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10-08-2015, 17:07

The Holocaust

No aspect of the Nazi new order was more tragic than the deliberate attempt to exterminate the Jewish people of Europe. By the beginning of 1939, Nazi policy focused on promoting the “emigration” of German Jews from Germany. Once the war began in September 1939, the socalled Jewish problem took on new dimensions. For a while, there was discussion of the Madagascar Plan—a mass shipment of Jews to the African island of Madagascar. When war contingencies made this plan impracticable, an even more drastic policy was conceived. The SS was given responsibility for what the Nazis called the Final Solution to the Jewish problem—the annihilation of the Jewish people. Reinhard Heydrich (1904 –1942), head of the SS’s Security Service, was given administrative responsibility for the Final Solution. After the defeat of Poland, Heydrich ordered his special strike forces (Einsatzgruppen) to round up all Polish Jews and concentrate them in ghettos established in a number of Polish cities. In June 1941, the Einsatzgruppen were given new responsibilities as mobile killing units. These death squads followed the regular army’s advance into the Soviet Union. Their job was to round up Jews in the villages and execute and bury them in mass graves, often giant pits dug by the victims themselves before they were shot. Such constant killing produced morale problems among the SS executioners. During a visit to Minsk in the SovietUnion, Himmler tried to build morale by pointing out that he would not like it if Germans did such a thing gladly. But their conscience was in no way impaired, for they were sol- diers who had to carry out every order unconditionally. He alone had responsibility before God and Hitler for everything that was happening, . . . and he was acting from a deep understanding of the necessity for this operation.4 Although it has been estimated that as many as one million Jews were killed by the Einsatzgruppen, this approach to solving the Jewish problem was soon perceived as inadequate. Instead, the Nazis opted for the systematic annihilation of the European Jewish population in specially built death camps. Jews from occupied countries would be rounded up, packed like cattle into freight trains, and shipped to Poland, where six extermination centers were built for this purpose. The largest and most famous was Auschwitz-Birkenau. Zyklon B (the commercial name for hydrogen cyanide) was selected as the most effective gas for quickly killing large numbers of people in gas chambers designed to look like shower rooms to facilitate the cooperation of the victims. By the spring of 1942, the death camps were in operation. Although initial priority was given to the elimination of the ghettos in Poland, Jews were soon also being shipped from France, Belgium, and the Netherlands and eventually from Greece and Hungary. Despite desperate military needs, the Final Solution had priority in using railroad cars to transport Jews to the death camps. About 30 percent of the arrivals at Auschwitz were sent to a labor camp, and the remainder went to the gas chambers. After they had been gassed, the bodies were burned in crematoria. The victims’ goods and even their bodies were used for economic gain.Women’s hair was cut off, collected, and turned into mattresses or cloth. Some inmates were also subjected to cruel and painful “medical” experiments. The Germans killed between five and six million Jews, more than three million of them in the death camps. Virtually 90 percent of the Jewish populations of Poland, the Baltic countries, and Germany were exterminated. Overall, the Holocaust was responsible for the death of nearly two of every three European Jews. The Nazis were also responsible for the death by shooting, starvation, or overwork of at least another nine to ten million people. Because the Nazis considered the Gypsies (like the Jews) an alien race, they were systematically rounded up for extermination. About 40 percent of Europe’s one million Gypsies were killed in the death camps. The leading elements of the Slavic peoples—the clergy, intelligentsia, civil leaders, judges, and lawyers— were also arrested and executed. Probably an additional four million Poles, Ukrainians, and Belorussians lost their lives as slave laborers for Nazi Germany, and at least three to four million Soviet prisoners of war were killed in captivity. The Nazis also singled out homosexuals for persecution, and thousands lost their lives in concentration camps.