nazi doctors did medical experiments on prisoners. Sometimes prisoners were transferred from one camp to another and traveled in what was called a death march. A death march was a forced evacuation from a camp. A very well known one was in 1945 when the soviets approaches the Auschwitz camp complex and the SS started to evacuate its prisoners and subcamps, forcing about 60,000 prisoners to march about 30 miles west to another camp. These marches took place more often towards the end of WWII when allied armies started to close in on the concentration camps. The Germans quickly moved the prisoners out of the camps to take them to be used as forced laborers in other camps in Germany. Some prisoners were taken by train but the rest had to walk on a “death march.” The ones who were forced to march had to walk long distances in the cold without food, water, or rest and if you could not keep up you were shot. As well as shooting those who were weak, the Nazis also often killed large groups of the prisoners before, during, and after the marches.
A Holocaust survivor and a Jewish American soldier, Robert Max was captured by German troops and forced to serve as a slave laborer where he was basically forced on “death marches”. Max wrote about his experience in The Long March Home (2018), and I had the opportunity to meet him in person and listen to him speak. For 82 nights he, along with other captured soldiers, were forced to do work to repair railroads. The men were barely fed, left outside to sleep on the frozen ground with no proper shelter, clothing, heat, food, or even allowed to huddle together. Many died. He came close to dying so many times. He became very sick, emaciated and on the verge of death. He was also almost shot by several German officers. Knowing he could not survive much longer, he plotted an escape. On a march to another camp Max and a few other soldiers realized that there was a little bend in the road where the officers would not see them for several seconds so they took a risk and jumped into some bushes along the side of the road and hid for the rest of the day. After that they went to a nearby village and knocked on a random person’s door and the old couple living there risked their lives letting them in and feeding them. After Max had officially escaped he spent 10 months in the hospital recovering from all the diseases and starvation he had endured. He was unrecognizable to his family the first time they came to see him in the hospital. He is now in his late 90’s and is still in many ways more active than most people. After hearing him talk I realized he had no anger in him towards Hitler and the Nazis’ and it is amazing that he is not holding a grudge and just going on with his life and spreading awareness.
While all of this was happening you would think that other countries would try and help faster than they did, and would make more of an effort. However, most of the world outside of Europe did not know what was going on. People had heard that Jews were being mistreated but they did not know how extreme it was. In 1942 the U.S. State Department got a report sent from their Geneva-based representative of the world Jewish Congress saying that Germans were going to physically annihilate the Jews in Europe. They believed this news was a rumor and even if it was true it would be impossible to help or rescue them at all, so the State Department officials did not forward the report to the American Jewish Rabbi who was the president of the world Jewish congress. The rest of the world did not believe that this would actually happen. The Germans did such a good job hiding the genocide while it was happening that the rest of the world was fairly ignorant. As the anti-Jewish violence increased, American newspapers started to talk about German shootings by the Einsatzgruppen (paramilitary death squad of the Nazis). However the ethnic identities of the victims was not always clear. Some papers reported mass murder operations but they were unable to verify the information and very few reports included photographs. If any real proof got released to other countries they probably would have tried to help, but Hitler and the Nazis were extremely secretive. There was no internet or means of rapid, real-time communication around the world, it was more difficult to find out about these horrors. Visual evidence started to come out in American newspapers in the Final days of the war and the aftermath of the allied victory. At that point there was not much that the world could do to help, however it seems strange that nobody was really bothered by the rumors and did not do much to find out if they were true or not. The Americans did not join the war until after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941. This probably means they did not want to get involved until it directly affected them. Looking back on all of this, it is awful that nobody really tried to stop the mass murders until the very end, and so many people had already lost their lives and suffered unimaginable horrors.
Even now, in some places in the world people are being killed because of their beliefs, for example in the middle east there is violence because of extremists and their religious beliefs. A genocide is the deliberate killing of a large group of people, especially those of a particular ethnic group or nation and that is what Hitler did, and some of that is still happening in the world today among other ethnic groups. Why do humans do this to each other? After this happened one time you would think other countries or people would try and put a stop to this, but people still continue to murder people for purely ethnic reasons. It is not fair to take away the life of another because you do not agree with them in any way. This still happens and is a problem today. People need to realize that we are all human and should be independent and allowed to have our own beliefs and faith.