- See also: European history
The Holocaust was a campaign of deportation, forced labour and mass murder during World War II, carried out by Germany's Nazi regime and some other Axis states. Among the victims were Jews; Roma people; Slavs, especially Poles, Serbs and Soviet prisoners of war; homosexuals; political opponents; and people with disabilities. About 6 million Jews were killed, along with at least 5 million people of other ethnic origins.
Though the Nazis and their allies tried to destroy the death camps at the end of the war, the remnants function as museums and monuments of this dark period of Europe's modern history. As of the 2010s, the few remaining Holocaust survivors are getting old and the very last perpetrators are facing justice, emphasizing the importance of the Holocaust memories.
|“|| Tell it to your children, and let your children tell it to their children,
and their children to the next generation.
—Bible, Book of Joel, 1:3
The Holocaust was a complex series of events, with roots in Europe's long history of racism and Antisemitism. Political prisoners and other perceived enemies of the state were rounded up in concentration camps from 1933, shortly after Hitler's rise to power. The Nuremberg Laws, introduced in 1935, stripped Jews of many of their civil rights. Organized mass murder started in 1941, and on January 20, 1942, the notorious Wannsee Conference took place, in which Nazi officials met in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee to plan the "final solution" (Endlösung) to the "Jewish question" (Judenfrage).
While the mass murder was planned by the Nazi government and most of the killing was done by German soldiers and SS, some occupied countries and allies of the Nazis also contributed in the killings and in some cases (such as the Ustase in Croatia) actually went farther or targeted other groups than the Nazis did. While some people helped Jews and other persecuted people escape, often risking their own lives and safety, the overwhelming majority ignored the killings or looked the other way, making the acts of resistance and human decency all the more laudable and celebrated to this day, both in the countries where they happened and Israel. In the context of the mass murder of the European Jews the Hebrew word Shoah (meaning "catastrophe") is frequently used and is preferred by some people, as the term Holocaust originally had religious implications.
As the war ended in 1945, the camps were liberated, and some of the surviving Nazi leaders were held responsible in a series of criminal trials in Nuremberg. While they were also tried for war crimes, participation in the Holocaust brought the most attention and the harshest punishments. As the Allied governments, and later West Germany and the reunified Germany, have tried and imprisoned perpetrators of the Holocaust well into the 21st century, they have established a precedent of international law. While the Holocaust was neither the first nor the last genocide in world history, it is arguably the most thoroughly documented and researched crime against humanity.
The Holocaust was carried out in most Axis-occupied territory in Europe, with a few exceptions, such as Denmark (where almost the entire population helped Jews to escape and those who couldn't to stay alive), Finland and Albania. Even Jews in North Africa were rounded up for murder.
After the Nazis seized power in 1933, they started setting up prison camps around Germany (which included what is today western Poland); first for political prisoners, later for Jews and other prisoner groups. As the camp system evolved into a mass murder campaign, extermination camps were set up, most of them in Poland. In the Soviet Union, much of the killing took place in the field, without camps. See below for details about the Holocaust in each country.
Austria's role in the war, and the Holocaust, is a bit complicated. While Austria was annexed by Germany in 1938 and ceased to exist as a nation, many high-ranked Nazis, including Hitler himself, were Austrians.
Austria has had national military service for much of the post-war period. As an alternative to joining the military, young Austrians have the option to work with a memorial service instead in order to inform the public about the horrors of the war.
- 2 Mauthausen-Gusen (In Upper Austria, east of Linz). A labour camp, mostly for Soviet and Polish prisoners
- 3 Jasenovac (in Central Croatia). camp established by the Ustaše regime (governing the Independent State of Croatia during World War II) and not operated by Nazi Germany. In addition to Jews and Roma people, the Ustase also killed a lot of Serbs here. This may have contributed to the ethnic violence of the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s.
- 4 Theresienstadt (Terezín). This camp is located in the Sudetenland, annexed by Germany in 1938. It could be described a "showcase" concentration camp, built to make the internment look better than it actually was. The camp was mainly a temporary holding place for Jews before deportation to the gas chambers at Auschwitz.
The concentration camps in Germany proper were set up before the war, for internment and forced labour of criminals and political opponents. Since these prisoners were not set up for mass murder, the camps had comparably many survivors. From 1942, many prisoners, especially Jews, were transported from these camps to extermination camps in Poland.
- 6 Buchenwald (near Weimar). Opened in 1937, and one of the largest camps in Germany. From 1945 to 1950, it was used as a Soviet prison camp.
- 7 Dachau (Near Munich). The first concentration camp, opened in 1933, the same year as Hitler rose to power. Initially used for political prisoners.
- 8 Flossenbürg (In Upper Palatinate). Originally a camp for criminals and "antisocial" prisoners; later for Polish and Soviet prisoners.
- 9 Hadamar (near Limburg an der Lahn). An institution for T-4 Euthanasia Programme, in which people with disabilities were put to death.
- 10 Mittelbau-Dora (near Nordhausen). Slave labour camp for production of rocket weapons, including the V2.
- 11 Neuengamme (in suburban Hamburg). A slave labour camp for political prisoners. Used as a prison after the war.
- 12 Ravensbrück (near Fürstenberg, far northern Brandenburg). A women's camp.
- 13 Sachsenhausen (in Oranienburg, Brandenburg). An internment camp, mainly for political prisoners.
- 14 Wannsee.
- Nuremberg, site of the Nuremberg Party Rallies and the Nuremberg Trials
- Munich is the birthplace of the Nazi Party.
- 15 Munich Documentation Centre for the History of National Socialism, ☎ . 10AM-7PM Tue-Sun. Displays items such as hand-written sonnets found in the pocket of an executed resistance member and video describing the disappearance of the city's Jewish community over time as they were deported to the camps. €5/adult.
- 17 Salaspils (outside Riga). The site of a former concentration camp where the SS and Latvian collaborators held Jews, Russian POWs and political prisoners. Nowadays the site only hosts a museum and a memorial with several statues, the actual barracks having been destroyed.
- 20 Anne Frank House (Anne Frankhuis), Prinsengracht 267 (Amsterdam/Canal District, Tram Westermarkt), ☎ . The house where the Jewish girl Anne Frank wrote her diary while hiding with her family from the Nazis. Don't let the (usually) long line discourage you; it moves quickly and the experience inside the hiding places on the top floors is moving. The museum lacks any exhibits to explain the historical context at the time of Anne's diary, however. Go in the early evening around 5PM to avoid any lines, or alternatively skip the lines entirely by reserving tickets from the official website. The Anne Frank House is open later during the summer. Museumkaart is valid, I Amsterdam Card is not valid. €9.
- 21 Herzogenbusch (In Vught, near 's-Hertogenbosch). Opened in 1943, as the earlier camps were too small.
- 22 Westerbork. A transit camp.
As Germany and the Soviet Union occupied Poland in 1939, the country ceased to exist by name, as the Nazis intended to use the land for German settlement (Lebensraum). Germany annexed the western provinces and the area around Białystok, and central Poland became the General Government, essentially a colony ruled by the Nazis. As the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, the General Government was extended to most of eastern Poland. While a few Polish people were among the perpetrators, around three million Polish Jews and two million other Poles were killed in the Holocaust.
In contrast to the German prison camps, the sites in Poland were typically extermination camps (Vernichtungslager), where prisoners (mostly Jews from all parts of Europe, but also non-Jewish Poles and other perceived enemies of the German state) were sent to die, either in gas chambers, or through forced labour, weakened by starvation and epidemics. The extermination policy makes the notorious slogan Arbeit macht frei — "Work makes (you) free" which was displayed on many camp gates — bitterly ironic.
For the death camps, the word "camp" was a misnomer, since they were only inhabited by guards and Sonderkommandos — prisoners assigned for disposal of bodies. Nearly all prisoners were killed in gas chambers on arrival, so these camps had very few survivors. The Sonderkommandos were regularly killed and replaced; some camps had more of a dozen "generations" of them.
Some of these sites have both a German and a Polish name. By convention, the German names (Auschwitz etc) are used to describe the concentration camp, while the Polish names (Oświęcim etc) are used to describe the civilian settlements.
- 23 Auschwitz-Birkenau (at Oświęcim, 60 km west of Kraków.). The largest and most infamous, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Contained both a labour camp section and an extermination camp. More than a million prisoners died here.
- 24 Bełżec (Belzec). A death camp with a toll of nearly 500,000 Jews, and an unknown number of non-Jewish Poles and Romani. Only seven prisoners were known to survive.
- 25 Chełmno nad Nerem (Kulmhof). This was the first death camp the Nazis built in occupied Poland; starting in December, 1941, between 152,000 and 180,000 Jews along with some Romani people and non-Jewish Poles were murdered by being forced and tricked into walking through a corridor that led into the back of one of two large trucks that were rigged to fill up with exhaust and cause death by carbon monoxide poisoning. There were very few survivors. There is now a Holocaust museum and memorial in this small village.
- 26 Kraków Ghetto. Known to posterity from Schindler's List.
- 27 Krakow-Plaszow concentration camp (Obóz Koncentracyjny Kraków-Płaszów) (Kraków/South). The area of the former camp is now grass fields and hills with one large stone monument commemorating the victims. Also the villa of Amon Göth, the commandant of the camp, is still standing.
- 28 Majdanek (Państowe Muzeum na Majdanku), Droga Męczenników Majdanka 67 (Near Lublin, bus no. 28 or 47; trolleybus no. 153, 156 or 158), ☎ , fax: , e-mail: email@example.com. Tue-Sun 8AM-4PM (Nov.-Mar. 8AM-3PM). This former Nazi concentration and death camp was captured nearly intact by the Soviet Red Army, so the operation of the gas chambers and other aspects of the camp can be seen more clearly here than in any other Nazi death camp. There is debate over the number of victims here, with figures between 78,000 and several hundred thousand given by different scholars. Most victims were Jews, while many others were non-Jewish Poles, and there were prisoners from a wide variety of other nationalities. After the war, the NKVD, Stalin's secret police, used the facility to imprison and torture members of the non-communist Polish Home Army, which had fought against both Nazi and Soviet occupation, and as a transit camp for exiling some of them to Siberia.
- 29 Gross-Rosen (Rogoźnica) (near Wałbrzych). Located in Lower Silesia, which was part of Germany before the war. The camp was set up in 1940 as a labour camp.
- 30 Sobibór. This was purely a death camp. At least 167,000 and possibly as many as 300,000 people were murdered there — as in other death camps, primarily Jews. Among the victims were the Sonderkommandos from the Bełżec death camp, who managed to pass notes to the Sonderkommandos at Sobibór before being shot. Once the Sobibór Sonderkommandos realized beyond doubt that they, too, would definitely be murdered once the Nazis no longer felt a need for their services, they planned a revolt. It was only partly successful as most of them were killed, but since the Sonderkommandos knew they were dead, anyway, any level of success was worth the effort. After the uprising in 1943, the Nazis demolished the camp. Nearly nothing of the actual camp remains today, though there is a museum, and recent archeology has discovered the remains of the gas chamber.
- 31 Sztutowo (Stutthof) (near Gdansk).
- 32 (In Masovia). Between 700,000 and 900,000 Jews were killed here, along with 2,000 Romani. As in Sobibór, there was eventually a revolt by the Sonderkommandos, and this revolt was more successful in terms of the number of survivors but did not lead to the destruction of the camp
- 34 Litzmannstadt Ghetto (Łódź). The Litzmannstadt Ghetto was the second largest Jewish ghetto in Poland after the Warsaw Ghetto. It is referred to as both the Łódź Ghetto and the Litzmannstadt Ghetto, the latter name coming from the German general who captured the city in World War One (the entire city was later renamed Litzmannstadt in his honor). The ghetto was the last one to be liquidated due to the high productivity of the slave laborers and lack of armed resistance.
Ukraine is often considered to be the place where the Holocaust started in earnest. In Ukraine, Jews were rounded up and shot, then buried in pits, as gas chambers had not yet been set up at this early stage of Nazi genocide.
- 35 Babi Yar. This ravine in suburban Kiev is the most infamous Ukrainian Holocaust site.
- 36 Janowska Camp. This camp on the outskirts of Lviv, which before World War II was part of Poland, served as a slave labour and transit camp as well as an outright murder centre, but was mainly associated with the liquidation of the Lwów (Lviv) Ghetto
- 37 Alderney. This island, one of the Channel Islands, was occupied by Germany during World War II. Four concentration camps were built here, and between 400 and 40,000 Jews (both locals, and others deported from mainland Europe) were killed over the course of the war. A few remains of one of the camps, named Lager Sylt, can be seen. See details.
Visiting Holocaust museums and sites can be emotional, upsetting, and sometimes surreal. You'll see and learn things that are difficult to grapple with, and it's hard to anticipate exactly how you'll react. You may find yourself hurrying to get away from the site as quickly as you can, morose and weary as you physically feel the weight of what you're seeing, or unexpectedly detached and distant—or some combination of these.
Given the evil nature of the crimes committed in the Holocaust, you would be forgiven for thinking the places where the crimes were perpetrated would look in some way evil too, or be in isolated locations tucked out of sight. This is not always the case, and the surroundings may often be positively mundane, and be in close proximity to roads, homes and workplaces filled with people going about their daily lives. The sun may be shining. It is this contrast between expectation and reality, or between horror and banality, that can cause you to feel strangely disoriented.
Be prepared for complicated and heavy emotions, and do not expect to just move on cheerfully to your next activity once you leave. Conversely, you may need to do just that. It is not uncommon for visitors to Holocaust sites to plan some form of relaxation or entertainment immediately afterwards in order to not be completely overwhelmed by negative emotion. Your experience at the site may weigh on you for the rest of the day and beyond.