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The Holocaust/ Night, Part I


By the end of this discussion, you should be able to do the following:

· Describe the events that led up to the Holocaust.

· Describe the circumstances and events of the first part of Elie Wiesel’s Night.


By the end of this discussion, you should understand the following terms:

· Endlösung (Final Solution)

· Kristallnacht (Night of the Broken Glass)

· Schutzstaffel (SS)



Study the following instructional material:

mong the many questions debated by scholars of the Holocaust is why, of all places on earth, did it happen in Germany? Jews suffered no form of legal discrimination under the Kaiserreich. Their access to higher education and thence to the professions was as good as anywhere in Europe, if not better. Approximately 31 percent of the richest families in Germany and 22 percent of Prussian millionaires were Jewish. Jews accounted for less than one in every hundred Germans, but by the second quarter of the twentieth century, one in nine German doctors and one in six lawyers were Jewish. They also represented above-average numbers as newspaper editors, journalists, theatrical directors, and academics. They were underrepresented in only one of Germany’s elite occupational groups, and that was the officer corps of the army.1

Nevertheless, a growing number of Jews migrated from Eastern Europe to Germany in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These immigrants were relatively poor, orthodox in faith, and Yiddish in speech, and it was harder to integrate these newcomers into German society. In fact, these eastern Jews elicited much the same response among German Jews as Gentiles: disquiet bordering on revulsion. By the beginning of the twentieth century, there was a feeling among many Germans that this non-native element in their midst was somehow threatening. Perhaps they were holding down jobs that Germans could have taken. Perhaps their poverty was a drain on the social welfare system. Some felt they had even more sinister agendas, and rumors were rife of Jewish plots to accumulate all national wealth and manipulate the government from behind the scenes. Julius Streicher’s newspaper, Der Stürmer, was obsessed with conspiracy theories and weird sexual plots to seduce German maidens and undermine the racial integrity of the German people.

Cover page from an issue of Der Stürmer. The subtitle reads, “The Jews are our Misfortune.”

As far back as Mein Kampf, Hitler made it clear that ridding Germany of its Jews was his top priority and persecution began almost immediately after the Nazis came to power. Throughout the 1930s, the legal, economic, and social rights of Jews were steadily restricted. In 1933, a series of laws were passed to exclude Jews from key areas, including the Civil Service Law, the Physicians’ Law, and the Farm Law. Jewish lawyers were disbarred, and in Dresden, Jewish lawyers and judges were dragged out of their offices and courtrooms and beaten. Jews were excluded from schools, universities, and newspapers. Soon a mass exodus of Jews from Germany was underway.

The “Jewish Problem”

In 1935, Hitler introduced the Nuremberg Laws, which stripped German Jews of their citizenship and deprived them of all civil rights. In his speech introducing the laws, Hitler said that if the “Jewish problem” cannot be solved by these laws, it “must then be handed over by law to the National Socialist Party for a final solution (Endlösung).” “Final Solution” became the standard Nazi euphemism for the extermination of the Jews.

On the night of November 9, 1938, Nazi-inspired riots broke out throughout Germany. This was the infamous Kristallnacht, or Night of the Broken Glass. Approximately one hundred Jews were killed and another thirty thousand sent to concentration camps, while over 7,000 Jewish shops and 1,668 synagogues (almost every synagogue in Germany) were damaged or destroyed.

Interior of the Berlin Synagogue after Kristallnacht

Similar events took place in Austria, particularly Vienna. In January 1939, Hitler announced in a public speech: “If international-finance Jewry inside and outside Europe should succeed once more in plunging the nations into yet another world war, the consequences will not be the Bolshevization of the earth and thereby the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe.”

The “Jewish question” became more urgent after September 1939 when Germany occupied western Poland and became the proprietors of about two million Jews. Reinhard Heidrich, second-in-command of the Schutzstaffel (SS), a government enforcement agency similar to the secret police in the Soviet Union, recommended concentrating all the Polish Jews in ghettos in major cities, where they would be put to work for the German war industry.

The ghettos would be in cities located on railway junctions so that, in Heydrich's words, “future measures can be accomplished more easily.” Soon the SS was rounding up Jews from all over conquered Europe and relocating them to ghettos in the east. Living conditions in the ghettos were grim and starvation and disease killed hundreds of thousands. In addition, thousands of Jews were sent to concentration camps along with Gypsies, homosexuals, political prisoners, and Soviet prisoners of war. There they worked until they literally expired or until they became useless and were marked for extermination.

The German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 opened a new phase . The Holocaust intensified after the Nazis occupied Lithuania; close to 80 percent of Lithuanian Jews were exterminated before the end of the year. The Soviet territories occupied by early 1942 contained about four million Jews, including hundreds of thousands who had fled Poland in 1939. Despite the chaos of the Soviet retreat, some effort was made to evacuate Jews and about a million succeeded in escaping further east. The remaining three million were left at the mercy of the Nazis.

In these territories, there were fewer restraints on the mass killing of Jews than there were in countries like France or the Netherlands where there was a long tradition of tolerance and the rule of law, or even in Poland where, despite a strong tradition of anti-Semitism, there was considerable resistance to Nazi persecution of Polish Jews. In the Baltic States, Belarus, and Ukraine, native anti-Semitism was reinforced by hatred of Communist rule, which many people associated with the Jews. Thousands of people in these countries actively collaborated with the Nazis. Ukrainians and Latvians joined SS auxiliary forces in large numbers and did much of the dirty work in Nazi extermination camps.

Despite the subservience of the Army High Command to Hitler, Himmler did not trust the army to approve of, let alone carry out, the large-scale killings of Jews in the occupied Soviet territories. This task was assigned to SS task groups under the overall command of Heydrich. These had been used on a limited scale in Poland in 1939, but were now organized on a much larger scale. According to the Nazis, they had the mission to “protect the rear of the troops by killing the Jews, gypsies, Communist functionaries, active Communists, and all persons who would endanger the security.” In practice, nearly all their victims were defenseless Jewish civilians (not a single SS member was killed in action during these operations).

An SS officer executes Russian Jews

By December 1941, the SS had killed a total of 300,000 people—mainly by shooting or setting off hand grenades—at mass killing sites outside the major towns. The bodies from these massacres were initially buried in mass graves. Later, as the Soviet armies began to take back their conquered territory, these bodies were exhumed and burnt on giant pyres in an attempt to destroy the evidence. Elie Wiesel writes: “Thus, for the first time in history, Jews were not only killed twice but denied burial in a cemetery.”2

Bodies to be burned stacked with logs

The War Hastens, Holocaust Intensifies

By 1942, the tide of World War II was turning. The summer German offensive stuttered to a halt in Stalingrad. In November, the Russians counterattacked, encircling and eventually capturing the entire German Sixth Army. Also in November, British troops defeated Rommel at El Alamein and pushed him back into Tunisia . Around the same time, the Americans began landing troops in northwest Africa. Throughout 1943 and 1944, the Allies drove across Africa and into Italy and their efforts culminated in the invasion of France on June 7, 1944. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union’s Red Army slowly but deliberately drove the Germans out of Russia.

But the Allies’ advance meant little relief for the Jews in Europe. In fact, it only quickened the pace of their demise. On January 20, 1942, Heydrich convened the Wannsee Conference. The fifteen men who attended were considered Germany’s best and the brightest; more than half of them held doctorates from German universities. Butlers served brandy as they talked. The men were presented with a plan for killing all the Jews in Europe, including 330,000 Jews in England and 4,000 in Ireland. They were told there were 2.3 million Jews in the General Government, 850,000 in Hungary, 1.1 million in the other occupied countries, and up to 5 million in the Soviet Union (although only 3 million of these were in areas under German occupation) —a total of about 6.5 million. These would all be transported by train to extermination camps in Poland, where those unfit for work would be gassed at once. In some camps, such as Auschwitz, those fit for work would be kept a