The Holocaust was the systematic murder of Europe's Jews by the Nazis and their collaborators during the Second World War. This programme of targeted mass murder was a central part of the Nazis’ broader plans to create a new world order based on their ideology.
The Nazis’ programme of anti-Jewish persecution began as soon as Hitler came to power in 1933. At first, they used antisemitic legislation and restrictions alongside vicious propaganda to create a culture of segregation and hostility. This process of victimisation was intended to isolate Jewish people from the wider population in order to encourage them to emigrate. In reality, the number of people leaving fluctuated – finding places to go was difficult and the costs of doing so were high.
The process of persecution escalated in the late 1930s, before developing into a campaign of mass murder during the course of the Second World War. The large scale killing began during the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. Mobile execution squads known as Einsatzgruppen made up of Nazis and supported by local collaborators operated behind the advancing German line. They massacred over a million Jewish civilians in their newly occupied territories in the name of security. Tens of thousands of Roma were murdered alongside Jews as part of this operation.
From the beginning of 1942 these massacres were consolidated into a programme of co-ordinated annihilation. Millions of Jews were deported from ghettos or holding camps to be killed. Most were sent to a small number of purpose-built killing centres called death camps, but as the war developed, thousands more were sent to concentration camps to be worked to death in service of Germany’s deteriorating war effort. This Nazis were central to this process, but they did not act alone and relied on the support and complicity of hundreds of thousands of people across Europe.
Jewish people sent to concentration camps were incarcerated alongside hundreds of thousands of others who had been enslaved and victimised by the Nazis in pursuit of their new world order. Political opponents, homosexuals, prisoners of conscience, Roma, Jehovah Witnesses, Poles, Soviet prisoners of war and others were killed or died in camps as a result of neglect, starvation or disease.
Please note that these videos contain footage of that some viewers may find upsetting.
From the mid-1930s until the end of the Second World War, the Nazi regime carried out a campaign of sustained antisemitic persecution that developed into a coordinated programme of mass murder. This genocide is now known as the Holocaust. Millions of Jewish people were killed, many different communities were shattered – and not just people were destroyed but entire ways of life. The scale of the Holocaust is such that it has become a foundational part of Western culture and is a fundamental part of the history of the Second World War. But how did this atrocity happen? What was happening in Germany in the 1930s that saw the rise of the Nazi Party?
James Bulgin is the lead curator for the Holocaust Galleries at the Imperial War Museums. The new galleries at IWM London explore the history of how these events happened. This video is part one of an introduction to this complex history.
JB: "The First World War left Germany in complete chaos. There was a lot of displaced anger because Germany didn't expect to lose the First World War, the people of Germany being encouraged to believe that this was a war that they were set to win, and when they didn't it left people feeling angry and frustrated and needing someone to blame, and a lot of these young men who'd been part of the military found that they had all this displaced anger and nowhere to direct it so politics became very volatile and very incendiary, and this was a landscape in which extreme politics and extremist politicians found some real ground to manoeuver."
Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany in 1933. Nazi persecution of Jewish people started from the very beginning of their regime. In the months and years that followed, laws were introduced that restricted opportunities for Jewish people. In 1935, a significant moment came with the introduction of the Nuremberg Laws that formally recognised who was and wasn’t a German citizen and what rights they had.
JB: "The Nazis enacted persecution of Jews in a few different ways. First of all they used kind of the formal structures of laws and rules and restrictions, and they also looked for ways in which the population could be coerced into supporting anti-Jewish thinking and anti-Jewish policy. They wanted to create what they call a volksgemeinschaft, a national community of people who thought in the same way and of course it became increasingly clear within this volksgemeinschaft for the people who didn't fit into it there was really no place at all.
"And alongside the creation of laws and rules and restrictions, and creating a consensus of support for what they were doing, which they encouraged by motivating people with money and jobs and opportunities, they also started to create an increasingly sophisticated apparatus of terror. The main vector of this as the regime developed was the SS, Himmler's SS, and this force was created in order to enforce Nazi ideology. Now it's a complete myth to suggest that the SS had eyes on every single person and what they were doing all the time, but nevertheless an apparatus of terror was definitely evolving and developing in order to control people's behavior, and people were encouraged to live in such a way that they were aware that these eyes were on them all the time."
Rudi Bamber: "What had been an undercurrent before then became very much public. The streets were full of marching storm troopers who were triumphant because of the electoral victory and a boycott was started against the Jewish shops. Stormtroopers stood outside the shops and wrote slogans on the windows of the shops with Star of David. So it was a very difficult and unpleasant atmosphere and the reaction of my family and Jews in general was to withdraw and to keep out of the streets and the town as much as possible."
Interviewer: "What happened to your father?"
RB: "Well in - later in 1933 they came and took my father away and I understood subsequently that what happened was that they took him and many other Jewish men onto a football field, and made them cut the grass with their teeth while the SS men in their brown uniform stood around laughing. My father came back very ashen-faced and shaken, and of course he wouldn't talk about it at all. I found out afterwards from relatives what actually had happened."
As well as their use of violence, intimidation and new laws propaganda was essential to the Nazis’ consolidation of power and the spread of their dangerous ideologies.
JB: "Hitler's head of propaganda Joseph Goebbels created a whole ream of propaganda to support the ideology of their regime and this was manifest in all different types of media: in radio broadcasts and cinema broadcasts people were encouraged to believe that Hitler was leading a massive German revival which would lead to a massively improved way of life for everybody within the Reich and for everybody who was allowed to be part of it. This propaganda is really really important here and to Goebbels of course in shaping the way that people consider what the Nazis can do for them."
The late 1930s saw an escalation of antisemitic violence. On 9-10 November 1938, unprecedented riots took place across Germany and Austria targeting Jewish people. Hordes of SA and SS forces together with civilians and members of the Hitler Youth rampaged through the streets smashing Jewish property, setting fire to synagogues and terrorising Jews. This violence was described by the Nazis and the media as Kristallnacht, or night of broken glass. At least 90 Jewish people were murdered.
JB: "So on the night of the 9th November 1938 there's this explosion of violence which was led by SS and SA mobs roaming the street dressed as civilians, actually rarely in uniform, in order to suggest to people that somehow this was something that all of the population were on board with. And significantly they don't just target Jewish-owned businesses, they also target Jewish-owned homes, so for the first time really Jewish people living in Germany and Austria and parts of Czechoslovakia feel that their most precious havens are under threat. In the days after the pogrom, or Kristallnacht, about 30,000 Jewish men were marched off to concentration camps, for the first time in the history of the concentration camps the majority of the populations were Jews. This didn't last for too long at this stage but nevertheless it was a really significant moment in terms of anti-Semitic persecution within the Reich, and a lot of Jewish people suddenly felt for the first time that it wasn't just their property or their assets that were under threat, they were personally under threat as well."
Jewish people living in Germany, Austria and occupied Czechoslovakia increasingly felt they had no choice but to leave – but even this option proved to be impossible for many. Those leaving were forced to pay a high price, and there were few options as to where they could go. Thousands of Jewish children were given temporary refuge in the UK via the Kindertransport, and many more Jewish women as domestic servants, but all countries restricted immigration, and many shut their borders to Jewish adults. The last Kindertransport train left Germany on 1 September 1939.
Otto Deutsch: "And my lovely sister and mother took me to the station."
Interviewer: "This would be July '39 would it Otto? Very near the war?"
OD: "Yes there was only August intervening. But even at the station there was still one act of cruelty that they had in store for us. It was said there have to be no signs of emotion, no emotional scenes, which meant no crying. Now how can you stop a ten-year-old - or worse how can you stop a mother not to cry. My mother turned her back on me, she could pretend no longer. And it was really impressed upon us no emotion, why should these Aryans, Austrians, have to witness Jewish tragedy."
Many Jewish people had managed to escape, but thousands were unable to do so. The Nazis’ poisonous ideology had gripped the Reich, and the threat to those who were left was now acute. The events that followed would lead to the Nazis’ ultimate plan for the extermination of Europe’s Jews.
James Bulgin and Lauren Willmott are curators for The Holocaust Galleries at IWM London. The galleries explore the history of how these events happened.
The objects featured in these videos - Leibish Engleberg's concentration camp jacket, Gena Turgel's wedding dress, and a tile from the Treblinka death camp - are all on display in the new galleries.
This two-part video series is an introduction to this complex history.
We’re in the Holocaust Galleries at the Imperial War Museum in London. What we’re looking at here is a concrete tile that has recently gone on display. It’s a small object that tells one part of the devastating history of the Holocaust.
Lauren Wilmott: "So this is a tile or part of a tile from one of the gas chambers at the Treblinka death camp. It's most likely a wall tile and we know this from the limited survivor testimony that's in existence that describes the colour of the wall and the floor tiles in the gas chambers, and the reason that I say limited testimony is that there were very few survivors from the Treblinka death camp. It was a camp designed specifically for mass murder. Between July 1942 and September 1943 approximately nine hundred thousand Jews and two thousand Roma were murdered at the Treblinka death camp. To hide all traces of what had happened at Treblinka, the Nazis demolished the camp and turned it into a farm. Because of this it had been assumed that there was nothing left to find at Treblinka but in 2014 there was a large excavation. This tile was one of the artifacts found during this excavation so it's some of the only physical evidence in existence that was once witness to what happened in the gas chambers at Treblinka."
The genocide now known as the Holocaust was the state-sponsored mass murder of six million Jewish men, women and children. There was nothing inevitable about the decision of the Nazis and their collaborators to attempt to exterminate Europe’s Jews, and hundreds of thousands of people were complicit. The Nazi regime came to power in 1933, which saw the spread of their insidious ideas of racial ideology. Persecution and violence towards Jewish people living within the Reich became sinister and overt. Jewish people were initially pressured to emigrate, and many escaped from the Reich. But thousands were left behind. War was declared on 3 September 1939. The events that followed eventually led to the Nazis’ plan for the extermination of Europe’s Jews.
Newsreel: "It was in September 1939 when Warsaw first made front-page news. With horror and bewilderment, fear and incredulity the world followed it."
The invasion of Poland and the start of the war in Europe provided circumstances for more extreme behaviour from the Nazi regime. Their invasion and occupation tactics were brutal and ruthless. Civilians were on the front line and were not spared. Nazism had become an explicitly murderous regime. Germany’s territorial expansion also brought about a large increase in the number of Jews under the control of the Reich. This led to the formation of the first ghettos.
James Bulgin: "When the Nazis first occupied Poland they knew that they wanted to try and address their so-called Jewish problem, this self-invented problem of theirs, but they weren't quite sure about how to go about it so Heydrich sent out a schnellbrief to all of the Nazis going into this territory which laid out a kind of a principle that Jewish people should be centralised into population centres, and these places were described as ghettos. So these are places that Jews are forced to live. They become massively overpopulated. Now at first ghettos are open so people are able to leave and re-enter, but over time most of them become sealed and once they become sealed it means that levels of hardship amplify very quickly and ghettos become places of enormous suffering. They have very little access to food, very little access to medicine and death rates start to climb, and some people are forced to live in these places for years on end.
Wlodka Robertson: "We moved into the ghetto and we moved with my grandparents, and at first the conditions anyway for us, for the children, didn't seem so threatening but very quickly the conditions together became
worse and worse. There was German soldiers and some Ukrainians and that things just walking around the streets of the ghetto and shooting people or beating them up. They particularly like to beat up old men especially men who had beards. There was so much hunger that very quickly people began to die of hunger and I remember seeing children who I knew from the school before with swollen bellies and then then they were outside the gates even bodies put out because so many people died and people couldn't bury them."
The invasion of the Soviet Union was a turning point in the course of the war and the Holocaust. As the Nazis occupied Soviet countries in the East, they slaughtered hundreds of thousands of non-combatants that they considered ‘enemies’ within these territories.
JB: "As the German army advanced east into the Soviet Union in Operation Barbarossa they are followed by four units of Einsatzgruppen. Now these Einsatzgruppen answer to Heinrich Himmler head of the SS, and they're supposed to be a security unit protecting the advancing German line. In practice, it's really about the Nazis' racist ideology. So Einsatzgruppen are given orders to shoot any Jewish people in positions of authority within the Soviet Union. It doesn't take long for this to evolve to include all Jewish people. So it only takes six weeks for the Einsatzgruppen to move from shooting military-age men to shooting women and children. This has nothing to do with camps or gas chambers, this is about brutal face-to-face killings in ditches, in fields, in beaches, in ravines, in barns all across the occupied Soviet Union and the scale of this is vast. In Babi Yar for example over 32,000 people are shot in a matter of days, so this is when the Nazis' whole policy towards Jews becomes unambiguously murderous."
By early 1942, annihilation of the Jews had become the formal policy of the Nazis. The confirmation of the covert plan (Operation ‘Reinhard’) to ‘liquidate’ the 2 million Jews under Nazi control in occupied Poland was approved. This would begin with the deportation and murder of those living in ghettos. The extermination of all Jewish people in Europe is the ultimate goal. This requires immense logistical organisation and complicity not just from the Nazis, but commercial companies and hundreds of thousands of individuals across occupied Europe.
The so-called Reinhard camps, Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka II, were the final destination of approximately 1.75 million men, women and children. Located within occupied Poland, they were designed to be discreet and efficient. People were told that they are being processed for work ’in the east’, but will need to be showered before this procedure. The showers were actually gas chambers that pumped carbon monoxide into the sealed rooms. The process was brutal, barbaric, and routinely inefficient.
Separate to the small number of extermination camps, was the concentration camp network. This network had started in the early years of the regime to target all of those the Nazis considered enemies of the state, including communists, Jehovah's Witnesses, and homosexual men. The camp network grew rapidly as the war developed and the Nazis' need for additional labour to support the crumbling war effort became increasingly acute. Auschwitz became a centre of this process and by 1944 had become the focal point of both the mass murder and enslavement of Europe’s Jews.
JB: "Within the concentration camp system Jewish people were considered by the Nazis to have no worth at all. They were treated incredibly badly, and from the Germans' point of view the ultimate aim was still to ensure all Jewish people within Europe were murdered, they just saw this as a different way of killing them rather than killing them directly they would work them to death, so they made them work on very, very, very meager rations in dreadful conditions, in barracks living with three or four or five people to a bunk infested with lice, and they made them work incredibly dangerous versions of hard labour in order to serve Germany's ailing war effort."
LW: "This jacket belonged to Leibish Engelberg when he was a prisoner in the concentration camp system. Leibish survived several forced labour camps and numerous concentration camps. Leibish, his wife Liber and two young sons David and Israel moved from Belgium to the unoccupied zone of France thinking that they would be safer. But in the summer of 1942 roundup of Jews, particularly foreign Jews which the Engelbergs were, began and Leibish and his family were arrested on the 26 of August 1942. Leibish and his family which included his wife, sons and brothers, and their families, were put on convoy number 29. This convoy was one of those from France and the Netherlands that was stopped at a town called Kosel on its way to Auschwitz. Here men between about the ages of 15 to 50 were selected for forced labour. Leibish and his brother Joseph were likely selected, the rest of his family continued on to Auschwitz where they were murdered in the gas chambers on arrival. Leibish and his brother Joseph actually remained together throughout the duration of the war. They were held together in several forced labour camps and then in concentration camps including Auschwitz-Birkenau and Dachau and they were liberated from a sub-camp of Dachau in April 1945.
"This jacket was worn by Leibish within the concentration camp system and he kept this jacket after liberation. He actually kept it in a cupboard at his home but never spoke about his experiences. After his death his daughter Rita donated the jacket to Imperial War Museums so that we could tell his story. There were only 34 men of Leibish's entire transport of a thousand people who were known to have survived until the end of the war. Leibish and his brother Joseph were among the 34."
As the Reich became encircled by the Allies on all sides, the Germans became very aware that the concentration camps on the edges of their territories were in the path of the advancing armies. So they forced the few prisoners who are left alive to walk huge distances through the winter back to Germany. These became known as the death marches. They were enormously dangerous. If people couldn’t keep up they were shot, and many froze or starved to death. They were also walking straight through towns and villages and were hugely visible. About a third of the people on these death marches did not survive.
JB: "So from relatively early on the Germans are aware of the fact that the world might not see things as they do, and so from 1941 they begin efforts to cover the traces of their crimes. But as the Allies close in on the right these efforts start to begin with an increased volume so the Germans seek to raze any remaining sites to the ground if they're able to, they seek to destroy paperwork and they also become really aware that the prisoners themselves are sources of testimony to potential Allied investigators, so they don't want any prisoners to be found alive also because of the volume of this crime means that it's not possible to destroy all
of these traces. So whilst a huge volume of it is destroyed, a huge volume of it isn't as well."
The camps were liberated from July 1944, and footage of the scenes that Allied soldiers encountered were witnessed across the world. The conditions are so bad that many prisoners continued to die after liberation due to malnutrition and disease. For those prisoners that did survive, liberation was not the end of their suffering.
JB: "So as soon as the Allies begin to liberate the few remaining concentration camps and they find the people within them these people cease to be prisoners of the Nazis and become displaced persons, and these people have nowhere to go. The homes that they had come from that they've been forced out of or taken from aren't theirs anymore. A lot of them don't want to go back to the countries or the neighbourhoods and be surrounded by the people who are happy to see them deported, but also a lot of them don't have homes to go back to because the homes have been taken from them or been destroyed. And these DP camps become the homes of the people who live within them for years, some of them are in the sites of former concentration camps, others are not, and they become places where people start to rebuild their lives and make connections with the few people that they can find who are left alive, but of course that's a massive challenge for these individuals because what they'd experienced is more than a lot of people can bear, and they know that whatever the years in front of them hold it's going to be a very, very, very different reality to the one that they'd left before the Second World War."
LW: "So what we have here is the wedding dress worn by Gena Goldfinger on her wedding day to Norman Turgel in October 1945, and what's so special about this dress, about this story, is that Gena and Norman met when Norman entered Belsen concentration camp upon its liberation, and the two met and were engaged within a week, and they got married a few months later, and this is the dress that Gena was wearing. It's made of British parachute silk and made into a dress by a local tailor. So Bergen-Belsen was liberated on 15 April 1945 and the conditions at that time were catastrophic, it was in a state of absolute chaos. The British soldiers upon arrival found almost 60,000 prisoners so it's severely overcrowded, and typhus was running rampant throughout the camp. This wedding dress tells the story of Gena who survived the Holocaust. She was forced to face a future and rebuild her life, but it was a future that she had to face without her family, the majority of whom didn't survive, without a home to go to and without any possessions."
While accounts of survival help us to remember and give a human face to a series of events that are so hard to comprehend, it is also important to recognise that millions of people – the vast majority – were not able to escape or survive. The Nazis were ultimately unsuccessful in their attempt to annihilate Europe’s Jews, but nevertheless, the Holocaust is overwhelmingly a history of loss.