The Holocaust was the systematic, bureaucratic, state-sponsored persecution and annihilation of approximately six million Jews in Europe by the Nazi regime and its collaborators.
“Holocaust” (“Shoah”) is a word of Greek origin meaning “sacrifice by fire.” 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.
While the Nazi persecution of the Jews began in 1933, the mass murder was committed during World War II. It took the Germans and their accomplices four and a half years to murder six million Jews. They were at their most efficient from April to November 1942 – 250 days in which they murdered some two and a half million Jews. They never showed any restraint, they slowed down only when they began to run out of Jews to kill, and they only stopped when the Allies defeated them.
There was no escape. The murderers were not content with destroying the communities; they also traced each hidden Jew and hunted down each fugitive.
The crime of being a Jew was so great, that every single one had to be put to death – the men, the women, the children, the committed, the disinterested, the apostates, the healthy and creative, the sickly and the lazy – all were meant to suffer and die, with no reprieve, no hope, no possible amnesty, nor chance for alleviation
The methods of murder were the same in all the killing centers, which were operated by the S.S. The victims arrived in railroad freight cars and passenger trains, mostly from ghettos and camps in occupied Poland, but also from almost every other eastern and western European country.
On arrival, men were separated from women and children. Prisoners were forced to undress and hand over all valuables. They were then driven naked into the gas chambers, which were disguised as shower rooms, and either carbon monoxide or Zyklon B (a form of crystalline prussic acid, also used as an insecticide in some camps) was used to asphyxiate them.
The minority selected for forced labor was, after initial quarantine, vulnerable to malnutrition, exposure, epidemics, medical experiments, and brutality; many perished as a result.
The Germans carried out their systematic murderous activities with the active help of local collaborators in many countries and the acquiescence or indifference of millions of bystanders.
However, there were instances of organized resistance. Individuals in many countries risked their lives to save Jews and other individuals subject to Nazi persecution. These people later became “Righteous among the Nations” and honored by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust institute and memorial in Jerusalem. One of the most famous was Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat who led the rescue effort which saved the lives of tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews in 1944.
Resistance movements existed in almost every concentration camp and ghetto of Europe. Jewish resistance in the Warsaw Ghetto led to a courageous uprising in April-May, 1943, despite a predictable doomed outcome because of superior German force. In general, rescue or aid to Holocaust victims was not a priority of resistance organizations whose principal goal was to fight the war against the Germans. Nonetheless, such groups and Jewish partisans (resistance fighters) sometimes cooperated with each other to save Jews.
Most of the Jews of Europe were dead by 1945. A civilization that had flourished for almost 2,000 years was no more.