When Germany surrendered on May 8, 1945 and the genocide stopped, fully two thirds of Europe’s Jews – or one third of world Jewry – were dead. The consequences of this demographic trauma are still evident, and will continue to be felt, as world Jewry has yet to recover its pre-1939 population level.
However, it is important to understand that the Holocaust was a destruction process in which the Germans targeted for death and hunted down every person who was Jewish or whom they defined as Jewish without exception. Moreover, they persisted in this even to the detriment of their war effort. As Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel writes: “Not all victims were Jews, but all Jews were victims.” To which may be added historian Lucy Dawidowicz’s words: “Never before in modern history has one people made the killing of another the fulfillment of an ideology, in whose pursuit means were identical with ends.”
The Nazis’ attitude toward the Jews was expressed in the words of one of their popular marching songs: Wenn das Judenblut vom Messer spritzt, dann gehts nochmal so gut! (“When Jew-blood spurts from the dagger, then things will go twice as well.”) While every issue of Der Stürmer, the Nazi newspaper, carried the slogan “Die Juden sind unser umgluck.” (“The Jews are our misfortune.”)
January 30, 1933: With Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist German Worker’s Party (or “Nazi” Party) having won a large plurality in the elections of November 1932 and with no one else in a position to put together a coalition government, President Paul von Hindenburg appointed Hitler Chancellor of Germany. Within weeks, German Jews began to be systematically excluded from German life.
September 15, 1935: The Nuremberg Laws institutionalized racial antisemitism by declaring that only so-called “Aryans” were German citizens and by stripping so-called “non-Aryans” (that is, Jews) of their citizenship and civil rights. During the next three years, hundreds of additions to these laws segregated Jews from non-Jews socially and economically, depriving them of their livelihoods, possessions, and property. The Nazis even destroyed art and literature created by Jews in an effort to “purge” German culture of any so-called “degenerate influence.”
November 9 and 10, 1938: On Kristallnacht (the “Night of Broken Glass”), the Nazis burned synagogues and vandalized Jewish homes and businesses throughout Germany and Austria, beating or killing hundreds of Jews and imprisoning thousands in concentration camps. This pogrom and its aftermath made normal life impossible for the Reich’s Jews.
September 1, 1939: Germany’s invasion of Poland started World War II and led to the expansion of its anti-Jewish policies throughout Europe. Jews throughout occupied Europe would be identified and forced to wear badges to distinguish them from non-Jews. They would be forced from their homes and made to forfeit their livelihoods and property. In Poland and the western parts of the Soviet Union, which had the largest Jewish populations in Europe, Jews were imprisoned in ghettos, where terror, filth, hard labor, disease and starvation quickly decimated the population.
June 22, 1941: During the invasion of the Soviet Union, SS Einsatzgruppen (mobile shooting squads) murdered Jews in large-scale operations in the occupied territories of the Soviet Union. They murdered some 1.5 million men, women, and children, effectively destroying the Jewish communities in what was once “the Pale of Settlement” – the heart of the historic Jewish “heartland.”
January 20, 1942: After the Wannsee Conference – a secret meeting of high-ranking officials and bureaucrats convened in Berlin – ratified the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question,” Jews throughout Europe were deported by railroad to one of the six death camps in Poland: Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, Chelmno, Auschwitz II-Birkenau and Majdanek. There, they were gassed in gas chambers or gas vans and their bodies burned in crematorium ovens designed for this purpose by well-known German industrial concerns. Millions also died in slave labor and concentration camps as a result of exhaustion, exposure, starvation, brutality, disease, and execution.
Allies and Neutrals: In the 1930s, despite widespread press coverage of the persecution of German Jewry, the United States, Great Britain, and other countries, influenced by antisemitism and the fear of a flood of refugees, were unwilling to change their immigration policies. By 1942, despite confirmed reports about the “Final Solution,” they argued that defeating Germany took precedence over rescue efforts, and so they made no large-scale attempts to stop or slow the destruction process. For their part, neutral countries like Sweden and Switzerland were indifferent to the Jews’ plight either because trade with Germany was benefitting their economies or because – until 1943 – they believed Germany would win the war. And Pope Pius XII refrained from public condemnation of German policy not only because he considered communism a greater threat than Nazism, but also because he feared that speaking out would lead to German occupation and possible destruction of the Vatican.
Non-Jews in German-occupied Europe: Generally speaking, in the Third Reich and German-occupied Europe, non-Jewish response to German policy toward the Jews can be divided into five broad demographic categories or groups:
- Perpetrators, who crafted, implemented, and directly benefited from German policies.
- Collaborators, who assisted the perpetrators and also benefited from German policies.
- Resisters, who actively opposed and worked to undermine German policies.
- Rescuers, who actively sought to protect members of groups targeted by German policies – primarily Jews.
- Bystanders, who, in the words of Virginia Barnett, simply proceeded with their own lives…not completely oblivious to what was happening to their Jewish neighbors, but oddly uninvolved, as though it had nothing to do with them.
Demographically, rescuers made up the smallest group – less than .5 of 1% of occupied Europe’s total population. Resisters were a somewhat larger group and collaborators and perpetrators were larger still. However, most non-Jews in occupied Europe remained bystanders. And while the Germans could not have murdered two-thirds of European Jewry and destroyed 1500 years of Jewish community, culture and history in the space of twelve years without the active complicity of perpetrators and collaborators – thousands of them – what they really counted on was the silence of millions of bystanders. As Elie Wiesel described one such individual in The Town Beyond the Wall: He says nothing. He is there but he acts as if he were not. Worse: he acts as if the rest of us were not.
Individuals everywhere struggled to stay alive and to keep their loved ones alive. Even in the worst circumstances, they never let go of their faith, hope, values and ideals, remaining determined to bear witness for the sake of the world and future generations. They also attempted evasive or confrontational responses: jumping from trains, seeking refuge in the attics, cellars, and closets of non-Jews, or attacking their captors.
In the ghettos, they kept the community intact by running soup kitchens, hospitals, and orphanages and sponsoring cultural and educational events. Despite German prohibitions, they maintained clandestine schools, observed and transmitted the tenets of their religion, participated in political organizations, and maintained secret presses that served as the nuclei for armed response groups. They kept diaries and journals, took photographs and drew pictures, and maintained secret archives.
They organized armed revolts in ghettos, concentration camps, and even in the death camps, and formed Jewish partisan units in the forests. Although they were a small minority, the fact they existed at all is remarkable. As historian Lucy Dawidowicz concluded, after considering the overwhelming difficulties and extreme dangers of taking up arms against the Nazis: “The wonder…is not that there was so little resistance, but that, in the end, there was so much.”