Dive Into History: Commemorating Holocaust Memorial Day

Every year, on the 27th of January, the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust commemorates the 6 million Jews (around two-thirds of Europe’s Jewish population at the time) who tragically lost their lives at the hands of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime. The date marks the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, taken by Joseph Stalin’s Soviet forces shortly before Hitler’s premiership was finally ended by a coalition of Allied forces, including from Britain, the USA, and the USSR. The event has been observed across the university for some years and, despite the ongoing disruption caused by Covid-19, 2022 is no different. Here at the library, we’ve created a reading list packed with informative materials, including ebooks, documentaries, and movies, as well as an easy-to-navigate timeline, highlighting some of the key moments in the history of the Holocaust between 1933-45.

But how did the Holocaust happen? What is the history of Jewish persecution? How did the Third Reich vilify and demonise Jews to such an extent that they could be so heartlessly murdered by it’s adherents? Read on to find out… 

Jewish Persecution in History

No one knows exactly where antisemitism originates and the topic has sparked endless debate. But while the persecution of the Jews reached a tragic zenith in the mid-twentieth century, its history can be traced back much, much further. Judaism is one of the world’s oldest religions. It first appears in history in Greek records from the Hellenistic Period (323-31 BCE) and the earliest textual reference to Israel is inscribed on the Merneptah Stele, an engraved ancient Egyptian stone found in Thebes and dating from 1213-1203 BCE. 

The Merneptah Stele, now housed in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo.
The Merneptah Stele, now housed in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo.

Religious literature tells the story of the ancient Israelites, from whom modern Jews are descended, back to perhaps around 1500 BCE. In the Christian Bible, for example, we see them persecuted and enslaved by the Egyptian Pharaoh. Fearful of their growing numbers, Pharaoh has all their male children executed. Of course, famously, the baby Moses is spared when he is sent drifting up the Nile in a basket and then later wins his people’s freedom. After wandering the wilderness for forty years the Israelite’s finally settle somewhere around modern-day Israel, before eventually being cast back into captivity by the Babylonians. 

Manetho, an ancient Egyptian priest living in the third century BCE, wrote scathingly of Jews and claimed they were not freed as this story in Exodus would later explain, but were expelled from the region as they threatened the survival of the Egyptian civilisation. In the Bible itself some have argued we then see the Jews depicted as committing Decide (the act of killing a God) and that, through the centuries, this has further emboldened anti-Jewish sentiment. The Old Testament describes how, when Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea during the trial and execution of Christ, symbolically washed his hands of the process he declared: ’I am innocent of this man’s blood’. In response, the assembled crowd of Jews are said to have cried back: ‘his blood be on us and on our children’. The earliest recorded instance of Jews being explicitly accused of Decide was from a sermon attributed to Melito of Sardis, a Christian bishop practising near Smyrna (an ancient Greek city in modern-day Turkey). Written around 160 CE, the sermon claims the Jews allowed King Herod and Pilate to have Jesus crucified: ‘God has been murdered. The king of Israel has been put to death by an Israelite right hand’.  

Ecce Homo 'Behold the Man', by Antonio Ciseri, depicts Pontius Pilate presenting a scourged Jesus to the people of Jerusalem
Ecce Homo ‘Behold the Man’, by Antonio Ciseri, depicts Pontius Pilate presenting a scourged Jesus to the people of Jerusalem

Similarly, the Quran also contains references to Jews that have been interpreted as deeply unfavourable and that may also have encouraged aggression towards them. It has been argued that a number imply wretchedness and baselessness are inherent to Jews, while others depict them committing duplicitous acts against the prophet Mohammed. There are, however, numerous instances where Jews are portrayed favourably too and, as a result, theologians and academics often disagree on whether the Quran contains any significant traces of antisemitism.

Whatever the reason though, the classical world is full of examples of Jewish persecution. For instance, around 170 BCE The King of the Seleucid Empire (which covered a number of modern Middle-Eastern nations) issued laws restricting Jewish religious practices, sparking the famous revolt of the Maccabees in Judea. In Ancient Rome, a number of perceived attacks on Jewish culture and heritage in part led to a series of Jewish-Roman Wars between 66-135 CE and there are a number of occasions where Roman rulers expelled Jews from the Eternal City itself (Antoninus Pius in 139 BCE, Tiberius in 19 CE, and Claudius sometime around 41-53 CE). In 38 CE riots even broke out in Alexandria in which Jews were attacked, tortured, and murdered, and their homes and businesses burned down, as the citizenship status of the city’s Jewish population came under increased scrutiny. 

The Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem by Francesco Hayez. Painted in 1867, it depicts a anti-Jewish attack from the First Jewish-Roman War, 66-73 CE.
The Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem by Francesco Hayez. Painted in 1867, it depicts a anti-Jewish attack from the First Jewish-Roman War, 66-73 CE.

In Medieval Europe a similar story emerges. In the 6th century the Visigothic rulers, who controlled much of the modern day Iberian peninsula, prevented Jews marrying Christians and placed strict limits on the Jewish religious freedoms. Almost totally conquered by Islamic rulers after the 8th century, it has been argued that Jewish culture experienced a ‘Golden Age’ under caliphate rule, although a series of pogroms throughout this time also saw them face extreme periodic violence. For example, in 1066 a mob stormed Granada in southern Spain, crucified a Jewish public official, and massacred the Jewish population. Nearly 50 years on the nearby city of Cordoba was attacked by Berbers who put its Jewish population to the sword.

The Massacre of the Innocents, painted in 1557 by Daniele da Volterra, depicts the 1066 attack on Granada.
The Massacre of the Innocents, painted in 1557 by Daniele da Volterra, depicts the 1066 attack on Granada.

Things got particularly bad for European Jews during the First Crusade of 1096, when enormous mobs of Christians, invigorated by a swell of xenophobia and self-righteousness, attacked their Jewish compatriots and either forcibly converted or murdered them.  In 1298 another series of targeted attacks on Jews, known as The Rintfleisch Massacres, took place in the Franconian region of what is now modern-day Germany. At least 146 communities were ravaged and 3,000 people killed in and around the town of Rottingen alone.

A portrait in Westminster Abbey, thought to be of Edward I.
A portrait in Westminster Abbey, thought to be of Edward I.

In this later Medieval period Jews were expelled from a number of nations. In 1290 Edward I’s Edict of Expulsion forced them unceremoniously from England for over 350 years – the law was only overturned by Oliver Cromwell’s government in 1657. Similarly, France had enacted forced expulsions at least four times (in 1182, 1306, 1321, and 1394) and the Spanish monarchs did the same in 1492 after reclaiming those lands previously held by Muslim conquerors for centuries. 

During this time, as the Black Death ravaged Europe, outbreaks of plague were often also blamed on the Jews and typically saw sharp increases in antisemitism and even fully-fledged pogroms. For instance, in 1349 hundreds of Jews were burned alive in Basel, Freiburg, and Strasbourg in response to plague epidemics.

Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, as painted by Earnest Lipgart.
Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, as painted by Earnest Lipgart.

The next few centuries saw some particularly concentrated attacks in Eastern Europe. In the second half of the Seventeenth-century, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was ravaged by series of conflicts that saw the decimation of its Jewish population. The Khemelnytky Uprising, a Cossack rebellion that broke out between 1648-1657 may have resulted in the death of tens of thousands of resident Jews. Cossack’s again went on the rampage in 1768, besieging the town of Humań in central Ukraine (now called Uman) and slaughtering its Jewish citizens. In order to better control the growing Jewish population in the region, in 1772 Russian Empress Catherine II forced her Jewish subjects into a loosely demarcated area of land in Western Russia described as the Pale of Settlement, while also placing strict restrictions on their civil liberties.

Richard Wagner, celebrated composer and branded 'the first prophet of antisemitism' by historian Jonathan Steinberg.
Richard Wagner, celebrated composer and branded ‘the first prophet of antisemitism’ by historian Jonathan Steinberg.

The assassination of Tsar Nicholas II in 1881 then provided a pretext for a new wave of brutality, after Jewish dissidents were suspected of carrying out the murder. The May Laws of the following year severely restricted the rights of Jews, placing limits on their movements, their ability to own property and business, while those who already owned businesses were hit with trading curfews. Later, quotas were introduced capping the numbers of Jews that could be admitted to schools and universities. They were also prevented from selling alcohol, or adopting Christian names, and taking part in local elections.    

It was around this time when Richard Wagner, world famous composer and ‘the first prophet of modern antisemitism’, published his infamous essay, Das Judenthum in der Musik. He wrote witheringly of Jews, referring to an ‘instinctive dislike’ of their kind, which he claimed was justified by what he described as their inherently greedy nature and their underhanded infiltration of German society.

Karl Marx’s essay, On the Jewish Question, was also published during this era and contained, some argue, antisemitic undertones for equating Jews with capitalism and further conflating Jewishness with greediness. Even by Marx and Wagner’s day, this was a longstanding stereotype that had been used to attack Jewish people since at least the Middle-Ages. In Christian Europe, for example, followers of orthodox religion were not permitted to lend money with interest, since The Bible condemned the practice. But, since Jews could profit as moneylenders, some naturally grew wealthy as a result. Edward I certainly used this fact to vilify Jews in England and rally support for his cynical mass expulsion in the 13th century, which he then profited handsomely from, since all property and land owned by the banished automatically reverted to the crown.

Germany in the Late-Nineteenth and Early-Twentieth Centuries

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries Germany was a nation state in bloom. Unified by Otto von Bismarck only a few decades earlier, it was modernising fast and steadily catching up to its European rivals like Great Britain. Many of its inhabitants were able to capitalise on this new growth and climb the social ladder; the middle classes, in particular, expanded almost exponentially.  

Children in playing with bundles of German Papiermarks, now effectively worthless.
Children in Germany playing with bundles of paper money (Papiermarks), now effectively worthless.

After the First World War, however, Germany was forced to abide by the extremely restrictive Treaty of Versailles, which curtailed further economic growth and damaged its standing on the global stage. Rampant hyperinflation followed, in which the value of Germany’s Papiermark fell from 8.9 per 1$ to 4.2 trillion per 1$ between 1920-23. Some were so outraged by the terms of the treaty and its impact on the prosperity of the nation that in 1929 a group of nationalists held a referendum to introduce a ‘Law Against the Enslavement of the German People’. The bill proposed that it be made illegal to comply with reparation payments, as set out in the Versailles legislation. Voter turnout was only around 15% and so the result could not be implemented, but with a 94% approval rate, it was touted as a significant symbolic victory for the nationalists and a portent of things to come. 

A second devastating blow then came shortly after, as Germany was hit particularly hard by the Great Depression, in part because it had tried to finance an economic recovery with a number of expensive foreign loans. There was a perception amongst some, first that Jewish capitalists had benefited disproportionately from the initial period of growth before the First World War, but then that they had also been able to insulate themselves from the worst deprivations of later instability.   

At the same time, interest in racial politics was growing in Germany and, indeed, throughout Europe. The Eugenics Movement, for instance, which rejected the idea that all humans were born equal and instead emphasised the value of genetic health and purity, had been rapidly gaining new adherents. It soon became an academic discipline in its own right and many universities began teaching courses on the subject, including the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Anthropology, Heredity, and Eugenics, established in Berlin in 1927. Numerous researchers argued passionately that science proved some groups should, for the greater good, be sterilised and excluded from the gene pool. 

A 1930s poster from the Eugenics Society.
A 1930s poster from the Eugenics Society.

The growth of the Eugenics Movement played a key role in the glorification of aryanism that provided a pretext for Nazi xenophobia. The Aryan Race, a subdivision of the Caucasian Race, are a group of Indo-European heritage, thought to have originated from the Pontic Steppe (an area north of the Black Sea, Caspian Sea, and the Caucuses), before migrating across Europe and Asia. In the late nineteenth-century new research claimed that Indo-Europeans had originated in central Europe and Scandinavia, resulting in the word ‘Aryan’ becoming more commonly used to mean ‘German’ or ‘Nordic’. Gustaf Kossina, a German professor of archaeology at the University of Berlin, claimed in his research that the Aryan Race was physically superior to others and equated with the ancient Germans. His research was later used as a justification for the Nazi invasion of Poland and Czechoslovakia, since he claimed that the Germanic people had a historic right to reclaim the lands they once occupied.  

Nazi Germany and Antisemitism

Born in Austria-Hungary in 1889, Adolf Hitler moved with his family to Passau, Germany, aged 3. He expressed nationalist ideas even at a young age and served in the German military during the First World War, where he was decorated for his bravery. There is no record of his antisemitism until slightly later though. In 1919, around the time he first joined the German Workers Party, he wrote what is now known as the Gemlich Letter, in which he argued that the government’s aim must be ‘the removal of the Jews altogether’.   

Hitler after his rise to power
Adolph Hitler after his rise to power.

Elected Chairman of the NSDAP (colloquially known as the Nazi Party) in 1921, Hitler quickly gained a large and loyal following. However, a failed coup d’état (known widely as the Beer Hall Putsch) landed him in jail, where he spent time writing extensively and further fleshing out the political ideology that would later lead him to power. In his work he mobilised the arguments of the eugenicists and claimed that the central European people had become weak, affected by the progressive introduction of degenerate elements into the gene pool. His first book, Mein Kampf, contains the passage: ‘the nationalisation of our masses will succeed only when, aside from all the positive struggle for the soul of our people, the intentional poisoners are exterminated’. Chillingly, he also exclaimed: ‘if at the beginning of the war and during the war twelve or fifteen thousand of these Hebrew corrupters of the nation had been subjected to poison gas, such as had to be endured in the field by hundreds of thousands of our very best German workers of all classes and professions, then the sacrifice of millions at the front would not have been in vain’. 

By 1930 the NSDAP were the second largest party in the German parliament and by 1933, thanks to his Enabling Act which allowed him to pass laws without parliamentary approval, Hitler was essentially de-facto dictator of Germany.  At this point the NSDAP worked to crush all pockets of resistance and establish themselves as the unchallengeable source of all power in Germany. They also quickly put in place measures that gave effect to their long-held and deep-seated racial hatred of Jews. In April 1933 they organised a boycott of Jewish owned shops and businesses, while Jews in public sector positions were dismissed from their jobs. It was under the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 Jews were officially degraded to the status of second-class citizens, with strict restrictions placed on their liberties as a result. For example, they were now largely forbidden from marrying non-Jews.

Anti-Semitic propaganda from 1940s Germany. The caption reads: 'who is to blame for the war?'
Anti-Semitic propaganda from 1940s Germany. The caption reads: ‘who is to blame for the war?’

The Association of Jewish Refugees has collected the testimonies and told the stories of Jews who lived in Nazi occupied territories around this time. Margarete Hinrichson, for example, who was 13 when the Nazi’s came to power, explained that ‘everything changed … friends from school, whom you walked in the break with, arm in arm, wouldn’t do that anymore, and you didn’t know what hit you’. Frank Bright recalled how ‘gradually the children in my class would disappear …. they just wouldn’t turn up! They were deported’. One of those unfortunate vanishing children was Ruth Sellers, who around the age of 13, says she ‘had to leave the school’ and was subsequently placed in a special all-Jewish institution. Not everyone was able to leave so anonymously though: Lilly Crewe described how, in 1933, her parents were called into school to witness her hauled onto the stage during assembly where her headmistress exclaimed ‘this girl is a criminal! She has called our soldiers, or whatever, Nazi swines. She is hereby expelled’.

Jews across Nazi-occupied Europe found themselves demonised and more explicitly ostracised with each passing day. John Dobai explained how, aged 10, a classmate told him he would not be allowed to return to school because he was a ‘dirty stinking Jew’. ‘I started to cry and I rushed back to my mother’, Dobai claimed. It was shortly afterwards that he remembered new legislation passing, forcing Jews to hand in ‘anything of value’, including bank accounts, jewellery, cars, radios, cameras, and carpets. In the town of Dobris (in modern day Czech Republic) during the late-1930s, Tom Arieh was ‘woken by the sounds of violence and shouting …. it was the Germans who had come to smash up the synagogue …. it was terrifying’. Arieh explained that ‘the next morning the synagogue was in ruins’.

the ruins of a building
The ruins of a building, destroyed during Krisallnacht.

Arieh’s experience was by no means atypical. In March 1938 the Nazis marched into Austria, unleashing an orgy of plundering and violence against Jewish people and properties. In November, German Jews were then subjected to a horrific pogrom, known as Kristallnacht (also referred to as the Night of Broken Glass or Crystal Night). Close to 300 synagogues and 7,000 Jewish businesses were destroyed and around 100 Jews brutally murdered.  

After this many tried, often with great difficulty, to emigrate from Germany. For example, the St Louis, a ship carrying over 900 refugees, departed from Hamburg and made its way to Cuba, where officials refused to let it dock. After travelling along the coast desperately searching for safe ground, the ships passengers were belatedly accepted into Britain, France, Belgium, and Holland. Those who stayed behind were legally required to wear bands that marked them out as Jewish (and therefore as second-class citizens) and thousands were forced to move into squalid self-contained ghettos or labour camps. 

Jews fleeing Nazi occupation
Jews fleeing Nazi occupation.

The Final Solution

As of October 1941, Nazi legislation banned any further Jewish emigration. Jews in Nazi-occupied territories were effectively now state prisoners. Around the same time the Nazi leadership established the Einsatzgruppen, mobile paramilitary death squads whose sole aim was to exterminate dissidents and Jews. Operating under the direction of Heinrich Himmler, the Einsatzgruppen roamed areas of Poland, Soviet Russia, and the Baltic states, hunting down victims and killing them without mercy, usually by gunshot.

An Einsatzgruppen squad and their captives
An Einsatzgruppen squad and their captives.

In search for a more efficient and effective ‘final solution to the Jewish problem’ the Nazi’s began deporting Jews to concentration camps, sometimes in their thousands, and having them mercilessly gassed to death. The first example of using gas as a method of execution at the Auschwitz concentration camp may have been around August 1941 when a group of Soviet’s had highly toxic Zyklon B (a cyanide-based pesticide invented in Germany in the 1920s) crystals thrown into their basement cell. The programme was quickly taken up by the Auschwitz management though, as a further 700 were summarily murdered in early September. Similarly, in December 1941 the Lodz ghetto (in central Poland), the second largest in occupied Europe, began to be emptied, with its residents killed using vans that directed exhaust fumes into a chamber at the back. 

Jews boarding a train to Auschwitz
Jews boarding the train to Auschwitz.

Soon, across occupied Europe new camps were hastily designed with their own bespoke killing chambers.  By July 1942 the new camp at Treblinka in eastern Poland was fully operational; for Jews it would become the second deadliest of all the Nazi concentration camps, with around 900,000 innocent people entering its doors never to return. Only at Auschwitz was death and misery traded so freely and so relentlessly. Situated just a few miles from Krakow (in southern Poland) and previously used as a Polish army barracks, Auschwitz began taking in prisoners of war in mid-1940. It was soon expanded and eventually became an enormous complex of 40 detention and extermination centres. All told, it is estimated that around 1.1 million people were put to death within its walls, most of them Jews who were marched straight to the gas chambers shortly after arrival. 

Testimonies of life in these camps demonstrate just how horrific they were. Lillian Levy described how she was sent to Bergen-Belsen (in northern Germany) with her parents: ‘[the food] was dreadful …. my parents gave me theirs. It wasn’t enough to keep my body and soul together, but I took theirs because I was hungry and I didn’t know any different .… they starved to death’. Ibolya Ginsberg gave an equally harrowing account of her journey to Auschwitz: ‘the train stopped and it was quiet. I lay there and I realised that we must have arrived somewhere … as I sat there, my father was opposite me … and as it got lighter I kept looking, there was something different about my father …. he got grey overnight. Now after he survived, we survived, and we started talking and I told to him, “do you remember that last night that you got white?” He said, “Did I?” …. and I said, “Yes.” …. He said, “I will tell you why … there was an old German” … and he said to the man, “tell me, where are they taking us? What is going to happen to us?” And father said, he looked at me, and he told me. So he sat there the whole night knowing what is going to happen to us and he got grey’. 

famished inmates from a concentration camp
Famished inmates from a concentration camp in Ebensee, northern Austria.

The End of the War

Slowly but surely and after years of fighting and enormous sacrifice, the Allies began to turn the tide of war against the Germans. As Nazi forces were pushed back from the east by the Soviets and from the west by a coalition of forces including from France and Britain, Nazi guards abandoned concentration camps and left advancing allied forces to liberate them in turn. The Red Army freed over 7,000 inmates from Auschwitz and found the corpses of over 600 who had either been shot by retreating Nazi guards or succumbed to exhaustion. Vasilii Petrenko of the Red Army visited Auschwitz shortly after it was captured. Writing 55 years later he wrote: ‘I who saw people dying every day was shocked by the Nazis’ indescribable hatred toward the inmates who had turned into living skeletons …. I saw a barrack for women where blood and excrement were everywhere; corpses lay all around – a horrible scene. One could not be there more than five minutes because there was such a horrible smell of decomposing bodies’. Georgii Elisavetskii, one of the very first Soviet soldiers to enter the camp, painted an equally tragic picture: ‘my blood runs cold when I mention Auschwitz even now …. when I entered the barrack, I saw living skeletons lying on the three-tiered bunks. As in fog, I hear my soldiers saying [to inmates]: “You are free, comrades!” I sense that they do not understand [us] and [they] begin speaking to them in Russian, Polish, German, Ukrainian dialects. Unbuttoning my leather jacket, I show them my medals … then I use Yiddish. Their reaction is unpredictable. They think that I am provoking them. They begin to hide. And only when I said to them: “Do not be afraid, I am a colonel of Soviet Army and a Jew. We have come to liberate you …. finally, as if the barrier collapsed … they rushed towards us shouting, fell on their knees, kissed the flaps of our overcoats, and threw their arms around our legs. And we could not move, stood motionless while unexpected tears rolled down our cheeks’.   

prisoners liberated from Auschqitz
Prisoners liberated from Auschwitz.

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