The Holocaust: An Essential Lesson for the Future

By:  Erin Rackelman
Lakeland, Florida


Over fifty years ago something happened that surpasses the boundaries of all that is humane. A tragic, despicable series of events that lays shame and guilt upon our hearts and on the pages of our world's history books--the Holocaust.

It happened gradually and, at first, went either unnoticed or ignored. What began as intolerance slowly evolved into a vicious hatred of fellow humans. This movement was supported and sustained by the growing number of members in the Third Reich of Germany. The Nazi forces slowly gained power through enacting laws, setting up concentration camps, and, ultimately, executing the "Final Solution." Remembrance of these times is vital, for, if forgotten, control could be lost and history could once again begin a malevolent journey. The Holocaust robbed the world of so much potential--the minds, spirits, and accomplishments of an entire culture.

At the end of January, 1933, Adolf Hitler became the Chancellor of the German Republic. As Chancellor, Hitler, unnoticed by many, succeeded in "legally" accomplishing an unbelievable revolution. Upon coming into power, Hitler sponsored riots and boycotts against Jewish businesses. He followed with a statement that forced the retirement of Jewish judges and removed Jewish lawyers from various cases (Keleher, 303). Hitler continued enacting laws that reduced the number of Jewish students that could attend German schools, prohibiting Jews from practicing as physicians or dentists, and excluded Jews from participating as members on a jury. As 1933 came to a close, Hitler had legally excluded the Jewish people from the government and begun his campaign of terror and violence against them (Keleher, 304).

Citizenship for the Jews was completely lost in 1935 with the Nurnberg laws. Under the Reich Citizenship Law, citizenship became based on race, not rights, and the Jews were now considered a state subject as opposed to a citizen. The Jewish people could not marry Germans, go to places of entertainment, such as swimming pools or the theater; nor could they gain access to the German legal system. These new ordinances in 1935 indicated a change in Hitler's dispensation of laws. What had begun as a campaign of intolerance, had, now, moved to an organized and methodical form of administered terror (Keleher, 305).

Hitler furthered his crusade by issuing additional laws in 1938. Jews were required to carry official identification cards, adopt a "Jewish" name issued by the government, could no longer own property, and were eventually ordered to live in the ghettos. As a result of the widespread arrests that took place in the spring and summer of 1938, there was an expansion of concentration camps in Germany (Keleher, 305). From 1933 to 1939 there was an intensification of political, social, legal, economic, religious, and cultural discrimination against Jews in Germany. All in all, Hitler passed roughly four hundred laws (Keleher, 305), stripping the German Jews of their rights as citizens...and as humans.

Hitler's notorious "Final Solution" had its beginnings in 1933 when he established concentration camps, the first being Duchan, for the purpose of housing political opponents (Messenger, 58). However, soon after being built, the camps were turned into torturous prisons, and ultimately a mass grave for any the Nazis considered "unfit." In addition to the Jews; Gypsies, Poles, homosexuals, political prisoners, the disabled and mentally ill were also considered unfit and, therefore, worthless.

After relocating to the ghettos, Jews were soon moved to the concentration camps. Many were shot or killed by the exhausting work they were forced to perform. However, this did not prove to be an effective means of extermination. An improved method of mass murder was developed--gas chambers disguised as showers ("Holocaust," 14). The gassed corpses were then either thrown into mass graves or taken to an adjacent crematorium. This mass extermination created a situation where less people participated in and witnessed these ghastly murders, therefore reducing the chance of later discovery and lowering the amount of people who could attest to the atrocities.

A retired Russian general, Vaslily Petrenko, was interviewed about his experience during the liberation of Auschwitz. He initially heard about this camp when his commander spoke of a ghostly place discovered, where thousands had been murdered.

"I had seen alot of terrible scenes while fighting on the front lines. I saw my comrades dying. I saw signs of German atrocities in the territories we freed-dozens of people hung by the Germans, women and children shot to death... what I saw in the camps was beyond any comparison...I saw eighty two children, from three to fourteen years old, wracked by criminal medical experiments...I saw women and children who resembled skeletons, who could not even smile in a human manner. They had tears in their eyes, but they could not even sob."

General Petrenko also said that when they arrived at Auschwitz, the Nazis realized there was no time to gas the remaining prisoners. Their solution was to begin shooting prisoners and also the sonderkommando, those that worked in the gas chambers and crematoriums. The Nazis wanted no one left to testify. Crews were also dispatched to clean the chimneys. These crews had to scrape out human fat deposits that were eighteen inches thick (Adler, 54).

Human spirits were shattered in the camps like Auschwitz; the Nazis held the hammers. What was struck--human souls--cannot be repaired. What happened in those camps is completely unbelievable, yet it did happen. The Nazis not only robbed people of their homes, jobs, and families; they destroyed all human rights and peace of mind.

As unlikely as it seems, the Holocaust did produce some positive effects for the liberators and survivors, and also for our present society. Strong relationships were formed between many of the survivors and their liberators. From the Nazis' genocide, a rebirth of the Jewish culture and religion occured. Through horrific circumstances, many survivors discovered an inner peace and strength they never dreamed they had. The Holocaust also, fortunately, forced people throughout the world to face what happens when those who consider themselves superior destroy those they deem "unfit."

What was called the "Final Solution" is now known as "ethnic cleansing." Today, anti-Semitism and discrimination are on the rise. It is all too often instilled in our young people, and this must stop. Education is the key. Parents must give their children an appreciation for the similarities and differences between humans. We must teach our children that all people have value and no one is superior to anyone else. When confronted with prejudice, it is imperative that we speak out against it. "The only way to fight bigotry and racism is to unmask it, to speak up, to not be indifferent (Wiesel, 28)."

Concentration camps still exist today. Zupanja, a camp in Eastern Croatia, houses 230 refugees, crowded into a few old German rail cars. There are thirty thousand people trying to survive in makeshift camps at Turanj and Batnoga (Cataldi, 62).

Hitler subtly gained power and was allowed to turn intolerance into hatred and finally, genocide. It was such a gradual progression that no one realized the extent to which Hitler had taken it until it was already too late. The ethnic cleansing that exists today hopefully will not go unnoticed or ignored.

While we reflect upon the horrors of the Holocaust, we need to relate it to our present society and future generations. All too soon there will not be anyone left as eye witnesses. Already there are those who claim it never happened. If the Holocaust could teach us one eternal lesson, let it be this: intolerance has no place in any society; each and every human being has value. We must never close our eyes to any forms of prejudice, but speak out to avoid the possibility of further crimes against humanity.


1. Adler, Jerry. "The Last Days of Auschwitz." Newsweek 16 Jan. 1995: 46-55.

2. Cataldi, Anna and Sebastiao Salgado. "Casualties of War." Rolling Stone 23 Feb. 1995: 60-67.

3. Iams, John. "Russian General Recalls Horrors of Auschwitz." News Chief 19 Jan. 1995, Sec. B: 1.

4. Keleher, Edward P. Great Events from History Volume 1. Englewood Cliffs: Salem Press, 1980.

5. Messenger, Charles. The Pictorial History of World War II. Gallery Books: New York, 1987.

6. Nagorski, Andrew. "A Tortured Legacy." Newsweek 16 Jan. 1995: 56-57.

7. Navarro, Mireya. "Holocaust Survivors Celebrate Life." The Ledger 20 February 1995, Sec. B:5.

8. Wetteraw, Bruce. Macmillan Concise Dictionary of World History. New York: Macmillan, 1983.

9. Wiesel, Elie and John Cardinal O'Connor. A Journey of Faith. New York: Primus, 1990.

10. "After Fifty Years, World Pained by Auschwitz." The Ledger 22 Jan. 1995, Sec. A:1,4.

11. "Holocaust." Encyclopedia Britannica 1994 edition.



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