There cannot be a word in the English language that conjures up more haunting – and terrifying – images. The literal meaning of ‘holocaust’ is ‘sacrifice by fire’, but with a capital letter it represents the most devastating humanitarian disaster in world history, starting when Germany’s Nazi regime embarked upon its ‘Final Solution’ in 1940. This ruthless program aimed to eliminate the entire Jewish population of Europe, which stood at nine million before the Holocaust began.
State-sponsored racism designed to isolate Germany’s Jews, appropriate their assets and drive as many as possible from the country began after the Nazi Party was elected in 1933, reaching a savage climax on Kristallnacht (the Night of Broken Glass) in 1938, when a wave of systematic anti-Jewish attacks took place across Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia’s occupied Sudetenland. With the outbreak of World War II, virulent Nazi anti-Semitism was exported to conquered territories in the east.
The Germans first established ghettos where entire Jewish populations were penned in terrible conditions. Following the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, large numbers of Jews were executed by shooting or gassing in mobile vans. But this process wasn’t speedy enough for the Nazis, who swiftly established camps like Sobibor and Treblinka in Poland as ‘death factories’ that could murder thousands of Jews every day. The deadliest such establishment was the Auschwitz complex – three camps (Auschwitz 1, Auschwitz-Birkenau and Auschwitz-Monowitz) specifically designed to work Jewish prisoners to death, or dispatch them immediately in the notorious gas chambers and dispose of bodies in crematoria that operated around the clock.
In the short space of five years, the Holocaust would claim millions of victims and reduce the Jewish population of Europe by two thirds, creating the ugliest of testaments to mankind’s unspeakable ability to impose the most brutal inhumanity on fellow human beings.
Death toll: It is generally accepted that the Holocaust claimed six million Jewish lives, while 200,000 Roma people (Gypsies) and a similar number of mentally or physically disabled Germans were also murdered.
You should know: The Holocaust did not mark the limit of Nazi atrocities. Millions more were ‘eliminated’ – including Soviet prisoners of war, forced-labor-camp victims from most of the occupied countries plus specific target groups such as homosexuals, religious dissidents and political opponents from Germany itself or conquered territories.