The Holocaust was the genocide of 6 million Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe, perpetrated by Germany, its allies, and collaborators during World War II. We often think the Holocaust is a one-time past mistake, impossible to repeat. But discrimination, hate, and ignorance, the three pillars that create and support genocides, remain very alive nowadays. And can degenerate into a mass-killing, like the Holocaust perpetrated by the Nazis 78 years ago.

The Holocaust was mostly targeted against Jews, but some authors prefer to use a broader definition, and include the Soviet civilians, Poles, disabled, Jehovah witnesses, Roma, homosexuals, political opponents and others, that the Nazis murdered directly and indirectly.

But what we all ask ourselves is: how could this happen? And why?

#1 Who was involved in the Holocaust

In 1933 the Nazi party came to power in Germany from the hand of the charismatic, but extremely racist, Adolf Hitler. The racial stereotypes had been predominant in Germany due to the resentment of losing the First World War, and Hitler skilfully directed the country’s feelings of anger and injustice against the Jews.

An official picture of Hitler with a stern look in the Reich's Chancellery
Adolf Hitler. 1889-1945. Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-H1216-0500-002 / CC-BY-SA 3.0. Source

Racial laws were passed against the Jews, the 1938 Nuremberg laws, while beat ups, confiscation, murders, and mass violence were perpetrated against them during the Kristallnacht (Night of broken glass). Previous to 1941, the Nazis strived to monitor the Jewish population of Europe through concentration camps, deportations, and Ghettos. Jews were forcefully locked under precarious conditions and stripped of their human and political rights. The lucky ones, had managed to emigrate out of Nazi-occupied Europe, before the worse nightmare began.

#2 Leaders of the Holocaust

In January 1942, the head of the Reich Main Security Office, Reinhard Heydrich summoned the most influential Nazi and SS leaders to a conference in Wansee. There they agreed on the Final Solution to the Jewish Question: the total extermination of European Jews.

In occupied Poland, the Nazis set up six extermination camps: Chełmno, Treblinka, Majdanek, Sobibór, Bełżec and Auschwitz-Birkenau. Camps of industrial mass-killing, for men, women and children alike. Adolf Eichmann was put in charge of the logistics and the trains that deported thousands of Jews, and others, to these death camps, often under the euphemism, ‘resettlement in the East’.

The famous sign that stood in all concentration and extermination camps
Auschwitz gate. It reads: ‘Work sets you free’. Taken by the author of this blog and article

The camps were operated and guarded by the SS, the military body that started as Hitler’s bodyguards, and infamous for its virulent anti-Semitism, and war-time atrocities committed against civilians.

#3 Auschwitz and the Gas Chambers

The most widespread method used for mass-murder was the Gas Chamber, capable of killing thousands a day. A literal factory of death.  The process was recorded by survivors and guards, especially in Auschwitz-Birkenau, where over a million people were exterminated. After reaching the camp by train, newcomers (if they had survived the overcrowded transport and the starvation) were divided by the SS Doctors, into those healthy enough to work, and those weak and ill. The latter were walked into an ante-chamber, where they were stripped naked, and told to enter the showers and undergo delousing.

Once locked in the chambers, the executioners released a canister of lethal gas known as Zyklon B.

Canisters of Zyklon B. Plenty of those were found in the extermination camps. Author: Palthrow. Source

After waiting 30 minutes, the gas was pumped out and the chambers opened. The prisoners charged with dealing with the corpses, the Sonderkommandos, often described how the bodies were piled up in top of each other, in layers. The weakest, elders and children, lay at the bottom, while the strongest laid on top. They often had scratched the walls in search of oxygen, foaming and involuntarily defecating, before suffering an unimaginably agonizing death, which in some cases could take up to 20 minutes.  

Adjacent crematoriums were used to dispose of the bodies, and often, were even used to gruesomely kill those who resisted or attempted on the lives of the SS guards.

Crematoriums were often not enough, and the Sonderkommandos (prisoners whose tasks included dealing with the corpses) burnt bodies in outdoor pits. Auschwitz-Birkenau II. Taken by Alex, the Greek army or naval officer. Source

#4 Aftermath of the Holocaust

Although Jews were the main targeted group for execution, three million of Soviet POWs were also murdered, deliberately starved, or exhausted to death. Another half a million Gypsies suffered deprivation and execution, and Poles, homosexuals, political prisoners and undesirables to the regime, suffered an ordeal, described by the same prisoners, as worse than death.

Progressively the Allies advanced through Germany and occupied Poland, liberating the camps and witnessing the horrors and indescribable cruelty the prisoners had endured. Still, thousands starved and dyed of exhaustion, as the Nazis forced them on ‘Death Marches’, while fleeing from the Allied Armies.

And it was still far from over for the survivors… Many kept dying because of the rough treatment and malnutrition, even after being liberated, and many thousands discovered their whole families had been wiped out, and their homes were now occupied by strangers. Most chose to emigrate to the U.S. and to Israel.

WARNING: The following pictures might hurt people’s sensitivity

The Nazis attempted to conceal their crimes, but eventually the truth was revealed. Nowadays, the extermination and concentration camps stand, not as place to deliberately hurt people, but as a reminder of the monstrosities we humans, are capable of against our fellowmen.


George Santayana

#5 Holocaust death toll

The war in Europe officially ended between the 8th and 9th May 1945. Almost six years of war, six millions of Jews exterminated. Three millions of Soviet POWs, almost two millions of Poles, half million of Serbs and another half of Roma, plus thousands of homosexuals, Spanish republicans, political opponents and religious dissidents, and many ‘undesirable’ to the regime, had lost their lives on the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators.

Some estimates place the total number of killings to 17 million people. 17 million of suffering sons, mothers, fathers, brothers and daughters who lost their lives because of the hate, discrimination, and ignorance, of their executioners.

Czesława Kwoka’s photography in Auschwitz. Taken after receiving a beat up from a guard. She died in 1943. She was just 14 years old. Author: Wilhelm Brasse (attributed). Source

#6 We remember

Many countries had been commemorating the Holocaust till today, setting different days to remember the victims of WW2. In 2005, the UN passed the 60/7 resolution, urging all their members to remember the Holocaust and commemorate its victims. The chosen day was 27th of January, when Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated by the Red Army.

By honouring the millions who were unjustly stripped of their lives, the International Holocaust Remembrance Day, is also a reminder of the dangers of repeating the mistakes of the past, and works to educate a better and more tolerant society.

Since the end of WW2, several genocides had taken place: the Indonesian mass-killings of 1965-66 (500.000 to 3 million victims), the 1971 Bangladesh Genocide (300.000 to 3 million), the Cambodian Genocide 1975-79 (1,6 to 1,8 million) or the 1994 Rwandan Genocide (500.000 to 1 million), to mention a few. And hundreds of thousands in the 21st century still face discrimination, imprisonment, and persecution for political, religious, or ethnic reasons.

The Holocaust and the genocides are not simply the past but a very threatening future. Fighting the Nazis and the perpetrators of the 20th century massacres was the struggle of our grandparents. The fight of our generation is to remember it, to understand how it happened, and to make sure it never happens again.

Dedicated to the victims of the Holocaust and other genocides, before or after. WE REMEMBER YOU
Join the #We Remember campaign, and stand up against hatred and racism!