The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.


Holocaust (hŏl´əkôst´, hō´lə–), name given to the period of persecution and extermination of European Jews by Nazi Germany. Romani (Gypsies), homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, the disabled, and others were also victims of the Holocaust. Although anti-Semitism in Europe has had a long history, organized persecution of German Jews began with Hitler's rise to power in 1933. Jews were disenfranchised, then terrorized in anti-Jewish riots (such as Kristallnacht), forced into the ghettos and had their property seized, and finally sent to concentration camps. The concentration camp system was in existence for 12 years and included 27 main camps and more than 1,000 subcamps. The camps were established and were under the control of Heinrich Himmler and the SS.

After the outbreak of World War II, Hitler established death camps to secretly implement what he called "the final solution of the Jewish question." Extermination squads were also sent to the fronts: In one operation alone, over 30,000 Jews were killed at Babi Yar (Ukr. Babyn Yar), outside Kiev. In all, some 1.7 million Jews were shot to death in Soviet Europe in 1941–42. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has documented a staggering 42,500 ghettos, slave-labor and concentration camps, brothels, and other facilities for the confinement and/or murder of Jews in German controlled areas (from France to Russia) in the years 1933–45—a much higher number than originally thought. It is estimated that from 15 to 20 million people were imprisoned or died at these sites. By the end of the war some six million Jews had been systematically murdered.

The main Jewish resistance was spiritual: observing their religion and refraining from suicide, while Zionists evacuated some to Palestine. After 450,000 Jews were sent from the Warsaw Ghetto to death camps, however, news of their fate led the last 60,000 to rebel (1943), fighting until they were killed, captured, or escaped to join the resistance. While the European churches were silent, some clergy and individual non-Jews saved many. The Danes sent most Danish Jews to Sweden in private boats while under German occupation. The Allies refused rescue attempts, and American Jews were warned against attempting them.

After the war Nazi leaders were tried for war crimes at Nuremburg, and West Germany later adopted (1953) the Federal Compensation Law, under which billions of dollars were paid to those who survived Nazi persecution. In the mid-1990s a number of suits were filed against Swiss banks that held accounts belonging to Holocaust victims but had denied the fact and failed to restore the money. A settlement reached in 1998 established a $1.25 billion fund to be used to compensate those who can document their claims and, more generally, Holocaust survivors, the latter as restitution for undocumented accounts and for Swiss profits on Nazi accounts involving Holocaust victims' property. Also in 1998, the Roman Catholic Church formally acknowledged Catholic complicity in the long-standing European anti-Semitism that was background to the Holocaust. Under the terms of an agreement signed in 2000 by the United States and Germany, a $5 billion fund was established by the German government and German industry to compensate those who were slave or forced laborers or who suffered a variety of other losses under the Nazi regime.

A vast literature consisting of histories, diaries, memoirs, poetry, novels, and prayers has emerged in an effort to understand the Holocaust in terms of its religious and secular implications. The secular materials have attempted to explain how it happened and the reactions of the victims; some have suggested that an underlying and pervasive anti-Semitism in Germany was fueled by a deep and complete despair combined with a corrosive and unacknowleged sense of worthlessness that had been created by crushing and humiliating hardships and the disintegration of the Weimar Republic. The religious materials have focused on the problem of whether one can still speak in traditional Jewish terms of a God, active in history, who rewards the righteous and who maintains a unique relationship with the Jewish people. Museums and memorials have been established in a number of cities worldwide to preserve the memory of the Holocaust. There are three main archives that contain materials relating to the Holocaust: the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, and the International Tracing Service in Bad Arolsen, Hesse, Germany.

See M. Buber, Eclipse of God (1952); E. Wiesel, Night (1960) and Legends of Our Time (1968); R. L. Rubenstein, After Auschwitz (1966); A. H. Friedlander, ed., Out of the Whirlwind (1968); L. S. Davidowicz, The War against the Jews (1975); D. S. Wyman, The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust (1984); C. Browning, Ordinary Men (1992); I. W. Charny, ed., Holding on to Humanity—The Message of Holocaust Survivors: The Shamai Davidson Papers (1992); R. Hilberg, Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders: The Jewish Catastrophe, 1933–1945 (1992) and The Destruction of the European Jews (3 vol., 3d ed. 2003); D. J. Goldhagen, Hitler's Willing Executioners (1996); S. Friedländer, Nazi Germany and the Jews (2 vol., 1997–2007); W. D. Rubinstein, The Myth of Rescue (1997); I. Clendinnen, Reading the Holocaust (1999); O. Bartov, Mirrors of Destruction: War, Genocide, and Modern Identity (2000) and Germany's War and the Holocaust (2003); R. Rhodes, Masters of Death: The SS-Einsatzgruppen and the Invention of the Holocaust (2002); C. R. Browning, The Origins of the Final Solution (2004); P. Longerich, Holocaust (2010); G. Aly, Why the Germans? Why the Jews? (2014); S. Helm, Ravensbrück: Life and Death in Hitler's Concentration Camp for Women (2015); N. Wachsmann, KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps (2015). See also C. Lanzmann, dir., Shoah (documentary film, 1985).

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