Holocaust 101

Spiritual Smart Aleck


Many younger people have never heard of the Holocaust that happened during World War II.


The Holocaust, for those of you who may not have heard, was the German state-sponsored systematic mass killing of European Jews, first and foremost, but also Roma (Gypsies), Poles, Russians and some other Slavic peoples, homosexuals, the mentally and physically disabled, prisoners, political dissidents, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Communists, Socialists, Catholic priests, and other people considered imperfect or troublesome.

The Holocaust is considered to have started in March 1933 when Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, and to have ended in May 1945, when the war ended.

Also, in March 1933, Dachau, the first of many concentration camps, was opened. Dachau is still there. It is kept as a reminder. You can visit.

Although by 1939 Jews were herded into ghettos where they starved, were shot, or became sick and died, or were finally deported to the killing camps, it was not until January 1942 that the Nazi party formally adopted the Final Solution of the Jewish Question, a proposal written by one of Himmler’s deputies, Richard Heydrich. His plan was to kill every Jew in Europe, from Ireland to Turkey, and every country in between.

The Nazis did not get that far, but six million Jews perished at the Nazis’ hands. That number does not include the other groups who were killed. Six million is an estimate. The Germans kept records, but in 1943 when they realized they were losing the war, they began destroying those records. Some that survived were used as evidence in trials for war crimes after the war.

Jews were killed in gas “showers” and their bodies burned in ovens in the killing camps. In other places they were made to dig trenches and then to march into the trenches, where they were shot and buried. The Germans also built portable gas wagons for killing people in the field.

My husband’s Uncle Dale was in one of the American Army units that liberated a concentration camp. He slept next to 12-foot high stacks of bodies. In the days following liberation, the American troops brought German civilians in from the surrounding countryside and made them walk through the camp to see the truth of what it was. Then the Germans were given the job of burying the bodies.

Dale had screaming nightmares about his experience at the camp for years after the war.
When I was in college in the 1960s, I lived in an apartment next door to two Israelis. One day while talking with one of them, he told me his story.

His first memory as a small child was of being in the concentration camp called Auschwitz. He rolled up his sleeve and showed me the number the Nazis tattooed on his arm. He alone of his family survived.

After liberation, he was transported to England, where it took a long time to regain his health. Relatives tracked him down and brought him to Israel, where he grew up on a kibbutz. He served in the Army as all Israelis do, and then came to the United States to go to college. He would be close to eighty now.

Germany does not forget the Holocaust. We must not forget the Holocaust, either. We must not forget how in a few years Germany went from persecution of Jews and the theft of Jewish property to the mass murder of the Jews.

We must tell the story of how a whole country, a country that was renowned for its great minds and great universities and great music, went wrong under the leadership of a madman who called people to be the worst version of themselves.

That is a childishly brief overview of the Holocaust. The Holocaust is only one example of what is now known as genocide. A few others: the purges of Josef Stalin in the Soviet Union; the killing and removal of indigenous people, and the lynching of black people, in the United States; the Rwandan Genocide when Hutus murdered Tutsis; the Khmer Rouge killing fields of Pol Pot; the famine created by Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward in China.
The list is endless. I don’t there think there has been a day in my lifetime that some country or group wasn’t waging war on some other country or group, and each killing as many of its perceived enemies as fast as it could.

It’s a wonder there are any human beings left.

There are holocausts going on right now. How often do you hear the words “ethnic cleansing” and “genocide” in the news?

We must tell these stories. We must not forget.

One day, perhaps, we will say never again, and it will be true.