World War II: The Holocaust

World War II Reference Library. Editor: Barbara C Bigelow, et al., Volume 1: Almanac, UXL, 2000.

One of the things that made World War II different from other wars was that Nazi Germany was committed to goals that would lead to mass murder. The Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler had always had three goals. One was to destroy his opponents in Germany. A second was to make Germany the strongest country in Europe and to conquer Lebensraum, which means “room to live.” This word implied that without this land, Germany could not survive: it was supposedly too small for its population. The third goal was to “purify” Germany—and then Europe—of “racial enemies” and to establish Germans as the “master race.” These three goals were closely connected in Hitler’s mind, and all three were mixed up with his hatred of Jews, which is known as anti-Semitism.

Official Anti-Semitism

Even before the Nazis took over Germany, Hitler and other Nazi leaders had attacked the Jews in speeches, in newspapers, and in the slogans they shouted. They compared the Jews to germs that made healthy Germans sick, called them enemies of Germany, and demanded that they be thrown out of the country. For years, the brown-shirted storm troopers, the Nazi Party’s military organization, had attacked and harassed Jews.

When the Nazis came to power, these anti-Semitic ideas became the official policy of the German government. The storm troopers stepped up their campaign of terror. They beat up Jews on the streets, attacked Jewish-owned stores, and forced Jews out of their jobs. Because the Nazis now ran the government, the Jews could not turn to the police for help. On April 1, 1933, only two months after Hitler became chancellor (head of the German government), the Nazis organized a national boycott of Jewish-owned stores.

Beginning in 1933, a series of laws denied Jews employment in many jobs, and many Jews decided that it was no longer possible to live in their own country. In 1933, 53,000 Jews left Germany—about one out of every ten Jews in the country. About 16,000 of them eventually returned, many because of the difficult conditions they faced as refugees (people who flee to another country to escape danger or mistreatment).

The Nuremberg Laws

In September 1935, a special session of the Reichstag (the German national legislature) met in the southern city of Nuremberg. The Reichstag passed two laws, which had been written on Hitler’s direct order. The first law said that only a person of “German or related blood” could be a citizen of Germany, and that only a citizen could have political rights or hold office. The second law made it illegal for Jews to marry or to have sexual relations with non-Jews.

Two months later, the Nazis issued a decree to carry out these laws. It said that anyone with three or more Jewish grandparents was a Jew. Anyone with two Jewish grandparents was a Jew if he or she “belonged to the Jewish religious community” or if he or she were married to a Jew.

The Nuremberg laws did several things. They put Jews into a special legal category, with fewer rights than other Germans. They said that Jews were not Germans, no matter how long their families had lived in the country or how loyal they had been. They said that being a German or a Jew was part of a person’s “blood” and could never be changed. After the Nuremberg laws passed, the German government officially did not consider Jews to be citizens.

New Laws and New Violence

In 1938, the Nazis stepped up their attacks on German Jews. In March, a new law took away the right to own property or sign contracts from Jewish organizations such as synagogues (Jewish houses of worship). In April, all Jewish businesses, except the very smallest, were required to register with the government.

Early in June, the Great Synagogue of Munich was burned down. Later that month, the police arrested all German Jews with police records—which generally meant parking tickets. Fifteen hundred Jews were sent to concentration camps, brutal prison camps run by the SS, the elite Nazi military organization. During this time, the Nazis also went after Jews in Austria, which had become part of Germany in March. By September, 4,000 Austrian Jews were in concentration camps. The arrested Jews were released only if they agreed to leave the country. In August, the synagogue in Nuremberg was destroyed.

In October, the Gestapo (short for the German words for “secret government police”) began rounding up Jews who were Polish citizens living in Germany to deport (forcibly remove) them to Poland. The Gestapo arrested 18,000 people, including whole families. On the night of October 27, the Gestapo put them on special trains and sent them to the Polish border. The Polish government refused to allow them into the country, however, and many were held in special camps on the border.

Crystal Night

Shortly afterward, Herschel Grynszpan, a seventeen-year-old Jewish man living in France, went to the German embassy in Paris and shot a German diplomat, Ernst vom Rath. Grynszpan’s family was among those deported to Poland. The Nazis used this incident to claim that all Jews were at fault and that the shooting was a crime against all Germans.

On the night of November 9, 1938, word reached Germany that vom Rath had died of his wounds. The Nazis launched a nationwide campaign of planned mob violence. In every city in Germany, storm troopers wearing civilian clothing attacked Jewish homes, stores, synagogues, and orphanages, burning buildings and throwing furniture onto the street. The police did not interfere.

Seven thousand businesses were destroyed. The streets were filled with shards of the stores’ windows, called Kristall in German. That gave the terrible night its name: Kristallnacht, or Crystal Night.

About a hundred Jews were killed, many beaten to death. Thousands of others were injured. An American diplomat in the city of Leipzig described how “an eighteen-year-old boy was hurled from a three-story window to land with both legs broken on a street littered with burning beds and other household furniture.”

The same witness wrote that storm troopers threw terrified Jews into a stream after destroying their homes. Then the storm troopers ordered the spectators, ordinary Germans, to spit at the Jews and throw mud at them. The spectators, according to the American witness, were “horrified” by what was happening.

The violence was supposed to look like the “spontaneous” anger of the German people, not the work of the government or the Nazi Party. But no one was fooled. Nazi officials planned the attacks and storm troopers carried them out. Very few other Germans took part. Most Germans, as the American diplomat pointed out, were horrified by the violence, but almost no one tried to stop it.

Arrests and Economic Measures

Immediately after Crystal Night, 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and sent to concentration camps. They were gradually released on the condition that they and their families leave Germany within 30 days. Thousands of Jewish families had only days to make arrangements to leave their homeland.

The Nazis also used Crystal Night to destroy any ability Jews still had to earn a living in Germany. The German government decided to seize any insurance money paid to Jewish property owners. In addition, Jews were held responsible for repairing the damage caused by the storm troopers. Jewish-owned businesses that had been forced to close because of the destruction could not reopen unless they had non-Jewish owners. And the government “fined” the Jewish community 1 billion marks for vom Rath’s death—an enormous amount.

On November 12, 1938, the government issued an official order entitled “Decree on Eliminating the Jews from German Economic Life.” It prohibited Jews from selling any goods or services, from being independent craftsmen, or from being in the management of any company.

On November 15, the government expelled all remaining Jewish children from school. In December, Germany barred Jews from many public places, such as movie theaters and beaches.

After Germany had taken over Austria in March 1938, it applied the same anti-Jewish policies to that country. The same thing happened in the parts of Czechoslovakia that Germany seized in October 1938 and March 1939. But the condition of Jews in areas under German control became even worse after World War II began. The first victims were the Jews of Poland.

The First Attacks on the Jews of Poland

The population of Poland before the war was about 35 million. About 3.3 million were Jews—almost one-tenth of the population. It was the largest and most important Jewish community in Europe, with a long and rich tradition.

A very large number of Jews, probably about 120,000, were killed during the weeks of fighting against the German invasion and immediately after. Jews in the Polish army, like all Polish soldiers, suffered heavy losses. Many Jewish civilians, like other Poles, died in German air raids. (The German invasion of Poland is described in Chapter 2.) But many other Jews were killed specifically because they were Jews.

Nazi brutality toward Polish Jews began immediately after the German occupation. (An occupation is when a country that has won a war stations military forces in the defeated country to control it.) Many of the worst incidents were committed by the Waffen-SS (“armed SS”). These were units of the SS, the military branch of the Nazi Party, that fought as part of the regular army. Worst of all was a special branch of the SS called the Einsatzgruppen (“special-action groups” or “special duty groups”). These specially trained strike forces were like a combination of army troops and secret police officers.

Humiliation and Torture

The way the Nazis behaved reveals much about their hatred of the Jews. The Nazis were not just interested in getting rid of Jews who might be dangerous to them, as they were with the Poles. They also wanted to humiliate and torture Jews as much as possible.

In the town of Bielsko on September 3, 1939, the Nazis forced 2,000 Jews into the courtyard of a Jewish school. The Nazis poured boiling water on some while they were hung by their hands; others died when their torturers forced water from a hose into their mouths until their stomachs burst. In Mielec, Nazis forced 35 Jews into a slaughterhouse and set it on fire, burning them alive.

In Wloclawek, the Nazis interrupted prayers in a private house on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement, the most sacred Jewish holiday). They ordered the people to go outside and run. Then they ordered them to halt. Five or six of the Jews did not hear this order, or did not halt quickly enough to suit the Nazis, and were shot dead.

The next day, the Nazis burned down the town’s two synagogues, something they did all over Poland. In the first six months of the German occupation, most of the synagogues of Poland were burned to the ground.

German soldiers grabbed Jews on the streets and beat them. They cut off the beards that religious Jewish men always wore. They forced them to crawl through the mud, or to pull Germans around in carts, or to give the stiff-armed Hitler salute.

The Nazi Plan for the Jews of Poland

On September 21, 1939, the deputy head of the SS, Reinhard Heydrich, sent a secret message to German authorities in Poland concerning “the Jewish question in the occupied territory.” His first point was to remind the commanders of the Einsatzgruppen that the “final aim” of these actions was to be “kept strictly secret. ” The final aim was not explained, but Heydrich said it “will require an extended period of time.” However, he wanted to begin the first stages leading to this final aim immediately.

The first goal “should be to establish only a few cities” where the Jews would be concentrated (gathered), Heydrich wrote. To make later actions easier, the concentration points should all be at railroad centers, or at least on railroad lines. Once again, the later actions were not described, but the fact that the concentration points had to be convenient to railroad lines indicates that they were not intended as a final destination for the Jews.

Jews from small towns would be forced into the nearest city of concentration. These newcomers, like the Jews who already lived in the cities, would have to live in a special area of the city, separated by walls or fences. This was the beginning of the ghettos. In the Middle Ages, many European Jews were required to live in a special section of town, and usually had to return there by nightfall. In some places, including parts of Germany, these ghettos had lasted until the early nineteenth century. By the time of Heydrich’s plan, however, Europe had been free of ghettos for many decades.

Heydrich also ordered the creation of a Jewish Council, usually called a Judenrat, in each Jewish community. Its members and their families would be held responsible for making sure the Jews followed German orders.

The Beginning of the System of Slave Labor

After they occupied Poland, the Germans began using Polish Jews for slave labor. Jews were grabbed off the street and forced to do things like clear rubble from the recent battles or fill in antitank ditches that the Poles had dug.

On October 26, 1939, five weeks after Heydrich’s message, an official decree gave the top SS leader in each area of occupied Poland authority over Jewish forced labor. Whenever some German agency needed some emergency work done, the SS formed a labor column of Jews they arrested at random on the street.

Within a few months, the Germans created more permanent labor camps. Soon, 30,000 Jews were digging an anti-tank ditch many miles long near the new border with the Soviet Union. Forty-five thousand others were held in 40 separate camps, building a canal near Lublin. Another 25,000 worked on a project near Warsaw. Non-Jewish Poles were also being sent to work camps.

Before long, Jews were performing forced labor in factories as well. Many German companies—including some owned by the SS itself—built factories next to the work camps. Some Nazi officials became rich by making deals with private businesses. Some of the Jews were paid about forty cents a day, but most were not paid at all. They worked under terrible conditions, without enough food, and the death rate was very high. Eventually a huge system of forced labor—or, really, slave labor—developed.

The First Ghettos

At the same time as the forced-labor columns were being created, the Nazis moved ahead with Heydrich’s plan to create ghettos. They collected the lists of Jews that each Judenrat had been ordered to draw up. Jews had to wear a yellow six-pointed star at all times and were not allowed to go into certain areas.

The Germans created the first ghetto in late October 1939, less than two months after Germany had invaded Poland. Several months later, a ghetto was established at Lodz, the second-largest city in Poland before the war. It took about another year for the Germans to set up ghettos throughout Poland. By April 1941, almost all Jews in Poland were confined in ghettos.

Although every ghetto was different, the conditions in Lodz give an idea of what they were like. The Nazis always chose the poorest section of town for the ghetto. The buildings were mostly old, run-down, and poorly heated in the cold Polish winters. Few had indoor bathrooms or running water. There were about 32,000 apartments inside the Lodz ghetto, most of them with only one room. On average, four people lived in every room. More than 160,000 people were jammed into an area of one-and-a-half square miles—about thirty city blocks.

In Warsaw, the capital of Poland and home to the largest Jewish population in Europe, around 450,000 Jews lived inside the walls of the ghetto. This was about 200,000 people for every square mile, almost triple the number for the rest of Warsaw, which was itself a crowded city. In the ghetto, an average of nine people lived in every room.

Hunger was the worst problem in the ghettos. Food in German-controlled Poland was rationed, so even people with money could legally buy only what the Germans allowed. Each person had ration coupons for different categories of food. Jews were not allowed to buy meat, poultry, fish, fruits, vegetables, eggs, or white flour. Their diet consisted mainly of potatoes and bread. Often they ate potato peels. Many Jews were so poor they could not even buy what the Germans allowed. The combination of cold, poor sanitation, overcrowding, and an inadequate diet led to disease and death. More than 43,000 people starved to death in the Warsaw ghetto in 1941, almost one-tenth of the population. At a funeral for some children from a ghetto orphanage, the remaining children placed a wreath on their graves. It read: “To the Children Who Have Died from Hunger—From the Children Who Are Hungry.”

The Invasion of Russia and the Beginning of Mass Murder

While it was forcing the Jews of Poland into ghettos, Germany invaded the Soviet Union (Russia and the territory it controlled) on June 22, 1941. The Soviet army and government were completely unprepared. The German forces, led by tanks, pushed into Soviet territory with tremendous speed. (The German invasion is described in Chapter 3.) With them came four specially trained new Einsatzgruppen. They had been recruited from organizations of dedicated Nazis such as the Gestapo, the Waffen-SS, and the SD (from the German words for “security service,” the special branch of the SS in charge of spying on the rest of the Nazi Party). These new Einsatzgruppen had received many lectures about Nazi ideas, including the need to exterminate “subhumans” such as Jews. They also received operational training in how to round up and kill large numbers of civilians. (Each Einsatzgruppe used the same procedures, even though they operated many hundreds of miles apart.) By the time their training was over, the officers and men of the Einsatzgruppen all knew that their job was to commit genocide, the deliberate, systematic destruction of a racial, national, or cultural group.

The Shootings

As the German army advanced into Soviet territory, a subunit of an Einsatzgruppe swept into a town or village as soon as possible. One of their commanders later described what would happen. The Germans would “order the prominent Jewish citizens to call together all Jews for the purpose of resettlement.” (Throughout Europe, the Germans told Jews that they were being “resettled” to some other area, when they were really being sent to their deaths.) When the town’s Jewish population had gathered in some central location, such as a school or factory grounds, “they were requested to hand over their valuables to the leaders of the unit.” Then the Germans marched them away, usually to a nearby forest. “The men, women, and children were led to a place of execution which in most cases was located next to an antitank ditch that had been made deeper.” The Germans then told everyone to remove their outer clothing. (In many of the Einsatzgruppen “aktions” [operations], the victims had to remove all their clothing.) “Then they were shot, kneeling or standing, and the corpses thrown into the ditch.” Afterward, an Einsatzgruppe officer would climb into the ditch full of dead bodies and shoot people who were still moving.

In other Einsatzgruppen operations, the Germans forced their victims to lie on their stomachs on the edge of a ditch, and a German standing directly over them would shoot them in the back of the neck with a rifle, which was supposed to be placed very close to the victim’s neck. The victim’s blood and brains often splattered the Germans’ uniforms.

An SS colonel described how his unit killed Jews in a December 1941 report to his superiors. The unit would round up Jews from one or more towns and dig a ditch at the right site to hold the right number of bodies. “The marching distance from the collecting points to the ditches averaged about five kilometers [three miles]. The Jews were brought in groups of 500, separated by at least 2 kilometers [1.2 miles] to the place of execution.”


In the city of Kovno, in Lithuania (a country that had briefly been part of the Soviet Union), the murders began as soon as the Soviet army retreated from the city. Gangs of Lithuanian anti-Semites attacked and robbed Jews on June 23 and 24, 1941. On June 25, they marched from house to house in the Jewish slum district of the city, killing every Jew they could find. As they did in many other places, the Germans in Kovno encouraged these actions and secretly helped organize the mobs. It was important, the commander of an Einsatzgruppe wrote, to make it seem that the local population had attacked “the Bolshevist [Communist] and Jewish enemy on its own initiative and without instructions from the German authorities.”

Ten thousand Jews from Kovno were arrested and taken to Fort Number Seven, one of several old military posts surrounding the city. For several days, large groups were taken out and shot; sometimes the Lithuanians raped the women first. Their bodies, almost 7,000 of them, were buried in large pits.

The Germans forced the 30,000 surviving Jews of the area to move to the slum district where the murder march had occurred. This became Kovno’s ghetto. Throughout the summer of 1941, the Germans took hundreds of people from the ghetto and shot them. In October, more than 9,000 people, including thousands of children, were taken to Fort Number Nine and shot. The Germans called Fort Number Nine the Schlachtfeld, which means “slaughter ground.” In the years that the Germans held Kovno, 100,000 people, 70,000 of them Jews, were killed in the forts surrounding the city.

The single worst massacre was at Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, which was then part of the Soviet Union. The German army captured Kiev on September 19, after a battle that lasted forty-five days. Within a few days, the Germans ordered all Jews to report for resettlement. They gathered, carrying small bundles, and were led out of town past the Jewish cemetery to an area of sand dunes, where there was a large ravine, a steep natural ditch. The name of the place was Babi Yar.

As each small group reached Babi Yar, the Germans ordered them to strip, hand over their bundles, and march to the edge of the great ravine. Then they were machine gunned. For two days the machine gunners worked and the bodies filled the ravine. Thirty-three thousand died.

The pattern was the same in every part of the Soviet Union captured by the Germans. The Einsatzgruppen would enter an area, round up as many Jews as they could, march them to an isolated area in the woods, and shoot them. Then the Einsatzgruppen would move farther east, following the advance of the German army. The surviving Jews were forced into ghettos and then killed in a series of roundups and executions. In five months, 500,000 Soviet Jews were dead.

The Wannsee Conference

At some point during this period, the top leaders of Nazi Germany decided to kill all the Jews in Europe. They called this the “final solution” to the Jewish “problem.” They had already taken the first steps in this plan. The Jews of Poland were confined to ghettos, from which they could easily be taken elsewhere and killed. Soviet Jews had been murdered by the hundreds of thousands. In the other countries of Nazi-occupied Europe, Jews had to register with the police and wear a yellow star on their clothes at all times. The places where they could live were restricted.

On January 20, 1942, Heydrich called a conference at Wannsee, a lakeside suburb of Berlin. There, he informed representatives of each branch of the German government about the decision to kill the Jews and instructed them to cooperate in carrying it out. Heydrich told them that “evacuation of the Jews to the east” was now the policy of Nazi Germany. At this very moment, Heydrich said, “practical experience is being gathered that is of major significance in view of the coming Final Solution to the Jewish Question.” The practical experience was being gained by the Einsatzgruppen in Russia.

Heydrich reported on the number of Jews in each country of Europe. The total was 11 million. Heydrich’s figures included the Jews of Great Britain, which Germany was fighting. They also included countries that were not involved in the war, like Spain, Switzerland, and even Ireland. The aim of the final solution, in other words, was eventually to kill every Jew in all of Europe. The Nazis, according to their own figures, planned to kill 11 million people.

The fifteen men at the conference then discussed the problems involved in arresting the Jews of each country under German control or influence and deporting them to the east. The conference ended with discussions of exactly how best to kill the Jews. They described and debated the technical problems of mass shooting and using poison gas.

Deportations and Death Camps

On July 19, 1942, Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS, ordered the resettlement of all Polish Jews by the end of the year. The Nazis began deporting Jews from the ghettos until no one was left and the ghetto was “liquidated.” In the smaller ghettos, the entire population might be forced onto a single train. In the larger ghettos, the process took months. The Nazis would order a few thousand people to report to a central location and then put them on a train. They would never be seen again. Sometimes this went on day after day; sometimes there were long pauses. The trains were going to four special camps.

These camps were different from the older concentration camps in Germany. As terrible as the concentration camps were, the camps in Poland were something new. They were death camps or extermination camps. Four of the camps were built for the sole purpose of killing Jews. They were not meant to do anything else. None of the prisoners was put to work there, except to help run the killing process. Each trainload of Jews was killed as soon as possible.

These four camps killed more than 2 million Jews.

The first of these camps was Chelmno (Kulmhof in German), about 35 miles from Lodz. It began to operate in December 1941, even before the Wannsee Conference was held. People were brought to the nearest railroad station on trains and then driven to Chelmno in trucks. There the Nazis forced them into the back of a different truck that looked like a furniture van. The Nazis crammed as many people into each truck as could possibly fit and sealed the back so that no air could enter. They directed the exhaust from the truck engine into the back through a hose. When the engine of the truck was run, it sent poisonous carbon monoxide into the truck. The truck ran until all the people were dead. Then the Nazis drove the truck to the nearby forest and dumped the bodies into mass graves.

The Nazis repeated this procedure over and over. Three hundred forty thousand people died at Chelmno. All but 7,000 were Jews. Only three people survived.

The other three camps designed to kill the Jews of Poland were different from Chelmno but very similar to one another. Each was near a large center of Jewish population, but they were far enough away, hidden in the forests, so that their purpose could be kept secret. They were on railroad lines, so that the Jews from the Polish cities could be brought to them.

The first camp was Belzec, located between the cities of Lublin and Lvov. From February 1942 to the end of the year, 600,000 people died at Belzec. Almost all were Jews. Two people survived.

Sobibór was east of Lublin. From May 1942 until October 1943, 250,000 people died at Sobibór. Almost all were Jews. Sixty-four people survived.

Treblinka was near Warsaw. From July 1942 to August 1943, about 870,000 people were murdered at Treblinka. Almost all were Jews. Somewhere between forty and seventy people survived.

The three camps were designed so that they could kill people as quickly as possible. The Nazis had approached the murder of Jews as a technical problem. Each aspect of the killings was carefully thought out. They planned how to bring the Jews to the camps and how to deal with them when they arrived. They planned how to process them at the camps and exactly how to kill them, and they planned how to get rid of their clothes, their possessions, and, finally, their bodies.

The Transports

The Jews who arrived at the camps had already suffered unbelievably harsh conditions on the transport trains that brought them to the camps. They arrived exhausted, starving, and desperate for water. Many had died on the trip. When the survivors were finally allowed off the trains, they were told they had reached a transit camp, a stop along the way to resettlement.

Among the descriptions of these transports, there are several written by officers of the German Reserve Police, who guarded many of the trains. The historian Christopher R. Browning quotes a report written by a Lieutenant Westermann.

Almost 5,000 Jews from Kolomyja in southeastern Poland who had reported for “registration” at 5:30 in the morning were loaded on a train to Belzec. The next day, Westermann wrote, “some 300 Jews—old and weak, ill, frail, and no longer transportable—were executed.” It took until seven that evening to complete the loading of the train. “Each car of the transport was loaded with 100 Jews. The great heat prevailing that day made the entire operation very difficult,” Westermann reported. The cars were sealed and their doors nailed shut, as usual, he explained. But because it was already dark by the time the train left at nine, and because of the great heat, “many Jews escaped by squeezing through the airholes after removing the barbed wire. While the guard was able to shoot many of them immediately, most of the escaping Jews were eliminated that night or the next day by the railroad guard or other police units.” In a different transport to Belzec, 2,000 of the Jews had died from suffocation or heat prostration before the train arrived.


When the transport trains reached the death camps, the Nazis brought the first twenty freight cars to the unloading area, while the others waited farther away. The camps were surrounded by barbed wire fences, with high watchtowers at the corners. There were tree branches and leaves in the fencing so that no one could see through.

A group of prisoners opened the doors and the guards ordered all the Jews out. (The prisoners who opened the doors were men, usually young and healthy, who had arrived on an earlier transport and had not been killed.) The SS men and the guards (often Ukrainian soldiers in the Soviet army who had been captured by the Germans and who had volunteered to help the Nazis) marched the new arrivals into the camp as quickly as possible. Anyone who lagged behind was beaten with rifle butts or whipped.

Meanwhile, the prisoners who had opened the cars removed the bodies of those who had died on the train. Then they cleaned the cars. They washed away blood, vomit, and human waste and swept out bits of clothing or personal possessions left behind. In a few minutes, all evidence of what had happened on the train was erased.

The guards told the people who had just gotten off the train to leave all their belongings. Then they separated the men from the women and children.

The women and children were forced to run to a long barracks building and told to undress completely so that they could be disinfected in the shower houses. The women would then have their hair cut off, to prevent disease, they were told. The hair, in fact, was used to make products for the German armed forces, such as water-resistant rope for the navy.

Next, the women and children were forced by the guards to run, completely naked, through a narrow path between barbed wire fences. Like the fence outside the camp, they were camouflaged with tree branches to prevent anyone seeing through. The path, about a hundred yards long, was called the “tube.”

The guards beat and whipped the women and children to make them run through the tube before they could realize what was happening. There was a sign that said “To the showers,” but the path really led to a secret part of the camp where the killing took place.

While the women were being processed, the men waited. They too were naked. After a while, perhaps half an hour or more, they too were forced to run through the tube.

On the other side of the path was a building. It looked like a public bathhouse, which was a familiar sight in Europe in that period. As they came through the tube, the prisoners were forced to enter the building through the main door. Inside there were doors to smaller rooms, where showerheads hung from the ceiling. These rooms also had doors to the outside of the building, but these were sealed.

The guards packed the Jews into these rooms as tightly as possible and then sealed the rooms. Then they turned on the engine of a captured Russian tank. The carbon monoxide gas from the engine pumped through the showerheads into the sealed rooms, which were really gas chambers. For half an hour the poisonous gas poured in. The people inside gasped and coughed and choked. They clawed desperately to escape. Their bodies were drenched with sweat, with blood, with their own waste. They did not even have room to fall down when they died. They died pressed against one another, their bodies tangled together.


After all the prisoners were dead, a special group of the permanent prisoners opened the outside doors to the gas chambers. They had to separate the bodies and remove them. Other prisoners washed out the gas chambers to make them ready for the next victims.

Meanwhile, other prisoners, known as the “dentists,” searched the mouths of the dead for gold teeth and fillings and removed them with pliers. Then prisoners carried the bodies to several giant pits located about 150 to 200 yards from the gas chambers, threw them in, and buried them. The next group of victims would be thrown on top of them.

The permanent prisoners also sorted through all the belongings of the victims. All identification had to be removed. The yellow stars that the Nazis had ordered the Jews to wear were ripped off the clothing. The names were taken off their suitcases. The Nazis were sending the belongings of the dead to Germany. No one was to know where they came from. Huge mounds of clothing and shoes were piled in a large, open area. The money, gold, jewelry, and other valuables that the Jews had handed over in return for a receipt were now the property of the Nazis.

The Nazis burned their identification papers, passports, birth certificates, photographs, and letters. They wanted no trace of their victims to survive.

Meanwhile, the next twenty cars of the train, which had been parked farther away, were brought to the camp. The whole process was now repeated.


The most infamous death camp was Auschwitz, in southwestern Poland. Unlike the camps designed to kill the Polish Jews, Auschwitz was also an immense slave-labor camp, designed to hold more than 200,000 prisoners at one time, including many non-Jews. It was much bigger than the other camps, with hundreds of buildings. But its main purpose was not slave labor. Auschwitz was designed to kill Jews from all over Europe, not just Poland, although 300,000 Polish Jews died there. Transports came to Auschwitz for two and a half years, from France, Holland, Hungary, Norway, Italy, Greece, Belgium, and Slovakia.

These Jews had been arrested in their home countries, rounded up by the German occupation authorities or, in some countries, by the police of their own country, who were helping the Nazis. Usually they had been sent to a transit camp in their own countries until transportation became available. Like Jews everywhere, they had been told they were being resettled somewhere in the east. The terrified prisoners had often spent many days locked in the boxcars.

The railroad tracks went right into the camp. As each transport was unloaded, SS doctors “selected” the new arrivals. A small minority, especially adult men under the age of forty who appeared healthy, were told to go to the right. They would become slave laborers, trying to survive in some of the worst conditions ever endured by human beings. Some of those selected were chosen so that Nazi doctors could use them for horrible medical experiments.

Most of the people, perhaps 90 percent, were sent to the left: children and almost all women, anyone who appeared sick or weak, and all old people. Being sent to the left meant immediate death in the gas chambers.

Auschwitz had more and larger gas chambers than the other camps. Each of the chambers was connected to crematoria, special furnaces where the victims’ bodies were burned. There was no need to bury the bodies in giant pits. The brick smokestacks of the crematoria stood high above the camp, like a factory. The smoke that rose from these chimneys for month after month was the symbol of a giant factory of death: the lives of more than 1 million human beings ended at Auschwitz.