Humanities 221           Professor Easton         Background information on the Holocaust

Much of this sheet comes from information distributed by the Simon Wiesenthal Center & Archives (see their website:; Daniel Goldhagen, Hitler's Willing Executioners (New York: Random House, 1996); Miklos Nyiszli, Auschwitz (1983); and Marvin Perry, Western Civilization  (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1990).

Jan. 30, 1933: Hitler becomes Chancellor of Germany

May 8, 1945: WWII ends in Europe (V-E Day)

These dates frame the period of "The Holocaust."

Approximately 11 million civilians were murdered during the Holocaust.  5,860,000 were Jews (this number is often rounded off as "six million").  5,000,000 were non-Jewish civilians, including Roma people (Gypsies), Serbs, resistance fighters, anti-Nazi Poles and Germans, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, and so-called "anti-socials" and "undesirables" such as beggars, vagrants, and mentally retarded people.  All of these groups were considered to be enemies of the Third Reich (Hitler's government). Only Jews, however, were singled out for complete annihilation.

At a villa in a Berlin suburb called Wannsee on January 20, 1942 (the "Wannsee Conference"), German officials created a plan called The Final Solution of the Jewish Problem to systematically murder all the Jews in Europe.  Systematic attacks on Jews had begun in the spring of 1941, coinciding with the German invasion of the Soviet Union.

In Nov. 1935, the Germans defined a "Jew" (in the "Nuremberg Laws") as someone with three Jewish grandparents; or two Jewish grandparents but a member of the Jewish community since Sept. 1935; or married to a Jew since Sept. 1935, or the offspring of a Jew since Sept. 1935.  People with "Jewish blood" but not necessarily meeting this definition were excluded from the Nazi Party, could not become military officers, were barred from Civil Service jobs, and finally, during the war, were also sent to concentration camps and death camps.

Those deported from their homes were told that they were going either to resettlement camps or to work camps.  The Germans kept the technology of the death camps a secret.  There were six major death camps, all in Poland: Auschwitz-Birkenau, Belzec, Chelmno, Majdanek, Sobibor, and Treblinka.  Massive death also occurred outside these camps at other concentration camps and in the Jewish ghettos through executions (e.g., gunshots) and illness (e.g., typhus).  1.25 million people were murdered at Auschwitz-Birkenau; 9 out of 10 were Jews.

Dates of consequence:

April 20, 1889: Adolph Hitler born (Austria).

1919: following Germany's defeat in WWI, Hitler joins a right-wing group that becomes the National Socialist German Workers' (Nazi) party.

1923: Hitler's political activism includes an armed attempt to overthrow the German republic; he is imprisoned and in prison writes Mein Kampf.  Hitler turns from military strategies to political and propaganda strategies to gain the sympathy of the German people.

1930: In reaction to the deprivations of a significant economic depression during the 1920's, the German people cast 6,400,000 votes for Nazi representatives to the German legislature, the Reichstag, giving the Nazis 107 seats.

1932: The Nazi Party gains 37.3% of the popular vote and 230 Reichstag seats (out of at total of 647). 

Jan 30, 1933: Hitler is appointed Chancellor of Germany.  (Der Führer means "the leader")

Mar. 23, 1933: The Reichstag passes the "Enabling Act" giving independent power to the Chancellor, essentially dismantling the government and giving Hitler dictatorial power.

Apr. 1, 1933: Nazis boycott Jewish-owned businesses.

Apr. 7, 1933: non-Aryans are expelled from Civil Service Jobs (e.g., having at least one Jewish grandparent made a person a non-Aryan).

Apr. 7, 1933: non-Aryan lawyers are denied the right to practice law.

Apr. 22, 1933: National Health refuses to reimburse patients who consult Jewish doctors.

Apr. 25, 1933: Jewish enrollment in German high schools is restricted to 1.5%.

March 11-13, 1938:  Hitler sends his army into Austria, proclaiming the Anschluss (incorporation of Austria) in Vienna.  Most non-Jewish Austrian citizens supported this alliance with Germany, and attacked their Jewish neighbors (approximately 180,000 Jews lived in Austria; 90% in Vienna).

Nov. 9-10, 1938 Kristallnacht pogrom (Night of Broken Glass).  Violence against Jews breaks out across Germany, Austria, and the Sudetenland (part of the Republic of Czechoslovakia).  Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels calls for the violence in retribution for the killing of a German diplomat by a young Polish, Jewish man whose parents had been deported.  Hundreds of synagogues were burned to the ground.  Glass was broken everywhere from the storefronts of Jewish-owned businesses.  Jewish people were severely beaten.  Approximately 100 Jewish people were killed and 30,000 were sent to concentration camps that night.  Although the beatings were officially carried out by Nazi gangs/government officials, it is reported that many German civilians, former neighbors and customers of these Jews, spontaneously joined in the beatings.

1938: The U. S. and Great Britain convene a conference in Evian, France regarding immigration and refugees.  Except for the Dominican Republic, none of the assembled countries were willing to enlarge their immigration quotas to save European Jews, even though discrimination and violence against the Jews was well known.

1938: All Jewish doctors in Germany lose their license to practice medicine.

1938: Sigmund Freud escapes from Austria to England.

1940: Germany conquers much of Europe: Denmark, Norway, Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg, and France.

June 22, 1941: Germany invades the Soviet Union.  Germany and the Axis powers are joined by Italy, Romania, and Hungary (against the Allied powers, Great Britain, "Free" France, the United States, and the Soviet Union).

April 19, 1943: Warsaw Ghetto revolt.  This is one example of Jewish armed-resistance to the Nazis, lasting for about five weeks, though meeting with predictable defeat at the hands of the German forces.

November 20, 1945-October 1, 1946: Nuremberg Trials, before the International Military Tribunal, which tried Nazi war criminals (Nuremberg, Germany).  By 1949, 5,025 Nazi criminals were convicted.  Subsequently, Poland has convicted approximated 40,000 criminals and Germany has convicted 80,000.

Terms from the Concentration Camps

Arbeit macht Freiheit: a German phrase posted on the gates of Auschwitz and at other concentration camps, ironically meaning "work creates freedom" or "work liberates."  Early concentration camps were proudly displayed to the world as efficient "labor camps."

"Baths and Disinfecting Room": the words on an assuring sign into the entrance of the gas chambers, where up to 3000 people at a time were brought, told to tie their shoes together and hang all their clothes on pegs.  Gas poured out of decorative wire lattice grates in the columns of the "shower room."  It took approximately five minutes for all the occupants of the gas chamber to die.  Before the Sonderkommando could come and carry out the bodies, the chamber was cleared of gas by a special ventilator system created especially for this purpose called the Exator system.

Boxcars; cattle cars: train cars into which as many as 90 people were crammed for "transport" and given a few buckets for toilets which soon overflowed, making the atmosphere unbreathable.

Calcium chloride: rubbed into prisoners' shaved heads (to "kill germs") by S.S. guards, burning eyes and open cuts.

Crematoriums: buildings with immense red brick chimneys two stories high, like factory chimneys, with flames rising from the center.  The smoke from the crematoriums' chimneys filled the air with the odor of burning flesh and scorched hair.  The ovens were so hot that it took only 20 minutes to cremate three bodies at a time.  At Auschwitz there were fifteen ovens in each crematorium.

Gestapo: Special State Police; S.S.: Security Police; S.A.: Storm Troopers.

Gypsy camp: a section of Auschwitz that housed dark skinned gypsies, considered racially inferior by the Nazis.  For a period of time the Roma people or "Gypsies" were in "family camps" (not segregated by gender), a privilege accorded them as Catholics.  The Nazis eventually dismantled the family camps.

Hair shaving and tooth pulling: Prisoners who entered the camps were told their heads would be shaved to fight lice.  In fact, hair was a precious commodity used in the construction of delayed action bombs because it expands and contracts uniformly.  After the camps were liberated the Allies found other Nazi uses for body parts.  Pillows were stuffed with human hair (so even corpses were shaved); lampshades were made of human skin.  At Auschwitz a "tooth pulling commando" broke gold teeth off the bridgework of corpses after prisoners were murdered in the death chambers.  As much as eighteen pounds of gold was collected daily from prisoners' jewelry and teeth.

List of deportees: a typed and orderly list of Jews who were transported from their homes and from the Jewish ghettos to the concentration camps. The Germans' compulsion for record keeping documented the atrocity they created.  The September 3, 1944 list of "Judentransport" (transport of Jews) lists as deportees numbers 306, 307, 308, and 309 Anne Frank, her sister, and her parents.

Mengele, Dr. Josef: the Nazi doctor of Auschwitz who conducted experiments on human beings, eager to know, for example, what happens to a body when one electrocutes a person or when  hangs him.  He was curious about why some people are dwarfs, what twins have in common, how much heat or cold people can tolerate, etc.  His experiments and mutilations were on both the living and the dead.

Pink triangle: this was the marker of the homosexual concentration camp prisoner.  Combined with a yellow triangle, to form a Star of David, it marked a Jewish homosexual, a doubly oppressed prisoner in the camps.  When the camps were liberated, homosexual inmates were often treated roughly by Allied soldiers who did not consider them to have been unjustly imprisoned.

Roll call: Concentration camp guards roused prisoners as early as 3:00 a.m. whatever the weather.  Roll call for as many as 1000 prisoner took four hours.  Guards were known to swing sadistically at prisoners with their fists or pick on prisoners with glasses.  Prisoners were often weak from exposure to the elements but they received no food before roll call.

Sonderkommando: a German word to designate a "special commando" of selected prisoners.  At Auschwitz the Sonderkommando worked in the crematorium and received good clothing, food, alcohol and tobacco--for about four months before being killed and replaced by a new Sonderkommando.

Tattoo: concentration camp prisoners were marked by an instrument that permanently imprinted numbers on their forearms in blue ink (the number was clear after about a week of swelling).

Zyklon B: the poison used in the gas chambers.  The "Deputy Health Officer" brought the dose into the camp, often driving an ambulance and wearing a gas mask.  Carbon monoxide was also used in some of the gas chambers.