BACKGROUND - THE HOLOCAUST – 1939 – 1945
In 1933, Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany by President Von
Hindenburg. During this year, the first concentration camp in Dachau was opened. Its overseer was to be Theodor Eiche.
The legacy of Hitler’s Third Reich was for a Europe descended from blue-eyed Aryans. Gypsies, homosexuals, mentally defectives, and the largest population, Jews, were to be reduced to be mere servants of the ‘Master Race’ and then finally exterminated.
During the 1930’s the Jews were to experience a gradual reduction in their
rights and status.
They would be barred from joining the armed forces. They would lose their citizenship. Jewish doctors were barred from practicing medicine, and so on. A Jew was defined as any person with three Jewish grandparents.
German citizens were advised to boycott Jewish shops and businesses.
In 1935, Hitler proclaimed himself as Fuhrer und Reichskanzler which means
leader and Reich chancellor. Hitler started the growth of his empire. He aligned himself with the Fascist, Mussolini of Italy, thus forming the Rome-Berlin Axis.
In 1937, the Buchenwald concentration camp was opened in Weimar,
Germany. This camp was liberated in 1945 by the U.S. army. During that time, an estimated 56,000 were executed. This does not include the 13,000 inmates that were transferred to Auschwitz or other
The population of the camp increased from around 1,000 inmates in 1937 to its peak in 1945 of 80,436. The camp was built by its prisoners and its purpose was to support the German war machine. It supplied armaments and incorporated twelve-hour shifts, and at one stage the camp laborers died at a rate of 6,000 per month. The majority of these died from overwork and starvation, but there was also an extensive program of medical experimentation, and inmates were exposed to bacteria, burns, and lethal injections. On its liberation, a gruesome collection of finds was made involving lampshades made out of human skull and shrunken heads. The Commandant was an S.S. officer called Koch, who prior to this position was a notorious drunkard and gambler. Ironically, he ran a corrupt regime and did not uphold the S.S. ideals, and ended up being executed in Auschwitz.
The Second World War started in 1939 when Germany invaded Poland.
During this initial invasion, an estimated 17,000 civilians were murdered by the Nazis, of which at least 5,000 were Jews.
The following year, the Auschwitz camp was established in occupied Poland.
In Warsaw, a huge ghetto was formed which contained half-a-million Jews. Anti-Semitism spread along with the German influence throughout Europe. Whilst around 10,000 Jews were dying of starvation in Warsaw, anti-Jewish riots sprang up in Romania and Hungary. Before a system was set up for the transportation of Jews to the concentration camps, a campaign of mass extermination was carried out in Eastern Europe. For example, 14,000 Jews were murdered in Kamenets Podolsk; 12,287 Jews were murdered in Kishinev; 11,000 Jews were murdered in Pinsk, and so on. This was not an efficient way in solving the Jewish question, and so the concentration camps were set up as a more cost-effective method.
At the end of 1941, the war became truly global when the Japanese attacked
Pearl Harbor, and as a consequence the U.S.A. declared war on Japan and Germany.
This was the beginning of the end for the German Third Reich, but another significant turning point was the German army’s surrender at Stalingrad in 1943. However, Hitler’s determination to continue exterminating the Jews was to severely hamper his own war machine and probably hastened the final surrender. Much of his crumbling infrastructure was consumed with the transportation of Jews.
The Russian army spurred on by the saving of Stalingrad started to regain
territory in the East of Europe. The Nazis feared for the discovery of their concentration camps, which would steel their enemies to quickly liberate Europe from this evil regime.
In early 1945, the evacuation of Auschwitz started which involved Elie in
his death march. Elie ends up in Buchenwald, which was liberated in April 1945.