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Holocaust--search words: Rossel, Seymour Rossel, Holocaust, Genocide, Hitler, anti-Semitism, prejudice, ladder of prejudice, war crimes, war crimes trials, World War II, Second World War, Himmler, Eichmann, concentration, concentration camps, ghetto, ghettos, shtetl, Nazi, Nazis, Nazism, Nuremberg, Kristallnacht, boat people, revolts, Warsaw ghetto, death camps, Heydrich, rescue, escape, slavery, discrimination, racism, racist, racists, Shoah, aftermath, roundup, roundups, transport, transports, selection, selections, medical experiments, Nazi hunters, echoes of Holocaust


As the German armies overran Europe, the Jews were trapped. Even while Hitler was directing the German military forces, he and the Nazi party were waging another war, the war against the Jews. In each country the Germans conquered the Nazi propaganda machine spread the lies of racism and anti-Semitism. In conquered western countries laws were passed that were similar or identical to those that had either driven out the Jews of Germany or condemned them to poverty. As far as the Nazis were concerned, France, Britain, and especially Russia, were merely political enemies. The Jews were far worse; they were "natural enemies" of the Germans.

To combat this enemy, the Nazis used the tactics of modern anti-Semitism. But they also borrowed tactics from the past: isolation and separation from the community.

Ghetto and Shtetl

To make their spiritual lives richer, Jews had usually chosen to live in Jewish communities, close by a synagogue. Nevertheless, these were voluntary settlements, and there were always some Jews who lived outside of them for one reason or another. During the fourteenth century in Spain and Portugal, however, Jews were compelled for the first time to live apart from non-Jews. Then in 1516, in Venice, Italy, the Catholic Church ordered that walls be built around the Jewish quarter. Venice gave this walled-in compound the name ghetto, which may come from borghetto ("little borough") or from the Italian word for a nearby iron foundry, gettare ("to cast in metal"). At night the ghetto gates were sealed and guards were posted to make sure that the Jews would not come out until daybreak.

In part, the Catholic Church created the ghetto to protect the Jews from attack. Ignorant peasants believed not only that the Jews were guilty of having killed Jesus, but also that the Jews brought bad luck or practiced evil magic. So when things went wrong, or life became difficult, they blamed the Jews, and often did them bodily harm. But in part the Church built the ghetto in order to separate Jews from Christians, and this isolation only served to make matters worse, for it heightened the superstitions of the peasants.

In a short time--and for like reasons--ghettos appeared throughout Europe. Jews were sometimes forced to wear badges on their clothing to show they were Jewish (this was another idea that the Nazis would later borrow). By generally accepted practice, often written into Church law, Jews were not allowed to own land and were forbidden to participate in many professions.

In eastern Europe, particularly in Poland and Lithuania, there were fewer ghettos. Instead, Jews lived in small private towns called shtetls. The government often protected shtetls, and the government would sometimes use taxes collected from the Jews living in these small communities to support the local rabbi or even a town council. But the shtetl had much the same effect as the ghetto: it singled out the Jews and separated them from the non-Jewish world.

The ultimate aim of the Church was to convert the Jews to Christianity. To achieve this, the Church did its utmost to make Jewish life uncomfortable. Jewish holy books were sometimes burned, and Jews were often forced to sit through long sermons promising hell to those who died Jewish. This, of course, marked a great difference between the anti-Jewish behavior of the Church and the anti-Semitic behavior of the Nazis: the Church wished to destroy Judaism by converting the Jews, and Hitler wished to destroy the Jews themselves.

Jewish Values

In the ghetto and the shtetl a Jewish way of life grew up based on the teachings of the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud, a book of law and legend compiled by the rabbis of Palestine and Babylonia and completed in the sixth century. In the Jewish world, education was valued over riches. Outside, illiteracy and ignorance were common. Within the Jewish world schools were supported by the community; and most Jews--men and women--could read and write in as many as three languages.

At the center of the community the synagogue, the house of worship, was the most frequent gathering place for the Jews. There the rabbis and the teachers were the most respected citizens. Typically, Jewish time was spent in the study of holy books, in prayer, and in small trades. Each community had its own government, collected its own taxes, and had its own courts of law.

Partly because they were kept somewhat isolated from their non-Jewish neighbors, the Jews learned to rely on one another. Then as today, every Jew was considered responsible for every other Jew. All Jews contributed to charity, even the poorest finding something to give. Family and family life were the core of the community. Within one’s family one found entertainment and warmth, kindness, and care.

The Jews managed in this way to survive attack after attack from non-Jews. After each assault life went on. Jewish merchants, bakers, tailors, and "fixers," (as handymen were called) continued to work and trade with their non-Jewish neighbors. But they often closed themselves off from friendships with non-Jews, trusting, instead, in God and one another.

The Jews in the West

The way of life established in the shtetls of eastern Europe continued right down to the time of Hitler. But the ghettos in the west were torn down at the end of the eighteenth century when the armies of Napoleon Bonaparte swept across Europe. Bonaparte believed that the Jews would be loyal to him if he freed them from their walled towns, and he was correct. In time, the Jews of western Europe told legends about the great Napoleon, even making him a part of their folklore.

When Napoleon was defeated, many of the things he had done were reversed, and a few ghettos were rebuilt. But for the most part, Jews were allowed to enter the mainstream of European life for the first time in hundreds of years. In fact, in Germany in the early years of the twentieth century, Jews were German citizens and, according to the law, fully equal with non-Jews. Some German Jews steadfastly maintained that they were "Germans first, Jews second."

Before Hitler came to power, German Jews had gained status as lawyers, physicians, business people, writers, and professors. Although the Jews were only about one percent of the population, the majority of the leading German scientists were Jewish, a great number of them Nobel Prize winners. Two of Germany’s greatest composers were Jewish--Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schonberg. And Germany had produced great Jewish writers; one, still called the "Shakespeare of the German language," was Heinrich Heine.

In places like Germany, where it was possible, many Jews stopped practicing Judaism and became "assimilated," or absorbed, into the general population. For these Jews it seemed that the ideals of Germany and those of Judaism were much the same. Judaism taught the equality of all human beings, and so did German law. Judaism taught love of justice, and so did Germany's greatest thinkers. Judaism believed in fairness and respect for others, and so did Germany's writers and philosophers. The position of Jews in Germany before Hitler was much like the position of American Jews today. Germany took pride in the achievements of her Jewish minority.

A New Time of Separation

But the mere fact that the Jews were outstanding in many fields made them noticeable. They were a choice target for Hitler's hatred. Hitler started out with a verbal campaign, but anti-Semitism developed into a dangerous and destructive social weapon.

Using new means of communication, fascist groups have perfected the weapon of [anti Semitism]. In its early stages, a fascist movement uses verbal violence as the pre cursor for the physical violence that will come later. [Carey McWilliams, A Mask for Privilege]

As his verbal propaganda campaign against the Jews took effect, Hitler turned to physical harassment. Separation became the first act in a large drama of destruction. The Jews found themselves trapped and held as in a vise. A Jewish Dutch girl, Anne Frank, was thirteen years old when she wrote in her diary:

After May 1940 good times rapidly fled: first the war, then the capitulation [the surrender of Holland to the Nazis], followed by the arrival of the Germans, which is when the suffering of the Jews really began. Anti Jewish decrees followed each other in quick succession. Jews must wear a yellow star, Jews must hand in their bicycles, Jews are banned from trains and are forbidden to drive, Jews are only allowed to do their shop ping between three and five o'clock and then only in shops which bear the placard "Jewish shop." Jews must be indoors by eight o'clock and cannot even sit in their own gardens after that hour. Jews are forbidden to visit theaters, cinemas, and other places of entertainment. Jews may not take part in public sports. Swimming baths, tennis courts, hockey fields, and other sports grounds are all prohibited to them. Jews may not visit Christians. Jews must go to Jewish schools, and many more restrictions of a similar kind. ... So we could not do this and were forbidden to do that. [Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl]

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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