In 1933, approximately 9.5 million Jews lived in Europe, comprising 1.7% of the total European population. This number represented more than 60 percent of the world’s Jewish population at that time, estimated at 15.3 million. Of these, the largest Jewish community was in Poland – about 3,250,000 Jews or 9.8% of the Polish population. Germany’s approximately 565,000 Jews made up only 0.8% of its population.
Plans to murder Europe’s Jews began when forced immigration out of German territory was no longer a viable goal. In part because German territory kept expanding into areas that contained millions of Jews. The authorization for the “Final Solution” began in July 1941 and was finally ratified in January 1942.
From 1933-1945 over 44,000 camps existed across occupied Europe.
Only six camps were designated as systematic killing centers. Camps equipped with gassing facilities, for mass murder of Jews included Auschwitz-Birkenau, Belzec, Chelmno, Majdanek, Sobibor, and Treblinka. Industrial scale crematoria only existed at Auschwitz-Birkenau and only after 1943. Up to 2,700,000 Jews were murdered at these camps, as were tens of thousands of Gypsies, Soviet prisoners of war, Poles, and others.
Auschwitz was the only camp to do systematic tattooing. Those selected for immediate death were not tattooed.
While millions were murdered by gas in the 6 death camp facilities, over 1.5 million were killed in mass shooting actions. Thousands more succumbed to disease and starvation.
While Hitler was the leader of Germany during the Holocaust, the planning and execution was only made possible by the participation of millions of individuals across occupied Europe.
Although there were certainly “happy killers” the vast majority of those who perpetrated the Holocaust were ordinary citizens.
Although effective at normalizing Nazi ideals, Germany was an educated, literate society. Those within it made choices about the information they consumed what actions they took or did not take based on this messaging.
This assumption distorts the realities of European Jewry’s situation during the Holocaust and perpetuates a stereotype of “historic” Jewish “passivity” and “cowardice.”
The Holocaust presented European Jewry with an unprecedented situation for which no historical or contemporary experience could have prepared them. Previous regimes had either not targeted every Jew for annihilation or did not had the resources to implement this goal as systematically as the Nazis. Moreover, as late as mid-1942, most Jews were unaware that the “Final Solution” was even being planned: either because they had no concrete knowledge of death camps and mass murder or because, unable to believe such atrocities could take place in the 20th century, they dismissed such information as rumor and propaganda. Without allies or support networks, facing starvation and disease, responsible for parents and siblings, wives and children, they believed what they were told – that they were going to be “resettled” to work. The reality did not sink in until it was too late.
Still, many Jews respond assertively to the Germans. 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 these were a small minority, the fact that 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.”
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