HOLOCAUST Memorial Day takes place on 27 January each year.
It’s a time to pause and remember the millions of people who have been murdered or whose lives have been changed beyond recognition during the Nazi Holocaust, and in subsequent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur.
Today (27 January) marks the 72nd anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi death camp of World War 2.
It is a time for us all to learn the lessons of the past and to recognise that genocide does not just take place on its own, it’s a steady process which can begin if discrimination, racism and hatred are not checked and prevented.
Racial and religious discrimination has not ended, nor has the use of the language of hatred or exclusion – just look at the Islamophobia of recent years, crystallised by the rhetoric this week of new US President Donald Trump.
So maybe, now is a time to take a sharper look at the evil of Adolf Hitler’s Holocaust – a genocide in which Nazi Germany and its collaborators killed about six million Jews. The victims included 1.5 million children and represented about two-thirds of the nine million Jews who had resided in Europe.
Today, most definitions of the Holocaust include an additional five million non-Jewish victims of Nazi mass murders, bringing the total to about 11 million. These included over three million Soviet POWs, two million Poles, 450,000 Serbs, 270,000 disabled people, 170,000 Romani gypsies, 160,000 Freemasons, 15,000 Gay people, 4,000 Jehovah Witnesses, and thousands of women and children who underwent horrific experiments.
Under the coordination of the SS, following directions from the highest leadership of the Nazi Party, every arm of Germany’s bureaucracy was involved in the logistics and the carrying out of the genocide.
A network of about 42,500 facilities in Germany and German-occupied territories was used to concentrate victims for slave labour, mass murder, and other human rights abuses.
Over 200,000 people are estimated to have been Holocaust perpetrators.
The persecution and genocide were carried out in stages, culminating in what Nazis termed the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question”, an agenda to exterminate Jews in Europe.
Every arm of the country’s sophisticated bureaucracy was involved in the killing process. Parish churches and the Interior Ministry supplied birth records showing who was Jewish; the Post Office delivered the deportation and denaturalization orders; the Finance Ministry confiscated Jewish property; German firms fired Jewish workers and disenfranchised Jewish stockholders.
The universities refused to admit Jews, denied degrees to those already studying, and fired Jewish academics; government transport offices arranged the trains for deportation to the camps; German pharmaceutical companies tested drugs on camp prisoners; companies bid for the contracts to build the crematoria; detailed lists of victims were drawn up using the Dehomag (IBM Germany) company’s punch card machines, producing meticulous records of the killings.
As prisoners entered the death camps, they were made to surrender all personal property, which was catalogued and tagged before being sent to Germany to be reused or recycled.
The killings were systematically conducted in virtually all areas of German-occupied territory, in what are now 35 separate European countries.
It was at its most severe in Central and Eastern Europe, which had more than seven million Jews in 1939. About five million Jews were killed there, including three million in occupied Poland and over one million in the Soviet Union. Hundreds of thousands also died in the Netherlands, France, Belgium, Yugoslavia, and Greece.
Hitler’s Wannsee Protocol makes it clear the Nazis intended to carry their “final solution of the Jewish question” to Britain and all neutral states in Europe, such as Ireland, Switzerland, Turkey, Sweden, Portugal, and Spain.
Anyone with three or four Jewish grandparents was to be exterminated without exception. The Nazis envisioned the extermination of the Jews worldwide, not only in Germany proper, unless their grandparents had converted before 18 January 1871.
The use of extermination camps (also called “death camps”) equipped with gas chambers for the systematic mass extermination of peoples was an unprecedented feature of the Holocaust.
These were established at Auschwitz, Belzec, Chelmno, Jasenovac, Majdanek, Maly Trostenets, Sobibór, and Treblinka. They were built for the systematic killing of millions, primarily by gassing, but also by execution and extreme work under starvation conditions.
A distinctive feature of Nazi genocide was also the extensive use of human subjects in “medical” experiments.
The most notorious of the Nazi physicians was Josef Mengele, who worked in Auschwitz. His experiments included placing subjects in pressure chambers, testing drugs on them, freezing them, attempting to change eye colour by injecting chemicals into children’s eyes, and amputations and other surgeries.
Mengele worked extensively with Romani children. He would bring them sweets and toys and personally take them to the gas chamber. They would call him “Onkel (Uncle) Mengele”.
Vera Alexander was a Jewish inmate at Auschwitz who looked after 50 sets of Romani twins: “I remember one set of twins in particular: Guido and Ina, aged about four. One day, Mengele took them away. When they returned, they were in a terrible state: they had been sewn together, back to back, like Siamese twins. Their wounds were infected and oozing pus. They screamed day and night. Then their parents—I remember the mother’s name was Stella—managed to get some morphine and they killed the children in order to end their suffering.”
Germany’s invasion of Poland in September 1939 increased the urgency of Hitler’s “Jewish Question”. Poland was home to about three million Jews (nearly nine percent of the Polish population) in centuries-old communities, two-thirds of whom fell under Nazi control with Poland’s capitulation.
The Jews were herded into ghettos, mostly in the General Government area of central Poland, where they were put to work under the Reich Labour Office.
The ghettos were intended to be temporary until the Jews were deported. But deportation never occurred. Instead, the ghettos’ inhabitants were sent to extermination camps.
The Warsaw Ghetto was the largest, with 380,000 people, and in effect was an immensely crowded prison serving as an instrument of “slow, passive murder.”
Though the Warsaw Ghetto contained 30% of Warsaw’s population, it occupied only 2.4% of the city’s area, averaging 9.2 people per room.
Between 1940 and 1942, starvation and disease, especially typhoid, killed hundreds of thousands. Over 43,000 Warsaw ghetto residents, or one in ten of the total population, died in 1941; in Theresienstadt, more than half the residents died in 1942.
When Germany occupied Norway, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Belgium, and France in 1940, and Yugoslavia and Greece in 1941, antisemitic measures were also introduced into these countries, although the pace and severity varied greatly from country to country according to local political circumstances.
Jews were removed from economic and cultural life and were subject to various restrictive laws, but physical deportation did not occur in most places before 1942.
The Vichy regime in occupied France actively collaborated in persecuting French Jews. Germany’s allies Italy, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Finland were pressured to introduce antisemitic measures, but for the most part they did not comply until compelled to do so.
During the course of the war some 900 Jews and 300 Roma passed through the Banjica concentration camp in Belgrade, intended primarily for Serbian communists, royalists and others who resisted occupation.
The German puppet regime in Croatia, on the other hand, began actively persecuting Jews on its own initiative, so the Legal Decree on the Nationalization of the Property of Jews and Jewish Companies was declared on 10 October 1941 in the Independent State of Croatia.
During 1940 and 1941, the murder of large numbers of Jews in German-occupied Poland continued. The deportation of Jews from Germany, particularly Berlin, was not officially completed until 1943. By December 1939, 3.5 million Jews were crowded into the General Government area.
The Third Reich first used concentration camps as places of incarceration. And though death rates were high – with a mortality rate of 50% – they were not designed to be killing centres.
Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 opened a new phase in the Holocaust. Wehrmacht officers told their soldiers to target people who were described as “Jewish Bolshevik subhumans”, the “Mongol hordes”, the “Asiatic flood” and the “red beast”.
Nazi propaganda portrayed the war against the Soviet Union as both an ideological war between German National Socialism and Jewish Bolshevism and a racial war between the Germans and the Bolsheviks, Jews, Romani and Slavic Untermenschen (“sub-humans”).
Hitler described the war with the Soviet Union as a “war of annihilation”. The pace of extermination intensified after the Nazis occupied Lithuania, where close to 80% of the country’s 220,000 Jews were exterminated before year’s end.
The Soviet territories occupied by early 1942, including all of Belarus, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, and Moldova and most Russian territory west of the line Leningrad–Moscow–Rostov, were inhabited at the start of the war by about three million Jews.
The mass killings of Jews in the occupied Soviet territories was assigned to SS formations called Einsatzgruppen (“task groups”).
The most notorious massacre of Jews in the Soviet Union was at a ravine called Babi Yar outside Kiev, where 33,771 Jews were killed in a single operation on 29–30 September 1941.
The decision to kill all the Jews in Kiev was made by the military governor Major-General Friedrich Eberhardt, the Police Commander for Army Group South SS-Obergruppenführer Friedrich Jeckeln, and the Einsatzgruppe C Commander Otto Rasch.
A mixture of SS, SD, and Security Police, assisted by Ukrainian police, carried out the killings. Although they did not participate in the killings, men of the 6th Army played a key role in rounding up the Jews of Kiev and transporting them to be shot at Babi Yar.
On 29 September Kiev’s Jews gathered by the cemetery as ordered, expecting to be loaded onto trains. The crowd was large enough that most of the men, women, and children could not have known what was happening until it was too late; by the time they heard the machine gun fire, there was no chance to escape. All were driven down a corridor of soldiers, in groups of ten, and shot.
In August 1941 Himmler travelled to Minsk, where he personally witnessed 100 Jews being shot in a ditch outside the town.
Karl Wolff described the event in his diary: “Himmler’s face was green. He took out his handkerchief and wiped his cheek where a piece of brain had squirted up onto it. Then he vomited. After recovering his composure, Himmler lectured the SS men on the need to follow the “highest moral law of the Party” in carrying out their tasks.
Starting in December 1939, the Nazis introduced new methods of mass murder by using gas.
First, experimental gas vans equipped with gas cylinders and a sealed trunk compartment, were used to kill mental-care clients of sanatoria in Pomerania, East Prussia, and occupied Poland, as part of an operation termed Action T4.
In the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, larger vans holding up to 100 people were used from November 1941, using the engine’s exhaust rather than a cylinder.
These gas vans were used to kill about 500,000 people, primarily Jews but also Romani and others.
During 1942, in addition to Auschwitz, five other camps were designated as extermination camps for the carrying out of the Reinhard plan.
Two of these were already functioning as, respectively, a labour camp and a POW camp: these now had extermination facilities added to them.
Three new camps were built for the sole purpose of killing large numbers of Jews as quickly as possible, at Belzec, Sobibór and Treblinka, but Auschwitz was the most radically transformed in terms of systematic killing. A seventh camp, at Maly Trostinets in Belarus, was also used for this purpose. Jasenovac was an extermination camp where mostly ethnic Serbs were killed.
Extermination camps are frequently confused with concentration camps such as Dachau and Belsen, which were mostly located in Germany and intended as places of incarceration and forced labour for a variety of enemies of the Nazi regime (such as Communists and homosexuals).
They should also be distinguished from slave labour camps, which were set up in all German-occupied countries to exploit the labour of prisoners of various kinds, including prisoners of war. In all Nazi camps there were very high death rates as a result of starvation, disease and exhaustion, but only the extermination camps were designed specifically for mass killing.
At the extermination camps with gas chambers all the prisoners arrived by train. Sometimes entire trainloads were sent straight to the gas chambers, but usually the camp doctor on duty subjected individuals to selections, where a small percentage were deemed fit to work in the slave labour camps; the majority were taken directly from the platforms to a reception area where all their clothes and other possessions were seized by the Nazis to help fund the war. They were then herded naked into the gas chambers.
Usually they were told these were showers or delousing chambers, and there were signs outside saying “baths” and “sauna.” They were sometimes given a small piece of soap and a towel so as to avoid panic, and were told to remember where they had put their belongings for the same reason. When they asked for water because they were thirsty after the long journey in the cattle trains, they were told to hurry up, because coffee was waiting for them in the camp, and it was getting cold.
Once the chamber was full, the doors were screwed shut and solid pellets of Zyklon-B were dropped into the chambers through vents in the side walls, releasing toxic HCN, or hydrogen cyanide. Those inside died within 20 minutes.
When they were removed, if the chamber had been very congested, as they often were, the victims were found half-squatting, their skin coloured pink with red and green spots, some foaming at the mouth or bleeding from the ears.
The gas was then pumped out, the bodies were removed (which would take up to four hours), gold fillings in their teeth were extracted with pliers by dentist prisoners, and women’s hair was cut.
The floor of the gas chamber was cleaned, and the walls whitewashed.
At first, the bodies were buried in deep pits and covered with lime, but between September and November 1942, on the orders of Himmler, they were dug up and burned. In early 1943, new gas chambers and crematoria were built to accommodate the numbers.
During 1943 and 1944, the extermination camps worked at a furious rate to kill the hundreds of thousands of people shipped to them by rail from almost every country within the German sphere of influence.
By the spring of 1944, up to 6,000 people were being gassed every day at Auschwitz.
The scale of extermination slackened at the beginning of 1944 once the ghettos in occupied Poland were emptied, but on 19 March 1944, Hitler ordered the military occupation of Hungary, and Eichmann was dispatched to Budapest to supervise the deportation of Hungary’s 800,000 Jews.
By mid-1944, the Final Solution had largely run its course as it became clear that Germany was losing the war.
In June, the western Allies landed in France. Allied air attacks and the operations of partisans made rail transport increasingly difficult, and the objections of the military to the diversion of rail transport for carrying Jews to Poland more urgent and harder to ignore.
At this time, as the Soviet armed forces approached, the camps in eastern Poland were closed down, any surviving inmates being shipped west to camps closer to Germany, first to Auschwitz and later to Gross Rosen in Silesia. Auschwitz itself was closed as the Soviets advanced through Poland. The last 13 prisoners, all women, were killed in Auschwitz II on 25 November 1944.
Despite the desperate military situation, great efforts were made to conceal evidence of what had happened in the camps.
The gas chambers were dismantled, the crematoria dynamited, mass graves dug up and the corpses cremated, and Polish farmers were induced to plant crops on the sites to give the impression that they had never existed. Local commanders continued to kill Jews, and to shuttle them from camp to camp by forced “death marches” until the last weeks of the war.
Already sick after months or years of violence and starvation, prisoners were forced to march for tens of miles in the snow to train stations; then transported for days at a time without food or shelter in freight trains with open carriages; and forced to march again at the other end to the new camp. Those who lagged behind or fell were shot. Around 250,000 Jews died during these marches.
The largest and best-known of the death marches took place in January 1945, when the Soviet army advanced on Poland. Nine days before the Soviets arrived at Auschwitz, the SS marched 60,000 prisoners out of the camp toward Loslau some 35 miles away, where they were put on freight trains to other camps. Around 15,000 died on the way
The first major camp to be directly encountered by Allied troops, Majdanek, was discovered by the advancing Soviets on 23 July 1944. Chelmno was liberated by the Soviets on 20 January 1945. Auschwitz was liberated, also by the Soviets, on 27 January 1945; Buchenwald by the Americans on 11 April; Bergen-Belsen by the British on 15 April; Dachau by the Americans on 29 April; Ravensbrück by the Soviets on the same day; Mauthausen by the Americans on 5 May; and Theresienstadt by the Soviets on 8 May. Treblinka and Sobibór were never liberated, but were destroyed by the Nazis in 1943.
Colonel William W. Quinn of the US Seventh Army said of Dachau: “There our troops found sights, sounds, and stenches horrible beyond belief, cruelties so enormous as to be incomprehensible to the normal mind.”
In most of the camps discovered by the Soviets, almost all the prisoners had already been removed, leaving only a few thousand alive — 7,600 inmates were found in Auschwitz, including 180 children who had been experimented on by doctors.
Some 60,000 prisoners were discovered at Bergen-Belsen by the British 11th Armoured Division, 13,000 corpses lay unburied, and another 10,000 died from typhus or malnutrition over the following weeks.
The British forced the remaining SS guards to gather up the corpses and place them in mass graves.
The BBC’s Richard Dimbleby described the scenes that greeted him and the British Army at Belsen: “Here over an acre of ground lay dead and dying people. You could not see which was which… The living lay with their heads against the corpses and around them moved the awful, ghostly procession of emaciated, aimless people, with nothing to do and with no hope of life, unable to move out of your way, unable to look at the terrible sights around them… Babies had been born here, tiny wizened things that could not live… A mother, driven mad, screamed at a British sentry to give her milk for her child, and thrust the tiny mite into his arms… He opened the bundle and found the baby had been dead for days. This day at Belsen was the most horrible of my life.”
Now in 2017, we must never forget this terrible lesson from the past.