In the purview of the Jews, the Holocaust is an unforgettable event in the history of their race. It is an event that they could not put behind, nor would they deny from the future generations. They feel that it is important for them to know about it so that they may be aware and make sure they would do whatever it takes to prevent it from happening again in their lifetime and beyond.
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The Holocaust was the time in World War II when they were nearly annihilated out of a policy of hatred by the Nazis under a program they called the "Final Solution." This was probably the culmination of centuries of persecution they had to endure ever since they were dispersed throughout the various corners of the world during the Roman Empire after their failed revolt.
This study would focus on the conditions European Jews, both in Germany and other German-occupied countries, had to live in and eventually their ultimate fate in the labor and death camps run by the Nazis. In addition, the paper shall also cover the lessons learned from this event, both by the Jewish people and the world, whether they were involved in it or not.
When the Nazis came to power in 1933 with the appointment of Adolf Hitler as Chancellor, they began to implement their ideology in every aspect of German society, among them were policies directed against the Jews. These policies were nothing new to the Jews. These were a repeat of the measures implemented by past regimes dating back to the Middle Ages when the Church was the dominant institution at the time that defined the standards of society back then. When Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire under Constantine, the Christians were no longer persecuted. As a state religion, it was to be imposed throughout the empire and demanded everyone under its jurisdiction to subscribe to it.
There was no political agenda behind this imposition of Christianity. Constantine's regime and those that followed believed Christianity was the one true faith and anyone who did not embrace it was destined to suffer eternal damnation; hence the vigorous, if not aggressive conversion of pagans. The only people who would not submit to this were the Jews who simply could not accept Christianity. The Jews, still regarding themselves as the "chosen people," regarded Christians as a sect under them given that they (initially) practiced their rituals and read the same scriptures. The split came when they recognized Jesus as Messiah to the point of elevating him to divinity, something which they refused to accept and for that, persecuted them (Acts 7:1-53, 8:1-3 New American Bible). With Constantine's ascendancy, the proverbial shoe was now on the other foot as it was now the Christians that began to impose its ways on the Jews.
However, persecution did not ensue immediately. Early Christian leaders during the waning years of the Roman Empire and even into the Middle Ages continued this and yet the Jews obstinately held on to their beliefs and only a few converted. This had led the Chruch to implement a different tactic, beginning with passive "defensive" measures meant to protect their followers from the Jews such as forbidding intermarriages with Jews and barring Jews from serving in the government. Despite the Reformation, that saw Christianity split into different sects and denominations, this did not change their overall attitude towards the Jews; even Martin Luther loathed them for their obstinacy and wished they had converted way back then during the time of Christ (Bartov, 2000, 23-24).
Seeing little success in converting them, Christian regimes then employed expulsion as the next "defensive" measure to protect Christians from the "misguided" teachings of the Jews. They saw Jews as a unique people and as such they "herded" them into designated enclaves called ghettos as means of insulating the rest of society from them. These places were often located the poorest parts of the community and Jews had to live under appalling conditions though they made efforts to better their conditions (Bartov, 2000, 25-26). Being put in ghettos made it easy for them to become objects of persecutions called pogroms whenever a crisis would break out, two of which were significant such as the Crusades and the Black Death. In the former, they were fair game as Pope Urban called Christians to arms to defend their faith against the heathens who took over the Holy Land. Although they were not Muslims, Jews were also singled out as several communities were massacred by Christian zealots eager to gain heavenly rewards for killing a "heretic." In the latter, they were accused of poisoning the water supply of the cities, thereby causing the epidemic. Such incidents would be repeated periodically through the years in various parts of Europe until the late 19th century.
If one were to read Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf, part of his part-autobiography, part-treatise touched on the Jews and things Hitler mentioned here was nothing new as he reiterated his bitterness and resentment towards the Jews although it did provide the Nazis a blueprint for what they had in mind for the Jews once they came to power.
"The foremost connoisseurs of this truth regarding the possibilities in the use of falsehood and slander have always been the Jews; for after all, their whole existence is based on one single great lie, to wit, that they are a religious community while actually they are a race-and what a race ! One of the greatest minds of humanity has nailed them forever as such in an eternally correct phrase of fundamental truth: he called them 'the great masters of the lie.' (Hitler, 1924)"
Essentially, Hitler merely echoed the same sentiments voiced over the centuries towards the Jews. Hitler's ascendancy in 1933 did not necessarily mean the beginning of Jewish persecution albeit done gradually through widespread boycotts and with the passing of a 1933 law that removed and prevented Jews from working in the government, as well as practicing specialized professions vital to society such as doctors, teachers and lawyers; they were also forbidden to obtain degrees in the universities as well (Shirer, 1960, 323; Yahil, 1987, 64-65). It was only after the death of President Paul von Hindenburg in 1934 that the Nazis were finally able to recreate Germany in the image the Nazis envisioned and this was characterized by institutionalizing anti-Semitism. Whereas past pogroms were done on a whim of early European societies, the Nazis sought to make anti-Semitism an official policy of the Third Reich, punctuated by the Nuremberg Laws of 1935, a series of laws enacted by the Nazi-dominated government which aimed to marginalize the Jews in every way possible.
The first one was "The Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honour" which prohibits intermarriages between Germans and Jews. This law was akin to a decree passed in 306 in the Council of Elvira that banned intermarriages between Christian and Jews as mentioned earlier as a "defensive" measure of protecting Christianity from the false teachings of the Jews; Jews were forbidden to hire German (Aryan) citizens under the age of 45 as domestic servants; and strangely enough, were forbidden to display the national colors of Germany (Bartov, 2000, 28). The second was a law redefining German citizenship based on race. Needless to say, Jews, regardless of the degree of purity, were stripped German citizenship, and relegated to being called "subjects" which was a step lower than regular citizens yet virtually considered nonentities (Shirer, 1960, 323). The only pause from this marginalization and persecution efforts happened during the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin as anti-Semitism would discourage tourism and leave a bad image for Germany that it may be transferred to a different venue. Persecution would resume after the games had concluded; and more and more laws and ordinances had been enacted further marginalizing Jews in every aspect.
They were so heavily marginlized that they practically did not have anywhere else to go nor could they avail of the basic services or attend to their needs as most of Germany was practically off limits to them and this had a drastic effect on their way of life as they became poorer given the manifold restrictions and deprivations imposed upon them. Their only means of survival was transacting with one another but since money was not circulating widely, it did not help alleviate their situation.
When Germany invaded its neighbors beginning in 1939, it applied the same policies in these occupied territories as they were trying to rebuild a new world order, such as the Statute of Jews passed by the Vichy regime in France in 1940 where the provisions mirrored that of the anti-Semitic laws in Germany. The Jewish communities in France, as well as others in the occupied European lands all endured the same ordeals as those in Germany.
What made anti-Semitism in the 20th century different from the past centuries was that the Nazis took it a step further. They did not bother to convert the Jews. They had successfully expelled them not only to the ghettos, but also from every sector of society to the point of abjectedness. The anti-Semitic policies aimed to send a message that there is no place for Jews anywhere in the world and the Nazis made it loud and clear with the use of force to reinforce their ideas. But anti-Semitism did not stop here. They were determined to make sure the Jews would cease to exist, that was to wipe them off the face of the earth once and for all. By late 1941, Reinhard Heydrich, Heinrich Himmler's right-hand man in the Schutzstaffel (SS) had sent out invitations from the top Nazi leaders for a conference to be held to determine the ultimate fate of Jews (at least in occupied Europe). In January of 1942. Together with 15 other Nazi executives representing various agencies and institutions that would be tapped for this endeavor, Heydrich discussed with them the "final solution" to the Jewish question, seeing that they had all but used up other options in marginalizing them and making their lives miserable after combing all of occupied Europe of its Jewish populations, as stated on Part II of the proceedings (Eichmann, 1942).
Furthermore, based on the following minutes of the proceedings, drawn up by Adolf Eichmann, who served as the conference's secretary, Heydrich proposed for the intensification of the emigration efforts of the Jews from the occupied territories, and it was proposed that all of them be relocated to the east where the land was vast enough to accommodate them based on data provided by Eichmann on the population of the Jews, totalling around 11 million throughout Europe, including Britain (which they still hoped to conquer) and neutral countries. It had been decided that these Jews would be rounded up methodically and transported to specially-built camps in these areas where they would be put to (slave) work until they die of "natural causes." Others would be "treated accordingly" which was a subtle way of saying killed (Eichmann, 1942). One thing worth noting in this 2-hour meeting was that the minutes did not explicitly mention killing the Jews as Heydrich instructed Eichmann to "clean up" the text in such a way that the words he used were implicit so as not to betray the true nature of the meeting using euphemisms and innuendos to conceal their precise intentions. But based on the testimonies of the participants who were captured by the Allies in 1945 and beyond, they confessed that they openly talked about systematically murdering the Jews. The camps would be run primarily by the SS to free regular army troops for combat.
Even before the conference began, Jews were already being systematically killed. During operation Barbarossa, follow-on forces called Einsatzgruppen, or "mobile death squads" that would round up and kill Jews in occupied areas. It was for this reason that Rudolf Lange, the head of one of these units was invited to provide his input and probably offer suggestions. It was decided that the preferred method to kill the Jews was to work or starve them to death. But to speed up the process, they decided to also gas them as well. From Lange's experience, they realized that using bullets would be costly since they were primarily earmarked for combat units in battlefronts. In lieu of firing squads, they had to come up with other means. One was to give inmates lethal injections of phenol which was proven to be more effective than other poisons tried; for more efficient means, they learned that gassing the inmates was faster and more efficient. First, they would use mobile trucks with sealed compartments and exhaust fumes channeled into it with the purpose of killing Jews through carbon monoxide poisoning; when this was not efficneit enough, they resorted to the use of gas chambers and used a different medium called Zyklon B. Initially used as an insecticide, it was improved to be effective enough to kill human beings (Peck & Berembaum, 2002, 372).
For the disposal of the bodies, they were initially buried in mass graves but as there was barely enough space, they were burned, first in open pits and later in purpose-built cremation ovens kept running regularly in the camps. Auschwitz-Birkenau was the first camp to put up these facilities and soon after the Wannsee Conference was over, several other camps of the similar nature were put up such as Belzec, Chelmo, Sobibor and Treblinka, all locted in Poland along with Auschwitz-Birkenau. These camps would become the "factories of death," where its sole function was to receive Jews in order to have them murdered in the most systematic and efficient way possible (Peck & Berembaum, 2002, 373). The typical scene would be as follows: trains would deliver Jews from occupied territories to these camps. As soon as they got off the trains, they were processed or went through selection based on the terms agreed upon at Wannsee by a team of doctors to determine how Jewish they were and their physical fitness. Those who appeared fit were pressed into labor gangs while the rest were immediately sent to their deaths in the gas chambers and later on burned though specific circumstances would vary from one camp to another
Those who survived came from different backgrounds but all went through the same if not similar ordeal in what they call the "Holocaust." They would narrate the life they had in these camps after being forcibly dragged out of their homes, herded into trains and taken to these camps.
One survivor, Eliahu Rosenberg, was sent to Treblinka and witnessed how things were run in the camp:
"They pulled us off the train wagons with screams and blows, and right away, they separated my mother and sisters...First of all, they sent women to the gas chambers. They were put in the barrack. They undressed and their hair was sheared. When they were ready, they were pushed out of the barrack with deadly blows, and then they went to the gas chambers. The gas in the chambers was not Zyklon B as in Birkenau, but came from a Russian engine (of a Russian tank). It poisoned, choked people within 25 minutes, all would suffocate. It was terrible to hear the screaming, the agony of the women and the children...but a few minutes later, they would choke to death...
When we opened the doors, there were around 350-400 in there, including the children. They were all standing and when we opened the door, the first ones fell out. After that it was easier to get them out...When I took the bodies out and dumped them...from the gas chambers, there was a ramp, I had to throw them down. From there, they were taken on stretchers. Almost each and everyone each of those gassed sighed, let out a last breath, because it wasn't a poisonous gas, it was merely smoke. Behind the gas chambers they had a room, in which there were 4 to 5 young men, next to the gas chambers, who were called "dentists." They stood between the gas chambers and the pit, 3-4 dentists with a bowl of water. I would stop, one of them would open the corpse's mouth with his forceps, and look for gold teeth or something else and pull them out, and we brought them to the crematoriums." (Rosenberg, 2008)
Esther Eisen, formerly from Lodz, Poland and now living in Israel, was 11 years old when she was sent to Auschwitz. This is her account:
"We would stand barefoot for hours and hours, dressed in striped uniforms, our heads shaven, and it was cold. Thr only way to gain a little warmth was to have the first girl and last who were exposed to the wind huddle towards the middle, with the others so we would huddle together to warm them. But when they (SS guards) were watching, we quickly reformed the line and stood as though nothing had happened...We knew we had to work as hard as we could to survive there...We traveled for days with no food and no water and if we would have died on the way, so much the better." (Eisen, 2008)
Eventually, these camps would be discovered as Allied forces advanced from both sides and liberated these camps as the war gradually drew to an end and the tide was turning against Nazi Germany. As an epilogue, those who had been instrumental in the "Final Solution" from the higher echelons of the Nazi government to the guards of the concentration camps, were sought out, apprehended, brought to trial for war crimes and dealt with appropriately depending on the gravity of their role. Some were executed, while others served long prison terms. Others, like Eichmann, tried to escape abroad and live under a different identity but were later caught. The Nazis tried to destroy all their documents but were not entirely successful. The Allied forces were able seize a sizable number of documents and several of them talked about the Final Solution which was further corroborated by testimonies of the war criminals.
The Final Solution, or Hololcaust had cost the lives of about 6 million Jews, roughly half the number presented in Eichmann's report at Wannsee, in addition to other "subhumans" murdered in the camps such as gypsies, homosexuals and Slavs (Russians) who were also murdered by the millions as well. As for those who had survived years of confinement, they have moved on with their lives. Some tried to rebuild their lives in Europe, others emigrated to America to enjoy the freedoms they promised to those who live there; others went east to settle in the land they would later call Israel, the fulfillment of a promise made centuries ago of returning to the Promised Land and it would be here that the Jews would finally find a place where they are totally free from persecution and made a commitment never to allow the Holocaust to happen again.
In conclusion, one has to wonder why would man inflict such horrible against one's fellow man, especially something of this magnitude. Elie Wiesel, noted author and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, in a speech he made at Yad Vashem, said that it was not "man's inhumanity to man, but man's inhumanity to Jews." (Wiesel, 2008). What he meant was in the eyes of the Nazis, the Jews were not humans but were less than humans. This made it very easy for them to kill them regardless of age or gender because this attitude had already been ingrained in them by their ideology.
The Final Solution/Holocaust was the culmination of centuries of persecution against the Jews. One can see how the attitude of people of the Jews throughout the centuries has evolved. Since the rise of Christianity in early antiquity, Jews, because of their obstinacy and refusal to adhere to Christianity, were marginalized because the early Christians felt they were now the new "chosen people," something Jews still cling on to as well and their refusal to accept Christianity led them to be excluded from the rest of mainstream society as they have proven impossible to convert, hence expulsion became the best measure to protect themselves from their "wrong" ways. Early pogroms were done on a whim by society whenever a major crisis would occur and they needed a scapegoat.
The Nazis inherited these same attitudes. This showed when they began enacting anti-Semitic laws the moment they came to power and these laws were nothing new but a repeat of earlier anti-Semitic laws passed centuries ago. Nevertheless, the Nazis took it a step higher when they sought to eradicate the Jews from the face of the earth, hence the Final Solution. It can be inferred here that the history of the world appears to has no sympathy for the plight of the Jews even to this day with their ongoing conflict with the Palestinian Arabs where they are villified by some, if not most nations around the world for their cruelty towards these people.
Despite their "obstinacy," no one can deny that Jews are people too and no one on earth has the right to deprive them of their (natural) right to exist. It is not fair that the world has to villify the Jews just because of their steadfastness to their faith. The challenge now is to try putting oneself in their place to understand them as well because they deserve it as much as other marginalized people in the world.
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