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The Holocaust and Its Meaning

Nearly six million Jews were killed in what historians have called the Holocaust. A holocaust is a conflagration, a great raging fire consuming in its path all that lives. Just such a murderous fire burned for a few short years during World War II in Germany and in the countries that Germany invaded and conquered. When this Holocaust was over, nearly one-third of all the Jews in the world had been put to death.

They were not just the victims of war, though World War II was being fought. They were not just victims of neglect, although many died of exposure, disease, and starvation. They were not just victims of politics, although some were put to death for openly disagreeing with the government. They were not just victims of senseless mobs, although Nazi officials encouraged anti-Jewish rioting. The Jews of Europe who died in the Holocaust were the victims of a careful, well-organized plan.

This plan had one purpose: to destroy the Jews. The Nazis who designed the program called it "the Final Solution to the Jewish Question." Six million people were murdered because they were born of Jewish parents, had one Jewish parent, or had at least one Jewish grandparent.

Of course, people have been killing one another since the beginning of history. And in our times--through newspapers, magazines, radio, and television--murder has become a part of everyday life. In recent memory, millions watched as the man accused of assassinating President John F. Kennedy was himself assassinated in front of a television camera. Over the following ten years television brought us images of soldiers killing and being killed in a war thousands of miles away. Just to open the daily newspaper or to tune in to CNN today is to discover a world that seems full of violence. Why should anyone read about a crime that happened more than forty years ago?

Why read about the Holocaust?

Extermination as Official Policy

What sets the Holocaust starkly apart from the violent crimes that tend to fill our daily news reports is the appalling fact that the murder of innocent civilians was a government policy. There have been, and are, other examples of government policy intended to subjugate, even to exterminate, a group of people. But never in history has such a policy been carried out on such a scale.

The Weight of Numbers: the Holocaust Balance Sheet

The sheer size of the catastrophe also gives the Holocaust lasting significance. A few individuals--the Nazis--within just a few years set about to accomplish mass murder in the firm belief that no one would even attempt to stop them.

It is impossible to know exactly how many Jews were put to death. At the time, the Nazis kept careful lists, many of which were stored in one central office. But they set fire to these files to prevent their capture by the advancing Allied forces. Nevertheless, official records were captured at the end of the war. On the basis of these, although they are not complete, estimates of the number of Jews who were put to death or died in the Holocaust range between 5,200,000 and 6,000,000. The loss of so many individuals was in itself a catastrophe. In fact, historically, it was among the largest losses ever suffered by any one people.

The Encyclopedia Judaica estimates the total number of victims as 5,820,960. This includes 4,565,000 Polish and Russian Jews; 125,000 German Jews; 65,000 Austrian Jews; 277,000 Czechoslovakian Jews; 402,000 Hungarian Jews; 83,000 French Jews; 24,000 Belgian Jews; 700 Jews of Luxembourg; 7,500 Italian Jews; 106,000 Jews of the Netherlands; 760 Norwegian Jews; 40,000 Rumanian Jews; 60,000 Yugoslavian Jews; and 65,000 Greek Jews.

Moreover, Jews were not the only victims of the Holocaust. The Nazis also considered Gypsies to be racially inferior and put many to death. Slavs were murdered for the same reason. The mentally retarded, the insane, homosexuals, and the physically deformed were also put to death. Political enemies--those considered enemies of the Nazi state, many of whom openly opposed Hitler--were killed as well.

The Human Element

Numbers alone cannot tell the story. After all, we are speaking of human beings--people who had families, worked, walked in parks, went to the movies, visited museums; people who listened to music, who danced and sang, who studied and played games, who ate in restaurants, and who gave parties. Each was a unique person with special hopes, wishes, feelings, and needs; with parents, friends, and relatives.

Understanding the Past

Another major reason for careful study of the Holocaust is our need to understand the past. Like fire marshals sifting the ashes once the flames have been extinguished, scholars continue to seek the causes of this human tragedy.

How did such a great outpouring of hatred come about? How did it come to be government policy? Were there warning signs of what was about to take place--signs that no one read at the time, but that we may discover now?

The philosopher George Santayana wrote that we must learn from history, for "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Scholars who study the Holocaust would like to ensure that nothing like it will ever happen again.

Discovering Responsibility

In 1960 Adolf Eichmann, the German who had been most directly responsible for carrying out the policy of the "Final Solution," was put on trial and hanged for "crimes against the Jewish people and against humanity." The trial of Eichmann shed new light on questions of political and moral responsibility.

The crime of the Holocaust was so great that, at first, there was a natural human reluctance to look into it too deeply. Before World War II, people could still believe that the world was slowly but surely becoming a better place. New technology was making lives easier and more comfortable. Western Europeans and Americans regarded their way of life as the most forward-looking, the most civilized in the world. Germans, Frenchmen, and Britons were teaching the so-called backward peoples of Asia and Africa what true civilization meant.

Suddenly a civilized European nation, Germany, began to ignore all the rules of this civilization. Germany made treaties and broke them without warning or apology. The German government imprisoned leading scholars, scientists, and public figures just for opposing government policies. Germany started what would become the most destructive war in history. Nazi troops and officials seized German Jews and Jews from conquered countries, and sent them to forced labor and death. The German government did all these things; and the German people were silent.

The modern German nation had fallen below the confident standards of the so-called civilized world. It was suddenly necessary to face the discouraging fact that no nation is so civilized as to have no potential for evil. Moreover, a nation is nothing more than a collection of individuals. No matter what a group, an army, or a government may do, decisions are made and actions taken by individuals who must inevitably bear the responsibility for them. After World War II, this, above all, was recognized as the message of the Holocaust.

Order The Holocaust at Amazon

The newly revised and updated edition of
The Holocaust: An End to Innocence is now available
in paperback and Kindle.

“Seymour Rossel, a long-experienced and gifted educator, here gives yet another important contribution for readers of every age and background. This book is a rare and valuable overview of an enormously challenging subject. Every chapter is accessible, intelligent, and compelling.”David Altshuler, PhD, Founding Director, Museum of Jewish Heritage, New York


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