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The Holocaust and the Destruction of European Jewry

The Holocaust (taken from the Greek term holokauston or “a sacrifice consumed by fire”) is the state-sponsored massacre of more than 6 million Jews in Europe during World War II (ThinkQuest, n. pag. ). From 1933 to 1945, the Nazi regime and its collaborators killed not only Jews, but also 5 million others on the basis of their physical impairments, religious or political beliefs or failure to comply with the standards of the “Aryan” race (ThinkQuest, n. pag. ). Other casualties of the Holocaust included Gypsies, homosexuals, the handicapped, Catholics, Poles, Soviet prisoners of war and political dissidents (ThinkQuest, n. pag.).

Germany’s massive defeat in World War I (1914-1918) was often regarded as conducive for the emergence of the Holocaust (Eliahu & Silinsky, n. pag. ). The Versailles Treaty stipulated that Germany had to pay reparations that amounted to $23 billion (Eliahu & Silinsky, n. pag. ). However, Germany’s participation in World War I left it with a foreign debt of $100 billion and its resources mortgaged for the next 20 years (Eliahu & Silinsky, n. pag. ). As a result, the German economy experienced hyper-inflation, unemployment increased uncontrollably and riots broke out on the streets across the country (Eliahu & Silinsky, n.

pag. ). Small nationalist folk parties took advantage of the political and economic instability in Germany at this period (Eliahu & Silinsky, n. pag. ). Despite differences in principles and beliefs, these groups blamed the Jews for the country’s loss in World War I and the chaos that ensued (Eliahu & Silinsky, n. pag. ). They believed that the elimination of Jews was the only way to restore law and order in German society (Eliahu & Silinsky, n. pag. ). German dictator Adolf Hitler (1899-1945) was among those who supported the aforementioned scapegoat.

After a stint in the German army during World War I, he joined the German Workers’ Party, a right-wing political organization (Grobman, n. pag. ). Hitler was an excellent public speaker, electrifying audiences with his masterful demagoguery against Jews (Grobman, n. pag. ). The German Workers’ Party eventually became the National-Sozialistische Deutsche Arbeitspartei or Nazi in 1920, with Hitler as its president in 1921 (Warner, 9). But Hitler was sentenced to a five-year prison term due to his involvement in the in the 1923 Munich Beer Hall Putsch (Warner, 11).

He spent his time in prison writing Mein Kampf (“My Struggle”) (Warner, 11). It was a semi-autobiographical book that was filled with “glorified inaccuracies, self-serving half-truths and outright revisionism” (Grobman, n. pag. ). In Mein Kampf, Hitler held the Jews responsible not only for Germany’s defeat in World War I, but also for “evils” such as democracy, Communism and internationalism (Grobman, n. pag. ). For him, the Jews did not have a culture of their own and destroyed any culture that they came across with (Grobman, n. pag. ).

Hitler further argued in the book that the German people were of a “superior” race and that they were destined to rule the world (Grobman, n. pag. ). For the Germans to be able to establish their superiority, they must eliminate the Jews and conquer Russia and the Slavic countries (Grobman, n. pag. ). They would then proceed to create the Third Reich, which was going to be ruled by a Fuhrer or “leader” (Hitler) (Grobman, n. pag. ). After Hitler’s release (he served just five months of his prison sentence), he went on to become Germany’s Chancellor and President in 1933 and 1934, respectively (Warner, 12).

Under Hitler’s dictatorship, Jews were banned from public schools, theaters, cinemas, resorts and even from certain parts of Germany (ThinkQuest, n. pag. ). Interfaith marriages were strictly prohibited and Jews were denied access to jobs such as those in the civil service, as well as law court and university positions (ThinkQuest, n. pag. ). The Nazis staged its first organized boycott of Jews on April 1, 1933 (ThinkQuest, n. pag. ). They required all Jews in Germany to wear their clothing with a yellow Star of David with the word Juden (“Jew”) sewn on it (ThinkQuest, n.pag. ).

The Nuremberg Laws (enacted in 1935), meanwhile, rendered Jews as “second-class citizens” (ThinkQuest, n. pag. ). It also determined a person’s Jewishness through his or her ancestry instead of through his or her beliefs or identity (ThinkQuest, n. pag. ). In addition, the Nuremberg Laws declared intermarriage as Rassenschande or “race treason” (ThinkQuest, n. pag. ). The German public’s hatred of the Jews intensified in the following years of Nazi rule. In November 1938, Hitler’s propaganda minister Dr.Paul Joseph Goebbels and other Nazi officials instigated the Kristallnacht (“night of the broken glass”)

(ThinkQuest, n. pag. ). It was a carefully-planned riot that led to the destruction of several Jewish buildings and the arrest and murder of many Jewish men (ThinkQuest, n. pag. ). An additional 30,000 male Jews were arrested the morning after the Kristallnacht (ThinkQuest, n. pag. ). On January 20, 1942, Reinhard Heydrich presided over the Wannsee Conference, the meeting of 15 top Nazi bureaucrats that paved the way for the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question” (The History Place, n.pag. ).

The “Final Solution” referred to the mass extermination of Jews in Nazi concentration camps (USHMM, n. pag. ). In the Wannsee Conference, it has been decided that all Jews in Germany and Nazi-occupied countries would be deported to ghettos in Poland before being transported to Nazi death camps at Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka (The History Place, n. pag. ). Upon reaching these death camps, the Jews would be exterminated by hard labor and starvation, as well as by execution by SS Firing Squads or by gassing (The History Place, n. pag. ).

However, not all Jews gave in to the Nazis. A young Jewish man named Abba Kovner led an underground resistance movement in the Vilna Ghetto in Lithuania (Rosenberg, n. pag. ). Because of its well-established Jewish culture and history, Vilna was known as the “Jerusalem of Lithuania” (Rosenberg, n. pag. ). It was invaded by the Germans on June 24, 1941 – just two days after the latter occupied the Soviet Union (Rosenberg, n. pag. ). Less than a month after the German takeover of Vilna, thousands of Jews were tortured, killed or herded into the ghetto (Rosenberg, n. pag. ).

In December 1941, a group of young activists living in the Vilna Ghetto (including Kovner) held a meeting, wherein they decided to stay and fight the Germans (Rosenberg, n. pag. ). On January 21, 1942, they formed an underground armed organization called the Fareinikte Partisaner Organizatzie (United Partisans Organization) (Rosenberg, n. pag. ). Members of the FPO prepared for battle by secretly buying or stealing weapons and clandestinely training themselves on how to use them (Rosenberg, n. pag. ). But the FPO was suddenly thrust into battle with the arrest of one of its representatives, Yitzhak Wittenberg, on July 15, 1943 (Rosenberg, n.pag. ).

Before Wittenberg was imprisoned, he named Kovner as his successor (Rosenberg, n. pag. ). The Germans decided to eliminate the Vilna Ghetto a month and a half after Wittenberg’s incarceration (Rosenberg, n. pag. ). To stop this, the FPO staged its first armed confrontation with the Germans on September 1, 1943 (Rosenberg, n. pag. ). But due to the Germans’ superior weapons and military skills, the FPO was defeated and was forced to flee to the forests (Rosenberg, n. pag. ). After their escape, the rebels continued their fighting through sabotage (Rosenberg, n. pag. ).

They “destroyed power and water infrastructures, freed groups of prisoners from the Kalais labor camp, and even blew up some German military trains” (Rosenberg, n. pag. ). The Holocaust is one of the most terrifying chapters of human history. The Germans are supposedly an intelligent race, their country being the land of famous musicians, philosophers and engineers. But their inability to face and change their misfortunes made them put into power a maniacal leader like Hitler who killed millions of innocent Jews simply because they were more accomplished than the rest of the German populace.

What is more frightening is that people did not learn the lessons of the Holocaust. At present, Jews remain to be the primary target of hate crimes across the world. Furthermore, millions of governments worldwide continue to violate the basic rights of their constituents. Lastly, billions of ordinary people experience discrimination because of their physical appearance, beliefs and or social status. Indeed, those who cannot learn from history are bound to repeat it.

Works Cited

“The Period between 1933 and 1939. ” 2008. The Holocaust: A Tragic Legacy.27 April 2008 <http://library. thinkquest. org/12663/summary/1933frame. html>. “The Wannsee Conference. ” 1997. Holocaust Timeline. 27 April 2008 <http://www. historyplace. com/worldwar2/holocaust/h-wannsee. htm>. “The Wannsee Conference and the ‘Final Solution’. ” 2008. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. 27 April 2008 <http://www. ushmm. org/outreach/wannsee. htm>. “What is the Holocaust? ” 2008. The Holocaust: A Tragic Legacy. 27 April 2008 <http://library. thinkquest. org/12663/summary/whatframe. html>. Ellis, Eliahu and Shmuel Silinsky.

“Historical Background. ” 2007 Holocaust Studies. 27 April 2008 <http://www. aish. com/holocaust/overview/Historical_Background. asp>. Grobman, Gary M. “Adolf Hitler. ” 1990. The Holocaust – A Guide for Teachers. 27 April 2008 <http://remember. org/guide/Facts. root. hitler. html>. Rosenberg, Jennifer. “Abba Kovner and Resistance in the Vilna Ghetto. ” 2008. About. com. 27 April 2008 <http://history1900s. about. com/od/holocaust/a/kovner. htm>. Warner, Philip. World War II: The Untold Story. London: Cassell & Co. , 2002.

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