The "Holocaust" (also known as the Catastrophe, the Shoah, the Hurban) is the most tragic period
of Jewish Diaspora history and indeed of modern mankind as a whole. It started in Germany on
Jan. 30, 1933, with the accession of the Nazis to power, and ended on May 8, 1945, with the
unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany. The 12 years of the Nazi anti-Jewish Aktion (1933–44)
constitute an uninterrupted progression toward an ever-increasing radicalization of objectives
and barbarization of methods in constantly expanded territories under direct Nazi control or
under decisive Nazi influence, to the accompaniment of vicious, sometimes obscene, anti-Jewish
propaganda. The consequences of the Holocaust are of decisive significance for the Jewish present
and future: those consequences are still evident now and will be experienced for generations to come.
The nature of the Holocaust is unique. Millions of Jews some for periods of 12 years lived under
the all-pervading Nazi power, enduring its threats and its Aktionen. The Jews lived in agony.
Tortured by anxiety, insecure in the present, unable to anticipate the future, torn between hope
and despair, they were helpless in the face of a tremendous machine always ready to crush them.
The psychological effects on those who had to live through this period of total persecution are
beyond even superficial description. This survey is an attempt to trace at least the external
events, the extraordinary human suffering of a specially selected "race," pursued over the
length and breadth of a continent and beyond, condemned to mass murder. Integrated or segregated,
educated or ignorant, rich or poor, young or old, every Jew was condemned. East European Jewry,
however, was especially singled out, in the belief that by destroying this reservoir of Jewish
population and culture, the Nazis would have the ultimate "solution" to the "Jewish question."
Two major periods of the Holocaust can be discerned: the prewar period and the period of World
Germany occupied western Poland in fall 1939. Much of this
territory was annexed to the German Reich. Eastern Poland was not occupied by
German forces until June 1941. In south-central Poland the Germans set up the
Generalgouvernement (General Government), where most of the early ghettos were established.
Ghettos were enclosed districts of a city in which the
Germans forced the Jewish population to live under miserable conditions. Ghettos
isolated Jews by separating Jewish communities
both from the population as a whole and from neighboring Jewish communities. The
Warsaw ghetto, established on October 12, 1940, was
the largest ghetto, in both area and population. There, more than 350,000
Jews – about 30 percent of the city's population – were eventually confined in
about 2.4 percent of the city's total area.
Deportation: the Jews of a Polish ghetto
assembling for deportation.
Credit: Yad Vashem