The Nizkor Project: Remembering the Holocaust (Shoah)

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Five Questions About the Holocaust

1. What was the Holocaust?

The Holocaust was the state-sponsored, systematic persecution and annihilation of
European Jewry by the Nazi Germany and its collaborators between 1933 and 1945.
In 1933 approximately nine million Jews lived in the 21 countries of Europe that
would be occupied by Germany during World War II. By 1945 two out of every
three European Jews had been killed. Jews were the primary victims -- six million
were murdered; Roma (Gypsies), the handicapped and Poles were also targeted for
destruction or decimation for racial, ethnic or national reasons. Millions more,
including Soviet prisoners of war, political dissidents, homosexuals and Jehovah's
Witnesses suffered grievous oppression and death under Nazi tyranny. 

2. Who were the Nazis?

"Nazi" is a short term for the National Socialist German Workers Party, a
right-wing political party formed in 1919 primarily by unemployed German
veterans of World War I. Adolf Hitler became head of the party in 1921, and under
his leadership the party eventually became a powerful political force in German
elections by the early 1930's. The Nazi party ideology was strongly
anti-Communist, antisemitic, racist, nationalistic, imperialistic and militaristic.

In 1933, the Nazi Party assumed power in Germany and Adolph Hitler was
appointed Chancellor. He ended German democracy and severely restricted basic
rights, such as freedom of speech, press and assembly. He established a brutal
dictatorship through a reign of terror. This created an atmosphere of fear, distrust
and suspicion in which people betrayed their neighbors and which helped the Nazis
to obtain the acquiescence of social institutions such as the civil service, the
educational system, churches, the judiciary, industry, business and other professions. 

3. Why did the Nazis want to kill large numbers of innocent people?

The Nazis believed that Germans were "racially superior" and that there was a
struggle for survival between them and "inferior races." Jews, Roma (Gypsies) and
the handicapped were seen as a serious biological threat to the purity of the "German
(Aryan) Race" and therefore had to be "exterminated." The Nazis blamed the Jews
for Germany's defeat in World War I, for its economic problems and for the spread
of Communist parties throughout Europe. Slavic peoples (Poles, Russians and
others) were also considered "inferior" and destined to serve as slave labor for their
German masters. Communists, Socialists, Jehovah's Witnesses, homosexuals and
Free Masons were persecuted, imprisoned and often killed on political and
behavioral (rather than racial) grounds. Sometimes the distinction was not very
clear. Millions of Soviet Prisoners of War perished from starvation, disease and
forced labor or were killed for racial political reasons. 

4. How did the Nazis carry out their policy of genocide?

In the late 1930's the Nazis killed thousands of handicapped Germans by lethal
injection and poisonous gas. After the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June
1941, mobile killing units following in the wake of the German Army began
shooting massive numbers of Jews and Roma (Gypsies) in open fields and ravines on
the outskirts of conquered cities and towns. Eventually the Nazis created a more
secluded and organized method of killing enormous numbers of civilians -- six
extermination centers were established in occupied Poland where large-scale
murder by gas and body disposal through cremation were conducted systematically.
Victims were deported to these centers from Western Europe and from the ghettos
in Eastern Europe which the Nazis had established. In addition, millions died in the
ghettos and concentration camps as a result of forced labor, starvation, exposure,
brutality, disease and execution. 

5. How did the world respond to the Holocaust?

The United States and Great Britain as well as other nations outside Nazi Europe
received numerous press reports in the 1930s about the persecution of Jews. By 1942
the governments of the United States and Great Britain had confirmed reports about
"the Final Solution" -- Germany's intent to kill all the Jews of the Europe.
However, influenced by antisemitism and fear of a massive influx of refugees,
neither country modified their refugee policies. Their stated intention to defeat
Germany militarily took precedence over rescue efforts, and therefore no specific
attempts to stop or slow the genocide were made until mounting pressure eventually
forced the United States to undertake limited rescue efforts in 1944. 

In Europe, rampant antisemitism incited citizens of many German occupied
countries to collaborate with the Nazis in their genocidal policies. There were,
however, individuals and groups in every occupied nation who, at great personal
risk, helped hide those targeted by the Nazis. One nation, Denmark, saved most of
its Jews in a nighttime rescue operation in 1943 in which Jews were ferried in
fishing boats to safety in neutral Sweden.

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