The Holocaust: A Synopsis

Between 1942 and its liberation by the Soviets on January 27, 1945, approximately 1.5 million Jews — along with some thousands of gypsies — were murdered at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
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Holocaust Memorial Museum, Auschwitz, Poland, 2/10/2019 © Szymon Kaczmarczyk / Shutterstock

The anniversary of the Red Army’s liberation of Auschwitz on January 27, 1945, has become a date identified by the UN to commemorate the Holocaust on an annual basis. In the midst of the various ceremonies performed to remember the event, there may be some benefit in recalling exactly what happened in Europe before, during and immediately after the murder of some two-thirds of the continent’s prewar Jewish community.  

The volume of writing on the subject is enormous. What follows is a brief account of what happened. In so doing, we’re following the advice the late Holocaust historian Raul Hilberg’s advice that by answering the “what?” question we are then be able to answer the “why?”

Until the outbreak of World War II in September 1939, Nazi policy toward Germany and Austria’s relatively small Jewish communities was to encourage their departure from areas under Nazi control. This in itself created an international problem. In the middle of the worldwide economic depression, few countries, including the United States, were willing to accept a new wave of immigrants. In 1938, An international conference was held at Evian, on the Swiss-French border, to deal with what had become a refugee crisis.


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None of the countries attending the meeting were willing to open their doors wide enough to all an influx of Jews. Later in the summer of 1939, the British government issued a white paper severely restricting the admission of European Jews to the UK’s mandate of Palestine. In effect, democracies were sealing the borders to prevent Europe’s Jews from seeking sanctuary from the Nazi regime’s increasingly brutal persecution.

To Be Determined

World War II broke out at the beginning of September 1939 with Hitler’s invasion and conquest of Poland. At the time, Poland had a Jewish population of approximately 3 million individuals. In light of this massive population, Reinhard Heydrich, deputy leader of the Third Reich’s Schutzstaffel (SS), sent a secret message to forces under his control in now Nazi-occupied Poland. Heydrich’s order to the special action detachments — the Einsatzgruppen — was to begin the concentration of Jews into small sealed ghettos. Warsaw, Lodz and Lublin became the largest of these entities. Heydrich indicated this ghettoization was to be a transitional step toward a yet to be determined end.

Some thought was given to exactly what that end would be. Among key Nazi figures, including Hitler, there was consideration given to shipping Jews to the island of Madagascar off the east coast of Africa. But this scheme, and a few others like it, proved unworkable given wartime conditions and the Anglo-French control of the sea lanes. Still, until March-April 1941, the Nazis continued to expel Jews from German-occupied France, forcing them to move to regions of the country under the nominally independent control of the Vichy regime.

After March-April 1941, the expulsions stopped. Jews under Nazi control were no longer permitted to leave their own communities. The thought is that in the course of preparing for the German invasion of the Soviet Union, known as Operation Barbarossa, a policy of extermination began to be considered. At any rate, the Nazi invasion began on June 22, 1941, and enjoyed great success through the early months of the fighting. During this time, Einsatzgruppen and members of the Ordnungspolizei — the order police — followed behind the advancing German armies, murdering Jews as they came under German control, in what Hilberg labeled “mobile killing operations.”

At first, the killings were restricted to adult males. Then, at the end of July 1941, Herman Goering — nominally Hitler’s second in command — issued an order calling for the “final solution” to the Jewish question in areas under German control. From that point of clarification, the Nazi goal of total extermination of European Jews was set. There was no more uncertainty and quibbling: The special action squads and, in many cases, their Ukrainian, Latvian and Lithuanian auxiliaries, killed all the Jews in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union they could find.

Enter Auschwitz

By the fall of 1941, it became evident to the Nazi leadership — on this occasion led by the head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler — that these mobile killings were too slow, inefficient and demoralizing (to the perpetrators). Some experimentation was needed. Accordingly, SS men tried the use of gas vans — trucks in which the exhaust pipes were shaped to empty into the compartment rather than the rear of the vehicle. By sealing Jews in and driving the van for roughly 45 minutes, the occupants would be asphyxiated.

This technique was first used on a stationary basis at Chelmno, in eastern Poland. It proved to be sufficiently successful for SS leaders to create new fully-fledged stationary death camps at Treblinka, Sobibor, Majdanek and Belzec by the end of the year. Gas vans were replaced by stationary truck or tank engines whose exhaust fumes were then used to kill Jews forced into sealed gas chambers.

Such “killing center” operations were well underway when Heydrich and his assistant, Adolph Eichmann, convened the Wannsee Conference in January 1942. This meeting in a suburb of Berlin brought together representatives of government agencies and a handful of SS men to discuss the implementation of the final solution. Their goal, as specified by Heydrich, was to organize the killings as efficiently as possible. They estimated the number of Jews to be killed at over 11 million individuals. The scheme they produced involved a series of steps: Jews were to be identified (not all that easy in Western Europe), concentrated at gathering points and then deported, usually by train, to one of the killing centers.

Enter Auschwitz: The Polish town of Oswiecim is located approximately 30 miles west of Krakow. It had a number of attractions for the Nazis. It was a rail junction for trains heading north/south and east/west. It was attractive for business firms manufacturing synthetic rubber, since it was located on a river and had large deposits of lime nearby — crucial ingredients for making rubber. Before the war, it had barracks used to house Polish army officers — what later became Auschwitz I.

Under Nazi occupation, it came to be used for slave laborers working in the I. G. Farben manufacturing plant and other labor-intensive factories. Birkenau became part of the Auschwitz complex in early 1942 and quickly turned into the Nazis’ principal killing center. Birkenau, or “birch woods” in German, consisted of barracks, which were converted horse barns, and gas chambers. Instead of carbon monoxide, the SS used a pesticide, Zyklon B, to kill those Jews immediately identified as not fit for hard labor. Between 1942 and its liberation by the Soviets, approximately 1.5 million Jews — along with some thousands of gypsies — were murdered at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Not the End

This is not the end of the story, however. As the Red Army approached, those Jews who had survived Birkenau were forced to walk or were taken by train to concentration camps inside Germany. Bergen-Belsen became a major receiver of the leftover Jews. Anne Frank, for example, died of typhus in this camp after arriving from Auschwitz.

Nazi Germany surrendered unconditionally on May 7, 1945. What happened to the Holocaust’s perpetrators and survivors?

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Among the key perpetrators, Heinrich Himmler committed suicide while in British custody; Reinhard Heydrich was assassinated in 1942 by Czech nationalists outside Prague a few months after the Wannsee conference. Adolph Eichmann escaped to Argentina, thanks to what came to be known as the “rat line,” where he was seized by Israeli agents and brought to Israel for trial. He was executed in 1962. Rudolph Hoss, the first commandant of Auschwitz, was tried and executed by Polish authorities in 1947. 

Franz Stangl, the commandant of Treblinka, fled to Brazil. He was extradited to Germany but died of a heart attack in 1971 before the end of his war crimes trial. Five leaders of the special action squads were tried and convicted by an allied tribunal held at Nuremberg and hung in 1951. Lesser lights, like the death camp guards, were prosecuted by German courts in succeeding years. Many perpetrators, including Eichmann’s top aid, escaped justice.

A few hundred thousand European Jews, those outside the Soviet Union, survived the Holocaust. Some sought to return to their prewar homes. Typically, they were not met with open arms. In Poland and Hungary, there were several pogroms in which survivors were murdered by local townsmen in order to prevent the returning Jews from reclaiming homes and other properties that had been confiscated after their deportation.

Numerous survivors wound up in displaced persons camps, many of which were located in Germany. Thanks to legislation passed by the US Congress in 1949, thousands of displaced persons were able to enter the United States. Not all, though, were Jewish survivors. Some ex-Nazis and their collaborators were also classified as displaced and, as a consequence, were also able to come to America. In later years, these war criminals were identified by the US Justice Department and returned to their countries of origin.   

Thousands of Jewish survivors also sought admission to Palestine. Given the sensitive political situation, the country’s British rulers blocked their admission. After the British threw up their hands in 1947 and the area briefly came under UN auspices, substantial numbers of Jews were able to make their way into the area that became the state of Israel in 1948.

The above commentary is a brief answer to Hilberg’s “what?” question. Answer to the “why?” will have to wait for another occasion.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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