Holocaust of Jews

Jewish Holocaust, the extermination of Jewish people in Europe, executed by Nazi Germany 1939–45, in the English language referred to as the Holocaust, among J. — Shoah (Hebrew: HaShoah).

The persecution of J. in Germany, announced by A. Hitler in Mein Kampf (1925), began as soon as he took over the power: antisemitism was incited, pogroms were organized and Jewish shops were boycotted; J. were removed from public offices (1933), they were deprived of the citizen rights (Nuremberg Laws, 1935), their property was seized and additional pecuniary contributions were imposed on them, they were not allowed to practice most professions and to study at schools of higher education. Attempts were made to force them to emigrate; however, being destitute, they had nowhere to go to; at the conference in Evian-les-Bains (VII 1938) devoted to that issue, 31 states of Europe and America, as well as Australia, refused to accept Jewish refugees; only the United States determined minimum annual limits of immigrants; in spite of the difficulties, from among 540 thousand German J. (1933) by the outbreak of World War II, over 200 thousand had emigrated; at night on 27/28 October 1938, Germans deported to the eastern border strip about 17 thousand J. from the families with Polish citizenship; about 6 thousand of them were interned by the Polish authorities in Zbąszyń, a town located near the border. The culmination of the violence in the thirties was the pogrom called Kristallnacht on 9–10 XI 1938: at that time, 191 synagogues and most Jewish shops in Germany and Austria were destroyed; about 30 thousand people were sent to concentration camps. In January 1939 Hitler declared before the Reichstag that a potential world war will result in the annihilation of the Jewish “race” in Europe.

In the 30s, antisemitic attitudes intensified also in Central and Eastern Europe, including Poland; 1938 in Italy, Hungary and Romania the citizen rights of J. were significantly restricted. From the German invasion in Poland, the persecution of J. in occupied territories began: mass displacement and executions (7 thousand J. were killed until the end of 1939), burning synagogues, desecrating objects of cult etc.; the occupied Polish territories became the area of the anti-Jewish ordinances, which were most severe in Europe and introduced the earliest; contributions were imposed on J., their freedom of movement was restricted, they were deprived of any property and removed from all enterprises; from autumn 1939, they were forced to wear bands with the Star of David. In the Third Reich, wearing those bands was ordered as late as from autumn 1941, in occupied western Europe — from spring 1942. The limitations of citizen rights and of the economic activity, introduced there by Germans at the turn of 1941 and 1942 (in France by the government of Vichy in autumn 1940) were less severe.

From November 1939, the Judenräte – Jewish Councils began to be established in Polish cities, which, in theory, were a form of local government, but in fact the function of those institutions was to enforce German orders; apart from that, ghettos began to be established from autumn 1939; initially, they were set up in Poland only (about 400), whilst from 1941 - also in Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine and one in Czech (in Terezín); smaller ghettos were gradually incorporated into larger ones; as a result of the dramatic conditions — small space, hunger, cold, uncured diseases and epidemics — the mortality rate in many of them increased sharply; the attempts to leave ghettos were punished by death by Germans.

In order to “solve the question” of German and Austrian J., 1939–41 Germans were planning to set up a reservation, first in the area of Lublin, then on Madagascar and, finally, in Siberia; those plans, however, were soon abandoned. From autumn 1941, some of the German and Austrian J. were deported to the ghettos in Warsaw, Łódź, Riga, Kaunas and Minsk. Over 400 forced labor camps were set up for J. (in some of them, over 50% of the prisoners lost their lives).

As a result of the conquests in the years 1940–41, Germany and its satellites controlled about 7.8 million J. living in the countries from the Atlantic Ocean to the Volga River and from Norway to Greece; about 38% of that figure were Polish J. (about 3 mln). The German invasion on the USSR (June 1941) became another turning point in the history of European J. — the beginning of their extermination; by the end of 1941, the Wehrmacht and special Einsatzgruppen had murdered about 500 thousand J. in the occupied territories (most of them in Vilnius and Kiev — 33 thousand in each of the locations and in Odessa — 25 thousand); at the same time, works were carried out on the “final solution to the Jewish question” (German: Endlösung). In December 1941 in the extermination camp in Chełmno, exhaust gas was used for the first time to kill J.

In January 1942, at the conference in Wannsee convened by R. Heydrich, the operational principles concerning further actions were determined; their coordination in western Europe and Hungary was managed by A. Eichmann, whilst in GG — O. Globocnik (Reinhard Aktion). Germans set up the extermination centers only in the territory of occupied Poland, which reduced the transport burden; the extermination was also facilitated there through the strongest apparatus of coercion of all occupied countries and nearly a complete liquidation of the Polish administration; cutting Poland off the West made it possible to keep the secret. In February and May 1942, the extermination camps in Bełżec and Sobibór were established, whilst in July — in Treblinka; in each of them, the number victims reached 6–8 thousand a day. In spring 1942, the extermination camps in the area of Brzezinka (Auschwitz) were established, whilst in autumn 1942 - in the territory of Majdanek; in the first place, Polish J. were brought to extermination camps — from Łódź, Lublin and Cracow; in the summer 1942, there was a large-scale deportation operation from the Warsaw Ghetto — over 300 thousand J. were sent to Treblinka and killed immediately.

The deportations were carried out in an extremely violent manner, involving beating, separating families, killing elderly and sick people. Apart from that, the centres of exterminations 1942–44 were the places of mass murder of J. brought from Germany, Austria and all occupied countries, particularly from Belgium, France, Holland, Norway, Czech and Greece; the less severe occupational system did not save them from Endlösung. Among the allied and satellite countries, Italy and Hungary opposed the extermination of J.; they gave in after the occupation of their territories by the German army. (1943 and 1944); Slovakia cooperated in the Holocaust. The extermination of J. was opposed by Bulgaria until the end of the operation and, in its final stage, also Romania, in spite of the fact that both those countries had previously agreed to the extermination of Jews in the territories of Yugoslavia, Greece and the USSR. About 4 million European J. were killed in the extermination centers; the operation comprised all Jews and people of the Jewish origin (to the third generation); it covered adults, elderly people and children, people from all social classes, including scientists, writers and artists; their death meant tremendous losses for the European, particularly Polish culture.

In spite of the terrible conditions in ghettos, there was civil resistance in many of them (social care and underground education was organized, underground press was published); similar activities were also undertaken by certain J. circles in Western Europe; in the face of the Holocaust, that movement was sometimes transformed into armed resistance; in a dozen ghettos, the resistance of groups of Jewish youth developed; 1943 in Warsaw (the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising) and Białystok (the Białystok Ghetto) it took a form of uprisings with several hundred fighters. There were revolts of prisoners in Treblinka and Sobibór (1943) and in Auschwitz (1944). In different countries, J. joined local resistance movements or formed their own underground forces. Sheltering and helping J. was dangerous and difficult, depending to a significant degree on their integration with local communities, on the intensification of antisemitism, as well as on the scale of Nazi terror towards local people; in occupied Poland and in the occupied territories of the USSR, those who helped J. (and their families) were threatened with death penalty; in Poland, at least 800 people lost their lives for helping J.; both individuals and certain underground organizations (the Council for Aid to Jews) tried to save persecuted J.

In total, the Nazi murdered about 6 million European J.; proportionally, J. bore the lowest losses in allied, collaborating  countries or the countries subject to less severe occupational regime, particularly if they constituted a low percentage of the population (among others, in Bulgaria, Finland, Denmark, the percentage of victims was below 1%, in Italy — about 17%, in France — 22%); In Germany and Austria, there were less than 30% of the victims among the population (mainly due to the large-scale emigration); J. bore the most severe losses in the occupied territories of the USSR (about 99%) and Poland (about 89%).


  • M.M. Marrus, Holocaust. Historiografia [The Historiography of Holocaust] , Warsaw 1993;
  • T. Prekerowa, Wojna i okupacja [War and Occupation], in: Najnowsze dzieje Żydów w Polsce [Contemporary History of Jews in Poland] , J. Tomaszewski (ed.) Warsaw 1993;
  • F. Tych, Długi cień Zagłady. Szkice historyczne [The Long Shadow of the Holocaust. Historical Essays] , Warsaw 1999;
  • M.C. Steinlauf, Pamięć nieprzyswojona. Polska pamięć Zagłady [Bondage to the Dead: Poland and the Memory of the Holocaust], Warsaw 2001;
  • L. Rees, Auschwitz. Naziści i „ostateczne rozwiązanie” [Auschwitz Nazis and Final Solution], Warsaw 2005.
  • Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, I. Gutman (ed.), vol. 1–4, New York 1990;
  • L. Yahil, The Holocaust. The Fate of European Jewry, 1932–1945 , New York 1990.

Teresa Prekerowa

The content of this entry has been prepared on the basis of the source materials provided by the Polish Scientific Publishers (PWN)

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