English Across the Curriculum

World War II

The Holocaust

Under Adolf Hitler the National Socialist German Worker’s Party became very powerful in Germany from 1933 to 1945. The Nazis, as they were called, wanted to get rid of people who they thought were not as good as they were. They especially hated Jews and thought they were evil. At the beginning they made life hard for the Jews in Germany and all over Europe. Later on, they decided to kill them. This mass killing was called the Holocaust.

After 1939 about 6 million Jews were killed in the countries that Hitler controlled. But Jewish people were not the only ones murdered by the Nazis. Gypsies, homosexuals, mentally and physically disabled people and others who were against Hitler were killed in the Holocaust.

Hating Jews and treating them badly is called anti-Semitism. Hitler started this as soon as he became chancellor of Germany in 1933. Jews lost their jobs and their shops were closed and often destroyed.

In 1935 the Nazis passed a new law . Jews were no longer citizens of Germany and they were not allowed to marry other Germans. They lost all of their rights. Every Jew had to wear a yellow Star of David. Many Jews were afraid of Hitler and tried to escape before World War II started.

On November 9th and 10th, 1938 the Nazis destroyed all Jewish synagogues and other public places the Jews went to. This event was called the “Kristallnacht” or “Night of Broken Glass”.

Shop destroyed in Magdeburg during the Night of Broken Glass

Image : Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1970-083-42 / CC-BY-SA 3.0,
CC BY-SA 3.0 DE, via Wikimedia Commons


Soon thousands of Jews were arrested and locked up in special camps. Others had to live in overcrowded parts of cities called ghettos where they got nothing to eat and suffered from many diseases. The most famous ghetto was in Warsaw, Poland. About half a million Jews had to live in an area that usually was home for 10,000 people. By 1943 only 70,000 had survived.

The Nazis decided that they had to solve what they called “the Jewish problem” once and for all. On January 20, 1942 the Nazi leaders met at the Wannsee Conference near Berlin and decided that all Jews should be killed.

All across Central Europe the Nazis built special death or concentration camps to kill Jews and other people who were not worth of living. The biggest camps were built in Poland. Some well-known camps were Auschwitz, Treblinka, Dachau, Sobibor and Belzec.

Main entrance at the Auschwitz concentration camp

Image : xiquinhosilva, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

At first, the outside world thought that these camps were places where Jews and other prisoners had to work. A sign reading “Arbeit macht frei” hung over the gate at Auschwitz.

Those who were lucky became slaves. They had to work hard and didn’t get enough to eat. Some of them died of starvation. Most of the Jews, however, were brought to the gas chambers that often looked like big showers. There they were killed with poison gas, then taken away and burned.

Selection ramp at Auschwitz - Birkenau.
Jews were either sent to work or directly to the gas chamber

Image : Yad Vashem , Public Domain

Although the countries that fought against Hitler knew about the death camps there wasn’t anything they could do about them.

Many Europeans who were against Hitler’s ideas tried to help the Jews. They often hid them, gave them false documents and helped them escape. A famous book called “The Diary of Anne Frank” tells the story of a Jewish girl whose family hid in Amsterdam for two years but were then caught.

Hitler killed himself shortly before the war was over because he realized that he had lost. When it ended in 1945, Allied soldiers entered Germany. They liberated the concentration camps but were shocked when they saw what had happened there.

Jews who survived the Holocaust had no place to go. They waited to find a new home. In 1948, the United Nations decided to give homeless Jews a new place to live. The state of Israel was founded and hundreds of thousands of European Jews went there to start a new life.

The Holocaust is one of the most terrible periods of human history. In many countries memorials have been built to remember those who died. Museums in Europe and America try to show what happened and help our generation understand the horrors of the Second World War.

Holocaust memorial in Berlin
Image: K. Weisser, CC BY-SA 2.0 DE, via Wikimedia Commons