|In 1947, the United
Nations passed a human rights decree declaring genocide or the
systematic killing of an entire people based on religion, nationality,
and ethnicity, unlawful. During World War II, the Germans attempted to
exterminate European Jewry. This unforgettable form of genocide was the
result of racism practiced by the Nazi Germans under the totalitarian
leadership of Adolph Hitler. This somber period of human existence is
referred to as the Holocaust, meaning a sacrificial burnt
offering, (Fulbrook 105). Remarkably, some victims survived the
Holocaust. Their voice, poetry, and prose have testified against the
crimes committed by Nazis.
This essay analyzes the shameful events that led to the Holocaust, and the Jewish victims' ability to survive. Furthermore, it questions the Central and Eastern European civilian inactivity in helping Jewish victims of Nazi hatred.
After the end of World War I, Adolph Hitler, a strong believer in German nationalism, joined an extreme right wing group. Within a few years, the group became the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP) or Nazi Party. Adopting German deep rooted anti-Semitic ideas, Hitler's racial and nationalist fanaticism led him to become the Nazi leader.
Nazi racism grew into a theory of racial purity. The Nazis declared that pure Germans were Aryan, and emphasized the supremacy of their race, culture, and traditions over other people. Their targets were cultural/religious minority groups living in Germany. Used as scapegoats for Germany's problems, Jews were considered sub-humans and corrupters of pure Aryans. Hitler's anti-Semitic fanatical speeches and the use of propaganda transformed racist theory into an active social program. At a mass rally on August 15, 1935, Hitler stated the need for the elimination of German Jews. Two large banners at this mass rally read "The Jews Are Our Misfortune" and "Women and Girls, the Jews Are Your Ruin", (Goldhagen, 96.).
From 1933 to 1945 the European Jewry, in Germany, Nazi occupied territories and in areas under Hitler's fascist allies became victims of this racist ideology. In 1933, the Hitler's government passed laws to eliminate Jewish involvement in the government. The Nuremberg Laws of 1935 prevented Jews from intermarrying with pure blood Germans and striped them of German citizenship, (Hilberg, 30). Jews were forced to wear a yellow Star of David, as a means for identification and discrimination. On the night of November 9, 1938 Jews throughout Germany were victims of a campaign of Nazi brutality created by the Propaganda Minister Goebbels and carried by the Nazi S.A. troops. In cities and in rural areas, synagogues were burnt, glass was shattered and Jews were assaulted. This infamous night became known as Kristallnacht, or the night of broken glass. Many German citizens of all ages participated in the brutalities of this catastrophic event, (Goldhagen, 101.) The Jews were the enemies of the new Reich. Three days later, over twenty five thousand German Jews were arrested and sent to concentration camps. Many German Jews saw immigration as an escape from Nazi terrorism. The Nazis enthusiastically welcomed the idea of a Germany without Jews allowing them to immigrate to other European countries.
In 1939, the outbreak of World War II created a new chapter of events in the Jewish genocide. The Nazis needed a solution to the Jewish problem. There was no place for Jews in the expanding German Reich. The Nazi Security Police chief Heydrich stated that "the first preliminary measure for achieving the final goal is the concentration of the Jews from the countryside into large cities," (Goldhagen, 145.) Heydrich coordinated the creation of two large ghettos in the Polish cities of Lotz and Warsaw. These ghettos permanently segregated Jews from the Aryans. The European Jewry under Nazi control was stripped of their rights, their freedom, and their belongings. In the ghetto, they faced overcrowding, starvation and disease. A ghetto survivor stated that "one sees people dying, lying with arms and legs outstretched in the middle of the road. Their legs are bloated, often frostbitten, and their faces distorted with pain," (Beck, 832.) "Formally civilized, cultured human beings were reduced to shivering, starving, ailing bundles of rags, a living caricature of the way in which the Nazis attempt to portray and dehumanize the objects of their persecution," (Fulbrook 109.) The Germans and the Poles did not react against the Nazi ghetto program. They witnessed the expulsion of Jews from their homes; they witnessed the segregated ghetto surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by Nazi soldiers. The Germans and the Poles saw the establishment ghettos as a means of liberation from the European Jewry.
Unfortunately, the dehumanizing events in the ghetto did not conclude the Jewish tragedy. In 1941, Hitler decided to exterminate all European Jews. Heydrich designed the Final Solution plan. This plan provided an answer to the Jewish question: what to do with the Jews? Jews would be taken to concentration camps to be gassed and cremated Himmler, chief of the SS, put the plan into practice. The SS guards carried the liquidation of the ghettos. The procedure involved the massacre of hundreds of victims. The dehumanized Jews were transported into concentration/death camps via train and trucks. Some victims were assassinated along the way on the side of the road. The train journey could take hours, perhaps days and many passengers died along the way. The most infamous death camp was Auschwitz immortalized in survivors' accounts by its front gate, the watchtower, the barbed wire and the constant smoke from its chimneys. Jews exhausted from the train, covered with excrement and among them, the ones that had died during the ride faced a new hell. At their exit from the train the prisoners were lined up and selected for work according to their physical condition. Eli Wiesel, author of Night and survivor of the Holocaust described the reality of the arrival at Auschwitz. "The officer gave an order with eight quietly words, 'men to the left', 'women to the right'. While I walked with my father and the other men I did not know that in that place at that moment, I parted from my mother and Tripoza (sister) forever."
The Nazis used slave labor in the concentration camps during World War II. The working conditions were overwhelming and aggravated by the harsh winters. In Survival in Auschwitz Primo Levi states that "today we have to unload an enormous, cast iron cylinder from the wagon... and will weigh several tons ...after fifty steps I am at the limit of what a person is theoretically able to support: my knees bend, my shoulder aches as if pressed in a vice, my equilibrium is in danger," (Levi 67). Surviving the strenuous labor conditions required a strong physical ability. Moreover, a prisoner's health determined life or death. An accident or illness would most likely lead to death.
The immoral treatment of humans continued with the Nazi dismissal of the prisoners' names and the living conditions. The Nazis made a mockery of humanity by tattooing each person with a number. Jews were stripped of their identity, culture, and civilization. They became numbers. Levi stated that "for many days, while the habits of freedom still led me to look for the time on my wristwatch, my new name ironically appeared instead, a number tattooed in bluish characters under the skin, (Levi, 28.) Malnutrition, hunger, and disease, was part of the prisoners' life. The development of a strong will to survive and adaptation to the living conditions was the means to survival. "Just as hunger is not the feeling of missing a meal, so our way of being cold has need of a new word. We say 'hunger', we say 'tiredness', 'fear', 'pain', we say 'winter' and they are different things. They are the words, created and used by free men who lived in comfort and suffering in their homes, "Levi 123.) Surviving Auschwitz depended on one's psychological determination to adapt to the environment.
Sadly, the majority of the transported European Jewry were victims of Hitler's Final Solution. Upon their arrival at the extermination camps, Jews were separated by gender and forced to take a hot disinfecting shower. In a dark chamber, the victims of Nazi hatred struggled to survive while Zyklon B gas was being released rather than hot water. Cremation and the disposal of ashes followed the gassing assassinations. Surviving required luck. Germans, Poles, Croats, and Slovenians among other Europeans were aware of the Nazi extermination plan to solve the Jewish problem. They had to witness the overcrowded trains, heard the cries of the innocent victims, saw the smoke from the chimneys, or smelled the burning flesh of millions. However, nothing was done to help the victims of the Holocaust. In the beginning of 1945, the Nazis abandoned Auschwitz but Jews were still left to die as prisoners of war. The Allied armies found the remainder alive, dying, or dead in the camps, (Hilberg 331.) The allies encountered the terrifying images of genocide.
The result of the Final Solution was the death of six million European Jews. Fewer than four million Jews survived the Holocaust. Was survival based on intellectual adaptation to the reality of the environment or just pure luck? Primo Levi in a conversation with Phillip Roth stated that there was no general rule for survival. However, good health and luck played a part in a victim's survival in Auschwitz, (Levi, 180.) Some victims survived due to their will, adaptation, and luck.
How could we as human beings allow the Holocaust to occur? The people who could have stopped it- the Germans, the people in Nazi occupied territory, and in Hitler's allied countries- did not act on behalf of the victims or on behalf of human rights. They evaluated the placement of Jews into ghettos and concentration camps as a positive occurrence. Is the human condition rotten to the core? After all, we still allow individuals to commit crimes against humanity. Almost ten years ago we allowed the Serb leader Milosevic to carry out his policy of ethnic cleansing against the Bosnian Muslims. Two years ago, he repeated the same attack on human rights with the same policy against the ethnic Albanian Kosovars. We must change our condition in order to stop mass extermination of innocent people. As human beings living in a free world, we have a lot to learn. As responsible human beings, we must create a just world without prejudice. It is our mission in a democratic free society not to forget the Holocaust. It is our mission to read and share with others the important documents and accounts written by survivors of this terrible event.
Levi, Primo. Survival in Auschwitz. New York: Touchstone Books, 1996.
Beck, Roger. World History Patterns of Interaction. Evanston, IL: Mc Dougal Litell, 1999
Fulbrook, Mary. The Divided Nation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991
Goldhagen, Daniel J. Hitler's Willing Executioners. New York: Knopf, 1996
Hilberg, Paul. The Destruction of European Jews. New York: Holmes and Meier, 1985
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